Friday, September 25, 2009

Dem lawmakers respond to budget holdbacks

Democratic leadership in the Idaho Legislature today commended Governor Butch Otter for directly tackling Idaho’s immediate budget issues and for involving Democratic legislators in his deliberations. At the same time, House Minority Leader John Rusche and Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly questioned whether the Governor’s plan will result in the best outcome for Idaho’s future or preserve as many Idaho jobs as possible.

In response to the Governor’s announcement this morning of significant cuts to state government, Democratic leaders raised concerns about the soundness of the Governor’s plan to carry over significant rainy day funds and federal stimulus dollars while cutting investments important to Idahoans and Idaho’s future.

“We appreciate the fact that the Governor took the time to brief Democratic leaders on the current economic situation, and to solicit our ideas on potential solutions,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche. “While the Governor’s proposal may respond to the immediate financial crisis, we are concerned that the proposal falls short in adequately preparing for Idaho’s economic future. The revenue shortfall is a symptom. Unemployment is the disease. For our economy to recover, Idaho needs to step up efforts to build jobs.”

In less than two years, Idaho went from fourth in the nation in job gains to being among the states with the greatest job losses. State coffers have seen a corresponding drop in revenues.

“Idaho businesses are closing, we’re bleeding jobs, people are losing their homes, and families are struggling to keep up with increasing tuition,” said Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, as she questioned the Governor’s cuts and his decision to pass over significant reserve and federal funds.

“The reserve and economic stimulus funds come from our taxpayers. That money doesn’t help our economy if it sits in a savings account," Kelly added. "We should be maximizing our use of federal funds and more aggressively accessing our reserve funds to save jobs, create jobs and help build a future for our children. Instead the Governor’s proposal further erodes services at a time when Idahoans need them most.”

“It is a matter of values and priorities,” Rusche said. “Like other Idahoans, we realize that building our economy and jobs is a priority. We hope that our colleagues in the majority party will recognize those values and work with us to create a fiscally responsible plan and the best outcome for Idaho’s families and businesses in the short term and in the long term. We stand ready to work with the Governor and our colleagues in the Legislature to solve the challenges facing us.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Are our schools as strong as they can be?

By State Rep. Liz Chavez

Fall is approaching and that means two things: Our children are heading back to school, and football season is here. Whether on the high school gridiron or in college stadiums, Idahoans love to cheer the successes of our star athletes. Only a handful of them will “go pro,” and even fewer will earn fame and fortune, but everyone who plays comes away with a lasting sense of accomplishment and teamwork.

This sense of individual achievement and opportunity – combined with the thrill of doing something great as part of a team – are among the most cherished values we Idahoans seek to instill in our children. We know that not every child will make the major leagues in their chosen field, but we want all our children to have every opportunity to succeed, no matter what sort of career or calling they pursue as adults. That’s why it’s important to take stock each fall and ask: Are our neighborhood schools the best they can be to help our children define their own dreams and reach their potential?

That question looms larger than usual this fall, since our children are returning to school under state education budgets that were cut by the 2009 Idaho Legislature for the first time in state history! Democratic lawmakers fought against those deep cuts, since we knew that funding sources were available to help keep our neighborhood schools strong, even in the economic downturn. In the end, however, Republican priorities prevailed, forcing cuts in the number of classroom teachers and diminished opportunities for our children. With that in mind, here are a few things that parents can watch for as children return to school this fall:

Has your child’s class size increased? Does the teacher have the same sort of help he or she did last year? With budget cutbacks, many districts have reduced and each child will get less personal attention. Tell your children to alert you or a teacher right away if they feel they are falling behind. Barebones budgets offer few resources to teachers, children and parents if a skill is not mastered the first time around, but every parent has the right to expect that their child has the opportunity to learn to his or her full potential.

Have you met your child’s teachers? Back-to-school nights are a fixture of the first month of school, giving you a good way to see how your child spends the school day. Later in the fall, parent-teacher conferences will help you team up with your child’s teachers to address small problems before they become big ones.

What about extracurricular activities? Athletics, the arts and other clubs give children many paths to success later in life. This year, due to the Legislature’s budgetary shell games, many Idaho families will be stretched to pay more than ever for these important opportunities. That’s something to keep in mind next year when elected officials tell you they held down your taxes.

Idahoans are committed to the community schools that have served our state so well over the decades. We know that historically, these schools are essential to offering all children the “level playing field” they deserve to have as they prepare to excel in life, no matter what opportunities await them. We will continue to fight to keep our schools strong and hope that even in these difficult times, our neighborhood schools continue to be places where our children can build their dreams – the dreams that will keep Idaho strong.

State Rep. Liz Chavez of Lewiston serves in the Idaho Legislature. She is a retired middle school teacher and sits on the House Education Committee.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let's be wise stewards of Idaho's outdoors

By State Senator Les Bock and State Rep. George Sayler

There’s nothing like summertime in Idaho. By now, we’re all making plans for a last few weekends of horseback trips, whitewater rafting or camping in that still-secluded spot that no one else seems to know about.

Whether your summertime rituals involve an annual hike up a favorite trail or Sunday evenings at the old fishing hole, the great outdoors are one big reason most of us choose to live in Idaho. From our pristine lakes and rivers to abundant, accessible public land to clear blue skies, we are blessed with scenic and recreational riches.

We also know that these gifts were given to us to use wisely, and that we are called to be stewards of the air, land and water that both feed our souls and help us keep food on our tables. Just as we all shoulder a great deal of individual responsibility for our actions, as lawmakers, we know that decisions made in the Idaho Legislature can affect our environment. Are we making the best decisions?

This past session, the Legislature wisely voted to protect Idaho’s waters from zebra mussels and quagga mussels, which are wreaking havoc across the West. At the same time, however, most legislators in the majority party chose to reject safeguards that would protect our rivers, lakes and groundwater from inadequate septic systems and toxic chemicals. Was that a good decision?

The near-record-long 2009 session ended with a hasty budget compromise that used state general fund money to fund roads and bridges. One loser in this shell game was the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, which provides affordable recreation opportunities within a short drive of nearly every Idahoan. With Idaho awash in federal recovery funds for roads and bridges, was it really wise to raid the Parks and Recreation budget?

As a nation, we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of one of science’s greatest achievements, the Apollo 11 spaceflight to the moon. Just days before that anniversary, Idaho hosted the Pacific Northwest Economic Region conference. It was clear at that meeting that Idaho is poised to be a leader in creating jobs through a broad array of energy options. Why is it that our neighboring states are far ahead of us in what ought to be the Apollo project of the early 21st century: working to create clean energy jobs that not only lift our economy but decrease our dangerous dependence on foreign oil? Can the Idaho Legislature look beyond gas tax fights to work toward a future where applied science, political will and collaborations among our universities and businesses make us a model of energy innovations? Democrats pledge to do so.

As far as we know, we have only one planet suitable for sustaining life. Idahoans have come to realize that our actions matter and that, if we want to pass on the planet’s gifts to our children and their grandchildren, we must take seriously our role as caretakers of our precious environment. Democratic lawmakers in the Idaho Legislature share a commitment to being sure our decisions are those that our descendants can live with – and those that will ensure that like us, they’ll have a chance to enjoy Idaho’s natural beauty and bounty for generations to come.

Senator Les Bock of Boise and Representative George Sayler of Coeur d’Alene serve in the Idaho Legislature.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gem State Dems are Idahoans first

By State Rep. John Rusche

Much has been said about the imbalanced makeup of the Idaho Legislature. National magazines and even Steve Ahrens, former executive director of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, have commented on the lopsided nature of the Idaho Legislature. As Steve documented in a recent column for the Idaho Business Review, one-party government can result in arrogance, chaos and worse. Idahoans got a vivid example of this via the 2009 session, which fell just one day short of the longest ever and still failed to address many of our state’s problems.

A recent Gallup poll showed that just 37 percent of Americans identify with the Republican Party, a 10 percent drop since the start of this decade. Throughout the Mountain West, Democrats now hold a majority of governorships (five of eight) and Congressional seats (17 of 28, including Idaho’s 1st District).

Yet the Democratic brand continues to lag across much of Idaho. Perhaps we Idaho Democrats have not yet adequately made the case that we are Idahoans first, and that we share the values held deeply by most people in our state. Or perhaps we are doing what Democrats tend to do, trying to articulate those values in policy and “six-point plans” rather than with straight, honest talk.

There’s little question that Idaho needs more balanced, effective government. Idaho Democrats are committed to bringing about that balance, but we know that our fellow Idahoans will not shift long-held voting patterns unless they have compelling reasons to do so. So here’s my best shot at telling you what Idaho Democrats stand for:

Idaho Democrats believe in fairness. Everyone should play by the rules and pay their share.

Idaho Democrats have faith in our state’s future, and we try to plan for progress. That’s why we work so hard to ensure that our children have excellent schools that will prepare them for good jobs, and that’s why we want to help business create jobs that will allow our kids to stay in Idaho when they grow up.

Idaho Democrats believe in personal responsibility. Sometimes “stuff happens,” and when people are out of work they may need help like unemployment pay and food stamps – but they also need the opportunity and the motivation to learn new skills and get back on the job.

Idaho Democrats prize our state’s unique qualities: our accessible recreation, our glorious wild spaces, our clean air and water. We know we are stewards of these resources and we can use them for economic gain as well as fun, but it’s also up to us to preserve them for future generations.

Idaho Democrats believe in limited government. If government can do the job best – as in maintaining roads, public safety and the schools that most of our children attend – it makes sense for it to do so. But Idaho Democrats believe government should let lawful people live their private lives, and that businesses do best in an atmosphere of creative collaboration and innovation.

Finally, Democrats are different from district to district. As Congressman Walt Minnick has shown, Idaho Democrats are independent thinkers who vote their consciences, and this is true on the state level as it is in Congress. But we are all Idahoans and Americans, and we’re all committed to the values our founders laid out 233 years ago: freedom, liberty, opportunity and justice for everyone. Like you, we know that one-party government is not working for Idaho, and we seek your trust to show how effective, efficient and ethical a balanced Legislature and Democratic leadership can be.

Rep. John Rusche of Lewiston is Minority Leader of the Idaho House of Representatives. This op-ed first appeared in slightly different form in the Idaho Business Review's July 27 issue.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Democratic persistence brings new child care law

When a new child care law takes effect in Idaho on January 1, 2010, it will mark the culmination of a five-year, Democratic-led campaign to make sure our children are safer when their parents must work outside the home. No one worked harder on that effort than Rep. George Sayler, a Coeur d’Alene Democrat representing District 4 in Kootenai County.

Under current law, Idaho has no regulation for facilities watching six or fewer children, with minimal regulations for those caring between seven and 12 children and licensing only for centers with 13 or more children. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies has consistently ranked Idaho last among the 50 states for these lax standards.

But starting next year, employees of child-care facilities watching four or more children not related to the provider will have criminal background checks. There must be a working telephone, water safety measures and smoke detector in smaller facilities covering between seven and 13 children. Staff-child ratios will be strengthened at this level, too, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare can perform unannounced inspections.

Under the original bill co-sponsored by Sayler and Sen. Tim Corder, a Mountain Home Republican, those provisions would have applied to centers with four or more children, but social conservatives in the House Health & Welfare Committee watered down the bill. Still, Sayler said, “Idaho kids will be safer today than they were last year, and that’s good.” An estimated 70,000 Idaho children under age 5 are in some form of outside-the-home day care.

Read more here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Session was marked by unnecessary cuts, GOP split

The 2009 Idaho Legislature has finally concluded after 117 days and a cost of more than $3.5 million to taxpayers. After the second-longest session in Idaho Legislative history, many of us are asking “What do Idahoans have to show for it?”

While transportation funding was the Legislature's main hurdle, the economy was the real story of the session. Over the past year, Idaho has gone from leading the nation in job creation to leading in unemployment growth. Combined with stagnant housing and financial markets, high unemployment means that state tax revenues are down significantly. Just as Idaho families and businesses have had to cut back, so has Idaho government, but Democrats fought hard to protect necessary services like police and public education.

Republicans had a different view. Throughout much of this session, they seemed determined to use our real but temporary economic downturn to make permanent and detrimental changes to Idaho’s public schools, colleges and universities and to negatively impact Idaho’s ability to deliver services to its citizens. The 2009 Legislature will forever be remembered as the one that made the first-ever cuts to public schools – cuts that many of us felt were completely unnecessary, given the availability of federal recovery money and Idaho taxpayers’ own rainy-day funds. Like most Idahoans, Democrats realize that strong schools and a robust job market are keys to our state’s future prosperity, so we worked to lessen attacks on our schools and economic development efforts and use a reasonable share of our available resources.

Other important issues remained virtually unaddressed during the long 2009 legislative session: health care, clean energy, rural broadband, telecommunications and economic development. While we saw the Legislature push a toothless measure to declare our state sovereignty, once again any meaningful ethics legislation died in the legislative process. While we saw the Legislature protect Idaho’s waters from zebra mussels, the majority party rejected protection of those same waters from inadequate septic systems and toxic chemicals. And while we debated transportation for months, Republicans cynically prevented any serious consideration of authority to trust local communities to address their own transportation and infrastructure needs.

Democrats are proud to report some solid successes. We led the campaign to strengthen Idaho’s child-care laws, and after five years, we succeeded. We pushed legislation to make schools more energy efficient and a successful measure to recognize that working Idaho women deserve equal pay. Democrats also worked to maintain life-saving health care for adults living with cystic fibrosis and forced reversal of the ill-timed layoffs of state auditors who were chasing tax cheats. But we did not drive the Legislature’s agenda, and like most Idahoans, we believe it went on far too long, with far too little accomplished for Idaho.

It became clear during this marathon session that Idaho’s Republicans lack a coherent vision for Idaho's future and are ill-equipped to handle the demands of our global economy and our changing population. Despite holding most of the legislative seats and the Governor’s office, Republicans appeared to spend much of the 2009 session locked in power struggles, unable to govern effectively and meet Idaho’s citizens’ most basic needs.

Idahoans deserve better. Democrats are unified behind a vision of a robust economy, pristine resources that value our farming and ranching traditions, excellent schools, efficient state services and a fair deal for all of our citizens. Democrats will continue to work for Idaho’s future, putting the public good first as we were elected to do.

John Rusche of Lewiston and Kate Kelly of Boise serve as minority leaders in the Idaho House and Senate, respectively.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The real story on the GOP standoff

Senator Elliot Werk (District 17) sent this message in his newsletter to constituents last weekend. The House did return today, and the Legislature is now on Day 113.

The Idaho legislative session is now in its 111th day – the 2nd longest session in history. The conservative Republican Governor is locked in a battle to raise the gas tax in the deepest recession in a generation with House Republican leadership who refuse to bring another gas tax increase to the House (the House has already voted down four gas tax increase proposals). The Governor is backed by Senate Republican leadership.

Senate Democrats have refused to support a gas tax increase on struggling Idaho families. House Democrats have very effectively and strategically leveraged votes in their caucus to reduce cuts to education budgets.

(Wednesday) night the House “finished their business,” adjourned Sine Die (meaning without a date), and left town saying that they will not consider another gas tax increase. Meanwhile the Senate continues in session with Senate Republican leadership looking to back the governor.

According to the Idaho constitution one legislative body cannot adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other. So the House will be forced to return this coming Monday when the Senate does not accept their adjournment. What will happen when the House returns on Monday is anyone’s guess.

This is what we call a stalemate – the players are locked into their positions!

But the important question is why. What could be so difficult about the passage of a small gas tax increase? After all the Republican Party controls almost 80% of the seats in the legislature along with the governor’s office.

The answer isn’t in the issue; the answer is in the politics.

The Republican Party in Idaho is currently experiencing a civil (or perhaps not-so-civil) war. The Republican Party is very conservative. However, there is a wing of the party that is extremely conservative and they are seeking to take control of the party from the current conservative leadership.

This battle has been raging for years but really began to pick up steam when Bill Sali was elected to Congress in 2006. Sali won a primary packed with five far right conservatives and one “moderate” (I place this in quotes because there are really almost no true moderates in the Republican power structure). Sali’s supporters then began to try and systematically eliminate all typical conservative and “moderate” vestiges from the Republican Party leadership.

At the 2008 Republican Party state convention the far right conservative’s ousted long time party head Kirk Sullivan and installed far right stalwart Norm Semanko (one of the losers in the 2006 Congressional primary). This change occurred over the objections of Governor Otter and other long-time party brass.

Then the far right conservatives at the convention voted to close the Republican primary election in the hopes of purging any remaining “moderates” by ensuring party purity during primary elections. The closed primary election would ensure that only the most conservative candidates won election. This set the stage for the current fight.

So, this fight isn’t really over the gas tax, it is a fight about the future of the Republican Party in Idaho.
Will the far right conservatives fully subsume the Republican Party? Will they eventually oust Butch Otter as being too “moderate”? Will they impose some far right litmus test for belonging to the Republican Party (labeling everyone else RINO’s – Republican In Name Only)? Will they close their primary elections forcing people to register for their party to vote in their primary – all at public expense? FYI - a decision on a lawsuit - brought by the far right - to force the closing their party primary election is currently pending in front of Judge Winmill.

All of these pressures are forcing Republican legislators to move inexorably further to the right. You see with the closed primary the candidate with the furthest right positions is most likely to win (since the far right party purists dominate the primary election turnout). Hence this session alone we get seven NRA-sponsored gun bills and a memorial to Congress asserting our sovereignty (just as we were accepting about $1 billion in federal stimulus money!) and seeking elimination of the Federal Reserve bank.

Meanwhile the Republican Party has lost the ability to effectively govern. It is no longer about what might be best for the state of Idaho. They are so consumed with their party war that the people of the state of Idaho are being left out in the cold.

As the Republicans move further to the far right, the ability to craft consensus legislation that serves the people is lost. Instead we get a litany of legislative initiatives that have unintended consequences, cater to the most conservative element of their party, are either unenforceable or represent empty messages instead of good public policy, or provide special interests with benefits at the expense of the people..

And, of course, we get stalemate in the statehouse (or Dysfunction Junction as we Democrats are now calling it). At a cost of roughly $30,000/day this legislative session has already cost the people of this state $3,330,000. And with the House on a four day break until the Senate calls them back, the taxpayers are still paying for all of the per diem for the absent House members ($49/day for locals and $122/day for the out-of-towners).

If all this weren’t so sad and frustrating it would actually be funny. A party civil war that threatens the authority of their own sitting Governor and seeks to move a very conservative party further to the right while wasting taxpayer funds and resulting in the second longest legislative session in history (with every possibility of making it to number one in just a week). You could write a book about this stuff.

Unfortunately the people of this great state need to sit through the melodrama and wait for their fate (and the fate of their children) to be written in the backrooms. Welcome to Idaho!