Friday, December 19, 2008

Schools are Idaho's economic engines

By Reps. Liz Chavez, Branden Durst and Donna Pence

Our state and nation are facing the worst budget crisis we’ve seen in several decades. News reports indicate that the Idaho Legislature may be forced to do something it has never done: decrease year-to-year funding for our public schools and perhaps even scuttle state mandates for funding education. As parents, educators and legislators, we will be asking hard questions about what such unprecedented moves would mean for our state’s future.

It’s clear that times are difficult, and Democratic lawmakers recognize the need for frugality. Gov. Butch Otter has ordered a total of 6 percent in planned and possible budget holdbacks for the current fiscal year, and he has asked state agencies to plan for similar cuts in the 2010 budget, which the legislature will set this winter.

John Goedde, the Senate Education Committee chairman, says the state will probably take $60 million from the Public Education Stabilization Fund for 2009 to avoid cuts to public education in the current fiscal year. With the fund standing at $113 million, that would leave just $53 million in the fund. That probably won’t be enough to cover anticipated shortfalls for 2010, if (as expected) the economy continues to sputter. With that in mind, House Education Committee chairman Robert Nonini recently told the Coeur d’Alene Press that the legislature may need to cut public school funding for 2010 below 2009 levels and perhaps even change state statutes that make public education funding mandatory.

First of all, let’s be clear that Republican tax policy is a big reason we’ve reached this crisis. In 2007, at the behest of Gov. Jim Risch, the GOP-dominated legislature eliminated the public school maintenance and operations levy and replaced the money by increasing the state sales tax to 6 percent from 5 percent. Although the same measure made a one-time contribution to the Education Stabilization Fund, the tax shift wreaked havoc on the long-term health of our state’s education funding formula - and that was before the current economic downturn sent sales tax revenue spiraling downward.

We’re stuck with that bad decision. Bearing the current economic conditions in mind, however, Idaho Democratic legislators will insist on three things:

First, a portion of the Education Stabilization Fund must be used to keep K-12 education whole in the current budget year. Despite the recession, we need to be sure that Idaho’s children continue to receive a quality education. Idaho consistently ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in its funding for public education. Our children often use decades-old textbooks in some of the nation’s most crowded classrooms. We cannot afford to fall further behind.

Second, as people lose their jobs, retraining for displaced workers becomes an ever-more critical issue. The Legislature must find ways to minimize cutbacks to colleges, universities and vocational-technical schools to continue providing the work force development that’s necessary for our communities.

Third, hard economic times are no excuse to overturn the state’s mandate to fund public education. Our schools and colleges are key engines of our state’s economic recovery. We cannot allow short-term economic distress to change our longstanding policy of investing in our children to create good jobs for the future.

The State of Idaho needs to balance its budget, but we must not do so on the backs of our state’s future: our schoolchildren and our adults who are training for new jobs in a tough economy.

State Reps. Liz Chavez of Lewiston, Branden Durst of Boise and Donna Pence of Gooding are members of the House Education Committee.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Idaho Dems nix pay raises

Idaho Democratic legislators will introduce a resolution next month rejecting the 5 percent pay raise recommended for state lawmakers in the 2009-2010 Idaho Legislature.

“Simply put, we are unwilling to take the pay raise recommended by the compensation committee at a time when so many Idaho families and small businesses are hurting,” said Sen. Les Bock of Boise, who plans to introduce the resolution in the Senate.

“Idaho is dealing not only with a worsening national economy but from a lack of political leadership on issues impacting Idaho families and their jobs and small businesses,” said Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart of Boise, who will co-sponsor the resolution in the House. “This is one step we can take right now to say that we get it, and that we will be tightening our belts, too.”

In June, the Idaho Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation voted to recommend that state lawmakers get a 5 percent raise – from $16,116 to $16,921 – for the period starting December 1, 2008.

“We’ve seen a continued economic downturn since June,” Bock said. “Tens of thousands of Idahoans are without jobs and many people who are working – including state employees – will either be doing without raises or taking pay cuts. We cannot, in good conscience, accept a raise at this time.”

“It would be irresponsible to accept a pay raise,” Pasley-Stuart added. “When I went door to door during the campaign, the economy was the number one issue that came up.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Let's seek smart corrections solutions

By state Sen. Nicole LeFavour and state Rep. Donna Boe

Idaho’s prison population continues to grow at a great cost to our state budget and our society. A recent slowing in our state’s prison population growth has been credited to better treatment services inside and outside of our prisons. As we approach the coming legislative session, Democratic lawmakers will be looking for creative, cost-effective ways to stretch our state’s corrections budget and better serve Idaho families.

Governor Otter has ordered across-the-board cuts to help balance Idaho’s budget, but we believe targeted cuts are smarter and better for our state’s long-term finances. In particular, Idaho Democrats realize that cutting mental health and substance abuse services for short-term budget gain would create a surge in prison costs that will dwarf any immediate savings.

It is time to allow judges to use community-based, treatment-focused alternatives to mandatory minimum sentences. Current Idaho law forces a minimum prison sentence of 3 to 25 years for anyone caught with certain quantities of a controlled substance, regardless of their need for treatment and circumstances of the case. This is true even though the Idaho Department of Correction’s own data indicates that a sentence of six months to one year - followed by a period of treatment and support - is the most effective way to prevent new offenses among people whose primary problem is addiction.

We agree that people who set out to make money selling drugs should go to prison, in many cases for a long time. But for people primarily struggling with addiction, and with no history of violence, the state should not be warehousing inmates at a cost of almost $20,000 a year per person. By investing to improve treatment and prevention services, detox centers and recovery support in all parts of the state, Idaho will save money and lives and improve public safety. We will also reduce the number of inmates shipped to costly, out-of-state private prisons.

Of course, every prison sentence carries impacts for families and communities that go far beyond the term served. People who serve time close to home are better able to stay close to their families and other support. Statistics show that children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to someday wind up in jail themselves. We need better counseling for children of Idaho inmates. Keeping family communication open helps both parent and child, and reduces the likelihood that a child will eventually end up in jail, too. Videoconferencing can be a simple, low-cost interim way to keep families in touch.

In this tough job market, let’s also be sure our inmates have opportunities to train for better, more productive futures – and let’s be sure the options are equitable. Too often, men in Idaho’s corrections system learn trades like electrical work, plumbing and carpentry while women are relegated to training for low-wage service jobs.

Knowing that the state is facing serious budget cuts, it may be necessary to adjust Idaho’s taxes on beer, wine and liquor – some of which haven’t been raised in over 20 years. A modest increase could help ensure that Idaho meets current needs for substance abuse treatment.

To resort to short-sighted cuts in treatment services this year will mean more Idahoans end up in prison rather than in treatment and more offenders will return to prison due to lack of recovery support. Our legislature must be wise as we craft budgets and corrections policy. Bringing inmates home to better programming and family support is smart, but we can’t allow Idaho’s mental health and addiction services to be cut. Doing so will simply deepen the challenge of managing prison populations and maintaining public safety in the difficult economic year ahead.

State Rep. Donna Boe of Pocatello is currently the ranking Democrat on the house Judiciary and Rules Committee and is a member of Idaho’s Criminal Justice Commission. State Senator Nicole LeFavour of Boise served on the House Judiciary and Rules Committee for four years, where she introduced legislation to increase treatment-focused sentencing alternatives.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Idaho needs stronger ethics laws

This op-ed by state Sen. Kate Kelly has been appearing in newspapers across the state. It ran on the front page of the Idaho Statesman's Sunday Insight section on December 7.

Once again, Idaho ranks near the bottom of a national survey of state ethics laws. The Better Government Association recently rated Idaho's statutes 44th among the 50 states on an "Integrity Index."

The authors write that reviewing laws on open meetings, whistleblowers, campaign finance, open records and conflicts of interest "gives us an indication of how important ethics are to each state." In light of Idaho's dismal showing, the authors express their hope that "legislators and leaders in Idaho will use the Integrity Index as a tool to spur reform and upgrade their laws." I hope so, too.

One area where Idaho ranks particularly low on the Integrity Index, and where our citizens could benefit from more sunshine, is in our conflict of interest disclosure laws.

Idaho's top officials adopt and enforce laws and regulations, spend large amounts of taxpayer money, and give out appointments to influential positions. Almost every other state and the federal system have a requirement that public officials file a statement of their personal financial interests. This can expose or head off conflicts of interest. Idaho has no such law.

When a public official makes a decision about where a road should go or whether a business should get a tax break, it is appropriate for the public - on whose behalf the official is sworn to act - to know the official's business interests and the location of any real estate holdings.

The vast majority of Idaho's public officials are ethical public servants who operate with integrity and take their jobs seriously. But you shouldn't have to wonder whether an official might have a conflict of interest.

Attempts to amend Idaho's conflict of interest laws in recent years have failed. In 2007, a simple financial disclosure bill brought by myself and other Democratic senators was rejected in legislative committee on a party-line vote. Last year, we brought the legislation again and didn't even get a hearing. Proposed revolving door restrictions for lobbying and public contracting have met the same fate. We'll bring these proposals back in the upcoming legislative session. In light of the bad publicity about our ethics laws, maybe my colleagues will reconsider. Maybe they'll wonder whether continued inaction is best for our state.

Why are ethics reforms rejected? Because even if it's a good idea, those in authority are reluctant to change a system that brought them to power. Let me restate that: The people with the power are reluctant to risk losing that power by changing a system that works for them. If only the system worked for the people of Idaho.

There have been relatively few scandals in recent Idaho memory. Could this be because our state sets the ethical bar so low? As the latest survey demonstrates, facts that would merit attention, investigation or even penalties in other states may never come to light - and pass as business as usual - in Idaho.

Why should we wait for a corruption scandal to rock our boat and prompt wholesale change when we can heed the warnings and fix the law now?

There are some relatively simple steps that can be taken to toughen Idaho's ethics law. But if Idaho citizens don't demand change, it's unlikely to happen. Our state will remain relatively unprotected against abuses of power and stay near the bottom of the Integrity Index.

If you believe Idaho needs stronger ethics laws, let your public officials know.

Democratic Sen. Kate Kelly represents Boise's District 18.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Idaho Democratic lawmakers elect leaders

The Idaho Democratic Legislative Caucus elected new leadership at its organizational meeting in Boise tonight. Clint Stennett (D-Ketchum) remains Senate Minority Leader while former House caucus chair John Rusche (D-Lewiston) was elected House Minority Leader. In addition to Stennett, the Senate leadership will include Kate Kelly (D-Boise) as assistant minority leader and Elliot Werk (D-Boise) as caucus chair. In addition to Rusche, the House leadership will include James Ruchti (D-Pocatello) as assistant leader and Bill Killen (D-Boise) as caucus chair.

Meanwhile, longtime House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet begins a new chapter in public service as a member of the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee. Jaquet (D-Ketchum) became House Minority Leader in 1998. During her decade in the job, she increased the size of the caucus, established a year-round caucus operation with a professional staff member, started the popular statewide “Pizza and Politics” series and helped build the Democratic brand across the state. But she has been interested in JFAC since her first run for the legislature in 1994, and she said the time is right to move into that role.

“JFAC, with key members of both the Senate and House, wields enormous power in the state, deciding which agencies and programs receive adequate financing and which are left to struggle,” said Jaquet. “These funding decisions are critical to the success of many issues that concern us all, and I'm looking forward to this new challenge.”

Leaders Stennett and Rusche are also members of the bipartisan Legislative Council. Joining them will be Kate Kelly and Nicole LeFavour from the Senate and Anne Pasley-Stuart and Donna Pence from the House. Here are brief biographies of each lawmaker in leadership:

Clint Stennett (Senate Minority Leader) – Raised on a dairy farm in southern Idaho, Stennett attended the College of Southern Idaho and graduated from Idaho State University with a degree in journalism and a minor in marketing. He owned and operated several media companies in the Wood River Valley, where he has lived since 1979. He is one of the founders of the First Bank of Idaho and served as a director of the Ketchum/Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce for nine years. Currently representing the four northern Magic Valley counties as State Senator, Stennett was recently elected to his 10th term in the Idaho Legislature.

Kate Kelly (Assistant Senate Minority Leader) – A 22-year resident of District 18, Kelly was a manager at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and served six years as a deputy attorney general before her 2004 election to the State Senate. She is a graduate of the University of Idaho College of Mines, the University of Utah College of Law, Boise State University’s Program for Management Development and the Program for Emerging Political Leaders at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

Elliot Werk (Senate Caucus Chair) - A member of the Idaho State Senate since 2003, Werk has served on the education, health and welfare, local government and taxation, commerce, and finance committees. Werk is the president of the Borah Neighborhood Association and is very active in quality of life issues in Boise and the Treasure Valley. He also serves as board chairman of The Friendship Clinic, a free medical clinic located on the Boise Bench.

John Rusche (House Minority Leader) - Born in Wisconsin, Rusche is an engineering graduate of Notre Dame and the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. Drs. John and Kay Rusche started practice at Valley Medical Center in Lewiston in 1980. In 1995, Rusche moved to BlueShield of Idaho (now Regence) as Medical Director, retiring in 2006 as the Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer for Regence BlueShield of Idaho and Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah. His community involvement includes the United Way, Lewis-Clark State College Artist Series, Northwest Children’s Home, and CASA (Court Appointed Child Advocates). He was elected to the Legislature in 2004 and ran unopposed for reelection in 2006 and 2008.

James Ruchti (Assistant House Minority Leader) – A West Point graduate, Ruchti graduated from served as an Army military intelligence officer from 1993-98 before being honorably discharged as a captain. While in the military, Representative Ruchti served in Germany, Arizona, Georgia and Kuwait. He graduated from law school in 2001 at the University of Idaho and currently practices law with Cooper & Larsen, Chartered, a law firm in Pocatello. Ruchti was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives from Bannock County in 2006 and re-elected in 2008.

Bill Killen (House Caucus Chair) – A Northwest native who grew up in Washington and Oregon, Killen attended Stanford University on an ROTC scholarship. He served four years in the U.S. Navy, then went to work for Hewlett Packard while earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering and administration at Stanford. He later attended law school at the University of Idaho, then settled in McCall, where he practiced law for 28 years and served on the City Council and as mayor of McCall. He also served on the Idaho Personnel Commission from 1987 to 1993. Killen moved to Boise after his retirement and was elected to the Legislature in 2006.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Transportation remains a priority

By Phylis King, Shirley Ringo and James Ruchti

All over Idaho, families and small businesses are relieved that gas prices have come down – for now, anyway. But a growing backlog of road and bridge projects amid serious revenue shortfalls have Idahoans wondering how we’ll pay for our state’s current transportation infrastructure needs and advance better transportation options for the future.

Democratic lawmakers will be listening intently when Gov. Butch Otter talks about transportation in his State of the State address next month. Will he propose ideas that raise money from a variety of sources, or will most of the pain fall on middle-class families and small businesses? Will he buck his party’s legislative leadership and endorse local-option taxing authority as an effective tool to solve transportation needs? Idahoans also will be watching to see if President-elect Obama follows through on his campaign pledge to give state governments at least $25 billion to help build and fix highways, roads, bridges, airports and rail systems.

The road ahead is uncertain – on both the state and federal level - and it’s too soon to speculate over the specifics of what we’ll be discussing two months from now. But we will keep several goals in mind as we approach the coming legislative session.

First of all, the Treasure Valley – our state’s primary economic engine - needs help. Transportation planners say it now takes 35 minutes to drive I-84 from Caldwell to downtown Boise, saddling Canyon County residents with a longer commute than residents of Salt Lake, Seattle and Portland. Accidents, bad weather and construction can make the trip take twice as long. Better public transportation would vastly improve the situation, yet the state’s Republican leadership last year rejected a local-option taxation proposal crafted by a statewide coalition of local governments, businesses and chambers of commerce.

Ada County Highway District residents voted by a two-thirds majority in November to raise vehicle registration fees to help pay for local infrastructure. State government needs to give citizens the local-option tool to make similar decisions on a regional basis. Otherwise, drivers will continue to lose productivity and family time while sitting in traffic; small businesses will suffer as time-strapped drivers pass by; and businesses of all sizes will think twice about locating in a region beset by gridlock and declining air quality.

Second, we must maximize transportation funding so it puts Idahoans back to work in good-paying jobs to meet infrastructure needs all over the state. President-elect Obama’s proposed aid to states may help, since it would reportedly be targeted toward projects that have been approved and are ready to go. We will also look at stretching our transportation dollars through matching fund pools, and pursuing efficiency while maintaining quality and safety on road- and bridge-building projects.

Third, while it appears certain that some fee increases will be necessary, they should be modest in size and phased in as the economy improves so middle-class families won’t feel any more pain than they’re already shouldering. Let’s bear in mind that although gas prices are down for the time being, people are struggling with overall inflation as well as declining home values and job uncertainty.

As legislators, we know we can’t afford to delay action on Idaho’s transportation needs, but nor can we afford to waste time or taxpayer money. We look forward to working with the governor and our colleagues to create innovative, cost-effective transportation solutions that help Idaho families and small businesses and put our state back on the road to prosperity.

Representatives Phylis King of Boise, Shirley Ringo of Moscow and James Ruchti of Pocatello all serve on the House Transportation Committee.

Democrats call for targeted cuts

The Idaho Democratic Legislative Caucus leadership responded to Gov. Butch Otter’s order of a possible total of 6 percent in budget holdbacks with a call for responsible, targeted cuts that protect critical services to middle-class Idaho families. “Times are hard and the state clearly is facing a bleak budget picture,” House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet said after speaking with Otter and Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett early Monday, before the cuts were made public.

“We need to be as prudent and fiscally responsible as possible. The holdbacks give us all an opportunity to look at what we’re doing and how we are spending and whether we ought to do things differently,” Jaquet said. “But we also need to cut carefully. For example, Idahoans who’ve recently been laid off need opportunities to retrain for new jobs, so this is no time for drastic cuts to vocational and secondary education programs.”

Stennett said the Democratic leadership appreciated the chance to talk with the governor before his public announcement. “We are grateful that we have reserve funds set aside for education and retraining, given the tough economic times we are facing. Tough economies give us a chance to trim where we can, and look for additional savings,” Stennett added. “However, we need to be thoughtful and prudent in our approach to budget cuts.”

At his news conference, Otter indicated that cuts to K-12 public education would be offset through money from the Public Education Stabilization Fund. But Democratic caucus leaders said the anticipated $61 million total K-12 education budget holdback would take more than half of the fund’s reserves, leaving it largely depleted for FY 2010 and beyond.

“We realize that times are tough and that the state needs to tighten its belt just like Idaho families,” said state Sen. Elliot Werk, echoing a statement Otter made in his press conference. “But Democrats will work hard to ensure the efficient delivery of critical services to our citizens and protect middle-class families from any further tax shifting.”