Friday, September 25, 2009
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
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
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
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
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.
Friday, May 8, 2009
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 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!
Sunday, May 3, 2009
The Idaho House adjourned "Sine Die" (without a planned date to meet again) shortly before 9 p.m. on April 29, over the objections of House Democrats, the Senate and Governor Butch Otter.
House Minority Leader John Rusche said "I don't believe it's constitutional," and reminded his colleagues that when the Senate attempted to adjourn without concurrence of the House in 1980, they were not permitted to do so. "The legislature is a team, Senate and House yoked together to do their work and move the state forward," Rusche said. "The legislature is constructed to have a balance of power between the houses and both 'balance' and 'power' are important parts of the phrase."
"We all feel an intense desire to serve the needs of our districts," Rusche added. "One of those needs is to have a government that works. I don't see how this motion promotes that value. Working government requires personal interaction and compromise. I don't see that the unilateral action this motion puts into place serves the value of good, working government."
Democrats held a news conference the following morning to further explain why we believe it's Republican power struggles - even more than the impasse over transportation funding - that have prolonged the legislative session, now the second-longest in state history. See video highlights of it here.
The House will have to be back at work Monday, May 4, because the Senate did not concur with its adjournment. Since Republicans hold 76 percent of the seats in the legislature and the governor's chair, it is primarily up to them to resolve their differences and bring this session to a close.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Writing in the Idaho Statesman, Democratic lawmakers Anne Pasley-Stuart and Les Bock tell why they introduced the measure:
Pay for women in Idaho has only improved 5 percent since 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Vital Statistics. In only three other states do women face a greater pay gap than they do in Idaho.
The wage gap becomes particularly insidious as women age. Women are far more likely to enter retirement in poverty than men, because women have insufficient incomes to save for retirement, maximize pension and Social Security benefits, and provide for their longer life spans. For retired women, the median income is $15,615, about half that of their male counterparts.
... HCR 23 assures women and men that they have not only an equal playing field, but an equal paying field. It is especially good that we've taken action in the wake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which will ensure that American workers are treated fairly under the law by correcting wage disparities.
Read more of their op-ed here, and read an article about the measure here.
Monday, April 20, 2009
"As elected officials, we are tasked with solving a broad range of problems on behalf of Idaho's citizens. Yet the Governor and other Republican leaders are more interested in power plays than solving problems," Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly said today, after Gov. Butch Otter vetoed two bills. "In this critical time Idaho needs leaders and statesmen in charge."
"We are living in a time when Idaho's challenges are becoming more serious and more complex. As legislators, we are tasked with handling many issues at once," added House Minority Leader John Rusche. "More than 51,000 Idahoans wake up every day without a job. Our public schools are facing unprecedented cuts, and homebound seniors are losing needed services and medicine."
"Yet today, the governor vetoed two bills that had broad bipartisan support: one that recognizes the importance of parents as teachers and another that protects Idahoans against identity theft," Rusche said. "We question whether killing important bills is the best way to achieve the cooperation and collaboration that Idahoans deserve from their elected officials."
"We need leaders who are willing to work openly and responsibly to solve the problems facing Idaho and achieve our goals, not players who are more interested in scoring points for themselves than doing their best for the Idahoans they were sent to Boise to represent," Kelly added.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Rep. Liz Chavez (District 7) - ... Last week there was a glimmer of hope that the slashing of 5 percent across the board in all agencies was going to be reduced to 3 percent, not my first choice but better than the number we were originally given. We will have to see if the Governor and Senate and House leadership can work together to forge a budget to meet our state's needs without further damage to the various department's ability to function.
I know that some, or many of you, read the article suggesting that my seatmate in the House of Representatives and I are casting irresponsible votes regarding raising the fuel tax to help fix and maintain our bridges and roads. I wouldn't presume to answer for the other good representative, however I would submit this opinion for your consideration. We can't make bridges or roads out of children, teachers, principals, aides, bus drivers, maintenance personnel, or parents but I believe that they are as much the infrastructure of our state and our future as those roads and bridges. I would hope that our Governor would be not only the "Transportation Governor", but the "Education Governor" as well.
Rep. Branden Durst (District 18) - Reacting to Gov. Otter's statement on the April 9 failure of a fuel tax increase, Rep. Durst wrote: With all due respect, Mr. Governor, your statement is irresponsible. You state, "For months now we have made every compromise, addressed every legitimate concern and provided every alternative that opponents wanted." With all due respect, Mr. Governor, but that is categorically false. As my debate against HB135 indicated you haven't even attempted to address every legitimate concern. You also haven't provided every alternative that opponents wanted. Are you saying that concerns about improving access and funding to alternative modes of transportation aren't legitimate? At what point did you invite members of the House Democratic Caucus from the Treasure Valley (who nearly all voted against your plans) to the table? At what did you ask us, "What do you need to get on board?"
To my knowledge the answer is obviously never. Even last week during the amending order, we tried as hard as we could to amend the bill so that it would address our concerns. You offered no leadership in supporting those issues that the people of my district care about. With all due respect, Mr. Governor, please don't suggest that you tried to meet us half way and certainly don't suggest that I am being irresponsible. I understand the problem, but will not be bullied or shamed into do something that I know is not in the strategic long term interests of the state of Idaho.
Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - Fish and Game has done a fantastic job of running their agency in the past few years, and they asked for a fee increase that averaged about 15 percent. Many sportsmen and sportsman groups supported this bill, saying hunting and fishing in Idaho is a bargain. 80 percent of Idahoans surveyed agreed it was a good thing to do. But the Senators on the other side of the Annex mucked up the bill and only increased out-of-state hunters and fishermen fees. I disagreed with the amendments, but as many on the committee said, half a loaf is better than none at all. So I voted for it. I’m sure they will be back in a year to ask for the other half of their request or else cut programs. By the way, non-game animals are protected by the Fish and Game and it is paid for by 99 percent federal funds. Thank God for the Feds who understand whole ecosystems.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Writing today at her blog, Notes from the Floor:
For me home is within walking distance of the Capitol. For my colleagues it is generally not. Right now some are trying to extend leases, moving into hotels or contemplating sharing digs for what is a few days but could become a few weeks when you count the personalities involved in Idaho lawmaking.
For now the Senate's Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee members have stuck together on more mild cuts to state employee pay. Not a wholly moderate body, there seems to be a frustration on the Senate's part with House leadership for forcing votes from Republican members. The House has buckled down in its Republican caucus to make larger cuts state employee pay and to make the deepest possible cuts to Education.
... it is yet to be seen how the Senate will vote on tax increases for roads. Our Senate Caucus is unified even more than the House's Democratic caucus on this issue. If the vote is going to be close here as well I'm a bit surprised the Governor hasn't been chatting with us much about what he wants out of this session. There are a few things he wants, like lesser cuts to state employee pay which we might agree on. In years past he has been open to local option authority and I'd hope he might consider that and public transportation in particular as a worthy piece of any state wide transportation plan.
But he hasn't really called. So we'll keep at this staring at a board full of appropriations bills someone is worried about sending him. Until things start moving no one is going to budge. Until the first bill is vetoed we won't know how willing anyone is to take the heat of making this session go longer. Every day is probably one state employees' pay, one lay-off you might say.
We won't win a waiting game, only maybe a game of public chicken.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet (District 25) - I thought I would bring you up to date on last week's JFAC actions. On Wednesday, we voted to rescind the 3 percent across-the-board payroll cut to all state employees. At the Governor's request we voted to allow agency heads to allocate the personnel cost reductions at their discretion. Shirley Ringo (D-Moscow) and I, the two House democrats, voted with the 10 Senate members of JFAC tipping the vote. House Republicans met later that day and authorized their leadership to oppose this vote. They want a "trigger" to make the 2 percent reduction depending on revenue collections in the first and second quarters of this next fiscal year starting in July. The Governor's request was in writing, an email to all legislators, the previous week. Now I have seen a memo that says the Governor wants to change his mind and go along with the "trigger." The personnel cost reduction of 5 percent remains in the baseregardless. ...
... Because the Governor wants to put the stimulus monies to work as soon as possible, he and his executive advisory committee chose to recommend that the monies go to programs/agencies that are already in place such as the Department of Environmental Quality for water and sewer projects and to the Idaho Department of Transportation for road projects. JFAC chose to fund the water and sewer proposal as well as the Idaho Education Network for $3 million dollars - this will bring high speed connectivity to our rural areas and be matched by federal E-rate funds and grants; we proposed to fund $2 million toward the CAMP process, the aquifer management plan; and we appropriated $17 million dollars in transportation funds to the local highway districts. As of this writing we are hearing that the Governor is not happy with these decisions and we may be revisiting them in the future (which is why we may not be going home this week). Senator LeFavour (D-Boise) attempted a motion in JFAC to redirect the above funding to education operations which failed on a party line vote.
Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - ... Increasing revenues through registration fees and the gas tax have been the central pieces of the Governor's agenda for the last two years, yet still he appears to be unsuccessful; at least so far. Originally the Governor proposed both a ten-cent fuel tax increase phased in over a five year period. He also proposed an increase in registration fees which amounted to nearly tripling the current registration fees for private drivers. Neither of these had much support in the Legislature.
Last week, the House debated HB135, a second piece of legislation to increase the gas tax by two-cents for the Fiscal Year 2010 only. This proposal failed on a vote of 37 against - 32 in-favor. I voted against the gas tax. If we had been able to make some headway that would mitigate cuts to education and other State services, I may not have felt the same about making a modest tax increase to support our State's transportation infrastructure. In the current situation, however, raising taxes for transportation doesn't make sense at the same time Idaho is cutting state workers' pay and making historic cuts to public education. I am sure we will be revisiting this issue.
On Friday we voted on the GARVEE project bill. This borrows against future federal highway money. While it is not all that good to borrow, it does make financial sense when the cost of construction now is less than in the future. The recession has dropped the costs of construction so current money buys even more. It also allows us to create and retain some construction jobs now when we really need them. In addition, Highway 30 between McCammon and Lava Hot Springs was the beneficiary of Garvee funding in the recent past. Our community has directly benefit from the Garvee program. I voted "yes" on Garvee. ...
Friday, April 10, 2009
“These are projects that are already making a difference in our state,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche. “GARVEE spending will improve our roads as well as keep Idahoans working during this recession.”
“Like all Idahoans, Democrats believe in honoring commitments and finishing what we begin,” added Assistant House Minority Leader James Ruchti. “Now may not be the time to raise new taxes on Idaho families and businesses, but GARVEE bonding allows our state to finish these projects.”
“Governor Otter should be credited for his tenacious efforts in making the case for additional transportation funding,” said House Minority Caucus Chair Bill Killen. “We stand ready to continue to look for solutions that will help Idaho meet its transportation needs at the same time we keep our schools strong and opportunity growing across Idaho’s economy.”
Thursday, April 9, 2009
“Democrats have been saying since January that this is no time for the state to raise taxes on struggling Idaho families and businesses,” House Minority Leader John Rusche said after the vote. Fourteen of the 18 House Democrats voted against the measure, which was defeated on a narrow 32-37 vote.
“Democrats are not against transportation investment,” added Assistant House Minority Leader James Ruchti. “Idaho is increasing the Idaho Transportation Department’s budget and accepting millions in federal stimulus funds for transportation at the same time we are trimming state workers’ pay and making historic cuts to education. This tunnel vision doesn’t reflect our values as Idahoans.”
“The recent ITD audit showed that the agency isn’t using taxpayer funding as efficiently as it should. Beyond that, we see no effort on the part of the House Majority leadership to propose truly comprehensive transportation solutions that include local option authority for local communities,” Rusche said. “They also can’t recognize that fuel taxes will not solve our state’s future needs. Idaho remains stuck in the mid-20th century because of the House Majority’s refusal to wake up to reality. Democrats will continue to stand for comprehensive, 21st-century transportation solutions.”
Monday, April 6, 2009
Rep. James Rusche (District 7) - Our House Democratic fundraiser is being held this Thursday. This is an annual event that we hold at the end-of-the Session called the "Sine Die," or adjournment, party. Every year at this event we hold a silent auction on items donated by our caucus members and businesses throughout the State. This year, one of the silent auction items is a basket of books comprised of a favorite book donated by each member in the minority caucus with a short inscription that includes a favorite quotation from the book. I chose The Lord of the Rings as my book and included the quote "Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes." One of my favorite lines.
This quotation sums up some of the dysfunction here. First we cannot use the stimulus because it might have strings. Now we are using as much as we can get. Members of the majority party have argued that in order to help the economy recover, we must get money into people's hands and circulating through the economy and thus are proposing corporate tax cuts. At the same time, I have heard the same members refuse to use "rainy day" funds to help stabilize the education budgets and maintain needed State services. On the one hand they are saying we must stimulate in order to recover, yet on the other they are saying we will not spend because we might not recover.
Another saying goes "Meddle not in the affairs of wizards, as they are subtle and quick to anger." I might use that saying for the Governor, but he really seems quite patient with the House. I think we are headed to a collision over micromanaging the agencies though. The appropriation bills have language directing how each department should respond to lower budgets rather than just setting the budget and letting the managers manage. As the top manager for the State, the Governor rightly takes exception to that instruction. WE will be settling that next week, I think. ...
... The day-care licensing bill cleared the House Health and Welfare Committee. This bill has been in play in the Legislature for the last five years without success, so I am happy to finally see some progress. At the same time, the vote in committee was to send it for amendments, extensive amendments, that may dilute the intention of the bill. The amendments to the bill include requiring licensing only for pay establishments with seven or more unrelated children (the original bill called for licensing of day cares for four or more children) as well as the removal of requirements for continuing education for day-care workers in facilities with fewer than 13 children. Some of the amendments proposed may carry a cost to the State of some $30,000 thereby decreasing its chance of survival in the House considering our budget shortfalls. I am hopeful the bill will be successful. While not as good as it could be, it is still a net improvement in the safety of kids in daycare.
Rep. Bill Killen (District 17) - On Tuesday (March 31) this week the House took up the sole remaining transportation funding bill on its amending order. The process is somewhat arcane with the body dissolving and reconstituting as a committee of the whole; though it sounds ominous, nobody is transformed, no puddles are scattered about the chamber, but magically, we no longer have a Speaker, but rather a chairman of the committee of the whole. Once constituted the various bills are ripe for change; in this case H 135 from the Transportation chair, JoAn Wood, was offered up with eight possible amendments – an unusually high number. The list included Local Option Authority, various fuel tax increases, and changes to the State vs Local revenue split percentage. Like the arcade moles, they popped up throughout the morning debate with all but one roundly dispatched by the mallet wielding members of the body.
The bill itself, as amended, will be coming back for an up or down vote on Tuesday the 7th; based on what happened this week I expect it will get whacked soundly and expire on the floor of the House. With the economic downturn still at full throttle, legislators are extremely reluctant to raise taxes or fees of any kind, particularly with about $400 million still untouched in our rainy day funds. A cynic might suspect that the reluctance to commit to using those funds now is somehow tied to the fact that next year is an election year and if we run short then, after having committed those funds now, might force sitting legislators to consider a tax increase in an election year. ...
Sen. Elliot Werk (District 17) - Legislation introduced in the House to decrease the reimbursement for public school transportation funding has reached the Senate after a valiant fight by House Democrats to defeat or amend the bill. H-256 is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Goedde – a former trustee of the Coeur-d’Alene school district and chairman of the Senate Education committee and Rep. Bob Nonini chairman of the House Education committee. The bill purports to cut public education busing reimbursement by $4.2 million in fiscal year 2010.
The bill cuts the public education budget by eliminating funding for field trips, decreasing the reimbursement for school busing from the current 85 percent to 50 percent of allowable costs, instituting a very complicated formula for providing additional grants for transportation, and finally eliminating the flexibility of school districts to calculate their reimbursable costs using either a per student or per mile basis. This last provision in the bill was specifically targeted at the Boise School District and could result in a loss of $1.45 million to the district for costs already incurred this school year.
I firmly believe that my job as a legislator is to support the best possible public policy regardless of the players involved. Personal animosity, anger, envy, and grudges have no place in the public policy arena. Unfortunately the portion of H 256 that targets the Boise school district comes from a long standing grudge held by Sen. Goedde and some members in the House.
During House debate on H 256 one Republican lawmaker even stood up and stated that the Boise district uses up everyone else’s money! He could not have been more wrong since, like every other district in the state, the Boise district receives funding through the statewide funding formula. The added fact that the Boise district tax base supports rural schools all over the state through our immense contribution to the tax revenues of the state general fund makes it difficult to understand the mentality of some of these legislators.
The provision in H 256 that eliminates field trips is also startlingly short-sighted. It belies an attitude toward public education that any enrichment is a luxury. As we all know, field trips are an integral part of the learning process.
It is a sad testament to our legislature that a bill like H 256 would ever see the light of day, not to mention the certainty of passage (although hopefully amended). Our children’s education deserves more than actions based on grudges, misinformation, and a lack of appreciation for a well-rounded education for our children.
Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - Back in 2001 or 2002, the legislature had a surplus. So they cut the Idaho income tax by 0.1 percent valued at $150 million, (and) 60 percent of this cut benefitted the wealthiest 5 percent of our population. Then in 2004 they had to “temporarily” raise sales tax because the economy tanked. Sales tax disproportionately hurts lower income families. The result of those two moves was that the legislature shifted revenues from the wealthy to lower income families.
After a year they let the temporary tax revert to the original 5 cents. But because there was not a lot of objection to the penny sales tax, and there was a hue and cry to do something about property tax, Governor Risch, in the summer of 2006, held the “special” session where the legislature voted to raise the sales tax to 6 cents permanently. They also voted to move the Maintenance and Operations portion of public education funding from property tax funding to the General Fund.
Sales tax and income tax are the largest sources of General Funds and are not as stable from year to year as a source of funding as property tax funds. So now for the first time in Idaho’s history we are cutting education funding and teacher pay, and once again state employees do not get even a cost of living increase.
My beef is that there is a pattern here. Idahoans are willing to raise their sales tax by a penny or gas tax by 2 pennies, for the good of the state, but the legislature uses that willingness to shift more and more taxes onto hard working families and away from those who can more afford to pay. The makeup of this legislature refuses to rethink their policy on income tax, tax exemptions, corporate taxes, etc. We are 46th in the nation for state employee salaries and 44th in the nation in average teacher salaries. Agency heads say they cannot recruit and retain employees and are losing talented people to other states.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Do the Co-Chairs of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, Senator Dean Cameron and Representative Maxine Bell really decide how much to cut Idaho education budgets or how much and in what way to cut state employee and teacher pay? No.
Wednesday night Dean Cameron and Maxine Bell sat on the stage in front of more than 600 teachers and parents and had to defend cuts to education and teacher pay because Governor Otter and House Leaders Mike Moyle, Ken Roberts and Scott Bedke didn't feel obligated to come defend their own parts in really deciding how these budgets will be set.
Wednesday night Dean Cameron sat in the middle of a huge line of silent law makers under the lights and read from a script. I know he didn't relish it. He is a kind, reasonable man who I believe tries hard to do the right thing in a place that has changed much over the past five years. He said he had no choice but to cut education. In the realm of politics he did not. In the realm of the real world there are ways to keep education budgets whole for 2010 and 2011 even if the economy worsens.
But some Republican leaders refuse to put education higher than roads or business tax cuts in their set of priorities. These people ran on smaller government platforms and if it means cutting schools, laying off teachers and state employees and cutting pay till it all unravels, they will do it. They have done it. Privatizing broken government services puts our tax dollars in the hands of businesses, which may or may not do a better job than government.
These leaders, along with Tom Luna, Bob Nonini and John Goedde I believe would privatize education, like we've privatized health care, even if such a system would benefit only those with enough money to pay for a good education. Even if those with less money would get something less for their children. ... read more at Nicole's blog.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet (District 25) - ... What was extremely disappointing last week was the negation of House Bill 252, a collaborative approach for districts to declare an "emergency" and open up contracts for personnel reductions. Representatives Rusche, Chavez and Pence spent a month in early morning meetings with majority party members and education stakeholders only to have two bills come forward that were never discussed in this working group. The trust that was engendered from the collaborative approach has been greatly damaged as a result of majority party actions.
A second concern of mine was highlighted in The New York Times this weekend. The article indicated that the federal government's Department of Education will be monitoring how states use their education stimulus/stabilitization funds. General funds, they said, are not to be freed up from education to be put elsewhere and the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may come forward in the next few weeks with more clarification rules on this matter. The majority party's JFAC motion for k-12 education used $20 million dollars more of stimulus money and transferred it to the general fund. This may not work and we might be looking at this again. When I said earlier this week that I thought we would be out of here on April 10th, I could have been mistaken. ...
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Rep. John Rusche (District 7) - What many have called our “going home” bill failed on the House Floor last week. After close to two hours of debate, the Governor’s proposal (H246) to raise fuel taxes by 30 percent over the next three years failed by a vote of 27-43. This was a tough vote. The arguments in favor of the bill were well articulated and I agree that Idaho’s roads need ongoing funding for maintenance. At the same time, I just can’t justify raising taxes on Idaho families in these difficult economic times.
The other transportation bill proposed by the Governor, H247, which proposes increases in vehicle registration fees, was pulled last week. There were numerous errors in the bill and there were also concerns that the bill did not receive any hearing in the House Transportation Committee. Over the next week or two, I expect that we will see several new revenue-raising bills to help pay for road maintenance. The Governor has made transportation his #1 priority for this legislative session and if he does not see some headway, I expect the Governor may get out his veto stamp.
Governor Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna are proposing to cut the public education budgets by $110 million for Fiscal Year 2010. This is in funding for staff as well as transportation (field trips and daily busing), textbooks, school maintenance funding (interesting, we can cut money to maintain schools but need to raise taxes for roads). Education is key to our State’s future. Cutting public school funding while saving both stimulus money and our own Education Reserve Fund seems shortsighted. When the school tax shifted from property tax to our general fund (sales and income tax), we set up the Public School Stabilization Fund with $100 million just in case those tax revenues fell short. It does not seem wise to refuse to use this rainy day fund now. Isn’t it why the fund was set up?
Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - ... In the tenth week of the session, JFAC (Joint Finance Appropriations Committee) is working hard to hear all the agency rewrites of each budget with the Stimulus Money in mind. Education is one of the more important budgets to me. They used about $80 million of PESF (Public Education Stabilization Fund), but then, last Wednesday, they replaced that money with Stimulus money. So the PESF has not been touched and if we can get the governor and superintendant to agree, we will use it in 2010 and 2011. ... In the debate about an increase in the gas tax, the Democrats brought up the fact that the Governor’s transportation bills raise $61.8 million for roads and bridges and yet he is cutting $62 million from education. We think that demonstrates the governor’s priorities.
By the way, the gas tax bill to increase gas tax by 3¢ in July 2009, 2¢ in 2010 and 2¢ in 2011, failed to make it out of the house by 27 to 43. There were major flaws in the registration fee increase bill and it was pulled back. We may see a new registration fee bill on Tuesday in transportation. The fuel tax saga continues with the Governor threatening to put the GARVEE road projects into the stimulus money instead of funding the eight projects already identified.
Many organizations, cities, and counties applied for other Federal Stimulus money. They worked hard to get their applications to the Governor to meet his deadline last week. Unfortunately, they were not considered. I feel badly that expectations were so high and deflated so quickly!
Rep. Branden Durst (District 18) - I am pleased to announce that my joint effort, HB 84, with Rep. Donna Pence (D-25B) was passed out of the House on Friday by a vote of 57 to 7, with 6 legislators absent.
The bill, for those of you that don't know, will allow parents of children that turn five years old after September 1st and attend a private kindergarten, to continue on to 1st grade so long as they can pass an assessment that is approved by the State Department of Education. It also provides a new safeguard for children that attend an out-of-state kindergarten that turned five after September 1st by requiring them to also take the assessment to demonstrate they are prepared to enter first grade.
Really, this is a pretty small change that will impact less than a few dozen students a year. The most classic example is one that I coincidentally heard of yesterday while visiting my doctor. He has a son that was born on September 2nd, one day too late. Under the current law his son has to wait another year or commute to an out-of-state private kindergarten if he wants to start first grade next year with the rest of his peer group. What's worse is his son is very big for his age and will likely dwarf the other children when he starts kindergarten in the fall. Anyway, this is a good change and hopefully parents will feel more empowered to do the right thing for their children.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - ... This morning we had to make a decision we have been putting off while the world adjusted to what the more than one billion in stimulus funding will mean. We had to decide how much to cut state employee pay. There were seven motions or proposals. In the heat of the attic in this big old cement and stone building anything seemed possible. As we passed out the motion sheets in that room that used to be part of the county jail, the options seemed to contract.
By the time we got to our committee room in front of the cameras our choices were down to three. Three bad motions made on the table in that comparatively cold and empty room. All three motions proposed to cut state employee costs by 5 percent. The worst one of these passed. It cut every state employee’s pay by 3 percent and then mandated 2 percent more in employee cost be cut through furloughs, keeping positions vacant and if necessary through layoffs.
The House members were lock step for this motion and its 3% salary reduction and 5 percent net cut in personnel funding. Why in any rational way they would want that, I do not know. We could have given more room for agencies to use furloughs more or vacant positions. We could have used dedicated funds or stimulus funds to keep it at 4 percent or even 3 percent total personnel cuts. But leadership in the House has been twisting arms for weeks. I’m not sure what any state employee ever did to them or if it is just that those particular Republican leaders need to keep hating government, even when government is our tax dollars, people’s jobs, people’s lives. ... more at Nicole's blog
Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - It was nice to see some of you over the weekend at our Legislative Listening Tour. We were discussing legislative issues that are affecting you at home and it was good to get feedback from our constituents. ... On a good note, SB1100, which proposed a statewide franchise for cable operators has been pulled by the bill's sponsor as a result of comments from many of you as well as hard work by Representative Elaine Smith. Currently, in order to receive the right to use the public right-of-way for cable infrastructure, companies must negotiate a franchise with local cities and counties. This bill proposed that one franchise be granted by the State for operation throughout the State. The main concern regarding SB1100 was the impact it would have on public access channels. This bill would have limited a local community's ability to request that cable companies provide public access channels. There were also concerns that the bill would result in lost revenues for operating public access channels.
As a preview to what is coming up this week, a daycare licensing bill (S1112aa) will be considered by the House this week. This legislation already passed in the Senate by an overwhelming majority. If passed by the House, the measure would require licensing of all day-care operations that care for four or more unrelated children. It would set minimum standards including criminal background checks, health and fire safety inspections, and child-staff ratios. Some of you attended the town hall meeting I held a few months ago on this topic. I think this is good legislation and I will be voting for it. These are the bare minimum standards the State should be setting to ensure that our children are safe.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Well, just when I think that the Idaho Legislature and the process of government can't get any more interesting......it does.
After working for a month and a day, meeting every day at 7:00am to work out legislation (HB252) that provides tools and procedure in the case of a catastrophic economic emergency that give the state and local school districts flexibility, today we heard new legislation that begs the question,"What are we doing?"
The Chair of the House Education Committee Rep. Bob Nonini, introduced proposed legislation reducing the state's reimbursement to our local school districts from 85 percent down to 50 percent. This will effectively take away any and all field trips for curriculum enhancement. However, because athletics is not reimbursed, that will not be impacted.....but this may have spillover effects that we can't see right now.
There will be two more pieces of proposed legislation presented on Monday. One will be to cut the Early Retirement for Teachers in half for this year and eliminate it entirely in 2010. This plan doesn't cost money, but in fact saves money as veteran teachers, who are often at the end of the salary schedule are replaced by new teachers who are on the lower end of the salary schedule.
The other piece is a plan to freeze the steps and lanes, meaning the years of experience and education, into which all teachers fit to be paid.
My frustration and dismay in all of this is that the legislation we worked on so hard for over a month, was that every group that would be impacted by this legislation were sitting at the same table and we came to agreement on the tools to use in an economic emergency. So the question has to be, "Why do we need these pieces of legislation? Why can't we send the funding to the school districts and let the duly elected Board of Trustees and the local teacher's association work it out?"
So here's the deal. I need your help. I need every one of you to call the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna at the Department of Education, the phone number is 1-800-432-4601 and register your concern, or Representative Bob Nonini at the House of Representatives 1-800-626-0471.I would also encourage you to email your concerns to Rep. Nonini at firstname.lastname@example.org and to anyone else that you think might have some influence on the course of this legislation.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Democrats in the Idaho House voted today to defeat a tax increase sought by Gov. Butch Otter.
“While I agree that Idaho's highways and bridges are in need of repair and we have an investment we need to protect, I disagree with the timing for a tax increase on Idahoans,” House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston said after the vote. During floor debate, Rusche said, “We do need to preserve our shared assets, not just the roads and bridges but also our schools and universities.”
“Right now, our economy is stalled and Idaho's unemployment rate is rising,” Rusche added. “More than 51,000 people were without jobs last month, with the unemployment rate reaching double digits in many places. Idaho families and businesses are suffering and now doesn't seem the time to increase their tax burden.”
“On the one hand, Idaho’s roads are cash poor … but on the other hand, many of our constituents are finding themselves cash poor,” Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti of Pocatello said. But Idahoans understand the need for some cutbacks. “They understand we can’t fully fund everything because they are going through the same thing … so they get it. The question we need to ask is: Do we get it?” Ruchti added that with the state’s many needs, “if we’re pouring it all into transportation infrastructure, I think we’re truly going down the wrong road.”
The tally on HB 246 was 27 for and 43 opposed. All but three Democrats voted against the bill. One who supported it, Rep. Shirley Ringo of Moscow, said that she hoped that the Legislature would invest in “human infrastructure” as well as transportation needs.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
By Senator Tim Corder & Representative George Sayler
Last week, the Senate passed by a 30-5 vote Senate Bill 1112, a proposal to change Idaho's outdated and inadequate child-care statute. Supporters of child-care reform have tried for years to amend current laws that leave thousands of children vulnerable. The vote is a bright star on what has been a dark horizon of child care in Idaho.
Unfortunately, some now want to cast a shadow over that star. In his March 15 column, Wayne Hoffman tried to discount the impact SB 1112 would have in improving child-care safety and alleged that the law would be costly and burdensome. We would like to correct these misperceptions.
If enacted, SB 1112 would end the loopholes that create safety issues for many children and that provide opportunities for people, including sexual predators, to harm children. The current law allows anyone to care for six or fewer children without any regulation or oversight, and it has minimal requirements for group care facilities taking care of seven to 12 children.We have a mountain of evidence showing the need for change. Current problems range from children being sexually abused to providers being intoxicated, to other health and safety violations. Current law makes it virtually impossible for the state to take action in most cases.
SB 1112 would provide a consistent, minimum statewide system of safety requirements for children in child-care facilities where four or more children, unrelated to the provider, are being cared for on a regular basis for compensation. It would require criminal background checks and health and safety inspections. Firearms and water safety measures are included, there must be a working phone on the premises, and maximum group size and child-staff ratios are established.
The bill would provide a process for the Health and Welfare Department to monitor these standards and suspend, deny or revoke licenses where illegal activity or serious threats to health and safety are found or where convicted sex offenders are on a child-care facility's premises.
Hoffman referred to an incident where a fire inspector showed up at a licensed child-care facility and found children being kept in locked plywood cubbyholes. His point was that licensing did not prevent the abuse. We are not claiming to be able to prevent all abuse, but the inspection would not have happened without the licensing requirement. The abuse would have continued.
Hoffman argued that more licensing takes away family responsibilities or may be too burdensome on small providers and costly to parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Licensing fees are based on the number of children being cared for and actual costs of providing the license. Where licenses have been required in cities with ordinances, no decrease in the availability of child care has occurred.
Under Senate Bill 1112, parents would retain primary responsibility for child care, but the state would take a larger role in ensuring that all child-care facilities meet minimum health and safety standards. We believe the state has that responsibility. We also believe it is the parent's responsibility to choose the type of child care most suitable for their family. Unfortunately, parents don't always fulfill their responsibility. As Hoffman acknowledged, some parents will only be concerned with the cost and may even place their children in locked cubbyholes. Why should their children be put at risk?
This year, the Legislature has required veterinarians and mortgage brokers to be licensed and have criminal background checks. Passage of SB 1112 will send the message that our children are at least as important as animals and money.
Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, and Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d'Alene, are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1112.
In a recent speech on education, President Obama surprised some listeners by saying that the nation needs more charter schools. It’s true that, at their best, charter schools can be laboratories of educational innovation. However, many states are struggling with how to fund charter school expansion at a time of shrinking or stagnant budgets for traditional public schools. Boise School District officials have announced they must lay off 122 teachers next year, and other districts are certain to require similar layoffs.
Yet amid these deep cutbacks, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has called for lifting the cap on charter schools. I think that’s the wrong idea during this current economic downturn, and I have introduced legislation to put a three-year moratorium on new charter schools. The Senate Education Committee agreed to print Senate Bill 1085 way back in mid-February, but it’s been languishing there ever since. That’s a shame, because SB 1085 is needed at a time when Idaho’s traditional public schools face historic cuts. Allow me to explain why Idaho needs this moratorium:
When a new charter school starts, the vast majority of the students moving to the charter school district come from the traditional school district in which the charter school district resides. When the students move to the charter school district, the money allocated per child under state formula follows the child. In other words, the money that was supporting the student in the traditional public school is now supporting the education of the child in the charter school district. On the surface this makes sense except, like many things, the devil lies in the details.
When a child leaves the traditional public school district, many of the district’s costs remain essentially the same. Base costs for teachers, administration, facilities, maintenance, transportation and other support functions have to be maintained as they were before, but with the shift of funds to the charter school district, the traditional district has fewer dollars to cover essential costs. In some larger districts like Pocatello or Nampa, the charter school district receives more funding per child than the traditional public school district receives.
Each new charter school district gets about $1.3 million in funding for its first year – money that follows students from the traditional public school district to the charter school. However, since Idaho law says that if the traditional public school district loses 1 percent of its student population during the first year of the new charter school district operation, the traditional district in which the charter school district resides will be compensated for 99 percent of the revenue lost to the charter school district. This means that six new charter school districts could drain about $8 million per year from overall funding for K-12 schools.
Senate Bill 1085 would put a moratorium on starting new charter school districts for three years, July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2012, a period for which most people agree Idaho will continue to have serious revenue shortfalls. If we don’t do this, approximately $8 million dollars per year – or up to $24 million over the three years – will have to be taken from state funding for K-12 schools. This makes no fiscal or educational sense. If you agree that this would do grave damage to Idaho’s children, contact Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde and ask that the committee hear Senate Bill 1085.
Senator Dick Sagness of Pocatello is retired dean of the College of Education at Idaho State University.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Rep. John Rusche (District 7) - Governor Otter announced Wednesday that he will be using all of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act monies available to Idaho, totaling $1.24 Billion over the next three years. This is good news. I am pleased that he has decided to accept the assistance available to us; his original skepticism has been replaced by a better understanding of what it means to Idaho families. I am also pleased with the way he worked with previous governors and budget experts who have gone though similar economic challenges to assess and review the package.
I also agree with the goals of using the mone to protect and promote jobs for Idahoans, and to preserve education for our kids.
Unfortunately, the Governor also stated that he was proposing cuts to public schools of almost $110 million for 2010 (beginning July 2009). He has endorsed Superintendent Luna's recommendation that nearly $62 million be cut from public education (in enhancements and specific line items) as well as calling for an additional 5 percent reduction in personnel costs. It is hard to see how that helps protect the education of our kids. School districts will have a few choices: try a supplemental levy (raised from property taxes), cut staff (more crowded classrooms), decrease programs or make other wage, benefit or cost cuts.
The Governor's proposal leaves the "rainy day funds," our emergency funds, untouched. Whereas two months ago he felt that we should use 1/3 of the money while reserving 2/3 of the estimated $390 million currently available, now he feels we cannot touch a dime, even the $114 million specifically designated to stabilize public schools. Prudence is one thing, but this seems quite shortsighted to me. It's sort of like a family with a sick child, choosing to not spend anything for medical care just in case the child might be sicker next week.
Transportation projects fare pretty well, with $200 million for roads and bridges. He continues to call for another GARVEE bond ($125 million) as well as making a push for a gasoline tax increase and auto registration increase. Stimulus dollars for roads, GARVEE for roads, new taxes for roads, and cuts in public schools.
Over the next few weeks, we will be struggling with these budget issues as well as transportation funding. I will be working for a plan that is fiscally responsible, minimizes the economic damage to our State and sets Idaho up for the quickest possible recovery. I will work diligently to put Idahoans back in jobs and provide future generations with a bright economic future.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Headed into the Joint Finance Committee where arms have been twisted so the Governor can cut State Employee funding by 5 percent. Every dollar he can funnel into the world of concrete and asphalt is going there. As if the road construction industry's boom alone will revive the economy while we lay off state workers, make them take deep furloughs, cut teachers and teacher's aids, grow class sizes and weaken our ability as a state to serve people when they need it most.
An economy needs small businesses and I'm wondering where we are working to help them. Little home energy efficiency companies, tech companies who scan documents and do data entry will boom, but not because Governor Otter wanted them to. The strings in the stimulus are accountability measures. Congress tried to make us prepare a bit to avert an energy crisis, be more efficient and independent finally as a nation in healthcare and energy. But this governor wants to tax us more for roads, borrow more for roads, spend all the stimulus he can on roads while his Superindendent of Public Instruction cuts deeper and deeper into Schools with every passing day.
Senator Jon Thorson (District 25) - ... Within the past year, unemployment rates have doubled, and the demand for food stamps has increased by 32 percent. The recommendations to the Department of Labor and Health & Welfare will be used directly to help those folks who have been the recent victims of the economic downturn and sluggish job market. For many hardworking Idahoans, this is the first time in their lives where they have asked for public assistance, or been unable to find work.
These are humbling times. I am pleased that Idaho is able to offer some assistance to enable citizens to stay in their homes and put food on the table. The $200 million earmarked for transportation projects may soon help some of Idaho’s displaced workers find a job, and quickly get off public assistance.
A majority of those positions would be construction though, and while that sector has been particularly hit hard, there are still many displaced workers that do not have those skills. So, it was disheartening to learn that none of the stimulus will be used to maintain some of the threatened state agency positions. In fact, the Governor and some members of the legislature are recommending an additional 5 percent cut to state and education personnel costs, in addition to the 6 percent overall budget cuts already made in fiscal year 2009. The Governor’s office explained that the state government, like business, needs to cuts its personnel and tighten down the hatches during these tough times.
While we strive for a government that runs as efficiently as a business, in times like these we cannot compare government to a business. First of all, when a business sees an increase of 32 percent in demand, it does not cut its operation budget by 11 percent. Unlike business, government cannot choose its customers. It cannot turn away those seeking services who qualify. We are experiencing an economic crisis because of failed businesses, businesses that even after decades of service decided to close their doors.
Government does not have that option. Further, it is during times like this that citizens need government services. Frankly, the recommended cut is shortsighted. Allocating some of the stimulus funds to save those budgets would not only serve the families supported by those jobs, but also the services provided to the public from those jobs. The Governor talks about using stimulus money to create jobs; it also makes sense to use the money to preserve jobs.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Democratic leadership in the Idaho Legislature today praised Governor Butch Otter for accepting the federal stimulus money and for involving former Democratic and Republican governors 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 preserve as many Idaho jobs as possible.
Speaking with reporters after the governor’s press conference in Boise this morning, the Democratic leaders also raised concerns about the soundness of the Governor’s plan to sit on large pots of money while cutting public education. Read their response and see links to TV coverage here.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
A few weeks ago, Idahoans were outraged to hear of legislation that would trigger unprecedented damage to public education. Last night, Rep. Liz Chavez of Lewiston sent word via her email letter to constituents that a bipartisan committee has come to agreement on a less-damaging version of the bill:
Even though I'm in my second term as one of your state representatives, I continue to learn and discover both the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and of the process as a whole. And while sometimes I am dismayed at some of the legislation and ideology that drives some of the more unusual pieces of of legislation, I have also found legislators and lobbyists who are good hearted, well meaning, intelligent, and patriotic Idahoans.
Sometimes ideology and procedure collide, and when that happens, if we're lucky we get the opportunity to help broker compromise and cooperation that results in excellent policy that will stand the test of time.
I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to participate in just such a scenario regarding setting policy to address a catastrophic economic emergency and the impact on education. It so happens that we find ourselves in such a situation now, but in order that we not just react in fear, for now and the future, cool heads have been put together to craft a blueprint for where we go from here.
The impetus for this group to get together and figure out how to address the shortfall in the department of Education wasHB117 and 118. There was such a hue and cry from all parts of the state, from parents to teachers to school boards to legislators. Instead of just allowing that anger to run amuck, leadership in the House asked Rep. Rich Wills to facilitate a working group consisting of the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Education Association, the Administrators Association, the Rural Schools Association, and legislators.
The overriding concern has been, and rightly so, that the children, small and big, know that they can count on their schools being open, the lights turned on, and a teacher to help them learn and grow. As we focused on meeting the needs of Idaho's students, all those who have an interest in meeting those needs came together and while it has taken a 7:00am meeting every day for 3 weeks, today we came to agreement and hope to have legislation ready for the sponsor of HB117 to present to the House Education Committee for consideration.
This enewsletter has been heavy on education, but keeping education as whole as possible for Idaho's children and their future, realizing that there are people losing their jobs every day, is as critical to the recovery of our state and country as having "shovel ready" projects that put Idahoans back to work.
I believe in our country, I believe that working together we are going to come out of this crisis. I also believe in each one of you and your ability to help make recovery a reality for our ourselves and our economy.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - In the eighth week of the session, we have been talking a lot about tax policy. Last week it was about beer and wine, (which failed); this week we are talking transportation taxes. ...
...I have been lobbied by both sides of the issue but I remain firm that I will not vote for an increase of gas tax and registration fees for three reasons:
1. We are in tough times. Micron has already laid off 2500 employees and may lay off another 2000 by August. Many of those unemployed individuals live in my district. This not a good time to raise their taxes.
2. We are going to get $181 million from the Federal Stimulus which needs to be used in 3 years. That should keep the Idaho Transportation Department busy for at least a year. Or to put it another way, will ITD be able to use any of the new money that might be generated from gas and registration fees for projects at the same time as they have the stimulus money? Let’s wait a year. Maybe we can come back with a bill for registration fees based on value of the car or the weight of the vehicle.
3. The biggest reason for me to say “no” is that the Treasure Valley has 42 percent of the people and about 60 percent of the wealth (we are the economic engine of this state), but we receive only 25 percent of the Highway Distribution money. That means that when we raise the registration fees and gas tax, we, in the Treasure Valley, are paying for roads and bridges for the rest of the state—which I don’t have a problem with. Yet the single most important concern the Treasure Valley has identified is a need for local option authority for public transit. We need to start purchasing right-of-way for public transit now. In 10 years it may be impossible to purchase right-of-way and it certainly will be a lot more expensive.
If the majority party wants my vote, they need to stop ignoring the Treasure Valley! Clete Edmunson from the Governor’s office has talked to me and I have made my position clear to him and to the Chairman of the Transportation Committee that I will not vote for gas tax and registration fee increase without a public transit component.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - ... It kills me that my work on sentencing or health care may suffer because it is not really the role of a legislator to be a community organizer. It kills me that some of my colleagues have said I have to make a choice, be a gay activist or have no future in politics in Idaho. Really I have no choice.
I think of the straight people I meet who clearly care and want to help.
The burly firefighter who told me he buttonholed Senator Fulcher at a recent reception to say firmly but politely how upset he was as a constituent that Fulcher had opposed the Human Rights act. I think of the man who came to me to talk about health care issues and, as he was leaving, mentioned how wrong it was that some radio talk show hosts were say such awful things about me and gay people.
I think of my friend Emilie Jackson-Edney and her wonderful conversations about gender identity with Senator Coiner.
I think of Mountain Goat, the blogger whose partner fears being fired from her job. I know this woman only by her pen name and her posts and I picture her these days settled next to a radio watching the hate stream out day after day because she knows someone has to say that this is wrong. She is so right. How can we as a state stand by when others incite violence and hate. Why are we not outraged? Or maybe we all are outraged and we don’t know how to express it.
Well, I’m offering some ways to express it. And I’m asking for your help. Because I can’t do this alone. The tiny cluster of under-funded, human rights oriented, non-profit groups who have worked on these issues for over a decade and have three staff between them, they can’t do this alone.
We all need your help this year because if we don’t have your help things will keep getting worse, not better. And like you, I just can’t bear that. (Read more at Sen. LeFavour's blog, Notes From the Floor.)
Rep. Brian Cronin (District 19) - A bill that seeks to bring minimal licensing standards to daycare facilities that have less than 13 children will finally get a vote this year on the floor of the Senate. The bill (SB1112) that's been revised and refined by sponsors Rep. George Sayler (D-Coeur d'Alene) and Sen Tim Corder (R-Mountain Home) has made it further than all previous attempts over the last five years.
On Wednesday, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee voted to send the bill to the 14th (amending) order. The hearing room was packed and more people wanted to testify than were allowed to. I was one of the people who had signed up to give testimony but never had the chance. Chairman Lodge simply decided at a certain point that there would no further need to hear anyone else who might be supporting the bill. ...
... The wife of former Bill Sali staffer Wayne Hoffman testified as a former daycare operator, claiming that licensing would be financially devastating, particularly given that she was making minimum wage as a daycare owner. I'm sympathetic - my wife Veronica and I know how difficult it is to make money in this business. We've been in the business for three years and admittedly have questioned the value of having Veronica work so hard for less than ample financial rewards. But, if someone can't afford to spend roughly $200/year to certify that their facility is safe for children, then that person simply shouldn't be in the business to begin with, as far as I'm concerned. And if I play by the rules, I don't want to have to compete against facilities that cut corners and endanger children. ... (Read more from Rep. Cronin's blog, Citizen Idaho.)
Sen. Jon Thorson (District 25) - ... Last Wednesday, I experienced the most contested piece of legislation to enter the Senate Chambers so far this session. The legislation, S1119, would have given the Public Utility Commission the authority to approve low income bill payment assistance plans that gas and electric utilities voluntarily wish to implement. Currently, utility companies must rely solely on private contributions to help them fund their programs.
With unemployment rates continually increasing, many families are struggling to stay warm or keep the lights on. The utility companies report that the need for assistance has increased. Most of the folks that seek public assistance to help pay their bills are humble, hard working people, who may just be blindsided by the increase of utilities, lost their job, or are struggling to find work in this economy. Often people only use the assistance a few times and then they are back on their feet.
Yet, opposition to the bill saw this as “welfare” being filtered through public utility companies. I voted in favor of the bill, because I see it as a sensible approach to assist these companies to pay for the costs of doing business and helping families. Without the permission of the Public Utility Commission, the cost is just written off and passed on to tax payers. The bill failed to pass the Senate by one vote.
If you, or if you know someone who is struggling to pay their utility bills, there are some resources that may be able to help. To find these resources in your county, visit http://www.puc.state.id.us/CONSUMER/counties.htm. Also if you are in a position to help, please consider checking the box on your utility bill to send a few extra dollars to the funds reserved for public assistance, or consider a donation to one the non-profit organizations that provide this assistance.
Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - Things are slow here in Boise, so this will be a very brief update. We are still two weeks away from beginning to set budgets. We are waiting for the Governor to re-address the legislature with a revised budget in light of the money Idaho will be receiving from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. I expect his proposal will include recommendation on how to use the stimulus money, as well as a proposal on what reserve funds we can use to shore up Idaho’s budgets.
The Governor is still working on getting his package of transportation bills passed. All week the Governor’s staff has been working with the House Transportation and Defense Committee, of which I am a member, but still no compromise has been reached. It is possible that if a compromise is reached it may mean less of an increase in gas taxes and less of an increase in registration fees.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents during Week 7 of the 2009 Idaho Legislature. If you would like to receive regular updates from your legislators - Democrat or Republican - be sure to let them know.
Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - As many of you are aware, the proposal to raise taxes on beer and wine to pay for alcohol and drug abuse was presented and debated this week. I heard from many of you on this issue and I appreciate your feedback. After three days of listening to public comment, the Revenue and Taxation Committee, of which I am a member, voted against this bill: 13 against and 5 in favor. I was one of the legislators who voted “no” on this bill.
Although I strongly support treatment programs for substance abuse, I simply could not vote to raise these taxes on small businesses in our community at a time when they are struggling to survive one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. The testimony presented at the hearing clearly showed the need to adequately fund treatment programs, and I know the industry heard the message that the Legislature expects them to be part of the solution. I hope it encourages them to come to the table when an improved bill is up for consideration.
On another note, after getting a clearer understanding of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, I am feeling more optimistic about our future here in Idaho. Like many of you, I have concerns about the cost of this package, but the money is here and Idaho has some serious needs and complex problems to solve. As we consider how to use this money, I will be pushing for projects that solve long-term problems including upgrades to sewer and water systems, as well as school remodels and renovations that will yield energy and tax savings for years to come.
In my mind, projects like these are the most efficient way to use this one-time money and stretch it out for our future through cost-savings in normal general fund expenditures. Although we are not out of the woods yet economically, I have incredible confidence in the ability of Idahoans to face adverse situations and come out triumphant and better than before. This will prove to be the case yet again. Yes, we are facing hard times and, yes, this recession may be longer than any of us initially thought, but I agree with President Obama, “We will rebuild, we will recover and we will emerge stronger than we were before."
Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Some days I walk myself to the statehouse in the dark, sit attentive through long committees, ask unwelcome questions, end up the sole no or yes vote on a bill, look at the long list of evening events we are supposed to attend and wonder what I am doing. I forget how many kind people have written to tell me how much better it makes them feel that I am here. I forget that on occasion I do make a change that affects lives, I give voice to what isn't heard or those who will be harmed. And that is something.
It is hard though.
Today when we heard a simple bill to mandate that insurance companies cover "elemental formula" as if it were medicine so that kids (whose lives depend on eating this formula instead of food) can afford it and can stay alive. So that you know, some kids can't eat regular food. At about two months their bodies reject their mother's milk and if they are lucky their doctor figures it out and puts them on special formula and then about 1/3 of them get better quickly, another bunch get better in a year or two and a very few need the formula for life.
But Idaho insurance companies don't cover this stuff. And after today's vote they still won't. ...
I sat there today and listened to those parents' stories. I can only ask what kind of nation makes people lose everything because someone in their family is sick? What kind of government tells them to get a divorce so they can maybe qualify for Medicaid so their child does not die? What kind of state makes people go through this? Run up tens of thousands on their credit cards, sell everything? What kind of people refuse to do anything because the insurance company lobbyists are really nice people and they promise us things if we will only agree not to make them do what they don't want to.
I'm disgusted because we have no backbone, because I work in one of the few places where we COULD fix some of what is wrong with healthcare and we won't. I'm disgusted because I work in one of the few places in the state where the people I work with mostly don't seem to think there is anything wrong with insurance companies or the way health care works. Or worse, they use how broken the system is to agree to do nothing at all. (See Nicole's blog here.)
Rep. Brian Cronin (District 19) - ... Renewable Energy: I am co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Wendy Jaquet that will expand a property tax exemption currently extended to wind and geothermal energy producers to other forms of renewable energy (solar, biomass, landfill gas). The Revenue and Tax Committee agreed to print this bill last week.
Parents as Teachers: This is a highly effective program that operated in Idaho successfully for a number of years and was then suddenly and unjustifiably cut by Gov. Otter in 2007. This international program has proven successful in improving parenting practices, detecting developmental delays and health issues, increasing the school readiness and scholastic success of children, and preventing child abuse. This bill, which I’ve been working on with Rep. Branden Durst, will statutorily create the authority to re-establish this program, with the hopes that federal money and grants will be available to make it a reality.
Daycare Regulation: I strongly support SB 1112, sponsored by Rep. George Sayler (D-4) and Sen Tim Corder (R-22). This bill seeks to extend basic licensing and safety provisions to daycare facilities that care for 5-12 children. As a preschool owner, I have provided thes sponsors with input, which has made its way into the bill. And I plan to testify when the bill is heard in the Senate Health & Welfare Committee. This issue has been before the Legislature many times before and it has failed to act. This is an issue of protecting our children and it's time that our Legislature get on board. Fuel Mix Disclosure: This bill would have required utility companies to inform their customers of the sources of fuel (coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, etc.) by percentage on a semi-annual "bill stuffer." Strong opposition from utility companies meant I ultimately did not present the bill, though it appears the utilities have already gotten more serious about disclosing this information to consumers. ... (see Brian's blog here and watch one parent's story about Idaho day-care safety here.)
Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - I remain firm that I will vote “no” on raising fuel tax and registration fees at this time when families are hurting. We heard that Micron will lay off another 2000 employees—many live in my district. With the stimulus bill giving the average worker more money in his/her pocket, raising fuel taxes and registration fees at this time would effectively take some of that tax break away from those workers. Plus, all the stimulus money for transportation will keep the Idaho Department of Transportation plenty busy. ...
... I have received a lot of email about the increase on beer and wine tax bill. That bill failed in committee by 13 to 5. I have also heard about two education bills HB 117 and HB 118. HB 117 is being redrafted but may come out as a completely different bill. ... ... My largest endeavor is a rewrite of the Mobile Home Landlord Tenant act. It is dead for this year but two Republican legislators agree that this is an important issue and want to help me with future legislation. My plan is to draft a piece of legislation around each section/idea of the Act and let the committee debate several bills instead of just the one. Based on all the press that this issue is getting, I believe that this is a really important issue and is supported by many people and organizations.
We (there are five of us) have rewritten the Local Option Authority bill. We cannot seem to get this introduced. It is a sales and use tax that needs to be approved by 2/3 of the voters and absolutely NO constitutional amendment. It has been drafted with co-sponsors Rep. Grant Burgoyne, Rep Bill Killen, Rep Leon Smith and Rep. Elfreda Higgins.