Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Misplaced priorities, missed opportunities

In a response to the governor's State of the State message, Idaho Democratic leaders today questioned Gov. Butch Otter's priorities in seeking tax hikes for transportation while making deep cuts to public education.

House Minority Leader John Rusche said that Democrats recognize that the economy is in crisis and that state government must tighten its belt just as Idaho families and businesses are having to do.

But Democrats said the current fiscal crisis has been compounded by years of inertia from the legislative majority. "A year ago, we stood here and spoke about the 'do-nothing legislature of 2007' and how it left town with few real solutions to the serious problems facing Idaho," Rusche said. "Well, in 2008 the legislature again failed to address our most pressing problems. Last fall, however, our chronically unfinished business collided with the worst economic downturn in decades, and now the crisis we all face is much worse. This year, as the Governor said, the legislature must take responsibility to preserve critical services for Idaho families and empower people to decide their own futures."

Democrats called on the legislature to reconsider using only 35 percent of the state's emergency funds, especially if using the money now could help the recession be "shallower and shorter," according to Rep. James Ruchti, Assistant House Minority Leader.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader Kate Kelly gave examples of misplaced priorities within the budget holdbacks made so far, as well as in the governor's 2010 proposal. "For example, was it wise for the Idaho Tax Commission – at a time of plummeting revenues – to lay off 65 employees who were chasing after tax cheats? Is it wise to slash the Department of Commerce budget at a time when we need to attract new jobs and keep the ones we have? Is it smart to ask Idahoans to pay more for road maintenance while cutting school resources, the best engine we have for our future economic security?"

"The Governor’s proposed budget is a lose-lose for the people of Idaho – cutting education and healthcare while raising taxes to fill potholes. In these troubled economic times it is just plain wrong," Rusche said. "It’s wrong for Idaho’s struggling economy and its wrong for struggling Idaho families and businesses. Our goal this session will be to help our colleagues in the Majority face the issues responsibly. We will encourage the state to use Idaho taxpayer dollars for their highest and best use. We will not sacrifice our state’s long-term future for short-term gain, nor will we turn away ready resources that can equip Idahoans with the tools we need to quickly pull out of this recession."

"Taking responsibility also includes trusting the people," Kelly added. "Why can’t the legislature trust Idaho’s citizens and local communities to decide for themselves what local road and transportation projects to fund? Like most Idahoans, we believe in local control, local decisions and local responsibility. It’s time for this legislature to remove this roadblock to local road projects and approve local option authority without an unneeded and unwise Constitutional amendment."

Democrats also noted that the governor paid scant attention to energy and economic development in his remarks. "We are far behind our neighboring states, which are much better positioned to take advantage of the coming new energy economy with good, high wage jobs that will reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil tyrants while growing our economy," Kelly noted.

"The governor also didn’t say much about the need to extend broadband to rural communities where unemployment rates are running as high as 10 percent above the state average. These are areas that deserve our attention now," Rusche said. "If we can use this current crisis as a time to draw the players together and face these long-neglected issues, our communities and families will emerge stronger from this recession."