Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Week 6: Legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents during Week 6 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. John Rusche (District 7) - The daylight is getting longer and so are the days. We seem to have hit "reset" with regards to the budget with the new Economic Recovery Act.

President Obama signed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act and it looks like citizens in Idaho (and elsewhere) will receive some help. As I see it, about one-third of this money will be in the form of tax cuts, one-third will be for the purpose of funding shovel ready projects like building new roads, and one third will be used to backfill shortfalls in state budgets, primarily for public schools and Medicaid, the low income health plan.

Despite grumblings early in the week over whether he and the majority party would accept the help, Governor Otter has laid out a process for how to plug the economic recovery funds into our budgets. I am pleased to see that there is a reassessment of the position. Before either accepting or rejecting the money that we all have (or will) contribute in taxes, we need to know how best to use it for the families and businesses of Idaho. ...

... Governor Otter has created a "stimulus executive committee" which will guide his decisions. Each state agency will have until noon on March 4th to submit information to the Governor on how it anticipates using federal funds. After that the Governor's staff will go through the budgets and prepare a new budget proposal for approval by the Legislature. This will happen in mid-March. I am not sure if there is an opportunity to have much input in the development process.

As I said, this is basically like setting the reset button. It looks like our sine die date - the end of the legislative session - will likely be pushed into the middle of April. ...

Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - Now, in the sixth week of the session, the buzz is all about the Federal Stimulus package coming to Idaho. We have been told that Idaho may receive between $700 million and $1billion from the $787 billion stimulus law passed by congress last Tuesday. Idaho could receive a projected $300 million for Medicaid, $346 million for education, and $203 million for roads and bridges. Whether they agree with the package or not, be assured that the Idaho leadership will not turn down a penny of that money. ...
... Gov Otter will be traveling Saturday to DC to talk to Obama about Obama’s expectations of how Idaho should spend the money—wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall at that meeting? Otter will be back on Tuesday and will deliver this information along with his recommendations to a newly formed advisory committee. The advisory team includes three former governors - Cecil Andrus, John Evans and Phil Batt - and five former state budget directors. The team is equally split between Republicans and Democrats. This advisory committee will study state agency reports, consider their proposals, and provide its analysis to the governor by the close of business on March 19. The group has a lot of work to do in four weeks.

I am curious to know about the process. I know there will be a lot of letters flying back and forth from Federal agencies to Idaho. Ultimately Idaho will need to petition the federal Government for the money with an explanation of what our plans are for spending the money. I’ll let you know more next week.

As you can imagine, the prospect of an influx of new money has changed the pace of the session. All of a sudden, deadlines are not so strict and legislation that may have been put off for another session might be heard this session, and/or rewrites made. We may also have more time to lobby our colleagues about bills that we support. That’s good for me, because I have rewrites in the works for two of my bills; the “repair under warrantee bill” and my “manufactured housing” bill.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet (District 25; this is Wendy's Week 7 report, which came out today) - My experience on the Budget Committee has helped me see that the Stimulus legislation will be beneficial to the state. I wish we did not need it but with the current state of our economy - 50,000 people who are currently unemployed in Idaho and a 136% increase in our unemployment rates - I think we should take advantage of the help that has been provided to us.

You may have heard that the Governor has asked former governors to assist him in understanding the legislation. He has also tapped the former directors of the Division of Financial Management. His team will study the 1,000+ page legislation and he should have suggestions to the legislative budget committee, JFAC, by March 19. ... You can listen to (JFAC meetings) in your home by going to http://www.idahoptv.org/leglive/ and clicking on JFAC meetings on the right hand side of the page. We start at 8:30 most mornings.

There are two important guidelines that I think we need to keep in mind as we think about using these funds. The first is that we shouldn't be starting any new programs. This is short term funding, for two years, in most cases. When the stimulus money runs out, we don't want to be trying to fund a new program we can't afford.

My second guideline is to think of this money as an investment. We can invest in facilities funding for schools. We might want to invest money in making all our schools energy efficient. In the short run, the construction industry would benefit with more jobs. In the long run, the investment would have a good payback because school utility costs would decrease.

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - President Obama signed the federal economic recovery act this week. Idaho’s Republican leadership has expressed concern about the package and there were some grumblings early in the week about whether or not the Governor would accept it. We must be careful, however, about our next steps. Failure to take advantage of these funds will further harm Idaho’s economy and increase unemployment.

So far this Session, the Republican leadership’s strategy seems to have been to cut important services and raise taxes on Idaho’s families and businesses. Now they are threatening to make matters worse by threatening to refuse our share of the recovery act. If unemployment levels seem unprecedented now, this strategy will really lead us into dour economic times.

Regardless of whether or not we agree with this legislation, it will provide some relief for our State by helping to minimize unemployment and create more jobs for Idahoans. I wish we did not need it, but I believe we must be practical about using the help that has been offered. We need to protect and invest in the future of Idaho’s economy and families. It is the best opportunity we have to return to economic prosperity.

Information about the size of the recovery package and how it will be used is forthcoming. With monies from the recovery package we may be able to protect our schools from drastic budget cuts. This will help both K-12 public schools as well as Idaho State University. Besides being a major source of employment for Idahoans, education is an investment in our children’s future and in our State’s economic development and its success should be one of our top priorities.

There are no guarantees this funding package will get us back on track, but there is plenty of evidence that extraordinary measures are necessary. We need to get money in the hands of people who will use it, put Idahoans in jobs and get our economy moving again.

Rep. Elaine Smith (District 30) - The Idaho Legislature has just ended our sixth week with predictions that the Legislature is going to go until the middle of April due to stimulus discussions and setting budgets. I was a member of the 2003 longest session in Idaho Legislative history, so my goal is not to beat that record.

I am a member of State Affairs Committee, which dealt with many issues this week. House Bill 39 on state retirees insurance was held in committee. However, the compromise bill, House Bill 173, on state retirees insurance, which was endorsed by the Idaho Public Employees Association, did come out of committee with a do pass recommendation. Another bill that was very controversial last year was heard in State Affairs this week and received a positive print hearing pertaining to Midwifery licensing. For more information on this issue, go to the Idaho Legislative website, http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/, and you can read House Bill 185.

Another issue in this same committee pertained to putting the state's checkbook on-line to make government more transparent. The concept sounds fine, but I voted no in the print hearing because this searchable internet database has a $250,000 price tag. Our state does not have the money now, so I believe this isn't the time to do this project. ...

... I am the House Democrat on the Environmental Common Sense Committee which met this week on zebra and quagga mussel prevention in Idaho. These mussels have not been found in Idaho waters to date, but have been found in Electric Lake in Utah this past November, 180 miles from the Idaho border. The infestation of zebra mussel in the Great Lakes has an economic impact of more than $5 billion during a 6 year period from 1993 -99. Thus many western states are on high alert to contain, control and prevent the spread of these mussels in the West. So far, Nevada, California, Arizona, Colorado and Utah have found these species in critical water supply systems. Many Idaho agencies are working together to prevent this infestation, which would have a horrible economic impact in Idaho.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dems on the air in CdA, Magic Valley

Rep. George Sayler, a Coeur d'Alene Democrat, will be on radio station KVNI (1080 AM in North Idaho) tomorrow - Wednesday, February 18 - at 7:35 a.m. Pacific Time. Rep. Sayler is once again working to bring better child care safety standards to Idaho. His bipartisan legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Mountain Home Republican Tim Corder. Read more here.

In other radio news, the Twin Falls County Democrats have a new Wednesday slot on KLIX (1310 AM in the Magic Valley). Tune in weekly from 8:30 to 9 a.m. Mountain Time to hear local Democratic leaders talk about the issues.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Week 5: legislators' reports

Rep. John Rusche (District 7) - Remember when you had a secret Valentine? Secrets are hard to keep. In the end, it seems like almost all secrets get shared. That is true around the Statehouse too.

One secret related to the state's revenue numbers for the month of January, 2009. Rumors floated around the statehouse that the actual revenues for January are as high as $30 - $35 million short of what was projected. But no one really wanted to admit the truth and said to keep the estimate "quiet." It was sort of silly, given that the number was published in the Idaho Statesman, the Boise newspaper. ...

... The second secret relates to a bill that makes major changes in public school funding and policy. A group (comprised of legislators, the Dept of Education and other stakeholders) worked on a plan to find savings in the school budget while continuing to provide quality education. While the group was toiling away, a proposal was released by the Speaker, President Pro Tem, and the Education Chairs that went way beyond what was necessary, and I believe, could have seriously affected our schools and kids.

These bills (H117 and H118) were to have hearings on Monday, but after significant blowback (and realization that the drastic approach might not be necessary after all if the economic recovery money for education comes through), the Chairs reconsidered and will likely return to work with the stakeholders. I think that is the right approach. We really are all in this financial crisis together. We shouldn't do permanent damage for what is likely to be a short term problem.

... I have submitted bills on payday loans, expanding health insurance coverage (a bit) and a resolution supporting the proposed fiber optic connection between Riggins and Grangeville.

Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - Now, in the fifth week of the session, we are beginning to deal with legislation that is more controversial and substantive. On Tuesday, the Governor brought 5 bills to raise revenue for roads and bridges. The Democrats remain firm and will not vote to increase taxes on Idaho families. I voted to introduce the proposed bills out of respect for the governor, but I will not vote to raise gas tax and registration fees, especially in light of the fact that there is no local option tax allowed. Our bill for local option is waiting in the wings, so to speak—we have it ready and can introduce when the time is right. All of the “new money” from these bills would be put in a special fund called “Idaho Highway, Bridge, and Railroad Crossing” (IHBRC) fund and only be used to repair roads and bridges. ...

... In State Affairs, there was testimony about the legislation from the governor’s office to remove retired state employees from state health care plan. We have about 13,000 retirees and most have already moved to Medicare plus a supplemental since it is less expensive. However, about 400 remain on the state plan because they need the pharmaceutical portion.

I believe that most of the retirees were promised health care benefits throughout their careers and it is unfair for the state to change its policy now. Rep. JoAn Wood (R-Rigby) testified that she had paid into this plan for 27 years and had been promised full health care benefits when she retired. She opposes this legislation. Some private employers have made this same policy change, but when the private employers do it they usually offer an incentive for the employees. ...

I have 8 pieces of legislation that I am working on. My largest endeavor is a rewrite of the Mobile Home Landlord Tenant act. We have completed our meetings with the residents and owners. I am on the agenda to introduce the legislation on Tuesday in the Business committee. We (there are four of us) have rewritten the Local Option Authority bill and are showing it to interested groups. We will make it 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, but we are waiting for the right moment to introduce it.

Rep. Brian Cronin (District 19, from Brian's blog, Citizen Idaho) - On a day when we saw troubling news come out of the House Education Committee, the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee made the right call on a key issue for the Treasure Valley on Thursday.

In 2004, Sen. David Langhorst (D-Boise) and Rep. Mark Snodgrass (R-Meridian) joined forces to combat what was a growing problem in our region: deteriorating air quality that posed growing health risks to the public. After countless public meetings, task forces, iterations of bills, and real compromise forged over the course of four years, these two distinguished legislators got the bill passed. This was the critical step needed in recognizing that Canyon County is in the same air shed as Ada County, where vehicle emissions testing is already in place.

H482 gave the DEQ the authority to set up an emissions testing program in air sheds that are approaching federal non-attainment. The Treasure Valley has been dangerously close to non-attainment--it's only due to a confluence of favorable meteorological phenomena and last year's record gas prices that we were able to avert the designation.

Urgent action is needed to avoid the crippling sanctions that will stifle economic development if we fail to meet federal standards and the EPA takes over management of air quality. As I argued today in committee, this is why the region's Chambers of Commerce backed the bill. During a severe economic downturn, the last thing we need is to handicap local businesses by restricting our ability to grow and expand our transportation infrastructure. DEQ Director Toni Hardesty spelled it out clearly for a group of legislators back in December: once we hit non-attainment, the sanctions will go into effect and remain in effect for 20 years, despite whatever efforts we subsequently pursue to address the problem. ... (more here)

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19; from Nicole's blog, Notes from the Floor) - I walked into the House chairmen's suite Wednesday. I know "suite" sounds grand, but really it is a back corner area with cubicles where the Republican chairs of all the House Committees have their "offices." ... I found the two good Ladies from District 35, Lenore Barrett and JoAn Wood. Rep. Wood Chairs the house Transportation Committee and Rep. Barrett from my old home, Custer County, Chairs the Local Government Committee. ...

The two were sharing memories from the great depression. JoAn was just a girl but remembers licking the ration stamps and sticking them on the little cards. You needed full cards and money to buy your rations. They talked about the rations of sugar, shoes and gas.

The conversation led to box stores and the little local stores in their communities going out of business now.

This is not an every day scene, but it is. JoAn is the legislature's longest serving member. What she has seen and heard would fill books. Yet I realize even she remembers only echoes of the last time the economy took such a loss. We are in unknown waters trying to decide what of state government we need to fund and what we can do without.

This could be as bad as it gets. Or it might not be. The not knowing is what makes me cautious. Those who feel confident about a quick recovery may not agonize so much. But some of us will. This legislative session is just beginning. There is lots more to be seen. Lot's more struggling over conflicting realities, conflicting images of what's possible.

Unlike in the 30's we have a social welfare system. We are built to keep our nation's people from hunger. As long as we each remain generous, as long as we grow enough food in our collective American farm lands and can get our nation down from the endless war to a place of relative peace, we can survive anything. That's what I believe.

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - ... With unemployment rates at an all time high and a struggling state economy, one of our biggest tasks this legislative session will be to protect Idaho's public schools from severe budget cuts. Not only are schools an important source of jobs for many Idahoans, our schools are crucial to economic development. My fear is that in the process of trying to balance the education budgets, certain legislators are proposing legislation which may inflict permanent damages to solve a temporary problem.

Despite the fact that a bi-partisan working group made of Democrats, Republicans and education stakeholders has been working on a compromise bill with Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna and the chairs of the Senate and House Education Committees, far-reaching legislation was proposed this week which will harm our public schools.

House Education Chairman Nonini (R-Couer D' Alene) is proposing a package of bills (H117 and H118) that roll back the authority of local school districts by several decades, essentially removing much of the authority they currently enjoy in managing their local affairs and freezing it in statute. ... The biggest problems with these bills are that they provide permanent statutory changes for a temporary problem. If passed, these proposals will remain in place even when our economy and revenues recover in the near future. What is even more worrisome is that these changes are being pushed at a time when the economic recovery package is on the cusp of being signed by President Obama. We shouldn't be making hasty changes for their own sake. We must consider how the recovery act will change the landscape for education budgets.

Over the next week, I will be working with other legislators and education stakeholders on alternatives to these bills. As we do so, we will be seeking compromise that allows Idaho to continue to provide quality education to our children and keeps Idahoans in their jobs.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Make your voice heard on education cuts

Update 2/16 - The hearings on possible cuts to education have been delayed as lawmakers assess the potential impact of the federal recovery money on Idaho's budget situation. Read coverage here and here about two bills introduced last week that threaten to use the current short-term crisis to do permanent damage to education.


In the face of upcoming hearings on cuts to public education, Idaho Democratic lawmakers this week urged Idahoans to contact state officials with ideas on how to minimize those cuts and preserve future opportunities for our state.

The Idaho Legislature’s House and Senate Education Committees plan three days of joint hearings February 16-18 to talk about budget cuts to public education and possibly enact legislation to allow those cuts. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna recently outlined $62 million in cuts for fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1, and he has said that deeper cuts may be necessary.

“Education is the best and most powerful road to economic opportunity,” House Minority Leader John Rusche said. “Yet it’s a road we won’t be able to travel if we make drastic cuts to public schools and higher education during this downturn.”

Democratic lawmakers have been showing leadership by meeting with superintendents, teachers and school boards statewide to learn how local communities will be affected by the education funding issue, and they are urging Idaho citizens to have their say as well. Luna has a “suggestion box” (http://www.sde.idaho.gov/site/forms/SchoolsBudgetComments/default.asp) on the Department of Education website seeking public input on education funding, and citizens may want to use that and calls to state lawmakers to remind officials that amid the current recession, the Legislature and Department of Education must:

· Use any educational funding available in the federal recovery package. We cannot afford to pass it up.
· Use a greater portion of the rainy-day funds that Idaho taxpayers put away for times like these. It’s raining now.
· Focus on teachers and classrooms. Now is the time to forgo unnecessary testing and administrative burdens.
· Consider a temporary moratorium on new charter schools, rather than raising the cap on how many new charter schools may open each year.
· Make any major changes temporary so that they can be examined when we are not “under the gun.”
· Grant maximum flexibility to local school districts to address local needs.
· Remember that the Idaho Constitution has two important mandates: that the Legislature balance the state budget and “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools."

“Like all Idahoans, we understand the need for fiscal responsibility at this time,” Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly said. “But we must guard against deep cuts that will result in a sharp decline in overall educational services. We need to remember that educational opportunity is the single best way Idaho can attract and keep good jobs during the downturn and once the recession is over.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Week 4: Legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents during Week 4 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. John Rusche (District 7) - The discussion on how to fund K-12 education has started. Unfortunately, significant cuts to our public school budget have been proposed; the governor proposed a budget cut of $80 million in his State of the State Address last month. The Superintendent has proposed $60 million in lower spending for next year, and using more of the reserve funds. It is a sad dilemma-- to fulfill constitutional duty to balance the budget and still fulfill our duty to our children's future. As best we can, Democrats in the Legislature will push to protect classroom teaching and work to give local schools discretion and flexibility to let them best meet each individual community's needs.

I am working on a bill to extend health insurance coverage for some people under age 25. Currently, people who are under 25, are financially dependent on their parents, and are also full-time students are can have coverage under their parents' health insurance plan. This bill would amend the law to make it so that being enrolled as a full-time student is not a requirement to have coverage. This will provide some relief to individuals losing coverage in this economy.

Rep. Sue Chew (District 17) - With the downturn in the economy, we depend more and more on our safety net for healthcare in our communities, the community free clinics. While we can meet the growing need by getting more health providers to donate their services at the clinic—it’s still a big cost! Medications are the main budgetary cost for these small clinics. The proposal would allow pharmacies, hospitals, nursing homes, other licensed medical facilities, and drug manufacturers, to donate unused medications to charitable clinics such as The Friendship Clinic operated from the All Saints Episcopal Church which resides within the borders of District 17 on the corner of Latah St. and Cassia St.

The donated medications would be subject to certain rules: they must be in the original sealed package, and the donation date must be more than 6 months prior to the expiration date. Of course, medication would only be given out based on a valid prescription. While this seems to be a straightforward and beneficial proposal - getting medication to those who can least afford it, at reduced or no cost - its implications need to be fully examined. That’s why it’s important to approach this collaboratively. Rep. Chew will be presenting the proposal to the State Board of Pharmacy this week.

Sen. Elliot Werk (District 17) - According to numerous studies – including a recent one from the National Safety Council, the use of a cell phone while driving – even if hands-free - dramatically increases the likelihood an accident. The study, from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis, states that 6 percent of traffic accidents (or 636,000 accidents) occur each year because someone is using a cell phone. The study concluded that 330,000 people are injured and 2,600 people die as a result of these cell phone related accidents. In addition, many studies have shown that driving while texting (referred to as driving while intexticated) is completely irresponsible.

I have two pieces of legislation that I am co-sponsoring with Senator Les Bock. The first, SB-1030, prohibits the use of a cell phone while driving unless it is used hands-free. The second, SB-1031, prohibits a driver from sending a text message while driving (with some exceptions for emergencies and emergency responders). We were refused even a hearing to print these bills (i.e., turn them into a piece of legislation) so we submitted them as personal bills (we skipped the committee print hearing process). Now we are working on the chairman of the Transportation Committee (Sen. John McGee) to get a fair hearing of the bill - including public testimony. Please let me know what you think of these proposals. Your opinion is valuable to me (and was one of the factors that moved me to bring this to the legislature).

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) From Nicole's blog, Notes from the Floor - ... we have created a hollow economy, one built on fiction, on money none of us have, money that is promised against debt large enough to consume more wages than we may ever earn in a life time. And that is just the personal debt. Medical expenses, balloon mortgages, loans for new more fuel efficient cars, home equity loans, and everything from groceries to nick knacks stacking up on credit cards. The average person owes more than $10,000 in personal debt. That's the average. That means most Americans own nothing, or that someone else owns most or all of what we live in, eat off of or sleep on. It is a disturbing thought. Who owns it and can they take it back?

As a nation we have waged two wars on trillions borrowed from other nations. Dollars that a President and previous Congress pretended we had to spend. We have allowed American companies to manufacture everything elsewhere or to sell us nothing but goods entirely made by other countries. Our dollars flow out to buy little plastic plug-in fans that make rooms smell like lilacs, accent tables and CD holders made for pennies by children using whole forests of foreign trees. We pay dollars and companies owned by shareholders on several continents earn the rest. Our wages flow out of our communities for insurance premiums and every daily necessity, staying only in tiny portions for the hamburger flipper, the bus driver, the nurse, the teacher, the shop keeper. Local stores are shuttered and dark and their owners who once slaved for a decent wage, work now for people they don't know and will never meet, in a chain store selling goods from far, far away.

Our factories still stand there, and people who know how to run them are still alive because much of this has happened in the past eight years. We could fix this. Not by outlawing or taxing foreign imports but by recreating a sense of pride in what we make and a sense that our very survival depends on our buying what our communities produce. ... (Read more here.)

Rep. Wendy Jaquet (District 25) - Two weeks ago I toured the Corrections facilities with Director Brent Reinke and legislators. We looked at both the public and private facilities. On February 2, there were 7,245 inmates in the system. This is 600 less than projected for this time period. Prisoners have been returned from out-of-state and it is anticipated that the final out-of-staters will be back this spring or summer. Due to these reductions, the Corrections Department returned $4 million dollars back to the general fund and they are projecting further savings next year. Director Reinke says there is no silver bullet that he can point to for this success, but he does point to the following as achieving a reduced offender population growth:
• Over 1000 program completions: treatment pathways guide inmate movement according to program needs and coordinate treatment resources more effectively so that when inmates are eligible for release they are ready to go;
• An increase in parole releases;
• Fewer admissions to prison: more community-based diversions;
• Coordination of treatment dollars, Office of Drug Policy, Idaho Council on Substance Abuse;
• A decrease in probation violations;
• Misdemeanor probation training;
• Problem solving courts: mental health and drug courts;
• More partnering among agencies through the Criminal Justice Commission.
The Corrections budget growth has been a cause for concern for legislative budget writers. The Corrections Department has been taking funding from colleges and universities, k-12 education and health and welfare budgets. The above changes and success mark a new direction for the state!

Senator Jon Thorson (District 25, sitting in for Clint Stennett) - This week, the legislature has been considering legislation from the Governor’s office to reorganize some of our state agencies. For example, one bill moved the veteran education services outside of the Department of Education and into the Division of Veteran Services, so that veterans can go to this division for all their requests. Other bills have moved commissions outside of the State Board of Education, many of which have been running their own show for many years, such as the Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Historical Society.

Admittedly such legislation will have little impact on our daily lives, yet these changes permit agencies to be more focused on their core responsibilities and helps improve services offered to the public. The agency transitions have zero costs and may actually save the state money in the long run by increasing agency efficiency. While a few of these proposals still have to go through the process, those that have passed the Senate, I have voted for and am impressed with. Anticipation is in the air as legislators and administrators wait to see how Congress will act on the President and Congress’s economic stimulus plan.

The target date for a set budget to be presented to the House is March 13, but depending on the actions taken in our nation’s capitol that date may be pushed farther back. Working with the federal government may be essential for providing the necessary services to Idahoans over the coming years.

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - With this bleak economic outlook, the State Legislature is facing the prospect of serious budget cuts in order to balance the State's budget as is required by Idaho's constitution. With job losses on the rise, State revenues will continue to struggle because fewer revenues will come to the State through sales and income taxes. As your legislator, I have worked hard to be fiscally responsible. Unfortunately, that may not be enough this year.

The Legislature is going to have to make some tough decisions about where to cut. My guiding principle as we make these decisions, however, is that every effort must be made to keep Idahoans in their jobs. State budget cuts which result in lay-offs have a multi-faceted detrimental impact. First, they increase the number of our neighbors who will need to rely on State services at a time when those services are also being cut. Second, lay-offs compound our budget problems by decreasing the amount of money being spent throughout the State, thereby decreasing sales tax revenues. Third, lay-offs result in decreased income tax revenues. Fourth, they increase the amount the State must pay in unemployment benefits.

As the work of setting budgets continues, it is imperative that legislators keep these considerations in mind. Budget cuts that result in putting Idahoans out of a job should not be an option, especially when we do not yet know the status of the federal stimulus package.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Seeking guest worker solutions

By Rep. Donna Pence

I serve on the House Agricultural Committee, which heard a presentation this week by the Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform. The coalition is comprised primarily of agriculture groups representing dairy and farm organizations that rely on immigrants to harvest crops, perform field work and milk cows. However, food processors, construction and the general business community also are involved in the coalition.

Much of the discussion concerned the H-2A Program, the only one available to bring in workers. There are 29 types of visas which allow people to come into the country. The H-A2 is the type most agriculture employers use. In it prospective employers are required to advertise the job first to local workers. If no one applies, then they can petition to begin the process of securing H-2A workers. Often this process take 45 days or longer.

Briefly the positive aspects the H-A2 program are:
1. Provides an adequate supply of seasonal workers at known terms and conditions of employment.
2. Benefits alien workers by providing a legal regulated way to work in the United States where their services are needed.
3. Assures U.S. workers have preference to farm jobs before workers are brought in.

Problems associated with the program:
1. Employers decline to take on the challenges of the paperwork involved in the process
2. H-2A labor certifications are often issued late, resulting in delays in approving visa applicants making workers arrive late, which often proves disastrous to perishable crops.
3. The program is designed for crop agriculture and does not take in to account the growing animal agriculture industries where work is year round.
4. Employers have no guarantee that experienced trained workers will be allowed to return to the farm in succeeding years.

Another problem involved is the E-Verify system recently put in place to electronically compare employee information on Form I-9 (a form workers fill out) to information taken from Social Security, as well as Citizenship and Immigration Services records of all new hires in businesses which participate in the system. Some states have made E-Verify mandatory for businesses and others are considering doing so. At present, there are a number of bugs in this electronic system designed to identify persons in this country illegally. This constitutes a definite burden on small businesses as well as legal residents of the U.S.

According to the coalition, employers in Idaho want to hire a qualified, dependable and legal workforce. They can, however, only hire those who apply for the jobs. Right now in agriculture the traditional domestic worker is not applying for employment in the Ag sector. The vast majority of the applicants are immigrants – legal or not.

The intent of the coalition is to promote debate of reforming the guest worker programs in the U.S. They have been traveling around the state since the first of the year discussing with employers the need for immigrant labor and how to improve the availability of such labor while insuring citizens first crack if they so choose.

This is an incredibly complicated issue and one that elicits a wide range of emotional reactions. I applaud the efforts of this coalition of businesses to seek rational discussion on this issue.

Pence, a Gooding Democrat, represents District 25 in the House of Representatives

Monday, February 2, 2009

Week 3: Legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents during Week 3 in 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. Shirley Ringo (District 6) - I have spent some painful days on the Joint Finance Committee (JFAC) as we discuss reductions in the Idaho budget to respond to Idaho’s slow economy. Proposed reductions involve cutting support to struggling families, individuals suffering from cystic fibrosis, individuals suffering from epilepsy, severe cuts to higher education, public education, etc. It’s hard to think of raising fees for much needed work on highways and bridges with so many people losing jobs. I am happy to see Congress moving towards a stimulus package that should give a certain amount of relief. The notion of the economic stimulus is not unanimous (especially among the Idaho delegation), but I hope my colleagues in the Idaho Legislature will agree to use the opportunity to assist vulnerable citizens, protect education, and stimulate the economy.

Sen. Elliot Werk (District 17) - The story of the 2009 legislative session is lower revenue and how to balance the budget while maintaining critical services like education, worker retraining, economic development, and healthcare for the truly needy. It will be a very difficult balancing act to set the correct priorities and allocate funds accordingly. ... Over the last six years the legislature has wisely developed some rainy day funds. The balances of these funds total over $300 million. Governor Otter’s budget uses only 35% of these funds even though his own economic projections show an easing of the recession in the middle of the 2010 budget year (that year ends 18 months from now in July of 2010). The prudent and wise use of these funds is essential to maintaining critical services in 2010 and into the 2011 budget year. Right now the legislature is evaluating the Governor’s budget, trying to estimate what the FY 2010 revenues will be, determining what level of rainy day fund use is appropriate, finding ways to cut budgets while still maintaining critical services, and evaluating the best way to position Idaho for a quick recovery when this recession ends.

Rep. Brian Cronin (District 19, writing January 28 at his blog, Citizen Idaho) - The House Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee (on which I sit) met for four hours today, taking testimony on two controversial administrative rules. In the end, the Republican committee members voted to side with industry (and against the public interest, in my mind)--favoring a permanent groundwater exemption for the mining industry and joining the Realtors Association in rejecting a rule that would have brought septic system design standards into the modern age. The problem with the groundwater rule is that in allowing miners to contaminate groundwater for a designated area in perpetuity, you create the risk of that contaminated water eventually migrating outside the points of compliance, thereby posing a public health concern. ... With respect to septic systems, the DEQ was seeking to upgrade the septic drain fields dimensions/design parameters to correspond to today's typical household wastewater flow. Approximately 1 in 7 septic systems in Idaho are undersized--not large enough to accommodate the effluent flows that they're handling. ... In discussing the technicalities of this rule, we seemed to lose sight of the impetus behind the rule--protecting public health and clean water. It seems logical that septic system standards need to be revised from time to time, as we do with building and electric codes, in response to changing times and increased consumption and demands on such systems. I asked the DEQ representative how Idaho compares to other states; we learned that Idaho has the lowest standards in the country. ... (more here)

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - The Legislature is in its third week and the economic news gets grimmer each day. Twelve thousand jobs were lost in December, increasing the state's unemployment rate to 6.6%. As we face this economic downturn, our focus needs to be directed towards how to keep existing jobs and create new jobs for Idahoans, as well as economic development. Idaho's public schools are crucial to economic development and Democrats in the Idaho Legislature are working to minimize cuts to Idaho's Kindergarten through 12th grade budgets. Lost revenues this year have been replaced with a portion of the reserve ("rainy-day") funds to stabilize budgets. In order to balance the budget for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, as is required by Idaho's Constitution, it is estimated that we will need to make up about $80 to $120 million. As a result, the Legislature is going to have to make some very difficult decisions. My priority is to keep teachers in the classroom and to keep Idahoans in their jobs. Education is one of the keys to economic development in our state and although budgets must be cut we should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Cuts to the Department of Education that are not done with precision and care will result in a long-term detrimental impact to our youth and Idaho's economic stability.