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.