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.