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.