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.