Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Week 10: legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents about Week 10 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) - What many have called our “going home” bill failed on the House Floor last week. After close to two hours of debate, the Governor’s proposal (H246) to raise fuel taxes by 30 percent over the next three years failed by a vote of 27-43. This was a tough vote. The arguments in favor of the bill were well articulated and I agree that Idaho’s roads need ongoing funding for maintenance. At the same time, I just can’t justify raising taxes on Idaho families in these difficult economic times.

The other transportation bill proposed by the Governor, H247, which proposes increases in vehicle registration fees, was pulled last week. There were numerous errors in the bill and there were also concerns that the bill did not receive any hearing in the House Transportation Committee. Over the next week or two, I expect that we will see several new revenue-raising bills to help pay for road maintenance. The Governor has made transportation his #1 priority for this legislative session and if he does not see some headway, I expect the Governor may get out his veto stamp.

Governor Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna are proposing to cut the public education budgets by $110 million for Fiscal Year 2010. This is in funding for staff as well as transportation (field trips and daily busing), textbooks, school maintenance funding (interesting, we can cut money to maintain schools but need to raise taxes for roads). Education is key to our State’s future. Cutting public school funding while saving both stimulus money and our own Education Reserve Fund seems shortsighted. When the school tax shifted from property tax to our general fund (sales and income tax), we set up the Public School Stabilization Fund with $100 million just in case those tax revenues fell short. It does not seem wise to refuse to use this rainy day fund now. Isn’t it why the fund was set up?

Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - ... In the tenth week of the session, JFAC (Joint Finance Appropriations Committee) is working hard to hear all the agency rewrites of each budget with the Stimulus Money in mind. Education is one of the more important budgets to me. They used about $80 million of PESF (Public Education Stabilization Fund), but then, last Wednesday, they replaced that money with Stimulus money. So the PESF has not been touched and if we can get the governor and superintendant to agree, we will use it in 2010 and 2011. ... In the debate about an increase in the gas tax, the Democrats brought up the fact that the Governor’s transportation bills raise $61.8 million for roads and bridges and yet he is cutting $62 million from education. We think that demonstrates the governor’s priorities.

By the way, the gas tax bill to increase gas tax by 3¢ in July 2009, 2¢ in 2010 and 2¢ in 2011, failed to make it out of the house by 27 to 43. There were major flaws in the registration fee increase bill and it was pulled back. We may see a new registration fee bill on Tuesday in transportation. The fuel tax saga continues with the Governor threatening to put the GARVEE road projects into the stimulus money instead of funding the eight projects already identified.

Many organizations, cities, and counties applied for other Federal Stimulus money. They worked hard to get their applications to the Governor to meet his deadline last week. Unfortunately, they were not considered. I feel badly that expectations were so high and deflated so quickly!

Rep. Branden Durst (District 18) - I am pleased to announce that my joint effort, HB 84, with Rep. Donna Pence (D-25B) was passed out of the House on Friday by a vote of 57 to 7, with 6 legislators absent.

The bill, for those of you that don't know, will allow parents of children that turn five years old after September 1st and attend a private kindergarten, to continue on to 1st grade so long as they can pass an assessment that is approved by the State Department of Education. It also provides a new safeguard for children that attend an out-of-state kindergarten that turned five after September 1st by requiring them to also take the assessment to demonstrate they are prepared to enter first grade.

Really, this is a pretty small change that will impact less than a few dozen students a year. The most classic example is one that I coincidentally heard of yesterday while visiting my doctor. He has a son that was born on September 2nd, one day too late. Under the current law his son has to wait another year or commute to an out-of-state private kindergarten if he wants to start first grade next year with the rest of his peer group. What's worse is his son is very big for his age and will likely dwarf the other children when he starts kindergarten in the fall. Anyway, this is a good change and hopefully parents will feel more empowered to do the right thing for their children.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - ... This morning we had to make a decision we have been putting off while the world adjusted to what the more than one billion in stimulus funding will mean. We had to decide how much to cut state employee pay. There were seven motions or proposals. In the heat of the attic in this big old cement and stone building anything seemed possible. As we passed out the motion sheets in that room that used to be part of the county jail, the options seemed to contract.

By the time we got to our committee room in front of the cameras our choices were down to three. Three bad motions made on the table in that comparatively cold and empty room. All three motions proposed to cut state employee costs by 5 percent. The worst one of these passed. It cut every state employee’s pay by 3 percent and then mandated 2 percent more in employee cost be cut through furloughs, keeping positions vacant and if necessary through layoffs.

The House members were lock step for this motion and its 3% salary reduction and 5 percent net cut in personnel funding. Why in any rational way they would want that, I do not know. We could have given more room for agencies to use furloughs more or vacant positions. We could have used dedicated funds or stimulus funds to keep it at 4 percent or even 3 percent total personnel cuts. But leadership in the House has been twisting arms for weeks. I’m not sure what any state employee ever did to them or if it is just that those particular Republican leaders need to keep hating government, even when government is our tax dollars, people’s jobs, people’s lives. ... more at Nicole's blog

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - It was nice to see some of you over the weekend at our Legislative Listening Tour. We were discussing legislative issues that are affecting you at home and it was good to get feedback from our constituents. ... On a good note, SB1100, which proposed a statewide franchise for cable operators has been pulled by the bill's sponsor as a result of comments from many of you as well as hard work by Representative Elaine Smith. Currently, in order to receive the right to use the public right-of-way for cable infrastructure, companies must negotiate a franchise with local cities and counties. This bill proposed that one franchise be granted by the State for operation throughout the State. The main concern regarding SB1100 was the impact it would have on public access channels. This bill would have limited a local community's ability to request that cable companies provide public access channels. There were also concerns that the bill would result in lost revenues for operating public access channels.

As a preview to what is coming up this week, a daycare licensing bill (S1112aa) will be considered by the House this week. This legislation already passed in the Senate by an overwhelming majority. If passed by the House, the measure would require licensing of all day-care operations that care for four or more unrelated children. It would set minimum standards including criminal background checks, health and fire safety inspections, and child-staff ratios. Some of you attended the town hall meeting I held a few months ago on this topic. I think this is good legislation and I will be voting for it. These are the bare minimum standards the State should be setting to ensure that our children are safe.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bad education legislation: the sequel?

The week before last, it appeared that a bipartisan panel had drafted acceptable compromise education legislation to help Idaho through the economic downturn. Here's a post that Rep. Liz Chavez, a member of the panel, wrote March 11. Now, however, it appears that many of the earlier bills' worst aspects have resurfaced. Here's an email Rep. Chavez sent last night:

Well, just when I think that the Idaho Legislature and the process of government can't get any more interesting......it does.

After working for a month and a day, meeting every day at 7:00am to work out legislation (HB252) that provides tools and procedure in the case of a catastrophic economic emergency that give the state and local school districts flexibility, today we heard new legislation that begs the question,"What are we doing?"

The Chair of the House Education Committee Rep. Bob Nonini, introduced proposed legislation reducing the state's reimbursement to our local school districts from 85 percent down to 50 percent. This will effectively take away any and all field trips for curriculum enhancement. However, because athletics is not reimbursed, that will not be impacted.....but this may have spillover effects that we can't see right now.

There will be two more pieces of proposed legislation presented on Monday. One will be to cut the Early Retirement for Teachers in half for this year and eliminate it entirely in 2010. This plan doesn't cost money, but in fact saves money as veteran teachers, who are often at the end of the salary schedule are replaced by new teachers who are on the lower end of the salary schedule.

The other piece is a plan to freeze the steps and lanes, meaning the years of experience and education, into which all teachers fit to be paid.

My frustration and dismay in all of this is that the legislation we worked on so hard for over a month, was that every group that would be impacted by this legislation were sitting at the same table and we came to agreement on the tools to use in an economic emergency. So the question has to be, "Why do we need these pieces of legislation? Why can't we send the funding to the school districts and let the duly elected Board of Trustees and the local teacher's association work it out?"

So here's the deal. I need your help. I need every one of you to call the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna at the Department of Education, the phone number is 1-800-432-4601 and register your concern, or Representative Bob Nonini at the House of Representatives 1-800-626-0471.I would also encourage you to email your concerns to Rep. Nonini at bnonini@house.idaho.gov and to anyone else that you think might have some influence on the course of this legislation.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Democrats kill tax increase

Democrats in the Idaho House voted today to defeat a tax increase sought by Gov. Butch Otter.

“While I agree that Idaho's highways and bridges are in need of repair and we have an investment we need to protect, I disagree with the timing for a tax increase on Idahoans,” House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston said after the vote. During floor debate, Rusche said, “We do need to preserve our shared assets, not just the roads and bridges but also our schools and universities.”

“Right now, our economy is stalled and Idaho's unemployment rate is rising,” Rusche added. “More than 51,000 people were without jobs last month, with the unemployment rate reaching double digits in many places. Idaho families and businesses are suffering and now doesn't seem the time to increase their tax burden.”

“On the one hand, Idaho’s roads are cash poor … but on the other hand, many of our constituents are finding themselves cash poor,” Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti of Pocatello said. But Idahoans understand the need for some cutbacks. “They understand we can’t fully fund everything because they are going through the same thing … so they get it. The question we need to ask is: Do we get it?” Ruchti added that with the state’s many needs, “if we’re pouring it all into transportation infrastructure, I think we’re truly going down the wrong road.”

The tally on HB 246 was 27 for and 43 opposed. All but three Democrats voted against the bill. One who supported it, Rep. Shirley Ringo of Moscow, said that she hoped that the Legislature would invest in “human infrastructure” as well as transportation needs.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Child-care safety bill needed now

By Senator Tim Corder & Representative George Sayler

Last week, the Senate passed by a 30-5 vote Senate Bill 1112, a proposal to change Idaho's outdated and inadequate child-care statute. Supporters of child-care reform have tried for years to amend current laws that leave thousands of children vulnerable. The vote is a bright star on what has been a dark horizon of child care in Idaho.

Unfortunately, some now want to cast a shadow over that star. In his March 15 column, Wayne Hoffman tried to discount the impact SB 1112 would have in improving child-care safety and alleged that the law would be costly and burdensome. We would like to correct these misperceptions.

If enacted, SB 1112 would end the loopholes that create safety issues for many children and that provide opportunities for people, including sexual predators, to harm children. The current law allows anyone to care for six or fewer children without any regulation or oversight, and it has minimal requirements for group care facilities taking care of seven to 12 children.We have a mountain of evidence showing the need for change. Current problems range from children being sexually abused to providers being intoxicated, to other health and safety violations. Current law makes it virtually impossible for the state to take action in most cases.

SB 1112 would provide a consistent, minimum statewide system of safety requirements for children in child-care facilities where four or more children, unrelated to the provider, are being cared for on a regular basis for compensation. It would require criminal background checks and health and safety inspections. Firearms and water safety measures are included, there must be a working phone on the premises, and maximum group size and child-staff ratios are established.

The bill would provide a process for the Health and Welfare Department to monitor these standards and suspend, deny or revoke licenses where illegal activity or serious threats to health and safety are found or where convicted sex offenders are on a child-care facility's premises.

Hoffman referred to an incident where a fire inspector showed up at a licensed child-care facility and found children being kept in locked plywood cubbyholes. His point was that licensing did not prevent the abuse. We are not claiming to be able to prevent all abuse, but the inspection would not have happened without the licensing requirement. The abuse would have continued.

Hoffman argued that more licensing takes away family responsibilities or may be too burdensome on small providers and costly to parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Licensing fees are based on the number of children being cared for and actual costs of providing the license. Where licenses have been required in cities with ordinances, no decrease in the availability of child care has occurred.

Under Senate Bill 1112, parents would retain primary responsibility for child care, but the state would take a larger role in ensuring that all child-care facilities meet minimum health and safety standards. We believe the state has that responsibility. We also believe it is the parent's responsibility to choose the type of child care most suitable for their family. Unfortunately, parents don't always fulfill their responsibility. As Hoffman acknowledged, some parents will only be concerned with the cost and may even place their children in locked cubbyholes. Why should their children be put at risk?

This year, the Legislature has required veterinarians and mortgage brokers to be licensed and have criminal background checks. Passage of SB 1112 will send the message that our children are at least as important as animals and money.

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, and Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d'Alene, are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1112.

Let's hold off on more charter schools

By Senator Dick Sagness

In a recent speech on education, President Obama surprised some listeners by saying that the nation needs more charter schools. It’s true that, at their best, charter schools can be laboratories of educational innovation. However, many states are struggling with how to fund charter school expansion at a time of shrinking or stagnant budgets for traditional public schools. Boise School District officials have announced they must lay off 122 teachers next year, and other districts are certain to require similar layoffs.

Yet amid these deep cutbacks, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has called for lifting the cap on charter schools. I think that’s the wrong idea during this current economic downturn, and I have introduced legislation to put a three-year moratorium on new charter schools. The Senate Education Committee agreed to print Senate Bill 1085 way back in mid-February, but it’s been languishing there ever since. That’s a shame, because SB 1085 is needed at a time when Idaho’s traditional public schools face historic cuts. Allow me to explain why Idaho needs this moratorium:

When a new charter school starts, the vast majority of the students moving to the charter school district come from the traditional school district in which the charter school district resides. When the students move to the charter school district, the money allocated per child under state formula follows the child. In other words, the money that was supporting the student in the traditional public school is now supporting the education of the child in the charter school district. On the surface this makes sense except, like many things, the devil lies in the details.

When a child leaves the traditional public school district, many of the district’s costs remain essentially the same. Base costs for teachers, administration, facilities, maintenance, transportation and other support functions have to be maintained as they were before, but with the shift of funds to the charter school district, the traditional district has fewer dollars to cover essential costs. In some larger districts like Pocatello or Nampa, the charter school district receives more funding per child than the traditional public school district receives.

Each new charter school district gets about $1.3 million in funding for its first year – money that follows students from the traditional public school district to the charter school. However, since Idaho law says that if the traditional public school district loses 1 percent of its student population during the first year of the new charter school district operation, the traditional district in which the charter school district resides will be compensated for 99 percent of the revenue lost to the charter school district. This means that six new charter school districts could drain about $8 million per year from overall funding for K-12 schools.

Senate Bill 1085 would put a moratorium on starting new charter school districts for three years, July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2012, a period for which most people agree Idaho will continue to have serious revenue shortfalls. If we don’t do this, approximately $8 million dollars per year – or up to $24 million over the three years – will have to be taken from state funding for K-12 schools. This makes no fiscal or educational sense. If you agree that this would do grave damage to Idaho’s children, contact Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde and ask that the committee hear Senate Bill 1085.

Senator Dick Sagness of Pocatello is retired dean of the College of Education at Idaho State University.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Week 9: legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents about Week 9 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) - Governor Otter announced Wednesday that he will be using all of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act monies available to Idaho, totaling $1.24 Billion over the next three years. This is good news. I am pleased that he has decided to accept the assistance available to us; his original skepticism has been replaced by a better understanding of what it means to Idaho families. I am also pleased with the way he worked with previous governors and budget experts who have gone though similar economic challenges to assess and review the package.

I also agree with the goals of using the mone to protect and promote jobs for Idahoans, and to preserve education for our kids.

Unfortunately, the Governor also stated that he was proposing cuts to public schools of almost $110 million for 2010 (beginning July 2009). He has endorsed Superintendent Luna's recommendation that nearly $62 million be cut from public education (in enhancements and specific line items) as well as calling for an additional 5 percent reduction in personnel costs. It is hard to see how that helps protect the education of our kids. School districts will have a few choices: try a supplemental levy (raised from property taxes), cut staff (more crowded classrooms), decrease programs or make other wage, benefit or cost cuts.

The Governor's proposal leaves the "rainy day funds," our emergency funds, untouched. Whereas two months ago he felt that we should use 1/3 of the money while reserving 2/3 of the estimated $390 million currently available, now he feels we cannot touch a dime, even the $114 million specifically designated to stabilize public schools. Prudence is one thing, but this seems quite shortsighted to me. It's sort of like a family with a sick child, choosing to not spend anything for medical care just in case the child might be sicker next week.

Transportation projects fare pretty well, with $200 million for roads and bridges. He continues to call for another GARVEE bond ($125 million) as well as making a push for a gasoline tax increase and auto registration increase. Stimulus dollars for roads, GARVEE for roads, new taxes for roads, and cuts in public schools.

Over the next few weeks, we will be struggling with these budget issues as well as transportation funding. I will be working for a plan that is fiscally responsible, minimizes the economic damage to our State and sets Idaho up for the quickest possible recovery. I will work diligently to put Idahoans back in jobs and provide future generations with a bright economic future.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Headed into the Joint Finance Committee where arms have been twisted so the Governor can cut State Employee funding by 5 percent. Every dollar he can funnel into the world of concrete and asphalt is going there. As if the road construction industry's boom alone will revive the economy while we lay off state workers, make them take deep furloughs, cut teachers and teacher's aids, grow class sizes and weaken our ability as a state to serve people when they need it most.

An economy needs small businesses and I'm wondering where we are working to help them. Little home energy efficiency companies, tech companies who scan documents and do data entry will boom, but not because Governor Otter wanted them to. The strings in the stimulus are accountability measures. Congress tried to make us prepare a bit to avert an energy crisis, be more efficient and independent finally as a nation in healthcare and energy. But this governor wants to tax us more for roads, borrow more for roads, spend all the stimulus he can on roads while his Superindendent of Public Instruction cuts deeper and deeper into Schools with every passing day.

Senator Jon Thorson (District 25) - ... Within the past year, unemployment rates have doubled, and the demand for food stamps has increased by 32 percent. The recommendations to the Department of Labor and Health & Welfare will be used directly to help those folks who have been the recent victims of the economic downturn and sluggish job market. For many hardworking Idahoans, this is the first time in their lives where they have asked for public assistance, or been unable to find work.

These are humbling times. I am pleased that Idaho is able to offer some assistance to enable citizens to stay in their homes and put food on the table. The $200 million earmarked for transportation projects may soon help some of Idaho’s displaced workers find a job, and quickly get off public assistance.

A majority of those positions would be construction though, and while that sector has been particularly hit hard, there are still many displaced workers that do not have those skills. So, it was disheartening to learn that none of the stimulus will be used to maintain some of the threatened state agency positions. In fact, the Governor and some members of the legislature are recommending an additional 5 percent cut to state and education personnel costs, in addition to the 6 percent overall budget cuts already made in fiscal year 2009. The Governor’s office explained that the state government, like business, needs to cuts its personnel and tighten down the hatches during these tough times.

While we strive for a government that runs as efficiently as a business, in times like these we cannot compare government to a business. First of all, when a business sees an increase of 32 percent in demand, it does not cut its operation budget by 11 percent. Unlike business, government cannot choose its customers. It cannot turn away those seeking services who qualify. We are experiencing an economic crisis because of failed businesses, businesses that even after decades of service decided to close their doors.

Government does not have that option. Further, it is during times like this that citizens need government services. Frankly, the recommended cut is shortsighted. Allocating some of the stimulus funds to save those budgets would not only serve the families supported by those jobs, but also the services provided to the public from those jobs. The Governor talks about using stimulus money to create jobs; it also makes sense to use the money to preserve jobs.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dems respond to Otter's plan

Democratic leadership in the Idaho Legislature today praised Governor Butch Otter for accepting the federal stimulus money and for involving former Democratic and Republican governors in his deliberations. At the same time, House Minority Leader John Rusche and Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly questioned whether the governor’s plan will preserve as many Idaho jobs as possible.

Speaking with reporters after the governor’s press conference in Boise this morning, the Democratic leaders also raised concerns about the soundness of the Governor’s plan to sit on large pots of money while cutting public education. Read their response and see links to TV coverage here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rep. Chavez: A better education blueprint

A few weeks ago, Idahoans were outraged to hear of legislation that would trigger unprecedented damage to public education. Last night, Rep. Liz Chavez of Lewiston sent word via her email letter to constituents that a bipartisan committee has come to agreement on a less-damaging version of the bill:

Even though I'm in my second term as one of your state representatives, I continue to learn and discover both the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and of the process as a whole. And while sometimes I am dismayed at some of the legislation and ideology that drives some of the more unusual pieces of of legislation, I have also found legislators and lobbyists who are good hearted, well meaning, intelligent, and patriotic Idahoans.

Sometimes ideology and procedure collide, and when that happens, if we're lucky we get the opportunity to help broker compromise and cooperation that results in excellent policy that will stand the test of time.

I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to participate in just such a scenario regarding setting policy to address a catastrophic economic emergency and the impact on education. It so happens that we find ourselves in such a situation now, but in order that we not just react in fear, for now and the future, cool heads have been put together to craft a blueprint for where we go from here.

The impetus for this group to get together and figure out how to address the shortfall in the department of Education wasHB117 and 118. There was such a hue and cry from all parts of the state, from parents to teachers to school boards to legislators. Instead of just allowing that anger to run amuck, leadership in the House asked Rep. Rich Wills to facilitate a working group consisting of the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Education Association, the Administrators Association, the Rural Schools Association, and legislators.

The overriding concern has been, and rightly so, that the children, small and big, know that they can count on their schools being open, the lights turned on, and a teacher to help them learn and grow. As we focused on meeting the needs of Idaho's students, all those who have an interest in meeting those needs came together and while it has taken a 7:00am meeting every day for 3 weeks, today we came to agreement and hope to have legislation ready for the sponsor of HB117 to present to the House Education Committee for consideration.

This enewsletter has been heavy on education, but keeping education as whole as possible for Idaho's children and their future, realizing that there are people losing their jobs every day, is as critical to the recovery of our state and country as having "shovel ready" projects that put Idahoans back to work.

I believe in our country, I believe that working together we are going to come out of this crisis. I also believe in each one of you and your ability to help make recovery a reality for our ourselves and our economy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Week 8: legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents during Week 8 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. Phylis King (District 18) - In the eighth week of the session, we have been talking a lot about tax policy. Last week it was about beer and wine, (which failed); this week we are talking transportation taxes. ...

...I have been lobbied by both sides of the issue but I remain firm that I will not vote for an increase of gas tax and registration fees for three reasons:

1. We are in tough times. Micron has already laid off 2500 employees and may lay off another 2000 by August. Many of those unemployed individuals live in my district. This not a good time to raise their taxes.

2. We are going to get $181 million from the Federal Stimulus which needs to be used in 3 years. That should keep the Idaho Transportation Department busy for at least a year. Or to put it another way, will ITD be able to use any of the new money that might be generated from gas and registration fees for projects at the same time as they have the stimulus money? Let’s wait a year. Maybe we can come back with a bill for registration fees based on value of the car or the weight of the vehicle.

3. The biggest reason for me to say “no” is that the Treasure Valley has 42 percent of the people and about 60 percent of the wealth (we are the economic engine of this state), but we receive only 25 percent of the Highway Distribution money. That means that when we raise the registration fees and gas tax, we, in the Treasure Valley, are paying for roads and bridges for the rest of the state—which I don’t have a problem with. Yet the single most important concern the Treasure Valley has identified is a need for local option authority for public transit. We need to start purchasing right-of-way for public transit now. In 10 years it may be impossible to purchase right-of-way and it certainly will be a lot more expensive.

If the majority party wants my vote, they need to stop ignoring the Treasure Valley! Clete Edmunson from the Governor’s office has talked to me and I have made my position clear to him and to the Chairman of the Transportation Committee that I will not vote for gas tax and registration fee increase without a public transit component.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - ... It kills me that my work on sentencing or health care may suffer because it is not really the role of a legislator to be a community organizer. It kills me that some of my colleagues have said I have to make a choice, be a gay activist or have no future in politics in Idaho. Really I have no choice.

I think of the straight people I meet who clearly care and want to help.

The burly firefighter who told me he buttonholed Senator Fulcher at a recent reception to say firmly but politely how upset he was as a constituent that Fulcher had opposed the Human Rights act. I think of the man who came to me to talk about health care issues and, as he was leaving, mentioned how wrong it was that some radio talk show hosts were say such awful things about me and gay people.

I think of my friend Emilie Jackson-Edney and her wonderful conversations about gender identity with Senator Coiner.

I think of Mountain Goat, the blogger whose partner fears being fired from her job. I know this woman only by her pen name and her posts and I picture her these days settled next to a radio watching the hate stream out day after day because she knows someone has to say that this is wrong. She is so right. How can we as a state stand by when others incite violence and hate. Why are we not outraged? Or maybe we all are outraged and we don’t know how to express it.

Well, I’m offering some ways to express it. And I’m asking for your help. Because I can’t do this alone. The tiny cluster of under-funded, human rights oriented, non-profit groups who have worked on these issues for over a decade and have three staff between them, they can’t do this alone.

We all need your help this year because if we don’t have your help things will keep getting worse, not better. And like you, I just can’t bear that. (Read more at Sen. LeFavour's blog, Notes From the Floor.)

Rep. Brian Cronin (District 19) - A bill that seeks to bring minimal licensing standards to daycare facilities that have less than 13 children will finally get a vote this year on the floor of the Senate. The bill (SB1112) that's been revised and refined by sponsors Rep. George Sayler (D-Coeur d'Alene) and Sen Tim Corder (R-Mountain Home) has made it further than all previous attempts over the last five years.

On Wednesday, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee voted to send the bill to the 14th (amending) order. The hearing room was packed and more people wanted to testify than were allowed to. I was one of the people who had signed up to give testimony but never had the chance. Chairman Lodge simply decided at a certain point that there would no further need to hear anyone else who might be supporting the bill. ...

... The wife of former Bill Sali staffer Wayne Hoffman testified as a former daycare operator, claiming that licensing would be financially devastating, particularly given that she was making minimum wage as a daycare owner. I'm sympathetic - my wife Veronica and I know how difficult it is to make money in this business. We've been in the business for three years and admittedly have questioned the value of having Veronica work so hard for less than ample financial rewards. But, if someone can't afford to spend roughly $200/year to certify that their facility is safe for children, then that person simply shouldn't be in the business to begin with, as far as I'm concerned. And if I play by the rules, I don't want to have to compete against facilities that cut corners and endanger children. ... (Read more from Rep. Cronin's blog, Citizen Idaho.)

Sen. Jon Thorson (District 25) - ... Last Wednesday, I experienced the most contested piece of legislation to enter the Senate Chambers so far this session. The legislation, S1119, would have given the Public Utility Commission the authority to approve low income bill payment assistance plans that gas and electric utilities voluntarily wish to implement. Currently, utility companies must rely solely on private contributions to help them fund their programs.

With unemployment rates continually increasing, many families are struggling to stay warm or keep the lights on. The utility companies report that the need for assistance has increased. Most of the folks that seek public assistance to help pay their bills are humble, hard working people, who may just be blindsided by the increase of utilities, lost their job, or are struggling to find work in this economy. Often people only use the assistance a few times and then they are back on their feet.

Yet, opposition to the bill saw this as “welfare” being filtered through public utility companies. I voted in favor of the bill, because I see it as a sensible approach to assist these companies to pay for the costs of doing business and helping families. Without the permission of the Public Utility Commission, the cost is just written off and passed on to tax payers. The bill failed to pass the Senate by one vote.

If you, or if you know someone who is struggling to pay their utility bills, there are some resources that may be able to help. To find these resources in your county, visit http://www.puc.state.id.us/CONSUMER/counties.htm. Also if you are in a position to help, please consider checking the box on your utility bill to send a few extra dollars to the funds reserved for public assistance, or consider a donation to one the non-profit organizations that provide this assistance.

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - Things are slow here in Boise, so this will be a very brief update. We are still two weeks away from beginning to set budgets. We are waiting for the Governor to re-address the legislature with a revised budget in light of the money Idaho will be receiving from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. I expect his proposal will include recommendation on how to use the stimulus money, as well as a proposal on what reserve funds we can use to shore up Idaho’s budgets.

The Governor is still working on getting his package of transportation bills passed. All week the Governor’s staff has been working with the House Transportation and Defense Committee, of which I am a member, but still no compromise has been reached. It is possible that if a compromise is reached it may mean less of an increase in gas taxes and less of an increase in registration fees.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Week 7: legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents during Week 7 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. James Ruchti (District 29) - As many of you are aware, the proposal to raise taxes on beer and wine to pay for alcohol and drug abuse was presented and debated this week. I heard from many of you on this issue and I appreciate your feedback. After three days of listening to public comment, the Revenue and Taxation Committee, of which I am a member, voted against this bill: 13 against and 5 in favor. I was one of the legislators who voted “no” on this bill.

Although I strongly support treatment programs for substance abuse, I simply could not vote to raise these taxes on small businesses in our community at a time when they are struggling to survive one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. The testimony presented at the hearing clearly showed the need to adequately fund treatment programs, and I know the industry heard the message that the Legislature expects them to be part of the solution. I hope it encourages them to come to the table when an improved bill is up for consideration.

On another note, after getting a clearer understanding of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, I am feeling more optimistic about our future here in Idaho. Like many of you, I have concerns about the cost of this package, but the money is here and Idaho has some serious needs and complex problems to solve. As we consider how to use this money, I will be pushing for projects that solve long-term problems including upgrades to sewer and water systems, as well as school remodels and renovations that will yield energy and tax savings for years to come.

In my mind, projects like these are the most efficient way to use this one-time money and stretch it out for our future through cost-savings in normal general fund expenditures. Although we are not out of the woods yet economically, I have incredible confidence in the ability of Idahoans to face adverse situations and come out triumphant and better than before. This will prove to be the case yet again. Yes, we are facing hard times and, yes, this recession may be longer than any of us initially thought, but I agree with President Obama, “We will rebuild, we will recover and we will emerge stronger than we were before."

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Some days I walk myself to the statehouse in the dark, sit attentive through long committees, ask unwelcome questions, end up the sole no or yes vote on a bill, look at the long list of evening events we are supposed to attend and wonder what I am doing. I forget how many kind people have written to tell me how much better it makes them feel that I am here. I forget that on occasion I do make a change that affects lives, I give voice to what isn't heard or those who will be harmed. And that is something.
It is hard though.

Today when we heard a simple bill to mandate that insurance companies cover "elemental formula" as if it were medicine so that kids (whose lives depend on eating this formula instead of food) can afford it and can stay alive. So that you know, some kids can't eat regular food. At about two months their bodies reject their mother's milk and if they are lucky their doctor figures it out and puts them on special formula and then about 1/3 of them get better quickly, another bunch get better in a year or two and a very few need the formula for life.

But Idaho insurance companies don't cover this stuff. And after today's vote they still won't. ...
I sat there today and listened to those parents' stories. I can only ask what kind of nation makes people lose everything because someone in their family is sick? What kind of government tells them to get a divorce so they can maybe qualify for Medicaid so their child does not die? What kind of state makes people go through this? Run up tens of thousands on their credit cards, sell everything? What kind of people refuse to do anything because the insurance company lobbyists are really nice people and they promise us things if we will only agree not to make them do what they don't want to.

I'm disgusted because we have no backbone, because I work in one of the few places where we COULD fix some of what is wrong with healthcare and we won't. I'm disgusted because I work in one of the few places in the state where the people I work with mostly don't seem to think there is anything wrong with insurance companies or the way health care works. Or worse, they use how broken the system is to agree to do nothing at all. (See Nicole's blog here.)

Rep. Brian Cronin (District 19) - ... Renewable Energy: I am co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Wendy Jaquet that will expand a property tax exemption currently extended to wind and geothermal energy producers to other forms of renewable energy (solar, biomass, landfill gas). The Revenue and Tax Committee agreed to print this bill last week.

Parents as Teachers: This is a highly effective program that operated in Idaho successfully for a number of years and was then suddenly and unjustifiably cut by Gov. Otter in 2007. This international program has proven successful in improving parenting practices, detecting developmental delays and health issues, increasing the school readiness and scholastic success of children, and preventing child abuse. This bill, which I’ve been working on with Rep. Branden Durst, will statutorily create the authority to re-establish this program, with the hopes that federal money and grants will be available to make it a reality.

Daycare Regulation: I strongly support SB 1112, sponsored by Rep. George Sayler (D-4) and Sen Tim Corder (R-22). This bill seeks to extend basic licensing and safety provisions to daycare facilities that care for 5-12 children. As a preschool owner, I have provided thes sponsors with input, which has made its way into the bill. And I plan to testify when the bill is heard in the Senate Health & Welfare Committee. This issue has been before the Legislature many times before and it has failed to act. This is an issue of protecting our children and it's time that our Legislature get on board. Fuel Mix Disclosure: This bill would have required utility companies to inform their customers of the sources of fuel (coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, etc.) by percentage on a semi-annual "bill stuffer." Strong opposition from utility companies meant I ultimately did not present the bill, though it appears the utilities have already gotten more serious about disclosing this information to consumers. ... (see Brian's blog here and watch one parent's story about Idaho day-care safety here.)

Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - I remain firm that I will vote “no” on raising fuel tax and registration fees at this time when families are hurting. We heard that Micron will lay off another 2000 employees—many live in my district. With the stimulus bill giving the average worker more money in his/her pocket, raising fuel taxes and registration fees at this time would effectively take some of that tax break away from those workers. Plus, all the stimulus money for transportation will keep the Idaho Department of Transportation plenty busy. ...

... I have received a lot of email about the increase on beer and wine tax bill. That bill failed in committee by 13 to 5. I have also heard about two education bills HB 117 and HB 118. HB 117 is being redrafted but may come out as a completely different bill. ... ... My largest endeavor is a rewrite of the Mobile Home Landlord Tenant act. It is dead for this year but two Republican legislators agree that this is an important issue and want to help me with future legislation. My plan is to draft a piece of legislation around each section/idea of the Act and let the committee debate several bills instead of just the one. Based on all the press that this issue is getting, I believe that this is a really important issue and is supported by many people and organizations.

We (there are five of us) have rewritten the Local Option Authority bill. We cannot seem to get this introduced. It is 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 with co-sponsors Rep. Grant Burgoyne, Rep Bill Killen, Rep Leon Smith and Rep. Elfreda Higgins.