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.