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.