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 I am pleased that he has decided to accept the assistance available to us; his original skepticism has been replaced by a better understanding of what it means to Idaho families.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.