Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's Equal Pay Day in Idaho

April 28 marks Equal Pay Day in Idaho, the result of a resolution passed by the Idaho Legislature earlier this month. It recognizes the fact that on average, Idaho women must work 16 months to collect the annual wages earned by the typical Idaho man.

Writing in the Idaho Statesman, Democratic lawmakers Anne Pasley-Stuart and Les Bock tell why they introduced the measure:

Pay for women in Idaho has only improved 5 percent since 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Vital Statistics. In only three other states do women face a greater pay gap than they do in Idaho.

The wage gap becomes particularly insidious as women age. Women are far more likely to enter retirement in poverty than men, because women have insufficient incomes to save for retirement, maximize pension and Social Security benefits, and provide for their longer life spans. For retired women, the median income is $15,615, about half that of their male counterparts.

... HCR 23 assures women and men that they have not only an equal playing field, but an equal paying field. It is especially good that we've taken action in the wake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which will ensure that American workers are treated fairly under the law by correcting wage disparities.

Read more of their op-ed here, and read an article about the measure here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dem lawmakers respond to vetoes

The Idaho Democratic Legislative Caucus sent this statement in response to Gov. Butch Otter's veto of two bills today:

"As elected officials, we are tasked with solving a broad range of problems on behalf of Idaho's citizens. Yet the Governor and other Republican leaders are more interested in power plays than solving problems," Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly said today, after Gov. Butch Otter vetoed two bills. "In this critical time Idaho needs leaders and statesmen in charge."

"We are living in a time when Idaho's challenges are becoming more serious and more complex. As legislators, we are tasked with handling many issues at once," added House Minority Leader John Rusche. "More than 51,000 Idahoans wake up every day without a job. Our public schools are facing unprecedented cuts, and homebound seniors are losing needed services and medicine."

"Yet today, the governor vetoed two bills that had broad bipartisan support: one that recognizes the importance of parents as teachers and another that protects Idahoans against identity theft," Rusche said. "We question whether killing important bills is the best way to achieve the cooperation and collaboration that Idahoans deserve from their elected officials."

"We need leaders who are willing to work openly and responsibly to solve the problems facing Idaho and achieve our goals, not players who are more interested in scoring points for themselves than doing their best for the Idahoans they were sent to Boise to represent," Kelly added.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Week 13: legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents about Week 13 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. Liz Chavez (District 7) - ... Last week there was a glimmer of hope that the slashing of 5 percent across the board in all agencies was going to be reduced to 3 percent, not my first choice but better than the number we were originally given. We will have to see if the Governor and Senate and House leadership can work together to forge a budget to meet our state's needs without further damage to the various department's ability to function.

I know that some, or many of you, read the article suggesting that my seatmate in the House of Representatives and I are casting irresponsible votes regarding raising the fuel tax to help fix and maintain our bridges and roads. I wouldn't presume to answer for the other good representative, however I would submit this opinion for your consideration. We can't make bridges or roads out of children, teachers, principals, aides, bus drivers, maintenance personnel, or parents but I believe that they are as much the infrastructure of our state and our future as those roads and bridges. I would hope that our Governor would be not only the "Transportation Governor", but the "Education Governor" as well.

Rep. Branden Durst (District 18) - Reacting to Gov. Otter's statement on the April 9 failure of a fuel tax increase, Rep. Durst wrote: With all due respect, Mr. Governor, your statement is irresponsible. You state, "For months now we have made every compromise, addressed every legitimate concern and provided every alternative that opponents wanted." With all due respect, Mr. Governor, but that is categorically false. As my debate against HB135 indicated you haven't even attempted to address every legitimate concern. You also haven't provided every alternative that opponents wanted. Are you saying that concerns about improving access and funding to alternative modes of transportation aren't legitimate? At what point did you invite members of the House Democratic Caucus from the Treasure Valley (who nearly all voted against your plans) to the table? At what did you ask us, "What do you need to get on board?"

To my knowledge the answer is obviously never. Even last week during the amending order, we tried as hard as we could to amend the bill so that it would address our concerns. You offered no leadership in supporting those issues that the people of my district care about. With all due respect, Mr. Governor, please don't suggest that you tried to meet us half way and certainly don't suggest that I am being irresponsible. I understand the problem, but will not be bullied or shamed into do something that I know is not in the strategic long term interests of the state of Idaho.

Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - Fish and Game has done a fantastic job of running their agency in the past few years, and they asked for a fee increase that averaged about 15 percent. Many sportsmen and sportsman groups supported this bill, saying hunting and fishing in Idaho is a bargain. 80 percent of Idahoans surveyed agreed it was a good thing to do. But the Senators on the other side of the Annex mucked up the bill and only increased out-of-state hunters and fishermen fees. I disagreed with the amendments, but as many on the committee said, half a loaf is better than none at all. So I voted for it. I’m sure they will be back in a year to ask for the other half of their request or else cut programs. By the way, non-game animals are protected by the Fish and Game and it is paid for by 99 percent federal funds. Thank God for the Feds who understand whole ecosystems.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Writing today at her blog, Notes from the Floor:

For me home is within walking distance of the Capitol. For my colleagues it is generally not. Right now some are trying to extend leases, moving into hotels or contemplating sharing digs for what is a few days but could become a few weeks when you count the personalities involved in Idaho lawmaking.

For now the Senate's Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee members have stuck together on more mild cuts to state employee pay. Not a wholly moderate body, there seems to be a frustration on the Senate's part with House leadership for forcing votes from Republican members. The House has buckled down in its Republican caucus to make larger cuts state employee pay and to make the deepest possible cuts to Education.

... it is yet to be seen how the Senate will vote on tax increases for roads. Our Senate Caucus is unified even more than the House's Democratic caucus on this issue. If the vote is going to be close here as well I'm a bit surprised the Governor hasn't been chatting with us much about what he wants out of this session. There are a few things he wants, like lesser cuts to state employee pay which we might agree on. In years past he has been open to local option authority and I'd hope he might consider that and public transportation in particular as a worthy piece of any state wide transportation plan.

But he hasn't really called. So we'll keep at this staring at a board full of appropriations bills someone is worried about sending him. Until things start moving no one is going to budge. Until the first bill is vetoed we won't know how willing anyone is to take the heat of making this session go longer. Every day is probably one state employees' pay, one lay-off you might say.

We won't win a waiting game, only maybe a game of public chicken.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet (District 25) - I thought I would bring you up to date on last week's JFAC actions. On Wednesday, we voted to rescind the 3 percent across-the-board payroll cut to all state employees. At the Governor's request we voted to allow agency heads to allocate the personnel cost reductions at their discretion. Shirley Ringo (D-Moscow) and I, the two House democrats, voted with the 10 Senate members of JFAC tipping the vote. House Republicans met later that day and authorized their leadership to oppose this vote. They want a "trigger" to make the 2 percent reduction depending on revenue collections in the first and second quarters of this next fiscal year starting in July. The Governor's request was in writing, an email to all legislators, the previous week. Now I have seen a memo that says the Governor wants to change his mind and go along with the "trigger." The personnel cost reduction of 5 percent remains in the baseregardless. ...

... Because the Governor wants to put the stimulus monies to work as soon as possible, he and his executive advisory committee chose to recommend that the monies go to programs/agencies that are already in place such as the Department of Environmental Quality for water and sewer projects and to the Idaho Department of Transportation for road projects. JFAC chose to fund the water and sewer proposal as well as the Idaho Education Network for $3 million dollars - this will bring high speed connectivity to our rural areas and be matched by federal E-rate funds and grants; we proposed to fund $2 million toward the CAMP process, the aquifer management plan; and we appropriated $17 million dollars in transportation funds to the local highway districts. As of this writing we are hearing that the Governor is not happy with these decisions and we may be revisiting them in the future (which is why we may not be going home this week). Senator LeFavour (D-Boise) attempted a motion in JFAC to redirect the above funding to education operations which failed on a party line vote.

Rep. James Ruchti (District 29) - ... Increasing revenues through registration fees and the gas tax have been the central pieces of the Governor's agenda for the last two years, yet still he appears to be unsuccessful; at least so far. Originally the Governor proposed both a ten-cent fuel tax increase phased in over a five year period. He also proposed an increase in registration fees which amounted to nearly tripling the current registration fees for private drivers. Neither of these had much support in the Legislature.

Last week, the House debated HB135, a second piece of legislation to increase the gas tax by two-cents for the Fiscal Year 2010 only. This proposal failed on a vote of 37 against - 32 in-favor. I voted against the gas tax. If we had been able to make some headway that would mitigate cuts to education and other State services, I may not have felt the same about making a modest tax increase to support our State's transportation infrastructure. In the current situation, however, raising taxes for transportation doesn't make sense at the same time Idaho is cutting state workers' pay and making historic cuts to public education. I am sure we will be revisiting this issue.

On Friday we voted on the GARVEE project bill. This borrows against future federal highway money. While it is not all that good to borrow, it does make financial sense when the cost of construction now is less than in the future. The recession has dropped the costs of construction so current money buys even more. It also allows us to create and retain some construction jobs now when we really need them. In addition, Highway 30 between McCammon and Lava Hot Springs was the beneficiary of Garvee funding in the recent past. Our community has directly benefit from the Garvee program. I voted "yes" on Garvee. ...

Friday, April 10, 2009

House Democrats vote for transportation jobs

Idaho House Democrats today voted to preserve and create transportation jobs through support for GARVEE bonds that will continue transportation funding around Idaho.

“These are projects that are already making a difference in our state,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche. “GARVEE spending will improve our roads as well as keep Idahoans working during this recession.”

“Like all Idahoans, Democrats believe in honoring commitments and finishing what we begin,” added Assistant House Minority Leader James Ruchti. “Now may not be the time to raise new taxes on Idaho families and businesses, but GARVEE bonding allows our state to finish these projects.”

“Governor Otter should be credited for his tenacious efforts in making the case for additional transportation funding,” said House Minority Caucus Chair Bill Killen. “We stand ready to continue to look for solutions that will help Idaho meet its transportation needs at the same time we keep our schools strong and opportunity growing across Idaho’s economy.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Democrats nix fuel tax, seek end to tunnel vision

A majority of Idaho House Democrats voted today against a fuel-tax increase while pledging support for comprehensive transportation solutions and smart use of taxpayer dollars.

“Democrats have been saying since January that this is no time for the state to raise taxes on struggling Idaho families and businesses,” House Minority Leader John Rusche said after the vote. Fourteen of the 18 House Democrats voted against the measure, which was defeated on a narrow 32-37 vote.

“Democrats are not against transportation investment,” added Assistant House Minority Leader James Ruchti. “Idaho is increasing the Idaho Transportation Department’s budget and accepting millions in federal stimulus funds for transportation at the same time we are trimming state workers’ pay and making historic cuts to education. This tunnel vision doesn’t reflect our values as Idahoans.”

“The recent ITD audit showed that the agency isn’t using taxpayer funding as efficiently as it should. Beyond that, we see no effort on the part of the House Majority leadership to propose truly comprehensive transportation solutions that include local option authority for local communities,” Rusche said. “They also can’t recognize that fuel taxes will not solve our state’s future needs. Idaho remains stuck in the mid-20th century because of the House Majority’s refusal to wake up to reality. Democrats will continue to stand for comprehensive, 21st-century transportation solutions.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Weeks 11 &12: legislators' reports

Here are excerpts from some of the e-mail newsletters that Idaho Democratic lawmakers sent home to their constituents about Weeks 11 and 12 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 Rusche (District 7) - Our House Democratic fundraiser is being held this Thursday. This is an annual event that we hold at the end-of-the Session called the "Sine Die," or adjournment, party. Every year at this event we hold a silent auction on items donated by our caucus members and businesses throughout the State. This year, one of the silent auction items is a basket of books comprised of a favorite book donated by each member in the minority caucus with a short inscription that includes a favorite quotation from the book. I chose The Lord of the Rings as my book and included the quote "Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes." One of my favorite lines.

This quotation sums up some of the dysfunction here. First we cannot use the stimulus because it might have strings. Now we are using as much as we can get. Members of the majority party have argued that in order to help the economy recover, we must get money into people's hands and circulating through the economy and thus are proposing corporate tax cuts. At the same time, I have heard the same members refuse to use "rainy day" funds to help stabilize the education budgets and maintain needed State services. On the one hand they are saying we must stimulate in order to recover, yet on the other they are saying we will not spend because we might not recover.

Another saying goes "Meddle not in the affairs of wizards, as they are subtle and quick to anger." I might use that saying for the Governor, but he really seems quite patient with the House. I think we are headed to a collision over micromanaging the agencies though. The appropriation bills have language directing how each department should respond to lower budgets rather than just setting the budget and letting the managers manage. As the top manager for the State, the Governor rightly takes exception to that instruction. WE will be settling that next week, I think. ...

... The day-care licensing bill cleared the House Health and Welfare Committee. This bill has been in play in the Legislature for the last five years without success, so I am happy to finally see some progress. At the same time, the vote in committee was to send it for amendments, extensive amendments, that may dilute the intention of the bill. The amendments to the bill include requiring licensing only for pay establishments with seven or more unrelated children (the original bill called for licensing of day cares for four or more children) as well as the removal of requirements for continuing education for day-care workers in facilities with fewer than 13 children. Some of the amendments proposed may carry a cost to the State of some $30,000 thereby decreasing its chance of survival in the House considering our budget shortfalls. I am hopeful the bill will be successful. While not as good as it could be, it is still a net improvement in the safety of kids in daycare.

Rep. Bill Killen (District 17) - On Tuesday (March 31) this week the House took up the sole remaining transportation funding bill on its amending order. The process is somewhat arcane with the body dissolving and reconstituting as a committee of the whole; though it sounds ominous, nobody is transformed, no puddles are scattered about the chamber, but magically, we no longer have a Speaker, but rather a chairman of the committee of the whole. Once constituted the various bills are ripe for change; in this case H 135 from the Transportation chair, JoAn Wood, was offered up with eight possible amendments – an unusually high number. The list included Local Option Authority, various fuel tax increases, and changes to the State vs Local revenue split percentage. Like the arcade moles, they popped up throughout the morning debate with all but one roundly dispatched by the mallet wielding members of the body.

The bill itself, as amended, will be coming back for an up or down vote on Tuesday the 7th; based on what happened this week I expect it will get whacked soundly and expire on the floor of the House. With the economic downturn still at full throttle, legislators are extremely reluctant to raise taxes or fees of any kind, particularly with about $400 million still untouched in our rainy day funds. A cynic might suspect that the reluctance to commit to using those funds now is somehow tied to the fact that next year is an election year and if we run short then, after having committed those funds now, might force sitting legislators to consider a tax increase in an election year. ...

Sen. Elliot Werk (District 17) - Legislation introduced in the House to decrease the reimbursement for public school transportation funding has reached the Senate after a valiant fight by House Democrats to defeat or amend the bill. H-256 is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Goedde – a former trustee of the Coeur-d’Alene school district and chairman of the Senate Education committee and Rep. Bob Nonini chairman of the House Education committee. The bill purports to cut public education busing reimbursement by $4.2 million in fiscal year 2010.

The bill cuts the public education budget by eliminating funding for field trips, decreasing the reimbursement for school busing from the current 85 percent to 50 percent of allowable costs, instituting a very complicated formula for providing additional grants for transportation, and finally eliminating the flexibility of school districts to calculate their reimbursable costs using either a per student or per mile basis. This last provision in the bill was specifically targeted at the Boise School District and could result in a loss of $1.45 million to the district for costs already incurred this school year.

I firmly believe that my job as a legislator is to support the best possible public policy regardless of the players involved. Personal animosity, anger, envy, and grudges have no place in the public policy arena. Unfortunately the portion of H 256 that targets the Boise school district comes from a long standing grudge held by Sen. Goedde and some members in the House.

During House debate on H 256 one Republican lawmaker even stood up and stated that the Boise district uses up everyone else’s money! He could not have been more wrong since, like every other district in the state, the Boise district receives funding through the statewide funding formula. The added fact that the Boise district tax base supports rural schools all over the state through our immense contribution to the tax revenues of the state general fund makes it difficult to understand the mentality of some of these legislators.

The provision in H 256 that eliminates field trips is also startlingly short-sighted. It belies an attitude toward public education that any enrichment is a luxury. As we all know, field trips are an integral part of the learning process.

It is a sad testament to our legislature that a bill like H 256 would ever see the light of day, not to mention the certainty of passage (although hopefully amended). Our children’s education deserves more than actions based on grudges, misinformation, and a lack of appreciation for a well-rounded education for our children.

Rep. Phylis King (District 18) - Back in 2001 or 2002, the legislature had a surplus. So they cut the Idaho income tax by 0.1 percent valued at $150 million, (and) 60 percent of this cut benefitted the wealthiest 5 percent of our population. Then in 2004 they had to “temporarily” raise sales tax because the economy tanked. Sales tax disproportionately hurts lower income families. The result of those two moves was that the legislature shifted revenues from the wealthy to lower income families.

After a year they let the temporary tax revert to the original 5 cents. But because there was not a lot of objection to the penny sales tax, and there was a hue and cry to do something about property tax, Governor Risch, in the summer of 2006, held the “special” session where the legislature voted to raise the sales tax to 6 cents permanently. They also voted to move the Maintenance and Operations portion of public education funding from property tax funding to the General Fund.

Sales tax and income tax are the largest sources of General Funds and are not as stable from year to year as a source of funding as property tax funds. So now for the first time in Idaho’s history we are cutting education funding and teacher pay, and once again state employees do not get even a cost of living increase.

My beef is that there is a pattern here. Idahoans are willing to raise their sales tax by a penny or gas tax by 2 pennies, for the good of the state, but the legislature uses that willingness to shift more and more taxes onto hard working families and away from those who can more afford to pay. The makeup of this legislature refuses to rethink their policy on income tax, tax exemptions, corporate taxes, etc. We are 46th in the nation for state employee salaries and 44th in the nation in average teacher salaries. Agency heads say they cannot recruit and retain employees and are losing talented people to other states.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour (District 19) - Do the Co-Chairs of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, Senator Dean Cameron and Representative Maxine Bell really decide how much to cut Idaho education budgets or how much and in what way to cut state employee and teacher pay? No.

Wednesday night Dean Cameron and Maxine Bell sat on the stage in front of more than 600 teachers and parents and had to defend cuts to education and teacher pay because Governor Otter and House Leaders Mike Moyle, Ken Roberts and Scott Bedke didn't feel obligated to come defend their own parts in really deciding how these budgets will be set.

Wednesday night Dean Cameron sat in the middle of a huge line of silent law makers under the lights and read from a script. I know he didn't relish it. He is a kind, reasonable man who I believe tries hard to do the right thing in a place that has changed much over the past five years. He said he had no choice but to cut education. In the realm of politics he did not. In the realm of the real world there are ways to keep education budgets whole for 2010 and 2011 even if the economy worsens.

But some Republican leaders refuse to put education higher than roads or business tax cuts in their set of priorities. These people ran on smaller government platforms and if it means cutting schools, laying off teachers and state employees and cutting pay till it all unravels, they will do it. They have done it. Privatizing broken government services puts our tax dollars in the hands of businesses, which may or may not do a better job than government.

These leaders, along with Tom Luna, Bob Nonini and John Goedde I believe would privatize education, like we've privatized health care, even if such a system would benefit only those with enough money to pay for a good education. Even if those with less money would get something less for their children. ... read more at Nicole's blog.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet (District 25) - ... What was extremely disappointing last week was the negation of House Bill 252, a collaborative approach for districts to declare an "emergency" and open up contracts for personnel reductions. Representatives Rusche, Chavez and Pence spent a month in early morning meetings with majority party members and education stakeholders only to have two bills come forward that were never discussed in this working group. The trust that was engendered from the collaborative approach has been greatly damaged as a result of majority party actions.

A second concern of mine was highlighted in The New York Times this weekend. The article indicated that the federal government's Department of Education will be monitoring how states use their education stimulus/stabilitization funds. General funds, they said, are not to be freed up from education to be put elsewhere and the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may come forward in the next few weeks with more clarification rules on this matter. The majority party's JFAC motion for k-12 education used $20 million dollars more of stimulus money and transferred it to the general fund. This may not work and we might be looking at this again. When I said earlier this week that I thought we would be out of here on April 10th, I could have been mistaken. ...