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. ...