Friday, May 8, 2009

Session was marked by unnecessary cuts, GOP split

The 2009 Idaho Legislature has finally concluded after 117 days and a cost of more than $3.5 million to taxpayers. After the second-longest session in Idaho Legislative history, many of us are asking “What do Idahoans have to show for it?”

While transportation funding was the Legislature's main hurdle, the economy was the real story of the session. Over the past year, Idaho has gone from leading the nation in job creation to leading in unemployment growth. Combined with stagnant housing and financial markets, high unemployment means that state tax revenues are down significantly. Just as Idaho families and businesses have had to cut back, so has Idaho government, but Democrats fought hard to protect necessary services like police and public education.

Republicans had a different view. Throughout much of this session, they seemed determined to use our real but temporary economic downturn to make permanent and detrimental changes to Idaho’s public schools, colleges and universities and to negatively impact Idaho’s ability to deliver services to its citizens. The 2009 Legislature will forever be remembered as the one that made the first-ever cuts to public schools – cuts that many of us felt were completely unnecessary, given the availability of federal recovery money and Idaho taxpayers’ own rainy-day funds. Like most Idahoans, Democrats realize that strong schools and a robust job market are keys to our state’s future prosperity, so we worked to lessen attacks on our schools and economic development efforts and use a reasonable share of our available resources.

Other important issues remained virtually unaddressed during the long 2009 legislative session: health care, clean energy, rural broadband, telecommunications and economic development. While we saw the Legislature push a toothless measure to declare our state sovereignty, once again any meaningful ethics legislation died in the legislative process. While we saw the Legislature protect Idaho’s waters from zebra mussels, the majority party rejected protection of those same waters from inadequate septic systems and toxic chemicals. And while we debated transportation for months, Republicans cynically prevented any serious consideration of authority to trust local communities to address their own transportation and infrastructure needs.

Democrats are proud to report some solid successes. We led the campaign to strengthen Idaho’s child-care laws, and after five years, we succeeded. We pushed legislation to make schools more energy efficient and a successful measure to recognize that working Idaho women deserve equal pay. Democrats also worked to maintain life-saving health care for adults living with cystic fibrosis and forced reversal of the ill-timed layoffs of state auditors who were chasing tax cheats. But we did not drive the Legislature’s agenda, and like most Idahoans, we believe it went on far too long, with far too little accomplished for Idaho.

It became clear during this marathon session that Idaho’s Republicans lack a coherent vision for Idaho's future and are ill-equipped to handle the demands of our global economy and our changing population. Despite holding most of the legislative seats and the Governor’s office, Republicans appeared to spend much of the 2009 session locked in power struggles, unable to govern effectively and meet Idaho’s citizens’ most basic needs.

Idahoans deserve better. Democrats are unified behind a vision of a robust economy, pristine resources that value our farming and ranching traditions, excellent schools, efficient state services and a fair deal for all of our citizens. Democrats will continue to work for Idaho’s future, putting the public good first as we were elected to do.

John Rusche of Lewiston and Kate Kelly of Boise serve as minority leaders in the Idaho House and Senate, respectively.