Thursday, November 6, 2008

Let's get to work

After a long campaign, the time to get to work is upon us.

Residents throughout the Treasure Valley and Idaho are struggling. Now is not the time for partisanship. We must work across the aisles to ensure a brighter future.

In the upcoming weeks I'll write more in depth about my priorities, but wanted to give you a quick glimpse of where my energy will be focused.
  1. Workforce development programs
  2. Quality Rating System for childcare facilities
  3. Streamlining the impact fee statute
  4. Small Business Health Insurance Pool
  5. High-tech infrastructure (broadband)
  6. Local-option authority for all uses
  7. Sunset provision on all current exemptions

As always, I would love to have your feedback.


Rep. Branden J. Durst

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Just a few minutes ago the Speaker of the House ruled a motion made by Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet out of order. The motion was to have the House concur in Senate amendments to H599AA,As (the personal property tax bill). The amendments placed a cap of $75,000 on the taxable value of property owned by businesses. In so doing, 86% of all Idaho businesses wouldn't have to pay this tax at a cost of about $15 million. As importantly, local units of government would be held harmless.

The fact is that the motion wasn't out of order. This was a case of the Speaker thinking he is, "above the law." Rep. Jaquet objected and appealed to his ruling, but the appeal failed on a party line vote. This is what happens when there is no balance in the partisan make up of the Legislature. This is what happens when someone perceives that they have absolute power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

PS - I'll write more about the bill itself later.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Buildin' Roads, Burnin' Bridges

Well, I suppose that each legislative session would be incomplete if it didn't have a major conflict. This year, the biggest conflict, as all of you probably already know, is funding for transportation.

Transportation funding has to be considered in three categories.
  1. Maintenance of existing roads and bridges
  2. State funding of new road construction
  3. Local funding of new roads and public transportation

Within each category, the potential solution differs. In the past few years, State funding for new road construction has revolved around GARVEE bonding. GARVEE bonding is essentially the process of receiving future federal road funding today. The State pays interest on the advancement of the money. This year the Legislature approved an addition $134 million through this funding mechanism.

The funding mechanism regularly considered for local funding of new roads and public transportation is the local option tax. Local option taxes can take a variety of forms, but are usually in the form of a sales tax. Because I've written about this before, I will skip it for now.

Now, as for the maintenance of currently existing roads and bridges, this is where things get complicated and political. Lets get a couple things out of the way from the outset. First, no one wants to pay more taxes. Second, maintenance is way past due. These two conditions are seemingly juxtaposed. The real problem surrounding this issue is the fact that everyone has a different solution. Some folks, like the Governor, want to rely solely upon increases in vehicle registration fees to get new revenue. Others want to have a more balanced approach by raising vehicle registration fees, semi truck fees, license plate fees (like the one I am debating against right now), and of course taxes on gasoline. I for one do not like the idea of putting all the eggs in one basket. That being said, I also don't think it is appropriate to charge those that drive little the same as those that drive more. I also have a fundamental problem charging someone that has 2006 Ford Focus the same as someone with an 2006 Audi A4.

More than this, it is incredibly frustrating when those that advocate for more funding (which is absolutely necessary) fail to recognize that funding doesn't occur in a vacuum. What I am saying is that when the Legislature passes a huge tax break for businesses worth $120 million (H 599) it exacerbates the problem. This $120 million will have to be made up someplace and that will likely be to the individual taxpayer. Now, we are going to ask you to dig deeper. When does it stop?

So, what should we do? In my opinion, I'd do the following:

  • Increase fees on registration based upon value of the vehicle rather than the current practice of looking at the age. I think that this is better because as I demonstrated model year is not indicative of actual value. Yes, it may be more indicative of miles driven, but this is also an issue of fairness.
  • Increase fees on semi trucks. I'm not sure how much this should be, but it should be valued at the amount of damage that semi trucks cause to our roads.
  • Add a small sales tax on the sale of fuel. This would be a better proxy to the use of the roads. This would be beneficial to our community members, especially the elderly, that tend to take short trips.

One solution that I didn't mention, but I think needs serious consideration is the use of toll roads. This wouldn't be necessary in most places in the State, but it could provide some additional revenue in stretches of interstate that need the help.

To conclude, I don't like the idea of putting more of the burden on individual taxpayers when the tax burden is already so heavily on their shoulders. Ultimately, a total review of the tax system must be conducted.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Grocery tax not a done deal

While it is true that the Senate just concurred with the House on a bill to increase the income tax credit for groceries, I sincerely hope that this doesn't stifle the discussion in the future. While some may disagree, I can not justify taxing something as necessary as food. If the legislation has the impact of making the tax on groceries a non-issue, then the Legislature has failed the people of Idaho.

For the purposes of transparency you should know that I supported the legislation, albeit reluctantly. Still, I hold out hope that future legislatures will have the political conviction to put individual taxpayers above political wrangling. What you may not know, however, is that the proposal that I (along with the rest of the House minority caucus) put forth was never given a hearing. The proposal called for the repeal of the sales tax on specific grocery items at a rate of one cent per year until such time as the tax were no longer around. At the same time, the grocery tax credit would be phased out. This solution was fiscally responsible and represented a real solution, but alas politics won.

I have been asked by some where the money would come from to make up the loss of revenue. This is a very legitimate question and I would like address it in this public forum, so here it goes.

First, lets identify the underlying assumptions. Number one, food is a necessity. Number two, revenue neutrality is preferable. Number three, everyone pays sales tax. Number four, money now is nearly always preferable to money later.

Okay, now that we have those out of the way, lets get to the options for funding. In order to fund a repeal of the tax on groceries, or as my colleague Rep. Liz Chavez (D-7) insists the tax on food, I believe we should attempt to address each of the underlying assumptions. The inverse of a necessity is a luxury and this, I believe, is the key to our solution. As was noted, everyone pays sales tax, that is not the case for income tax, however. This, along with the fourth assumption explains why the tax credit doesn't make as much sense. While it true that most everyone will get access to the new grocery tax credit, regardless of income tax filing status, it is also true that those that those really need the break will find it difficult to wait for the day when the check comes in the mail (assuming that they submit a request for it). This time lag is not advantageous in budgeting for any organization including a family (why do you think that banks get so up in a tizzy when you try to spend money you don't have?!).

Now, we know that everyone pays the sales tax on groceries regardless of their income. Unlike some, I disagree that wealthy folks should still have to pay. After all, if the first assumption is true, it applies equally to everyone. That means if you say that you can discriminate based upon income, I believe that you lose the ground of the argument that you shouldn't be taxing something that is necessary. Instead, I believe you should consider taxing something that isn't necessary. Luxury taxes would be ideal because the consumer would have to opt-in. Unlike food, where opting-out isn't really feasible, a luxury tax gives the consumer plenty of leeway. I am not sure what the luxury tax would look like, but presumably it would apply to things that are big ticket items that are nice to have. However, I would never advocate putting more taxes on housing because shelter is a need. Conversely, a new Beamer, while attractive and seemingly difficult to live without, would not result in significant trauma.

It seems to me that an important component of deciding what is and is not a luxury is related to marginal utility of a dollar. That is, the marginal utility of $50 is much lower on a purchase of a new Beamer compared to other items. I would also contend that price elasticity has something to do with this, but I don't want to get into the economic theory so I'll leave it there. Anyway, this is just one potential approach. Either way, the discussion can't end because unlike what some may say, the mission is not accomplished.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A guide to writing policy through the Idaho Constitution

If members of the House Majority Leadership were to write a book, it should be titled, "A Guide to Writing Policy Through the Idaho Constitution."

Today, in the House Revenue Taxation Committee, majority members pushed through a Constitutional Amendment (HJR4) regarding local-option taxing. HJR4 would modify the State Constitution to dictate the parameters of future policy regarding sales and use tax proposals . It clarifies that local-option taxing must occur in a traditional jurisdiction (county or city). It also clarifies that any local-option tax must pass by a 2/3 vote. Finally, it mandates that enabling legislation must still be passed by the Legislature prior to any local-option tax is proposed.

This made me think of three questions:
  1. Is this the proper role of the Constitution?
  2. What is the value of this proposal?
  3. What impact would this have on future proposals?
Admittedly, the first question is much more philosophical and less practical, but I believe it deserves to be addressed. When our State Constitution was written, I am unsure if the intention was for the document to be regularly rewritten as if it were an extent ion of the Idaho Code. While it is true that bar for amending the constitutional is set higher than other policy, given our current imbalance in the Legislature this not nearly as difficult as it probably should be. This is relevant because by placing something in the State Constitution, it makes it nearly impossible to reverse in future years. I do not believe that it is appropriate to use the State Constitution to write policy that is better suited for the Idaho Code.

The value of the HJR4 is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. In my view, and the view of Bose Metro Chamber of Commerce (amongst many others), there is no value to the proposal. This legislation has been written in order to thwart local communities and their right to self determination by setting the bar so high that it will be unachievable. This is wrong plain and simple.

The actual impact of this legislation is not completely known, but there are some pretty likely consequences. If this amendment were to pass, it would likely cripple the ability of Treasure Valley residents from being able to address its transportation concerns from a regional perspective. This is because it would mandate that the vote for local-option would be voted on at the jurisdiction level, in this case the county. The regional transportation authority (RTA), in the Treasure Valley know as Valley Regional Transit (VRT) transcends the county boundaries. Rather thank taking one vote and reaching the threshold in the RTA, each county would be considered separately. This just doesn't make sense.

HJR4 is headed to the House floor, but I will vocally oppose it. I will urge other lawmakers to do the same.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Growth Management

The mantra, "growth should pay for itself" is continually proclaimed and then quickly ignored. But why? This is probably one of the most important issues facing Idaho families and so I'll try to shed some light.

When a legislator or anyone else says that growth should pay for itself it is important to understand what that actually means. The problem is that I am not sure that everyone is in agreement on that point. Due to this, fracturing occurs and a unified voice is lost. Without this unity the issue dies out and that gets us to where we are today. That is the Reader's Digest version.

Then there is the story behind the story. Namely, it is that the powers that be are vociferously opposed to any changes and work the system to maintain the status quo. As a citizen legislature, we are particularly disadvantaged in being able to weigh the arguments and come to an independent conclusion. We rely heavily upon the information from those with an agenda to push. They are committed to their agenda and they are equally committed to us embracing their perspective. This is due to the fact that most public policy is a zero-sum game. That is, there are winners and there are losers. The vested interest that would pay the freight for the new growth management policies are very clear losers. They act predictably and oppose the changes. From my observations, they are agents of disunity. They pit those that would otherwise agree against one another in an attempt to fracture the cause and put pettiness above practicality. This cripples the process and ta-da, no change in the status quo, mission accomplished. This is harmful for the public policy making process, but more harmful on the lives of Idahoans.

To be clear, I support growth management, but this is not a profund statement. In fact, I would content that there is not a single legislator that would say differently. Growth management can come in many shapes and sizes. There are those that would advocate for a no-growth policy. On the other end of the spectrum there some that insist the market is the growth management mechanism. Ostensibly, there is a middle ground. Unfortunately, it is those in the middle that have the least to gain or lose and thus are the least well organized. A lack of organization is the Achilles heel of moderation. Think about it... When was the last time you heard someone get all pumped up for a moderate policy? It doesn't happen. In a world where the squeaky wheel gets the oil, moderation is well calibrated machine that should be listened to more often.

In the same way, it is the middle ground that is the best solution to the growth management issue. I certainly would not advocate ending growth. I would also contend that the market has been unsuccessful in regulating itself due to failures (asymmetry of information, externalities). I support streamlining the impact fee process so that it is easier to utilize. I also support expanding the right to administer impact fees to school districts and local highway districts. On this last point, lets remember that the executors of these organizations are elected by you and me. That means that they are accountable to the public and if they are acting outside of our will, they can and should be replaced.

I could go on for ever, but like growth, I have to know when to stop. To conclude in the words of Paul Harvey, "Now you know the rest of the story."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

why milk?

In the last couple of days I have received some heat from a few individuals regarding my legislation that would make milk the offiical beverage of Idaho. Given that, I thought you all would like an explanation as to why I decided to introduce this legislation.

To begin, I should be clear that it was never my intention to make a mockery of the legislative process. As someone who has studied the policymaking process and has a graduate level degree in the area, I am particularly sensitive to anything that is detrimenal to the process. I have devoted my professional life to the policymaking process and subsequently I have always and will always take my responsibility as a policymaker seriously and professional. My committement to the process is second-to-none. This is why I regularly vote in opposition to motions on the floor to "suspend rules." The legislative process is sacrosanct and no policy is above the process.

Now on to milk...

Some have hypothesized that I proposed this legislation because I am beholden to the dairy industry. Based upon the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I don't know how this hypothesis could hold true. If this were true, then I would likey not have been as consistently critical of the industry regarding confinded animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the environmental impacts of the industry.

Some have said that this legislation is a waste of time. To those, I would make a couple of points. To begin, my motivation for this legislation has always been about finding a way to reduce childhood obesity. The IdahoPTA has identified childhood obesity as one of its primary legislative objectives. They state on their website:
Childhood Obesity 11/05 (R) Idaho PTA will promote the healthy eating habits among children and youth and will support the inclusion of parents and other in determining the use and products of vending machines.

As a parent of three young children, I am particularly concerned with this issue. I don't find anything about childhood obesity laughable and I certainly don't be believe that it is in anyway a waste of time. In addtion to the IdahoPTA, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization supported by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, has identified beverage consumption as a major area of concern, but one that is frequently overlooked. From their website:

Beverages are often overlooked, but they are a source of many hidden calories in people’s diets.

  • Too Much Sugar: The USDA recommends eating no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar per day. One can of soda is over one and a half times that!
  • Taking Bigger Gulps: Boys today drink, on average, over two 12 ounce sodas a day, with girls averaging almost two a day.
  • Two Sodas a Day: A child who drinks two cans of soda per day consumes about eighteen teaspoons of sugar per day just from soda.

    Ultimately, the question becomes, "How does making milk the official state beverage impact childhood obesity?" As I have stated on many occassions and in numerous forums, I believe that the State has a role to play in influencing the habits of children. This role, I believe, includes being a proponent of healthy decision making, like drinking milk rather soda pop or certain juices that are loaded with sugar. Are their others things we can do to impact childhood obesity? Yes, there are and we should be doing them, but many of them have the potential to cost the State significantly. Due to the current economic picture, now may not be the time to add an additional expense to the State. This bill has a very limited impact on State funds and can do no harm. I hope this clears up some of the confusion. Please feel free to leave comments if you have them.

    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    My legislative update #1

    At the beginning of the session I gave you all a preview of the legislation I was going to be working on this year. We are five weeks into the session so I thought now was as good of a time as any to let you know where things were at. Without any further delay, here we go:

    SB1404 - Purpose of this legislation is to provide that children of four years or older may attend prekindergarten in the public schools and to provide that Idaho public schools may offer prekindergarten programs if a majority of voters approve such a program in an election and to provide that the voters may approve a levy to pay for the program.

    STATUS - I am very happy to be a co-sponsor of this important legislation. The bill is currently in the Senate Education Committee. Read the bill here.

    RS17860 - The purpose of this legislation is to establish and implement a voluntary child-care rating system designed to provide assistance to parents and promote high quality family centered child care. Ratings will be based upon national health and safety standards (environment), parental involvement, staff-to-child ratios, planned curriculum, and professional development. By offering rating information to parents, they will be better equipped to make an informed child-care choice. Participating providers will be assisted in developing plans and practices that increase their ratings. The goal is to improve early childhood learning and increase school readiness. This legislation requires that those administering the program measure, analyze, and report outcomes to the legislature annually over a three year period for the purpose of evaluating its effectiveness. At the end of this time period, results and recommendations will be made as to the continuation, modification, or termination of the Idaho STARS Quality Rating System.

    STATUS - This legislation has been "put in the drawer" by Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge prior to a print hearing despite its bipartisan support. Unfortunately, no further action is expected this session.

    HB413 - The purpose of this legislation is to give absentee voters the option of applying for status as a permanent absentee voter in all elections for which they are qualified. The current procedure for making application as an absentee voter will not be altered, except for an additional box on the application that can be marked indicating the voter's desire to seek permanent absentee voting status. The county clerk will inform all applicable taxing districts as to the voter's status to ensure they receive the proper ballots. All returned ballots will be processed in the same manner as absentee ballots are today. The voter loses his status as a permanent absentee voter upon his request, death, disqualification, cancellation of voter registration, or when a ballot is returned as undeliverable. In addition, the legislation also codifies access to absentee ballots by military servicemen and women. Exercising this option is voter driven and initiated. The voter request an application and return it to the county clerk before receiving any ballots. This measure will better serve those voters who must or choose to always vote absentee.

    STATUS - The bill was printed with near unanimous support in the House State Affairs Committee, but has not yet had a full hearing. Updates will be provided as the become available. Read the bill here.

    HCR35 - Directs the Legislative Council to create an interim committee to study and recommend solutions to assist small business owners pay for health insurance for themselves and their employees.

    STATUS - The House Business Committee will begin hearing printed bills in the upcoming weeks. Details to come. Read the bill here.

    HB497 - This legislation amends the public works contractor licensing requirements to include contractor provided comprehensive health insurance as an additional condition.

    STATUS - The House Commerce and Human Resources voted unanimously to print this bill and is expected to have a hearing in the upcoming weeks. Read the bill here.

    SB1380 - The purpose of this bill is to allow consumers to "freeze" access to their credit reports, as a means to help prevent fraud and identity theft. A "freeze" means that anyone attempting to obtain a credit report on a consumer will be unable to get one, and will simply be told that the credit report is frozen. Because most creditors and merchants won't extend significant credit without reviewing the consumer's credit report first, it will be more difficult for fraudsters to obtain credit using someone else's stolen identity. If, having frozen his credit report, the consumer himself needs to obtain credit, he can temporarily lift, or permanently remove, the freeze on his own account. The bill specifies how a consumer can place a freeze with a credit reporting agency, how the consumer can temporarily lift the freeze so that the consumer may engage in a credit transaction, and how a consumer can permanently remove a freeze. It also sets out a number of exceptions to the freeze, to allow creditors to use credit reports to monitor, service and collect their existing credit accounts, to allow the credit reporting agency to comply with subpoenas and court orders, to allow screening by potential landlords and employers, and to allow other legitimate non-credit related uses of credit reports. In order to defray the costs associated with placing and lifting a freeze, the bill allows a credit reporting agency to charge a fee of up to $6 to place a freeze or to temporarily lift a freeze. No fee may be charged for permanently removing a freeze. A consumer who has been a victim of identity theft may not be charged a fee for placing or removing a freeze. Credit reporting agencies who fail to comply with this bill's requirements are subject to suit for damages, punitive damages and injunctive relief by consumers and by the Attorney General.

    STATUS - It was determined by Senator Bart Davis that this legislation should not be sponsored by any legislators and simply run as a neutral bill under the guide of the organizations that assisted in its composition. Provided that the bill makes it to the House Business Committee I will be in full support and hope to be able to carry it on the floor.

    HB485 - This legislation will make, "Milk: the Official Drink of Idaho!" This is a step in symbolizing Idaho's position in favor of healthy decision making especially given the alarming rise of obesity rates amongst our school-aged children.

    STATUS - The bill will be heard next Monday in the House Agricultural Affairs Committee. Read the bill here.

    If you have any questions about any of these pieces of legislation please let me know!

    Saturday, February 9, 2008

    Whatever happened to iSTARS?

    For those of you that followed the debate surrounding Superintendent Tom Luna's iSTARS proposal, but find yourselves at a loss for any closure I think we may have it. On Friday, in the House Education Committee, Chairman Bob Nonini enlightened all of us as to his information about the status of teacher pay discussions. Given the substantial impact of the proposals (the IEA also has one named weTEACH) it was vitally important that we know what we were up against before making a decision. As you may have already guessed, iSTARS as it was proposed is no more. Members of the Senate Education Committee were diligent in their consideration and ultimately concluded that it wasn't a prudent move, just as I did the first time I heard about it.

    In the last couple of weeks a few things that I predicted have happened and they were daggers in iSTARS. My first contention was that iSTARS would collapse under its own weight. The economy has clearly slowed down and with several sectors underperforming revenues would certainly not be what were projected. Without the money to pay for the plan, it was not likely that the State would commit itself to such a huge financial liability in the face of so much uncertainty, nor should it.

    My second contention, as I told a group of teachers (at a Boise Education Association meeting in the Media Center at Timberline High School) more than 3 months ago, it was clear to me that there were at least a couple of illegal or unconstitutional components to iSTARS. I specifically pointed to restrictions regarding the newly proposed Category IV contract, which removes a teachers continuing contract and replaces it with a one to three year contract. As I told the audience, I had serious questions of the legality of requiring a school district to accept a teacher’s contract status when the teacher moves from one district to another. By way of example, consider a teacher with a Category IV contract in the Meridian School District that moves to the Boise School District. Under iSTARS the Boise School District is obligated to maintain the Category IV contract. This immediately raised a red flag for me because it is the local school district, not the State of Idaho, which is the contractually obligated employer. The Attorney Generals opinion spoke specifically to this concern, agreeing with my contention.

    I also questioned the suggestion by Supt. Luna that once a teacher opted into a Category IV contract he/she could revert back to a Category III contract should the funding for iSTARS cease. I questioned Supt. Luna directly about this matter and he had his budget director Jason Hancock, attempt to identify where it was within the language of the legislation that stipulated that this was the case. Needless to say, I never got a good answer and the Attorney Generals opinion concluded, as I contended, that this non existent and futhermore the concept was lacking legal grounding.

    The irony, it seems to me, is that the Category IV contract turned out to be limestone around the neck of iSTARS rather than the life jacket it was proposed to be. That is, Supt. Luna insisted on several occasions that without the Category IV contract, iSTARS would be sunk because it wouldn't have the necessary buoyancy to keep it afloat throughout the legislative process. Ultimately, however, it was the Category IV contract that took iSTARS to it's watery grave.

    Saturday, January 19, 2008

    Taxes, taxes, taxes!

    In response to some complaints that I heard from residents at a recent District 18 Legislative Forum, I would like to provide the following historical review of Idaho tax policy.

    Before the 2006 Special Session here is what Jim Risch had to say (link here):
    “The net result of my proposal is a $50 million dollar tax cut that will take affect this year and every year. The maintenance and operations levy is the driver of property tax increases and this will remove the cause of the enormous increase in property taxes when values escalate. Idahoans should not have to worry about being driven out of their homes by property tax increases just because they had a huge rise in the value of their home. The primary beneficiary of this property tax relief is middle-income Idahoans.”
    After the 2006 Special Session here is what Jim Risch had to say (link here):
    “I am overwhelmed by the two-thirds vote by both the House and the Senate for property tax relief. Difficult issues usually result in a close vote, but Idahoans saw that this plan provides immediate and permanent property tax relief while substantially helping education."
    Last summer, here is what House Republican Leadership had to say about tax exemptions:
    "I'm going to work through it, you bet," [House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake] said. "There are issues on the list that obviously I don't agree with, but still, we'll work through them." (link here)

    "Most of these exemptions have a strong constituency politically so the ability to go and do a massive overhaul - don't hold your breath," said Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. (link here)
    Here is what was said this week by those same folks (link here):

    "What's broken? We have a tax system that is bringing in more money than we are spending," [House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke] said.

    "What I have heard from this committee is, once an exemption is established it should stay established," Lake said.

    And finally, lets consider the thoughts of these same lawmakers last year during a debate on a bill that would have given a huge tax break to business (link here):

    Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, sounded a similar note. “You need to ask yourself who is demanding the services” that impact county budgets, he said. “Is it ag? Is it mining and timber? I don’t think so. It is residential.”

    "Yes, for this year, we do shift some taxes,” said House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot.

    First, let me make a few observations:
    1. The beneficiaries of the 2006 Special Session property tax bill has not been "middle-income Idahoans."
    2. The 2006 Special Session property tax bill has not provided "immediate and permanent property tax relief ."
    3. Attempts to reign in the dozens of business tax exemptions were half hearted.
    4. There has been a systematic and calculated agenda to continue to shift more of the tax burden on to homeowners.
    5. Current House Majority Leadership is more interested in offering tax relief to businesses than they are to working families.

    Let's be clear, the only way that homeowners will see real tax relief is if the tax burden is shared more equitably. This means that we need to eliminate some of the sales tax exemptions that are in reality nothing more than corporate welfare. It is undeniable that this will not occur as long the Idaho Legislature continues to be led by the current leadership team which takes its marching orders from the likes of IACI and the Idaho Association of Realtors. This is not political rhetoric, but rather a simple observation of quotations made by these legislators. I've said it before and I will say it again, I will not support legislation that will have the intended consequence (whether expressed or implied), of shifting more of the burden to Idaho families. I am committed to ensuring that Idaho is best place to do business, but doing so on the backs of Idahoans isn't good for anyone in the long-run. The approach must be worker-centric and business-centric, not one or the other. Workforce development and training must be our aim, not more tax cuts. If there are highly qualified individuals, there will be an employer ready to offer them a good job. This helps workers and it helps business.

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008

    Will Public Transit Work?

    In response to a comment I received from a previous post, let me attempt to address the issue of the practicality of public transportation in the Treasure Valley.

    To begin, lets get a few things out of the way. Number one, the solution that the Treasure Valley should be seeking is not like anything else we have seen. Number two, the issue of "transit not paying for itself" is a strawman argument (as Sen. David Langhorst rightly pointed out in his recent Readers View). Number three, whether or not a specific individual would use transit is not the extent to its utility.

    Okay, now if you accept my premises the answer to the question of IF a transit system would work is able to be answered. To be concise, yes, I do believe it would work, provided the aforementioned premises exist, which I believe they do. There are several reasons for this that I will outline henceforth.

    Culture - While I would agree with some of my colleagues from Canyon County that suggest that culturally the transit approach is unfamiliar to native 2Cers and thus it would be difficult to accept, I would submit that the enormous boom in population in the Treasure Valley is more than just a heightened appetite for procreation. Indeed the birth rate in the Treasure Valley is presumably (and I say presumably because I don't have the data to back up this statement) higher than most other parts of the country. That leads us to the logical conclusion that there is a degree of importation of citizenry from elsewhere. Most of these new Idahoans have come from places with transit and they know how it works and they will use it if it works. I should point out that I am singling out 2Cers because back in the late 80s and 90s Boise had a thriving bus system cleverly named The BUS (Boise Urban Stages). This, it seems to me, mitigates the cultural barrier.

    Time - Perhaps this is just conjecture, but I don't really think that people in the Treasure Valley like sitting in traffic. Obviously. What makes this different, I think, is that even the folks that have moved to Idaho, who, "are used to really long commutes" find themselves getting agitated with there trek from Nampa to Boise even in comparison to the time they probably spent commuting from the Inland Empire to downtown LA was three times as long when they didn't use the transit. Ironically, something seems to grind on the slow paced nature of Idahoans with just sitting in traffic. I think it is a matter of people being slow paced by their own volition and certainly not wanting the pace dictated by someone else. All of this is to say that I believe that time is precious enough to folks that if they can be shown to save time by using transit, they will do it.

    Cost - The money issue is a big one. Nothing is going to change the predilection of many Idahoans to buy a truck. So to say that transit will replace the car as it has done in other places is just dumb. What is true, however, is that people will become more sensitive to gas prices as they increase. In so doing, they will seek alternatives to balance out their need for their truck (or other vehicle) and their need to get to work. I really believe that if put together the right way, transit will fill that void.

    These are the three major issues, as I see them facing acceptation of transit in the Treasure Valley. What I should also point out, is that to expect that transit, once built, will be at capacity, is unreasonable. As I've mentioned, people will have to see it work. They will have to hear from neighbors that indeed, it does save them time and money. They will have to take it for a test drive just like they did when they bought their new car.

    As a bonus, let me tell you what I think we should be doing. Assuming the funding mechanism exists (and I grant that is a big IF), we should do three things immediately. First, we should begin negotiations with Union Pacific with the intention of purchasing rail corridors throughout Ada, Canyon, and Gem Counties. Second, we should identify options for parking lots that could be used for park ‘n ride lots (especially in Canyon and Gem Counties) and then build out our fixed bus line services from these lots. Lastly, we should provide incentives to the private sector for participating in getting their employees “the last mile.” My rationale behind this is that we don’t have the population density to support the immediate use of light rail. To be clear, light rail does have a future in the Treasure Valley; its time is just not now. Waiting to begin addressing the future need for light rail would be costly and detrimental so the initial steps in that direction must be a part of the current solution. The solution I outlined addresses both the near term and long term needs of the Treasure Valley.

    I’ll stop there for now… I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008

    Why do I blog?

    When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenburg Church, it was the beginning of religious reformation. Today, with the proliferation of blogs, especially by elected officials, we are seeing a new sort of reformation, a political reformation.

    Most theologians mark the Protestant Reformation as the time in which the masses were able to have access to the Bible in a way that they could understand it. The Bible, which is referred to by Christians as "the Truth" has many parallels with blogging. Consider the change of mainstream media in the United States, which has unmistakably and undeniably trended toward sensationalism. In the process, much the truth has been lost. Many politicians have adapted to this trend and sought to guard their own intentions and perspectives in the hope to appeal to the superficialism that has captured American media.

    This lack of authenticity, I believe, has also been a major cause of dissatisfaction with government and politicians. People yearn for authenticity, they want to know that when a politician says something it is hasn't gone through hundreds of edits and screened by a public relations firm. Blogging by virtue of its rawness can serve as the direct link between constituents and their elected officials. With a blog, you get to hear it from the horse's mouth. Sometimes what you read on a blog may rub you the wrong way. This, ultimately is the double-edged sword of blogging. However, for a blog to maintain its value, it must be unscripted, unrehearsed and real. This "realness" is what makes a blog, a blog. It is the new horizon in which the truth, from the perspective of the author is only a few keystrokes a way. In short, blogging is the political reformation.

    Tuesday, January 8, 2008

    Short Session?

    There have been a number of legislators (I won't point any fingers) that would like to see the 2008 Legislative Session be one of the shortest in Idaho history. Well, to be blunt, I hope it isn't. Right now our State is facing too many urgent issues to simply walk away because we are uncomfortable in the close quarters. To be sure, there are some that say that I have my position because, "You get to go home every night." Hogwash. Actually, being one of only a handful of legislators who have the responsibility of juggling a young family, full-time job, and the legislature, if anyone should be clamoring for a shortened session it should be me. I'm not, however, because I know that the people of Idaho expect us to do our jobs and make the State a better place to live. I would never advocate for wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary session length, but my failing to address the issues facing our State would do just that. Let's be clear, Idahoans deserve our legislature to be committed to this process. Suspending rules, avoiding issues, or any other tactics is a disservice to our State. This is public service and we must be fully committed to serving.

    Saturday, January 5, 2008

    2008 Legislative Preview

    In preparation of the 2008 Legislative Session, I’ve put together the following legislative preview. In this preview you will find the issues that I plan to work on as well as other major issues facing the Idaho Legislature.

    Legislation I will be sponsoring:
    Early Childhood Education – As an extension of HCR18 from last year’s session, I will be working with a bipartisan coalition to move forward on establishing a Quality Rating System for Idaho child care settings. This is a crucial step in improving early learning and safety for children throughout Idaho. By passing this legislation, parents will be better equipped with more information to choose the right child care provider for them and their children.

    Permanent Absentee Ballots – In conjunction with the Idaho Association of County Recorders and Clerks (affiliate of the Idaho Association of Counties) and bipartisan co-sponsors, I will continue to work on allowing Idaho voters to opt-in to getting permanent absentee ballots. By opting-in, Idaho voters would be able request that in all future elections (or until they move or become ineligible to vote) they receive an absentee ballot in all elections. This will cut bureaucracy, improve access to voting (especially for elderly), and increase efficiencies in our democracy.

    Credit Report Freeze – In an attempt to protect consumers I will be joining a bipartisan group of legislators seeking to give consumers the option to freeze their credit reports in the event of identity theft.

    Major issues for the legislature:
    Alternative Teacher Compensation – Both Superintendent Luna and the Idaho Education Association will present legislation that would change the way public school teachers in Idaho are compensated. The cost of doing so and the potential impacts upon the teaching profession and children’s education will be paramount.

    Local Option Tax/Road Funding – Once again the Coalition for Regional Public Transportation will be bringing legislation that will permit local communities to tax themselves for public transportation. This year’s bill, however, will also include a provision which would permit taxpayers to choose to fund road projects as well. By bundling road and mass transit into this bill, the hope is to expand the number stakeholders and improve the chances of seeing this bill finally pass the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and subsequently the legislature.

    Water – While admittedly my understanding of the water debate is limited to a rudimentary issue of supply and demand (and senior versus junior water rights), this is issue will once again rise to the surface. Stay tuned.

    Personal Property Tax – Once again the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI) will attempt to eliminate the personal property tax. Personal property tax is a tax paid by businesses for property used in the production or operation of the business. This proposal comes with a hefty price tag. The fundamental question facing this proposal is whether or not legislators want to give businesses another tax break at the expense of the individual taxpayers. A secondary proposal may be offered limiting the scope of the elimination with the goal of targeting small businesses.

    Sales Tax on Groceries – There will be myriad of proposals again this session looking to either eliminate the sales tax on groceries and/or increase the grocery tax credit.

    Property Tax – Governor Otter will likely propose a change to Idaho’s law with regard to the assessment of property taxes. A constitutional amendment may be necessary.

    Growth - Impact fees and other tools to limit or change the way growth is managed are top priorities in the Treasure Valley and other parts of the State. Keep an eye on this one.

    Health Insurance - With healthcare costs skyrocketing and more families without insurance, lets hope the legislature steps up and addresses this issue. I will be sure to support any responsible proposal that helps with the cost of healthcare.

    Closed Primaries - As with the lawsuit filed last year, it is highly likely that the legislature will hear another bill that would close primaries. More on this later in the session.

    There are many other big issues, but in the interest of time, I’ll stop there for now. Stay tuned to this blog for more information and updates throughout the session! As always, if you have questions or comments, please let me know.