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.