Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Three ways to help the budget

I think that the criticism that being unwilling to vote to cut programs without another solution is right on. After all, as a state legislator, I along with the rest of the legislature have the constitutional requirement to balance the budget. Last year I was more than just a little hesitant about cutting programs, especially in education (at all levels) and Medicaid. This year, those cuts are looking like they may be even more draconian than ever before. In order show that I am serious about finding solutions, I have come up with the following three ideas to help trim the state budget, so that cuts to vital programs can be minimized.

  1. Modify the property tax legislation from the 2006 Extraordinary Session to only apply to owner occupied residences,
  2. Institute a new program for paroling and otherwise taking non-violent offenders out of our expensive prisons and into other forms of corrections (e.g. house arrest, work release, etc.), and
  3. Restructuring of state government by combining some state agencies, where doing so makes sense both fiscally and from an operations standpoint.

While there are many other solutions, and these three ideas aren't the panacea for our budget woes, they certainly would make a significant dent in the budget shortfall. In the upcoming days and weeks, I'll provide more details and data about my ideas and explain why I think that they are superior to simply cutting state programs that serve Idahoans. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Off Topic Post - BCS Mess, Again.

Well, its that time of year again. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is out ranking collegiate football teams and Boise State is at the center of the controversy just as as it was last year. At issue is whether or not an undefeated BSU team deserves to go to a so-called BCS Bowl Game where the riches and exposure are that of some mythical treasure island.

In the first week of the BCS rankings BSU was ranked a regular season best fourth place, but that all changed this week. BSU got moved back to seventh place and now sits behind Texas Christian, the other non-BCS conference school that is looking to be this year's BCS Buster. As you might recall, the same thing happened last year when BSU and Utah were fighting for a similar distinction. However, this year is different.

This year is different because the spotlight has been shined ever brighter upon the BCS and its uppity elitist conferences by not only Congress, but also President Obama. In Congress, claims have been made that the BCS may be in violation of anti-trust laws. Of course, the BCS conspirators have lifted their nose and tried to laugh off such accusations as nonsense. Well, frankly, if BSU and TCU end up in the top eight at the end of the year, but one of the is left out, it won't be nonsense it will be because of cents (and millions of dollars).

That is why, as big of BSU football fan as I might be (I've gone to games since before there was a blue field and have the schedule poster to prove it), I am hoping that both BSU and TCU end the seasons undefeated and ranked in the top 8. I am also hoping that one of them gets left out because if they do, then the claim that the BCS is nothing more than an anti-competitive money passing scheme will be proved accurate. You see, if BSU and TCU are both in the top 8 or higher and if it really is about placing the best teams in college football against one another, then there will not be a logical basis in which to exclude either team. That is, of course, unless its not about placing the best teams each against each other.

Now, you can bet that BCS conference officials are talking and trying to figure out how to weasel their way out of this one. Perhaps they made some calls to the SEC officiating crews and are trying to figure out the going rate is to throw football games. Either way, they'll be ready with some pigheaded press release that tries to pacify the populace, but we can't let it happen. The BCS is bigger than just some stupid college football games. It is about doing the right thing and giving everyone a fair shot. After all, fighting for the little guy and making things is equal, is something that all of us, football fans and non-fans alike, can agree on

Monday, October 19, 2009

What's next?

On Sunday, October 11, The Idaho Statesman ran my op-ed dealing with what I view as a real disconnect between Governor Otter and regular Idahoans. In the print edition, the Statesman placed my piece right next to one by House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke. Representative Bedke asserted that now wasn't the time for rash measures and insinuated that he and his majority team in the House would protect the taxpayer. The phrase, "starve the beast," comes to mind. At the same time, the Statesman's Editorial Board also ran a piece discussing the issue and proclaiming that, "Lawmakers must defend Medicaid, higher education."

The three opinion pieces generated a fair amount of comments, some of which related to a question of how to protect programs, without raising taxes. I'd like to respond.

First, I have no appetite whatsoever to raise taxes on hard working Idahoans, that option is off the table.

Second, I'd like to clear up some of the misinformation Rep. Bedke disseminated. I, and no one in the legislature that I know of, has advocated for depleting ALL of the rainy day funds. I agree that some cuts will be required. Efficiencies, as the Guv suggests, should help, some. For example, it would be wise to combine some agencies together to reduce administrative costs (e.g. Ag and Water Resources, or Lands and Parks and Rec and Fish and Game). Washington State is doing so and I believe we can too.

I also think we could revamp our corrections systems, which would yield some significant savings. For example, I would move certain non-violent offenders out of prison and into work release. We are doing this some right now, but I think more could be done.

We also need to partner more intentionally with faith-based and community organizations (FBCOs). I attempted last year to put this idea into action with HCR 11, which ultimately stalled in Senate State Affairs Committee because Senators were concerned that it wasn't the Guv's idea and didn't want to "go over him." By investing in FBCOs, we reduce the burden to the State and subsequently taxpayers. In many cases FBCOs can do more with less because of partnerships they leverage within their communities. Plus, unlike state government, they know their communities better because they are in their communities. This has the potential to save a lot of money.

Lastly, not spending rainy day funds has the same practical outcome of slowing the economic recovery. State government, whether the Governor or Rep. Bedke like it, is a very important part of Idaho's gross state product. By unnecessarily cutting state government you are cutting jobs. Jobs that families rely upon. Families, that without those jobs, will end up tapping our already strained social services. That will lengthen the recession for regular Idahoans. Economist forecast a mostly full recovery including job creation by December 2010 at the latest. That is good news for Idahoans, regular Idahoans.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Charter Schools and the Bible

An AP report today about the Nampa Classical Academy has shined a blaring light on a major philosophical divide in our society. On one side, the pro-Separation of Church and State crowd is essentially saying that anything that even remotely smells of religion should stay out of public schools. They point to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the so-called Establishment Clause as their primary argument. On the other side, the pro-Bible crowd extols the Judeo Christian origins of our society and their immediate relevancy on understanding contemporary western philosophy. Whatsmore, the proliferation of charter schools flows as a secondary undercurrent to this heated debate.

Perhaps predictably, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I certainly disagree that First Amendment was intended to spawn the sort of anti-religious overtures that it has become synonymous with. I also don't believe that the State should be in the primary role of informing our spiritual needs. Instead, I believe that understanding religion in our society is critical, but I believe it should be a cognitive understanding not a spiritual or moralistic one. In my view, the latter should be kept in our houses of worship and out of the public education system.

In terms of the public charter school debate, I tend to believe that charter schools are a double edged sword. They can, and have proven to fill a very real need. The problem comes when, in the competitive process, they over-compete and subsequently hurt the traditional public school to the point where the traditional public school can no longer serve its core mission. In this particular case, a strong argument could be made that in the charter application process the school should been more forthright about its intentions to utilize the Bible. Not doing so has been a disservice to all involved.

Ultimately, I don't believe that there is a problem using the Bible in addition to other texts for the study of literature or history. I for one read the Bible (the Book of Genesis specifically) in my senior year English course at Boise High School. Surely there is a lot to be learned by understanding the belief systems that have had a significant impact on the development of western thought. In fact, I would argue not understanding these belief systems puts any scholar, student, or citizen at a strategic disadvantage. That said, I don't think that the Bible, by itself, should be the subject of an entire class in the public education system, whether it be at a traditional or charter school. The debate will continue and hopefully everyone will be quick to listen and slow to speak.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reading between the lanes

I could be wrong, but my guess is that the announcement that the Guv's new Transportation Tax Force (mispelling by design) will not report until 2011, it means John McGee won't be running for CD1. Why else would McGee be engaged so heavily in a process that wasn't going to bear fruit until after the election? Just a hunch.

More about the Tax Force later.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I wish I had thought of that...

Today the Statesman is reporting that the a group calling itself Idaho Vote by Mail is planning on pushing a citizen initiative to allow permanent absentee voting. That sounds like a great idea, I wish I had thought of it first. Wait a minute, I did. In both 2008 (HB 413) and 2009 (HB 26) I have pushed permanent absentee voting, but didn't get anywhere.

My impetus behind becoming involved in the issue predates my being elected to the legislator. In fact, it came in the HOT summer of 2006 when I was campaigning door-to-door. During that experience, while walking in Old Lakewood (as natives of SE Boise would refer to it), I came across an elderly couple with a fantastic life story. The gentleman of the house was (as I recall) a WWII vet and former mayor of a small town in Montana. He, with his wife by his side, spent his entire life serving our country and protecting our democracy. Unfortunately, due to his ailing health, he was no longer able to leave his home and neither was his wife because like many of that generation, she never learned to drive. Subsequently we had two people that served our Country that would likely never get to vote again. That, I believed, was a sham and patently unfair. I gave them absentee ballot request forms and picked them up and personally delivered them to Ada County Clerk a couple of weeks later. After some time thinking (and being elected), I concluded that something had to be done. Someone wasn't always going to be there to make sure they had the absentee ballot form to fill out. That's when I decided that permanent absentee was the perfect solution to this problem.

In 2008 when I attempted to push legislation I found an enthusiastic partner in the Idaho Association of Counties and the Clerks Association. After much work, we moved forward with having the legislation introduced. Unfortunately, that's far as it would go. It met a wall known as the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, Tom Loertscher. While we had counted our votes in committee and they looked like enough to pass, we never had the support of the chair.

In 2009 the Clerks Association decided it wasn't worth the effort and so I was stuck carrying the mantel. After a very brief discussion with the chair it was clear that a hearing was out of the question and so was a print hearing. I decided to just run it as a personal bill and it went to die in House Ways and Mean-spirited.

Finally, I applaud the effort to move forward with a citizens initiative. I believe the group has accurately surmised that with an obstructionist chairman, this issue is DOA. Some of the critics will try scare folks into believing the system is inherently circumspect with voter fraud. They, frankly, don't know what they are talking about. The Secretary of State and the Clerks all feel that absentee voting is as secure (if not more so) than voting in the polling booth. These are the experts, if they are wrong about this, then we have a lot bigger problems on our hands. Some opponents will try to talk voters into thinking that permanent absentee gets rid of polling booths all together, again, they are wrong. In fact, the continued existence of polling booths is why I support permanent absentee over other forms of vote by mail, which do eliminate traditional polling locations. Ultimately, I hope the politics of fear misinformation is unsuccessful and Idahoans, just like at Burger King, can have it their way.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Debate Tonight

Tonight I will be participating in a debate regarding Liberty University's decision to remove a College Democrats Club from the campus. Link to the event will be forthcoming.

UPDATE: Click HERE to play the debate (it should load in Windows Media Player).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Green Jobs = Good Jobs

As I stated in an early post, The TwiLIGHT Zone, my kind of corporate welfare, using stimulus money to fund long-term green collar jobs was just what the doctor ordered. Today the Idaho Statesman reported that Micron is back at it again trying to find some financial assistance to fund an LED plant development. While scale of the proposal is pretty small, in the near term it would employ less than 200, it is the long term potential that is the most exciting.

The bottom line is that Idaho has to begin to develop the infrastructure and expertise to compete in the Green Economy. As a state we already have several competitive advantages over other places in the United States, namely relatively inexpensive electric rates and an abundance of open space.

As a state legislator, I have committed myself to identifying ways that the State of Idaho can assist in this regard. Certainly industry supporters always clamor for tax incentives, but we must be more creative. First and foremost we must invest in ourselves. If we don't invest in the people of Idaho, then there will be little reason to move here. Second, we need to identify ways to maximize on our competitive advantages.

Unlike the old natural resource based economy of the past, Green Economy jobs are here to stay for a long time. They will require a new type of worker and require an innovative spirit. I believe Idahoans are up to the challenge. The only question is if Idaho's leaders are ready to make the leap.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?

After having reviewed Governor Otter's "explanation" as to why he vetoed HB 245, all I can think to say is, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

See it for yourself, here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Say it ain't so

The Governor decided to veto HB 245, aka the Voluntary Parents as Teacher Support Program. I could go on and on about how ridiculous this is, but I won't. Really, I am somewhat in disbelief that the Guv would play politics with kids. Say it ain't so...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

End of the road?

Well, tomorrow will be the 99th day of the 2009 legislative session. That's right, 99, as in only one a way from triple digits. As has been widely reported, there are essentially two issues preventing us from going home. First is the mainstay going home issue, the budget. The second issue, transportation funding, has held the same position for two years. The question is, will this week be the end of the road?

I think its pretty clear that the budget will be taken care of early this week, save perhaps the public education budgets. The latter is being delayed due to some impending legislation that seeks to change the statutory responsibility for funding public education. The bills, HB 256, HB 262, and HB 303 are all major shifts in education policy. But I'll save the education discussion for another day.

Transportation is a whole different issue. After having read the Idaho Statesman editorial on the issue today, I took pause. I thought long and hard about the role I have played in this debate. In their words:

CENTER? WHAT CENTER? Coming into the session, Otter's best chance of getting road repair money rested in bipartisanship - and forging a centrist coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. But from those bygone early days of the session, Democrats have ripped Otter for putting potholes before people, and Otter has made it far too easy for Boise Democrats to criticize needed repairs to an aging road system.
Blame all around. Democrats have demagogued the issue. Otter has been unable to reach across party lines.

Demagoguery? Seriously? Perhaps the Statesman forgot to read Otter's response to the House's decision to decline raising taxes on fuel or to some of the debate in favor. But that's not my point here. The point is that my position on the issue has been crystal clear from the beginning. Consider this response from the 2008 Idaho Statesman Voter Guide as proof:

Gov. Butch Otter says Idaho needs hundreds of millions of dollars in highway improvements it cannot pay for with existing revenues. What, if anything, should the state do to improve transportation? How would you pay for these improvements?

Branden J. Durst: As I have stated on my blog ( funding doesn't occur in a vacuum. Do roads need to be improved? Absolutely. Is there enough money to do it? Probably not. Unfortunately, advocating for highway funding and not mass transit doesn't make sense. The solution to the transportation problem, especially in the Treasure Valley, must include local-option authority without an unnecessary and capricious constitutional amendment.

I guess if being up front about your position during a campaign and then advocating for your position as you had stated it is demagoguery, I suppose I am guilty as charged. But I have a different word for it, honesty. If people in District 18 wanted to elect someone that would write a blank check to Governor Otter and ITD for transportation without any other considerations, they should have elected someone else. I don't take my position in order to achieve some sort of visceral emotional response. I have taken my position to protect the taxpayers of District 18 and ensure the long term strategic interest of the State of Idaho.

Anyway, while I do suspect that end of the road is near my position won't change. Transportation funding is needed, but a comprehensive approach must be the solution. Without it, we will continue to kick the can down the street and delay the inevitable.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For the Children

Last week the Senate voted 28-6 in favor of HB 245, the Parents as Teachers (PAT) Support Program. Now, its on its way to the Governor where its future is unknown.

As background, PAT is a nationally recognized program that uses the home visit model for early childhood education. Unlike programs that take the child out of the home, PAT seeks to teach parents to be the teachers. The program is very low cost compared to other early childhood programs. While it certainly isn't the perfect solution for early childhood education, it is definitely 500 times better than nothing at all. It is tough to compare the effectiveness of PAT with other types of programs, but for what it is, it is a good program. For more information about it, check out the National Parents as Teachers website here.

In Idaho, PAT operated under executive order of former Governor Dirk Kempthorne. The program was a huge success and found an ally in former First Lady Patricia Kempthorne. The program operated throughout the State by funding through federal TANF funds. In 2007, when Governor Otter was elected, he questioned whether or not TANF funds were allowed to be used for PAT. He concluded that they were not and by executive order ended the program.

Late in the 2008 legislative session I was approached by some community members to reconstitute of PAT in Idaho. I put together an RS and submitted it to House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini. Due to the lateness of the RS, however, it was decided that the legislation should wait another year before being introduced.

After I was successfully re-elected in November 2008 (thank goodness), I again began to attempt to drum up support for PAT. I immediately found an ally in newly elected Representative Brian Cronin from Boise's north end. We continued to refine the language of the legislation and I will say that Brian helped make my good bill a great bill. Through some negotiation and good fortune, we also were able to secure sponsorship of Rep. Nonini as well as House Education Committee vice-chair Mack Shirley. The bill sailed through the House.

Now we are back to now. Having been signed by the Speaker and sent to the Governor the ball is in his court. The Governor has three options at his disposal. He can either sign the bill, let the bill go into law without his signature, or veto the bill. For the sake of the families of Idaho, I hope he doesn't do the latter. If the Governor attempts to use PAT as a political football against myself or anyone else, he will be doing so at the disadvantage of Idaho's families. The fact is that if he does so and uses the funding piece and excuse, it is exactly that, an excuse. The billl does not authorize the expenditure of any funds, including TANF funds. PAT is a positive step for Idaho.

Governor, for the children, sign HB 245.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Budget Denied

So why do I keep voting no on all those appropriation bills? Well, some of the budgets are better than others, but they nearly all have the same fatal flaw. The flaw is an across the board five percent cut on state employee salaries. Now, intelligent people may disagree as to whether or not state employees should be asked to hold the bag in the economic down turn. However, it is undeniable that reducing state employee pay will have a direct and negative impact on Idaho's economy.

State employees, generally speaking, are middle income earners. Due to this, as a group, their savings rate is relatively low. This low savings rate, justified or not, means that they spend what they make. It also means they would find it very difficult to absorb any cut. It is likely that the cuts will result in increased debt and potentially loss of homes. More certainly, this cut will have a direct and negative impact on the multiplier effect within our economy. This impact will only prolong our recession.

In addition to the negative economic impact, there is a question of control. That is, who should decide how state agencies are managed? Is it the proper role of the legislature to manage state agencies? I don't think so. Some may say, "But negotiations are in the works right now. The across the board component may go away." Well, frankly, may doesn't mean shall. Given the history of the legislature, I am not comforted that the negotiations will conclude in anything that will resolve these harms.

As a lawmaker, I am asked to "vote on the bill before me." The bills before me don't allow managers to manage. The bills before also will have a substantial negative impact on our economy. I will continue to vote no.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

With all due respect, Mr. Governor

Who is irresponsible? First this comment by Governor Otter on the decision by the House to defeat a two cent gas tax increase:

First let me thank the 32 House members who showed today that they understand the issue and the stakes," he said in a statement issued by his office. "I appreciate their patience, leadership, and commitment to doing the right thing. That being said, I am very disappointed by the outcome of today’s vote. Employers, local leaders and other concerned citizens from throughout Idaho have helped me assemble a mountain of information to make the case over the past year. A legislative audit confirmed the need. For months now we have made every compromise, addressed every legitimate concern and provided every alternative that opponents wanted. Instead of working in the best interest of Idaho, 37 members of the House continue finding new excuses to do nothing. That is irresponsible. I have done and will continue doing everything I can. It is the responsibility of all of us — including those 37 House members — to act on the real needs of the people we serve. This is a serious and immediate issue of safety, of economic recovery and future prosperity, and of whether we are going to be responsible stewards of a $16 billion investment that generations of Idaho taxpayers have left in our care or passive witnesses to, and victims of, its continuing deterioration. We must not and I will not ignore reality. I will continue working with those legislators who understand the problem and are willing to provide leadership and solutions to meet our responsibilities.

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.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Annual We Hate Idaho's Children Week

In what has become an annual tradition in the Idaho Legislature, this week can officially be anointed the 2009 We Hate Idaho's Children Week.

So what set this week apart from all the others? Drum roll maestro...
  • Majority party budget writers embrace the fallacy that unprecedented cuts to the public education budget are necessary (totalling over $100 million) despite having over $150 million in rainy day funds in the bank.
  • Majority party members of the House Health and Welfare Committee all but close the door on the passage of a statewide daycare licensing bill intended to keep pedophiles out of the child care business for the fifth year in a row.
  • Despite opposition from nearly all education experts, the Majority members of the House approve passage of HB256, which, according to the experts, will likely lead to unsafe transportation conditions for school children.
  • Majority party budget writers cut funding for treatment to children with Cystic Fibrosis, likely leading to increase hospitalization and probably much worse.

While my tone is in jest, the truth is that none of these misdeeds are a laughing matter. My question is, when will the Idaho Legislature stop doing things to hurt Idaho children? As a parent I know it can't be soon enough.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Got one through!

I am pleased to announce that my joint effort, HB 84, with Rep. Donna Pence (D-25B) was passed out of the House 0n Friday by a vote of 57 to 7, with 6 legislators absent.

The bill, for those of you that don't know, will allow parents of children that turn five years old after September 1st and attend a private kindergarten, to continue on to 1st grade so long as they can pass an assessment that is approved by the State Department of Education. It also provides a new safeguard for children that attend an out-of-state kindergarten that turned five after September 1st by requiring them to also take the assessment to demonstrate they are prepared to enter first grade.

Really, this is a pretty small change that will impact less than a few dozen students a year. The most classic example is one that I coincidentally heard of yesterday while visiting my doctor. He has a son that was born on September 2nd, one day too late. Under the current law his son has to wait another year or commute to an out-of-state private kindergarten if he wants to start first grade next year with the rest of his peer group. Whats worse is his son is very big for his age and will likely dwarf the other children when he starts kindergarten in the fall. Anyway, this is a good change and hopefully parents will feel more empowered to do the right thing for their children.

The next stop for the bill is the Senate Education Committee. I will be contact the chair of that committee first thing Monday to get a hearing scheduled. Updates will be provided as they are available.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Transportation Showdown

Governor Otter gets his proverbial day in court tomorrow. The court of public opinion in the Idaho House of Representatives. The Guv is still pushing hard to raise taxes to fund transportation and tomorrow will be a showdown.

While I don't know for certain as to what will happen, I will say that no matter what happens tomorrow, this won't be the last draw. In reality, I feel for the Guv on this one. He is between a rock and a hard place. Mechanically, to get support from Group X he must use Solution A. By choosing Solution A, he has lost support of Group Y. If he were to go with Solution B, he'd likely lose support of Group X. The problem in this particular situation is that there are multiple groups and solutions.

The question is what solution gives us the right mix of groups to get something done. That seems to be as elusive as a good paying job in today's economy. While I personally believe that,
"now is no time to be raising taxes on Idaho families," I also believe that Idahoans need to invest in its transportation infrastructure. The problem I have with the Guv's proposal is it lacks creativity and long-term thinking. Rather than try to do something innovative, the Guv has relied on a 1950s solution to fund a 21st century problem.

The Guv's proposal is essentially to increase the gas use tax and registration fees. Let's look at the gas use tax more closely. First, everyone, including the Guv and his staff, will concede that there are diminishing returns with the gas tax. As vehicles get more and more fuel efficient or use other sources of energy, the gas tax becomes less and less useful.

What isn't being well publicized with this tax is that truckers, who I think even they would admit cause a significant amount of wear and tear to our roads, get refunds for any gas they don't use in Idaho that they buy from here. In other words, if a trucker fills up in Mountain Home and goes down to Nevada, he gets to be reimbursed for any amount of tax on the fuel he has remaining. If he has 15 gallons remaining, he gets the tax he paid on that 15 gallons back.

More importantly, the fuel use tax can only be used for roads. That may seem a bit self-explanatory, but it is something I have a real fundamental problem with. You see, the Guv wants to make it more expensive to drive a vehicle, but his tax doesn't provide citizens a natural alternative mode of transportation. This means that you can't, for all intents and purposes, opt-out.

Now, I still don't think its a good idea to be raising taxes, but if that's what we must do, shouldn't we also provide an alternative? I think so. Okay so you may be asking yourself, "Fine, do you have any better ideas?" Oh, I am so glad you asked!!! Please allow me to elaborate.

First, if it were up to me, I'd scrap the registration fees the way it is being proposed with exception to the commercial and farm vehicles. With personal cars, rather than base the registration rate on year of the car, I would make it by weight. The heavier your car, the more damage you do to the road, the more you pay. I used to think it was a good idea to set the rate by value of the vehicle. Perhaps there is a way to give those that are especially low income a waiver or reduced rate. That way you aren't pricing poor people with "old clunkers" out of the market. I wouldn't change the rate for truckers, but don't worry, they aren't going to get off Scott-free.

Next, I'd also scrap the fuel use tax. In its place, I'd use a tax on fuel. The difference between the two is that tax on fuel is a tax on the transaction. That means that truckers don't get to apply for a refund and the State gets more revenue. The fact is that truckers can choose not to register in Idaho, but they can't choose not to drive in Idaho. I would increase the standard rate by five cents. This first five cents would be distributed in the traditional manner 2/3 to ITD, 1/3 to the local highway district. I would include a second five cents and dedicate it to a regional transit authority (like Valley Regional Transit). In the absence of an RTA, I would use the regular distribution model. By doing so, we would be providing an alternative to driving and offer a solution for tomorrow instead of a solution for yesterday.

Do I expect my idea to ever be given consideration? No. But don't say I didn't come to the transportation gun-fight showdown without a gun.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The TwiLIGHT Zone, my kind of corporate welfare

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! But in actuality, this is more like Friday the 13th or the TwiLIGHT Zone. This is a strange world where I am going to advocate for spending stimulus money on what some might call corporate welfare.

As has already been widely reported, many groups and individuals requested a piece of the stimulus pie. Governor Otter decided that roads, roads, and more roads should be the top priority of nearly all of the discretionary funds in the stimulus package. You may be surprised to find out that I think the Governor didn't even come close to getting this one right.

Specifically there was one proposal that I found particularly valuable. The request, by Micron Technology, was for $25 million to begin manufacturing solar panels and high efficiency lighting components right here in Idaho. Obviously this would have created jobs, but that's not it even the tip of the iceberg. The real benefit to this investment is that while only a one time expenditure, the benefit will continue to accrue year after year. The development of these new technologies would likely spur more development in the elusive green economy, which will position Idaho as a leader in this emerging economy. That means more jobs requiring high skill workers.

As if that wasn't already enough the State also benefits by becoming more environmentally friendly. This new green outlook could prove quite useful if a cap and trade system becomes a reality some time in the near to mid-term. Not only would Idaho businesses potentially be poised to benefit by having carbon credits to trade, but now we would also have the capacity to produce carbon reducing products that would be in high demand. Pretty cool, huh?

Welcome to the TwiLIGHT Zone, my kind of corporate welfare.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My Credo

Sometimes people misunderstand what I do, but let me show you something that explains who I am as a legislator and a person. This is my credo.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

House Bill 26 - Permanent Absentee Voting

The next legislation I'd like to talk about is something I've worked on for all three years I've been elected, permanent absentee voting (H0026).

The bill is pretty self-explanatory. Currently, Idahoans are permitted to vote absentee with no restrictions. That is a good thing, I believe. However, Idaho law requires that a voter request an absentee ballot for every election in which they would like to participate. That, it seems to me, is inefficient and unnecessary. To correct this issue, I have proposed that voters be given the option to simply check a box that indicates that they would like to vote absentee from then on. (or until they don't want to anymore).

So what about potential voter fraud? There are several safeguards such as:
  • In the case that a voter moves the absentee ballots will stop,
  • A signature on the submitted ballot is compared with signature used to register,
  • If a voter becomes ineligible (dies, commits a felony, etc.) the absentee ballots will stop.

Given the clear demand for absentee voting (over 70,000 absentee voters in Ada County alone in the last general election) government should be responsive and assist citizens. Oh and I should also mention that this legislation is supported by the Idaho Association of Commissioners and Clerks as well as the Secretary of State.

You can check out the legislation here.

So what do you think?

Monday, February 16, 2009

HCR 11 - Faith Based and Community Organizations Partnership Act

The first piece of legislation I'd like to talk about is HCR 11 - Faith Based and Community Organizations (FBCO) Partnership Act.

This concurrent resolution does essentially four things:
  1. Ask Idaho State Government to identify barriers to partnerships with FBCOs
  2. Ask Idaho State Government to identify current partnerships with FBCOs
  3. Ask Idaho State Government to report findings to the Legislature and Governor
  4. Ask Idaho State Government to convene a conference with FBCOs to discuss ways to partnership

My rationale for this legislation is fairly straightforward. Times are tough. The State's social service infrastructure is being pressed to the max (and beyond). FBCOs offer fantastic alternatives for deploying services to the public. Put two and two together and we get more efficient government and more people served. Win-win.

If you've got feedback on this one, I'd love to hear it.

UPDATE - HCR 11 will be heard on Wednesday, February 18 at 9:30 AM in the House State Affairs Committee (room 145).

UPDATE 2 - HCR 11 was passed out of the House State Affairs Committee today with only one dissention. A vote of the full house should be forthcoming within the next few days.

This weeks series

This week (and potentially part of next week) I am going to be blogging about the legislation that I have introduced for consideration. I'd really like your feedback if you are inclined to share it!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stimulate this...

So, first sorry for the long delay in posts. Actually, I have written several posts, but decided against publishing them because I was waiting on information each time. Okay, so on to the post...

I have consistently and ardently advocated for the Idaho Legislature to position itself as well as possible to take advantage of any economic stimulus package that could potentially be approved by Congress. My position has never been one based upon the politics of the stimulus, but rather the reality of what it could mean for Idaho. Said another way, the Idaho Legislature isn't going to keep the bill from passing, but we sure do benefit if it does and need to be prepared when it comes our way.

Now to be fair the co-chairs of JFAC, Representative Maxine Bell and Senator Dean Cameron, have also been consistent. They have stated, repeatedly, that they will act as if the stimulus package is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Due to their claim of an absence of any leprechauns sightings, no gold was to be found. What I don't understand, however, is if they are watching the same news that I do how they could come to this conclusion.

It seems to me that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made it pretty clear last week that the Senate wasn't going home until the stimulus package was signed by President Obama. While I understand that none of us have known exactly what was going to be in the package, it has been pretty clear, at least to me, that the package would do a lot to hold-off our budget crisis.

This gets me back to my original point. As a state lawmaker, what I care about is helping Idahoans and putting the Idaho Legislature in the best position to deliver the services that they expect while fulfilling our constitutionally required obligation of balancing the budget. I am totally perplexed by the philosophy that rejects out of hand the assistance from the federal government because its coming from the federal government. Furthermore, do we not understand that those dollars are Idahoans money too? Why wouldn't we want to be as strategic as possible and use the money in such a way to alleviate the headaches and problems that can come from budget cuts, especially more unemployment?

To continue to ignore the leprechaun and call him a puppet with strings attached is both unwise and unnecessary. The stimulus package may be a fluid thing, but so is our economy. We must be more agile and less rigid. We must be ready take what we can get and maximize its use.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Compassion in Action or Compassion Inaction?

A lot of rhetoric and discourse has occurred in the first week of the 2009 Idaho Legislative Session, but none more critical than how to respond to the current cuts in the Health and Welfare budget. The decision that legislators must make is whether or not their compassion will result in action or inaction.

First, let me state the obvious (from where I sit): The Department of Health and Welfare has never had enough money to really effectively meet all the demands that are asked of it. Folks that work for DHW tend to get burned out pretty fast because the workload and the emotional toll is so overwhelming. This current situation certainly cannot help matters.

In Gov. Otter's recent State of the State address he went "off-script" and commented upon a critique by an individual that those of us in state government don't really care what happens to those that are being hurt by the budget cuts. The Guv made an impassioned argument that he as well as legislators understood the difficult circumstances and cared about those being hurt. I don't question his sincerity one iota.

Still, something hasn't sat right with me when cutbacks are going forward regardless. I finally realized that this situation reminds me of something I have read many times in the Bible and remember spending a lot of time praying about due to my own struggles in the past. The verse comes from James 1:22-25 which states:

22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

When considering the fact that considerable amount of the New Testament is devoted to instructing believers to help those in need it hard to ignore a plea for help. Matthew 27:45 puts a finer tip on it when Jesus proclaims, "He will reply to them, Solemnly I declare to you, in so far as you failed to do it for the least of these, you failed to do it for Me." The message is clear: inaction is not option for a believer.

In his first invocation of the 2009 Session, House Chaplain Tom Dougherty (pastor at Cloverdale Church of God) quoted one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, Romans 13. The chapter is traditionally known as one that talks about the authority that God has given government and its role. It states (13:8-10):

8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

All of this to say that if we truly hear the plea, how can I or any other legislator ignore it? I understand times are tough and that money is tight. However, it is these exact situations where I believe we have not only a civic responsibility, but more importantly moral commandment to help. Inaction, no matter how heartfelt, is not compassionate. Compassion requires action.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

People vs. Potholes

So what do we mean when we (Democrats in the Idaho Legislature) say, "people versus potholes"? Simply stated, we mean that in a time economic downturn it doesn't make sense to us to raise taxes on already hurting Idahoans to build roads while cutting critical services like education and professional technical programs.

Oh, but Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John McGee says, "People AND Potholes" so maybe there isn't any conflict. Well, lets consider his reasoning. According to Mcgee, potholes represents job creation. He is right it does, but not for Idahoans. You see, Idahoans aren't required to get the contracts for road jobs and there is quite a bit of very recent precedent to suggest they won't. I for one don't want to advocate for a tax increase on my constituents so that we can employ people that aren't going to help stimulate our economy.

Let's not miss something. Do roads need improving? Yes, yes, and yes. Unfortunately, as I stated above, without any certainties that Idahoans would be employed, this isn't the BEST use of or money. Idahoans will see more benefit and for a longer period by building up the workforce (more on this later). We need to stop looking at the short-term and start thinking about future.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Gov. talks about Spencer, a child with autism, and a face for who is actually being hurt by cuts. The thing I have the hardest time with is that the Gov. brings up Spencer as an example of what is hard, but also is cutting the H&W budget. Do we care? Is it showing that we care when we cut the H&W budget for the least amongst us? This is a tight budget year, but I just can't see the compassion in cutting budgets for people that actually need us to lead.


Gov. teases us that he will release results of the Healthcare Summit:

Healthy Idaho Program - Intended to help uninsured with low copays and premiums. The question is if this actually good insurance or just window dressing. More to come I am sure.

Health Data Exchange - This is just a smart idea... Allows patient information to be distributed more efficiently. Good call.

Idaho Health Profession Education Council - Reports directly to the Gov to figure out what Idaho needs and propose ideas. Having an LSCS person in charge essentially takes it out of the turf fight between U of I and ISU. Diplomatic, but if its effective, thats another question. Let's wait and see. I am hoping this works because we need more doctors in Idaho.

Education Reorganization

Basically the Govenor is suggesting that SBE needs to give Idaho Dept. of Ed the responsibilities it had prior to Marilyn Howards tenure as Superintendent. Of course, now that Tom Luna has that role, the conflict has gone away. This is the right move, but shouldn't have ever taken place in the first place.


The Plan:

1 - Accountability and Efficiency: Must be able to see measurable goals. Asked for 10% administrative cost cut. Will also have an annual accountability report. The report will say what revenue was generated and how it was spent. These are good ideas and should have happened a while ago.

2- Generating Revenue:

2 cents fuel tax for the next 5 years. $88 milllion in 5 years. Does this make sense in light of the fact that vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient?

Increase in vehicle registration fees, by age of vehicles and make (or at least thats what I thought I heard) $51 per year. If this is really what he wants to do, it could be promising. The devil will be in the details.

6% excise tax on rentals. Does that encourage tourism? I'm not sure about this, maybe its a good idea. Gonna have to think about this one...

Eliminate ethanol exemption. Well, I don't know how much this helps, but if he can get it through, that would be a coup.

Shift money from ISP. I need more info on this to be able to speak about it intelligently.

3 - Create Task Force to Review Trucker Registration: Wants to find out if trucker registration is fair and what we would need to do. Notice he isn't proposing any increased burden for truck registration and expecting the taxpayer to pay for it all. Curious if nothing else.

Project 60

The Gov. touts Project 60 as a way to add value to Idaho's economy including workforce development and job creation. The question I have is: How does this jive with his decision to cut higher ed and workforce development funds.

The Budget Proposal

Reduction of 7% for FY10.

Unfair to holdback for schools in the middle of academic school year, so Gov. will hold off for the current year. However, education will not be held harmless in 2010, reduction by 5.3%. What does this tell us about the priorities of the Gov.? Gov. not willing to use any more than 35% of rainy day funds... this is particularly difficult.

H&W will also be hurt, by 7.5%, when demand for services will be at an all time high.

Is this the way we prioritize our budget?


The Gov. talks about how he has asked agencies to holdback and says, "it will change the way we do business".

Talks about how some services have had to be cut or reduced. Also mentioned programs that don't have "statutory authority". This despite the fact that they provide important services, this to me, is the real problem. The argument is couched in the old argument of, "the proper role of government."

Budget Situation

Gov. briefly mentions the current economic climate and the high level of unemployment. Recognizes that times are tough.

Goes on to mention that Idaho Dept. of Finance has done a good job of keeping Idaho out of the financial crisis.

Gov. says that this recession will make us stronger, as those that came out of the Great Depression.

State of the State Live Blog

Well, I managed to get online and will be able to live blog Governor Otter's State of the State Address from BSU. My intention is to simply provide an off-the-cuff response to any major issues presented during the speech. I will likely go back and provide a more thorough response at a time in the future.

Opening Day

Today is the first day of the Idaho's 2009 Legislative Session. As in previous sessions, I will use this blog to communicate directly with the public. Today, in about one and a half hours, the Governor will be providing his State of the State address. My intention is to "blog" the speech live from BSU, but if techinical problems prevent me from doing so, I'll respond as soon as I can afterwards.