Sunday, August 29, 2010

Statesman Editorialist Stole My Hymnal

I typically don't like to respond to things I read in an editorial or an article. This is mainly because I'd rather use this blog for unique content that comes from my own thoughts instead of focusing on what someone else has said, but today will be different.

Today (Sunday), the Statesman chose to make public education the focus of its editorial. Definitely a worthy choice. With thousands of school children and college students throughout Idaho just finishing or preparing to start their first week of the fall semester the topic is also very timely.

Reading the editorial was a bizarre, almost speaking in the third person type experience. The editorial itself had three basic assertions.
  1. Cuts to public education (K-12) have resulted in higher property taxes for local property taxpayers.
  2. Idaho continues to disinvest in post secondary education and shift the costs onto students and parents
  3. Cuts to K-12 and post secondary education are nearsighted and there hasn't been any effort to innovate/reform the system

Let me take each point one at a time.

First, the Statesman is absolutely correct that the cuts to public education have shifted costs to property taxpayers. Unfortunately, that isn't news. On March 25 I argued vigorously on the floor of the House that cuts to public education would have this precise impact. I did so in an attempt to discredit the education budget as it clearly violated Joint Rule 18, which states in part:

Statement of Purpose and Fiscal Notes.-- No bill shall be introduced in either house unless it shall have attached thereto a concise statement of purpose and fiscal note. The contact person for the statement of purpose and fiscal note shall be identified on the document. No bill making an appropriation, increasing or decreasing existing appropriations, or requiring a future appropriation, or increasing or decreasing revenues of the state or any unit of local government, or requiring a significant expenditure of funds by the state or a unit of local government, shall be introduced unless it shall have attached thereto a fiscal note. This note shall contain an estimate of the amount of such appropriation, expenditure, or change under the bill. The fiscal note shall identify a full fiscal year's impact of the legislation. Statements of purpose and fiscal notes may be combined in the same statement. All statements of purpose and fiscal notes shall be reviewed for compliance with this rule by the committee to which the bill is assigned. A member may challenge the sufficiency of a statement of purpose or fiscal note at any time prior to passage, except upon introduction.

Essentially this says that each bill has to have a fiscal note that reflects fiscal impact to both the State and any unit of local government. If it doesn't, the bill is invalid. Obviously, with dozens of districts throughout Idaho raising property taxes as a result of the budget cut, the rule was violated. Unfortunately, the majority was more interested in balancing the budget on the back's of school children than following the rules we have given ourselves.

The second point on the disinvestment in post-secondary education is also very well made and the same point I've been making since my first day in the Legislature. I don't want to spend too much time here, but obviously there have been a few of us that get that point. The combination of cutting public education and raising the limits on tuition hikes is devastating for middle income Idahoan families. I have, without exception, opposed all attempts to reduce funding to higher education and raise student tuition/fees. We are leaving our students with a legacy of debt.

Third and finally, I couldn't agree more that innovation is necessary throughout the education pipeline. As it turns out, I co-authored what has been described as the most innovative change to public education since the late 1990's. The Master Advancement Pilot Project (MAPP) is exactly the sort of innovative policy solutions that the Statesman seems to be talking about, but fails to recognize. Now, I know in the past they have given it some credit, but to ignore MAPP in this editorial just doesn't make sense. I am excited for the future of MAPP and look forward to the positive changes it makes to Idaho's public education system.

I suppose the whole point of this post is to try to find a way to tactfully say, "I told you so." More than that, I just wish the Statesman would quit trying so hard to avoid giving credit when it is due. The decision to omit information is what makes the electorate in Idaho less informed and less well prepared to vote. There legislators fighting for the things they are talking about, lets name names and quit dancing around the issue.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Good news for U of I Law in Boise

While I have never tried to hide my bias in favor of BSU in the athletic competitions, when it comes to academics I don't think there is much room for rivalry. With the Idaho Legislature making it an almost annual quest to kill (or at least severely disable) public post-secondary education, disunity amongst Idaho's public higher education institutions makes that objective too easy. I think that there is a structural problem that breeds this sort of contempt, which I have tried to address in legislation the last two sessions. Alas, this post isn't intended to be about that problem so I'll leave alone for now.

First a little background. As a graduate student (and even in undergrad) higher education policy and economics was one of my primary areas of research. As a legislator, I have immersed myself in issues surrounding higher education and subsequently attended several leadership conferences on the subject including one to Boston with the US Department of Education and one in Denver with National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). As an instructor at the community college, I have seen the real life impact of higher education policies.

Last fall when U of I President Nellis was announced as the new president, he hosted a conference on higher education leadership, which I attended. At that event I had the opportunity to discuss the status of the U of I College of Law program with law school dean Don Burnett. I explained to him my dissatisfaction with the isolated nature (geographically) of the law school in Moscow and my desire to expedite the process of setting up a complete program in Boise. As we talked I learned that we had a common vision.

In order for the U of I College of Law to remain relevant in Southern Idaho, something needed to be done. No one, including me, is calling for an elimination of the College of Law in Moscow. However, we must recognize that it is a strategic disadvantage for the State of Idaho and its citizens to have the only public law school so far away from the majority of Idaho's government and commerce.

Dean Burnett and I both envisioned the old Ada County Courthouse, which was just used the temporary Capitol (aka Capitol Annex) as the ideal location for the U of I College of Law program in Boise. Right in between the Idaho Statehouse and Idaho Supreme Court and only a couple blocks from Law Library and downtown commerce you couldn't find a better place. I committed at that time make that vision a reality.

Now, today, with the generous support of the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation, the U of I College of Law is one million steps closer to that goal. The one million dollar donation will be a significant investment in Idaho and will pave the way for future development. While some may look at this and say its a waste of money spent on creating more attorneys, I have to disagree. Law education is not just about creating more lawyers. Law education is about teaching people how to think critically and work with divergent and sometimes contradictory information. As I have read many places many people that get law school school educations don't actually practice law. The benefit to society is a more intelligent and critical thinking workforce.

So from a third generation Boise State graduate, bravo U of I. Lets work together to get Idaho back on track and put public higher education as a priority.

Friday, August 13, 2010

NCA Problems Bigger than Meets the Eye

I understand that there is vigorous debate here in Idaho about whether or not Nampa Classical Academy (NCA) should be teaching the Bible as literature and history. Frankly, I can very easily see both sides of the argument, but that is not what I want to focus on in this post. Instead, I want to look at what I see as a much large structural problems with the Idaho Public Charter School Commission (IPCSC). These structural deficits, I believe, have lead to the issues facing NCA.

First, the staff at IPCSC have always been, in my experience, very professional and accessible. I have not personally had much in the way of interaction with the individual Gubernatorial appointed commission members, which I suspect puts me in the majority of most Idahoans. A brief review of the commissioner's backgrounds on the IPCSC website would suggest a minimal emphasis is placed on understanding the education profession relative to other factors. That is neither here nor there and I since I don't personally know each of the commissioners, it would be unfair to attack their credibility.

However, what I do find troubling about the the structure of the the commission is the aforementioned notion of Gubernatorial appointment. Due to the politically connectedness to the governor, commissioners (if political science research is any indication) are likely to side with what is in the best interest of the Governor, not necessarily what is in the best interest of the institutions (the individual school or the commission itself).

Now that I've stated the obvious, what does it have to do with the issue at hand? Well, simply stated, due to the fact that individual commission members are not personally accountable to those that fund their activities (the taxpayers), there is no oversight to their actions. To compound this, any appeals of a decision by the IPCSC are referred to another unaccountable group of Gubernatorial appointees, also known as the State Board of Education (SBE). The current case surrounding NCA proves the point. Clearly there were differences of opinions, as was stated at the outset. However, the process that was followed left a lot to be desired on both sides of the debate.

I think that is pretty clear to anyone watching this from the outside (which is where I am on this one) that the SBE has been put under some serious political pressure to overrule the IPCSC. Whether or not they should or shouldn't isn't the point. The point is that when it is all said and done, the people of Idaho will not get an opportunity to let their views known as it relates decisions that have been made by holding the decision-makers accountable.

The solution, in my view, is to completely change the structure of the IPCSC (you're surprised, right?). To do so, I would first eliminate the Gubernatorial appointment and replace it with an election. Commissioners would serve four and two year terms that would rotate so as to always have a core group remain (similar to the way county commissioners are elected). The commissioners would be elected from conglomerations of counties known as regions that are created based upon population size. As for the appeals process, that is a bit more tricky. I would prefer to have the SBE also be elected and for the same reasons. Given that is even less likely to happen, I would also remove the appeals process from going to the SBE and instead direct it the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Now, I can hear someone saying, aren't you making the problem worse by making it even more political? The answer to that question is only yes if you believe that elections aren't useful. That is, if you believe that elections don't offer the public an opportunity to hold decision-makers accountable then doing what I suggest is without value. However, if you believe, as I do, that elections do matter and they can serve as a vehicle to manifest public preference, then I do think the modifications I am proposing make sense.

Ultimately, something has to change. My proposal may not be the panacea to the problem, but I do believe it would yield better outcomes and provide more transparency and accountability than the current guarded process that we are watching slowly unfold before us.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Unemployment Benefit Update

If you or someone you know has been without unemployment benefits due to the delay in federal action, good news is on the way. Unemployment benefit recipients in Idaho should receive an, "Emergency Unemployment Compensation Notice" from the Dept. of Labor via snail mail within the week. The letter is the first step in the reestablishment of eligibility of unemployment benefits for those that were left in the lurch. I'll provide more details as they become available.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Invest in Idaho

I read with a modicum of humor a recent Op-Ed by Idaho Association of Commerce Industry (IACI). In the piece, they excoriated elected officials like me that have been pushing investments in small businesses. They surmise that by doing so, we are neglecting a significant number of employers that don’t fit the small businesses mold and creating an, “us versus them” dynamic.

Unfortunately, they just don’t get it. By virtue of the fact that IACI has a stage in which to trumpet their cockamamie story, they disprove their own point. Anytime a large employer wants to get something in the Idaho Legislature, they usually do. Not so for their small business counterparts. While large employers have the benefit of IACI and even possibly their own private lobbyists doing their bidding in the Legislature, who does the mom and pop shop have?

To be sure the Chamber does a degree of lobbying (albeit much less than in years past), but it is hamstrung between supporting the needs of its larger clients and those of the small business owner. There is also the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), but their lobbyist is only the payroll part-time and really can’t compete against the larger employers multiple full-time lobbyists.

To that end, news reports this week reveal what most of us probably already knew. According to the Gallup Job Creation Index, Idaho is the sixth worst job creator in the country. That doesn’t just happen. It is a concerted effort by those in state government to ignore the sector of our economy that actually creates most of the jobs, small business!

So what can we do? Well, in addition to the traditional mantra of “taxes, taxes, taxes,” I do think that government does have a role to play. The biggest problem most small businesses face when they want to expand is the difficulty of accessing capital. To create more jobs, small businesses must have more capital. No capital, no job creation. It is that simple.

Small Business Administration (SBA) Loans have dropped considerably as of late, which is compounding the problem even further. Last legislative session I proposed an innovative approach to providing more capital small businesses. The legislation, dubbed the Micro Enterprise Development Association (MEDA), would have created a loan fund for credit-worthy small businesses that were finding getting a loan in the credit tight environment impossible. I believe in investing Idaho small businesses.

Unfortunately, the Governor and IACI don’t see it that way. Instead of focusing on investing in Idahoans and Idaho small businesses, IACI and the Governor are more focused upon luring large corporations from out state to Idaho with big tax break. The result is just as Gallup reports it to be, an abysmal record on job creation.

What it all comes down to is a lack of understanding of how jobs are created and total lack of vision. My vision for job creation is to support small business owners. If investing in small businesses is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Update on Unemployment

As I go door-to-door, I routinely meet individuals that have been given a rough shake during the recession. A good deal of these unemployed constituents would be classified as older workers that were kicked to the curb in what should be the prime of the careers and at the highest point of their earning potential. These residents are clearly visibly shaken and concerned by not knowing what is going to happen next. The inability for the U.S. Senate to extend unemployment benefits has only exacerbated this anxiety.

For full disclosure, my dad happens to be one of those many unemployed Idahoans. He, like many others, exhausted his unemployment benefits and is a situation of unimaginable desperation. I can state without hesitation that he has done everything he could to find employment since losing his job in November. Unfortunately, that hasn't been enough.

But, now, there may finally be some good news. It looks likely that the U.S. Senate will vote to extend unemployment benefits for those that are hardest hit by the recession. The bill currently before the U.S. Senate would provide retroactive payments to those unemployed individuals that became the victims of a cynical political ploy to balance the federal budget on the backs of the unemployed. Due to some logistical issues with not being permitted to submit weekly reports and the inability to file for extensions to unemployment benefits, many constituents were unsure what would occur even if the bill were to pass.

But wait there's more! According to a representative from Congress Walt Minnick's office, the retroactive component is in the legislation and can not be ignored by any state. Also, I was assured by a division manager at the Idaho Dept. of Labor that should the legislation pass that Idaho would gladly provide retroactive payments for any weeks missed due to the unfortunate political games being played in Washington, D.C. If you or anyone you know has any questions, they can contact me or the Dept. of Labor for more information.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Thoughts on Ethics Panel

As a member of the Idaho House of Representatives, I am very concerned about the perception of the institution that I am honored to be a member. I have always been honored to have the opportunity to represent my district and do my best to avoid doing anything that might place a negative light upon the institution, my district, my family, or myself.

It is not the intention of this post to be the judge and jury of Rep. Phil Hart as I do not have the benefit of the full information and even if I did, it is not my role and this certainly isn't the proper venue. However, as a member of the House, as I mentioned early, I do have grave concerns about anyone or anything that might impede or distract the legislature from its important duties.

With that said, I do have serious concerns with the composition of the Ethics Panel convened by Speaker Denney. If truth is what we are searching for, then it seems to me that there are most certainly better alternatives than the legislators picked for this important task, specifically on the majority side.

The first thing that I immediately noted when I saw the list was a generational divide. There is not one single person on the Ethics Panel younger than 60. Is this really all that relevant? Perhaps not, but it is curious. Then again, when the average age of the Idaho House is over 60 (the oldest of any chamber in the United States), I suppose the natural order of things would likely lead to this occurring.

The second thing I observed was that every member from the majority party are chairman. This is significant because it means that all of the majority members on the panel are fiercely loyal to the Speaker. I am not saying this is going to have an impact, but I do believe it is worth noting (even though the media has failed to).

The next thing I noted was the gender disparity. With the exception of Rep. Wendy Jaquet, all of the other members of the panel are men. While I admit a serious disability in understanding gender politics, I have become much more sensitive to them thanks to the thoughtful and patient guidance of Rep. Jaquet and others. I don't know if the gender disparity will make any difference, but you never know.

Most interestingly was the geographic divide. Not a single member of the majority on the Ethics Panel lives or represents the CD1. I can understand not having someone from the far north, given the local politics, but no one from CD1 at all? I have a feeling this is a lot more meaningful than meets the eye. I have a few hunches, but I'll keep them private.

Finally, the thing I find most difficult to understand is the apparent lack of consideration for professional background when it comes to majority member appointments. With the notable exception of Rep. Rich Wills, who is a former law enforcement officer, the remaining members are all farmers/ranchers. While this certainly is a noble profession, I am not certain that it has the monopoly on ethics and law. These members are all good men who work hard, but are they the best fit, I don't personally believe so. Speaker Denney, in my view, missed a golden opportunity to take advantage of the legal acumen of Reps. Leon Smith and Lynn Luker, both trained attorneys and mediators.

Ultimately, it is my hope that the process is thorough and fair. I hope that my colleagues on the panel do not rush to judgement, regardless of which side of judgement it may be. The process deserves their best efforts and so do the people of Idaho.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Question for the Governor

Today the Idaho House Majority Leadership team tried to pin Keith Allred down on his position regarding Idaho's so-called "right-to-work" law. The group says that Allred should state his position on the issue so that he can, "come clean with Idaho voters." The GOP leaders conclude that either Allred isn't really as independent as he claims or he is a DINO.

To start off with, unlike the recent form of the majority party in Idaho, Democrats don't kick people out just because they don't conform on every issue. I don't know Keith's position on every issue, but I don't have to. I know that is probably hard for Moyle and company to understand, but that is why Democrats are known as the Big Tent party. We accept people within our party because our differences make us stronger. We are not bent on some sort of ideological purity crusade. Which, by the way, is also why many moderate Republicans in Idaho are realizing that they aren't welcome in the own party and heading in droves to support Idaho Democrats like Keith Allred.

So, now I have a question for Governor Otter so he can "come clean with Idaho voters." My question is, "Mr. Otter do think that we should abolish the Federal Reserve and return to the Gold Standard as the Idaho GOP Platform plainly advocates?" Based upon the logic of Denney et al in their attempt to discredit Allred, I am assuming the answer must be yes because otherwise they wouldn't be supporting Governor Otter.

In the words of the Majority Leadership, Otter must own up to his opposition to repealing the the Federal Reserve and returning to the Gold Standard and face the consequences from the fringe elements of the majority party, or state openly that he opposes the Federal Reserve and wishes to return to the Gold Standard and drop the charade of being a "A Man for Our Times." That is, of course, unless the time that Otter is speaking about is 1933, which isn't the vision for a prosperous Idaho future.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Off Topic Commentary: BSU to the MWC... er Big XII?!

So as a big time college sports fan (not just football), I've been following the conference expansion talk pretty closely. With word today that the Pac 10 commish has the authority to go out and shop for members the whole game is in play. While I would really like Bob Kustra to get a call from the Pac 10, I know deep down that is about as likely as the USA winning the World Cup this year. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? Not even close.

Now, as any even minor follower of BSU athletics knows the Mountain West Conference (MWC) is going to be meeting this week to discuss among other things, conference expansion. It is anticipated that BSU will be invited to join the MWC and BSU will accept on the spot. This is a pretty notable development although won't be all that surprising. However, this is where things get interesting!

Word in the college athletic world is that the Pac 10 is going to raid the Big XII and take six teams. The likely schools to leave the Big XII for the Pac 10 are Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and either Baylor or Colorado. In regards to the BU or CU dilemma, it appears that politics mean something. You see, the Pac 10 would probably prefer CU because it gives them a footprint into the Denver media market. However, don't underestimate the value of a good political struggle! A state senator for Waco seems to be reluctant to allow his beloved Bears (BU) left behind while the rest of the top teir Texas teams head to the Pac 10. No doubt that BU has the academic cred, but the athletic component specifically football, which is really driving most of this talk, is lacking.

In addition to the moves being made by Pac 10, we also see the Big 10 making similar ovations towards Nebraska and Mizzou. In fact, the courting of Nebraska and Mizzou has gotten so public that the Big XII has demanded that the two schools make a decision on where they want to be by the end of this week. That sort of public excoriation is unprecedented as far as I know. It also sounds a lot like a conference that is desperate and realizes that the ship may be sinking.

So what does this have to do with BSU? Well, if the Pac 10 and Big 10 do as is expected and ransack the Big XII, then the Big XII is stuck in a big time pickle. With only four schools remaining (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and BU or CU) they don't really have a conference. The remaining schools will be looking to find a new home and fast. In comes the MWC to save the day. With the regional proximity and the athletic and academic comparability (albeit somewhat less prestigious) a merger between the MWC and Big XII would be a natural result, with the Big XII keeping the namesake for marketing purposes.

If you are MWC schools this is dream come true. If you are the four remaining Big XII schools, this is called making the best of a terrible situation. If you are BSU or a BSU fan, this is called the unthinkable happening. The crazy thing is, this isn't that crazy! To be sure, nothing is certain and a lot of pieces of this giant jigsaw puzzle are still waiting to be placed, but if they are then the result could be nothing short of miraculous.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Hidden Costs of 2010 Budget

In economics, there is something known as a hidden cost. As defined by hidden costs are:

Expense not normally included in the purchase price of an equipment or machine, such as for maintenance, supplies, training, and upgrades.

In the process of setting the state budget, members of JFAC will routinely attempt to identity what the fixed and variable costs of any budget setting action might be. They look at the world with little complexity and simply as a matter of "balancing the state's checkbook." Unfortunately, this de minimis view of the budgeting is neither useful nor realistic.

While Governor Otter and majority legislative "leadership" praised themselves for a "stellar" session, they failed economics 101. Yes, the state budget is "balanced" but the true costs are not calculated. As has already been reported, not more one week after the end of the legislative session, the Department of Health & Welfare is closing nine regional office and laying-off 126 employees. Now instead of helping struggling Idahoans get access to services to give them a hand-up, they'll be putting their own hand out.

Unfortunately, the 126 employees is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the job losses will be seen in the private sector by private social service providers that will no longer be able to offer services, especially in our small rural communities. The multiplier effect is a funny thing, when you cut off income to one group, it finds its way to all segments of our economy. Whats more, as clients of private providers and H&W are unable to get access to services, many of which are preventative in nature, they will undoubtedly be accessing more expensive services in the form institutional care either in corrections or a state hospital. It is a lose-lose propisition with the Idaho taxpayer stuck holding the bill.

The Department of Health & Welfare is only the beginning. In future weeks other agencies will face the budgetary reality that our nearsighted Governor and majority leadership placed upon them and make similar cuts to services and jobs. In education, this will be felt very close to home. In fact, many local districts in rural Idaho will be faced with the choice of closing down entire schools or trying to raise property taxes. So rather than address the funding problem at the state level, the decision was made to make the local district make the tough decision. What kind of leadership is that?

After all is said and done, productivity will decline, marriage and family situations will strain, students will be less well prepared, and Idaho will be worse off. These are the hidden costs to the 2010 budget.

Friday, March 5, 2010

No Alternatives?

The tag line of the majority members of the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee as they set budgets this year has become, "There isn't any alternative." What I believe to be the most telling of this commentary is the implicit defeatism. It is saying that we in the legislature have no control. If that is true, everyone should be worried.

Consider this quotation from Senator Jim Hammond (R-5):

I’m not comfortable with this budget either. I don’t like it. But I truly don’t see an alternative. As I return home each weekend and I talk to those businesses who have already laid off 30, 40 percent of their staff and are trying to stay alive, they beg me, ‘Don’t tax me any more, don’t raise my taxes, don’t raise the taxes of those employees that I still am able to employ.'
Luckily, the issue isn't an absence of alternatives, but instead the insistence to prefer a slash and burn strategy over a protect and preserve. The slash and burn strategy adopted by the majority is indicative of the defeatism their mantra suggests. However, defeatism doesn't have to win the day, although it likely will. There are several options to improving state budgets that don't include raising taxes, including:
  1. Delaying the implementation of the elections consolidation - $8 million
  2. Collecting on unpaid taxes - $30-40 million
  3. Reforming the parole system - $10 million (approximately)

There are also of course those pesky exemptions and delaying the increase in the grocery tax credit, but there are alternatives. It is an inconvenient truth for the majority that the alternatives exist, and they don't have to be in the form of a tax increase.

Now I do believe that every efficiency in government should be found and any waste needs to be cut. However, there is a point of diminishing returns. We have reached that point. Many students, especially struggling students, will be irreparably harmed by the current budget proposals. The elderly and disabled will be cut off from services that they need to survive. In some cases it is literally a matter of life or death. The corrections budget will put the public safety in jeopardy. That is not hyperbole or propaganda. That is the stark reality.

We have a decision to make and it's a very important one. Do we believe that government should be shrunk, no matter what the costs or do we believe that long-term and social costs should also be considered. My philosophy is the latter. We are not defeated. Idahoans can make it through this difficult time without leaving those in need behind.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Homeless and helpless

I am disappointed to report that just moments ago in the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee my effort to provide temporary tax relief to non-profit homeless shelters in Idaho (HB 435) was soundly defeated. The measure was unanimously supported in the House, but that didn't matter.

Senator Mike Jorgensen compared requesting the exemption to a story in the Old Testament where two women had fought over a baby and the King concluded that the only fair way to settle the dispute was the split the baby in half (1 Kings 3:16-28). Unfortunately for Senator Jorgensen, he doesn't understand how the story ended. The real mother of child asked for mercy on the child and relented on her demand. In other words, mercy and wisdom ruled the day. Sen. Jorgensen exhibited neither (to little surprise).

While the measure itself was rather minor, its symbolism was its greatest virtue. Republican legislators (in this case in the Senate), especially so-called "conservatives" deride entitlement spending and the role of the Department of Health and Welfare. Yet despite their contempt they offer absolutely no vision. They lay blame, but have no solutions. I am not saying my bill was a panacea, but at least it was an idea. It was a try to reduce the size of government in a real way. Lip service doesn't rehabilitate the addicted or shelter the homeless. Here is my challenge to those naysayers: What's your plan? I suspect the question may as well be rhetorical, but here is to hoping that they can figure out a way to put aside their personal agendas and partisanship and actually do something.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Can I get a Witness?!

You know when you are watching a television show like Law & Order and they call up the expert witness? To state the obvious they are doing that because that individual supposedly has some sort of useful insight into the situation. The expert's testimony is credible and thus has influence on decisions. In the Idaho Legislature when it comes to issues surrounding budgets and economics an expert witness is just another voice no different than the rest.

At least that is the impression that I get from the decision made earlier today by the JFAC when it set its target budget well below the budget recommended by the State of Idaho's Chief Economist, Mike Ferguson. Rather than follow the recommendations of the expert, members of JFAC decided that they liked the beat of their own drum a bit more thank you very much. Never mind if the beat is a bit slow and depressing.

So why does it matter? The revenue number that they accept and target the budget to has everything do with the amount of money the state spends for services including schools, parks, safety net programs, and countless others. So the lower the number, the more cuts.

To be fair, Mr. Ferguson has been a bit off with his projections the last couple of years. Perhaps this is the response, distrust. However, even with my own education and training and Mr. Ferguson's missed projections, he is still the expert. By ignoring his recommendation, JFAC is making the concerted effort to disregard his efforts.

Frankly, if Mr. Ferguson was new to the team and had messed up early and often, I'd understand, but Mr. Ferguson has been at this game for a long time (longer than nearly all the legislators). The combination of his training and experience are irreplaceable even by a strong gut reaction, like the one exhibited by JFAC. Projecting budgets and the economy isn't easy, especially at a time like now when the economy has been demonstrating some unusual characteristics.

Regardless of the spastic nature of the economy, numbers still work and trend lines can still be predicted. Idahoans deserve that the expert that they are paying for be listened to. Ignoring him and treating him like just another uninformed voice puts our economic recovery at risk and needlessly cuts services that we all value.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Semanko doesn't get it

Norm Semanko doesn't seem to understand the tough economic times facing Idahoans. The fact is regular Idahoans have been hit hard by the economic downtown. They need solutions not partisan gamesmanship.

Yesterday I along with the 17 other House Democrats voted against the ill-named Health Freedom Act (HB 391). Unfortunately for Idahoans, this legislation is yet another distraction for lawmakers from our real work of getting Idahoans back to work. And for what end? So that Norm Semanko and others could try to score a political point.

Well, here is a news alert, Norm: I care more about fixing the problems for Idaho families than scoring political points (see exhibit A , exhibit B,and exhibit C). It's your insistence on playing partisan games instead of finding solutions that has degraded the public's confidence in our government. You keep playing games, I'll try to get some real work done and help my constituents back on the road to economic security.

Never mind that the legislation itself was foolish, and that is putting it politely. The legislation ignores Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution (aka the Supremacy Clause). It states, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." But Mr. Semanko isn't interested in upholding the Constitution, that is only important when he and his party are trying to pacify the Tea Party folks.

Oh and on the final point, the bill has a $100,000 fiscal note. So rather than employing teachers we will be employing attorneys. Great idea. I suppose if legal community needs a stimulus package, Norm has the bill for them. That is not the vision I have for Idaho. I'd rather spend the taxpayer dollars someplace more valuable than in a partisan treasure hunt. Norm can keep scoring political points and I'll keep working for Idahoans. I trust that when Election Day comes the regular Idahoans that Norm is neglecting will let him know they would have rather the legislature spend more trying address their needs rather than serve his own partisan agenda.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Week Four Recap: Its all about jobs

Another week of the 2010 Legislative Session has come and gone. Things have been definitely cookin' and the weeks are beginning to blur together (already!). While Governor Otter continues to talk about ways to cut budgets and send mixed signals about everything from the Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA) to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, I along with legislative Democrats have been putting forward a vision for how Idaho gets out of the mess it is in. In two words, job creation.

We've all heard about how high unemployment is to blame for the budget woes, so it seems to reason that we should actually try to get to the root of the problem. Simply trying slash and burn the budget will not create a single job (in fact it will result in ending many jobs, both public and private) and thus will not solve the real problem (or in fact actually make it worse)! I can personally say that the unemployment bug has bit my own family in a very real and direct way. I suspect that story of family is familiar to nearly all Idahoans. Thus, the need to find a solution is real to my family as well.

To be clear, much of what we are experiencing is a national problem and so efforts at the state-level alone will not be a panacea. However, I think situation is bigger than just the impact of legislation. It is also about attitude. Right now, I am hearing from Governor Otter a message of retreat and despair. I suspect that message does nothing to improve consumer confidence or restore hope in the entrepreneurial community.

Instead of saying what we can't do, I think it’s important to say what we can do. We need to tell consumers what we know, which is that good times will be here again. We need to tell entrepreneurs that we believe in their own goals and that we will stand behind them and provide them the tools they need to succeed. After all, if they succeed, our budget will improve and we will all benefit.

Okay, so now you may be saying, what are the specifics?! Idaho Democratic legislators have proposed six bills, known as the Idaho Jobs and Opportunity Blueprint (IJOBs). These bills have been getting hearings and are beginning to get traction. In addition to the IJOBs proposals, I have personally worked on a job creation bill known as the Micro Enterprise Development Authority (MEDA). This legislation was recently spotlighted in the Idaho Business Review. After spending several weeks listening and incorporating suggestions, I expect to submit the legislation to the House Business Committee early next week.

So as I stated a few weeks back, if this legislative session is really only about the budget, then it'll be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Now is the time to be innovative and thoughtful. Now is the time to think about how to get us out of the budget hole we are in. Now it’s all about jobs!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Two Weeks Down

We are closing out week 2 of the 2010 legislative session and a lot has happened already. As expected the budget really has dominated the discussion. This has made some legislators coy as to their intentions with things and made others fearful of what budget cuts could mean to their favorite programs. I for one am particularly concerned about cuts to safety net programs and k-12 and post secondary education.

As a member of the House Health and Welfare Committee, I have spent considerable time doing what is known as rules review. Idaho is unique in that the legislature is given the responsibility of reviewing and approving of administrative rules that are promulgated by executive agencies. For those that are familiar with rules, they are essential the guidelines for agencies are to implement law. They carry virtually the same weight as law, although they are subservient to statute. Anyway, H&W always has a ton of rules and this year was no exception. We are still knee-deep in them and I suspect at least a week or two away from completion. Some of the rules can be controversial because they are where actual cuts to safety net programs exist. I have been pushing back against the notion that the budgets need to be cut as much as proposed. My rationale is two fold: 1) Safety net programs are being demanded by Idahoans at rates that have never been seen and 2) Many of the cuts will actually result in higher costs to the state in the long term.

The short-term thinking has really got a lot of downside. While it may be politically convenient to only think about the upcoming budget year, it is often times done at the detriment to the future prosperity. Unfortunately this short-term thinking has really become the slogan of the 2010 Legislative Session.

In the House Education Committee the same sort of short term thinking can be found. We have seen potential ideas that could save the state long-term and improve education outcomes dismissed. The problem is that the germane committee, in this case House Education, does not have the authority to dictate where the spending priorities are for education. That responsibility rests with the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee (JFAC). Needless to say, I have a lot of issues with this model. It says that all the policy work that is done in House Education is meaningless. I'd much rather JFAC tell us the amount of money there is to spend on public education and higher education and then give the germane committees (House and Senate Education) the responsibility for deciding how it is best divvied up.

In terms of my own work, I continue to work on a few pieces of legislation. Here are four of them briefly:
  • Micro Enterprise Development Association - Creates the Micro Enterprise Development Association, which is given the authority to give loans to small business (less than 50 employees) of $35,000 or less. They are created as independent corporate body politic, which essentially means they are private, but still oversight from the state (the same as the Idaho Housing and Finance Association). I'll dedicate a full post to this idea next week.
  • Online Education Endorsement - Requires that all teachers or persons employed in the capacity of instructing students in an online program have an online education endorsement. This is important because there are programs outside of Idaho that are contracting with Idaho school districts and there is very little assurance of quality or competency.
  • Master Advancement Pilot Project - Establishes a voluntary and limited pilot project that allows students to go through the public education system at their own pace. Early completion of the k-12 curriculum can earn a student a scholarship to be used at an Idaho public post-secondary institution. This is really about putting incentive into education.
  • Homeless Shelter Temporary Sales Tax Exemption - Provides non-profit homeless shelters a two-year sales tax exemption. While I tend to dislike sales tax exemptions, this is one that will serve a real need and has a defined duration. The cost to the general fund is $15,000, but the benefits to the state will be much greater. There is a hearing on this legislation next week on Tuesday.

I have a few other bills, but those are three that I am putting a lot of effort into at this point. As always, I look forward to your feedback.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010 Legislative Session Preview

The 2010 Legislative Session is less than a week away and the keyword for the upcoming session has already been coined, "Difficult."

As everyone that pays any bit of attention knows already the main issue for the Session will be the budget. As the AP reported, Speaker Denney is taking the position that, "Anything that has a price tag probably won't even get a hearing." Personally, while I understand that money is tight, limiting discourse on issues that have been lingering doesn't seem to be the best idea. The reality is that only 18 of the 105 legislators sit on the State's budget committee, JFAC. So what are the rest of us supposed to do? I'm not saying bills with large fiscal notes should necessarily pass, but to not even have the discussion seems to be a bit obstructionist. What if one of those ideas with a fiscal note had some really positive changes that could help the state in the near term? We may as well have the discussion so that we can become better prepared for later. Anyway, I'll get off from that soap box for now.

I do think that we'll see a big push to shrink state government, but the budget woes will just be a handy scapegoat. It'll be curious to see if Congress sends us anything we need to take action on from Health Care Reform. My guess is yes, but I'm not sure what. In terms of the budget cuts, I am particularly concerned about the budgets for Education (including if not especially higher education) and Health & Wealth. Seeing as how I am on both of the germane committees, I tend to care more about the issues of those departments than those that serve on other committees. My interest was piqued today when I visited the Westgate H&W office and saw a sight that nearly made me cry (literally). There were at minimum 75 people waiting to apply for a litany of social services. Many of the people had looks of despair on their faces and some of shame in their eyes. These aren't the deadbeats people think about that live off the system, these are hardworking folks that have been dealt a bad hand and need help getting back on their feet. It's just not right and contrary to what some people may say, I believe that helping others in a time of need is a proper role of government (but the government shouldn't be the only one helping, more on that later!).

In terms of my work this upcoming session, as I just indicated I'll do everything I can to help others in their time of need. Frankly, that is exactly why I ran in the first place. One of the best things we can do to help others is help them help themselves. That is why I am working on a couple of bills that are intended to create jobs, which I'll elaborate more on in the coming weeks. One of them I am really excited about would help create a fund to provide capital for small startups at no expense to the state. How? Wait and see!

I will also be leading a coalition of Idaho homeless shelters in their pursuit of a two-year temporary sales tax exemption. Before you get too far down the anti exemption expressway, hear me out. The fiscal note is about $15,000 statewide (that's peanuts), but the impact is huge. Considering the fact that a lot of people (if not all) that visit homeless shelters would otherwise probably be accessing state services, I think that this is a no-brainer. Also, philosophically speaking, I believe it is important that state government not be the only one providing social services. To that end empowering the faith based and community organizations like this is a step in the right direction in my perspective.

I also have a couple of education bills that I'll be working to get through. One of them, the Mastery Advancement Pilot Project is likely to cause some discomfort, but I believe that figuring out new ways of doing things in education is past due. The idea has received some press already and hopefully will get more momentum in the next few weeks.

There are a few others that I am working on as well, including local option authority, but in the name of brevity I'll address them in the near future.

Finally in terms of length of the session, I keep hearing that the Session may be over by the first week of April. Of course, I've heard similar predictions before, but maybe they mean it this time. My prediction for an end date is April 9 (calling all bets). While this may indeed be one of the most difficult sessions in a long time, I still believe that difficult is no match for perseverance.