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.