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.