Idaho Examiner -
Idaho Rep. Tom Loertscher

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

House Highlights - Week Twelve 2006

By Tom Loertscher

From the looks of the Third Reading Calendar in the House it would seem that things are about to wind down to the end of the session. It’s a little like a child waiting for Christmas to come only in this case “Christmas Day” keeps getting moved. Even though there is a sense of anticipation, the mood around here, especially at the end of the week was anything but festive.

One of the more interesting committee meetings was State Affairs, where a hearing was held on legislation that would have extended Workers Compensation to persons who suffered a stress related “psychological injury” on the job. Representative Rusche from Lewiston presented the bill. What was most extraordinary was that several Workers Comp attorneys testified in opposition to the bill in spite of the fact that its passage would have generated all sorts of new business for them. Several representatives of the business community testified against as well and Representative Rusche was left alone in his support for the measure. His closing comment was, “It doesn’t look like this idea is very popular.” The roll call vote was unanimous to hold the bill in committee. I heard one lobbyist, try to cheer up Rep. Rusche say, “It looks like the slowest Christians get the hungriest lions.”

Two property tax bills came back from the Senate with Senate amendments attached and the process dictates that the House must then decide whether or not to concur. Instead both bills were voted back to the Revenue and Taxation Committee by the whole House. That kind of thing does not happen too often and the fate of the bills is yet to be determined. Several other tax bills have been languishing in the Senate and several House members have been working hard to get meaningful property tax changes made. Discussions have centered around the Maintenance and Operation levy for schools. The vote counting has been going on for several weeks without finding the proposals that have enough support to pass. In the process it has become clear that not very many legislators understand the public school funding formula and how it drives property values.

A lot of the larger budgets passed the House this week including Public Schools, Health and Welfare and Corrections. Those are the “big three” and by the time that is done there is not much money left. Having money remaining in the so called surplus, JFAC spent time on what is fondly referred to as the Christmas Tree bills. In case you are wondering what that means, it means spending money on pet projects of legislators and the Governor, something under the tree for everyone – almost everyone that is. At least it has to be enticing enough to get a majority vote in both houses of the legislature. Final details are not available but are forthcoming.

Idaho Power won the last battle in the water wars, and if there is an extension of the session this may be one of the root causes. As the legislation failed in the Senate there was an audible gasp around the House, mostly from the Speaker. Not to be outdone though, in a surprise move the Speaker assigned the GARVEE appropriation, the highway funding scheme, to the House Transportation Committee. That brought all of Senate leadership across the rotunda in a flash. I would like to have been a speck on the wall in the Speaker’s office when the obviously upset Senators “discussed” matters. I think we can all assume that Senate leadership was not in a festive mood. It was bound to happen. It has been brewing for a while. Sort of like a very large festering boil. On a personal note, I have to say that it was good to get home and spend all day Saturday hauling hay. And I can tell you that in spite of it being the shortest weekend of the session, (because of the change to Mountain Daylight Savings Time) the physical exercise did me a lot of good. Getting rest while working, now that’s my kind of weekend.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

House Highlights - Week Eleven 2006

House Highlights

By Tom Loertscher

The “water wars” continued this week and you would think that after having an abundant snow pack this winter there would be very little to fight about. It is probably a dream come true for some because there is opportunity to set water policy while we have some. On the other hand, very strong willed people and companies are dug in this time. Recharging the aquifer is the center of attention and I can’t remember a time when so many lobbyists from both sides have been scattered around the capitol rotunda bending the ears of legislators.

The whole affair reminds me of the first time Linda and I went with friends on a short float trip on the Snake River. While preparing the boats and all for the event, I was minding my own business when I was hit in the back with a full bucket of water. That was the moment I discovered that the day was not about floating down the river, it was about having a big water fight. In this case it doesn’t take long to find out that this water battle is not really about water at all, it’s about money. The real issue has become whether or not money should exchange hands if in non-draught years abundant water could be used for recharging the aquifer. It seems to me that it ought to be a simpler matter than it has turned out to be. All of the rancor that has developed is not solving much. One lawyer I was talking to told me that if the present course is continued, all he wants is to be one of the litigators involved, on either side, because he thinks there is potential for making a lot of money. You might ask, who will pay the bill? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that question.

Budget bills are trickling through the process at long last and some of the larger budgets now have bill numbers. House Bill 849 is the appropriation for the Medicaid for next year and is a whopping $1.3 billion. It was pulled back to JFAC briefly to put intent language on it concerning a brand new expansion that has become a part of this year’s Medicaid overhaul effort. Intent language on a budget, only controls for the fiscal year involved and what really controls the new program long term is in the authorizing legislation. It looks like to me that we are about to open a door into dark room without out knowing either the size of the population to be served or the cost thereof. Though it may not be like the water fights, with each new expansion of Medicaid the taxpayer is going to get soaked. Just how much of this kind of reform can we afford?

The mood at the Statehouse is deteriorating somewhat as we now move into the twelfth week of the session. I caught one of the lobbyists looking at committee agendas the other day and asked him if he had something in particular he was interested in. He told me that he was trying to determine if there was anything out there that would do his clients damage. Strange things can happen in the final days of a session. I had a bill in the Senate last week that they had amended twice and messed up to the point that the bill did not solve the problem it was intended to fix. When I pointed out what had occurred to the Senate Majority Leader, he was so embarrassed that I got the bill redrafted and presented it to Senate State Affairs on Friday. It was a first for me in getting a bill introduced and sent on its way for action on the Senate Floor all without my having to say a single word. I was literally speechless.

I was asked by someone over the weekend when they could relax their grip on their wallet? The answer is, not yet. We have a full week left for sure with some fairly heavy lifting ahead. Budgets, water fights, and property taxes are the big ones yet to be resolved. I rather suspect that the mood will change some more. I’ll do what my mother always used to say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and take what comes.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

House Highlights - Week Ten 2006

By Tom Loertscher

You can usually tell when the Media is having a slow news day. On those days they are searching for something - anything to write about. This week had anything but slow news days and what was amazing was to see the press scurrying around trying to get the latest little tidbit. The news of the appointment of Governor Kempthorne had no sooner been rumored than it became fact and then the speculations began. What would Lt. Governor Risch do now? Would he change his mind and now run for Governor? How long would it be before all these changes would take place? Whenever a member of the press asks me about something like this I like to start asking them questions about what they think. It’s fun to listen to their responses before they realize they are the ones that are supposed to be doing the questioning.

Governor Kempthorne had been hoping for something like this to happen for so long without results that many thought he had given up. Now Idaho is having one of those rare and historical moments. After the Governor is confirmed into the Bush Cabinet, Jim Risch will become Governor and may be the first ever sitting Governor in Idaho’s history to be running for Lt. Governor. At any rate I wish Governor Kempthorne well as he moves on.

One reporter I ran across on the day of the announcement was hurrying to a committee meeting being quite out of breath. He was lamenting somewhat that it was a “too much news day.” I started to kid him a little about this not being a very typical day of reporting at the capitol. It just so happened that a piece of major water legislation was being heard in the Resource Committee. The controversy connected with the bill is over aquifer recharge and how it might affect Idaho Power Company’s water right. The down side of an issue like this one is that it came up so fast that very few members of the House had much opportunity to study the issues. Idaho Power lobbyists were in fine form as they attempted to corner Representatives upon entry to the House chambers. I can’t remember a time when the two sides were so confrontational, both with a believable story to tell. There are two dimensions to this that may not get talked about very much that are worth mentioning. Some of the debate on the House floor was a bit of over the edge for me because it was too centered around trying to belittle the power company rather than sticking to the policy issue involved. The second matter was that discussion was absent on the 1994 recharge bill that was very poorly written, and that becomes what law suits are made of. I voted for the bill after doing some research and careful listening to people back home that I trust in these matters.

Though it rarely makes the news, even on a slow news day, there continue to be interesting things happening with Medicaid. We are moving ahead at warp speed with what is being called Medicaid Modernization. It is being sold to the House in the name of saving money but one of the things that very few of us understand is how many of these “reform” measures contain program expansions. I sounded an alarm about one such program increase and almost before the committee action was read across the desk it was pulled back to committee. I don’t know about you, but where I went to school expansion meant to make something bigger. The last number I saw on new programs was in the $10 million of General Fund, not including the one that was headed off.

There may be some slow news yet in store for this session, but not very many as things are rapidly coming to a head. Some big battles are still out there, and that will signal some very long days of floor action. Don’t get me wrong, there probably isn’t anything wrong with a lack of newsworthy happenings around the House. How does that go, “No news is good news?” Oh, if it were only true, especially around these marbled halls.

Monday, March 13, 2006

House Highlights - Week Nine 2006

By Tom Loertscher
Nothing seems to set some legislators on edge more than a pot of money they can’t spend. At least that was the feeling you could get if you listened to some of the debate about a constitutional amendment that was sent to the full house from the State Affairs Committee. Back when the big tobacco settlement was reached with the states, we were one of the few states to put that money in a fund from which we would spend only the interest each year. As the corpus of that fund would grow the amount available would increase as well. The only problem with that was that when we overspent a few years back, that corpus was raided to balance the books. What this amendment will do is turn this settlement money into an endowment and then the only way the corpus could be used would be if the people voted to change the constitution. Thus, a pot of money that would be protected from the legislature. I voted yes, and this November you should get a chance to see it on your ballot, if two thirds of the House votes yes. The text you will see on the ballot will be too long for my liking but you known how attorneys are about making sure all the bases are covered.

Two other measures you might see will be to change the time of day the governor and legislators take office from midnight to twelve noon. It would be the same day, just a half day difference in timing. The explanation given for these two little items was to make it possible for certain individuals to swear in the Governor and Speaker of the House. I’m not making this up! There might be a better reason out there for this but I haven’t heard it yet.

Marathon committee meetings and floor sessions got to be the mode of operation this week and as you can imagine when a meeting goes well into the evening some folks begin to get upset. Sometimes this could be ascribed to lack of planning but for the most part when something a bit controversial comes along our citizens want and need to be heard. Up until now a lot of legislation has breezed through this place with very little debate. Even some of the more complicated issues at times have not generated much discussion. We must have arrived this week with several very long debates on the floor with a lot of passion on both sides. It has been said that one of the things that generates the most debate is the presence of TV cameras. The media was there in force on a couple of bills but for the most part the issues themselves were what caused all of the talk. One was a little bill on bail bonds and the associated “bounty hunters.” That failed very badly. Another one that passed the House was a bill to impose a three dollar increase on vehicle registrations to increase State Police salaries. The bill was a bit more complicated than that. The real issue is the pay plan for all state employees or more appropriately the lack thereof. Years ago a pay plan was adopted by the legislature but it really never was implemented. That has resulted in much frustration over the years. Rep. Wills, who is a retired State Trooper, carried the bill and became very animated in his closing debate. Afterward I was kidding him that he needed to show a bit more passion in his debate.

The time has now arrived for our spending habits to show through. We had a few appropriation bills pass the House, the most notable one of which was the Fish and Game Budget. It was more austere than others I have seen and the most interesting part of the vote was that it passed without a dissenting vote and without debate. That was a first in my experience and when the vote was announced it was sort of like the family that lived along the railroad tracks. A train ran past their home at 3 AM every night. One night it didn’t run and they all woke up and said, “What was that?” I expect that as these next days go by we will be spending a lot of your money. In a lot of cases it may be too much of your money.

Monday, March 06, 2006

House Highlights - Week Eight 2006

By Tom Loertscher

You might not be able to tell form looking at the law books known as the Idaho Code that from time to time we do repeal a law or a small section of the code. The reason you can’t really tell it is that we pass so many more things than we remove. I’ve heard several times that it would be an excellent idea if the State Constitution were to require that before a new law could be enacted we would have to take one off the books. I know I have a few in mind that should get the axe.

Once in a while a bill will contain a repealer of a seemingly harmless and obsolete section of the law. The bill does not contain what is being deleted so you have to go to the law books to find out what is being removed. The governor has been moving forward with Medicaid Reform having made at least two trips now to Washington, D.C. pitching his ideas to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. As part of that effort legislation has been introduced in the House to implement the changes he envisions. As the bill came before House Health and Welfare last week it contained one of those little deletions and it just so happened that it was an item that we had put in law years ago to make sure that the State paid for Medicaid eligible services rather than shifting costs to the counties’ indigent funds. Removal of this small section, coupled with other language in the bill, would have returned payment for those services to the property tax. By pointing out the consequences, I was able to persuade enough members of the committee keep the bill resting in committee. Revisions are in the works.

The biggest revelation of the week was that the Speaker of the House announced his retirement. As is usually the case when something of this nature happens around these halls, there is a propensity for the posturing to begin. One of the members of the press corps approached me and wondered who I thought might be interested in running for Speaker. My response was that there were probably a large number of folks around here that woke up that next morning thinking that they saw the next Speaker of the House staring back at them from the mirror.

I was attending a luncheon downtown during the week and was listening in to a conversation with some of the governor’s people. What I heard there was a report that state revenues for the month of February fell short of projection by $21 million. That is not good news at all but may not be all that surprising. What is surprising in a way is that there does not seem to be enough concern about it as we approach budget setting. We simply cannot afford to have a repeat of 2001 when we seemed to ignore the same set of circumstances. It would seem to me appropriate to exercise caution rather than face the consequences of shortfalls.

Each year bills that pass the legislature and become law with the approval of the governor, are published in a volume that we call the Session Laws. Not many years ago they were all contained in one volume. Now there are two of equal in size to the one that previously was published. That is called progress, I suppose. Let’s just hope that the length of these legislative sessions doesn’t double as well.

Monday, February 27, 2006

House Highlights - Week Seven 2006

By Tom Loertscher
You probably wouldn’t expect that there are so many traditions that have developed in the House over the years, but to one degree or another most of what we do around here is caught up in a certain amount of tradition. That’s not a problem but it might seem a little strange to a first time observer. One of those traditions is a light hearted “ceremony” centered around a little statuette of a bird, namely a crow. The tradition is that if a bill or a motion that is voted on the floor of the House does not receive at least twenty yes votes the crow “flies” to the maker of the motion or the sponsor of the bill. It happened this week as a bill to require ventilated smoking rooms in bowling alleys failed, having received only eighteen affirmative votes. The sponsor was caught between the head-on collision of two freight trains, the one group wanting an outright smoking ban, and the other wanting to preserve property rights.

It must be a developing tradition to create at least half dozen special license plates each year. There’s a broad range to choose from these days and there are more on the way if the Senate approves several new ones that cleared the House during the week. Two choices that readily come to mind are the veteran’s motorcycle plate and the historical plate. This has been a favorite way for organizations to raise a little extra cash. Here’s how it works. If you want to have one of these fancy plates you can pay the extra fee and the extra money then goes to that organization. The latest one has the proceeds going to the State Historical Society. Maybe someday we will run out of causes and there will be no more need for all this special treatment. I am reminded about what my uncle who lives in Texas told me once about special license plates in that state. Texas discovered how popular they were and raised so much money that they decided that it would be a great source for even more revenue. The fees were increased so much that Texans quit buying the novelties and now they aren’t so popular any more. In Idaho there is a mighty fine license plate for almost anyone’s taste. But there’s even more to this story. There has been a renewed effort undertaken to remove the words “Famous Potatoes” from the standard license plate. That effort has not been successful in the past and the Idaho Potato.

Monday, February 20, 2006

House Highlights - Week Six 2006

By Tom Loertscher

Some things in life are just plain predictable. Some of the old timers in my neck of the woods used to say that if there was an east wind you could almost bet there would be a storm within the next three days. In the legislative process certain things are also predictable. One of those very predictable events happened this week. According to Health and Welfare the number of people who are smoking is on the decline. This is great news. But wait just a second, there’s more to this. The rest of the story is that in our recent wisdom we have been providing funding for a cancer registry for the state financed by a portion of the tobacco tax. So now we are short of revenue for the program and it looks like this year it will need a shot in the arm from the general fund. As has been predicted, if we accomplish our goal of smoking cessation, the money would go away and the programs would remain without a funding source. Former Representative Diana Richman predicted that we would at some time in the future be wanting to teach people to smoke because we need the money. In one of our meetings this week I said that we go through all of the motions wanting there to be no smoking but we really don’t mean it because we are so addicted to the revenue it brings in.

Property tax issues have been the hot topic for months now and those issues came to a head this week with about a half dozen measures passing the House in very short order. Long time observers have been saying since the votes were taken that never in our history have there been so many tax bills pass in the House in such a short period of time. Dragon slaying is a favorite pastime in the legislature and this is one that needs to be slain. As the sponsor indicated, there’s something for everyone to love and to hate in this package. My concern has always been the same; we never seem to look adequately at the spending side of taxation. There has been a pre-occupation with property values. That is one of the factors that drive property taxes upward. A bigger factor as I see it is what we have chosen to finance with property taxes. The debate will go on for some time yet as the bills all make their trip across the rotunda to the Senate. Anything could happen over there and it is very predictable that changes will be made.

Another less glamorous but nonetheless very important item is progressing through the House. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to private property rights last summer in declaring that private property could be condemned for the use of another private entity. For us in Idaho that is not only not acceptable but is just wrong. In response to that, legislation cleared the State Affairs Committee without a dissenting vote. You may not hear a lot about this but its impact to every Idahoan is very real.

While attending Lincoln Day events this month I think the most often asked question has been when will the legislative session end? Most years there is an easy way to answer that, the trick is to be able to tell if this is an ordinary year or not. The predictable part of the answer is that it usually takes about a month from the time budget setting starts by JFAC. That time having arrived it looks like that would get us home about March twentieth give or take a day or two. I’m not going to make a prediction here because I know better. There is still time for a wreck or two that along the way. And I have seen a few of those. Meanwhile there is still much heavy lifting around the House.