Idaho Examiner -
Idaho Rep. Tom Loertscher

Monday, February 28, 2005

House Highlights - Week 7

By Tom Loertscher

When I was just a young boy I can remember that my mother always bought the brand of salt that had the picture of the little girl holding an umbrella. They used the slogan “When it rains it pours.” At first I had no idea what salt had to do with the weather. Around the marbled halls of the House that phrase doesn’t have much to do with the weather either.

Who would have thought that so many “heavy” issues would come before the body all at once? I talked to several who have been here a long time, who said they could not remember a time when they had seen three such big issues all hit the same week. Telephone Deregulation (aka the Qwest bill), Contractor Registration (licensing), and the Nez Perce Agreement all had major hearings in the germane committees. All three were sent from the committees for consideration by the full House. When it rains it pours.

The Qwest bill had two mornings of testimony in State Affairs with comments from proponents and opponents alike. Especially noteworthy was the director of the Department of Commerce and Labor openly supporting the legislation. I have been trying to remember if I had ever seen that happen before, where a state agency came out in full support of a private company or companies. I know I have some concerns about that, but then maybe that’s just me. There was some technical talk by Qwest but even more surprising was that they have admitted that they want rates to go up but the bill would not allow them to go any higher than $24.10 per line for basic service over the next four years. (The current line charge is a little over $17.) The actual language of the bill is a bit confusing as to the mechanics of those possible increases, which may or may not involve the Public Utilities Commission. The public testimony was very emotionally charged and it is very plain that the public, especially those on fixed incomes, is concerned about the prospects of the PUC loosing control over telephone rates. I voted no. Once controls are gone, reinstating them would be like trying to put the rain back in the clouds, not an easy thing to do.

The Business Committee was packed as it considered the Contractor Licensing bill. They stayed in session for a long time but the bill sailed out of the committee with just 3 votes in opposition. It really is not too bad of a bill until you read it. Then it has more holes than Swiss cheese. I don’t want to give away my debate in opposition just yet, but here is a small sample of what is wrong with the bill. On page 6 is a requirement for $300,000.00 of liability insurance. Sounds reasonable so far but then a “contractor” is to provide continued operations insurance as well. The sponsors are aware that a performance bond is not possible so this is the attempt to have the operation continue in business, to finish the job if you will. Only problem is that this type of insurance would be very expensive, and may only be available to someone who has been in business for a long time. What insurance company is going to insure that a startup contractor stay in business who has no track record? And by the way $300 K is not even written anymore, the norm is now at least $1 million. I’ll be voting no on this bill. I’ll probably be trying to rain on it a bit too.

Lest anyone think that all I do is vote no on legislation, I did help get a bill out of the State Affairs Committee. It is called the Stray Voltage Bill. This one may not be too glamorous but it does have an impact on Idaho dairy farms. As little as 1 volt of electricity that uses a cow for a ground can cause a significant loss of milk production. The bill was a compromise that was worked out with the power companies and the dairies to set up standards for testing of stray voltage and a process set up to give relief when power companies are at fault. All of the parties are satisfied with the legislation except the trial lawyers. But I guess most people don’t mind raining on them for a change.

After two long afternoons of hearings in the House Resources and Conservation Committee the Nez Perce Agreement was sent to the floor of the House for debate with just four votes in opposition. For the first time ever, if you had internet access you could actually watch the hearings while they were in progress. I was unable to attend the hearings at BSU because of other duties, but I was able to watch a bit from the floor of the House. What I saw, I found to be interesting and I couldn’t help but think how both sides of an issue could make their side sound so right. Attorneys and water experts from both sides gave their respective arguments. I don’t think there is anyone here that really likes either alternative and I know as I have visited with several in this place, they sure wish they could see into the future to see the consequences of either passing or not passing these bills. There isn’t much time left now before the full House will be considering these measures. I am still studying. I told one group a couple of weeks ago that I really missed my dad and wished that I could visit with him about these bills. When he was in his prime, I think he knew more about water than anyone I’ve ever known. His Grandchildren claim he was famous for being able to make water run up hill. Now I know that was not the case, but it sure seemed like it. I still am struggling over this vote, but decide I must, and decide I will. One thing I am absolutely sure of though, that if it really did rain and pour it would go a long way toward solving these problems. It seems like there is nothing worse than trying to solve water problems when there isn’t any.

Monday, February 21, 2005

House Highlights - Week 6

In reviewing the past week in the House, the journal reflects that 249 House Bills have now been printed for consideration by the various committees. Traditionally, after 6 weeks of a legislative session have expired, the first set of pages has completed their work and we find ourselves at the midpoint. Some observers however, are thinking that based on subjects yet to come before the body, it might well be less than half way. While short sessions are preferred by far, there are items that could keep us here.

House Bill 34 was debated and passed. This legislation deals with an ever-increasing area of State Government that should concern everyone, even if the particular department may not directly involve them. It provides for the Department of Agriculture to have authority to levy an administrative fine in addition to any fines that could be levied by a court. No hearing is needed to impose the fine, just notice given that a hearing can be requested to contest the fine. What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty? This bill turns that concept on its head. I voted no on this one and will on all others like it. This definitely won’t be an issue that will prolong the session.

One bill met its demise last week, as well it should. It provided for a new requirement in all state or local projects to have the State Historical Society to do a review to determine if there is anything historical that should be addressed before the project goes forward. Currently, an archeological review is mandated as well as all of the environmental studies. This would have been another level required by law and then the Society could at its discretion do a review. I am not going to suggest that things historical should be ignored. However, this looked like a duplication of effort and was soundly rejected by the House. I voted no. Sessions of the legislature would be a lot shorter if items like this did not come up regularly.

The State Affairs Committee sent a little bill to the floor that would grant a special liquor license to racetracks. Two other members of the committee and I were all who opposed it. Imagine a law that grants license to sell liquor at races and then after they have had a few belts at the track they get in their cars and drive home. I call this the “Drink and Drive Bill.” In addition, is was promoted as a an economic development tool, with positive fiscal impact. Would receiving a few extra dollars from the sale of liquor at a track ever be worth the potential accident caused by an impaired driver? I think not. And it begs the question where is MADD when you need it?

The Qwest bill was reprinted this week and they say they have all of the problems fixed. That will remain to be seen. I have gotten more mail from home on this legislation than on any other issue. From a cursory review I see the same items of concern as were present in the original bill. It is still difficult to see that there is adequate protection for rural areas of the state where Qwest remains the only option. It may have been a slip, but one of the proponents of the legislation admitted that the goal was to get line charges to over $24.00 as quickly as possible. That being the case there would be no ability of consumers to have the PUC do a review to see if the increase were warranted. This will definitely be a large hearing but then again not a session stopper either.

The House Health and Welfare Subcommittee on cost has concluded its work and some recommendations will be going to JFAC on Tuesday. I hate to admit that not much new came out of the process. Most distressing to me is that some of the expansions in Medicaid are going to be endorsed by the committee. The purpose of the committee was to find money in this year’s budget, but in that mission it was not successful. Some of us on the committee would like to have seen all expansions put on hold as well as almost if not all new hires denied by the legislature. That will not be the recommendation from the full committee. There will be a minority report filed with JFAC to make sure that it is understood that some members of the subcommittee do not agree with business as usual. What happens this year in the Health and Welfare Budgets could very well determine the length of this session. If we do not make significant progress in this budget we will be looking at needing revenue to balance the budget. Stay tuned for the battle, I’ll be leading the charge to stop the hemorrhage. Even though this may have seemed like a waste of time to some, it was constructive to prove once again that Governor Batt’s Medicaid Taskforce of 1996 was right on target with reforms that are needed. But honestly, we may not have been in quite so deep of a hole if the Department of Health and Welfare had pursued what had been proposed way back then.

The Nez Perce agreement hearings are this week. Anticipating large crowds for the meetings they are going to be held at Boise State University. Other water legislation is yet to be printed and in fact the parties have not yet decided what to do. The lack of snow pack is not helping much in spite of some recent small storms. Our District (31) still holds the record for snow pack this year, which is the one very bright spot in the whole state. Water is always an explosive issue, and this year will be particularly difficult. Water or budget, which could make for the longest part of this session? It may well be a tie.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

House Highlights

All kinds of things happen at home while I am at the Capitol each week. Last week was no exception at the Loertscher home. I received a call from my wife reporting a very strong odor in her sewing room, and it sure did smell a lot like a skunk to her. As the week progressed the phone calls increased. Fortunately the odor did not, but it didn’t decrease either. We’ve not been able to discover the source or how it got there. Now as you know once there is the smell of a skunk on something, it lingers on for what seems like an eternity. It just takes a long time to go away.

This was the final week for introduction of bills by the non-privileged committees. When that time is about to expire each year, there is a flurry of legislation being printed. This year has not been an exception and a lot of items have come forward. One of those issues, that has been a very hot topic over a number of sessions is contractor “licensing.” It is being promoted as a registration law but it sure looks like a lot like licensing to me. I won’t go into a lot of detail here about it, but some things deserve mentioning. One legislator said that it had so many exemptions that it is hard to tell just who would be required to be “licensed.” One glaring matter I noticed was that a violation of this proposed new law could result in a $1000.00 fine and up to 6 months in jail. It also has new enforcement requirements for counties all the while saying there would be no fiscal impact to the State. It seems like a big penalty for picking up a hammer without a “license.” This issue, in one form or another, comes back repeatedly. Now I am not going to go so far as to say that it has a smell like a skunk, but it sure does seem to be lingering for a long time.

The House State Affairs Committee became the killing fields so to speak. Representative Wendy Jaquet’s little bill to change Idaho’s method of casting the Electoral College vote was resoundingly laid to rest. Another measure that seemed so mundane that most had thought would sail through, was to change the color of ink used in the rubber stamp a Notary uses. Copy machines these days produce such good copies that it is difficult to tell which is the original and which is the copy. In certain situations originals are required and mixing them up could be a problem. The bill required the use of blue or red ink to avoid the confusion. This seems like a good idea, right? After looking at the cost to the state for new rubber stamps in excess of $70,000.00, the bill was held in committee. That cost did not even consider the cost to notaries in the private sector which would have been at least ten times that figure. I can remember when the law was changed to move to rubber stamps instead of the embossed seals, because they would not copy, and now we don’t want them to copy. Sounds like a skunk chasing its tail doesn’t it?

Three bills were introduced in the House Resources Committee addressing the Nez Perce water agreement. The discussions are intensifying and these bills will be having hearings shortly. The mail stream on the agreement is increasing and I must admit that both sides are putting forth their strongest arguments. Even more surprising is that the mail coming in is not just a collection of form letters, but rather well reasoned comments. I am one who likes to know what the long term consequences of legislation are. What if, can be a good test as principles are applied. I am one who wants to make sure that there are not matters in these bills that could have adverse effects in the future. How am I going to vote on these? I’m still doing my homework. The wrong result could leave us with lingering long term consequences.

We are still looking for the magic bullets to solve the Health and Welfare budget problems. All seven members of the subcommittee are working hard to find money. So far the results have been sparse. I have been reviewing a very large list of items for which Medicaid is billed and what those items cost. It probably sounds boring to most people, but as I have been looking at the list some interesting things jump off the pages. For instance I see that Medicaid itemizes about 20 different types of hospital beds of various types ranging in cost from $800.00 to over $4000.00. Why so many different types? After the Medicaid recipient is finished with it, what happens to the bed? Would it not be possible to recycle this type of item and thereby save a lot of money? I’ll be finding out. It may resemble watching paint drying, but if we could save a few million here and there it would be worth the effort. From past experience I have the nagging feeling the Department will come up with some reason why these types of ideas won’t work. We’ll see if we have the needed staying power.