Idaho Examiner -
Idaho Rep. Tom Loertscher

Monday, April 11, 2005

House Highlights Week 13

By Tom Loertscher

A few years ago I was flying into Washington D.C. to attend some meetings. As we were approaching Reagan National Airport the plane banked into a turn and as I looked out the window the U.S. Capitol building came into view. The gentleman seated in the window seat was looking out as well and I said, “Well, there it is, the center of all wisdom and understanding in the universe.” I knew immediately that he was a D.C. bureaucrat because he didn’t even crack a smile.

The week began with negotiations being held between the Governor’s office and the members of the House Transportation Committee. Things did not go well at first and as we began our business for the day all were wondering how long this would take and who would flinch first. The e-mail and phone messages were overwhelmingly in support of the House to hold fast and not to give in to the Governor. For those of us who were not directly involved in the process, the lull gave the opportunity to get our desks cleaned and files prepared for the trip home.

Of the list of bills that passed on Monday there were some that deserve mentioning. The temporary cigarette tax increase was made permanent with the initial funds going to a loan to be provided to acquire water from the Bell Rapids buy-out. The next amount will go to the renovation of the Capitol building and thereafter the funds will go to the Permanent Building Fund (which is used for building state buildings). I voted no, not because the projects don’t need funding, but because it is not good tax policy. We subsidize its growth, we tax its use (the higher the better to discourage its use), then we take the funds and use them for ongoing programs, and then if we actually get folks to stop smoking our revenues disappear. And by the way in this case we will use the funds to build buildings in which the people who are paying the bill will not be able use the product. Not a good tax policy. Another Health and Welfare appropriation bill passed that further expands the Medicaid program and hires additional people. Again I voted no. In a year like this when we know that we will be having funding problems next year, we have continued to expand these programs. I’ll say it again, this is unsustainable.

Negotiations continued on into Tuesday and for the most part that was about all that happened in the House that day. A hearing was set in the afternoon and the GARVEE bill (aka borrow a ton of money bill) was sent to the full house for action on the following day. GARVEE passed the House on a vote of 47 to 23. I was a no vote. We are one sate that has always prided itself on having a balanced budget and has avoided debt, in fact it is constitutionally prohibited. This proposal allows us to circumvent that provision on a technical matter, calling these revenue bonds. No matter what assurances have been given about this not impacting our financial standing, or what happens if the federal money does not come, it still seems to me that we will be saddled with the debt. It has long term consequences of which we can at this time only make guesses.

After the dust settled, and a number of the vetoed bills re-passed in both the House and the Senate, this session of the Idaho Legislature was adjourned for the year. Now might be a good time to open your wallets and see if we left anything there. It is also a good time to summarize and reflect on some of the things that happened in this, the 5th longest legislative session in the state’s history. 443 pieces of legislation were introduced in the House and 274 in the Senate. All will not become law, thankfully, but a good share of them will. As a young man I spent two and a half years in Germany as a missionary. One year while I was gone my whole family was gathered on Christmas Day and they sent me a tape recording of the event. They each took their turn telling me what they had received for Christmas. When they came to my dad they asked him what he got. He said, “I got the bill.” So what did you get from this session of the legislature? You got the bill of course but in addition to that you may be getting some tings in the future that you had not counted on. Some of the consequences will not be known for some time. But here is a short list.

Contractor Registration (licensing) is now in effect and on January 1, 2006 this license will be required of all contractors. Seven new employees will be hired to regulate these businesses. Believe me you will get the bill on this one, one way or the other. Helmets will be required for anyone under the age of 18 who rides an ATV, except on private land. Qwest will be deregulated , at least in the retail markets. It is extraordinary that this is claimed to be the vehicle for full competition in these markets and reason would say that this would lower rates, right? If that is the case why did the bill only talk about how much they could increase the rates? For the first time ever, tuition will be charged at our universities, except the U of I, that is prohibited by our constitution. This one could be interesting as it unfolds. Effective July 1 of this year children 6 and under will require car seats, no matter their size. The police won’t have to guess the weight of a child any longer, but are you going to have to provide proof of age of your children? You might.

In addition to the above, add GARVEE, the Nez Perce agreement, water legislation, further growth of Health and Welfare, special tax breaks for large businesses, and the hiring of many new employees. My unofficial tally of new employees is more than 230. We have also passed along some un-funded mandates to local government. More borrowing and bonding was authorized by this legislature than any in our history. One bill did pass and has been signed into law that will actually save about $2 million for counties and the state. Parental Consent for abortion was passed and awaits the signature of the Governor.

This is but a short list of what took place in the 13 weeks of this first session of the 58th Idaho Legislature. It was one that will be best remembered, at least in the near term, as one that had extremely difficult and complex issues to consider. Only history will tell how well it was done. The most difficult of the matters that passed will have long term and far reaching consequences. Wisdom and understanding on these issues is the best we can hope for. I know that we are not the center of it but it would have helped if we had been.

One last personal note. Thanks to all who have read these meager attempts at legislative updates and insights. It has been a great personal pleasure - something I have never tried to do before. I’ll be in touch.

Monday, April 04, 2005

House Highlights Week 12

This past week reminds me of the time I was about done planting the barley one spring and one of the rollers came loose from the seedbed maker and went under the grain drill causing a lot of damage. I only had a couple of hours to go and I would have been done. It required another full day and a trip or two to town for parts. More or less that is what happened at the Statehouse this week. The wheels came loose and as a result the session got extended. The push was on to end the session on Thursday, and then in the words the speaker we hit a “hiccup.”

Monday was a landmark day in the House. All of the Health and Welfare budgets came up early in the Morning and all of the budgets passed easily. What is landmark about it was that we spent about $1.6 billion before lunch. Now in fairness I have to tell you that only about one third of that is state General funds. (Did I say only about a half of a billion dollars?) I was commenting to one of my colleagues during the lunch hour that we had spent all that money and his comment was that it hadn’t hurt too much. That is a staggering amount of money.

I voted yes on just one of the Department’s budgets, and that was the one for the Developmentally Disabled. It was the only one that is a realistic budget that contains no expansion of programs and no new employees. I pointed out to the body that what we are doing by increasing our Medicaid budget by 15% a year is unsustainable. The sponsor said, “The gentleman from 31 (that’s me) is right, it is unsustainable, vote yes.” In spite of all the efforts made this year to attempt savings in Medicaid we continue to expand the programs and the bureaucracy. We haven’t looked at our scope of services nor have we put in place any of the management tools to provide efficiencies.

Three water bills passed the House as well this week. These bills have been delayed to the very last of the session in hopes that a miracle would occur and that the right bills would fall into our laps. Neither occurred. Negotiations had continued but had not produced results enough to solve the whole matter. The legislation is an attempt to solve problems but observers are even now saying that these measures will not provide much relief. In my look at the bills I have found more questions than answers. Aside from the money appropriated for this (about $24 million, to be raised initially by borrowing) there remain questions about how the policy is to be administered. They give the Director of Water Resources a lot of power, even to the establishing of fees to repay the borrowed money. There are no details as to how that is to be done, or just who the fee structure will affect. In addition, there are no details about what happens as irrigators are compelled to shut down because of lack of water. Other details missing from these bills, that are too lengthy to discuss here, are reasons why I could not support these measures.

And then as the Idaho Statesman said, “The wheels fell off.” It looked for sure that we would be able to wrap up our business on Thursday and get out of town. Then the GARVEE bill (aka borrow a ton of money bill) was held in the House Transportation Committee after a very long five plus hour hearing. It would be mild to say that the Governor was displeased, in fact if you were listening carefully you might have been able to hear the ruckus in our neck of the woods. Those of his staff that appeared on the third floor on Thursday looked like it had been a sleepless night. The governor took his vengeance out on the House by a never before seen veto of eight House bills. It wasn’t pretty by any means. Now I am sure you know all about this but here are some details that you may not know. Most of the vetoed measures were his own agency bills, ones that they had brought forward indirectly at his direction. One of those he vetoed was a driver’s license bill mandated from the Feds, that has $22 million in federal money attached to it over the next two years. We have been told that he now regrets that move. One comment I heard voiced around the House was that if the Governor had wanted to shoot these bills down he probably should have cleared the holster before pulling the trigger, so as to avoid shooting himself in the foot.

The Governor has the power to veto whatever he chooses. That is the process. He can also play hardball if he desires. That too is the process. If the GARVEE bonding is so important and one of the legislative bodies has a legitimate problem with the bill, then there is need to compromise. So far he has not been willing. Thus the session has been extended. For how long? That is a good question. It probably all depends on who flinches first and how well the matter is handled by the two branches.

So now we move into week thirteen, for what most are saying should have been no more than an eleven week session. From my perspective the business is done. The budgets are all set and have cleared both bodies. The water legislation has passed the House and awaits action by the Senate. The Senate has yet to act because of the threat of a Governor’s veto, along with other house bills currently residing on his desk, including a pile of appropriations bills. And so the fun begins. For anyone who has had an uncontrollable case of hiccups, you know that it is not fun at all. For me at least the best cure for a bad case of the hiccups is t take a big breath and relax and don’t swallow for a few seconds. It works for me at least. Taking a good deep breath and in this case swallowing a little pride may be the best remedy. Until then there is more drama to continue. By the way, there is good therapy for these kinds of events, and I got a good dose of it on Saturday. It was dry enough to do a little plowing at home on Saturday so I did a little tractor work. It was very therapeutic. There is something about the hum of the engine and working the soil that helps to iron out the kinks. Maybe I should recommend it to the Governor. What do you think?