Idaho Examiner -
Idaho Rep. Tom Loertscher

Monday, January 30, 2006

House Highlights - Week Three, 2006

By Tom Loertscher

Some time ago I was listening to one of those motivational speakers giving a speech on famous last words. What he said reminded me of some of the things that went on in the House this past week. During last year’s legislative session we were told that if we did not pass tax favors for some large companies such as Albertsons it would be just a matter of time before they would move their corporate headquarters elsewhere, where they would be treated better. The Legislature responded by giving Albertsons and any other such company tax incentives to stay in Idaho. It worked. The tax breaks were put in place and Albertsons is leaving. The talk around these marbled halls has been all the way from disappointment to outrage. Duped was another word used. So much for those famous last words.

One former colleague during a very protracted debate on the House floor, (all of which was in favor of the bill, by the way) uttered these now famous last words: “The oftener you run over a dead cat, the flatter it gets.” Rules review continues and at times the process is frustrating. One set of rules from the Department of Health and Welfare had no substantive provisions for the operation of a program. The Department admitted that these rules merely set up a process for writing new rules next year. Now how was that again? Stated another way these were rules to govern rule making. You have to hand it to the agency for creativity at least. The discussion over high school reform continues with some law makers thinking there needs to be a cooling off period. Not a bad idea when you consider how heated the discussion has become around the tables in the lounge and other places. But what may more likely happen is to keep “running over this cat” until the steam is all out of the opposition.

Famous last words are not all from the past either. Representative Dennis Lake has been saying that property tax reform will happen this year, because it has to. I don’t recall ever having seen so many tax bills introduced in one week. They cover a range of topics, from homeowner’s exemption increase to school maintenance and operation levy elimination. It is possible for almost everyone to find something in all of these bills to love and to hate. I was gently reminded at home over the weekend that each of these proposals needs to be very carefully evaluated and make sure there will be no unintended consequences. Will property tax reform happen this year? I hope so, but more than that it has to be done the right way.

Forecasts can be another form of famous last words, in a way. My brother used to live in Hollister California, and he said that it was the only time he ever saw weather forecasts be accurate. It wasn’t that the weatherman was good at forecasting, it was because they just don’t have weather there. One day is like the next, same sky, same temperatures, same seasons, etc. We don’t have that problem around these parts. One year I decided to be a little more scientific about when to cut the hay. When the forecast was 50% or higher chance of rain I would not cut. And when I didn’t cut it didn’t rain either. But I digress. I have this vivid memory of the forecast of the Transportation Department indicating that Federal highway dollars would not decrease, but now they have decreased. Sounds a bit like some of those famous last words. And when asked by the media when it is expected that this legislative session will be over, the forecasts run the gambit, from March 14th to sometime in April. If history is any indicator of session length, it may be wiser not make a forecast, not yet at least. We probably don’t need any more famous last words.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

House Highlights Week Two

By Tom Loertscher
I don’t know who said that there were two things you didn’t want to watch, sausage making and law making. I’ve never watched sausage being made so am not able to speak on that subject. But having observed lawmaking for a number of years, once in a while it can be unpleasant but not always. But even more challenging is what we fondly call around these marbled halls, rules review. It sounds pretty harmless for the most part and when the agencies get it right it really goes without a hitch. But when there are rules that seem to go too far for individuals or industries affected, or there is some sort of controversy surrounding new rules, things get heated in a hurry.

The best example this week has been what is now referred to as High School Reform. The State Board of Education has adopted rules to require school districts to implement stepped up math and science courses. As with anything of this magnitude, there have been comments coming from teachers, parents and school districts. The Senate Education Committee voted to reject the rules and the House Education Committee was split right down the middle. They could not get a motion passed to either accept or reject the new rules. That technically means that the rules will take effect, because they were not rejected by both bodies. Are you confused, and does that sound like a process you don’t want to watch? Confusing though it may be, that is the way the process works. It would make a whole lot more sense if affirmative approval were required.

In spite of our apparent need to improve in math and science in High School, there are some real concerns that are being expressed by educators and parents. From those with whom I have spoken the concerns are: What happens to electives? Where are we going to get the qualified teachers for the extra classes? What do we do about extra facilities we will need? What happens to kids that struggle with math and science? In addition to these questions, I have to look at our small school districts and how these mandates will affect them. Left out of the rules is any discussion about the extra money that will be needed to implement this new program. It’s not clear as to whether or not the full House will get to vote on these rules, but if they do come before the body I will be voting no. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for improving education and making our students competitive in our fast paced world. This may not be the best way. Some of our districts and teachers have been working hard already to accomplish these goals. And I think if we challenge them some more, we can accomplish the same results.

Governor Kempthorne introduced his legislation for changes in our eminent domain law that will prohibit taking private property for other than public purposes. The intent is to prohibit using the condemnation proceedings to transfer private property to another private party. At first glance the bill looks overly complicated and has some legalese that I’m not at ease about. I’ll be studying this one carefully to make sure that it is absolutely clear that eminent domain is not abused as the Supreme Court ruled in a now very famous case, or should I say infamous?

There are a large number of property tax measures being proposed this year and it looks like there will be some extensive hearings held the end of January. It should be interesting to see what comes from all of this discussion, if anything. Like every other legislator I have my own ideas about what would be best. Most around here are agreeing that doing nothing would not be the best approach. This is one issue that may not be pleasant to watch, but it is long overdue.

The Secretary of State, Ben Ysursa, brought several items before State Affairs that are intended to close some loop-holes in our campaign finance disclosure law. Every time there are changes made it seems like new loop-holes are discovered. I was listening to a radio talk show the other night and the host said that you should be wary of Congress (in this case the Legislature) “reforming” campaign finance laws. He said it only makes it worse. In Idaho we call this our Sunshine Law, let the sun shine on the process. We’ll have to see if there is more sunshine or if there are clouds on the horizon with these bills.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

House Highlights - Week One 2006

By Tom Loertscher

It was one of those rare moments that occurs at the Statehouse. Even more rare was that no one saw it coming. During Governor Kempthorne’s State of The State address this year, he presented four of our National Guard soldiers with Purple Hearts for wounds they received in Iraq. As these men came before the joint session of the legislature the applause was deafening and went on for the longest I ever remember for anyone, anywhere. Later some said they thought the Governor was grandstanding a bit but I have a different take on it. It was an opportunity for many of us to participate in a ceremony that we rarely if ever get a chance to witness. It was a rare privilege to be part of thanking all of those who put it on the line for freedom in a very real way. I had a lump in my throat as I know many others did.

As for the rest of the address, it was much like others, outlining what he hopes to accomplish during this legislative session. Among the things of most interest was an energy assistance rebate of fifty dollars for every Idahoan listed on a tax return last year. One comment I heard in the House was that it was easy for the Governor to promise something like that when he knew full well it would never pass through the legislative process. I don’t know about that, there is time for such an idea to catch fire and to get the checks in the mail. One caution is the cost of mailing the checks which would run about one half million dollars and that could be the killer.

Also on the Governor’s agenda is a proposal to fix up some sate parks and to acquire a new park in Eastern Idaho. This was another surprise proposal and now that the details have come out he wants to have a park somewhere between Pocatello and Rexburg. Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes suggested that our whole district is much like a state park already. The Governor also mentioned his ideas for Medicaid reform, developing a community college system for Idaho, GARVEE funding (highway bonding), and the first ever billion dollar public school funding proposal. He spoke of wanting to set up the Office Of The Family in the Governor’s office. Somehow government run families raises the red flag for me.

Most of the rest of week one has been organizational in nature with very few committees having much on their agendas. The Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) met most of the week and has already begun spending your money on some additional funding requests for this fiscal year. The committees I serve on, State Affairs, and Health and Welfare got under way with assignments made for reviewing agency rules. We are about the only State that has the ability for the Legislature to oversee the agencies in this manner. Rejecting rules is a difficult and sometimes impossible process, but it looks like this year there are some rules that will not survive.

And so it begins. And I get reminded almost daily about how folks at home feel about how much government has grown in Idaho. The most frequent comment is, “Hold on to your wallet, the Legislature is in session.” But the one I like the best is the one I heard a few years ago, “I can’t afford any more government.” What would really be rare around here would be a short session. It’s a nice thought but doubtful that it will turn out that way. There seems be a lot on our plate, with some of the happenings over the interim. Center stage will be property taxes, Medicaid, High School requirements, and school building construction, any one of which is going to take some time. I’ll keep a positive attitude. I’m no stranger to work, and there is plenty of work to do.