Idaho Examiner -
Idaho Rep. Tom Loertscher

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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

House Highlights - Week Five 2006

By Tom Loertscher

C.S. Lewis in the “Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe” said something along the lines that sometimes you can’t find things where they once were especially when we look for them but we might find them elsewhere, “Keep your eyes open.” In the legislature it really does help to keep your eyes open and your ears too.

This was “County At The Capitol” week which brought commissioners and other elected county officials from all over the state together. This year had a little different twist in their efforts from other years. They split up into teams and were assigned specific topics and legislators. They were everywhere, and I have to admit that they were better organized and prepared to discuss the issues with us. It’s always good to have people from home around these marbled halls and to get their perspectives. I’ve decided that you can learn a lot from these public servants if you keep your eyes and ears open. I for one appreciate their efforts and the time I was able to spend with them this year was time well spent.

This week was also the final week for the minor committees in the House to introduce legislation and it was quite the printing frenzy with almost every bill being printed by the committees. Every agenda was filled every day with the latest and greatest ideas for new laws. It is the age old good news bad news thing. The bad news is that there were so many bills introduced, and the good news is that not all of them will become law. It seems like this year that there were a lot of things put off until the very last minute and that will mean some very heavy committee work in the coming weeks. Some of these bills will need a good going over with eyes wide open.

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee became the great killing fields with many of the property tax bills that were introduced meeting their demise. Among the survivors was one of the Homeowner’s Exemption increase bills. One of the casualties was the removal of the school maintenance and operation levy. I was keeping my eyes open as one of those committee meetings had just concluded and discovered that a small group was huddled in a corner on the House floor. My curiosity got the better of me so I went over to see what was going on. Who could they get to vote for what and what was the best way to get property tax reform? Don’t panic, it was not one of those dreaded closed meetings that you may have heard about, or even close to it for that matter. Just a handful of legislators exchanging ideas, and had the press been present I am sure the discussion would have been the same. It reminded me a lot of some meetings I participated in some time ago over the same issue. I think our best work happens when ideas flow freely around the table and all present are fully engaged and focused.

We did have a Republican Caucus meeting. It was interesting to read of this “secret meeting” in the papers the next day and how evil it was to be having it. Now a caucus meeting can be a great relief valve for the steam to blow. What happened in this one was no big secret nor was it a venting session. The caucus spokesman is supposed to report to the media what was discussed and I have always respected that in the past and will continue to do so. However, this was nothing more than looking at a few budget numbers and was strictly informational in nature. It could have been held in the capitol rotunda. If you look at a page of numbers with your eyes open you just might see a red flag or two, and in my case that is what happened. The number that leapt from the page to my eyes was the Medicaid number published there. It is staggering to say the least, forty two million dollars of new money for fiscal 2007. Remember that word I keep using, unsustainable? That is a bigger increase than for any other budget by far.

On my drives back and forth to the capitol each weekend I get a lot of time to think. In reality I don’t need a caucus meeting to do my venting. My vehicle is the victim in that regard. I’ve been listening to the book “1776” on these drives and earlier in the session I listened to a book on President Lincoln. If there is a common thread with these two writings it is the raw courage these great men had to do what was required of them. They did so with their eyes wide open. They did find what they were looking for too. I hope we’re that fortunate this session.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

House Highlights - Week Four 2006

By Tom Loertscher

Sometimes I think we should hand out special awards in the House because some very interesting and noteworthy things happen around here. We could do this on a weekly basis, or maybe just when something deserving comes along. This week had several of those occurrences that deserve awards.

The “Citizen’s Outstanding Testimony Before A Committee Award” would have to be given to an individual who testified in favor of the Marriage Amendment before the State Affairs Committee. The hearing lasted for about an hour and a half with thirty eight people testifying. All of those who came before the committee on both sides were very respectful and conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion. The award winner however, was a lady who lives in Twin Falls that immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria. She explained that she was born and raised under communism. She told the committee that marriage was about the only thing that survived communism and further that marriage was what helped her family survive. I voted for the amendment which now goes to the full House for a vote.

Every session there are a number of presentations before most committees on a variety of subjects. Some are to report the activities of the agencies and explain new programs and efforts they are undertaking. Others are given to provide a knowledge base for national concerns and federal programs. The “Power Point Excellence Award” for the session (so far at least) goes to a gentleman from the Department of Energy Counterintelligence. His slide and video presentation gave those present some insight as to the magnitude and threat of terrorism around the world. He showed several not too well published attacks that have taken place over a number of years and others that were foiled due to vigilance of our people. It was an eye opener, something that every American should see.

The “Trust Me Award” goes to the Department of Health and Welfare for poorly written Assisted Living Rules. When the members of the House Committee tried to corner them on an ambiguous or unclear passage, the agency operatives just said, “Trust me, we will be reasonable.” Or “Trust me, we’ll never misuse the rule no matter what it says.” I however think that words mean things. At the same committee meeting the “Marathon Meeting Award” is deserved by the House Health And Welfare Committee for seven grueling hours Thursday afternoon and evening. I was told once that a meeting should not last more than ninety minutes, but whoever said that was not acquainted with the legislative process. Or better yet it is said that the task usually expands to fill the time allotted. This was one of those times.

The “After Hours Activity Award” for the week would be a tie this year, for two completely different reasons. First was the Farm Bureau reception for legislators where we get to mingle with folks from home and visit with them about the issues that concern them. The other activity was just an evening of fun at the local indoor go-cart racing arena. Of particular interest were two legislators that (who shall remain almost nameless) you would expect to have better driving habits. The track operators had to give a lecture to some prominent individuals, and quite frankly they needed the instruction.

This whole legislative session is quite unique, as they all are by the way. Each session seems to take on a character of its own. This one will get an award for sure, but I don’t know how to name an award like this one. In talking to others about what is happening to this point, we can not recall a session after four weeks that had a Friday with no bills on the Third Reading Calendar, notwithstanding there have been more bills printed to this point in the session than ever before. I’ll have to give the name some thought. There is an awful lot on our plates, issues to resolve and budgets to put in place. It reminds me of the farmer who entered his young son’s bedroom at 5:30 AM on Monday morning and said, “Get up, the day after tomorrow is Wednesday, the week is half over and we haven’t done a thing.”