There was such excitement in the Capitol this week that it made national news. The perspective can be quite different from inside the building and I'd like to review several issues - from those that got widespread attention to those that should get more...
There were a series of revelations over the past weeks that beg the question who is minding the store when it comes to managing your tax dollars? We hear a lot of talk about the need for fiscal responsibility in state government but actions always speak more truthfully than words.
The first bombshell came from Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna who went before the Joint Finance-Appropriation Committee requesting over $14 million dollars to assure the continuation of broadband service to Idaho's schools through the Idaho Education Network (IEN). Phone tax dollars have been withheld since March while the federal contractor reviews the state's contracting process (the $60 million contract is being challenged in court). Rather than bring this serious funding matter to immediate attention, Director Luna shifted $7 million from her own budget and only revealed the problem when she came before JFAC last week asking for the $7 million reimbursement and an additional $7 million to assure broadband delivery through mid-2015.
Yesterday, she revealed to the Senate Education Committee that Idaho may have to refund over $13 million if the EIN contract doesn't pass muster. This is a very complex matter that involves statewide purchasing contracts, lawsuits, an alphabet soup of acronyms and a potentially $28 million price tag. For those interested in more details, I refer you to this excellent blog post by my colleague Senator Dan Schmidt (who serves on JFAC) as well as this update on Director Luna's committee report from Idaho Education News.
Director Luna's brother serves as Superintendent of Public Instruction and he appeared before the House Education Committee this past Tuesday to explain his controversial multi-year contract with Education Networks of America (ENA) to provide wireless services to high schools across the state. So far, of the 176 schools requesting state-funded WiFi connectivity, 80 are still without service despite a March 15th deadline. Superintendent Luna has requested an additional $2.25 million for the 2014-15 school year to maintain the ENA contract which would be voided if the legislature withholds funding.
Governor Otter announced on Tuesday that the state had agreed to a $1 million settlement with Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) which violated their $29 million annual state contract by understaffing the Idaho Correctional Center (by tens of thousands of hours) and then submitting falsified documents. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Idaho State Police will not conduct a criminal investigation of CCA. Now taxpayers will only have a forensic audit conducted by KPMG to assess the degree to which the private prison contractor violated the law or if the $1 million settlement covers actual losses incurred.
The GOP members of the House Health and Welfare Committee voted this week to block consideration of a Medicaid redesign bill presented by Dr. John Rusche, my colleague who is the House Minority Leader. Redesign opponents said now is not the right time to save approximately half a billion dollars (over 10 years) while extending coverage to up to 100,000 hard-working citizens and preventing the deaths of 100 Idahoans each year due to lack of coverage.
Perhaps the most disturbing revelation over state financial management came from Treasurer Ron Crane after an internal state audit revealed his office "inappropriately transferred investments...resulting in a disproportionate share of investment losses incurred by the state." The auditors believe the losses could end up costing taxpayers as much as $27 million (this article examines the investments under scrutiny). Today Crane wrote an editorial for the Idaho Statesman. On Monday he announced his intent to seek a fifth term as the state's top money manager.
The Governor has recommended that money destined for the state's public education savings account be used to cover the $14 million (and growing) shortfall at the Department of Administration. These management decisions appear to be lacking in fiscal responsibility and I'm certainly troubled. I'd like to hear from citizens about how you view these matters and the extent to which you approve or disapprove of how the state is managing your tax dollars.
As for the story that garnered the most ink this week, protesters appeared at the Capitol this past Monday at 8:00 a.m. and blocked the entrances to the Senate chambers. They wore t-shirts logoed with Add the 4 Words and stood in silent protest, hands over mouths in a powerful symbol of a cause ignored. The protesters were arrested after refusing to leave the Senate chamber 30 minutes prior to the start of the session as our rules require. This statement further details my official actions on Monday but I also want to remind readers what led to this act of civil disobedience.
The Idaho Human Rights Act, created in 1969 and amended four times since, prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations based race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. For eight years, the effort to add the words sexual orientation and gender identity has been blocked by GOP legislators. This denies the public a forum for debating the issue and is out of step with the 85% or more of Idahoans who support the addition. It also causes deep frustration for those who continue to live in fear of eviction, job loss and physical threats so 44 citizens took action.
Two days after this protest, the House State Affairs committee took over three hours of testimony on HB427, what some are dubbing the "delete the words" bill given that it would make prejudice against the LGBT community and others Idaho law. Testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to the measure and it has been sent to the House floor for amendments. It is believed this bill and its companion, HB426, will not advance.
I voted no on HB375 which passed the Senate Wednesday on a vote of 29-6 and now goes to Governor Otter for his signature. This measure doesn't align with federal tax laws and enshrines discrimination for gays and lesbians who must file separate state tax returns despite enjoying federally recognized marital status.
I hope that this week's newsletter raises comments, questions or concerns that you want to bring, along with any other topics, to a series of Town Hall meetings I'm holding along with Representatives Donna Pence and Steve Miller across District 26.
- Feb. 7 5:00 p.m. Ketchum City Hall
- Feb. 8 8:00 a.m. Oak Street Deli, Bellevue
- Feb. 8 10:30 a.m. Shoshone Community Ctr
- Feb. 8 12:00 p.m. Zeppie's Pizza, Gooding
- Feb. 8 2:00 p.m. Wendell City Hall
- Feb. 8 3:30 p.m. Hagerman City Hall
- Feb. 14 3:00 p.m. Fairfield Senior Center
Of course, your views can be expressed anytime by calling 208-332-1353 or emailing email@example.com. I remain honored to represent District 26 in the Idaho legislature.