At the close of Week Ten, it is difficult to cover every topic that warrants discussion so I will focus on actions that impact the most citizens or specifically those living in District 26. Reporter Betsy Russell does an amazing job of covering the legislature and I recommend her blog.
As the Education appropriations come to the Senate floor, the values of the legislature really come to light. The recommendation for a 5.1% increase in education funding represents an overall increase of $66.2 million from the General Fund (not including additional appropriations that could reach $58 million). While this is double what was recommended by the governor, it only brings us back to 2009 levels without factoring in the addition of 14,000 more students, rising expenses or the cost of implementing Common Core.
The share of total state spending on public schools has declined dramatically over the past 15 years while the majority party implements a continuous series of tax cuts and ignores skyrocketing Medicaid costs. For 20 years, the legislature has neglected its constitutional duty to fund public schools and the burden has shifted to local taxpayers. 94 out of 115 school districts must now pass supplemental levies to keep their doors open, an increase of over 200% since 1999. This past Tuesday, 41 out of 48 statewide levies passed which will bring nearly $209 million in support to schools on the backs of property owners.
Idaho Democrats champion education funding over tax cuts and have for years. Suddenly, Senate majority leaders agree with us according to press reports. However, the House recently passed HB 548 which is sponsored by House majority leaders Scott Bedke and Mike Moyle. H548 would slash an additional $126 million in revenue by cutting personal and corporate tax rates over six years. According to the Idaho Tax Commission, Idaho's per capita tax rate is the 49th lowest in the nation and I will vote no if the bill surfaces in the Senate.
A good tax bill is H547 which stabilizes how cigarette taxes are distributed.Rather than a percentage of the variable taxes collected, H547 earmarks a fixed amount to be deposited annually into funds supporting cancer programs, public schools, juvenile corrections and public buildings. Furthermore, monies that had gone to pay for the Capitol remodel (now repaid) will be used to pay the state share of GARVEE debt and $5 million is dedicated to aquifer stabilization with any remaining funds going towards the state highway system.
Today, JFAC voted to transfer the following amounts to various rainy-day accounts: $24 million to the Budget Stabilization Fund; $10 million to the Public Education Stabilization Fund; and $2 million to the Higher Education Stabilization Fund. I stand with my Democratic colleagues on JFAC who voted no in the belief that the best way to "stabilize" education is to use that money today to maximize our investment in tomorrow's educated workforce.
Every four years, the legislature is required to reconsider the salaries of the state's Constitutional Officers as a single appropriation. I am not a fan of adding a percentage increase (2.5% on-going) to the compensation of these five elected officers if it exceeds the increase for all state employees (1% on-going and 1% in merit-based bonuses for 2015). However, two positions are grossly under-compensated. Pay for the Attorney General's office, justices and judges is so low it has been difficult to fill these important positions. Lawyers in the Attorney General's office cannot be compensated above the salary of the AG; S1395 ties the AG's salary to wages for judges which will be gradually increased so the state can attract the best and brightest. At $24,000, the Lt. Gov.'s salary is so low that other income or independent means are required which opens the potential for conflicts of interest. This position should be available to any citizen and offer a competitive salary that promotes independence.
Some were surprised by my no vote on H514
which died in Senate State Affairs this week. H514 would have removed the concealed carry permits automatically issued to all statewide elected officials. If the bill had stopped there, I would have wholeheartedly supported it. Unfortunately, it also allowed for any person, including felons or the mentally ill, to carry firearms outside of city limits without defining city limits. Some towns include miles of open space that are not adequately posted while some densely populated areas are not officially designated as cities. This is a public safety issue and I could not support this added language.
I was a co-sponsor on HB462 which passed the Senate yesterday and goes to the governor for his signature. This measure updates outdated language in the Idaho Ski Liability Act and establishes liability for ski terrain parks which didn't exist when the act was established in 1979.
A bill that raises the speed limit to 80 mph on certain sections of state highways has passed both chambers and awaits the governor's signature.
Camp Rainbow Gold, an annual celebration held north of Ketchum, creates an emotionally empowering experience for Idaho children diagnosed with cancer and their families. Camp Rainbow Gold's tax exempt status was covered under the umbrella of the American Cancer Society until their recent separation. H531 gives a sales tax exemption to Camp Rainbow Gold independently while still allowing the American Cancer Society to operate as usual. I commend the courage of all the participants who make this memorable, heartwarming event such a success.
It remains my honor to serve District 26 and I welcome your input on issues of importance to you by phone (208-332-1353) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).