Week three in the Idaho Legislature and there is no question that the pace this year is heightened in an effort to meet the stated goal of conducting a short session.
In last week's newsletter, I touched on several important rankings that indicate Idaho is falling behind in critical areas that undermine our ability to compete nationally, or even regionally. These measurements are not just numbers on a page. They represent conscious choices by our state government and they are a very real reflection of the priorities and values of our elected leaders.
For example, here are some of the items Governor Otter chose to highlight for funding in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2015:
- $54.7 million to begin his "5-year" implementation of the 20 recommendations of his own task force for improving education [these recommendations carry an estimated price tag of over $350 million so even a 5-year plan would require current year funding levels of $70 million].
- $71 million or more into "rainy day" accounts over and above the nearly $200 million already socked away.
- $30 million earmarked for potential tax cuts on top of the cuts already enacted in the previous two years.
- $6 million to study dam construction.
And here are some areas for which the governor allocated no funding:
- Pay raises for state workers and teachers following recessionary years in which they endured salaries that were cut, frozen or reduced through furloughs.
- Redesigning Medicaid to extend coverage and take full advantage of federal matching dollars that would maximize our ability to serve the 100,000+ working but uninsured Idahoans currently straining our emergency rooms and local governments.
- Infrastructure improvements for school building maintenance or road and bridge repair.
Having touched on Medicaid, wages and education in previous newsletters, let's review a few more areas that may or may not get taxpayer support next year.
The proposed budget sets aside $6 million to study building or expanding three dams at Galloway, Weiser, and Arrow Rock (this is over and above the $8-12 million already allocated to the Department of Water Resources for dam studies and water storage projects). Within this budget request is $2.5 million to buy water rights from Simplot to resolve a $4 million ground water problem at Mountain Home Air Force Base. None of this money would cover the costs for construction, permitting and environmental assessments, not to mention the federal funds, required to actually build a single dam.
Understanding the desperate need to manage our ever-decreasing water supply, we need to be honest about our water adjudication and usage. A state water plan was approved last year and Idaho has successfully adjudicated its surface water rights. When we talk about the need for recharge and water fairness, ground water adjudication must also be considered. There is virtually no state money given to the Department of Water Resources for field officers to monitor our rivers and lakes or oversee proper water usage (the department's requests for additional staff are repeatedly denied). Enhancing irrigation and canal efficiencies while recharging our aquifer is a difficult balance but critical to this debate. $6 million dollars means a lot to Idahoans but how can we best leverage these funds to secure our water resources.
Here's another discouraging metric for Idaho: we are ranked 49th in the nation for the number of physicians per capita. This existing doctor shortage is especially critical in light of the fact that 25% of Idaho's doctors are over 60 and nearing retirement and it takes eleven years for future doctors to earn a medical degree after high school. While Idaho lacks a medical school, we are one of five regional states participating in a cooperative program known as WWAMI that currently provides funding for 20 first-year students at the University of Idaho (they complete medical school at the University of Washington's School of Medicine). It only costs the state $42,100 per year for each WWAMI seat yet Governor Otter's budget allocates no additional funding for this program so our doctor shortage will only get worse.
And these questionable priorities extend beyond the governor's office. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Scott Bedke, just revealed his own proposal to end the grocery tax credit for all but the elderly and low-income and use the savings to cut individual and corporate taxes. A former state economist evaluated the proposal and found that only upper-income citizens would see a tax cut while middle class families would see an increase (for example, the tax burden for an individual earning $50,000 would increase by $305).
Is $71 million into rainy days funds the best use of tax dollars given the lack of investment over the past few years for our most basic governmental obligations? Some money put aside in savings has value but we currently risk becoming so austere we cease to function. It is not a question of having the money but about the values of where it is placed.
For example, last week my colleague Representative Hy Kloc introduced a bipartisan bill that would establish a 3-year Pre-K pilot program to test the benefits of early education in Idaho, one of only nine states that provide no Pre-K funding. There is substantial evidence on the value of pre-K education: it reduces grade repetition, crime rates, corrections costs and spending on welfare and unemployment and increases college attendance, earnings and tax revenues. One 40-year study revealed that society gets back $16 for every tax dollar invested in early education so this is money well-spent.
If you want a chance to discuss these issues or others, Representatives Steve Miller and Donna Pence will join me in hosting Town Hall meetings throughout District 26 in the coming weeks. Please save the following dates and I will provide location specifics next week:
- Feb. 7 5:00 p.m. Ketchum
- Feb. 8 8:00 a.m. Bellevue/Hailey
- Feb. 8 10:30 a.m. Shoshone
- Feb. 8 12:00 p.m. Gooding
- Feb. 8 2:00 p.m. Wendell
- Feb. 8 3:30 p.m. Hagerman
- Feb. 14 5:00 p.m. Fairfield
Also, Governor Otter will be hosting Capitol for a Day in Richfield on Wednesday, Jan. 29, from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. at the Richfield Senior Center. This is another opportunity to discuss priorities and public policy with the governor, members of his Cabinet and various state officials including Lt. Governor Brad Little, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal.
Or you can have these discussions with me anytime by calling 208-332-1353 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org As always, it is an honor to represent District 26 in the legislature.