It is possible that the session will not end on March 27th as was planned by Majority Leadership. This is primarily the result of the sluggish and uneven pace of legislation addressing education funding. Additionally, a new transportation fight has arisen in Week 9 with dueling measures to address the $262 million annual deficit in transportation maintenance first brought to the attention of the legislature in 2010.
H222 was pulled by House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt so that "tweeks" can be made to the career ladder bill restructuring the formula by which teacher salaries are calculated. A new bill is expected early next week that will increase money for starting salaries and the role teachers will play in establishing guidelines impacting their profession. As a result of this action by the policy committee, the budget committee has postponed setting the education budget and this will delay the 2015 adjournment date by at least one week. Furthermore, Superintendent Sherri Ybarra is still pushing for a 3% across-the-board salary increase for teachers and piloting the career ladder through ten school districts to gauge the long-term viability of the plan.
The Idaho Education Network is dead, at least for the foreseeable future. After the statewide contract was voided for being illegally awarded, the legislature provided funding for local school districts to contract independently for broadband. According to data released this week by the State Department of Education, this move increased bandwidth for schools while saving taxpayers $1.3 million. The 10 school districts in Legislative District 26 collectively saved $100,955 and increased bandwidth by 479 Mbps. Following the release of these figures, the budget committee recommended defunding the IEN for 2015-16, a move that is likely to win approval in both chambers given these stunning cost savings.
Unfortunately, this matter may not be entirely resolved. IEN's contractors both filed tort claims this week demanding millions of dollars in back payments plus interest and attorney fees. The claims are under review by Governor Otter's Department of Administration, where the IEN mess originated, and we won't know the outcome for several months.
S1072a requires candidates in school board elections, including charter school districts, to file financial disclosure documents, as is the norm in Sunshine reporting for other elections. The bill, which heads to the House after passing the Senate 24-11, exempts school districts with fewer than 500 students but includes candidates with no campaign contributions or expenditures during the reporting period. Though I understand the wish for transparency, many of these trustees hold these unpaid and hard-to-fill positions as a labor of love. This measure could impair recruitment of qualified candidates, particularly in smaller communities. Hopeful trustees will need to be well informed because failure to comply carries a misdemeanor with a fine.
As mentioned, there are several transportation funding measures floating, the most recent of which comes from House Majority Leaders. In a March 6th appearance on Idaho Reports, House Majority Caucus Chair John Vander Woude stated that Democrats "refused to engage" in transportation solutions. Nothing could be further from the truth as my House colleagues eloquently addressed in a press release. For weeks, the GOP made it clear in comments to the press that they were only looking for a solution that could garner the support of that chamber's 56 Republicans.
Each of the GOP measures introduced so far recommend pilfering as much as $10 million from the General Fund. Perhaps this is why they've avoided Democrats who would never support robbing potential education funds to fix a problem the majority party has ignored for over six years. As it stands, our Democratic plan addresses Idaho's complex transportation funding needs without raiding the General Fund. This long-term approach is echoed in a press release from AAA of Idaho.
Speaking of transportation, S1108a provides requirements for testing autonomously-driven vehicles, a rapidly growing technology. This bill requires that these vehicles meet federal standards and regulations, requirements for testing or operation on highways within the state, and insurance coverage. However, besides an age requirement and a driver's license, a driver does not need a certification or proof of aptitude before taking these vehicles on test drives on open highways. The bill was purposefully broad according to the sponsor, Senator Bert Brackett, but this could put the public at risk. More concerning, the testing companies are only required to have liability insurance of $1 million and manufacturers and dealers are exempt from liability. I support the concept of driverless cars, but not at the risk of public safety with minimal liability insurance. I voted no but the bill narrowly passed 18-17 and heads to the House.
S1115 is the appropriation to the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) for one-time projects around the state, including the Rock Creek project in Croy Canyon. The bill was not requesting additional funding to the IDFG budget, nor from the General Fund, but only the spending authority to use the federal aid funds from Pittman Robertson. Funds from Pittman Robertson are derived from a federal excise tax placed on firearms and ammunition and are intended for wildlife restoration purposes, including acquisitions.
Rock Creek, the 10,400 acre parcel privately owned by the Rinker family, was offered to IDFG because the family wants Rock Creek to be a wildlife management area (WMA) open to the public and managed for grazing and recreation as opposed to a residential development. The intent is to leave a legacy of a working landscape with its conservation values preserved and public access maintained instead of private and closed. Rock Creek WMA's wildlife and landscape would have been available to all Idahoans. The Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly but, sadly, the House narrowly defeated it 34-35-1.
I was the floor sponsor of House Joint Memorial 5 which has now passed both chambers. While it has no force of law, this memorial sends a positive message in asking the President to embrace a collaborative process in managing the Boulder White Clouds area of Central Idaho, which includes portions of District 26. As a longtime proponent of collaboratives, I was happy to promote this memorial so thoughtfully crafted by Representative Merrill Beyeler of Leadore.
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