Myriad of issues face local lawmakers in Legislature
Economy, budget questions could drive session, but other topics aboundJob creation will be a prime topic for local lawmakers when the Idaho Legislature begins its 2012 session Monday. Other issues of importance include how the state will set up its health care exchange, a possible cigarette tax increase and whether education funding can be restored. Here’s a look at Canyon County area lawmakers written responses to some of the session’s pressing issues. All Canyon area state legislator’s are Republicans. Will the state be able to restore funding levels to education? Why or why not? District 10 GRADED A+ TO F Sen. John McGee, Caldwell: As the father of two young children, this issue is especially important to me. Idaho, like almost every other state, is still feeling the effects of the worst national economy since the Great Depression. As the economy improves we will continue our efforts to restore funding levels to education. A Rep. Gayle Batt, Wilder: Due to Maintenance of Effort Monies last year, the State budget for education was higher than the previous year. To what level do you believe the funds should be restored? The State currently allocates 65.5 percent of the general fund to education. F Rep. Darrell Bolz, Caldwell: Although education funding will be a priority with any “surplus” funds that might be available, it is doubtful that funding will be available to restore to levels prior to the economic downturn. The issue will be at what level to fund the education reforms of last session. C District 11 Sen. Melinda Smyser, Parma: We will maintain current funding levels with slight increases. Our top priority will be funding for our public schools. Education spending must be maintained in order for us to prepare our children to compete for well-paying jobs. We must continue to bring technological opportunities to our students and their teachers. A Rep. Carlos Bilbao, Emmett: Only if income exceeds budgeted expenses. Universities should be at the top of the list. B- Rep. Steven Thayn, Emmett: Probably. There is a desire to do so. The economy has generated an increase in tax revenue. The biggest threat is from the increase in the Department of Health and Welfare budget which grew by $236 million last year ($128 million in general fund revenues). B District 12 Sen. Curt McKenzie, Nampa: Yes. The legislature set aside a portion of revenue above projections for the schools. When we set the budget in the next session, I anticipate that we will be able to continue to add resources for our schools. B Rep. Gary Collins, Nampa: Not to pre-recession levels. We restored $50 million to the 2012 budget. Hopefully we can continue to restore more to the 2013 budget. Higher education should be at the top of the list for restoring lost funding. F Rep. Robert Schaefer, Nampa: (No response.) District 13 Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, Huston: The growing entitlement programs are taking more and more taxpayer dollars from the total budget which affects the amount of funds available to education which is a constitutional mandate. K-12 education is always the top priority. So is a balanced budget. Other programs have been drastically cut. F Rep. Brent Crane, Nampa: I am not sure. I would suspect that the legislature will put some of the excess money into our rainy day funds. We were able to keep education spending at their current level for three years, while other State Agencies were getting their budgets cut because we had rainy day funds set up for education. Rep. Christy Perry, Nampa: I believe K -12 education in Idaho is a priority. As such, education will continue to be funded at the highest levels possible based on the monetary receipts available to the state. It is important to keep in mind that education has undergone minimal disruption to their state funding levels in comparison to other state services. We hear from politicians over and over about how if we create a businessfriendly climate in Idaho, companies and jobs will follow. It sounds like an easy formula, but can you give examples of states or cities anywhere that have done this and pulled out of the recession as a result? If not, where is there proof that this formula works? McGee: Idaho continues to be recognized as a preferred state to do business in. We need to maintain and improve this climate, which produces jobs for people in Canyon County. Batt: Business friendly environments are not derived from “formulas,” rather by seeking input from business owners who deal with onerous government regulations. Local business owners have shared with me many suggestions of how federal, state and local governments are hindering their business. It is unacceptable that Government is the greatest threat to the success of our business owners. Bolz: I am not aware of any specific examples that have pulled them out of the recession. What I hear from businesses is that they desire a fair, constant tax system, minimal regulatory environment to establish and maintain their business, and elimination of personal property taxes. Smyser: For specific examples you only have to look to Idaho in the past several recessions. We have always led the country out of the recessions because of our sound fiscal policies. We will continue these policies that will allow us to lead Idaho and the nation out of this recession. Ensuring a good business climate is more than just good tax policy. Bilbao: I come from a business background and believe in the current formula. We have to protect and help our small businesses grow currently in Idaho. We have some new businesses in Eastern and North Idaho. Out of state companies are looking to move inland from the coast due to tax increases. Thayn: There are two main areas. Business needs to be able to keep a reasonable profit. Tax burdens need to be low. The corporate tax rate in Idaho is high compared to other states. Also, the regulatory burden can be lowered. Regulations drive up costs. McKenzie: Our neighbor to the south, Utah, is a good example of a state that created a business friendly climate and has been able to attract many new wellpaying jobs. Collins: It only makes sense that the less taxes business pay to government the more they can invest in their business. The states that border Idaho have lower corporate tax rates than we do. We at least need to be competitive with them. Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: Texas has a strong growing economy. They are growing economically and more doctors have set up practice in the state. States without a personal income tax are growing faster than those that are heavier taxed. Crane: We must reduce regulation and taxation, these two things are killing our businesses. I hosted a Jobs Forum with Congressman Labrador in Oct. 2011, and most of the business owners told us that over taxation and over regulation were the two things preventing their business from creating jobs. I don’t know of any state who has “pulled out of the recession.” The recession is nationwide, and every state is feeling its impact. Perry: If we simply make the tax structure more friendly to the businessman, he will flock to Idaho. However, I do not believe it is that simple. Although I agree that the tax structure should be reviewed and changes should be made to enhance business growth in Idaho, economic success requires more than a one-pronged approach. What specifically would you like to see in a health care exchange system for Idaho? Would you vote against taking federal money to set it up? McGee: I voted to sue the federal government over what has become known as Obamacare. Healthcare exchanges are a free market principle that were originally proposed by the Reagan administration, and I would much rather have the state of Idaho making decisions about healthcare than bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. What an idiot. The 'free market system' this guy espouses doesn't work...that's what's got us in the position were in right now. Idaho is a die-hard Republican Conservative state and it would be a terrible bureaucracy to FiX the healthcare system. Batt: Obama Care leaves us two options, one is bad the other is worse, referring to a state or federally run exchange. The option not given is a free market, privately operated exchange. The question remains, if Idaho can develop a state exchange according to Idaho rules, not federal rules. Batt, need I say more. All those Batt's in their Batmobiles are stupid. Bolz: I feel that a health exchange can provide an opportunity for Idahoans to get the best possible health insurance. I would like to see the system a state run system and know the cost now and for the future. Prior to voting for the federal money, I want to know what, if any, “strings” are attached. No, No, No. Smyser: For the past several months I have been attending informational meetings, public health forums and talking to a lot of people about the Health Care Exchange. I am concerned about turning anything over to the federal government. The alternative to allow the federal government to set-up an exchange is totally unacceptable. Bilbao: Idaho Plan. Only if you can set it up without Federal intervention. Thayn: I would vote against taking federal money to set up a health exchange. A health exchange based upon federal regulations is necessary in order to establish Obama Care. Obama Care will eventually give the federal government control over the medical industry which will have negative impacts on the freedom of individuals. McKenzie: More freedom to the states and less federal government control. I have not made a decision regarding federal funding. Collins: It needs to be run by the state without Federal mandates. Should be funded by the Insurance providers. No. Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: I personally do not think we need one, but if we must it needs to be run by the state of Idaho not the federal government. It must be limited and easy to understand and economically feasible to manage. I just see higher and higher health care costs because of federal government mandates. Crane: I am keeping an open mind and going to listen to the full debate on both sides of the issue. Finally, someone with a brain. Perry: Specifically, I would like to see greater competition within Idaho’s health care insurance industry. I believe competition will allow for reduced premiums as companies would be forced to compete for business. Explain why you support or oppose a cigarette tax increase. McGee: (No response.) Batt: Oppose. I do not support sin taxes. This is an issue of self accountability and education on the risks that accompany the vice. It is not the proper role of government to overtax something into extinction. The repercussions to Idaho businesses should be part of this discussion. Bolz: Although I oppose most tax increases, a cigarette tax increase could be something I could vote for if the funds were to be used for health related issues. If the funds were to be used to increase general fund dollars for other reasons, I would want to know what the funds are to be used for. Smyser: I do not support any tax increases, especially single product taxes like taxes on red meat, soft drinks, convenience foods or tobacco. Bilbao: Support. Creating better health for all citizens. Thayn: No. Government does not need more money. The way to increase tax revenue is to grow the private sector of the economy. McKenzie: We need to be careful with “sin taxes” that target specific industries. I will evaluate whatever proposal comes to committee or the floor of the Senate. Collins: Oppose. This is no time to be taking 50 million dollars out of the economy and giving it to government. Where do we stop in what we tax to try to make people live healthier lives? Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: I do not at this time support any new taxes. We need to use the programs we now have efficiently to help people quit smoking. Also, they need to be responsible for their health problems, not the citizens of Idaho. Crane: Oppose, over taxation is a problem. Perry: I am uncomfortable with a special interest group requesting government to use taxation as a method of personal behavior modification. Although I have great respect for the American Cancer Society and the good work they do, I am very cautious as to their current approach. Natural gas wildcatters want to ask lawmakers to stop cities and counties from passing laws meant to halt development of the state’s emerging oil and natural gas fields, according to the AP. Explain why you would or would not support local control in this issue. McGee: (No response.) Batt: I liken this issue to water. Water law, consistent across the state, is integral to the orderly management and adjudication of the resource. If water laws regarding ownership, buying and selling, distribution, and definition of beneficial uses were different in each jurisdiction, the basis for our efficiently managed resource could not exist. Bolz: This is an issue that I am still studying. I understand the need for the oil and gas, but also have concerns for potential harm to our aquifers. Smyser: The state of Idaho needs to have a policy that has consistent regulatory structures for the development of natural resources. We do this for logging, mining and for the use of water. I will look at each legislative proposal to ensure there is the right balance of local input and consistent state regulations. Bilbao: I support local control on all issues. Who knows what is best (more) than local citizens. Thayn: Tax revenues are derived from private sector activity. Many of the states with healthy economies also have a healthy energy industry. To stop development of our energy resources, will, in my opinion, keep Idaho struggling to have a viable economy. I would generally be opposed to letting local government halt development. McKenzie: There needs to be both local control as well as statewide uniformity. Local jurisdictions should control land use and siting, but there should be uniform statewide regulations regarding safety and environment. Natural gas reserves can be a benefit to the state if developed safely and cleanly. Collins: In order for this industry to grow and be profitable, we need to have a statewide set of standards and requirements. These should be proposed and supported by the counties and cities. Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: I believe that the local folks should have a say in what is happening in their areas. Idaho does not have natural energy as does Wyoming and North Dakota. For the security of the United States we must look for all sources of energy. We must also encourage responsible economic development. Crane: I am keeping an open mind and going to listen to the full debate on both sides of the issue. Perry: To date, I am undecided on this issue. This issue is more complex than it first appears and much more research needs to be conducted on my part before I could provide an answer. Such complex issues to be considered are government local control issues, personal property rights, energy needs and state revenue projections. Are you ready to support a law that bans or limits use of cell phones while driving? McGee: (No response.) Batt: No Bolz: My concern now and in the past has been that there are other things that drivers do that are as distractive as cell phones. Texting is one issue, but just the use of cell phones could include “hands free” use. I think we need to look at “distracted” or “inattentive” driving. Smyser: No, but I do support a ban on texting while driving. Bilbao: No. Thayn: While texting is a dangerous practice, not every problem can be solved by simply passing a law. McKenzie: We have a law on the books already that bars inattentive or reckless driving. Collins: No. We need to enforce the existing inattentive driving laws. Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: No, you cannot legislate responsibility and accountability. If we could our courts, jails and prisons would not be so full. People who drive must know that they will be accountable if they cause a wreck. Loss of license for several years would help young folks understand their responsibility while behind the wheel. Crane: No. Perry: While I am sensitive to the pitfalls of simultaneous driving and cell phone use, I am not ready to support a law that bans the act. I believe that sufficient laws currently exist to properly handle this situation. For example, inattentive driving laws can be used to penalize an offending driver. Should urban renewal laws be changed? Why and to what extent? McGee: As a member of the Senate Local Government Committee, I helped shape the urban renewal reform that was signed into law last year. We continue to solicit input from all parties about urban renewal. Batt: I supported the significant changes to Urban Renewal Districts (URD) during the 2011 Session. Changes that still need to occur. (1) URD board members need to be elected countywide. (2) Project specific plans need to be approved by the voters. (3) Power of eminent domain should not be granted to URD’s. Bolz: I feel that we made some good changes last session to the law and should give those changes some time and see how they work. I do not see a need this year for revisions. Smyser: I do have concerns that some of the urban renewal districts do not have the necessary controls or guidelines to keep the tax focused only on its intended purpose. I believe that money going to Urban Renewal should be spent on public infrastructure and that the projects be very specific and transparent. Bilbao: I need to study this issue. Thayn: There needs to be more accountability. This is not my area of expertise so I have no specific suggestions. McKenzie: We made several reforms last session to make the process more open and accountable. I will evaluate other ideas that come to committee. Collins: There were some good changes made last legislative session as far as accountability, public notice, and limiting the time urban renewal districts can run. But I still feel the bigger projects should be put to a vote of the people. But I don’t see that happening this year. Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: We passed urban renewal laws last session which passed both bodies of the legislature. They took affect July 1. Legislators will listen if there is further tweaking of those laws. Crane: We made several reforms last year to urban renewal districts. Those reforms have been in place a little over six months. I think we should give the reforms a year to see what effect they have had on urban renewal districts and then determine what else we need to reform on urban renewal districts. Perry: I am a member of the House Local Government Committee. This specific committee was tasked with the urban renewal issue last session. As such, I was privy to the specific arguments both for and against urban renewal. After much deliberation, substantive changes were made to the current urban renewal laws. Are there other key issues that you believe need to be addressed during this legislative session? Please list them. McGee: (No response.) Batt: Agency transparency and accountability. Taxation without representation. Balanced budget. Reduction of Personal Property and Corporate Tax. Bolz: 1. Budget - The session will be budget driven. 2. Substance abuse funding - Individual agencies given specific amounts of money last session. Some funding was one-time money. 3. Animal cruelty - felony provision. Smyser: The prime task before us in the upcoming legislative session will be to position the state of Idaho for the economic recovery that will come. We must balance the budget and make the tough decisions necessary to prioritize government spending. Another main focus will be to continue to work with the private sector to create jobs. Bilbao: (No response.) Thayn: We need to grow the economy by reducing regulations. We need to get a handle on the Department of Health and Welfare budget by tackling the medical cost issue. I also believe that more options need to be given to students in the K-12 education system. McKenzie: The main issue this session, as last session, will focus on the budget. Collins: (No response.) Schaefer: (No response.) Lodge: Seniors at Melba High School are bringing a resolution to be sent to Congress asking that SNAP (food stamp) benefits can only purchase healthy foods. In too many instances people are purchasing soft drinks, chips, expensive cuts of meat, and other unhealthy foods with those taxpayer benefits. Crane: 1. Tax Reform 2. Government Over-Regulation 3. Budget Perry: The Idaho Press-Tribune has done an excellent job in researching upcoming legislative issues! Great questions! I would only add that beyond education funding, I believe revisions to the new education laws may be relevant. Thank you for the opportunity to address these questions.