Legislative Update - Week Twelve, March 26-30
I'd like to start by stating that it has been a great honor to serve the people of District 25. Please allow me to take this opportunity to highlight some of the issues we considered during the course of the 2012 Legislative Session.
At the start of this session, Idaho's ruling party was mired in ethical lapses that had seriously eroded public trust in government accountability. Democrats introduced seven bills to improve basic, commonplace ethics laws such as an independent ethics commission, financial disclosure requirements or revolving-door restrictions. Feeling the heat of public disapproval, majority leadership formed an 8-member, bi-partisan ethics working group on which I served. It became clear immediately that the minority members favored a citizen commission to oversee our citizen legislature while the majority members were vested in maintaining the status quo. Shortly thereafter, we saw the resignation of a Senate Leader confronting sexual harassment allegations. Then I personally experienced the inadequacies of our current system when Senate Minority Leaders (Sen. Malepeai, Sen. Bock, and I) filed a formal complaint requesting an ethics investigation of a senator who we believe violated conflict of interest disclosure rules. The session ended with none of our proposals considered in favor of counterproductive tweaks to Senate Rules. The new rules give Senate Pro Tempore sole power to fire staff and muzzles Senators behind closed doors, removing transparency from ethics investigations which will not restore the public's confidence.
Jobs and the Economy
Democrats introduced a jobs creation package known as IJOBS 2.0, our second Idaho Jobs and Opportunity Blueprint package. IJOBs 2.0 included legislation providing for the creation of a "finders fee" tax credit for businesses that persuade vendors or partners to relocate in Idaho, and a "Buy Idaho First Contracting Act" that would allow state agencies to award contracts to Idaho companies on a preferential basis. Only one of the six bills got a hearing in committee; HB606, would have supported food processing operations that add value to locally-grown agricultural products and augment local revenues. It passed the House on a 62-2 vote after extensive debate and amendments but was held for consideration by a Senate committee chair.
Governor Otter introduced one piece of legislation this year; a jobs initiative that expands on a bill I co-sponsored in 2010. This initiative is designed to bring cutting-edge research being done at Idaho universities to commercial markets more quickly. The Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) sets aside $5 million to help bolster the economy through education investments. We are always supportive of measures that foster creative and innovative industries in Idaho to stimulate the economy, and it passed with ease through both chambers of the legislature.
Oil and Gas
The majority of my time on the Resources and Environment Committee was spent debating rules and regulations for the oil and gas industry. The discovery of natural gas in Idaho could mean greater energy independence and economic benefits for Idaho. But the introduction of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in our state required the legislature to develop a well-vetted set of guidelines for this burgeoning industry. Most of the laws we passed will help to create a good set of base-level regulations that will be further developed to fit the needs of Idaho in years to come. Still, Idahoans have a lot of reasonable concerns about the safety and environmental impact of this controversial drilling method. As a result, I co-sponsored legislation that would have prohibited the use of human cancer-causing chemicals during the fracking process and another that would have required that the oil and gas industry recognize their statutory duty to protect public health, safety, and the welfare of Idahoans. The committee refused to give either bill a hearing.
One of the landmark education bills this session was HB426, a bill that permits students to accelerate their learning so that they can complete high school and college more quickly and at a lower cost. Known as the "8 in 6 program," the state pays for as many as eight extra classes a year for students who want to finish high school with up to two years of college credit or a vocational certificate. The legislature also passed legislation increasing initial starting salaries for new teachers.
With no debate or discussion, the Senate has passed HB698, the teacher salary bill, on a 28-7 party-line vote. That's the House version of the bill to cancel future cuts required by the "Students Come First" reform law in teacher salary funds, in order to pay for the law's initiatives including laptop computers and merit-pay bonuses for teachers. The House bill also declares those initiatives the top funding priorities in the school budget, and requires that whenever teacher base salaries are increased, the minimum teacher salary must rise by twice the percentage. The bill now goes to the governor.
Governor Otter announced in his State of the State address that $45 million in tax cuts were his main priority this year. This number was adjusted to $35 million after legislators undercut the Governor's economic forecast figures during the budget-setting process. The House and Senate were deeply divided on this issue with the Senate preferring to restore teacher pay and fill Idaho's Rainy Day Fund but the majority party in the Senate relented on the final day of session and these cuts passed on a party-line vote. These tax cuts will not benefit the middle class and economists doubt they will lead to real job growth so I could not support a tax cut for the rich while our average citizens are still struggling in these early stages of our economic recovery.
Unfortunately, there were a number of bills aimed at taking away access to specific forms of health care for women. Amongst these was S1387, requiring women to obtain an ultrasound prior to a pregnancy termination even in the event of rape, incest, and medical emergencies. H530 and HJM010 sought to deny women the right to decide whether they could obtain health insurance coverage suited to their needs. These bills insult the intelligence of our women in this state, who have the right to control their healthcare choices. I voted against all three.
We voted on three different bills aimed at turning hunting into an elitist sport by way of auctioning off coveted hunting tags to the highest bidder. SB1282 allowed private landowners hunting tags for personal gain while requiring them to allow hunters limited access to their property. SB1283 was drafted similarly, but did not require private landowners to permit access to their property for hunting. The only one of these three to pass was SB1256 establishing a Governor's big game auction tag to be auctioned off in support of Department of Fish and Game programs - with restrictions. Idaho hunters can spend a lifetime to draw some of these hunts. The sale of access to our wildlife to the highest bidder, multiple times for multiple tags, goes against the very nature of our system of open and public access to our wildlife resources. I voted against all three of these bills as they were not supported by the Wildlife Federation, Idaho Fish and Game, sportsmen, or my constituents.
Finally Getting it Right
After years of effort, much of it expended my Democratic colleagues, the legislature finally passed laws to ban texting while driving, prevent animal cruelty and assure that athletes who suffer concussions don't end up facing dire consequences.
I continue to encourage your participation in the political process through email, letters, and calls. Thank you once again for allowing me this immense honor to serve you in the legislature. Please join us for our upcoming town hall meetings which are posted on my website: www.michellestennett.com.