Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Local Option Taxes...

Lot's of rumblings around the Capital Annex these days regarding Local Option Taxes for targeted transportation and mass transit needs. We've got a couple of bills floating around that I suspect are or will be heard soon. (You can track or find bills up for adoption here)

I've listened to quite a number of folks about their desire to enable a community to tax themselves to fund infrastructure that the majority of the community feels are needed. I tend to agree with that, however, we need to ensure some pretty stiff sideboards are in place for spending these local community taxes and for the protection of the folks that will be paying them.

Currently, the taxes that are being focused on are local taxes to improve roads and public transportation. I've asked everyone that seems to support this tax what their incentive is for such a tax. By far the most consistent answer is "because our local transportation infrastructure needs fixed and we can do that with a local tax".

I love Idahoans, we don't hesitate to step up and take on issues that just need fixing, but in this instance, I think our focus is short sighted.
We currently provide tax Dollars to the Idaho Department of Transportation through our fuel taxes, registrations and a number of other revenue means that are to be focused on our transportation infrastructure. I've described the Highway Distribution fund in other blogs, and it's this fund that is currently the funding source that is to be used to fix those problems that we all see everyday.

If you were running a company that had a department that was "under performing, not meeting their goals" would you be better off still providing funds for that department while starting another department to fix the problems of the first couldn't seem to handle? Of course not, you would first focus on the under performing department and find the roadblocks keeping that team from meeting their goals.

We have a department that is charged with constructing, managing and maintaining our public transportation systems in Idaho. From airports to highways, ports to public mass transit systems... shouldn't our focus be on the team charged to spend our tax money today on the issues that are of most interest to us? Ensure they are as effiecient as possible before we look at increasing tax Dollars to be spent by that department?
If we decide to go down the road to tax ourselves with a Local Option tax to "fix our roadways or improve our public transportation systems", were do you think that new tax money will go? It will go to the same folks that are currently charged with that task now... what's the real gain?

Putting a band aid on a broken arm will not heal the arm, it will just make you feel better that there is at least something there... the arm is still broken, it will heal, but never be as good as it was. Throwing more tax Dollars at a system that is not efficiently spending those Dollars will do nothing more than continue to empty our pockets while still not making effective use of our hard earned money.

ITD is the third largest department in the state with a huge task of managing all of our transportation needs... the laws governing/restricting how they do that (legislative), policies directing the department (executive) and leadership and management of how they address the issues (The Commission) all need some "tweaking" to ensure our Department can be focused on the needs of the citizens of the State.
One can't blame the department or the legislature or the executive branch as the root cause of our problems, but all of us are part of the roadblocks to getting the department operating at an efficiency where we would not need more tax dollars to allow them to meet the goals that we have set for them. We are so focused at being reactionary to the lack of funding to meet required demands, we are not being proactive in looking at other ways to meet those demands.

I have yet to see a tax in our great State go away once it's enabled. It sure seems to be easier for our government to increase taxes than it is to ensure government is effeciently spending those Dollars in the first place... our first reactions seem to be to throw more money at the problems and hope they go away.
We have a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget at the State level, how would this work with a local taxing district managed by a non-elected board? Who would hold them accountable for the use of the people's money? Shouldn't we focus on how our money is spent today before we just assume throwing more money at an issue will solve our problems and raise more taxes?

Sideboards on Local Option taxes are extremely important if we are going to use them... using them as a band aid covering up larger issues, in my opinion, would we way outside any sideboards we could set.

Your thoughts?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Is it OK to Gillnet an Endangered Species?...

It appears that it is... Our Idaho Nez Perce Tribal Leadership has decided that the treaty signed in 1855 allows them to set up a commercial fishery for Steelhead and Salmon so they have now been putting out gillnets to capture the fish for resale.

Our native and wild Steelhead Trout have struggled to recover their natural migration ranges. The State of Idaho, Nez Perce Tribe, Sportsmen and conservationists alike have worked hard and spent millions of our tax dollars to recover the wild Steelhead Trout and Salmon in our state. What is the logic in putting out such an indiscriminate killer like a gillnet?

Why have we not heard from Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club or HSUS on the issue of protection of these Endangered Species? (This will be a question for another day...)

The State, Federal government and Tribes enacted strict fishing rules for hatchery Steelhead Trout and Salmon, where any wild fish must be released upon it being caught during the normal fishery for hatchery Steelhead and Salmon. It disturbs me as a Sportmen and conservationist that the Tribal Leadership has decided to jump into the commercial fishery business using gillnets that are not discriminate to wild fish. It also concerns me that our fisheries biologists have predicted near record returns of Salmon this spring as well, heightening the chance of Salmon once again up in Redfish lake.. Will these Salmon (wild or not) be subject to the same nets?

I'm told it's a tradition within the Tribe where gillnets have been used in the past to provide for subsistence for Tribal members. I think it’s admirable that Tribal members take care of members in need, but I also think it's pushing "tradition" to use those gillnets to create a commercial fishery based on a 1855 treaty (when the logic used at the time was to support Tribal subsistence for those members).

Supporting and remembering one's heritage is important, we've all have past family histories that should be handed down from generation to generation. My family (The Hagedorn "Tribe") has hunting and fishing traditions as well. I understand that we had traditions in our family hunting history that were a bit more destructive, but we've learned and grown from those ways and now practice good conservation when in the field.

It would seem to me that the Nez Perce Tribal Leadership would have the vision to grow and learn in the same way. Passing on traditional histories and cultural heritage is important and useful, but on the other hand, exploiting those traditions at the expense of good relationships with your neighboring communities is destructive behavior.

Millions of Sportsmen’s tax dollars paid through the purchase of their sporting equipment to the Department of Interior have been used to ensure the success of all the fish hatcheries that contribute to good fisheries and economic returns to those Idaho communities around the rivers, streams and lakes supported by those hatcheries. By not working closely with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the local county, cities and groups relying on these fisheries, the Tribal Leadership have set themselves up for microscopic examinations of their practices.

Rumors of not cutting adipose fins (the method used to determine wild (with) from hatchery (without) fish) from smelts released from the hatchery they operate to not providing good (or any) reservation catch counts to the Department of Fish and Game contribute to the lack of credibility of those in Leadership when they say they will only use so many nets and that catches will be closely monitored.

We are currently told that a minimum number of nets have been put out, with few fish caught. "Only one Wild Steelhead" has been killed is what’s been reported... If I were out hunting and came in with my limit of Grouse and claimed "Only one Wolf was killed" during my hunt, would that be an acceptable excuse to the public? I suspect not...

Driving on Highway 95 and seeing Steelhead and Salmon being sold out of the back of cars and trucks without any safety or health inspections endangers not only the fishery but our citizens as well.

Actives surrounding this fishery approved by Tribal Leadership is unhealthy for our wildlife and our citizens. That's why I've introduced House Bill H0471 requiring the buyers of Steelhead and Salmon (and other wildlife) to have a "buyers license".

Safety of our citizens and our wildlife should be important to all of us, regardless of the State or Nation you hail from.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Let's Talk iStars...

I've had a number of meetings regarding iStars. This is the new program that the Department of Education's board and Superintendent Luna are recommending that the Legislature approve this year.

Governor Otter has requested a 5% increase for pay for State employees and it's my understanding that iStars will be used to implement that increase throughout that department. I met with the Meridian Education Association (the IEA union here in Meridian) where I went to listen to their concerns regarding implementing iStars. They showed me a video on the IEA's thoughts on a program that would be preferred and I and Rep. Snodgrass then fielded questions.

There were a number of questions regarding how teachers would get any increases through iStars at all should they volunteer for that program. Initially, iStars was going to base a teachers merit pay on the ISAT tests of their students and teachers that were involved in special education, second language education, PE and other skills were rightly concerned about their ability to get a bonus for their work (that's not really tested/reflected in the ISAT testing).

I had some meetings with Sup. Luna and discussed many of the questions that I was asked when with from the MEA meeting that I was not able to adequately answer...

To summarize our meeting with Sup. Luna, I'd like to point out the following of his plan that was not well understood by the teachers I met with from the MEA:

  • The Career Foundation Pay (the existing system) would remain intact and managed as before (negotiated through union discussions)

  • On the top of that Foundation Pay would be a Student Achievement merit pay bonus where a SCHOOL (not teacher) would be based on improvement and/or overall excellence in student performance. (thus allowing teacher in a "bad" school to get a bonus based on improvement and teachers in a "good" school to get a bonus based on student test scores of the whole school, not just their class)

  • Local school districts would also have the ability to add to this Foundation Pay a Local Control bonus to attract and retain teachers to teach in hard to fill positions.

  • These three items are proposed to happen for all teachers, regardless of if they want to "sign up" for the next list of potential bonus opportunities or not. the above is how the Superintendent intends to spread out the 5% pay increase that the Governor has requested in his budget.

If a teacher elects (there is a choice here) to work under a new category of contract offered to teachers (a category 4 contract) they will also be eligible for the following bonus programs:

  • Leadership Bonus: Teachers would be eligible to receive up to a $2400 bonus by taking on Leadership roles within the district or schools.

  • Expertise Bonus: Teachers would be eligible to receive up to a $2400 bonus by gaining more expertise and earning qualification to teach in multiple subject areas (this is not to be confused with the current qualification improvement system currently within the Foundation Pay base system).

  • Career Opportunity pay increase: Teachers would receive a $2400 bonus for signing up for a category 4 contract of 1 to 3 years. This increase would be added each year of the base contract. This contract is very similar to the current contracts that our school Administrators work under.

One of the things I did learn about these category 4 contracts through Sup. Luna was that each year the contract would be reviewed and would either be extended by a year or (if on a 3 year contract) if there were issues, one would be put on an improvement program and have an additional 2 years to improve and increase their contract length.

Learn more about the iStars plan through a video produced about the plan's objectives and details here.

"Due Process" seemed to be also a very big concern of our teachers here in Meridian and I discussed this with Sup. Luna. As far as I know, there is no way one can take away an American Citizen's "due process" based upon our nation's constitution. I suspect this miss-information came from those not wanting to even consider change.

He informed me that under the current state category 4 contracts where is a 6 step process of review if there is an issue where a teacher would be asked to leave their position:

  • Evaluation: Evaluations from the Administration must be fair and valid,

  • Letter of Evaluation: teachers must receive an official letter outlining their specific areas of deficiencies,

  • Improvement Plan: the Administration must develop a personalized improvement plan and then provide time to demonstrate improvement,

  • Probationary Period: The Teacher will receive a minimum of 8 weeks to enable them to work towards meeting the goals within the improvement plan and demonstrate that improvement.

  • Re-Evaluation: the teacher must then receive another fair and valid re-evaluation from the Administration.

  • Appeal Process: If after this process, the Teacher has not demonstrated the improvement required to meet the goals, the teacher can then appeal to the local school board where a hearing is held. The Teacher, parents, patrons, students and other Teachers are allowed to speak on the Teacher's behalf.

Idaho Teachers have the ability to participate in the first part of iStars bonus programs without changing their current contracts. They would, however, be provided their increases based upon performance of their schools student performance and the districts decision to provide bonuses to those that have performed at a greater level than others.

Those Teachers that elect to sign up for the new category 4 contract can add even more income based upon their capabilities and drive for excellence and involvement with their schools, districts and expertise they are able to provide to the team.

Some say that iStars is only a "union busting" effort by the department, but there are no restrictions for teachers to leave the union to take advantage of the iStars program, so that's an argument I just don't buy...

I see iStars as a choice for our Teachers to be able to excel in the classroom and get paid for it. Our Teachers seem to "top out" pay wise about mid-career and many start looking for ways to increase their take home pay about that time. We loose many really good Teachers to administrative jobs or jobs in similar careers... taking them away from our kids when they are in their prime of teaching skills and abilities. iStars provides those teachers with the choice of staying in the classroom, flexing their skills and getting paid more for their expertise and success. I also see this as an excellent opportunity to attract new teachers to problem areas where they can excel right out of the gate and make more than the base salary right out of college while filling critically vacant positions identified by the Districts.

I'm not blind, however, I do see where the IEA would be concerned about the category 4 contracts offering more than what the union's would be able to negotiate under the iStars proposal. The union is working hard for their "customers" by offering up an alternative plan that I reviewed. I don't see as much of a change from what we currently have had for the last 20 years, or have had the opportunity to implement.

I have also heard some districts have currently up to 50% of their teachers that are excited about the iStars opportunity. This is a concern for me as it could cost the state more than we are currently forecasting for approval. If I were in Sup. Luna's shoe's, I think I would put a cap on the program for a maximum number volunteers allowed per year to ensure we can stay within the approved budget.

I see iStars as an opportunity for positive change in the way we educate our students. We must be more pro-active in attracting and KEEPING good Teachers to make sure our kids are the best educated kids in the nation. If we don't provide the good Teachers with pay for performance, we will continue down the same road we travel today where Idaho is not at the top of the list of performers.

iStars has some issues, but I don't see any that can't be tweaked overtime to make this program one of the best in the nation, giving our kids the best Teachers our state can give them.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Public Transportation, what are the real numbers?

Public Transportation, what's it's real cost to the commuting public? There are currently funds within the Department of Transportation dedicated to be used to repair, maintain and build our roads and highways and provide public transport. What's the "right mix" of those funds that should be used for Public Transportation vs. our roads?

Some have developed plans to build a light rail system, trolley or building the infrastructure to support them, but has anyone really looked at the numbers with regards to the operating costs of a public system as compared to our cars and SUVs? Let's, for now, forget about the capital costs to build and start up a new system, let's just look at operating costs...Operating costs are long term, ongoing costs that "someone" must spend every day we commute from one point to another.

The best metric for measuring those costs are how much does it cost to move one person one mile. I had a chance meeting with a retired IBM manufacturing analyst (who's job it was to squeeze the most out of a Dollar) that has done some work in this area and he was kind enough to provide me with data and his sources of data that I think is worth sharing here.

This data comes from the Urban Transport Fact book that draws from National Transportation data, US Census data, National transit data and from the American Public Transportation Association.

It's important to remember that these numbers are operating costs only and the data is from 2001, as this was the most recent data that was available for both Public Transportation systems and for automobile operating expenses. If you go to the Fact Book, you will find that operating costs are pretty stable for cars up through about 2004.

There are a number of cities with Public Transportation systems operating costs listed in the Fact Book, but I picked some that I have personally either seen, used or have been briefed on their operations and compared those operating costs to Boise's system (in 2001).

Costs per passenger mile is an important metric. It shows just how much each passenger should expect to pay (or subsidies that would be required) for 1 mile travelled. The data comparison clearly shows that in 2001 the Boise system costs tax payers and riders about 89 cents per mile each passenger travelled. If those same folks would have ridden in a car, their operating costs per mile would have been 1/4 of that cost!

The taxpayers of Idaho have infrastructure investments today that need maintained (our roads) that our buses, taxis and van pools currently use to move those that would prefer or need access to public transport. Every taxpayer Dollar spent on infrastructure other than our current road system would be used to support a system that has an operating cost per passenger mile 4 times that of cars.

Obviously, the data above does not address any environmental or social issues associated with transport costs of every passenger per mile, but all of these metrics should be demanded prior to investment into any Public Transit system to ensure those costs "pencil out" or have a positive return on investment for the Taxpayers of our state. The Fact Book does address many of these issues as well, but I've not the room here to get into them.

As an example; currently the #42 "Intercounty Bus Fare" for the trip from Nampa to Boise (one way) is $2.00. Lets say that this one way trip is (conservatively) a 20 mile trip. The passenger payment per passenger mile works out to 10 cents per passenger mile.

Using the old 2001 figures of Boise operating costs of 89 cents per passenger mile (when fuel costs were almost half of what they are today) indicates that "someone" besides the rider is paying (or subsidizing) 79 cents per mile per passenger on that route, or $15.80 per rider!

Who do you think that might be Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer?

I would encourage you to look at the Fact Book data and ask some questions of our local leaders and those focused on increasing taxes to build out our Public Transport infrastructure. Do they understand what are the true costs of that infrastructure and the ongoing operating costs PER PASSENGER MILE are going to be? Can they supply the data to the taxpayer comparing those costs to what we have invested today and what the expected future costs will be?

Do we have the population density to support such a system? Would we be smarter investing more in our current infrastructure of roads? How about in some sort of voucher system that would allow people, that really need public transportation, that could be used with a taxi? There are too many questions that are not being asked, too many statements focusing our eyes away from the "card up the sleeve"...

There is no doubt that we could all do better in ensuring we carpool or share a ride when we can, these are the things that drive down the automobile operating costs per passenger mile for all of us. If you look around you on I-84 coming into town, you will see too many of us not sharing a ride, but do we want to increase our taxes as punishment? Will this change our behavior? Are we going to have to invest in our roads anyway?

At the same time we are seeing our traffic backing up because we are not considering these ride sharing options, we are seeing and hearing from some, with interests other than economically resolving these issues, recommending that we increase our taxes to build an infrastructure that will cost us more to operate than what we currently spend, while at the same time supporting only a minority of commuters.

Do we need to plan for our future density, of course, but the numbers clearly show we are not ready for anything other than a more economical bus system.

A cute Trolley or Light Rail line might be a really "sexy" thing for the Treasure Valley to have, but is the "juice worth the squeeze" for the taxpayers?

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

$25 Child Support Fee Re-targeted...

This spring Idaho received a mandate from the Federal government that those that are using the Child Support Payment administration program within Health and Welfare needed to pay $25 for it's use. This money would be used back in Washington D.C. to reduce the Federal deficit (yes, that deficit that was caused by overspending of the folks back east).

Options for paying for this program were to charge the users; custodial parent, non-custodial parent or State general funds used to operate the Department of H&W. The department determined after consideration of all fees and taxes paid by everyone, that the custodial parent receiving child support payments should be required to pay the $25 annual fee.

As one would imagine, there was quite an outcry from those custodial parents about having to not only raise their children on child support payments, but also have to pay a $25 fee to boot. Many calls, letters and emails were sent to the Department as well as the Governor's office.

It appears that there has now been a reversal of this issue, the charges will now be borne by the non-custodial parent. I received the following letter from the Governor and the Dir. of H&W this week:

"You received a letter in September from the Department of Health and Welfare about Idaho's implementation of the federally mandated $25 annual child support fee to aid in reducing the federal deficit. The department decided at the time to charge the fee to custodial parents.

Health and Welfare began collecting fees on October 1, 2007. After implementing the federal mandate, the department and the Governor's Office received considerable feedback from the public and custodial parents. Upon further review, we feel it is in the best interest of children and the State to reverse the previous decision and collect the $25 fee from non-custodial parents.

The temporary proposed rule assessing the fee to custodial parents is being rescinded and vacated effective December 6, 2007, and will publish in the January 2, 2008, Administrative Bulletin. This rule will be presented for approval during the 2008 legislative session.

Health and Welfare stopped collecting the fee from custodial parents effective December 7, 2007. The department is coordinating refunds to all custodial parents who had already paid the fee. Although this proposed change in rule add an additional cost to non-custodial parents, the rule change helps ensure children received full child support.

We realize the negative impact the $25 fee has, regardless of who pays the fee imposed by congressional action; however, the department must comply with federal law. As Governor, I have written Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt expressing concern about the action taken to balance the budget on the backs of states and children receiving child support. We hope our decision to assess the fee to non-custodial parents will minimize the impact to Idaho children.

If you have question that this letter does not address, please don't hesitate to contact Russ Barron (barronr@dhw.idaho.gov) or Kandee Yearsley (yearslek@dhw.idaho.gov) by email or by telephone (208-334-5815). "

It frustrates me that any citizen of Idaho is being "charged" to pay for a deficit caused by overspending at the federal level in the first place. Idaho citizens should not approve of this happening at all and I will be interested to find out what kind of response Gov. Otter receives back from Secretary Leavitt. Putting this kind of burden on family members that are already in a stressful situation (either custodial or non-custodial) does not help them get themselves back on track to a normal life.

This type of governmental regulation is exactly what the Family Task Force looked for during our hearings this summer and we will be focused on abating. Any government regulation that puts further burden upon already stressed families is not appropriate and should be avoided if at all possible. In the long run, policies such as this not only cost families (in Dollars and increased stress) but puts further burden on the state tax payer as well.

Your thoughts?....

District 20 Legislative Predictions...

If you haven’t already done so, go down and take a look at the old Ada County Courthouse. I think you’ll like what you see.

The historic structure was a mess only a few months ago. But workers cleaned it up, reworked it from the inside and now it’s ready to go for the 2008 and 2009 sessions. It will be the place we call home while he Capitol receives a facelift.

The quarters at the old courthouse will be much tighter; for instance, we don’t have room for a gallery on the House side. But I think it will work out well for the next two years. It’s good to see this wonderful old building come back to life. And it’s good to know that the structure will be useful to state government after the Capitol renovation has been completed.

Although we will be working out of "new" quarters in 2008, we will be facing some of the same "old" issues that surfaced in 2007 -- namely the grocery and personal property taxes. Both should be abolished in my opinion, and there are discussions about ways to accomplish that. One idea I’ve heard is phasing out the taxes over a five year period to avoid any kind of a major hit on the State's budget.

Last year, the House passed some good bills to provide broad-based relief from the grocery tax and took a progressive step toward ending the personal property tax on business operators, but there were disagreements as those bills progressed through the Senate. Hopefully we can come to reasonable compromises and move a strong bill through the Governor's office that will be acceptable to the people of Idaho.

Transportation -- again -- will be a hot issue this session. We have heard talk about raising car-registration fees and/or raising the fuel taxes, nothing is off the table at this point. I invite constituents in District 20 to share your thoughts on this issue. We have a lot of demands for construction, and not enough dollars. I want my votes on this issue to reflect the views of the people of District 20. I am serving on the Transportation and Defense Committee, so I will be in the middle of discussions about all of these issues.

I will be pushing hard to ensure funding for the construction of the 10 mile interchange project. It's currently within the proposed GARVEE ~$135 million bill coming from the Dept of Transportation along with some other smaller projects, it's possible we won't pass this GARVEE bill due to these other projects. I've asked many times for the Department to ensure they have something as a back up for this critical project.

I’m also going to be working with Rep. Tom Trail of Moscow and Sen. Brad Little of Emmett on a bill relating to dog fighting. Although dog fighting is not prevalent in Idaho, we need to send a strong statement that makes it clear the practice is not acceptable in Idaho and allow our state Prosecutors to cross state lines to retrieve offenders that might not get that message.

I’m looking forward to a productive session, and not as short as many are predicting. If you have any comments or concern about any legislative issue, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

And if you visit the old courthouse during the session, please stop by and say hello.