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TOP LEGISLATIVE ISSUES


This poll was run February 3 – 10, 2005 in order to pick the three issues which we will brief and poll our members on.

The three that members rated as most important are:

  • Closed Legislative Committee Meetings
  • K – 12 Education Funding
  • Qwest Proposal to Deregulate the Telephone Industry
Each member of the organization will be assigned to one of these three issues once the briefing materials are developed.

The full results of the poll are linked below followed by the description of each issue that members read before rating its importance. A random sample of 48 members of The Common Interest completed the poll.

The Common Interest Top 20 issues for 2005

Qwest Proposal for Telephone Industry Deregulation
Qwest Communications has asked the legislature to deregulate basic phone service for residential and small business customers so that it can change prices without getting approval from the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) as required by existing law. Qwest originally asked the PUC for deregulation in seven Idaho cities, arguing that increasing cell phone use in these areas provided sufficient competition to justify deregulation. In 2003, the PUC rejected Qwest’s request, finding that cell phones were not effective competition for land line phones even in the largest cities in the state because they are not competitively priced and cannot, among other things, transmit faxes, provide the same level of internet connection, nor offer the multiple extensions that small businesses use. The Federal Communications Commission reached a similar conclusion around the same time. In the 14 states in which Qwest operates, South Dakota and Nebraska have implemented the full deregulation that Qwest is seeking, while the 12 other states, including Idaho, have not.

In 2004, Qwest asked the legislature to deregulate basic phone service in all areas of the state, not just in cities with extensive cell phone coverage. That measure passed the House, 36-34, but was defeated in the Senate, 18-17.

This year’s proposal has been modified in response to legislators’ concerns. During the first three years of the plan, Qwest would be prohibited from charging higher rates in rural areas than in urban areas and Qwest would not be able to charge more than a maximum allowable price set by the PUC.

Since its defeat last year, Qwest has spent over $30,000 on campaign contributions in legislative races and has met with the vast majority of legislators. Qwest has also contributed extensively to Governor Kempthorne, who announced his support for last year’s measure in his state-of-the-state address and lobbied vigorously for it.

Questions have also been raised about Qwest’s corporate citizenship. Last year executives at the company were found guilty on charges relating to accounting problems. Quest paid $250 million to settle charges of fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and it paid $60 million in fines imposed by federal regulators and regulators in various states.

Qwest’s lobbying efforts and campaign donations raise the question of inordinate influence by a special interest. Will this measure promote the company’s interest at the expense of the common interest of Idahoans? Because one of our core aims is to reduce the inappropriate influence of special interests, this may be a particularly important issue for us to examine.

Governor Kempthorne’s Highway Initiative
Governor Dirk Kempthorne has proposed an ambitious plan to build and improve highways. Over the next ten years, the governor proposes $1.6 billion worth of highway construction projects throughout the state to improve transportation generally, strengthen the connections between northern and southern Idaho, improve safety, stimulate economic development, and provide as many as 75,000 jobs.

The governor proposes to pay for this plan using “Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles.” Also known as GARVEE bonds, these federally authorized funding mechanisms are essentially loans with favorable interest rates because they are backed by the federal transportation dollars the state expects to receive in the future. Accordingly, the costs of this initiative would not come out of the general budget.

One point of uncertainty about the plan stems from the fact that the state does not know the exact amount of highway funds that the state will receive twenty years into the future. Related questions are being asked about whether there will be enough funds left after debt payments to fund future highway needs not included in the governor’s proposal, such as highway maintenance. Environmental issues have also been raised.

Settlement of Nez Perce Tribe’s Water Claims
The Nez Perce Tribe has made a legal claim to all water that flows in the Snake River based on the 1855 treaty that it signed with the federal government protecting the tribe’s fishing rights. The tribe made this claim in the Snake River Basin Adjudication, a state sponsored process to identify and verify all legal claims to water in the Snake River Basin.

In the proposed settlement agreement, the tribe would relinquish its claims to Snake River water in exchange for a range of benefits including rights to 50,000 acre feet of water in the Clearwater River and considerable federal money. The package includes $50 million for economic development, $23 million for a sewer and domestic water system, $10 million for giving up storage space in federal reservoirs, and $7 million worth of federal BLM land.

The proposed settlement also provides a set of measures to help restore salmon and steelhead runs in exchange for protection from lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for 30 years. The salmon and steelhead protection measures include assurances of higher minimum flows in the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater basins. In the Snake River, specifically, the state would provide up to 427,000 acre feet annually to augment in-stream flows. The package includes $38 million in federal monies for a trust fund for habitat improvement. Private landowners can opt into the ESA lawsuit protections by voluntarily choosing to follow tighter restrictions on logging and farming practices than is currently required by law to protect watersheds and habitat.

The proposed settlement, with the support of Idaho’s four congressmen and senators, was approved by the Congress and President Bush. Governor Kempthorne supports the deal. The settlement must now be approved by the Idaho legislature and the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee by March 31 to go into effect. Idaho’s senators, congressmen, and governor support the agreement primarily because it eliminates the threat that the tribe might prevail in its claim, giving the tribe the ability to shut off water users in the Snake River Basin or charge them for water use. The package is also in the state’s interest, they argue, because they believe that it will stimulate economic development in north central Idaho generally and that it will improve salmon and steelhead runs.

The strongest opposition to the measure comes from non-Indian leaders and residents who live on the Nez Perce Reservation. The Farm Bureau has also expressed opposition, although it appears that there are some differences of opinion within the Farm Bureau on the matter. Opponents are concerned about the effect the settlement may have on private property rights. For example, instead of the near automatic renewal of the grazing allotments on federal BLM land that they currently enjoy, ranchers would be subject to tribal decisions on those grazing permits once their ten-year terms expire. Opponents are also troubled by the effect on private property rights of the opt-in litigation protection that is tied to landowners choosing to manage their land in more habitat-sensitive ways. Opponents are also concerned that the settlement will strengthen the influence and jurisdiction of the Nez Perce tribal government, a government in which non-Indians who live on the reservation have no voice or representation.

Opponents of the settlement also argue that the Nez Perce Tribe’s legal claims are not strong enough to warrant the lengths to which the agreement goes to settle them. They point out that the Nez Perce Tribe lost on key aspects of its claims in the District Court case (rulings are still pending on other aspects of its claims). For example, the District Court found that the Nez Perce Reservation had been “diminished” by subsequent treaties, limiting the tribe’s fishing rights claims. Opponents also argue that, given existing court precedents, the state’s chances of successfully defending the rulings against the tribe’s appeals are high.

Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Priority Water Rights Deal
The 10,000-square-mile Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer and the Snake River work together to create an enormous water asset unique among arid mountain west states. Over the last fifty years, the demands on this remarkable resource have grown. The conversion from flood to sprinkler irrigation, the increase in water drawn out of the aquifer from wells, and a five year drought have combined to create a situation in which there is not enough water to meet demand.

According to the prior allocation doctrine, which governs water use in Idaho, those who have older water rights have priority over those who have younger water rights. Some of the oldest and largest water rights in southern Idaho belong to the canal companies and irrigation districts that diverted water from the Snake River in the early decades of the twentieth century to create the vast irrigation systems that made settlement for thousands of families a possibility in southern Idaho. These water delivery entities have recently requested that the state curtail the water use of junior water right holders in order to allow them to get their full allocation of water. In the last few years, some trout farmers who depend on the water from springs in the Hagerman area have also requested that the state curtail the water use of junior water right holders.

Most of the junior water right holders pump out of the aquifer to obtain their water. While it is now scientifically clear that ground water pumping diminishes spring flows and thus reduces the amount of water in the Snake River, the specifics of these connections are complicated. Accordingly, it is difficult to know with certainty the extent to which the water use of specific junior ground water right holders should be curtailed in order for particular senior surface water right holders to receive their full allocation of water.

This uncertainty creates the potential for long and costly litigation. Any individual junior water right holder whose right to pump water out of a well is curtailed by the state can appeal that decision to the courts by arguing that it is not sufficiently clear that their pumping affects any particular senior water right holder’s surface water rights. This litigation process could ripple to affect literally thousands of claims with serious economic effects on thousands of individuals, the economy generally, and, thus, the state budget. To prevent this, ground and surface water users have been seeking a mutually agreeable settlement of these issues. Broad elements of a settlement have been outlined that would mitigate the effects of ground water pumping; many important details are still being discussed. Most of the anticipated costs of this settlement—roughly $100 million—would be paid by water users through user fees. However, the state, and, thus, taxpayers, may be asked to help as well. One likely scenario is that the state would issue bonds (essentially loans) which would be paid for by the user fees.

The interested parties are working hard to complete a comprehensive settlement proposal for consideration by the legislature, but the negotiations have been difficult and it is not entirely clear that an agreed upon settlement proposal will come before the legislature this year. If one is proposed, there are individuals in both southwestern and northern Idaho who question whether the state should be asked to address this regional problem.

Higher Education Funding and the Change from Fees to Tuition
While the last several years have stressed the entire state budget, the state’s public colleges and universities have been particularly hard hit. Consequently, the costs borne by students for education have risen dramatically—8% last year and 136% over the last ten years. These costs have increased faster than higher education costs in any other western state. Although we used to have the lowest higher education costs for students of any of the western states, we are now more expensive than Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. We are still cheaper than Washington, Oregon, and Montana.

The four year institutions asked for $245 million, a 9.7% increase over the current year. Governor Kempthorne’s budget trims this to $238 million, an increase of 6.4% over the current year’s budget. Much of this funding increase will go to accommodate the growing number of students enrolling in the state’s colleges and universities.

Distinct from, but related to, the issue of the level of higher education funding is a proposal endorsed by the college and university presidents and the state board of education to change the nature of the costs that students pay at Lewis-Clark State College and Boise and Idaho State Universities. Idaho law, in contrast to the law in most states, currently prohibits charging students tuition. Instead, students pay fees for costs not directly tied to instruction such as the costs of admission, counseling, and maintenance. The current proposal would make it legal for these schools to charge tuition so that the money students pay can be used towards instructional costs such as faculty salaries.

The change does not necessarily mean that overall costs to students will increase. Rather, the proposal is described as a measure that will bring greater flexibility, transparency, and rationality to the schools’ budget process. Nevertheless, the presidents of Lewis-Clark State College and Idaho State University have acknowledged that over the long term this change may be used to shift more of the costs of higher education onto students. The dramatically rising costs to students through fee increases have already resulted in a lawsuit in which students at Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College accuse the schools of illegally charging tuition.

The proposal to legalize tuition charges at Lewis-Clark State College and Boise and Idaho State Universities would not affect the University of Idaho. The University of Idaho was founded before Idaho became a state and the Idaho Constitution prohibits the University of Idaho from charging tuition.

K – 12 Education Funding
Superintendent of Public Schools Marilyn Howard has proposed a budget of just over $1.05 billion, an 8.8% increase in the current year’s state public schools budget. Governor Kempthorne has proposed a budget which trims this figure to $999 million, a 3.6% increase over the current year. The governor’s budget reduces, among other items, the increase in the state’s contribution to teacher salaries from 3% to 1%.

Some legislators are saying that even the governor’s smaller education budget will be difficult to fund this year. Idaho currently ranks forty-fifth of fifty states in per student spending on education.

Expiration of the One Cent Sales Tax Increase
Two years ago, the legislature increased the sales tax from five to six cents on every dollar. The measure was deemed necessary to avoid unacceptable cuts in state services in the midst of an economic downturn. In the spirit of a temporary cure for what was believed to be a temporary challenge, the one cent increase is scheduled to expire June 30. The governor and most legislators—citing the need to keep their word—have expressed their commitment to letting the one cent tax increase expire.

The challenge of balancing the state budget, however, persists. The governor’s recommended budget for next year is 6.7% larger than the current year’s budget. The biggest increases are a result of the rising costs of healthcare, including the state’s portion of the federal Medicaid program, and a rapidly growing prison population. Education, the single largest part of the budget ($1.4 billion, or about 60% of the governor’s total proposed budget of $2.2 billion) is slated to grow overall by 4.4% while the K-12 portion of the education budget is slated to grow by 3.6%.

While the governor projects that the state will be able to pay for the proposed spending, we will do this by drawing on one-time funds and the surplus generated by the 1 cent higher sales tax. Balancing the budget according to the governor’s plans will likely result in a revenue shortfall next year in the neighborhood of $100 million unless the economy grows at a substantially higher rate than currently projected. Many legislators argue that the problem is actually even worse than this. The governor’s budget does not include the money required to pay this year’s 26th pay period and all agree that the governor’s projections for Medicaid spending are unrealistic unless Congress dramatically reforms the program, a possibility on which many legislators are reluctant to depend. When these costs are added to the governor’s budget, the actual increase in spending is roughly 9%.

Legislators who assume that economic growth will not exceed current expectations and that Congress will not substantially revise the Medicaid program have suggested that we reduce the governor’s proposed spending increase this year and hold the line next year. Many legislators support this approach and suggest that current economic constraints offer a needed opportunity to reign in wasteful state spending. Others fear that because little can be done, at least in the near term, about the rising costs of healthcare or of a growing prison population, cuts may have to be made in the largest budget item: education. Those with concerns about cuts to the governor’s proposed education budget argue that education is already under-funded in the state, particularly during the last several years of economic difficulty.

The annual BSU public policy survey suggests that Idahoans might be interested in a different solution to the budget problem. The recently released BSU poll, as well as last year’s BSU poll, found that about 65% of Idahoans think the sales tax is about right or too low while less than 35% think that it is too high. Extending the one cent sales tax increase for another year would fund the costs of the 26th pay period, the higher funding for Medicaid that will be needed if Congress does not make substantial reforms, and help protect priorities in state services such as education.

Consolidation of Election Dates
Currently many elections, such as those for school boards, are held on dates other than the first Tuesday of November. A proposal before the legislature would require all elections to be held on the first Tuesday of November to encourage greater voter turnout.

Since overcoming low voter turnout, when those with more extreme conservative or liberal views tend to be disproportionately represented, is one the core aims of The Common Interest, this may be an interesting issue for us to consider.

Ethics Proposal to Regulate Government Employees Who Take Jobs with Companies They Had Regulated
A measure before the legislature would establish limits on the activities of state government employees who leave the government to work for companies that they had regulated when they worked for the state. The proposal would bar such a former state employee from representing their new employer before an agency for which they had formerly worked. It would also prohibit the employee from disclosing confidential information gained while working for the state to the new employer for two years. This proposal comes in the wake of several state government employee departures last year for companies they had overseen as a state employee.

Since reducing the influence of special interests in government is one of our aims, this may be an interesting issue for us to consider.

State Discount Drug Program
Recognizing the challenges posed to the state by radically increased prescription drug costs, a proposal before the legislature would establish a state discount drug program based on the state’s ability to buy in large volume.

Prescription Drug Imports from Canada
Another measure designed to address the challenge posed by rising prescription drug costs would create a state program for importing drugs at cheaper prices from Canada as some other states are doing.

Tax Incentives for Large Corporations
Governor Kempthorne has proposed a package of income, property, and sales tax breaks for large corporations that move their headquarters here. A company would have to create 500 new jobs that pay at least $50,000 a year, and invest in at least $50 million in new buildings. Supporters see this as a useful measure for attracting the high paying jobs that have been lost in the recent economic downturn. Questions have been raised about the fairness of this proposal to existing businesses, to new small and medium sized businesses that create most of the new jobs, and to individuals left to pay the taxes from which the large companies would be exempted. Questions about geographic fairness have also been raised given that it is unlikely that such a large company would locate anywhere in the state besides the Boise area.

Since this is another issue that potentially pits the common interest against special interests, it may be an interesting issue for us to consider.

Capitol and Old Ada County Courthouse Restoration
Governor Kempthorne has proposed reviving previous plans to restore the State Capitol. Aging electrical and plumbing systems are causing problems. Space limitations—many rooms in which legislative committee hearings are held cannot accommodate all those who wish to participate—are also causing problems. The governor proposes, first, that the old Ada County Courthouse either be renovated or replaced in order to provide additional space for state business, and, then, that the legislature and offices move to the new courthouse while the restoration of the capitol takes place. The combined project would cost about $90 million. Governor Kempthorne proposes to pay for it by making the cigarette tax hike—passed two years ago and set to expire on June 30—permanent and by borrowing the rest through bonds.

Cold Medicine Sales Regulations to Reduce Methamphetamine Production
Cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudoephedrine are often used to manufacture methamphetamine, an illegal and addictive drug that has been a major problem in Idaho. A proposal before the legislature would require that these cold and allergy medicines be purchased from a pharmacist (no prescription would be required) and that purchasers show a photo I.D. and sign for the product. Similar measures in other states have lead to dramatic decreases in methamphetamine drug use and crime.

Building Contractors Licensing
Building contractors in Idaho are currently not required to have a state license. Some have proposed a measure requiring licensing in order to offer consumers a greater measure of protection. Others argue that this would add more government regulation, bureaucracy, and expense when what we need is less government.

Increases in Hunting and Fishing Fees
A measure before the legislature would raise fees for fishing and hunting licenses and set upper limits for future increases that the Fish & Game Department could make on its own.

Constitutional Amendment Banning Gay Marriage
A proposal has been introduced in the senate to amend the state constitution to prevent the state from recognizing gay marriages. The measure would also prohibit recognition of civil unions or domestic partnerships. It is unclear whether the proposed amendment would invalidate existing common-law marriages (the state has already prohibited recognition new common-law marriages in another piece of legislation). The proposal would add the following language to the state constitution: “Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized in this state. This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status similar to that of marriage.” Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House for the amendment to go on the 2006 ballot. A majority vote in the election would ratify the amendment and put it into effect. The Senate voted 21-14 against the amendment on February 2. Twenty-four votes were needed for it to pass the Senate. It is unclear at this time whether the measure will still be voted on by the House and whether it will come before the Senate again during this session. In 1996 the legislature banned gay marriage by statute.

Several members of The Common Interest have posted comments in our online discussion forum about how we should handle emotional and divisive social issues such as this. Some have suggested that since they tend to polarize, we should stay away from them. Others have argued that it is just on such issues that our voice is most needed. Still others have said that while we might ultimately want to try to play the role of bringing respectful discussion to such issues, we should not try to do this while we are getting started.

Requirement to Use Ethanol in Gasoline
A measure before the legislature would require all gasoline in the state to contain at least 10% ethanol within five years. Ethanol is made from farm crops. Supporters argue that this measure would support farmers and the rural Idaho economy. There is disagreement about the proposal’s potential effects on gasoline prices, air quality, and vehicle performance.

Requirement that Animal Waste Management Records be Open to the Public
The growing number of dairies and other confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Idaho has drawn attention to the issue of how the large quantities of animal waste they generate are managed. A proposal before the legislature would require that CAFOs animal waste management records be open to the public.

Closed Committee Meetings
A measure before the senate would change its rules to allow it to more easily hold committee meetings that are closed to the public. Current House rules already allow this.

This proposal raises serious questions about whether government by the people can or should be conducted behind closed doors beyond the view and without the participation of the people. This is an issue of obvious interest to The Common Interest. Nevertheless, we may not want to take it on as one of our three issues in our first year. Since this measure would only come to the floor of the senate and not the house, it would not work well as a basis for our legislative scorecard. A similar issue about closed-door caucus meetings by the Republican and Democratic Parties has been raised in the past.

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