Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - On the midway

Although we are at the halfway point in the 2021 legislative session, the title of this newsletter refers to the other definition of “midway”: an  avenue at a fair, carnival, or amusement park for concessions and amusements.  That pretty much sums up where we are at this point, as discussed further down.

As always, please contact me anytime for any reason (important information is provided at the end of this newsletter).

 

 

The legislative roller coaster

When I started my first term in 2019, nearly every long-time Capitol observer told me it was the worst legislative session they ever experienced. In 2020, they told me that was the worst legislative session ever.  And now they’re saying in 2021 that this is the worst session ever – and we’re only at the halfway mark. Why is that?
 
Well, it’s like a roller coaster.  It can be a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping experience. Or it can be a head-spinning, stomach-turning nightmare. Or both.  But in the end, after all the ups and downs, twists and turns, white-knuckled fist-clenching and primordial screaming, you wind up back where you started.

It seems that every year the legislative roller coaster becomes increasingly more extreme. The plunges are deeper and the turns skew sharper to the right (ejecting some occupants from their seats). But in the end, we seem to make little or no progress on the most important stuff.  Here’s a midway progress report on the issues District 15 voters tell me they care about the most:

  • Funding education without constant school bonds: Nothing.
  • Keeping up with the cost of living (wages, property taxes, etc.): Nada.
  • Affordable healthcare, including better mental health services: Zip.
  • Transportation infrastructure that keeps up with  growth: Zilch.
  • Protect access to public lands from out-of-state billionaires: Nope.

Instead, the majority party has spent most of the time on bills that are either self-serving, politically motivated, or just plain head-scratching:

  • Enabling the legislature to call itself into session anytime for any reason
  • Increasing the power of the legislature over the executive branch
  • Increasing voter suppression by making absentee voting more difficult
  • Nullifying the constitutional right to citizen-driven ballot initiatives
  • Banning all future psychoactive medications
  • Shifting $4 million taxpayer dollars into a legislature slush fund 
  • Allowing people to bring concealed guns into elementary schools
  • Making it easier for businesses to engage in price-gouging
  • A law to protect your kid’s neighborhood lemonade stand 
  • And so on . . .

And after the dizziness and nausea induced by this legislative roller coaster subsides, you can then head on over to the Fiscal Policy Fun House! The legislature is currently sitting on over $1.3 BILLION in a rainy day fund, a record budget surplus and an idle internet sales tax account. Instead of investing most of that money in education, infrastructure and vital services, the majority party introduced a bill (H199) that would divert a good chunk of it toward tax cuts that will go mostly to businesses, the wealthy and the well-connected while likely raising taxes for a family of four making less than $75,000/year.

I and my colleagues have proposed real tax relief measures that will actually benefit Idaho’s working families:

  • Invest internet sales tax revenue in education, which would reduce the need for perpetual school bonds and levies.
  • Repeal the cap on the homeowner’s exemption, which would increase it from $100,000 to approximately $150,000 if the majority party hadn’t implemented the cap in 2016.
  • Increase the circuit-breaker allowance to help offset property taxes for low-income seniors and people with disabilities, which hasn’t changed since 2006.
  • Create a new earned income tax credit.
  • Repeal the portion of the $2.5 BILLION in annual sales tax exemptions and exceptions that cannot be justified as providing a net long-term benefit to the state.

Unfortunately, majority party leadership has thus far refused to allow these ideas to be discussed, debated or come to a vote. It looks like the legislature may once again fail to prioritize working families over its petty political squabbles – especially in a year that delivered a record budget surplus.
 
It’s time to get off this roller coaster – and while we’re at it, replace some of the vendors on the midway who seem to be there mostly for their own concessions and amusement.

 

Rotunda Roundup

Education
Not much that helps teachers and students is coming out of the House Education committee this year thus far. Here’s just a sampling:
 
In-person learning without protecting the health and safety of teachers and staff (H175 –returned to the sponsor for further edit). This bill attempts to placate the public’s desire to see their children back in the classroom without addressing the reason why children aren’t in classrooms.  I want children back in school and I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want the same. But this poorly-worded bill appears to create a new “student right” for in-person learning regardless of exigent circumstances, be it snow days, four-day school weeks or a future pandemic that is much more deadly than COVID. This is irresponsible – especially when the legislature took no action to open schools safely (lower class sizes, increased sanitation, etc.).  I do not support this feel-good bill that does nothing to address the underlying challenge of safely conducting in-person learning during a health crisis.

Spend public taxpayer dollars to help pay private and religious school tuition costs (H215 – to be debated in committee).  This bill extends the Strong Student grant program to include private and religious schools by giving an estimated 800 students $6,041 each in state taxpayer dollars to pay for non-public school education expenses. I voted against introducing this bill which is really a voucher bill in disguise. We should not be giving your taxpayer dollars to private schools while the legislature forces property tax increases to cover the cost of public schools.

Require opt-in/opt-out for higher education student fees (H116 – held in committee).  This bill is a misdirected and potentially unworkable solution to a more fundamental problem – the legislature’s continuous underfunding of higher education. Once upon a time, the legislature funded over 50% of the state’s higher education costs at its colleges and universities.  Today it barely funds 20% of that cost.  This has resulted in higher tuitions along with new and higher student fees to cover the shortfall created by the legislature. This bill makes the situation even worse. It could potentially remove up to $20 million from higher education – which would likely result in even higher tuition costs. I voted against introducing this bill, which is currently under further review by the State Board of Education.

Create a committee to review progress on literacy in public schools (H69 – updated version to be debated in committee). This misnamed “streamline education” bill is flawed for several reasons.  It starts from the premise that schools need to justify the money they’ve already received without considering if literacy efforts were adequately funded to begin with. If it takes 100 gallons of gas to drive from Point A to Point B but you are only given 20 gallons of gas, you can’t legitimately criticize the driver for not arriving at their destination. Furthermore, this bill tells the committee how to measure success instead of giving it the freedom to develop those metrics. I voted against introducing this bill, which is another attempt by the legislature to micro-manage Idaho’s public education system which they have underfunded for years, especially during a time of rapid growth in school enrollment.

Eliminate requiring collective bargaining for teacher pay (H174 – to be debated in committee). This bill attempts to help cash-strapped school districts meet legislature-created budgetary constraints by making it easier for them to keep teacher salaries low.  It changes only one word: school districts may – instead of shall – engage in collective bargaining with teachers.  I asked the sponsor of the bill if she could name one school district in Idaho that is currently paying teachers more than they deserve due to collective bargaining. She couldn’t.  I voted against introducing this awful “take it or leave it” bill that will result in lower teacher salaries at a time when their salaries are already uncompetitive.

Strip public health districts from having any say in closing schools and universities (H67 and H68 – passed the House, in the Senate). These two bills are based on the falsehood that experts on health district boards are shutting down schools due to COVID. The truth is that the State Board of Education shut down schools last March and since then, health districts have only issued advisories. It was also argued that only elected officials should decide to shut down schools and not appointed “experts” on the health boards. The truth is that two-thirds of all health district board members are elected (mostly county commissioners), ranging from 3 out of 7, to 7 out of 9 board members. Each board has one medical expert, but it takes a majority of board members to shut down schools – so it is impossible for the one appointed “expert” to make that decision. I voted against this deliberately deceptive bill that undermines public health districts, which deal with a lot more than just COVID.

Eliminate August elections (H106 – passed the House, in the Senate). A few years ago, the legislature consolidated elections in Idaho to occur four times a year: March, May, August and November. This bill removes August from the election calendar. This hurts education because the August election date is sometimes used for school bonds and levies. Proponents of this bill claim that school districts abuse this by re-running bonds and levies in August that failed in March.  This is what the West Ada School District did last year – and some people were upset about it (the bond failed in March and passed in August). This bill insults voters by saying they are not smart enough to reconsider an earlier decision, especially when there is a better understanding of the consequences of that earlier decision.
 
But this bill belies a more insidious move afoot: to starve public education of the money it needs to function adequately. It is the action of a legislature that views education as an expense to be minimized instead of an investment in our children’s future. School districts don’t want to continually float bonds, but the legislature’s constant underfunding of education has turned bonds from being truly supplemental, into a nearly annual necessity to cover ongoing operational costs (teacher salaries, supplies, etc.).  Now the legislature wants to tighten the fiscal noose further by reducing the options school districts have to cover the funding gap created by the legislature.
 
My qualitative measure for determining if education is adequately being funded is that no school district in Idaho should have to float a bond or levy more than once every 5-7 years.  I believe people should have more opportunities to voice their opinion, not fewer. I voted against this destructive, voter and education suppression bill.

Other bills
 
Allow the state to invest certain taxpayer dollars in the purchase of gold and silver (H7 – passed the House, in the Senate). I voted against this frivolous bill that would be a poor investment of taxpayer dollars and benefit a small group of outside interests that supported this bill.

Prohibit certain reporting requirements for private foundations and charitable trusts (H41 – passed the House, in the Senate). If the state is going to grant an organization the privilege of being tax exempt, it is entitled to hold that organization to reasonable reporting standards that may go beyond those of other entities – especially given the negative consequences that can come with abusing a tax exempt privilege. I was one of two people in the House who voted against this bill.

Limit the Governor’s abilities in regard to declaring a disaster emergency (H135 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill is yet another effort by House leadership to placate those upset with the Governor’s actions in response to the COVID pandemic. Some of this bill’s flaws include limiting a disaster declaration by the Governor to 60 days, which is irresponsible since it’s impossible to predict the nature and duration of an unknown future disaster. It is also rather absurd to expect 105 legislators with a wide range of differing opinions to take any type of decisive, effective and immediate action. This is exacerbated by some legislators who reject science-based decision making. I voted against this bill for these and other reasons.

Eliminate the requirement for public notices to be published in newspapers (H53 – failed on the House floor). Many citizens do not use computers and many websites are not easy to navigate, especially when searching for obscure legal documents. This bill would have limited the ability of these citizens to receive important legal notifications by allowing government entities to not publish them in local newspapers. I voted with the majority against this anti-transparency bill.

Certain streets and statues cannot be renamed or moved without legislature approval (H90 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill is a solution to a problem that hasn’t existed in the 130 year history of the state. If you believe in the Republican Party principle – as I do – that government is best when it is closest to the people, then you’ll understand why I voted against this piece of legislation.

 

In the hopper

H145. This dangerous bill eliminate any required ratio of journeyman to apprentice electricians on a job site.  It creates a clear and present threat to public safety.

S1110. This is a near-repeat of the bill Governor Little vetoed in 2019 that would effectively nullify every Idahoan’s constitutional right to place a citizen-driven initiative on the ballot – like the one that enacted Medicaid expansion.

H108. This is the Sgt. Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act, named after one of my District 15 constituents.  This bill legalizes secure and controlled access to doctor-prescribed medical cannabis in small, individual medication-only doses. It is similar to how you can walk out of a drug store today with a bottle of morphine (which is processed heroin).

H126. This bill legalizes the production of industrial hemp in Idaho.

S1044. This bill requires all members of an urban renewal agency to be elected by the public.  Currently some members are elected and others are appointed across the different agencies in Idaho.

H101. This is yet another attempt by the legislature to usurp the executive branch. In short, the legislature wants to use your money to pay a private attorney who will tell them what they want to hear when they don't like the Attorney General's opinion.

H195. This bill prohibits targeted residential picketing (demonstrating in front of person’s residence or dwelling with the intent to harass, harm, annoy or alarm another person).

Click here. The Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) approved accepting $175.7 million in federal coronavirus aid for emergency rental assistance and allow it to be distributed to pay rent or utility bills for Idaho renters impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It now moves to the House.

 

On The Air

2021

  • February 10 - KTVB-TV interview on H88 (absentee ballot voter suppression). Click Here.
  • January 22 - KBOI interview (Kasper and Chris). 

2020

  • March 19 - BYU-Idaho interview. Click Here.
  • March 6 - KBOI interview.  Click Here.
  • February 27 - BYU-Idaho radio interview on education and sales tax exemptions. Click here.
  • February 13 - Capital Update interview on the House abolishing education standards.  Click here.
  • January 10 - KBOI interview (with Rep. Megan Blanksma).  Click here.
 

C:\Users\STEVEB~1\AppData\Local\Temp\msohtmlclip1\01\clip_image001.jpg

 

ABOUT STEVE BERCH

Steve represents District 15, House Seat 15A. He is a member of the Education, Business, Local Government committees, and JLOC. How to contact Steve:

  • Contribute: CLICK HERE
  • Website: www.berch4idaho.com
  • Phone (cell): 208-890-9339
  • Phone (Capitol): 208-332-1039
  • Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Best websites for following the legislature

 

C:\Users\STEVEB~1\AppData\Local\Temp\msohtmlclip1\01\clip_image002.jpg