Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Connecting the dots . . . . .

Time to catch up on activity between my last newsletter and the legislature’s unplanned recess due to the spread of COVID among legislators, their family members and staff (one of whom is reported to be in intensive care at a local hospital).

While the 17-day recess was unplanned, it was totally predictable. Most of the majority party legislators have deliberately refused to wear masks or practice social distancing since the start of the session.  When the House went into recess on March 19, the Speaker of the House said he trusted all members to make wise decisions. Yeah, right.

We’re back in session on April 6th.

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

 

 

Hold the legislature accountable

If there’s one thing you take away from this commentary, it’s this: Decades of poor fiscal policies by the legislature is the reason your property taxes go up due to constant school bonds and levies.

I was featured on the March 19 "Spring Outbreak" edition of the Idaho Reports TV broadcast (scroll down to find the broadcast and start at the 11:58 mark: Click here to watch). Here’s what happened that led to the exchange on this video clip:
 
The House was debating a huge tax bill (H332) which would take nearly $400 million from the general fund – money the state needs to meet its responsibilities, especially education – and spend it on a tax break that provides the greatest benefit to the most wealthy Idahoans (Click here for more):

I voted against this bill, but I didn’t plan on debating it from the floor of the House. Then something was said during the debate that prompted me to stand up:
 
Prior to my speaking, Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks took a preemptive shot against the argument that this tax bill would result in a property tax increase. Specifically, he said, “The state does not collect property taxes – not one dime.” That is true – but that’s not the point (and he should know better).
 
My point was that the consequences of taking so much money out of the general fund is that it leaves the state less money for education (and other vital state responsibilities). That forces school boards to constantly float bonds and levies to close the funding gap – which is a big reason why your property taxes go up and stay high.
 
In short, you have to connect the dots.
 
In the middle of my making that point, Majority Caucus Leader Meghan Blanksma stood up and objected that I was “off topic.” This is a crafty tactic used by the majority party to interrupt Democrats in the middle of their debate in an effort to diffuse the strength of their argument.
 
I was having none of it. I was responding directly to the point that her colleague Rep. Monks (who sits right next to her) raised just moments before I spoke. She raised no objection when he made an argument about property taxes that she liked.
 
The legislature is sitting on $1.3 billion in a rainy-day fund, a record budget surplus and an idle internet sales tax account. Meanwhile, 41 school districts had to float nearly $300 million in bonds and levies just last month to make ends meet (over $2 BILLION over the last five years – see table below). Apparently majority party leadership would prefer to continue raising your property taxes by forcing continuous school bonds and levies instead of meeting its constitutional responsibility to ensure the state adequately fund public education.

For the last 30 years, the majority party has controlled over 75% of the seats in the legislature – and with it the state’s fiscal policies. These decisions at the state level impact nearly every aspect of finances at the local level.  This is the “trickle down” they don’t want to talk about.
 
You have to connect the dots to know who to hold accountable.

 

Rotunda Roundup


Appropriations
 
Shift over $67 million from education to transportation (H342 – passed the House, in the Senate).  This is a terrible solution to an important issue.  There is a backlog of over $400 million in basic road and bridge maintenance across the state, which doesn’t include funding needed for new infrastructure to manage growth. However, the solution to funding roads is not to take the money away from education.  That’s like taking money you need for medication to buy food for your family – you need both; it’s not an either-or.  The legislature is sitting on $1.3 billion in a rainy-day fund, a record budget surplus and an idle internet sales tax account. In addition, the legislature exempted over $2.5 billion last year alone in sales tax exemptions and exceptions that rarely get reviewed and never expire. The solution for adequately funding roads is to revisit the outdated fiscal policies that are creating this funding problem. I voted against this fiscal sleight-of-hand that perpetuates an untenable situation and delays solving the root cause of the problem.

Shift $4 million to a legislative “legal defense” slush fund (S1022 – signed into law by the Governor).  Four million of your taxpayer dollars will be taken away from education, infrastructure and other vital services, and put into a fund that only majority party leaders can spend to defend laws and other actions in court. Many of the laws being defended were often declared unconstitutional by the Attorney General. These laws are in turn often used as talking points by legislators running for re-election.  In short, these taxpayer dollars are being spent to help bolster political campaigns in the fall. I voted against this irresponsible, self-serving bill.

Business/Local Government

Collection agency charges (S1014 – passed the Senate, killed in House committee). This bill would have allowed collection agencies to bill additional charges beyond the contract between the creditor and the debtor (late fees, restocking fees, etc.). It also reduced collection agency licensing and reporting requirements. I voted with a majority of the House Business committee to kill this bill.

Bill of Rights for Businesses (H291 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill allows a business to stay open no matter what the risk of doing so may pose to public health or safety (e.g. a natural disaster, the outbreak of a fatal contagious disease with no cure, etc.). I voted against this reckless act of legislative demagoguery.

Require all members of an urban renewal district to be elected by the public (S1044 – signed into law by the Governor). I struggled with this bill. On one hand, it’s difficult to not support electing people to these positions, especially when it involves exercising the power of eminent domain. On the other hand, it is critical to be able to protect the ability to make difficult decisions that a growing city must make. It is important to ensure that at least some board members have professional strategic urban planning skills. This is better achieved through appointment than an election. I would have preferred this bill consider setting some qualifications and restrictions in regard to board membership, such as limiting the number of city council members that can be appointed to the board (which is problematic in Boise). I voted against what I ultimately determined was not a good solution for addressing some reasonable concerns.

Education

Teaching of racist and sexist concepts (RS28866 – passed House Education committee). This RS was snuck in literally minutes before the legislature went into recess (and thus hasn’t yet been assigned a bill number).  This bill could result in teachers being sued and money taken away from schools if the following topics were discussed in a classroom (just to name a few):

  • The slave trade
  • The Civil War and the subsequent Jim Crow laws during Reconstruction
  • The genocide of native Americans
  • The women’s suffragette movement
  • Laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage (which was illegal in Idaho until 1959)
  • Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII (which took place in Minidoka)
  • Systemic discrimination and voter suppression leading up to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965
  • Discrimination against various waves of immigrants into the U.S. (e.g. the Irish during the great potato famine)
  • Blocking Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany from entering the U.S. (M.S. St. Louis, 1939)

The consequence of this bill is to intimidate any professional educator or school district that dares to allow the teaching of anything that might touch upon some of America’s less than exceptional moments. It serves as a form of censorship by whitewashing history and stifling discussion in the classroom.
 
I do not support a “racism” or “sexism” political agenda in the classroom. I do support teaching a factual accounting of the events that explain historical events. The acting Chair denied me and my colleagues the ability to do our job by allowing only one voice to be heard – that of the Republican Party official who wrote the bill and set up a camera in the committee room to film himself doing so. 
 
This bill was used as a prop in an act of pure political theater staged in the House Education committee. It made a mockery of the legislative process. I refused to attend the committee meeting under these circumstances.  I could not legitimize a bill that was the result of an illegitimate process. (I was later interviewed by KTVB-TV about this bill – click here to watch).

Enhanced communication regarding exempting students from immunization requirements (H298 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill poses a threat to public health by actively inviting parents to opt-out their children from being immunized against highly contagious diseases when attending a public school (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), and Hepatitis B).  Current state law is clear: the state wants children entering public school to be vaccinated against these dangerous and deadly contagious diseases.  Current state law is also clear in allowing concerned parents to exempt their children from this statutory immunization requirement based on their “religious or personal beliefs.”
 
While I personally support and encourage protecting children from these terrible diseases, I do not seek to remove a parent’s right to exempt their child. Since the right to opt-out already exists, the only real outcome of this bill will ultimately be fewer vaccinated children. I voted against this unnecessary and dangerous bill.

Other bills

Qualified group homes for children in foster care (H336 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill does several good things: it requires quicker action on the child’s behalf, prioritizes the best interest of the child when determining placement, establishes closer monitoring of children in a group home, and requires ongoing evaluation of potential alternative placements such as family reunification, placement with a relative or foster family, or adoption. I voted for this bill.

Idaho Tax Commission (H214 – passed House and Senate, vetoed by the Governor). This somewhat obscure bill told the Idaho Tax Commission how to run their decision-making processes - yet another example of the legislature trying to micromanage another branch of government. I was the only person in the House of Representatives to vote against this bill. Apparently the Governor agreed with me.  Side note: The Majority Leader of the House is married to one of the Idaho Tax commissioners.

 

In the hopper

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.

S1088. This bill provides for more transparency in a rental process by having landlords detail any fees in a lease agreement and give 30-day notice to renters before being charged.

S1089. This bill repeals a section of Idaho code relating to the rape of a spouse, which had previously acted as an exception for the crime.

SJR102. This Joint Resolution is a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the Idaho Legislature to call itself into special session whenever 60% of the members of each house want to.

H331. This bill enables full-day kindergarten in public schools (it appears to be stalled in committee).

A variety of voter suppression bills are also making their way through the legislature.

 

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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

 

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On The Air

2021

  • March 26 - KTVB-TV (racist/sexist concepts). Click Here 
  • March 19 - IPT Idaho Reports (tax bill). Click Here (start at the 11:58 mark)
  • March 12 - KBOI interview (Kasper and Chris)
  • March 5 - Boise State Public Radio (sex-ed opt-in). Click Here
  • February 10 - KTVB-TV (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.
 

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