Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Bad apples


March 24 is the target end date for the 2023 legislative session. That is less than six weeks away and the legislature hasn’t done very much thus far.
But several ugly bills are starting to ooze out of committees – bills that tell you what you can’t do, what you can’t be, what you can’t think. And one bill – the subject of this newsletter’s narrative –wants to limit what you can know.
As always, please feel free to contact me anytime for any reason. My contact information appears at the end of this newsletter.
NOTE:  You can look up any bill mentioned below by CLICKING HERE.

The serpent in the tree

The greatest threat to democracy is not knowing what sources of information one can trust. When people don’t know who they can trust, they are left with opinion, which is easier to manipulate than fact. This is why powerful, ultra-wealthy organizations spend so much time and money demonizing legitimate, credible sources of information as they do pushing their own political agendas. (CLICK HERE to learn how some of this money flows into Idaho).

You don’t have to look very far to find organizations in Idaho that fit this “ends justifies the means” approach to swaying public opinion. Some are fanatic in denigrating government institutions, such as the public school system. Others propagate simplistic, inflammatory, ideological rhetoric that promote fear, hate and anger at the expense of working together to find real solutions.
They all start with a pre-determined, desired outcome supported by slick brochures and cherry-picked articles from dubious sources. They have at their disposal a war chest filled with anonymous money to sell their opinions as “facts” to the public. It reminds me of the words of Winston Churchill, who wryly said: “These, gentlemen, are the opinions upon which my facts are based.”
What we need are facts upon which critical-thinking decisions are based. The legislature took a major step last week to deny the public – and itself – the real facts needed to make important, well-informed decisions.
OPE, JLOC and House Bill 68
House majority leadership launched a deceptive, disingenuous campaign several weeks ago to destroy one of the best, most trusted sources of credible information pertinent to real issues that impact the daily lives of most Idahoans: the Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE) and the committee that oversees it (JLOC – Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, of which I am a member). 
Why would they do that? To control the availability of information that may be inconvenient to their political goals.

OPE was created over 25 years ago by the legislature. It is an independent, non-partisan organization that performs deep-dive research and analysis into critical, complex projects proposed by legislators and assigned to it by JLOC.  What makes JLOC unique is that it is the only equally bi-partisan committee in the legislature (four Republicans and four Democrats). There is a very good reason for JLOC to be equally bi-partisan. It’s because a partisan committee cannot oversee a non-partisan organization without the risk of injecting the majority’s political bias into the process and outcomes.
House Bill 68 (H68) would eliminate JLOC and put OPE under the thumb of the Legislative Council, which is controlled by the majority party. In addition, it would severely limit the types of projects OPE could investigate. Majority party leaders made several false and specious arguments in support of this bill:
  • First they said that eliminating JLOC was simply a “red tape reduction” housekeeping bill. In fact, JLOC costs nothing. It only meets a few times during each legislative session. 
  • Then they claimed that JLOC and OPE were left-leaning. This is nonsense. Republicans on JLOC have to agree that an OPE report is not biased or erroneous before it is released to the public.  In fact, every single OPE report released to the public was done with the unanimous approval of all Republican members of JLOC since its inception. 
  • Finally, they warned that OPE had to be “de-weaponized” – that it was being used to discredit previous bills passed by the legislature. This is pure fiction. OPE projects are selected one or more years before a final report is released, and these projects have little or nothing to do with previous legislation. In fact, not a shred of evidence has been presented showing that any OPE report is biased or otherwise unprofessional. The truth, uncovered by well-researched facts, is only seen as a weapon if it doesn’t support someone's political agenda. 
In short, H68 enables majority party leadership to cut off the flow of vital information that only OPE can make available to the public. Unlike lobbyists and keyboard warriors, OPE is uniquely authorized to conduct in-depth primary research to uncover data from state agencies and local government entities that would otherwise not be obtained.
Here is just a sampling of information revealed in previous OPE reports that would be hidden from the public if OPE was managed by a partisan committee instead of JLOC (CLICK HERE to access all OPE reports):
  • There is an estimated $874 million maintenance backlog for K-12 public school buildings
  • The legislature exempts from revenue collection over $3.0 BILLION annually in the form of sales tax exemptions, property tax exemptions and other tax preferences that are never reviewed and never expire.    
  • The legislature’s funding for K-12 public school classified employees covers only 60% of their wages. Nearly 80% of school districts reported relying on property tax levies to cover the rest of these costs.
  • Only 18% of Idaho’s Emergency Medical System (EMS) directors reported that their agency is able to maintain sufficient staff, resulting in delayed response times – especially in rural communities.  
  • A dysfunctional work environment in the nursing home inspection team led to mistrust and fear among providers, and undermined the consistency and quality of residential care.
OPE’s greatest weakness is that most people – including most legislators – don’t even know that OPE and JLOC exist. That is what the forces committed to destroying OPE are counting on. They want to quietly abolish JLOC via H68 while no one is paying attention. 
I'm paying attention. (CLICK HERE)

Genesis 3:1
There is a serpent in the Tree of Knowledge and H68 is the apple it wants the legislature to swallow. A healthy democracy depends on having consistent access to good information from credible sources. OPE is such a source – it is the crown jewel amidst a social media sea of zircons and fake diamonds.
H68 passed the House and now moves to the Senate. Let’s hope the Senate doesn’t take a bite of this bad apple
Rotunda Roundup

Idaho Launch Grant program (H24 – passed the House, sent to the Senate). The governor introduced this program during his State of the State address. Eligible high school graduates can receive a grant of $8,500 to be redeemed at the workforce training provider, career technical program, community college, or college of their choice. Preference will be given to students pursuing in-demand careers based on the needs of Idaho’s job market. I voted for this bill (albeit imperfect), which makes an important investment in higher education for our children during a time when the state continues to enjoy an unprecedented surplus.
Permanent coverage for first-responder victims of PTSI (H18 – passed the House, sent to the Senate). This bill removes the sunset clause of the law passed in 2019 that provides medical coverage (via worker’s compensation) for victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) affecting Idaho’s first responders. I voted for this outstanding bill that makes permanent our commitment to help those who put their lives in harm’s way to protect us and our loved ones.
Eliminate elections in March and August (H11 – passed the House, sent to the Senate). This bill removes March and August from the election calendar, allowing elections only in May and November. The argument for this bill is that is saves money by having to hold fewer elections. The REAL reason for this bill is to make it even more difficult for school bonds and levies to pass. The idea is that if more people vote, more “no” votes will be cast – even though every “no” vote already counts twice (when a two-thirds majority is required). This also makes private schools look better than public schools by cutting off yet another method of funding them. If the legislature adequately funded public education, we wouldn’t need so many bonds and levies in the first place.  I voted against this bill, which school district superintendents across Idaho told the House Education committee would cripple their ability to meet the basic needs and expectations of students and their parents.
Withhold tax revenue from cities in certain instances (H22 – passed the House, sent to the Senate). This horrible bill was written to specifically punish the City of Boise and its citizens because their duly elected leaders dared to issue statements in support of those who may need to terminate a pregnancy that the legislature made illegal (such as having an abortion due to rape or incest). I voted against this mean-spirited bill that could raise local property taxes and seems to take delight in punishing people who don’t share the sponsor’s point of view on certain issues.
Controlling roads around the Capitol Building (H25 – passed the House, sent to the Senate). This bill takes control of certain roads near the Capitol away from local government entities and gives it to the legislature. This is a petty bill. I mention it only because it illustrates the lengths the legislature will go to control whatever it can. I voted against this bill, which puts yet another spotlight on the majority party’s rejection of the principle that government is best when it’s closest to the people. Expect that hypocritical stanza to be sung many more times before the session ends. 
My bills
These are bills that I wrote and sponsored. I reviewed each of these bills with the appropriate committee chairman and asked that they be given a public hearing and fair consideration. Each bill was ultimately rejected and effectively killed by majority party leadership. I am disappointed, but not surprised. I will continue to fight for these and other issues that impact the lives of my constituents, as well as many other Idahoans.  
Repeal the grocery tax (H33). This is one of the top issues I hear when visiting voters at their door. I have co-sponsored similar legislation in the past and will continue fighting to have Idaho join the other 44 states who don’t tax groceries.
Allow local municipalities to raise the minimum wage within their jurisdiction (H48). This bill respects the belief that government is best when it’s closest to the people. It repeals a restriction the legislature imposed on local governments that prevents them from raising the minimum wage higher than the state minimum wage of $7.25/hour.  This flexibility is particularly important to resort communities and some cities that border neighboring states.   
Protect access to public lands (H43).  This bill provides a civil remedy to address the actions of those who intentionally obstruct access to public lands. I am encouraged that the committee chairman indicated there may be a bill coming later this session that might address aspects of this concern. I hope to work with him and other interested parties toward improving the current situation.
Reinstate the property tax break for all homeowners who are disabled or living on a fixed income (H36). This bill restores the circuit-breaker allowance that was taken away from some homeowners in a terrible 2021 tax bill.
Establish a “Too Great For Hate” specialty license plate (H38). This bill resurrects the 2020 bill that passed the Senate but failed in the House by only two votes. Many of the people who voted “no” are no longer in the legislature. Now is the time for the legislature to reaffirm this sentiment.

In the hopper
Note: These bills are in various states of consideration. Some of them may die along the way and never come up for a vote in the House or Senate.
H123 – Repeal Medicaid expansion.
H71 – Throw parents in jail if they treat their children suffering from gender dysphoria. This bill will also jail and fine doctors.
H75 – Place restrictions on voting via absentee ballot.
H77, H78, H79 – Property and sales tax bills.
H92 – Require the teaching of financial literacy courses as part of the public school course curriculum.  I am a co-sponsor of this bill.
H98 – Throw people in jail if they transport a minor to any state where they can receive a legal abortion.
H109 – Limit the ability of hospitals to receive a property tax exemption.
S1002 – Make all abortions for any reason a felony crime with mandatory jail time.
S1008 – Remove all restrictions on carrying concealed weapons on college campuses.
S1016 – Prohibit requiring gender-neutral or infant changing rooms to be provided in public buildings.
S1019 - Allow unemployment insurance benefits to victims of domestic violence.
S1025 – Eliminate state issued marriage licenses.  The purpose of this bill is to prevent allowing same-sex marriage to be legal in Idaho.
S1038 – Take up to 80% of taxpayer dollars away from public education (over $2 BILLION) and give it to parents in the form of school vouchers.
S1050 – Allow parents to refuse to cooperate with Child Protection Services (CPS), regardless as to the reported abuse in question.
S1056 – Allow any group of people to parade in public with weapons, including military grade automatic assault rifles.