Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Fast and furious


Things are moving very quickly in the legislature. We may even meet the March 24th date for ending the 2023 legislative session. There are still a lot of end-game maneuvers to play out between House leadership, Senate leadership and the Governor’s office – including deciding which bills will be vetoed or signed into law (the taking and shooting of “hostages”).
Despite the promise of an early end to the session, none of the House or Senate committees have been shut down yet, which means new bills can still emerge at the 11th hour. However, a lot of bills are being pushed through at a fast and furious pace – which makes it difficult to keep up or even know what’s being voting on.
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

On second thought . . .

Legislators are often forced to make difficult decisions when confronted with bills that have both good and bad elements. Such was the case with the so-called “bathroom bill” (S1100).  Here’s what I said about this bill in my previous newsletter (3/14/23):
Public school bathrooms (S1100 – passed the Senate, in the House). The real purpose of this bill (mentioned earlier) is to force transgendered individuals to use a school bathroom that is consistent with their designated sex at birth. If they are uncomfortable with that, the school must provide an alternate, single-occupancy bathroom and showering facility. This bill is one of several rooted in a denial or fear of gender dysphoria. However, it is consistent with the primary function of a bathroom, which is to facilitate necessary bodily functions. Recognizing that discomfort can exist on both sides of the transgender issue, a single-occupancy bathroom is a reasonable accommodation to address this relatively new social issue. However, the severe punishment clause added to this bill is unnecessary, deliberately intimidating, and invites spurious lawsuits. I cannot support this bill as currently written (it hasn’t come up for a vote in the House yet).
After additional conversations with school administrators locally and around the state, it became clear that there is broad support for the guidance provided by this this bill within that organization – even if it comes with an awful, intimidating penalty clause.

I decided to vote FOR this bill when it came before us on the House floor. I still strongly oppose these politically-motivated punitive clauses and will likely vote against future bills that contain them. However, the additional input I received tipped the scales toward supporting this difficult bill that could have – and should have – been written more professionally. I’m not always happy with every decision I have to make, but that’s part of the job – and I’m committed to explaining my decisions as openly and honestly as possible.
Especially when I change my mind.
Rotunda Roundup
Allow charter schools to lower their costs by participating in the state’s revolving loan fund (S1043 – passed the House and Senate, to the Governor). This bill diverts $50 million available to traditional public schools, making it easier for charter schools to build new facilities while there is still a backlog of approximately $1 billion in deferred or ignored K-12 public school building maintenance. I voted AGAINST this bill which should not be considered until the legislature has first met its financial obligation to public schools (which would also reduce property taxes by lessening the need for constant school bonds and levies).
Make it easier for certain charter schools to qualify for additional funding (S1042 – passed the House and Senate, to the Governor). This bill would allow charter schools that do not meet current performance criteria to participate in a state program allowing them to obtain lower interests on bonds. It would make it easier for more charter schools, especially underperforming schools, to build new facilities and upgrade existing ones – while traditional public schools continue to go wanting.
I support school choice, including charter schools. And I would even co-sponsor this bill if there was not such a huge disparity between the condition of charter and traditional public schools. I voted AGAINST this bill because the state’s obligation is to take care of aging public school buildings before we make it easier for private owners of charter schools to build brand new buildings. I hesitantly supported this bill in committee, but ultimately decided to vote against it on the House floor (CLICK HERE to see my debate).

Require the State Board of Education to be selected via regional partisan elections (H293 – failed on the House floor by one vote: 34-35-1). This bill had only one purpose: to further politicize education in Idaho. The sponsor argued that the Board should have regional representation, and thus be elected regionally. Some Boards (especially those with statewide responsibilities) need to be populated with capable, experienced people – not whoever can raise the most amount of money to run negative ads against their opponent. What is most revealing about this bill is requiring the elections to be partisan. If anything, government would benefit from fewer partisan elections which are driving us to become a rancorous “us-versus-them” society. I voted AGAINST this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bill.
Allow religious colleges and universities to create charter schools (H290 – failed in the House Education committee). This bill would allow any religious institution of higher learning to authorize a public charter school if they were accredited by a “nationally recognized accrediting agency.” The problem is that there are a lot of agencies that fit under that broad description which are not associated with education institutions in Idaho. I voted AGAINST this bill which blurs the line between church and state, and opens accreditation of public schools to unknown and potentially dubious sources.

Property tax relief – and other things (H292 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill stitches together a variety of tax-related elements into one 20-page bill. I hate bills like this. They always contain some good things and some bad things. This one is no exception. Here’s the rundown:

  • The first year of the bill will provide up to $355 million dollars in property tax relief.
  • The second and third year, approximately $110 million will be used to reduce property taxes for owner occupied tax payers.
  • Approximately $100 million will be used to reduce property taxes for all property tax payers.
  • Approximately $100 million will be distributed to school districts on an average daily attendance basis.
  • School districts are required to use funds in the order of priority as follows: (1) payment of school bonds (2) payment of school levies (3) saved for future school facility construction needs (4) used for new bonds.
  • Circuit breaker criteria are also relaxed to allow more people to qualify (fixed income, disabled).
  • This legislation also eliminates the March date that school districts can use for bond and levy elections.
 Yeesh. There are several problems with this bill:
  • A portion of sales tax revenue (about 4.5%) is diverted from the General Fund to pay for some of the property tax relief. The problem is that school funding comes from the General Fund bucket. This bill punches a hole in that bucket, reducing the amount of money available for future school needs. It gives property tax relief with one hand and takes away school funding with the other, resulting in potentially more bonds and levies (and thus higher property taxes).
  • The $100 million earmarked for schools is barely one-tenth of what is needed (over $1 billion) just to fund the backlog in K-12 school building maintenance. Do not expect this bill to result in a significant reduction in the number or size of school bonds or levies in the future.
  • The elimination of the March election date will make it harder for a school district to get a bond or levy approved. This is a Trojan Horse form of property tax relief. Traditional public schools will continue to deteriorate if they cannot use bonds or levies to make up for inadequate funding from the state. This is exactly what the owners of for-profit private schools and the advocates of school vouchers/ESAs want. The worse public schools become, the better their “product” looks. Nearly every school district begged that the March date not be eliminated and warned of dire consequences.
  • The relaxing of the circuit breaker criteria is a good thing, but it should never have been tightened to begin with.
  • Perhaps the single most effective form of property tax relief is missing – removing the cap on your homeowner’s exemption! The exemption would be over $220,000 if the previous indexing method that was in place in 2016 was restored.
CLICK HERE to see the actual bill and ask yourself if anyone could possibly understand the consequences of this legislation (intended or otherwise). I don’t think so.

Despite all that, I voted FOR this bill because it does provide some degree of relief and it was the only option the majority party leaders gave us. If there was a better bill that provided meaningful property tax relief, I would have voted for it instead. We will need different people in the legislature for that to happen. 
Income tax relief for household and dependent care services (H288 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill increases the individual state tax deduction for dependent care to $12,000 per year. Dependents include a taxpayer’s children under the age of 13, a dependent of a taxpayer with physical or mental limitations, and the spouse of a taxpayer with physical or mental limitations. Current code sets the limit to a percentage of expenses and a maximum deduction of $3,000 for one child or $6,000 for two or more children. I voted FOR this bill which provides important tax relief, especially for families dealing with significant hardships.

Information provided in conjunction with a bond or levy on the ballot (H286 – passed the House, in the Senate). This so-called “truth in advertising” bill makes a proposed bond or levy look less attractive. We’ve seen bills like this before. The problem is that there isn’t an even playing field. Opponents can do and say whatever they want in an attempt to defeat a bond or levy, including flat-out lie with impunity. A government entity is prohibited by law from spending taxpayer dollars to defend itself against such attacks. I voted AGAINST this bill because it ultimately limits voters from having all the facts when attempting to make a well-informed decision.
Limit when people can vote via an absentee ballot (H205 – failed on the House floor). This was the premier voter suppression bill of the session (so far). It would severely limit anyone from voting via an absentee ballot except for a narrow set of exceptions. Not one single piece of evidence was presented that indicated there is any voter fraud in Idaho pertaining to the use of absentee ballots (or otherwise).  I voted AGAINST this dangerous, fear-based bill that only serves to undermine one of the fundamental tenets of American democracy.
Prevent any election official from distributing absentee ballot request forms unless asked by a voter (H259 – passed the House, in the Senate). This is yet another voter suppression bill that makes it harder for qualified citizens to obtain and cast a legal ballot.  I voted AGAINST this bill which solves a problem that no election-denier has ever been able to show exists in Idaho.
Consumer protection
Require fees imposed on residential tenants to be reasonable (S1039 – passed the House and Senate, to the Governor). This bill requires rental fees to be enumerated in a lease agreement and that the fees be reasonable. It also requires a written 30-day notice of the change in a fee, fine, assessment, interest, or other cost. I voted FOR this much needed consumer protection, especially in light of predatory practices some people have been subjected to during Idaho’s recent red-hot real estate and rental market.
Prohibit pelvic exams of anesthetized and unconscious patients (H224 – passed the House, in the Senate). This makes clear that a health care provider may not perform or authorize a student practicing under the provider's authority to perform a pelvic examination on a patient who is anesthetized or unconscious, except under certain specific situations. I voted FOR this bill which protects the privacy of a person’s body when they are medically incapacitated. 
Limit bathroom usage provided by contractors for public work projects (S1016 – passed the House and Senate, to the Governor). This bill tries to impose the legislature’s anti-trans agenda on private sector contractors. Contractors are fully capable of deciding how to manage the bathroom facilities they own. I voted AGAINST this completely unnecessary “culture war” bill.
Remove local control of building codes (H287 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill manipulated a legitimate concern about the City of Boise requiring all new homes to be wired to accommodate an electric vehicle charger, while also prohibiting any city to have its own energy codes. Electric vehicle chargers are not part of building energy codes; they are part of the electrical codes. I voted AGAINST this sneaky bill which fails to recognize that Idaho is not a one-size-fits-all state when it comes to geology and climate. It takes a chainsaw to the law where a scalpel would be more appropriate.
Prohibit vaccination status as a condition for visitation in a care facility (H244 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill says that in-person visits at an extended care or assisted living facility shall not be precluded on the basis of a visitor's vaccination status. This is yet another bill that puts the individual rights of a visitor above the health or wishes of a resident who shares a room with the person being visited. It forces the person sharing the room to be exposed to anyone who is not vaccinated against any contagious disease beyond what is required of staff. I voted AGAINST this bill, which codifies into law a distrust of future vaccines for new diseases.
Prohibit the name of any public official from appearing on tax correspondence (H221 – passed the House, in the Senate). Remember when Governor Brad Little’s name appeared on your state income tax rebate check (if you received one)? This bill prevents that from happening again. I voted FOR this bill which eliminates using such communications for the political benefit of any public official.
Reduce the time required to retain juvenile criminal records before requesting the record be expunged (H262 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill allows a juvenile offender to request their criminal record be expunged after three years instead of five. Expungement is not automatic; the courts will still decide if expungement is appropriate. I voted FOR this bill, which makes it easier for a juvenile offender to move on with their life if they have demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation.
Appropriation for Attorney General’s office (H303 - no vote, returned to committee). What should have been a routine funding vote turned out to be a “vote of no confidence” in Idaho’s Attorney General. Two primary objections arose during debate on the House floor: a request for excessive back-to-back annual raises for staff (11% this year and 11% next year), and the appalling fact that the Attorney General, Raul Labrador, refuses to issue any legal opinions in writing – he will only provide verbal opinions!
That is the act of a politician who wants to avoid being held accountable to anything in writing. Unrecorded verbal opinions have absolutely no legislative or legal value whatsoever – they are pure hearsay. And a verbal opinion can change from day to day. An Attorney General who won’t – or can’t – write a written opinion isn’t worth anything to the state. I would have voted AGAINST this bill had it not been withdrawn. CLICK HERE to see my debate on the House floor.

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.
H109 – Limit the ability of hospitals to receive a property tax exemption.
H123 – Repeal Medicaid expansion.
H154 – Criminalize those who administer COVID vaccines.
S1008 – Remove all restrictions on carrying concealed weapons on college campuses.
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.
S1050 – Allow parents to refuse to cooperate with Child Protection Services (CPS), regardless of the reported abuse in question.
S1056 – Allow any group of people to parade in public with weapons, including military grade automatic assault rifles.
SJR 101 – Make it more difficult to put a citizen-driven initiative on the ballot (which is how Medicaid Expansion became law).