Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Water at top of Legislature's agenda

Commentary by Rep. Wendy Jaquet

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, represents District 25.

Great news about new snow in the Wood River Valley, but we'll need a lot more before the summer to keep the economy going. Three bills are now before the Legislature to deal with water issues.

House Bill 372 requires mandatory membership in the groundwater districts by all water users to ensure that operational costs are equally spread to all groundwater users receiving benefits. During the committee presentation, it became obvious that the bill needed amending to deal with issues brought by irrigation districts and people with approved mitigation plans.

House Bill 373 authorizes the Idaho Water Resource Board to fund a water rights acquisition and mitigation program through the issuance of revenue bonds secured by program revenues paid by water users who will benefit from the programs.

House Bill 374 allows for the collection of special annual assessments from water users within water districts on the Eastern Snake River Plain for the purpose of paying for the costs associated with additional administrative costs incurred for water modeling, enforcement and related measures.

Education measures were also dealt with last week: a bond levy equalization measure was moved from lottery funds to the permanent building fund. I have been concerned that lottery funds were being so diminished that schools were not having the resources they needed to fix the roof, maintain the playgrounds, etc. Although I don't like the drain on the permanent building fund because this means there will be less to assist the higher education buildings in a time of huge back logs on maintenance, I supported this legislation. This gives us a year to try to locate additional funding for permanent building fund needs.

Three of the K-12 school budgets were approved on the House floor last week. I believe that we have again underfunded education and will shift more costs for our children's education to the property tax payers. The administration budget has created some checks on the growth of charter schools, which bodes well for planning future sites. Each charter school is treated like a "school district" and costs for the charters subtract from state K-12 support. My concern on this budget was around the lack of any salary enhancement for administrators. I view school principals as key to education reform in our state. They are and will be held accountable for team building, merit pay-performance review and school atmosphere.

The teacher budget was like the administrator budget with no salary enhancement and more importantly no funding for mentoring. A slight increase to the classrooms with discretionary funding was made available, but not enough to cover growing enrollment and other costs.

The operations budget had a decrease in the "floor" funding, which was a promise made to more property rich value districts, including Blaine. The decrease was probably the best that could be worked out. More disturbing is the Legislature's unwillingness to lift the property tax replacement cap. Property tax replacement was an initiative that was established by Gov. Phil Batt to pick up a portion of the local support for schools. Putting a cap on the state amount means that districts will not get all of that and, more importantly, they won't be able to access that loss between what the state will pay at a reduced amount and what the districts used to access in property taxes before Governor Batt's legislation.

I continue to be concerned about the "structural budget deficit" for this budget year. We have used one-time monies to balance the budget again. More importantly we have a crisis looming in fiscal 2007. We drafted legislation to create a review of the state tax structure for equity and fairness as well as transparency for accountability. Funding the property tax study will be a start, but not enough.

I enjoy serving you here in the Legislature. Please contact me with your concerns:

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