Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Democrats outline a vision for Idaho

By Clint Stennett

There is a different air around the Capitol as we begin the legislative session for 2007. Democrats have six new seats this session, and in the State of the State address, our 32nd governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, opened his doors to the ideas this growing minority party offers. Partisan politics aside, in our hearts we are all Idahoans, and collectively we all wish to make the best policy for the broadest range of people. It is a good beginning.

With this in mind, this week House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet and I delivered an official response to the governor's State of the State address in which we offered our vision for Idaho. This session our caucus will be guided by three overriding values: protecting Idaho's way of life, standing up for the middle class and making government more responsive and responsible to the voters. In the spirit of these values we will focus on the following legislation this session.

The first will be the repeal of the sales tax on groceries. This tax hits the middle class and working families the hardest. With the recent 20 percent increase in sales tax just three months ago, this is a pinch we are all feeling at the grocery store. In the State of the State, the governor recognized the need to provide a need-based tax credit for groceries. The Democrats are suggesting that we go one step further and offer this relief immediately at the cash register rather than once a year when we fill out a government form. Idaho is only one of four states that taxes food. Let's get rid of the tax on our most basic need in life.

One of the most crucial elements to enhancing the quality of our lives is a solid education. Education is to the economy what water is to agriculture; the more we have, the better we all do. Democrats will continue to push forward on improving education this session. We will introduce bills that will support early childhood education. Studies show that for each dollar invested in early childhood education communities save an average of $19 per child in the long run. If children begin an education earlier, they are more likely to finish high school, attend college and less likely to use our welfare programs or be placed in our correctional facilities.

For higher education, we will support the governor's $5 million proposal to build community colleges and lower the super-majority vote needed to form a community college district. In that same vein, we will push for an increased focus on more math and science in our high schools. It is common for middle-class workers to have two, three or four careers before retirement. Community colleges help these non-traditional students fast-track into the next phase of their lives. Further, companies wishing to locate to Idaho can look to these communities as places that offer a well-educated workforce. Community colleges are the economic engines that drive opportunity for the middle class.

While it was refreshing to hear the governor focus on community colleges and food tax relief this week, I believe he is missing a great opportunity if he does not also recognize the crucial issue of energy. Idaho is wonderfully positioned to lead the nation in alternative energy resources. We have wind, sun, animal waste from dairies and other agriculture and timber industries that can be turned into energy. The same spirit of developing cheap, reliable electricity that built our hydropower dams should be directed toward other industry endeavors, both reducing demand on hydropower and increasing research and development of alternate sources. We must wean ourselves from reliance on expensive foreign oil—expensive in both dollars and in lives.

Idaho has world-class technical and research capability at the Idaho National Laboratory and at our research universities. We should develop more ways to produce electricity in a clean, socially responsible way that both protects our way of life and fuels our need for power. As an additional part of Idaho's energy program, the state must be allowed to take an advisory role when power generation plants are sited. Quite simply, a power plant in one county cannot be allowed to pollute another county, and it is the state's responsibility to be the watchdog of these situations and protect its citizens.

Another issue not mentioned in the governor's State of the State address, but one Democrats will concentrate on, will be the issue of health care. Republican governors in Massachusetts and California realize the need for improving health care for their citizens. This has been a Democratic issue for years, but we must reach out to the governor to craft an Idaho solution to the ever-rising costs of health care and insurance. Our middle class families need this security.

This Legislature also must recognize the fact that much of the state is becoming more urban. Idahoans deserve to be assured that our state will have the infrastructure it needs to avoid becoming another California. Cities and counties need to have the tools that allow them to plan smartly for growth. As such, Democrats will introduce legislation to permit local option taxes. This option would pay for public transit and could prevent the kind of Los Angeles sprawl that ruined the natural beauty of that area.

As we become more urban, it becomes increasingly more urgent to protect our unique heritage and way of life, such as our wildlife. This past year, an unfortunate escape from an eastern Idaho elk ranch caused many hard feelings in that community. These operations, called "shooter-bull" operations, offer prize elk trophies to those willing to pay big bucks, while risking chronic wasting disease and other infections to the wild herd the rest of us hunt traditionally. We must be clear: "Shooter-bull" operations are not part of Idaho's way of life. They are a recent phenomenon and do little to fuel Idaho's economy. Yet, they tarnish our national image as a state where wild elk roam in large tracts of land that are accessible to the traditional hunter. Legislation will be proposed this year to end "shooter-bull" operations in Idaho, but that would continue to allow responsible elk ranching.

Naturally, many other issues will arise this session, but these represent our core values: protecting Idaho's way of life, standing up for the middle class, and making government more responsible and responsive to the people. Idaho is a place unlike any on earth. The natural beauty of our land and waters, combined with the vitality of our people, business and cultures, all add up to an earthly paradise. This session, Democrats will reach out to our Republican colleagues to join us in our quest to protect Idaho's way of life, and especially protect the middle class and working families that make our state the best in the nation.

As always, I welcome any suggestions, or comments you have to offer. It is my honor to serve District 25. I can be reached by calling (208) 332-1000 or toll-free at (800) 626-0471, via e-mail at, or by mail to P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720.


Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, is the Idaho Senate minority leader. He represents District 25, which includes Blaine County.

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