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For the week of April 30 - May 6, 2003

Opinion Columns

Its time for
to go home

Guest opinion by SEN. CLINT STENNETT

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, represents District 25 in the Idaho Legislature.

It is time to go home. The work that is being done now should have been completed 60 days ago. I am beginning to feel as though we are all stuck in the political version of that movie "Groundhog Day" where Bill Murray wakes up every morning only to live the same day over and over again. And I will tell you, our days here have gotten to be very similar to one another as we are spending little to no time on the floor while the majority is making important policy decisions about the future of this state in closed caucus and leadership meetings.

Almost four months ago, Gov. Kirk Kempthorne clearly articulated the problem we are currently facing in his State of the State Address. Quite simply, and as you are all well aware, without an increase in revenue the state will be forced to cut close to $100 million out of public education and the remaining $100 million out of other essential programs. If the Legislature fails to raise adequate revenue, local entities will be forced to supplement state funding by shifting the tax burden onto property owners, a move that is unfair and that Idaho taxpayers have spoken loudly against. The answer is simple, we were not elected to dismantle state services, destroy Idaho's infrastructure, or pass an undue burden on to cities and counties revenue must be raised.

So, if the answer is simple, why are we still here? Conventional wisdom would tell us that a largely Republican legislature would follow their own Republican governor, but it takes effective leadership to follow a leader, and that is what this session has been lacking.

We have already passed a 1 percent increase in the sales tax, a measure that I voted against because it was not coupled with a decrease in the sales tax on groceries. Even keeping the tax on groceries level at 5 percent would have saved every Idahoan money every time they visited the grocery store. But the $160 million that will be raised by the sales tax increase is still about $30 million short of what we need to properly fund public and higher education and other essential services.

Last week, the Senate amended a tax bill to increase the tax on cigarettes by 28 cents a pack. This measure was sent to the House but the House did not concur. There will now be a conference committee made up of members from both houses to try to resolve the issue.

While I agree with majority leadership in the Senate that more revenue is necessary, I strongly believe that the revenue must be raised in the proper way. Unfortunately, the tax on cigarettes was passed immediately after an amendment was added to another bill that would tax the cigarettes sold on Indian Reservations. All the evidence we have indicates that such a measure will end up in another lengthy and costly lawsuit. I cannot, in good conscience, vote for bills that will cost this state money in the form of lawsuits.

I also voted against the increase in the tax on cigarettes because there still has been no concession for the working families of Idaho. I cannot accept a revenue increase that unfairly burdens our lower and middle class families and I cannot accept increased revenue that does not broaden the base. To that end, I offered an amendment last week that would sunset all sales tax exemptions, with the exception of motor fuel, medical supplies and services, utilities, prescription drugs, WIC, food stamps and production by June 30, 2005. I think it is time to re-evaluate the current sales tax exemptions to see if they are still proper.

So are we any closer to going home than we were last week? Probably. Unfortunately, idle hands are the devil's workshop, and that was illustrated very clearly last week when the Speaker of the House ordered the House Appropriations Committee to meet and set budgets in the absence of the Senate Finance Committee. Those two committees have met jointly for the past 30 years to set state budgets and while the House will vote on the appropriations bills set by HAC and then go home, the Senate leadership is still conferring on whether or not that is a legal way to set budgets.

Perhaps worse than that, in my opinion, is that the House Appropriations Committee is using legislative intent language in their appropriations bills to override decisions that have been made during this session in the germane committees. This is especially egregious because HAC does not have to take any public input--yet another example of the majority party making significant policy decisions behind closed doors.

So what are these policy changes? Most significantly, HAC has passed an education budget of $931 million with an education trust fund of $12 million that can be tapped if the economy continues to worsen. The Governor, unfortunately, has said he will accept this. I guess he gets to have his cake and eat it, too, as he can claim that he funded education at his recommended amount of $943 million without actually having to do it. There are also no less than eight instances of legislative intent language in the education budgets that change a policy that was previously rejected by germane committees during this session. Most of those changes will result in increased costs to local school districts and property owners.

It is time to go home. We need to lock the doors, order in lunch, and work together to finish the business that must be done in order for us to close out the longest legislative session in Idaho history. We owe that to the people of this state.


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