Getting Crazy in the Capitol!

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The photo above is from the Twin Falls area newspaper and its prediction is true! Many folks here in the Capitol say this is the fastest start to the session they can recall. Bills are flying and committees are busy. As a one day sample, here’s my schedule from this past Wednesday:

8:00am – 11:00am – JFAC. This is the joint finance & appropriations committee made up of 10 members of the Senate and 10 from the House. We meet every weekday morning at 8:00am and typically work in committee until 11:00am.

11:00-11:30 – Senate floor. Our daily full Senate floor session is brief right now because bills are still getting printed and being discussed in committees before they can be heard on the floor. In February and March these floor sessions are hours long, and often twice each day because there are so many bills to consider.

12:00-1:15 – JFAC working lunch. This is a voluntary group of 4 that gets together every Wednesday with the analyst for the Health and Welfare budgets—there are many budgets and they are huge. We go go over budget details and evaluate the requests. Bring your own lunch and eat while you work!

1:30-2:20 – Try to get some paperwork done! Go to LSO (Legislative services office) to discuss two bills in process.

2:30 – Meet in my office with folks promoting more medical residency programs.

(Normally the Health & Welfare committee meets from 3-5:00 but was cancelled because of CEC—below)

3:00 – 8:45pm: CEC – Change in Employee Compensation committee. All members of Commerce committee are automatically on the CEC committee for the first two weeks of the session. We have had three very long meetings to decide the pay and benefits for state employees. Our meeting on Wednesday was supposed to go until 5pm, but went almost 4 hours longer (no dinner) due to extended committee discussion and multiple motions and votes.

9:00pm: I went back to my rented temporary apartment, cooked some dinner and went to bed!

These are very long and interesting days. The energy outlay is immense but it comes back as excitement about important changes we can achieve. We can make a difference in Foster Care and CASA. We can raise government transparency in the Public Records request law. We can increase voter involvement in schools by moving board elections to November rather than May. We can empower parental choice in education. We can improve the affordability of and access to health care in Idaho. These are all areas I am working on with others. Step by step, inch by inch.

Here are some quick updates on other issues:
–The $27.5 million that was supposed to go to roads at the end of last session was unanimously appropriated by our JFAC committee yesterday.
–The legislature is working hard to evaluate the Federal tax bill’s impact on Idaho and adjust accordingly.
–The Unemployment Insurance reduction that was hijacked and turned into the grocery tax repeal at the end of last session has now been passed by the House and will pass the Senate next week. It will be a big help to businesses.
–The grocery tax repeal will come back again this year. There are several versions coupled with other tax policy, so we’ll decide when we see them all.

Thank you for the opportunity to do this important work. I am truly honored by your trust!

Hope you have a wonderful weekend — Mary

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Interim Travel all over the State!

The “interim” is the time between our legislative sessions, so it is from April through December. These nine months are busy for legislators because we are invited to numerous local meetings as well as out of town and out of state meetings and conferences.

Our job as legislators is considered part-time, though during our three month session, January through March, we work about 50-60 hours per week. But most people don’t realize our work does not stop when we return home after the session. I have used my calendar to count up and estimate my time for the past 6 months, April through this current month of September.

During this timeframe, I have attended 45 local meetings and have been at full day or multi-day out of town meetings or conferences totaling more than 20 days, with more to come in the remaining quarter. And these calculations do not include phone calls, emails, letters and research preparation for future legislation! Idaho legislators do not have any staff except some shared clerical assistants during the session. During the interim, our “district offices” are a desk tucked in a corner of our homes, and we answer our own calls, emails and letters, and manage our own schedules.

With that said, I feel fortunate to be entrusted with this important responsibility. Below you will find highlight photos of some of my interim activities:

Town Hall meetings

In Kootenai County, we have town hall meetings which include all legislators from Districts 2,3 and 4, each month during the session and afterward as well.

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Healthcare Listening Forum

I held a special event in May to hear feedback from constituents about their thoughts and concerns regarding health care. It was very well attended and provided a wide variety of views which I’ll be taking to the Health and Welfare Committee this next session.

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(Photo by CdA Press)

North Idaho JFAC Tour

JFAC is the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. I am one of the 10 Senate members and there are the same number from the House. Twice each interim JFAC travels on a two day tour of select, budget-related locations to better understand financing certain projects. In June we toured several North Idaho locations, including Farragut State Park, pictured here.  Beautiful!  We will have a Southern Idaho JFAC Tour next month in October.

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Conferences

I have attended several meetings, conferences and retreats this interim, learning from experts in our state as well as other legislators from across the country. It really helps to see how other states are dealing with issues of concern here in Idaho. Great speakers too!

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Idaho Legislative Tour

Different than the JFAC budget tour, this 3 day tour is for all legislators and it switches every other year from north to south. Hosted by an area’s Chamber of Commerces, this event also rotates between regions. This year it was in southern Idaho, just last week, and focused on Burley / Rupert and Twin Falls / Jerome in the Magic Valley. It was fascinating to see the innovations in  beef, dairy, processing, packaging, shipping and more. The Magic Valley is certainly a power center for Agriculture in Idaho!

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We’ll end, for now, with some of the 3,000 flags planted in Jerome to honor the victims of 9/11, on the anniversary of that tragic event. We will not forget.

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Off to a Strange Start

The 2017 legislative session has started on an unsettled note during the first two weeks. The House side has been dealing with an internal conflict brought about by the unseemly comments and behavior of one member. Legislative leadership does not like public controversy, so tries to resolve issues quietly, if possible. This time it was not possible and  dramatic news headlines have been popping up all across the state.

Senate leadership has been dealing with a historic election challenge. One Democrat senator’s Republican election opponent, who lost,  filed for a contest of the election. By law, the final arbiter is the full Senate. The Secretary of State delivered the election documentation to the Senate in session, where it was inventoried as we all looked on (photo above). We referred the case to our State Affairs committee, they reviewed all the details and reported back to the full Senate. Then we voted to deny the contest. It was not even a close consideration after hearing the facts. It was highly unusual though, to have such a contest which has only happened a few times in Idaho’s history.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have all been busy reviewing administrative rules in our committees. You, the voters, approved HJR 5 last election, which puts into the state constitution our right to accept of reject the administrative rules, so thank you. Now we are working hard to complete the rules review (exciting photo above) and put the unusual controversies behind us before the first wave of proposed bills comes through!

New Session 2017

The 2017 Legislative Session Began today! Three photos: 1.) High school choirs travel hours to perform in the Senate. (Bonneville and Highland) They were fabulous! 2.) Governor Otter’s State of the State address. Lots of spending. 3.) Barbara Morgan, teacher-astronaut, is honored with the very first Idaho Medal of Achievement, a new annual award. She was so humble, told a great story about being in space and watching “isolated thunder storms over the Indian Ocean” fire off and cause all the other area “isolated” storms fire as well. She observed it’s the same with all of us in Idaho being impacted by each other and creating a positive energy. It was a good day. Finance committee starts tomorrow at 8am.

Everything’s not Black & White

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Even as the world seems a bit crazy and unstable right now, I have some good news to share: There are pockets of hope; we can get along, make friends and overcome the divides, people to people.

Last week I visited the Indiana state capitol and met a group of fabulous women! You will see in our group photo, above, that we are, perhaps, an unexpected combination of colors, but that had no impact on our connection.

My wonderful experience with these ladies began when we were all waiting for a tour of the capitol building. I was alone, filling time until my plane’s departure, and they invited me to join their group. We quickly became fast friends. These 13 women live all over the US and gathered in Indianapolis to have a high school reunion. But they didn’t go to high school in Indiana, they attended a national school in Nigeria where they were born and raised. They went on to various universities and many are incredibly accomplished professionals—two lawyers, a pediatrician, paleontologist, optometrist, and more.

As we waited together, they were so warm and outgoing; they wanted to hear about Idaho and we laughed as we shared our common experiences with aging, families, work and life. A strong bond formed. We had great fun on the tour—the guide will long remember us—and we exchanged contact information as we said our goodbyes. I’ve already heard from two of the women who want to stay in touch. Their generosity of spirit still warms my heart.

We were just people, comfortable in our selves, respecting and celebrating each other. It gives me hope.

Urban Renewal Update!

Dear Readers,

In the End of Session letter, below, which some of you may have also received by mail, I report that the Urban Renewal bill (H606) had a slim chance of making it through both chambers of the legislature. That letter was dated two days before the end of the session. Well, “slim” happened! The bill went through the House, where they added an onerous amendment, then came through the Senate tax committee and to the Senate floor, where I would finally have a vote. I did try, without success, to remove the amendment added in the House. That amendment grandfathered all existing Urban Renewal districts from accountability if they significantly change their plans in the future, and it stays in place now. So, while I am not happy with the lack of tenacity this law has in holding districts to the rules, there are other parts of the new law to help taxpayers demand proper behavior by Urban Renewal Boards.

You can read the bill at legislature.idaho.gov, then go to Bill Center and find House bill 606. The new law allows city councils to pass an ordinance declaring their urban renewal boards will stand for public election. It also specifies the Mayor and council will appoint replacements for any vacant seats on the board — the board used to choose their own. And there will be a central repository for Urban Renewal plans and updates at the State Tax Commission, with mandatory reporting. There are more changes in this new law but some key issues will still need to be addressed in the future.