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

IMG_9372

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.

2016 End of Session Letter

March 22, 2016

Dear Constituents,

The end of our 2016 Legislative Session is just around the corner—predictions are we’ll finish our work before Easter, so I thought you would be interested in some highlights of our efforts. As of March 17th, the Senate reviewed 267 drafts of bills, with 233 of those advancing at least part way into the process, and, 101 passed and sent to the Governor.

Some of the more interesting issues we dealt with are sex ,guns, education, abortion, suicide prevention, and urban renewal. We are also still waiting for end-of-session bills.

Sexting (H555): right now, if a person under 18 takes an explicit photo of themselves and sends it to a someone else, each of them can be charged with a felony and be required to register as a sex offender. This law reduces the first offense to a misdemeanor, no registry, and allows for helpful intervention.

Guns (S1389): Open carry without a permit in Idaho has been legal for many years. Concealed carry outside of city limits was made legal last year, so hunters and outdoor recreation folks can carry for safety while wearing warm coats. This new bill, permitless carry, allows gun owners with no felonies, mental illness or other restrictions, to conceal carry within city limits, except where already banned, such as on school grounds or areas of college campuses. Thirteen other states have this law and report no increase in gun accidents or crime. I am working with others on legislation for a gun safety class in our public schools, and we will encourage more training for gun owners who must still have permits to carry across state lines.

Education & Economic Development: K-12 education funding increased by a substantial 7.4%, with higher education funding up 8%. Just throwing money at education is not effective, but this funding covers required steps on the teacher career ladder, as well as several creative programs to energize the system, somewhat, and offer innovative options. You can read more about the specifics at my web site: MarySouzaforIdaho.com. Education is one of the best economic development tools we have, and many of the new options we approved this year give industry the opportunity to offer scholarships to students pursuing certain careers. More and better jobs, and increased business opportunities—that’s a good pairing for Idaho.

Abortion (H516): This bill requires abortion clinics to provide a list of free ultrasound providers to any woman considering an abortion. The list is compiled by the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare, and the information a mother gains from an ultrasound can help her make a more informed decision.

Suicide Prevention (S1326): This bill adds suicide prevention to the list of responsibilities of the Dept. of Health and Welfare, which can give then assist in this important endeavor. It’s a small change which will bring positive results.

Urban Renewal (H606): As many of you know, I have been working for a more responsible use of urban renewal. On the Legislative Interim Committee to study urban renewal this year, we finally agreed on some significant changes which will offer more local control and increase accountability. The committee supported the final draft, which was then sent to the House to start through the legislative process. As of today, the final week of the session, the urban renewal bill is still in the House and we have not seen it in the Senate. Chances are slim it will finish this year, so it will be revived next session. It’s sad to see but not a surprise, knowing the many power players trying to influence the outcome. We’ll try again.

There were four bills I personally sponsored this session. One of them succeeded and is on the Governor’s desk right now. That bill is #S1293, Parental Rights in Education. It requires schools to invite parents into their child’s education by offering information about homework, discipline, learning materials and more. It also defines what “reasonable accommodations” parents can expect from the schools, along with common sense limitations for schools, teachers and other students.

My other three bills were all election bills designed to increase transparency and allow voters better access to elections and campaign finance information. They did not make it through the system this year, but , as many bills take multiple attempts, we will bring them back again next year.

And so, good constituents, we are in the last week of the session, and still facing a number of very important issues. Foster care reform will come before us tomorrow along with a dozen others, and the final two big topics of the year are health care and taxes. Both have been discussed back and forth between the House and Senate conceptually for weeks, but no bills have come to the Senate side yet.

These are very complex topics. Health care this year is dealing with “the gap”. People in the gap are those who make too much to be on Medicaid, and too little to be covered on the Exchange. The Federal government wants states to expand Medicaid coverage to everyone in the gap, but there’s great concern about more dependence on the Federal government and the very real possibility that the Feds will cut back on their funding of this expensive program in the future, leaving Idaho taxpayers to pick up the tab. There’s also great frustration about the quality of Medicaid (not Medicare) in terms of finding a doctor, delayed appointments, long waiting times and much more. There was an innovative first-step program called PCAP, supported by the state administration and worked on by many for months. It would offer family clinic coverage for the gap population, but that program is now dead in the House. I liked the idea but it did not get over to the Senate.

Taxes: There is an effort to find a tax bill most people can accept, but it is late in the session and the proposed bills seem to have something everyone doesn’t like. The most likely bill collects taxes on internet sales and offers a slight reduction in income tax? Sometimes doing nothing is best.

Right to Try (H481): This bill allows terminally ill people, in conjunction with their doctors, to try new, experimental medications which have passed the FDA’s first phase of testing but have not et been fully approved. It offers an important option to patients and families.

 

It is a great honor to be here in the Senate representing you. The challenge is great and the work is incredibly important. Please send me your thoughts and concerns on any subject or legislation. You can email me at MSouza@senate.idaho.gov . You can also find information on legislation from this session, watch video of House or Senate floor sessions from this year, or listen to audio of committee meetings, all of those can be found at Legislature.idaho.gov

With great appreciation for Idaho,

Mary Souza

 

Senate Update, 2/27/16

(click on photos to read the captions)

Win some, lose some…that’s how it goes in Boise! My week started out early last Monday, with an important presentation in front of the Senate State Affairs committee. I explained my “blanket sunshine” bill, S1299, to the committee made up of all the leadership in the Senate. This committee is known to be a bit intimidating. They were actually very nice to me and even though it was well over an hour of back and forth questions and conversation, and even though they didn’t advance my bill, they offered good ideas for making the bill better for next year. Here’s what the bill was about:

S1299 required all local candidates and ballot measures (bonds, levies, initiatives & recalls) to report their campaign donations and expenditures. It also required Political Action Committees (PACs) to report their donations at the local level. Right now, all of the state level candidates and ballot measures and PACs have to report, but at the local level it is inconsistent–some do and many don’t.

I had the support of several key leadership members but it was not enough and the bill was held in committee. I’ll work again with the Sec. of State’s office to create a plan for updated technology on the SOS’s web site, and see if we can streamline much of the process to make this a more achievable goal next year.

Speaking of second tries…the Parental Rights in Education bill that Sen. Den Hartog and I presented last year but was held in the House over testing concerns, easily passed the Senate Education committee this week. That’s a win! Now numbered S1293, we added some invitational language that clarifies the “reasonable accommodations” parents can expect from schools, so there’s a more clarity on both support and limitations. The bill was well received and will go on the the full Senate next week.

Two other bills I am co-sponsoring relate to School Board elections, to change the date from May to the general election in November, and to open zone voting so everyone in the district can vote, just like for county commissioners. These bills will be heard in committee soon.

We are very busy right now. We have a long list of legislation to consider on the floor of the Senate each day, with double floor sessions, morning and afternoon, two days a week. Tuesday we voted on 24 bills, but Wednesday we got through only 6, because of extensive debate, and yesterday our late afternoon session went over 2 hours on only one bill. It was S1339, which deals with oil and gas recovery processes and notifications. It passed with only 4 dissenting votes. You may not be aware, but Payette County in southwest Idaho has a fairly new oil and natural gas operation underway, so establishing working rules that honor all sides is important.