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

 

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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.

 

Good News in Idaho Education!

The joint House and Senate Education committees just finished a detailed presentation from Superintendent Ybarra, who laid out an aggressive agenda to improve education in our state.  She seems dedicated to local control and flexibility, and many of her plans are encouraging.  Below are two summary slides from her presentation.  I thought many of you would appreciate some of the changes planned for significantly reducing the personal data collected by the ISEE, and removing the SBAC test from high schools…take a look by clicking on each photo.

 

Kootenai County Town Hall

Our Republican Central Committee in Kootenai County sponsors a Town Hall meeting once each month during the legislative session, and invites all 9 of the area legislators.  Our county contains Districts 2, 3 and 4, so there are three Senators and six Representatives included.  Our first Town Hall of the year took place yesterday and the turnout was great!  More people came out to talk and ask questions than in most previous meetings, and the energy and interest were high.

After a short intro from each legislator, as we all sat behind a long table with microphones, the questions began. They were respectful and thoughtful, on topics ranging from urban renewal to state employee pay and benefits, taxes and tax cuts, medicaid vs the new PCAP program, Real ID, state vs federal control of Idaho resources, the Oregon standoff, and much more.

The range of questions shows the challenge for any legislator because we are expected to know about such a diverse mix of issues. At the Town Hall, we let those legislators on the related committees answer the particular question, with any of the rest chiming in as desired. The two hours flew by, with another hour to mingle and chat with individuals.

It was a great chance to understand the concerns of our constituents and was a well- organized event by the central committee.  Thanks to all who attended!

 

Idaho Rules!

Below is my Newsletter from January 26th:

Happy 2016! We are off and running, down here at the capitol building. The legislative session started two weeks ago, and we are busy reviewing the rules created by the Administration (separate branch of government) to implement the new laws we, the Legislative branch, passed last session.

Did you know that Idaho is very unusual in our power, as legislators, to review the rules? Only a few state legislatures have the ability to accept or reject the rules which put new laws into action. Even our US Congress cannot reject a rule made by an administrative department to implement a law Congress passed, even if the rule does not align with the intent of Congress.

Rules are how Common Core came into Idaho, back several years ago. It was through a rule relating to education, and was not called common core, I’m told, and most say it was not explained well by the administration official who brought the rule. The House and Senate Education committees reviewed the rule, along with numerous other rules and allowed them to go forward. Then the whole House and Senate passed a huge “omnibus bill” of all the rules approved by all the committees. We can learn from that experience–taking time and care with the rules is essential.

My three committees are the same as last year: Education, Agriculture, Judiciary & Rules.  Education is the most active right now, with some important decisions coming already through the rules. Surprisingly, the State Dept. of Ed asked us, this past week, to reject three of their rules because they found errors in them which will be corrected and brought back to us next year. There are also new Science Standards to approve or reject by rule. These are quite controversial and have many people emailing and phoning into our offices.

The language in some of the proposed science standards is problematic in that it depicts certain science as absolute. The scientific method is renown for its constant questioning and pursuit of new information, as well as being open to varying viewpoints. The proposed standards do not reflect that mindset and may need to be reworked.

On the Judiciary & Rules Committee, in addition to rules review, we have met the Magistrate Judges and enjoyed their presentation on the various specialty courts in Idaho. Did you know we have separate Drug Courts, Juvenile Courts, Family Courts, Domestic Violence Courts, Mental Health Courts and Problem-Solving Courts?  These courts have a high rate of success in helping people effectively turn their lives around.  We will hear from the District Court Judges this week, followed by the Supreme Court Judges soon.

The Agriculture Committee is starting out with some rule concerns about testing procedures for new types of bean seeds. Growing crops for seed is a big segment of Idaho agriculture, and they are shipped all over the world. Seed diseases can be devastating, so great care is given to when and how research seeds are handled.

In addition to the urban renewal interim committee legislation, I’m also working on three separate bills to make elections more open and accountable for voters. It’s very interesting to work with others on all sides to make our government responsive to citizens.

 

Possible Changes for Urban Renewal

     

 

 

Below you will find the list of ideas Rep. Clow and I have put together.  He is the former mayor of Twin Falls, where they use urban renewal in a far different manner than here in Coeur d’Alene. We both sit on the Legislative Interim Committee to study urban renewal, and these suggestions will be discussed at our next all-day monthly meeting this coming Monday, November 16th, down in Boise.

Our list of proposals started with my compilation of the public comments I received before, during and after the Town Hall meeting on urban renewal here in Coeur d’Alene this past September.  My condensed comments were presented to the committee last month, and Rep. Clow contacted me later to suggest a collaboration.  It’s great for two legislators from very different methods of using urban renewal to hash over ideas making the tool more responsible, transparent, accountable and fair to the community.

Here are our suggestions, we’ll see what the committee thinks next week!  –Mary

 

November 4, 2015

Legislative Interim Committee on Urban Renewal

Re: Proposed Modifications to Urban Renewal Laws

It has been suggested that members of the committee provide suggested talking points for potential changes to the URA Laws. We have heard from the stakeholders at several meetings and it is time that we focus on what we will recommend to the legislature for the 2016 Session.

Senator Souza and I have worked on issues that we believe can be addressed in the following list:

  • Election and, or appointment of URA Board Members:
    • Election of URA – Board Members: Provide an “option”, by local ordinance, for the local sponsoring government to establish elections:
      • Elections would be held in the election cycle of the sponsoring local government.
      • Board Members must live within the sponsoring local government.
      • If a city council member, Mayor or county commissioner wishes to serve on the URA Board they should be allowed to be on the ballot for either the city or county, as well as the URA ballot.
    • Board Members: URA Boards may allow for elected members of the sponsoring local government, however, in no case should the board include a majority of members from any particular elected commission or council. For purposes of a majority, a mayor would be included in the limitation of a majority.
    • Appointments and Terms of URA Board Members: If an URA has an appointed board, the Mayor shall appoint and the council shall confirm all appointments to the URA Board, including vacancies. The URA shall establish a limit on the number of consecutive terms any citizen my serve and the length of such terms. The limits established by local ordinance shall be within the following:
      • One term can be up to 3 years.
      • A maximum of three terms shall be allowed. The appointment to a vacated term shall not count toward the number of terms established as a limit.
    • URA Support Staff and Operating Expenses: Staff, operations and space requirements of the URA may be contracted with the city or county. An elected official may not serve in a paid or contracted position for the URA.
    • Limits on use of TIF: The local sponsoring government may, by ordinance, detail the acceptable uses of tax increment financing within its municipal boundaries, or URA District if it extends beyond the respective city or county limits.

Limits on Revenue Allocation Areas (RAA):

  • URA shall establish a long term map/district for redevelopment, which may be amended by ordinance.
  • URA shall establish a plan for development within the URA District.
  • URA may establish Revenue Allocation Areas, within the URA District, with specific purposes, goals and time limits based upon specific redevelopment or economic development projects.
  • Impacts on Local Governments and overall market values: URA goals should include how the investments within the district and the revenues from the RAA will have short and long term impacts on the local governments whose taxes would be allocated to the RAA.
    • Base Values of RAA: At the establishment on an RAA the all properties will be identified as to their current values and the local taxing jurisdictions shall retain the taxable value for their tax rolls. Each property value shall be identified by the underlying land value and the improvements. The land value shall always be retained as the base for local taxing jurisdictions. If a property is razed as part of a redevelopment project, the value of the original improvements shall be considered part of the underlying land value. The new construction and improvements shall be considered Incremental Value for the RAA.
      • This will provide for the increasing values of the land within the RAA to help support the local government services provided to properties and citizens within the RAA. It also recognizes that a razed building value was included for the value of the land, and not the building. And, that the cost of demolition and remedial environmental cost, which will be included in the incremental value, was considered as a discount to the original base valuation.
    • Revenues Streams directed for local government services: Local government jurisdictions do have increased demands by growth within the RAA and should participate in the growth to generate a stream of revenue to help offset the costs of operating the local governments. Therefore it is proposed that we consider some level of sharing revenues based upon the expected demands on services.
      • Residential Properties: Single Family Residential Properties (which includes 1-4 family units) within an RAA shall have the taxes on the value of their improvements split between the RAA and the local taxing districts. It is suggested that the local taxing districts shall retain 70% of the improvements, plus the value of the land. The RAA would receive 30% of the improvements.
      • Multi-Family Residential Properties: (Residential Properties with greater than 4 family units). It is suggested that the local taxing districts shall retain 50% of the improvements, plus the value of the land. The RAA would receive 50% of the improvements.
      • Mixed Use Residential/Commercial Properties: Properties with four or more residential units and Commercial units. It is suggested that the local taxing districts shall retain 20% of the improvements, plus the value of the land. The RAA would receive 80% of the improvements.
      • Commercial Properties: It is suggested that the local taxing districts shall retain 10% of the improvements, plus the value of the land. The RAA would receive 90% of the improvements.
      • Industrial Property: It is suggested that the local taxing districts shall retain 5% of the improvements, plus the value of the land. The RAA would receive 95% of the improvements.
    • Transparency: Requirements and local policy appears to vary by jurisdiction. Urban Renewal Budgets, meeting schedules and notices, reports, plans and public records should be easily found by a link to the local governing entity, identified as the Urban Renewal Agency.
      • The Secretary of State can accommodate a repository for any records for cities or counties that sponsor an URA, but do not have a website. The state site can simply provide links to the URA websites or actually provide storage for digital access.
      • Annual Reports to the Sponsoring local government must be properly noticed and part of a regular meeting, not a special meeting.
      • Any committee or sub-committee created by the URA governing body shall be governed by the open meeting laws, including the rules that apply to Executive Sessions.
      • Political or quasi-political lobbying may only be done through the sponsoring local government. No tax increment financing shall be used for this purpose.
      • All Urban Renewal Agencies would be required to operate and disclose records as identified under state law, for example The Twin Falls Urban Renewal Agency. This would not eliminate the use of a DBA for marketing purposes. However, all legal records and notices must reflect the official agency name and identifiable as the Urban Renewal Agency.
    • Public Buildings Funded by URA: HB239 addressed this with the text similar to the following. The urban renewal agency shall not use revenue allocation funds to construct municipal buildings. For purposes of this section, a municipal building is a central administrative public safety building, a city hall, a library, a court house or other judicial building.
      • Except where the municipal building can be specifically determined to be necessary to the redevelopment or economic development purposes of the RAA, or as a renovation of an existing municipal building within the RAA. This does not exclude the URA use of RAA funds to provide the infrastructure needs for the public building that would be provided to an otherwise qualified non-municipal property. RAA funds may be used in support of the municipal building that has been placed before the voters for bonding of the local government’s portion of the project; or, built/remodeled with reserved funds of the local government.
    • Oversight: It is the responsibility of the sponsoring local government to monitor, track and address any complaints regarding the URA Board. Unresolved alleged violations of the URA Laws may be appealed to the County Prosecutor or the Attorney General’s office.
    • Penalties: The URA laws should specifically reference the penalties associated with civil and criminal violations found within Idaho Code and any local ordinance. This clarifies that those involved with URA are not exempt from penalties and fines.

 

Respectfully submitted,

Lance W. Clow, Idaho State Representative

Mary Souza, Idaho State Senator

Ignite cda: Try Honesty and Accountability

Tuesday’s CdA Press headline shouted “Butting heads on branding”, with a photo of LCDC / ignite cda executive director Tony Berns  right next to a picture of me.  It was a bit overly dramatic, in my opinion, but did serve to get people’s attention.

The story stems from LCDC, our urban renewal agency in Coeur d’Alene, and their recent name change to ignite cda.  This public agency, which is funded by property tax dollars, is spending and budgeting a total of $120,000 on this rebranding name change and public relations campaign. (They say it’s not public relations, it’s community outreach.)

As the State Senator from District 4, which is the entirety of Coeur d’Alene, and also as a member of the legislature’s new Interim Committee to study Urban Renewal in Idaho, I remain concerned about this use of public dollars.

Two weeks ago I wrote Tony Berns a letter, asking seven basic questions about the agency’s decision.  The Press called me right away to ask if they could run an article about my letter and I agreed.  You can read that lively piece here.

In the above-mentioned  August 20th article, Tony Berns is quoted, saying he “sent the request to his legal counsel on Wednesday and asked them to craft some answers to the senator’s questions.”

Professionally crafted answers are what we got back, finally, after almost two weeks. I wonder how much those cost? You can find the full version of my letter and ignite cda’s responses by clicking here then also click “Related Documents” on the side.

Tony sent a lot of words.  He, through the efforts of his legal advisors and probably the public relations firm, all of whom are paid with taxpayer dollars, tried to defend the decision by the urban renewal board to spend $120,000 to improve their public image.

It appears that perhaps, despite the expensive defense by the agency’s attorneys and consultants, they are now making some small changes after my questions. Their website has a newly added subtitle under the “ignite cda” logo, which identifies it now as Coeur d’Alene’s urban renewal agency.  And in an advertisement in today’s Press, they explain that the Kroc Center was funded by a $72 million dollar grant from the Kroc family, and that LCDC gave $535,000 (which is less than 1%). They also failed to mention the $4 million dollars provided by the City of CdA .

LCDC takes credit for the Kroc Center and the Library. The Kroc Center did not need LCDC, it would have been built anyway.  It fails the “but for” test, which is this:  But for urban renewal, would the project have been built?  Yes, the Kroc Center would have been built.  Yes, the Library also would have been built without urban renewal—remember, we voted to approve a public bond for the library.

We want the responsible use of the public’s money by this public agency. What we really need from our urban renewal agency in Coeur d’Alene is honesty and accountability.

Here’s my advice: Ditch the new name and logo, cancel the PR contract, return to the original name of Coeur d’Alene Urban Renewal Agency. Get rid of the paid consultants, lobbyists and the overpaid executive director position.  Hire a manager and a clerical assistant and let’s have the board members stand for public election.  We can even pay them a small fee for their time, which would place them under a higher level of the Idaho Ethics law.

And on the legislative interim committee, we will work toward a clear, responsible, updated law with built-in limitations, supervision and accountability.

Here we have Idaho, a state full of good, hard working, responsible, honest people simply looking for their government’s public agencies to be the same.