Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Democratic Response to State of the State

Joint Minority Senate & House Response to State of the State Address
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It is 2011 and we are in the third year of this recession. More than 70,000 Idahoans are out of work—there are far fewer jobs today than there were in 2007. We just learned last week that while unemployment seems to be declining in many parts of the country, the ranks of the unemployed are still growing in Idaho. That has real implications for Idaho families, communities and, of course, state revenue.

Idahoans are frustrated by our economic conditions. They want a government that is actively working to improve our economy and our quality of life in this state. Idaho is at a crossroads and it’s time to address the enormous challenges that we face.

Yesterday the governor presented his view of the world and of our collective future. Unfortunately, his view takes a very hands-off approach to our current situation. Which is to say, in the face of enormous challenges and widespread economic hardship, the governor and many legislators have no plans to do anything significant. In fact, rather than being proactive, they’ve simply strengthened their resolve to dismantle the very public structures that help create prosperity.

Like sunrise tomorrow, the future will come. The decisions we make this session will help define that future.

We agree with the Governor that these decisions may be difficult. But while the decisions won't come easily, the priorities should. These priorities, we believe, should be jobs, providing a high-quality education to our children, protecting Idaho’s most vulnerable citizens, and ensuring that our state government is responsible, ethical, and accountable. Priorities that recognize our shared values—values like honesty and fairness, responsibility and community, opportunity and prosperity.

Here is where we may differ from the Governor. We believe that maintaining our public structures is essential to protecting the Idaho way of life for our families and our businesses. It is not “tyranny” to feed hungry children, care for the disabled or educate workers.

We have been told over and over that government must live within its means. This is common sense. In fact, we’re constitutionally mandated to do so—we don’t have a choice. But what we have found is that what Idahoan’s care about, care deeply about, is the well-being of their families and communities. They want a hopeful and prosperous future for their children, communities that are safe to live in, and a state that is a good place to run a business. Maintaining and improving the quality of Idaho's public structures such as schools, courts, health clinics and so on, is vitally important to economic recovery and setting our state on a path toward prosperity.

It is precisely because families are struggling that we need to make sure our public systems have the resources to respond. We do this not simply by asking "What can we afford?" but also asking "What must we do to protect our future?"

This future should include good jobs, a government of openness and integrity, a fair society that provides quality educational opportunities to all.

We appreciate that three years into the recession, the Governor now recognizes the importance of jobs. We look forward to reviewing his proposal to lower the small business unemployment tax and to free up more small business and start-up capital.

And as we did last year we will propose a number of other initiatives to help Idahoans get back to work. These will include proposals to support the availability of capital for growth, lower the costs for small business, and revise the way the Department of Commerce works. We can do better supporting the training of displaced workers, expand weatherization programs for a weak construction industry, and help local economic development entities expand markets for the businesses in their communities.

Some have said that all we need to do to assure prosperity is to get government out of the way. But we believe that government can help to enable business success. Economic activity depends on transportation systems, energy and telecommunications. It is supported by the courts, safe communities and a strong system of schools and universities. Undermining or dismantling these public structures—which train our workers, provide business-critical infrastructure, and foster innovation and competition—is no way to get the economy moving again.

Education and the opportunity for a brighter future is something we owe to each Idaho child. It is part of our state constitution and a moral duty that we Democrats take seriously. Making choices about how we support our schools here in Idaho ultimately boil down to questions of fairness and our commitment to creating opportunity for our young people.

With the severe cuts to public schools all over the state, we are in real danger of losing the essence of our public education. The proposed budget still leaves a gaping hole that the federal government helped fill the last two years. Only by using federal stimulus and jobs money have we managed to keep public schools from even more harm. But now the backfill is gone, and our schools and our children will suffer.

There is another issue that should offend Idahoans, an issue of fairness. As more and more of the school support is through override levies and property taxes, the divide between rich and not so rich districts becomes more apparent.

The governor is focused on the supposed proper role of government. A simple question—when did it become improper for our communities to educate our kids?

The Governor’s right about another thing—Idahoans are beginning to believe that certain aspects of government are not working for them. They fear that sweetheart deals, loopholes and special exceptions have cast justifiable doubts as to whether all Idahoans pay their fair share for critical state services. The people’s sense of fairness is further offended when our own public officials seemingly don’t pay their fair share.

We agree with the governor that tax commission changes are overdue. We believe we should do all we can to restore confidence in state government.

Not only should the tax commission be run fairly and openly, but we should make every reasonable effort to collect taxes that are due and owed, including sales taxes on Internet sales in Idaho. Failing to do puts our homegrown Idaho businesses at a disadvantage while out-of-state online retailers benefit.

Furthermore, we should recover missing diesel fuel taxes, and make further efforts to close the tax gap by insisting that taxes owed be paid. Most Idahoans and most businesses on Main Street play by the rules and should be treated fairly—it’s the right thing to do and only our state government, not the private sector, can make sure the playing field is level.

At the end of the day, the revenue anticipated in this budget is insufficient to meet the needs of the State and her citizens. $100 million less in state and federal support for Medicaid services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled—those most vulnerable in our communities—will have consequences.

We cannot ignore the long- and short-term consequences of decisions. We are concerned that in the rush to have a short session the majority party will follow an easier course for the sake of expediency. But in their zeal to "downsize" government we will make it very difficult to maintain the public structures needed for a 21st century economy. And in the end, lack of critical investments now means unavoidable and larger expenses down the road.

While there are some potential wins for the businesses and citizens of Idaho in this budget, it is almost the same as in the past years—push off real commitments to a later day, plug holes using one time money, and slash critical State services. This approach lacks a vision for success. And, the Republicans refuse to level with the people of Idaho about the structural deficit that will continue to haunt us for many years to come.

The Governor suggested last week that we need to examine the cost-benefits analyses of everything we do. We agree. We think all Idahoans deserve to see the cost-benefit analysis of a plan to embrace tax cuts (which will likely benefit the wealthy) while defunding colleges, public schools, community health support, and failing to maintain our roads and bridges. These are truly the proper role of government.

We know that we are a minority in the Statehouse. But we represent a lot of voices throughout the state. Government has a role to play in promoting the common good, advancing the wellbeing of our communities, and enhancing and protecting our quality of life. Our future prosperity requires civil institutions and public structures.

We Democrats commit to the Governor, our colleagues and the citizens of Idaho that we will work diligently and cooperatively for the common good, that we will point out bad choices and their potential consequences. We will do all that we can to support progress for the State of Idaho and help to shape a brighter future for our citizens.


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