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

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 time frame, 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.

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.

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. 

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! 

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!

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.

2016 End of Session Letter

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

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!

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.

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.