April 15, 2015 : Dear Journal Readers, below is a copy of my formal, end-of-session letter that was sent out last Friday by postal mail to 2000 constituents of all persuasions. I thought you might like a copy as well. Please keep checking on this Journal because I will be posting about the late night Transportation tax bill we had to deal with at 1:00 AM on the last day of the session. I will also tell you about the currently controversial S1067, which has to do with Federal funding for child support payments in Idaho. It’s getting a great deal of press with tag lines involving fears about Shari law. There are many more issues and experiences I will be sharing on this Journal, now that I have some time. Thanks for your support! –Mary
My first legislative session in Boise as your State Senator from Coeur d’Alene is coming to a close after three full months, and it has been a great honor to represent you. It has also been highly interesting and challenging. Experienced folks here describe a legislator’s first term as “drinking from the fire hose” because of the large amount of information we must learn quickly. Everyone has been wonderfully helpful, respectful and professional. They honestly work very hard, most often for 12 to 14 hours each day. It is not an easy job.
In addition to the daily full Senate sessions, I sit on three committees: Education, Judiciary and Rules, and Agriculture. Each has been a great learning experience. Let me give you a quick run-down:
Education: We have worked closely with the new Superintendent of Public Instruction who has prioritized state and local control of testing, standards, data collection and decision-making. These changes won’t happen overnight, but we are optimistic that we’ll see improvements in the next year or two. We passed the Teacher Career Ladder bill which increases teacher pay, maps out an advancement pathway, and details local accountability options. There are also a number of new supports for at-risk and other students to continue their education after high school for skills certification or college.
The difficult news for education in Idaho is that three major programs, the Idaho Education Network (IEN) digital connection system for schools, the Idaho System for Educational Excellence (ISEE) data collection system, and the School Net information management system, which were put in place during the past several years, have not been successful and have lost a tremendous amount of public money. You can go to the Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE) at http://www.legislature.idaho.gov to read the reports on these failed systems. Investigations are underway and many changes are being made by the new team.
Judiciary and Rules: Two bright spots this year are the Judicial Reinvestment Program to streamline laws and procedures, and the reorganization of the Department of Corrections after the private prison fiasco. Both efforts appear to be going well.
Agriculture: Did you know that Idaho’s dairy industry is the third largest in the nation? Idaho farms have had four consecutive years of record high earnings, hitting almost $10 billion last year. Understanding Agriculture is essential to understanding Idaho, as Agriculture has a very big impact on our economy.
In addition to some committee bills, I have authored or co-authored three special bills. Only one became law this year, but I’ll briefly describe each of them:
Senate Bill 1072, my “sunshine” bill, was just signed into law by the Governor last week. It requires candidates for school board elections to report their campaign donations and expenses.
Senate Bill 1096 is the Parental Rights in Education bill that Sen. Den Hartog and I co-sponsored. It passed the Senate Education Committee and the full Senate but got held by the Chairman of the House Education Committee over concerns about the Smarter-Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test and possible monetary penalties from the federal government if quotas are not met. We will work on it again next year.
My third bill is about Urban Renewal. It simply requires cities to either have the Urban Renewal Board stand for election, or have the city council become the Urban Renewal Board as has been done in at least four Idaho cities. Either way, they become accountable to the voters. The politics of urban renewal are legendary and the bill met a powerful roadblock, but I will keep pursuing it because we need public accountability for these boards that handle many millions of public dollars each year.
Several other bills I have strongly supported are: Denying the use of Eminent Domain for bike trails and path ways, supporting Direct Primary Care, banning dangerous chemical web-cam abortions, adding the citizenship civics test for high school students, and creation of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education center. I also voted in favor of funding the Behavioral Mental Health Center to be located in our area.
As I write this letter, there is a “Conference Committee” consisting of three people each from the House and Senate. The purpose of this open meeting is to find agreement on a Transportation bill which started in the House, was heavily amended by the Senate and then subsequently rejected by the House. I’m told there hasn’t been a Conference Committee, on any topic, since 2009. The roads and bridges in most of Idaho have not had upgrades for many years, though in North Idaho we have seen some great improvements because of special bonds. I believe it is important that if there are any increases in gas tax and vehicle registration fees, there should be offsetting tax relief for those who are still struggling to recover from the economic downturn.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you as State Senator. My priorities have been, and will continue to be, increasing transparency in government and its accountability to the people, as well as reducing the size and unwanted intrusion of government into our lives. Please contact me with any questions you may have.
With great appreciation for Idaho,
Senator Mary Souza
District 4, Coeur d’Alene