Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Legislators differ on 2014 session

Many issues put off until next year


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

Top, Donna Pence; middle, Steven Miller; bottom, Michelle Stennett.

    The 2014 legislative session, which concluded Thursday, received a high grade from Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, but the two Democrats who represent the Wood River Valley said they were disappointed.
    “Both the legislation that passed and the measures denied consideration this year raise questions about the real role of the public in crafting public policy; it seemed the main theme of this session was ignoring or suppressing the voice of the people,” Sen.  Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, stated in her end-of-session newsletter.
    Stennett pointed out that bills denied committee hearings included those to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 100,000 people, fund a preschool pilot program, ban discrimination based on sexual identity and raise the minimum wage.
    The additional federal funding that would come with Medicaid expansion would reduce the amount of money that counties and the state spend on indigent medical care.
    Bills that passed despite widespread public opposition, Stennett claimed, included one preventing college administrators from prohibiting guns on campus and another that criminalized the filming of animal abuse at agricultural production facilities.
    Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, contended that Stennett’s list of bills that died in committee, as well as a proposed Internet sales tax, were squelched by legislators facing conservative primary challengers.
    In an interview, Miller said he agreed that election politics played a role with some issues, including Medicaid eligibility expansion.
    “There’s still quite a bit of discussion that needs to occur,” he said. “I think there will be a little more productive discussion next year, because of the politics.”
    However, he contended that there were good reasons for postponing certain issues to next year. Regarding the Internet tax, he said legislators are waiting to see the outcome of the federal Marketplace Fairness Act, which would set up a system for states to collect Internet sales taxes from out-of-state businesses. The bill was passed by the U.S. Senate last year and is now before the House.
    In the 2014 session, the Legislature created a tax-relief fund in which any Internet sales taxes would be deposited, but it did not impose the tax.
    Miller said he supports the creation of an Internet sales tax since it would help local retailers while being revenue-neutral.
    “It levels the playing field for everyone,” he said.
    Both Stennett and Pence acknowledged that the session did have some accomplishments.
    “The most action came around education,” Pence stated in her newsletter. “There was progress on 10 of the 21 taskforce recommendations: We will train schools boards and administrators on Strategic Planning, which facilitates goal planning and reaching those goals which will be central in the reform we have in store. There was some restoration of operational funding, leadership premiums were developed with local input in how they will be applied, professional development funding increased to help teachers with the switch to Common Core, and continued funding for broadband and wireless technology installations.”
    Pence also pointed out that the Legislature increased the state’s 2015 education budget by 5.1 percent, or around $66 million, which is twice what Gov. Butch Otter proposed.
    However, both she and Stennett contended that that was nowhere near enough, as the additional funding brought the education budget up only to the level of 2009’s.
    Miller said he thinks this year’s spending increase was about right.
    “I think it was a lot for what we had in our budget to work with,” he said. “Education got the lion’s share of the increased money.”
    In an interview, Pence said she hopes some of the issues avoided by the Legislature will be addressed next year. One of those is state preschool funding.
    “We need to make sure that everyone has an opportunity,” she said. “So many of our low-wage earners just don’t have the time to do what they need to for their kids.”
    An issue supported by local elected officials was an increase in the state gas tax, which would provide more money for county road maintenance. A bill to implement a 6-cent increase over six years died in the House Transportation and Defense Committee.
    The local legislators said they expect to host a series of public meetings during April and May to talk about the 2014 session.
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com




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