Congress, legislatures mull voting laws 

Whether the country needs a national act spelling out voting rights is a big question before U.S. Senators this week.  The House passed the For the People Act to protect voting, end gerrymandering, and keep dark money out of elections on a straight party-line vote–Democrats in favor and Republicans against. 

Republicans are taking credit for the 253 bills in state legislatures aimed at suppressing votes. They’re out to fight voter fraud and don’t buy the idea that voting should be easy.  

Georgia legislators have taken the lead by ramming a 95-page omnibus bill through last week. It’s got about every restriction considered by any state plus a few that are distinctly Georgia. 

You’d think that a state that had voters in long lines–some claim eight hour waits–would pass some regulations about the number of polling stations per precinct.  

Not Georgia. Instead, they made it a crime to provide food or water to voters in line.

Seriously?  

The state is also closing ballot drop boxes three days before the elections so those that don’t get their absentee ballots mailed in early have no way to return them. 

Worse, the legislature has made a major power grab.  The secretary of state, once chair of the board overlooking elections, is being replaced by a member chosen by the legislature. Legislators will have three of the board’s five votes; the secretary of state, elected by voters statewide to supervise elections, will have none.  

This new board will have the power to remove county election superintendents and appoint temporary replacements. 

Swing states that will be electing a senator in 2022 are getting the worst changes. Among those are Georgia, Arizona, Texas and Iowa.

Overall, changes are not so bad. We are hearing a lot more about the 253 bills the Brennan Center lists as restricting voter access than about the 704 identified as improving it. Some states are enacting changes–like no-reason absentee voting–made because of the pandemic. For example, one of the two election-related bills that have passed a house of the Idaho legislature would allow early processing of absentee ballots. (The other would require election offices to notify those voting absentee if their signatures have been rejected.) More restrictive bills have died in committee. 

Many states want to replace signatures on the envelopes of absentee ballots with affidavits. Most would ask for the number on a voter’s driver’s license or state ID; others, for photocopies. There are problems with the signatures, but this could be difficult for nondrivers, especially the poor or elderly. (Do residents in other counties have to wait four hours at the DMV like those of us in Canyon?) 

Some restrictions make sense. For instance, since 2007 Arizona has allowed voters to sign up to get absentee ballots for life. Today, ballots are being mailed to the addresses of  people who haven’t voted in years. A bill would require election offices to write those who haven’t voted in four years and ask if they wish to continue receiving ballots.

Even Iowa’s new law to forbid counties from mailing absentee ballots to people who haven’t requested them is reasonable. That might have made sense during an emergency, but Idaho acted early enough to send requests for absentee ballots, rather than ballots themselves. 

The Federal law shouldn’t interfere with those changes. It would, however, give other voters some of the rights that benefit Idahoans–same day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and reasonable lines at the polls. It would also ensure that we can keep our non-partisan redistricting commission. 

Three extra weeks to stop bad bills

Is anyone else fantasizing about the legislature simply calling it quits for the year?  

Members have already passed 144 bills, and most of the 200 bills still alive one week before their planned adjournment would have died anyway.    

It can’t happen of course. There are over 20 appropriations bills to be passed.  And the House really needs to accept the $6 million federal grant for reading readiness programs for preschoolers. (Personal note–those who think 4-year-olds can be indoctrinated need to spend more time with one.)

But for every bill that should be passed, there’s another one that could harm Idaho. Some are petty, like requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to change the name of Cleveland Blvd. to Caldwell Blvd. or forbidding a school board to mention in a ballot description whether It’s asking more or less money than in the previous year. 

But some bills could cause great harm. 

SB1110 would interfere with voters’ rights under the Idaho Constitution by making Idaho’s requirements for getting an initiative or referendum impossible without major outside funding.  

And why? The only initiative or referendum passed here in the past eight years was Medicare Expansion, which has not only saved lives, but saved the state millions of dollars during this pandemic. 

If legislators cared about Idahoans, they would be making initiatives easier, not more difficult.    

And another bill will ensure that Idaho can’t increase spending on education, infrastructure, or services for years. HB 332 was introduced late and passed by the House two days later on a straight party line. Some call it Idaho’s biggest tax cut ever. It will cost $780 million–$390 million in income tax cuts and a second $390 million cut in Federal COVID relief funds. For every dollar going to an Idahoan, another will go out-of-state.   

And HB 322 is a good example why the Feds are forbidding using their money for income tax cuts–such cuts don’t get money circulating locally and quickly.  Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, calculates that, after year one, a family of four with $25,000 in income would get $13 from the tax cut and one with $1 million in income would get over $10,000. Much of the latter would go into savings.  

HB 322 would cut Income tax rates by 0.125% for the lowest bracket and up to 0.425% for the highest. In addition, the first year each Idahoan would receive a one-time payment of $50 or 9% of state taxes paid in 2019, whichever is higher.  

Reminder–only seven states have lower tax rates than Idaho. Forty-nine states spend more on education. 

A majority of our legislature seems determined to underfund public schools. During the past five years we Idahoans have taxed ourselves over $2 billion in bonds and levies to subsidize the state funding for schools–and some legislators want to stop that. Now, figuring they have an extra $780 million, they’re ready to send half of it back to the federal government? 

Our legislators apparently don’t understand that employers planning to pay good wages seek out areas with schools that employees will want for their kids.  Idaho’s chosen instead to advertise its low taxes and cheap wages. And today, Idaho still has both the worst funded schools and the most workers making minimum wage.  

We’ve got three weeks to tell legislators that we want schools funded well enough that districts don’t have to add to our property taxes. We should also ask for an increase in the homeowners’ exemption so inflated housing prices don’t force people out of their homes. 

And do remind them that they represent us.     

Our representatives should represent us

Sincere thanks to all of you who turned out for levy elections last week. It’s great to be reminded that most Idahoans want good public schools, but it’s especially heartening this year while public schools are under attack. 

Too many legislators claim that, as members of a republic not a democracy, our representatives are not chosen to do what we want done, but what they know is best for us.  

The majority of us may want everyone to have health insurance, but our legislators believe people who aren’t responsible for their own needs deserve to suffer, even during catastrophes. We may want great public schools that meet every kids’ needs, but they are wary of government indoctrination. And we may want the power of initiative and referendum, but they see dictatorship by the majority as a danger.

Yet, my dictionary defines democracy as “a system of government by…all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” It regards a republic as a form of democracy, and the people we elect are expected to represent us–like attorneys, real estate agents,and doctors who explain our options and then carry out our decisions.  Or resign.    

The Idaho Constitution supports this view.  “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary.” 

It doesn’t say that the people are to be talked down to and corrected; it says the people have the power. This is why current and former attorney generals oppose SB 1110, which would make getting initiatives on the ballot so difficult as to be impossible.  

In 2012 Idaho voters challenged the Luna Laws, which silenced teacher voices and gave the state millions for school technology. Legislators responded by making it harder to get initiatives on the ballot. In the eight years since, we’ve passed one initiative–the one expanding Medicaid coverage. 

Now all but two of our Republican state senators have voted to make it even harder to get an issue before the voters. 

Meanwhile, legislators are working to divert public school funds to private schools, to guarantee charter school building funds cannot be cut when other public school funds are, to do away with collective bargaining, and and to allow schools to award teaching certificates to any college graduate who will work cheap.       

These legislators do not support local control.  The Idaho House has voted that no government entity should be able to rename any building, street, or statue with an historical name unless two-thirds of the legislature approves. It’s voted to void any school levy if the legal description reveals whether this levy is higher or lower than the last one.  And it’s voted to give school boards no say in whether faculty and staff carry guns while in school.  

These Republican legislators are not fiscally responsible. The House has voted to allow all state agencies to hire their own lawyers at costs of three to eight times as much as it would cost working with the Attorney General’s office. The Senate has voted to add $4 million for the legislature to fight lawsuits–they’ll need it for the fight over initiative and referendum bill, among others. And not only are they proposing to spend $5 million annually to oversee $10 million in expenditures through the Strong Students Grant Program/Scholarship Program, they are requesting an additional $30 million to initiate the program. 

Many of our rightwing legislators don’t follow the very principles that identify the Republican party.   

Idaho House Jumps the Rails

Last week the Idaho House jumped the rails and headed into brambles. 

This might be the historic moment when the extremists wrench power away from the mainstream Republicans–or not.  A similar peevishness upset three appropriation bills last year. 

What happened?  Well, usually bills pass in two ways.  Sometimes almost everyone is in favor of them–like the bills paying persons unjustly imprisoned and using COVID relief funds to help with utility and rent payments.  

Other times Republicans and Democrats are on opposite sides–like bills putting untrained teachers into classrooms and making it virtually impossible to get an initiative on the ballot.  

With Republicans holding 80% of the seats in the legislature, close votes are worth noting.

On Feb. 25 a bill from the Republican-led Health and Welfare Committee to fund Medicaid for the rest of this fiscal year came before the House. With layoffs due to COVID-19, more people have qualified for free or subsidized funding, and the amount budgeted last session isn’t going to be enough.

The 12 Democrats had no trouble supporting the funding. New enrollees had been accepted and promises made, the Federal government had upped its contribution, and surplus funds were available. 

But some Republicans simply don’t like Medicaid.     

The bill did pass, 37-31-2. But if three more Republicans had voted no, Idaho wouldn’t be paying Medicaid bills for months. 

The naysayers were close to victory–and they recruited.    

On March 2 the House voted 34-36 to refuse a Federal grant for early childhood education. This grant was awarded by the Trump administration and supported by Idaho’s U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Gov. Brad Little, and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. 

Yet only 22 Republicans voted for the bill; thirty-six did not. They didn’t want three- to five-year-olds indoctrinated with a ‘social justice agenda’ or mothers rushing out to get jobs because their children were at the library or preschool for three hours. 

On March 3 the same coalition defeated a bill to fund the Catastrophic Health Fund for the remainder of this fiscal year. As SB 1081’s sponsor, Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, pointed out, the $6 million appropriation was for bills “due and payable” under current law. Four senators opposed it–and 35 representatives. 

Then, on March 5 the House voted down the appropriation for the Attorney General’s office (HB 271). 

This office does tell legislators when bills they propose are unconstitutional; right now it opposes SB 1110 making it virtually impossible to get initiatives on the ballot. The House had already voted 54-15-1 to allow all state agencies to hire their own lawyers at three to eight times the cost of going through the Attorney General’s office (HB101).

Still, an attorney general is required by our constitution and elected by popular vote, just like the governor and secretary of state. There must be a budget or legislators can’t go home.  

Do the extremists now outnumber the mainstream Republicans? 

Well, representatives killed the attorney general’s budget last year simply because they wanted it cut two percent. It was more a bargaining ploy than a real rebellion.  

And the naysayers include Mike Moyle, majority leader of the House for 15 years. Does Moyle have a plan or is he just protecting his position by siding with the new majority?

Fifteen of the 35 naysayers are from Ada and Canyon counties. Those from Ada are DeMordant, Ferch, Harris, Holtzclaw, Monks, Moyle, Palmer and Vander Woude. Those from Canyon districts are Adams, Boyle, Crane, Kerby, Nichols, Skaug, and Yamamoto. 

Perhaps you can ask them what’s going on?   

Legislators pull tax bill, but continue attack on public schools

HB 199 has been pulled. That’s the tax bill that would have done away with the grocery tax credit, but not the grocery sales tax, while making small cuts in sales and income taxes. Taxes would be higher for many, while funds for needed improvements in government services would be gone.

There’s every chance, of course, that a similar tax bill will be introduced soon.

Meanwhile, the Democratic tax proposals have been ignored: to cut property taxes by increasing the homeowner’s exemption and assistance to the elderly and handicapped with limited income, and to cut income taxes by increasing the child tax credit and a tax credit for low-income workers.

All four changes would cost about $300 million less per year than HB 199. We’d still have money for some improvements in services.

The major development this week, however, was the continued attack on public schools.

One bill, HB174, would take away teachers’ rights to negotiate salaries and working conditions. Many legislators seem threatened by teachers that are experienced, educated members of a professional team. They resent that teachers have a say about their health insurance or a 20 duty-free minutes for lunch.

And Idaho’s teacher retention rate is one of the worst. We have a teacher shortage in spite of the fact Idaho colleges graduate more trained educators than we need. It’s not secret what teachers want–the sense of making a difference, the respect of the community, and decent pay.

Unfortunately, a number of Idaho legislators don’t regard retaining teachers as a priority. Last week the House Education Committee voted to allow school districts and charter schools to issue local teacher certificates to anyone with a bachelor’s degree who does not have a criminal record or a communicable disease (HB221).

An Idaho Education Association press release pointed out that means, “No formal training, no education experience, no post-secondary degree, no instruction on classroom management or how to deal with troubled students.”

I was considered a ‘born teacher,’ but am grateful that I had years of training.  I shudder at the idea of students having one inexperienced teacher after another.

HB215 completes a ghastly trifecta. It would require $5 million dollars a year–plus a few million more in administrative costs–to help pay tuition for 800 students in private schools.

Last week one student testified how transferring from a public school to a private one with much smaller classroom sizes changed her life.

We might hope that all legislators would get the message that smaller class sizes are good. Instead, some see the girls’ testimony as justification to take money from public schools so a few privileged kids can thrive.

The average private school tuition for elementary schools in Idaho is over $9,000; some schools charge over $19,000. Most Idaho families could not afford a private school even with $6,000 from the state. It’s grossly unfair to starve schools serving most Idaho kids while subsidizing private education for a few.

And that’s the situation only if the system works the way the lawmakers expect.

Idaho has little to no requirements for private schools. Our smallest have only two to four students. A family with four kids could get $24,000 just for denying their kids a formal education.

And any one of the seven “hate groups” in Idaho could organize schools. When Seattle experimented with vouchers, taxpayers got a downtown school that taught white people were devils who pushed birth control in order to reduce the number of blacks.

The repeated attacks on public schools this year suggest that a significant number in the Statehouse are more interested in power than in seeing our kids succeed.