Legislature: What are they thinking?

by Judy Ferro

Are things getting really confusing or is it just me? One way or the other, I‘ve got more questions than answers this week.

Take the Madison School District’s decision to use MAP testing rather than the Common Core-based SBAC. I think the Madison School Board should be able to opt for a test which they feel is adequate, cheaper, and takes less time away from instruction.

But if enough Idaho students don’t take the test, that could cost the state $2 million in Federal funding each year. Oops, the State Department of Education has revised that number to $10 million. Is it right for the Madison School Board to injure students across the state?

Or not. A bill introduced in February, S1085, put the cost of non-compliance at $621,754, just 1% of the Title I funds that Idaho receives. The 11 co-sponsors said that we are paying $1.8 million for the SBAC.  According to them, if Idaho dropped the test, either losing the waiver or getting a new one allowing use of the cheaper MAP test, the state would save over $1 million

So how big is the penalty–$2 million, $10 million, or $621, 754? And are we getting $1.8 million in benefit from the new test? (Just now, when high school students should be researching their final projects and writing their reports, computer labs are tied up with testing for six weeks or so.)

The “instant racing” debate also bothers me. Apparently, the legislature approved betting terminals while believing that skill was involved and now believes they are slot machines and, therefore, illegal. Why didn’t they know this before authorizing them? The machines have been around for a while—some states banned them in 2003. Even two years ago there were several videos on-line showing the machines operating and opponents arguing in court about them. How could legislatures construe betting on a 3-second video as a skill? But now that Idaho’s racetracks have invested in the machines, couldn’t outlawing them be construed as seizing property without due process?

Even more baffling, however, is why the legislature can’t come up with a bill for funding roads and bridges. They’ve spent weeks looking for a tax-neutral solution that would provide more money. Pie-in-the-sky. The closest they’ve come is proposing cutting into the rainy-day fund.

The bills House leaders introduced with fanfare last Thursday would pair increasing gas taxes and registration fees with cutting the top income tax bracket. Isn’t that just one more way of transferring tax money from the general fund to transportation? It will result in cuts to schools and state services as certainly as switching state police costs to the general fund. Drs. Dan Schmidt and John Rusche suggested they’d do better by accepting more Federal Medicaid funds. (The 450 lives that could be saved annually apparently don’t concern most legislators.)

I’m not in favor of raising taxes paid by the middle class and the poor, but the amounts suggested are reasonable. Bills would raise the gasoline tax to $0.32 a gallon; Washington is now paying $0.375 and anticipating a raise to $0.492. We’d still be paying less for gasoline that we did a year ago and this would bring in $42-$65 million annually for roads.

Raising car registration fees by $15 would raise another $20 million and still leave the cost of registering my vehicle less than a Washington motorist was paying in 1970.

Roads need more though.  When will our legislators give up chasing rainbows and admit they must raise more money and/or cut more programs?

Transportation: Ready for Toll Roads?

by Judy Ferro

Recently Senator Siddoway helped me realize that not all Republican legislators who’ve supported measures designed to destroy the public schools want to destroy the public schools.

Now I’m hoping that Idaho also has Republican legislators who don’t realize that measures they support are designed to end public ownership of roads and bridges.

Sound impossible?  Check out this headline from bloomberg.com, “CPP Investment Board to Buy 10% of 407 Toll Road for About $878 Million.”

That’s right.  Corporations with $2 trillion sitting in banks are seeking profitable investments.  Maybe people can’t afford to buy new things, but they’ll pay for necessities like roads.

Republicans claim that we can’t take care of roads and bridges today because we can’t pay for them.  Never mind that in the 1950s—definitely not boom years—we embarked on an Interstate highway system that was the envy of the world.  Republicans then supported building roads because such long-term investments would help both businesses and people.  For Democrats, there was the added bonus of good-paying jobs.

Today’s Republican leadership, however, is more interested in making the rich even richer.

Since 2008, the transportation policy of ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Commission—has called for a “market-driven highway system” and “private investment in highway projects.”  “Tolling,” charging to use roads, is the subject of five of its seven principles.

Do I need to remind you that several Idaho legislators are ALEC members?

Loyola University economics professor Walter Block published a major book urging privatizing roads in 2009.  Ted Stossel, Peter Samuel, David Klein, and Linda and Morris Tannehill have echoed his call.

Most cite “reducing congestion” as the number one argument for privatizing.  Road crowded?  Just charge more.  Make those who can’t afford a $5 toll each day to crowd into side streets so the paying customers can cruise without delays.

Economics professor, Bruce L. Benson, suggests privatizing even those side roads and giving the owners the power to police the environs so they can guarantee the safety of their customers.  Just how high would tolls have to be to provide a private police force?

Powerful people who crusade against “one more cent” in taxes aren’t worried about your pocketbook.  They have no qualms about you having to pay whatever the market will bear to corporations like Toll Road Investors or CPP Investments.

And toll supporters don’t have to convince the public to support privatization.  They just have to prevent us from maintaining our decaying roads and bridges long enough that fear of death or injury builds.  A collapsing bridge killing a dozen or more and embroiling the State in lawsuits would be a boon for them.

And once we let our roads and bridges go, the chances of buying them back are nil.

How do we retain our public infrastructure?

To start off, we should follow Siddoway’s lead and give maintaining our roads and bridges a higher priority than new tax cuts.  Idaho already collects the least taxes per person of any state.

Then we should spread the cost over a number of measures.  Legislators are considering increasing user fees for long-haul trucks, vehicle registration fees, and the gas tax.  (It’s doubtful Congressional Republicans can increase the Federal gas tax; the Koch brothers and other oil billionaires are against it.)

There is also talk of increasing the sales tax another cent.  Or we could add a new income tax bracket, perhaps charging an extra 0.5% for those making over $140,000 a year.

None of these options is appealing.

But paying tolls to visit the kids in Moscow could be a lot worse.