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The 2011 Legislative Session

 

The 61st session of the Idaho Legislature has finally come to a close. It went a week longer than many of us thought and proved to be a difficult session.  I would like to share what was accomplished. It was a session filled with challenging decisions based mainly around the constitutional duty to balance the state budget.  It is worth noting that Idaho’s economy is starting to improve, but because savings and federal stimulus dollars were used in the past two years, cuts to all state government budgets were required. 

The Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) of which I am a member, is responsible for setting the state budget.  We were able to do this without increased taxes.  As many of you have heard, as well as participated in, JFAC held open public hearings on both the education and health and welfare budgets.  This is unprecedented.  Over a thousand Idahoans attended these two hearings on these budgets and thousands more were able to watch on public television or online.  The positive impact can be seen in the many pieces of legislation that were improved through public input, whether through a letter sent, email received, or a testimony given.  A special thanks to those who were involved in this process of self-government.

 Public Education and Health and Welfare reforms dominated most of this legislative session.  There were many days of public testimony for each of these issues and again the testimony and communication of our citizens was extensive. After hours of testimony and deliberation, it was determined that no Medicaid program should be eliminated. Many different programs were reevaluated and reduced in order to balance the budget. Approximately $35 million from the General Fund was removed from the Health and Welfare budget.

 Education reform focused on putting citizens and local districts in control of the educational process. School districts were provided more control in the contracting and budgeting process through openness, flexibility and transparency.  Legislation passed will require that budgets, expenditures and contracts be online for the public to review.  A pay for performance plan was approved that will compensate school employees on student growth and specific objectives predetermined by each local district.  The beginning salary for teachers as well as the salary grid was restored.  The legislature made a supreme effort to fund public education at the highest level possible. 

 A five-year plan for the implementation of technology in the classroom was approved.  Technology is not new to Idaho.  Last year it was recognized as the third best state in the Union for online learning.  Idaho has budgeted between $7-11 million each year for technology since 1995.  For the past two years Idaho has been implementing the Idaho Educational Network which will provide broad band accessibility to all of our high school students by the end of this year.  This will allow all high school students to participate in a myriad of online learning opportunities.  This will permit students from one school to be receiving instruction from a highly effective teacher with students in another school via teleconferencing.  This is already happening today.  This network makes it possible for those districts, large or small, with limited resources to provide their students with an excellent teacher and curriculum that meets each individual student’s needs.  Idaho’s Idaho Digital Learning Academy provided more than 15,000 online courses to Idaho students last year.  These courses are instructed with an Idaho approved teacher and Idaho approved course standards.  We recognize technology doesn’t replace a good teacher or administrator, it only assists and makes the learning process more uniform and challenging.  

The Department of Corrections and Judiciary’s work to reduce substance abuse and provide mental health support remains a bright spot in our state.  Specialized courts, with an understanding of these issues, have reduced recidivism, incarceration, and have assisted in producing more productive and contributing citizens.  Both of these departments are to be complimented for their hard and successful work within current restrictive budgets.  These bright spots in state government and Idaho policies are exemplary for our nation.

 There are a few specific pieces of legislation that might be of interest to you:

  1.  An internet filter policy was passed for public libraries to protect minors.  There has not been a state policy at all in the past.  This legislation will ensure that our libraries will continue to be a family friendly environment.
  2. There have been many small changes with water law and canal companies. 
  3. The right to farm legislation which has been in effect since 1983 was changed to reflect current conditions.
  4. State emergency rights to control the wolf population and wild game.
  5. Modification of the state day care provisions to clarify rules and allow local communities to have their own standards.
  6. New primary election procedures for political parties.

There were just over 350 House bills introduced to print and approximately 210 Senate Bills, plus resolutions, memorials and proclamations.  This is considerably fewer than previous sessions, but the content was more significant.  For a more complete review of bills and journals I urge you to visit www.legislature.idaho.gov.  

The main requirement of any legislative session is to balance the budget.  This was accomplished, while keeping education as whole as possible and providing the funding for public safety and transportation to maintain the basic structure for our state. Health and Welfare spending was reduced while maintaining basic services. Education was a high priority for funding and policy reform. This wasn’t accomplished without a significant amount of effort and struggle. Both the legislature and the public have been very involved with many of these issues. 

I want to express my thanks for your comments and concerns during this difficult legislative session.  I deeply feel the responsibility to represent the constituents of District 32.  I have tried diligently to fulfill that duty with hard work and fairness.  Feel free to contact me at dmortimer@senate.idaho.gov. I am open to your comments, questions, and concerns.

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