Legislative patterns make predicting easy

It is usually the case that if you look at something long enough you start to see patterns.

These patterns may actually be there or it may be our brains trying to apply some order to chaos.

Think of all of those people out there claiming to have a solid investment strategy because they have studied some charts covering the last 3,000 years of Dow Jones Industrial Average purple-chip stocks. Is there a pattern there? Possibly. I don’t have the inclination to study the lifetime movement of saltine cracker stocks on the exchange. On the other hand these people could very well be correct and those that listen will make millions on a penny stock.

I love watching the Idaho legislature. This hobby began around 2004 while I was working for National Public Radio as a reporter in the Statehouse Bureau. At that time there were two ethics scandals, and a whole day dedicated to Napoleon Dynamite. Even after I moved away from Idaho I never stopped being fascinated by this state’s lawmakers.

So now after 10 years and a fair amount of casual observation I think I see patterns.

There will be some issue that will be predicted to be a non-issue that will jump up to major-issue status from seemingly nowhere. Last year it was personal property tax on business. Last year it was predicted to be a foregone conclusion the bill would be voted on, passed and never thought of again. Instead it rivaled the healthcare exchange as the largest issue of the year.

There will be a “fluff” issue. This is the issue that will captivate the hearts and minds of legislators and observers. In 2005 it was the issue of special license plates, or “cause plates” as they were called at the time. These are the license plates that have a logo on them and a small amount of your registration fee is given to the displayed cause. While I was in the capital, as a reporter, this topic created a scandal when one of the sitting legislators sponsored a bill to create a “Mother” plate to raise funds for some parenting program. The scandal came when several other legislators tried to have the vote on the bill killed because the sponsor failed to disclose she was both a mother and grandmother.

During the 2014 Idaho legislative session there will also be a dark horse bill. This is the one that receives little to no attention by the media, but after passage will create massive changes. This type of bill created the Jack Noble scandal that led to Nobel resigning his seat in the Senate. Noble owned a gas station that sold beer and wine. In the 2004 legislature an amendment was passed to the liquor licensing laws that changed the way distances from schools were measured. Alcohol sales were to be no closer than 1,000 feet away from a school. The change was where that measurement started. Originally it was from the front door of the main school building. In 2004 that was changed so the measurement was taken from the nearest school property line. This placed Nobel’s store inside the 1,000 foot exclusion zone and diminished the value of Noble’s store. So he introduced a bill to change it back, but forgot to mention he was trying to sell his store to stave off bankruptcy. The point is that no one really paid attention to the 2004 dark horse that changed the measurement standards until after it had cost someone a lot of time, money and pain.

I think I have found at least one dark horse for this year. On Tuesday, Jan. 14, the Legislative Services Legislative Audit Division presented a report to lawmakers stating only 36 percent of special taxing districts are in compliance with current state reporting and auditing requirements.

To put this in to perspective there are 900 special taxing districts in the state. These are groups other than cities or counties that collect taxes from residents. There are 19 taxing districts, of which 16 are special taxing districts, in Power County. The largest, by budget amount, is the American Falls Joint School District followed by the American Falls Library District. The smallest of these is the Arbon Cemetery District.

There is a form each taxing district must fill out and submit to the state each year. It is the L-2 “Voter Approved Fund Tracker” form. It lists who the taxing district is and how much it budgeted to spend. The American Falls Library District listed $808,707 in 2013. The Arbon Cemetery District reported an annual budget of $4,555 for 2013.

Apart from filing an L-2 for every year, taxing districts with a budget greater than $250,000 must submit an independent financial audit. District under that $250,000 level must submit an audit every other year.

According to the report presented to lawmakers, Legislative Services is suggesting lawmakers start requiring each district to submit a full budget annually, and create stiffer penalties for non-compliance such as withholding funds from these districts.

I think I have a better solution.

Require less reporting.

For a taxing district the size of the American Falls Joint School District or the American Falls Library District strict financial oversight is needed and there is already a mechanism in place to facilitate just that.

What about the small districts? Audits are expensive. Yes they are somewhat proportional in cost to the size of the district, but that means proportionally it is also expensive for every district.

The only thing the legislature should do is amend the law so that districts with a budget under $100,000 are required to submit an audit every five years.

Requiring more audits and more reporting will most likely kill the really small districts. These taxing districts are run by volunteers that stay in their offices by ascension. They get elected once and then run unopposed for numerous terms. They work with no other compensation than the knowledge they are making their community a better place.

Threatening a tiny district like the Eastern Power County Rural Fire District doesn’t make the board members more inclined to volunteer even more hours. Make it easier for them to comply by using what is already in place.

The Idaho legislature should buy a copy machine and some stamps. Send out a letter reminding districts to follow the simple reporting procedures already in place.

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