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Cheers & Jeers: The year-end edition

Marty Trillhaase
December 28, 2012
Lewiston Morning Tribune

JEERS . . . to Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna. Credit him with two years of turmoil in Idaho education and politics.

Start with his decision to blindside unsuspecting voters who had just re-elected him in 2010 with a radically different legislative agenda just weeks later: an assault on teacher employment rights, a merit pay system that cared more about where an educator worked than what she accomplished, and the not coincidental choice to pull state dollars from the classroom and spend them on products and services sold by Luna's allies in the high-tech learning industry.

Continue with his choice to frustrate a thorough vetting of those ideas by denigrating any opposition from teachers, parents or administrators. And when individuals rose up with plans to put the Luna Laws up for a referendum vote in 2012, Luna rushed the laws into effect through what is called an "emergency clause."

Along the way came threats to withhold merit pay due the teachers unless voters upheld his measure in the November election - a position repeatedly exposed as inaccurate.

Next came laptop fiasco. About two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Luna rolled out the contract to deliver a laptop to every high school student. The cost: $182 million - about 25 percent higher than voters were told. As the Spokesman-Review's Betsy Russell dug into the arrangement with Hewlett-Packard, she found the state would be paying $1,171 to lease each computer, as well as the cost for any lost or damaged machine.

What followed was a tremendous rebuke: For the first time since 1936, Idahoans of all political stripes repealed the action of their elected legislators. Proposition 1 (gutting teacher collective bargaining rights) went down by 57 percent. Proposition 2 (merit pay) was defeated by 58 percent. Proposition 3 (high tech) was rejected by 66.7 percent.

And how did Luna react to this repudiation of his methods and his ideas?

Did he regret all the time he wasted or all the animosity he created?

Did he consider how he had squandered opportunities to alert the public and his fellow Republicans against shortchanging public school budgets?

Or the fact that he brushed aside an emerging exodus of Idaho teachers on his watch? Five years ago, the state saw 756 educators quit the profession. By last year, it had spiked to 1,884.


His attitude was summed up in one sound bite: "This is a bump in the road."

CHEERS . . . to Mike Ferguson. As director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, Idaho's former chief economist single-handedly altered the landscape of Idaho's public education debate.

Working through volumes of budget detail, Ferguson unearthed two salient facts:

For about a decade, Republican governors and lawmakers had been systematically disinvesting in public education. When the new century opened, Idahoans devoted about 4.4 percent of their personal income to their schools. Repeated rounds of tax cuts have whittled that down to 3.4 percent - which works out to $550 million less each year.

Parents have sought to backfill some of the loss by volunteering to pay higher property taxes. The total is about $171 million - up about 23 percent since last year. But these supplemental levies work a hardship on poor communities. A landowner in a poor district such as Snake River must pay 30 times more tax to keep pace with a rich district such as McCall.

All of which puts Idaho's political elites at odds with two state constitutional provisions:

That charter says "It shall be the duty of the Legislature of Idaho to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools."

It further holds that all "taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of subjects. . . ."

At the annual Associated Taxpayers of Idaho pre-legislative gathering this month, Ferguson stood up and asked his former boss, Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter: "Do you believe that the state of Idaho is maintaining a general, uniform and thorough system of public education, and, if so, how do you square that with the dramatic increase in unequalized property taxes to fund public schools in Idaho?"

Otter struggled with the question, but he didn't duck it either: "I would say that we're probably not (meeting the constitutional obligation), but we're doing the best job that we can and we're going to continue to do the best job we can."

Doing "the best job we can" isn't an option under the Idaho Constitution.

JEERS . . . to Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. First she tripped up on an ethical lapse, spending state tax dollars on a blatantly political mailing to Republican voters on the eve of the May 15 primary. Lawmakers are allowed to spend up to $2,000 to communicate with constituents for official business.

After Senate President Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, intervened, Nuxoll refunded the state almost $900.

"We just visited about it, and I said I thought it would be best if she reimbursed for all of it," Hill said.

Then, in the aftermath of President Barack Obama's re-election, Nuxoll displayed a shocking disrespect for voters. She endorsed Tea Party Nation Corporation founder Judson Phillips' call that electors from states supporting Republican nominee Mitt Romney boycott the official Dec. 17 Electoral College transmission. Said Phillips, that would deprive the college of a quorum and throw the election into the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

Turns out Phillips was wrong on the facts. No quorum is required for the Electoral College to do its work.

Where Nuxoll was wrong, however, was accepting that the idea had any merit.

JEERS . . . to former Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko and former state Senate Majority Leader Rod Beck, R-Boise.

Did you vote in the May 15 primary election? Did you enjoy being compelled to register as a Republican if you voted to nominate that party's candidates? Are you comfortable knowing your registration is a matter of public record?

Or did you - standing on principle or simple concerns for your privacy - eschew your franchise?

Either way, you have Semanko and Beck to thank. As much as anyone, these two helped close Idaho's traditionally open primary elections.

And the results?

If Semanko and Beck wanted to keep people away, they prevailed. Turnout dropped to 23 percent - the worst showing on record.

But if the whole point of this was to "purify" the GOP by ousting its moderate RINO - Republicans in Name Only - candidates, the plan failed miserably. Among the survivors were Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Christy Perry, R-Nampa.

JEERS . . . to state Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston. As of this writing, she remains a double-dipper - refusing to resign her seat on the Lewiston City Council.

No law says she has to relinquish her city council job to serve in the Legislature. There are examples of others who simultaneously served in the Statehouse and at city hall.

But their numbers are rare and many reside in towns within a short driving distance of the state Capitol.

Stevenson's two responsibilities would be separated by 270 miles, five hours of highway traveling and a different time zone. If she doesn't know it already, she's about to learn how time-consuming legislative service can be - both during the session and after.

And the interests of her legislative district - which includes Nez Perce and Lewis counties - do not mirror those of her city.

What makes Stevenson think she's so indispensable?

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