Budgets, transportation top town hall topics

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PONDERAY — From education funding to a new name for the Long Bridge, more than 75 people turned out Saturday for a town hall meeting held by Rep. Sage Dixon to share their thoughts on what’s going on at the Idaho Legislature and what they’d like to see take place.

Dixon also head town hall forums in Bonners Ferry and Priest River.

In the early weeks of the legislative session, Dixon told those gathered that tax reform is being debated, with one bill calling for a reduction in the top tax rate and elimination of the bottom two in an effort to make things more fair for the state’s residents. Another bill would increase the homeowner’s exemption to $250,000.

While that might benefit small businesses, Dixon said it creates a bit of a “push-pull there with the counties losing out on some tax revenue that could essentially harm everybody else as they have to distribute that need of the county revenue.”

Transportation funding is still an issue, with Idaho Transportation Department officials telling legislators there remains a $263 million backlog of maintenance and repairs of bridges and roads in the state. While there hasn’t been anything more than general discussion that the need exists, Dixon said he anticipates more on the issue will come up as legislators get into the heart of the session.

In addition to transportation issues, Dixon also touched on electric and plumbing regulations, education funding and budgets.

“My position is on a lot of these budgets, with the new administration, nobody is really sure what money is going to be flowing from the federal government and what our agencies need to plan on,” he told those gathered, adding that it might be better to take a “wait-and-see approach” on some things like funding for environmental regulations.

Dixon said he was approached by veterans’ groups last year about changing the name of the Long Bridge in tribute to local veterans. He told those gathered he’s looking for feedback on if that’s something the community would like to see done.

While he said it “seems to be a good idea” and many veterans seem interested in having the proposal move forward, at least one veteran said his group recently met and no one was in favor of changing the bridge’s name.

Dixon said he hopes to present a bill limiting the ability to present bills to legislators, requiring lobbyist or the governor’s office to make their case to a legislator to propose the bill.

“To my mind, that’s what I’m elected to do, that’s what all the representatives are elected to do and it’s the duty of the legislative branch, not the executive branch,” he said. “I’m looking into passing a bill, or at least doing a house rule, that would restrict them from doing that. If they had legislation they wanted pass, whether it was coming out of the governor’s office, or if it was a lobbyist, they would need to come to a legislator and make their case.”

After updating those gathered, Dixon opened the floor to those in attendance, asking for their input and views on what they felt should be done by their legislators. In response, several questioned if legislators plan to fully fund public education.

Dixon told the crowd he favors funding programs such as Career Technical Education, which gives students the opportunity to go into a trade or learn a skill that allows them to go straight into the workforce.

“My opinion is if specific ideas that can be funded to improve education, if we’re really interested in improving it and not just making the system larger and hoping it gets better, then I’m in favor of it,” he said. “But I think there should be some sort of marker and if it’s not working we pull it back and try something else instead of just continually growing with the education funding.”

Several audience members asked Dixon to include money in the budget for school counselors and not force districts to choose between that and something else.

One woman said she is Lake Pend Oreille School District’s only school counselor for elementary school students with a caseload of 1,400 children. In Montana, counselors are required at the elementary and middle school level for accreditation. In Idaho, districts are only required to have them at the high school level.

“As an elementary school counselor, I don’t deal with ‘Suzy hit me on the playground,’ ” she said. “I deal with kids whose parents are using meth and they have been shown how to give injections into their parents’ arms. I deal with kids who have been sexually and emotionally abused … I can tell you things have gotten much harder for teachers in classroom because of that trauma that kids are experiencing.”

When asked about a clean energy bill written by a minority party legislator that appears to be blocked in committee, Dixon said he’s in favor or at least having a conversation, regardless of what a bill is about, if it has appropriate support to get presented.

“I’m not afraid of conversation about something and it frustrates me when people’s voices are silenced essentially in that sense,” he added. “Whether we agree with them or not, we should be confident in our own viewpoints to discuss them.”

Unfortunately, a lot of times things get micromanaged in politics and that doesn’t happen, said Dixon.

In response to a question, Dixon said that while he opposes a minimum wage because it isn’t the government’s role to dictate what a business will pay someone, he knows there are people in need. “I can tell you I will listen and I’m looking for answers,” he added.

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