The Senate has voted 21-13 in favor of SB 1341, controversial payday lending legislation from Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, that was opposed by advocates of reform in payday lending for not going far enough, and backed by major payday lending firms. The bill would allow people who can’t repay their payday loans a once-a-year option to get an extended payment plan with no additional fees or interest, and would ban payday loans for more than 25 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, with the burden on the borrower to prove that. It doesn’t, however, place any limits on interest rates or otherwise cap loan sizes.
“It’s not a comprehensive solution, I don’t see it as one,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. “It’s also not going to stop people from doing dumb things by borrowing money they can’t repay, but there’s no law that stops people from borrowing money they can’t repay. … It is a behavior that ultimately does tend to lead to bankruptcy. So a cap on interest rates is not going to help. This should marginally help at least those that desire to fix their situation and actually repay the loans.”
Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, opposed the bill, saying, “I’m really concerned when government attempts to protect people from themselves.” He said he viewed the measure as “government inserting themselves between two lawfully contracting parties.” Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said he thought the bill was “a reasonable first step.” It now moves to a House committee.
Heider said the average payday loan in Idaho is outstanding for 18 days, and the average charge for a $100 payday loan is $20. “This does provide an out for those people that get stuck in this lending cycle and really need to get out from under it,” he said.
The House has voted to remove the indexing of the homeowner’s exemption from property taxes, instead setting it at a fixed maximum level of $90,000 or 50 percent of home value, whichever is less. In 2006, the Legislature raised the exemption from its previous cap of $50,000 to $75,000 and indexed the maximum amount to the Idaho Housing Index, so it would go up and down with the market. Since then, the exemption has risen to a high of more than $104,000 in 2009, and dropped back down to $81,000 in 2012.
Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, said the time lag between the index and market changes posed problems. “During the recent housing collapse … the index did create some very negative consequences for taxpayers,” she told the House. “As home values were dropping, the taxes were actually increasing. … I believe that removing the index makes good sense for the state of Idaho.”
The House vote was 54-16 in favor of the bill, HB 594, which now moves to the Senate side; the House has now recessed until 1:30 p.m. The Senate remains in session; it’s debating SB 1314, the payday loan bill.
Led by Sen. Russ Fulcher, who is running for governor, and Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, a divided Senate State Affairs Committee this morning voted to dump House-passed legislation to remove lawmakers’ special privilege to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Siddoway said, “We are giving up our freedoms, we are giving up our liberties. We have the ability now to carry and I think that most of the citizens realize that we are in a different situation than the average guy on the street.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Fulcher decried the bill as “political correctness,” and said, “I understand the argument of having elected officials being under the same laws as everyone else, (but) I believe there is a defendable difference in this case. And that is the majority of the citizenry does not put themselves in the same set of circumstances that those of us do who have chosen and who have been privileged to be elected officials. … It’s not the same for me as it is for the 35,000, 40,000 people that are my constituents. This was put in statute for a reason. I believe it was for a good reason.”
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she and members of her family have had their lives threatened, and she asked whether, if the bill passed, she’d have to have a concealed weapon permit on her person when she was out in her horse pasture. Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said no – because she’s outside city limits. In addition to removing the elected-official exemption, the bill, HB 514, broadens Idaho’s concealed-carry law to clarify that anyone can carry a concealed weapon without a permit outside city limits; that’s now allowed while hunting, fishing, or pursuing other outdoor activities. Lodge said, “I agree with what Sen. Fulcher said. I remember a time in the room across the hall when I couldn’t get out, and I felt very threatened.” She was referring to the Lincoln Auditorium.
Hagedorn said, “I understand your concerns – I have the same concerns. That’s why I have a concealed weapon permit. That’s why I had a concealed weapon permit before I joined the Legislature.” He said, “This has nothing to do with political correctness, in my opinion. It has everything to do with preparation. If you know that you are going into a contentious job as an elected official, it is your responsibility to be prepared to go into that job. And training is appropriate.”
Idahoans must get at least some gun safety training to obtain a concealed weapons permit; elected officials are now exempt from that requirement. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said he spent much of his quality time with his dad while growing up at church meetings, rather than out hunting, as some other committee members said they had done. “I’m Exhibit A as to why maybe we should encourage people like me to at least go through some additional training and teaching,” Davis said. “I think that for me and people like me, we would benefit by being asked to get appropriate training, just like the other folks out there, and not be granted an additional right to carry merely because of holding an elected office.”
Fulcher said he disagreed. “My vote will not be to willingly give up the privilege that our predecessors granted,” he said. “We do not need to relinquish our privileges.”
On a party-line vote, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning agreed to introduce legislation to expand the personal property tax exemption for business equipment from $100,000 per taxpayer per county to $250,000, at a cost to the state of about $8.7 million a year. Local taxing districts would be reimbursed for the lost property tax revenue at a fixed rate based on 2012 values; the bill would take effect for the 2015 calendar year, meaning the reimbursement would start in fiscal year 2016, not next year.
The measure also clarifies which property is considered real property and which is considered personal property for purposes of the tax exemption, following the guidelines the state Tax Commission set in a rule it approved before this year’s legislative session. “This bill basically codifies Rule 205,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the committee. That “will be controversial,” he said. “We’ll hear about it in the hearing.” Amid much pushback from business interests, the Tax Commission bill clarified that the exemption lawmakers approved last year (at $100,000 per taxpayer per county) doesn’t apply to pipelines, underground storage tanks, cell phone towers, railroad tracks and the like, as they are considered real property.
The bill also includes a table of percentages to establish how divisions between personal and real property will be set for centrally assessed property taxpayers, which mainly are regulated utilities and railroads. That table of percentages was advocated for by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.
Moyle said, “The goal is to ultimately end the tax for everybody.” Supplying the percentages, he said, “gives us a number to shoot at” to do that in the future. That, however, would cost the state more than $100 million a year; it’s not accomplished by this bill. “That’ll be the fight between the House and the Senate,” Moyle said. Senate Tax Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, has been pushing for repealing the tax entirely; last year’s exemption eliminated it entirely for the vast majority of Idaho businesses.
All three of the committee’s Democrats, Reps. Grant Burgoyne, Mat Erpelding and Caroline Meline, voted against introducing the bill; it's co-sponsored by Moyle and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
Former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who is running for Secretary of State, was involved in a conflict that sparked accusations of theft, private work done on state time, political retribution, state contracts that benefited his family, undeclared conflict of interest and more – all involving the former employment of his wife, Donna, by a state agency, Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell reported in a Sunday story. To make the tale even more interesting, Donna Denney’s former boss was Kim Toryanski, wife of Denney’s GOP Secretary of State rival Mitch Toryanski, and former head of the Idaho Commission on Aging.
Sewell reports that Kim Toryanski told an Idaho State Police detective investigating the case that she resigned her position and went to work for another state agency due to “political pressures, particularly from Speaker Denney and his political allies.” The Denneys referred Sewell’s questions to their attorney, David Leroy.
Idaho’s proposed $2 million wolf control fund won’t be getting $2 million next year, reports the Twin Falls Times-News’ Kimberlee Kruesi; with millions needed to shore up the Idaho Education Network in the face of missing federal funds, legislative budget writers instead are looking at an allocation of less than half that amount. “It will probably get less than $1 million or closer to the $400,000 that was requested last year,” JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Kruesi. “We have some flexibility when it comes to killing wolves. We don’t have flexibility with IEN.” You can read Kruesi’s full report here.
On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Clark Corbin, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of education funding issues that came up in the Legislature this week, from WiFi to broadband to teacher pay. Also, Davlin and Kunz interview House Majority Leader Mike Moyle on the end game for the session; Davlin explores the new Idaho core standards and how they’re playing out in Idaho classrooms; and you’ll get a glimpse of various Idahoans reciting the Gettysburg Address as part of a Ken Burns documentary project. The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how lawmakers decided today that Idaho school districts – like Coeur d’Alene – that opted not to join a controversial statewide contract for high school WiFi services should qualify for state funding for their own WiFi networks. The decision from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would not only allow districts that went out on their own to be reimbursed; it’d also offer that option to those now in the contract who want to withdraw; those districts, if they met certain standards, would get $21 per student, the same price the state is paying Education Networks of America.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who signed the five- to 15-year contract in July based on a one-year appropriation from JFAC, called today’s decision “good news,” saying it showed the state would continue to support wireless networks for every Idaho high school, which he said was his goal all along.
Idaho’s state Board of Correction could contract out prison inmates as farm laborers, under legislation making its way through this year. Reporter Sean Ellis of the Capital Press has a report here on the bill, SB 1374 from Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. Ellis reports that fruit growers in southwestern Idaho have struggled to find enough workers to pick their fruit in recent years, and last year, pear were left unpicked in the Sunny Slope area. The inmate workers would be paid under the same payment standards used by Correctional Industries, and part of their earnings could go to pay restitution orders, to offset their costs of incarceration, to buy prison commissary items and to help them re-enter society when they’re released.
SB 1374 was amended in the Senate yesterday. It has backing from the Idaho Farm Bureau and fruit growers. The bill says the inmate labor could only be used when there are labor shortages; the inmate workers couldn’t displace any other workers in the region.
The general fund revenue report is out for February, and the numbers are positive – state tax revenues came in 28.6 percent ahead of forecasts. February’s $27.5 million surplus is enough to offset the previous month’s $25.9 million shortfall; year to date, general fund receipts are now $3.6 million more than forecast. You can read the full report here. Individual income tax collections were the strongest category, coming in more than three times higher than expected, according to the governor's Division of Financial Management.
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into private prison company Corrections Corporation of America and how it ran an Idaho state prison plagued by inmate violence, the AP reports. The Idaho State Police was asked to investigate the company last year but didn't, until amid increasing political pressure, the governor ordered the agency to do so last month. Democratic state lawmakers asked the FBI to take up the case last month. Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray confirmed Friday that the FBI met with department director Brent Reinke on Thursday to inform him about the investigation. Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said her agency was no longer involved with the investigation and the FBI has taken it over entirely. “They (the FBI) have other cases that are tied to this one so it worked out better for them to handle it from here,” Baker said; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
The homeowner’s exemption from property tax would no longer be indexed and go up and down with the market, under legislation from the Idaho Realtors and the Idaho Farm Bureau that cleared the House Revenue & Taxation Committee today. HB 594 would instead set the homeowner’s exemption at a fixed $90,000; it’s now indexed to reflect changes in the Idaho Housing Price Index. The bill now moves to the full House for debate.
A narrowly divided House voted 34-32 in favor of HB 556, legislation from Rep. Steven Harris, R-Boise, to require parent and student input in teacher evaluations – a bill that was opposed by all three major education stakeholder groups in Idaho, and a departure from the governor’s education improvement task force recommendations. “I think we’ve been down this path before, when we assumed we know better than the professionals in education,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the House. “It didn’t end well last time.”
Nevertheless, the bill passed. After the House had moved on to other business, Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, asked to change his vote on HB 556 from “no” to “yes,” prompting the House to go at ease and leadership from both parties to huddle. After a break, the House reconvened and agreed to allow Holtzclaw to change his vote – making the vote on the controversial bill 35-31 – but House Speaker Scott Bedke warned lawmakers that they should think carefully about their votes. A vote can be changed only by unanimous consent of the House, and he noted that in past sessions, either the majority or the minority has objected to such changes and they haven’t been allowed. The bill now moves to the Senate Education Committee.
Harris’ bill includes an array of specific percentages of weight that must be given to parent and student input and certain other factors in teacher evaluations, with those percentages increasing each year through 2019; it also requires larger percentages of weight in teacher evaluations to be placed on student test scores. No distinction is made between older or younger students in requiring their input. Associations representing Idaho school administrators, school board members and teachers all opposed the bill.
With little debate, the Senate has voted 28-6 in favor of SJR 106, Sen. Steve Vick’s proposed constitutional amendment to empower the House speaker and the Senate president pro-tem to order the governor to call a special session of the Legislature for a veto override try, if the veto was issued after lawmakers finished their session and left town. Currently, Idaho lawmakers have no way to override post-session vetoes, though nothing stops them from proposing the same bill again when they convene the next year.
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, argued against the bill, saying empowering just two officials to call a special session on behalf of the whole Legislature was inappropriate; Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, responded that the Legislature could pass enabling legislation if the constitutional amendment passes, requiring more steps. But it received the required two-thirds vote, and now moves to the House side. Amending the Idaho Constitution requires two-thirds support in each house of the Legislature, followed by majority support from voters at the next general election; the governor doesn't weigh in.
Vick said he was prompted to propose the change to the Idaho Constitution because when he served in the Montana Legislature, that state had rules allowing for a poll of legislators for post-session overrides. Washington state lawmakers can take up a post-session override attempt at the start of the next session.
The Idaho Constitution says only the governor can call a special session of the Legislature, and special sessions are limited to only those topics named in the governor’s proclamation calling the session. Idaho’s last special session of the Legislature was in 2006, a one-day session called by then-Gov. Jim Risch to shift school funding from property tax to sales tax. Each day the Legislature is in session costs taxpayers an estimated $30,000.
Four “Add the Words” protesters, their hands covering their mouths and some holding photocopied pictures of two gay Idaho teens who committed suicide, have been standing silently in the center of the first-floor rotunda of the Capitol today. Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour said she and two others did the same last night, and were arrested shortly before midnight when the building closed and they wouldn’t leave. She said the protesters didn’t realize the building would close. “Frankly, I brought my toothbrush – we were going to stay the night,” she said.
This morning, while LeFavour stood near the four protesters, a counter-protester angrily confronted her and began shouting louder and louder in her face; a uniformed Idaho State police officer soon beckoned him away. “I'm really grateful,” LeFavour said. “They're here to keep everybody safe.”
LeFavour said she thought last night was the fifth time she’s been arrested this year in protests pushing for civil rights protections for gays. Each charge, mostly for trespassing, can carry a $1,000 fine. “How do you put a price on something like this?” asked LeFavour, who was Idaho’s first openly gay state legislator. “We’re just waiting for the process to start,” she said. “Is it going to be productive to drag it into next session?”
Legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections has been proposed each year for the past eight years, but has never gotten a full committee hearing.
There have been other “Add the Words” protests this week as well, including brief “flash mobs” of people singing protest songs in Statehouse hallways; protesters reading their stories in the Statehouse rotunda; and silent vigils by protesters near Statehouse doorways. On Tuesday morning, 23 protesters were arrested after they blocked every entrance to Gov. Butch Otter’s office, keeping staffers and the governor himself from starting work in their offices that day until the protesters were removed. With the three additional arrests last night, that brings the total number of arrests this session in “Add the Words” protests to nearly 150.
Student leaders from Idaho colleges and universities delivered a six-inch-high stack of petitions and letters to Gov. Butch Otter this morning opposing SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill that passed the House yesterday, and urging Otter to veto the bill. Bryan Vlok, BSU student body president, said the student leaders have requested a meeting with Otter before he acts on the bill. “We haven’t heard back yet,” he said.
Today’s delivery to the governor’s office included 752 letters from students, petitions with 2,976 signatures, and letters from 126 Idaho faculty members, all opposing the bill.
With the Medicaid and Welfare Division budgets set, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has reached the end of its agency budget-setting schedule – a milestone. Typically, lawmakers can wrap up their legislative session as soon as two weeks after the end of agency budget-setting. JFAC’s work isn’t done, however. The joint committee has now started work on so-called “trailer bills” – bills that trail behind others that already are passing, to provide the funding called for in the fiscal notes on those bills.
Two are up today, and more will still be coming. The first one today is for SB 1329, regarding “time-sensitive emergencies” within the Emergency Medical Services program. This one actually doesn’t add any funding; it transfers it from one program to another, with no bottom-line impact. The second is larger: Following passage of HB 406, the state will move to take over primacy from the EPA for issuing wastewater permits under the federal Clean Water Act. The bill starts an eight-year phase-in of the takeover; next year, it will cost the state $300,000 in the DEQ budget, and require adding three employees. Eventually, the new program is expected to cost the state $2.5 million a year.
The primacy funding bill passed on a unanimous, 18-0 vote, though legislative budget analyst Ray Houston, asked by JFAC members if eventually some of the funding for the program might not come from fees or the federal government, said fees for municipalities are often a very political issue, and “Basically it does not look like the federal government would contribute any money.” He said, “I think it's safe to say that over the next eight years, the state is likely to pick up the most part of this $2.5 million.”
JFAC won't meet on Monday, but it will meet on Tuesday. Among items yet to be decided: Additional trailer bills; year-end transfers, including to state savings accounts; the request for $7.3 million for Idaho Education Network contractors in 2015 to replace missing federal e-rate funds; and recommendations from two interim committees on justice reinvestment and public defense.
Legislative budget writers have set a budget for Medicaid that reflects only 0.4 percent growth next year in total funds, 3.1 percent in state general funds. That’s in part because the “woodwork effect” of more people signing up for Medicaid who already were eligible, but just hadn’t realized it, hasn’t materialized to the extent it was expected to. “Medicaid numbers are flat,” budget analyst Jared Tatro told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who crafted the budget plan with Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, said the two slashed the funding for caseload increase in half from the governor’s recommended level. “We haven’t been seeing the growth that we were expecting from the woodwork,” Schmidt said. “We’re taking a bit of a risk. … It’s a budget for growth, but it’s not as much as they asked for.”
Because when people apply for health insurance plans on the state insurance exchange, they’re first evaluated for eligibility for Medicaid, the state anticipated lots of people “coming out of the woodwork” to sign up for Medicaid without any change in eligibility for the program. Thus far, Tatro said, those signing up for the Medicaid basic plan are up slightly, but numbers for the enhanced plan, for those with disabilities or special health needs, are “way down, and that’s the big expense driver.”
JFAC voted 17-2 in favor of the proposed budget, which totals $492 million in state general funds for next year, and $2.03 billion in total funds; just Sens. Nuxoll and Bayer dissented. Medicaid is funded roughly 70 percent by the federal government, and 30 percent by the state. It provides health coverage for the state’s disabled and poorest residents.
The joint budget committee also approved a budget for the Division of Welfare in the state Department of Health & Welfare, which includes the process of determining eligibility for Medicaid. That budget shows a slight decrease in state funds, but a 5.9 percent increase in federal funds, largely because of the $11.8 million federally funded project to integrate the eligibility determination system with changes in Idaho’s insurance exchange. In its first year, the state exchange has used the federal eligibility determination system, but next year, it will be transitioning to a state-operated eligibility system. That budget cleared JFAC on a 15-4 vote, with just Sens. Nuxoll, Bayer, Mortimer and Thayn dissenting.
Sen. Dean Cameron’s “Option 1” intent language for the public school budget – which lets school districts opt out of a statewide high school WiFi contract that state schools Supt. Tom Luna signed with Education Networks of America and get alternative funding for their own high school WiFi networks if they do – has passed JFAC on a 15-5 vote, after Sen. Dean Mortimer’s alternative proposal failed on a close 9-11 vote.
The five “no” votes on Cameron’s motion came from Sens. Mortimer, Vick, Bayer, Thayn and Nuxoll. On Mortimer’s motion, supporters included those five plus Reps. Eskridge, Youngblood, Thompson and Stevenson, but that was still short of a majority.
Cameron said the JFAC co-chairs and vice-chairs met with Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to go over options, and simply canceling the contract through non-appropriation at this point turned out to be a risky course. “Unfortunately, you’d probably spend as much in legal costs defending that decision, based on the lack of information we have, as you would in paying for the contract, so that didn’t seem to be a wise choice,” Cameron said. “Our legal counsel impressed upon us that what we really needed to do was make a good-faith effort, gather information, and then make appropriate decisions down the road. … That’s what Option 1 attempts to do.”
He noted that under that option, the state could end up paying more next year, if some districts opt out and ask for funding, when the contractor has already been paid. If that occurs, the funding would come from the Public Education Stabilization Fund.
Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “We have a contract with a provider. … We’re saying we’re allowing you to withdraw. I’m wondering how that would violate the contract, how that works out.”
Cameron noted that schools Superintendent Tom Luna has letters amending the contract from its original flat-fee, $2.25 million annual payment to a per-school payment for services rendered. “I would remind the committee this is one-time money,” Cameron said. “This is a one-year appropriation, with one-year intent language. At the end, next year we would be able to make a decision as to how to proceed – whether to continue with the contract, or whether to do something completely different. … We’ll have a better defensible position.”
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is arguing for Option 1 on high school WiFi network funding – which would let school districts opt out of the statewide contract with Education Networks of America if they want, and get state funding for their own networks. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, is arguing for Option 1, which would continue the statewide contract and pay districts that didn’t sign on for that, but not give any funding to districts that already are in the contract but don’t want to continue.
Mortimer said, “They voluntarily opted in, they said they were willing to work with the state. … They all said, ‘This is what we want.’” He said, “I believe that in good faith the state put forth the contract, the districts opted in, and it is important to keep that contract.”
Cameron said, “In discussing this with our legal counsel, the least expensive option is to fund the contract and do nothing else.” But that doesn’t do anything for those districts that opted not to participate, he noted, or those that aren’t satisfied with the services they get.
Cameron’s proposal calls for a “service audit” to see what services are being provided where, what they cost, and how satisfied districts are with them. Then, he said, next year the state can decide what it wants to do about the contract, with full information at hand. He noted that the funding, like this year’s funding, is one-time only – meaning JFAC will have to consider it again next year. “There’s a fundamental difference between the two options, although the good news is we’re talking about wireless for all the schools,” Cameron said.