Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed more than two dozen bills into law today, many of them non-controversial. Among the more notable ones: HB 395 will restore non-emergency adult dental services under the Medicaid program, a program that was cut in 2011 with disastrous results, as the state’s emergency room costs soared and people with disabilities lost teeth or suffered painful and expensive abscesses and infections. The bill passed the House 62-6 and the Senate 23-8.
Also among today’s bills signed into law: SB 1224a, reforming the state’s behavioral health services; and SB 1339, modifying the existing Purple Heart recipient special license plate to make it available for motorcycles as well.
Idaho is considering a student loan repayment program to draw doctors, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to a pair of chronically understaffed rural state hospitals, the AP reports, State Hospital North in Orofino and its sister State Hospital South in Blackfoot. Senate-passed legislation to authorize the repayment program, SB 1362, cleared a House committee this morning, and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today unanimously approved the funding, which would come from state endowment funds for the two mental hospitals. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The head of Idaho's Department of Correction is taking a leave of absence as his grandson faces a murder charge in southern Idaho. Brent Reinke has led the department since 2007. Department spokesman Jeff Ray said in a prepared statement that Reinke is taking two weeks' leave, effective immediately, to address his grandson's criminal prosecution. Twenty-three-year-old Bradley Frank James is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the shooting and stabbing death of 58-year-old Larry R. Miller in Filer. Prosecutors say Miller was shot in the face and stabbed 25 times. James' attorney has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. Board of Correction Chairwoman Robin Sandy said the board respects Reinke's wish to support his family as they deal with a tragic and personal matter.
Like the Senate before it, the Idaho House has voted unanimously in favor of the justice reinvestment bill, SB 1357, sending it to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. There wasn’t even any debate in the House on the measure, which would invest in reforms to the state’s probation and parole system and community treatment programs, while moving to prioritize prison space for more-violent offenders. The aim is to reduce Idaho’s overly high recidivism rate, promote public safety and save money. The hope is that investing $33 million into reforms over the next five years will head off the need to build a a $288 million new prison.
Ten months of research went into the bill, with the help of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Trusts. Idaho has one of the nation’s lowest crime rates, the project found, but one of the fastest-growing prison populations – and non-violent offenders spend twice as long behind bars in Idaho as in the rest of the nation. Gov. Butch Otter has been an enthusiastic supporter of the justice reinvestment bill and is expected to pass it into law; it’s had backing and participation from all three branches of Idaho’s state government, including the courts.
Speed limits up to 80 mph in Idaho? The House was decidedly less enthusiastic about the idea today than the Senate was earlier, but SB 1284a narrowly passed, 34-31, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. The bill earlier passed the Senate on a 30-4 vote. It wouldn’t raise the limits everywhere – it would just empower the Idaho Transportation Department to decide, based on engineering and traffic studies, to make the change on stretches of road where it decides the change would be in the public interest. Stretches of interstate could go up to 80 mph; two-lane roads now at 65 mph could go up to 70 mph, based on the same standards.
Opponents focused mostly on safety questions. “I worry about the kids that are just learning how to drive,” said Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon. “Kids are our most vulnerable drivers on the road today. They do not have the experience, they do not have the reaction times. They do not have the ability to drive safely at even more increased speeds.”
Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, the bill’s House sponsor, said, “There’s all sorts of reasons to argue on both sides of the issue. I think it can safely be done in Idaho.” The bill follows Utah’s move to raise speeds to 80 mph on I-84 just across the state line from Idaho; that state did a three-year experiment and found that accident rates didn’t rise with the higher limit, in part because drivers mostly went no faster than they had before.
More than 43,000 Idahoans have now selected health insurance plans on YourHealthIdaho.org, the state health insurance exchange, with 26 percent of them falling into the key 18- to 34-year-old demographic. The latest numbers, released this afternoon, place Idaho second in the nation in per-capita participation. An additional 30,224 Idahoans have started the application process but not yet selected a plan, according to Jody Olson, YourHealthIdaho spokeswoman.
“Idahoans who still want a plan have until March 31 to sign up,” Olson said. “We know the process takes time, so we encourage people to start now.” She added, “We will continue helping sign people up until the end of open enrollment.”
Idaho firefighters have fought for years to get the state’s workers compensation laws to recognize cancer as an occupational hazard, when it develops after they’re exposed to known cancer-causing substances while fighting fires. Today, after much debate, the Senate voted 28-7 in favor of SB 1273a, legislation that would create a “rebuttable presumption” that certain types of cancers are occupationally related for professional firefighters, under certain circumstances, including that the firefighter has not used tobacco products for 10 years prior to the diagnosis; and that an initial employment medical screening showed no sign of the cancer prior to starting work.
Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s “based on scientific research as to the dangers that professional firefighters face.” He said, “I know for some people it goes too far, for other people it doesn’t go far enough, but this is what the science shows.” McKenzie said the bill’s been in the works for four years. “It’s limited to those whose profession is to go into those fires and put themselves at a risk that they know is putting them in a much higher category to develop cancers that could shorten their life, but they’re doing it anyway,” he said. “It’s an appropriate policy based on what we know.” SB 1273a now moves to the House side.
The House has voted 46-21 in favor of granting $10 million a year in tax credits for donations to scholarships to private schools, after much debate; similar legislation narrowly passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. HB 507 now moves to the Senate side. Then, in a rare move, the House recessed until 4 p.m. – meaning it’ll come back into session for a third time today. There’s a big calendar of bills waiting, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle has threatened a Saturday session if the House doesn’t get moving on its calendar. Between now and 4, there are two House committees scheduled to meet, Resources and Judiciary.
Maybe it’s because it’s so late in the session, but there seem to be a lot of second thoughts bouncing around the Statehouse. The House today reconsidered two bills that it voted on yesterday, again passing one, and passing the other even though yesterday it killed it. The Senate today voted to reconsider its earlier vote on a constitutional amendment, out of deference to minority leaders who weren’t present when the bill was brought up the first time.
The House’s first reconsideration today was on HB 451, legislation to allow county records to be retained digitally and original paper copies destroyed. Yesterday, the bill passed the House, 59-11, but House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, served notice that he’d ask for reconsideration. He could only do that because he voted on the prevailing side – in favor of the bill.
When it came up again today, Vander Woude said he’s uncomfortable with destroying the paper copies. “I tore down an old house on old house on property that I bought, and I found a newspaper in there that was from 1933, the Nampa Press-Tribune,” he told the House. “That original document has a lot more value than if I go on digital to look at what that newspaper said and read it online. When we start destroying documents, I think we destroy a lot of what we had and what was valuable.” He added, “How many of you have had computers crash, where you can’t access the document any more?”
Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, the bill’s House sponsor, said, “The purpose of this legislation is to update county public records and bring them into the 21st Century, by digitizing paper records.” He noted, “These are for county offices, and right now, court records and land records are already done this way. They’re already digitized and stored and the paper records are destroyed.” This time, the bill passed 49-21, picking up more opponents than it had yesterday, but still passing easily. Among those switching from supporting to opposing: Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who is running for Secretary of State. The bill was brought by Deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, who also is running for Secretary of State; the two are among four candidates facing off in the GOP primary.
The other reconsiderations today included HB 593, legislation from Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, to set up a tax relief account to collect any taxes that come in on online sales; it was narrowly killed yesterday, but passed today. And in the Senate, SJR103a would amend the Idaho Constitution to update archaic language regarding militia service.
Small Idaho school districts with pressing building problems could get loans of up to $200,000 to make the fixes, under legislation that cleared the House today on a 38-31 vote. The loans would come from the Public Schools Facilities Cooperative Fund, a state fund that currently contains more than $16 million, and is tabbed only for building emergencies at school districts that can’t get their local voters to approve taxes for the repairs. It’s been tapped only twice, for the Plummer-Worley and Salmon school districts.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, sponsor of the bill, said small, rural school districts in Idaho have no place to turn to fix their building problems, which may not require all that much to fix. Under HB 578, districts with fewer than 2,000 students could apply to the State Board of Education for the loans, which would be only for projects “directly related to school security and safety or energy efficiency.”
“The system we have is barely keeping these districts with their doors open, and they need more tools to handle the situations that come up,” Ringo told the House. “Here we have an opportunity. … This is a state that has many rural, small school districts and they’re struggling to get by, and I ask for your support to give them one more tool to be able to do it.” After much debate, the House passed Ringo’s bill; it now moves to a Senate committee.
The school facilities fund was set up nearly a decade ago in the wake of a lawsuit that successfully challenged the constitutionality of Idaho’s school-funding system, which requires local voters to agree by a two-thirds margin to raise their own property taxes in order to pass a bond to build a school. Even districts like Plummer-Worley that tap into the special fund, which originally was started with $25 million in state funds, have to pay the money back; their local property taxpayers are on the hook for it.
HB 578 requires that the small districts repay their loans within five years; if they don’t, their state funding allocations would be tapped to pay them back. The bill also includes a “sunset,” or expiration, of July 1, 2019.
The Senate has voted unanimously in favor of legislation from Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, to allow the state Board of Correction to contract out inmate labor to harvest fruit or do other agricultural labor involving perishable food products. “This is a voluntary program for inmates,” Lodge told the Senate. “This will help them develop a work ethic and give them skills. It will help them when they are released.” Plus, she said it will help ag producers who have faced labor shortages, leaving crops unharvested. “I think one of the saddest things I saw this year, this fall, was to see the fruit on the ground because we couldn’t find laborers to pick it, and then this winter to see the apples frozen on the trees in Sunny Slope,” Lodge said.
The bill, SB 1374a, now moves to a House committee.
Tamarack Resort now belongs almost entirely to Credit Suisse, after the Zurich-based firm was the only bidder at a sheriff's sale on Monday, the AP reports; click below for the full report from the AP and KTVB-TV. Resort officials say the sale, which involves three big sections of the struggling ski and golf resort near Donnelly, won't lead to any changes in operations at the resort, and instead will make a future sale and development easier; the resort already owed Credit Suisse more than $300 million.
Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, tweeted last night, “I was quite frankly shocked,” after the Senate State Affairs Committee killed his bill, HB 514, to remove the special exemption that allows elected officials to carry concealed weapons without a permit. “Our bill passed resoundingly in the House and all but 2 members of the committee voted it down,” Hagedorn said on Twitter. “Mostly concerning the loss of automatically being able to carry concealed! It was supported by the Sheriffs, NRA and a number of pro-gun groups as a great step forward. Still befuddled…”
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said the motion she planned to make in JFAC this morning – before the joint committee abruptly adjourned – was to make the 2 percent raises for state workers next year all ongoing, rather than half permanent and half one-time. She’s none too pleased that Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, adjourned the committee as she began making her motion. “I’m irritated to the max over this,” she said. “I thought it was rude and inappropriate, and I could throw out all kinds of other adjectives.”
Ringo said she spoke with Cameron after the meeting. “He told me my motion would’ve just gone down,” she said. “I said, ‘That does happen to me now and then.’ But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have the opportunity to represent the people.” Ringo said she considered making the motion at the start of budget-setting, but then “thought I’d wait ‘til we got clear to the end, to see what kinds of balances we had.”
Ringo, a seventh-term representative who is running for the 1st District congressional seat, said, “That was a first in my … years on JFAC. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody be denied the opportunity to make a motion.”
Idaho’s PUC commissioners, state tax commissioners and Industrial Commission members would get the same level of salary boost next year that has been funded for all state employees – 1 percent permanent, and 1 percent as a one-time bonus – under legislation approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Those three commissions have full-time commissioners whose pay is set in statute. “Anytime we’ve had a CEC adjustment, we’ve had to make this adjustment for these three sets of commissioners,” said JFAC Co-Chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.
The raises will cost the state $6,700 from the general fund next year, $22,000 in total funds; that’s $11,000 for the permanent raises, and $11,000 for the one-time bonuses. PUC commissioner salaries would rise from $94,010 to $94,950; tax commissioners from $87,156 to $88,028; and industrial commissioners from $91,505 to $92,420. Those statutorily set salaries don’t include the one-time bonus portion. “These folks are state employees, and this is consistent with the actions we’ve taken,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC vice-chair.
Cameron noted that there are still two other categories of state employees the joint committee will be asked to address concerning salaries: The judiciary, and state elected officials. A judges' pay increase bill, SB 1394, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.
The joint committee also unanimously approved so-called “trailer bills,” because they trail after the main legislation, to add funding for three other bills that are passing this year: SB 1350, setting up an investment advisory board to the state treasurer; HB 542, establishing a Public Defense Commission; and SB 1362, tapping endowment funds for loan repayment for top physicians at State Hospital South and State Hospital North, to aid in attracting and retaining doctors there.
Finally, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked for unanimous consent of JFAC to reopen all budgets except public schools “for the purpose of reconsidering the CEC language.” CEC stands for Change in Employee Compensation – which JFAC has written into all state agency budgets at 2 percent, half of that one-time, and half ongoing. Both Cameron and JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell objected, and as Ringo began to make a motion, Cameron banged his gavel and declared, “The committee will stand adjourned until 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.”
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted 19-0 this morning to increase the cap on the state’s main rainy-day savings account, the Budget Stabilization Fund, from 5 percent of the general fund to 10 percent. “I’m pleased that we can do this, and it’s the right thing to do,” said JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “We’re in a position to be more prudent with our savings now.”
Gov. Butch Otter had recommended the move, as the savings fund was bumping up against its cap. Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, told JFAC, “The governor is very supportive of this legislation and is pleased the committee is considering it today.”
Last July 1, the budget stabilization fund had a balance of $135.1 million. After its scheduled, statutory transfers in fiscal year 2014 of $2.4 million, it will hit the current cap, at $137.5 million. In fiscal year 2015, the new cap would rise to $275 million, which would allow the state to double its savings set aside in the fund. JFAC’s action today approves legislation to double the cap, which now needs passage in the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law.
Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, is plenty steamed about the demise of his bill, HB 514, in a Senate committee today; the measure would have removed state elected officials’ exemption from the requirement for a concealed weapons permit. “I guess I’m surprised that a senator would say he should maintain special privileges over the people who put him into office,” Youngblood said, referring to comments in the committee by Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. “Isn’t that kind of odd?”
“It’s time for that change,” Youngblood said. “We’re not better than our voting public.” He said of opponents of the bill, “Why would they be afraid to go get fingerprinted and have a background check? I wonder, is there something there that would be troubling?” The freshman representative noted that he had an array of co-sponsors on the bill including House Speaker Scott Bedke, along with backing from the NRA and the Idaho Sheriffs Association, and called its failure in the Senate State Affairs Committee today “very surprising.” Said Youngblood, “I was very surprised that they would take that position. … I will certainly take a run at it again next year. I just think it’s that important.”
Idaho’s Office of Performance Evaluations will conduct an investigation into the workload of the Idaho Attorney General’s office and the cost of contracting out for legal services for the state rather than doing them in-house, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee decided this afternoon. Also picked by JLOC for topics for upcoming investigations were the instructional improvement program used by the state’s schools and surrounding issues; and advantages and costs of using salary savings for compensation and benefits for state workers.
If there’s time, JLOC asked the office to also investigate the use and satisfaction of the Idaho Education Network and its services to schools.
There’s a new worst-case scenario for the Idaho Education Network e-rate funds debacle: If the feds decide Idaho granted the multimillion-dollar contract for the IEN improperly, the state could not only have to pay back the $13.3 million in federal e-rate funds it’s already received for the project – it could be denied any such funds in the future, even with a newly re-bid contract, reports Idaho Education News. “They have the ability to debar the state,” Merlyn Clark, attorney for the state in the case, told the Senate Education Committee Monday, during a hearing on the IEN and its funding problems. That would be on top of the $6.6 million in state general funds lawmakers already committed this year to make up for the lost e-rate funds, and possibly another $7.3 million they're still mulling. Senators grilled Clark, state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna and other officials during the hearing; you can read reporter Kevin Richert’s full report here at idahoednews.org.
With no debate, the House has passed SB 1277a, legislation to authorize the state to again start doing land exchanges with state-owned cottage sites at Priest and Payette lakes that are part of the state’s land endowment. Exchanges were halted earlier this year after legal questions were raised about whether the state could legally trade the sites for land that wasn’t “similar” – such as timber land, grazing land, or other property used for purposes other than summer homes. The bill says such trades are OK, but adds a limitation: The state couldn’t trade endowment land for “lands that have as their primary value buildings or other structures, unless said buildings or other structures are continually used by a public entity for a public purpose.”
The vote was 63-1, with just Rep. Doug Hancey, R-Rexburg, objecting. The measure already passed the Senate, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter.