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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2004

No, I mean yes

Because Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, has been out for surgery, Carlos Bilbao has been filling in for him for the opening weeks of the session. On Friday, Bilbao sponsored his first bill in the Senate, offering arguments to other senators in favor of passing SB 1214, which would require campaign finance reporting for candidates for mayor and city council in cities with populations down to 5,000, rather than the current threshold of 16,000.

“This is a good bill because it promotes honesty and disclosure,” Bilbao told the Senate.

But when the roll was called, most senators voted no, and Bilbao reddened. Then, one by one, nearly all stood up and changed their votes to yes. The final vote was 29-2.

Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, a longtime senator who now presides over the Senate, reassured Bilbao, “Let me say that the initiation here isn’t nearly as difficult as when I arrived.”

Ambitious debate

Senators got a little testy when they were debating confirmation of Phil Reberger, a top GOP operative and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s former longtime chief of staff, to the Idaho Judicial Council. The council selects and disciplines judges. Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, said the appointment would compromise the longstanding independence of the courts.

“Their independence is not to be sacrificed to the unbridled desire to concentrate power in the hands of a few ambitious men,” Burkett told the Senate.

Later in the debate, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, responded. “We’re fortunate that our founding fathers in the state of Idaho were ambitious men,” he said. “Thank goodness for ambition.”

One state off

When a van showed up to ferry lawmakers to an Association of Idaho Cities luncheon on Thursday, it was plastered with magnetic AIC logos, but instead of “Famous Potatoes,” the license plates said - oops - “Ski Utah.”

Rolaids for Reagan

The House State Affairs Committee was so enthusiastic about a resolution to declare “Ronald Reagan Day” on Feb. 6, the day the former GOP president will turn 93, that the panel decided to send the bill to the full House without even waiting for a hearing.

Just one Democrat, Rep. Elaine Smith of Pocatello, voted against the move. But then Boise Democrat David Langhorst asked if he could change his vote, prompting GOP Chairman Bill Deal of Nampa to ask, “Maybe a little bit of heartburn over this bill?”

Deal suggested Rolaids, and Rep. Janet Miller, R-Boise, volunteered, “I have some in my desk.”

Rather than bite, Langhorst changed his vote. “I would’ve been glad to vote for it as a courtesy, but I have some constituents who would not like me supporting something without a public hearing,” he explained.

Just cut something else

Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, has long been a big booster of technology investments for schools, and has pushed for funding each year in the joint budget committee. So Richardson was understandably miffed that Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s budget for next year would slash $5 million out of the tech aid - so much so, that he asked state schools Supt. Marilyn Howard this question:

“Do you have programs that could be cut, if the money was so necessary for technology?”

The joint committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, got a big laugh when he cut in with, “Oh, sure, she’s going to volunteer that!”

Howard responded, “I don’t know of anything that can be cut.” Local school districts barely have the money to pay their heat and light bills, she said. “I don’t think they have lots of extra money.”

Protest, terrorism, same thing?

Idaho’s current anti-terrorism law goes too far, according to Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, defining terrorism so broadly that it could include someone marching in a Martin Luther King Day demonstration. “I think this statute is just too broad,” Burkett, an attorney, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It doesn’t make sense to me that we want to label someone as a terrorist and sentence them to life in prison. … I think this should be on acts that we all think of as terrorist, and not just protest.”

Though Burkett is a member of the small Democratic minority, the committee’s chairman, GOP Sen. Denton Darrington of Declo, seconded the motion to introduce the bill.

On the defensive

Rep. Wayne Meyer, R-Rathdrum, probably isn’t going to go ahead this year with his bill to set up a state-sanctioned legal defense fund for farmers.

“The ag community’s really not that enthusiastic about going forward, so at this time I’m just going to have it drafted and circulate it,” Meyer said. “I’m planting the seed.”

Meyer’s concept is that farmers across the state would pay into the fund through a required assessment, similar to the way a state indemnity fund for farmers works. “It wouldn’t be tax money,” he said.

Meyer is a grass seed farmer on the Rathdrum Prairie, where farmers have been sued over the smoke they spread when burning their fields each summer.

They’re partying

Former state Rep. David Bieter, a Boise Democrat, returned to the House on Thursday to address the chamber not as a member, but as the newly elected mayor of Boise.

After a warm welcome, he told the assembled representatives, “I have been waiting an awful long time to see you all stand and applaud a Democrat.”

Then he said he had “risen above partisanship,” and as proof, offered gifts for GOP Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb: A giant veto stamp for the guv, and an acknowledgement to Newcomb and the House for putting the “fun in dysfunctional.”

Bieter’s new position as mayor is non-partisan.

A bit of overstatement?

St. Maries Rep. Dick Harwood surprised everyone in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Wednesday when he followed up on a question about the DEQ budget by launching into a little speech, complete with statistics.

“Back in 1975, Shoshone County generated almost 27 percent of the state’s budget. Last year they generated 1.4 percent. I attribute a lot of that to the EPA and what they’ve done in the Silver Valley,” Harwood told the panel.

Asked later, Harwood said he was referring to the amount “produced in taxes” in the county, as a contribution to the state budget. He said he got his stats from the governor’s office. “I got it during campaign time last year,” he said.

But the governor’s Division of Financial Management was at a loss to explain the figures. “A quarter of the state’s tax revenue came from Shoshone County? I don’t think so,” said chief economist Mike Ferguson. “That number just doesn’t make any sense. What does that mean, anyway, that one county produced 27 percent of the state budget? There’s no way.”

Legislative revenue experts also couldn’t place the figure, noting that Idaho has 44 counties.

No proximate detracting here

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis is known for holding forth at great length, in intricate lawyer’s language that’s not easily quoted. So in typical fashion, the Idaho Falls Republican announced after long months of reflection Tuesday that he’s made a decision on whether to run for the Idaho Supreme Court - he’s not running, at least not this year. Instead, he’ll run for re-election to the Senate.

Among his reasons, Davis pointed to his role as majority leader, which naturally requires politicking that may not suit the “dignified and honorable elections” needed for the high court.

In true Davis-speak, he said, “That political advocacy or defense, proximate to a judicial election, may detract from the non-partisan approach that such elections are entitled.”

Eat up then

Here’s how North Idaho College student body president Joel Crane characterized the NIC/CSI lunch with local legislators this week: “You’re getting the benefit of free food, and we’re getting the benefit of getting to know our legislators.”

To which an eastern Idaho senator muttered, “We’re getting the best end of the deal.”

Small slogan, big gain

Idaho has a ton of special license plates for cars to commemorate this and that, but Sen. Kent Bailey, R-Hayden, may be the first to propose a special plate for motorcycles.

“I love firsts,” Bailey chuckled.

Of course, there’s not much room on the little motorcycle plate to say much. “Instead of ‘Famous Potatoes,’ it’ll say ‘Veteran’ on the bottom,” Bailey explained.

If his bill passes, Bailey expects the special plate to raise $21,000 from sales to help maintain Idaho’s planned veterans cemetery, which is now in the works.

Not really that far apart

Though legislators were quick to decry Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s revenue projections for next year as overly optimistic, they really didn’t depart much from them when they set their own estimate, which provides a basis for budget-setting. Plus, the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee didn’t actually reject the governor’s numbers - they declared them “reasonable,” but advised “caution” in exceeding their own numbers.

The lawmakers’ projection is that the state will take in $2,075.7 million in tax revenue next year, about $28 million less than the governor’s estimate. But Kempthorne only proposed spending $2.083 million - he wants to set some money aside as a cushion for the following year, when the state’s sales tax is scheduled to drop back down to 5 percent. That means the legislators’ figure is only $8 million below the governor’s proposed spending level — just 0.4 percent of the state budget.

Will they or won’t they?

State employees are waiting to hear if they’ll get raises next year, after being stiffed two straight years by state lawmakers. The joint legislative committee that’ll review Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s recommendation for a 2 percent merit raise had been tentatively scheduled to meet, and possibly decide, on Friday. But that turned out to be a scheduling conflict with, among other things, the funeral for the 93-year-old father of the committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa. According to the committee secretary, the next possible date is Jan. 27 _ because once the session’s under way, the House Commerce Committee meets on odd days, and the Senate Commerce Committee meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That’s the next date those two coincide.

Statehouse inmates visit big house

Twenty-eight Idaho legislators went on a tour of three state prisons this week, entering a stark, cramped, empty two-person cell, visiting with some of the inmates, and getting baleful glares from those on Death Row through the small windows in their cell doors.

(In photo, from left to right, Rep. Mike Mitchell, D-Lewiston; Rep. Lawerence-CQ
Denney, R-Midvale; Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell; and Rep. Larry Bradford,
R-Franklin.)

“There’s some scary guys here,” noted Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, looking at a board advising guards which inmates should be moved alone, which are “high risk” and which require chain restraints.

Rep. Bonnie Douglas, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think some people think that that they have it easy, but I can tell that it’s not a country club atmosphere, by any means.”

Said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, “This is kind of a depressing place. … It personalizes this whole program. You put a human face on things, and you get a whole different perspective.”

Sayler, a high school teacher, said he was glad he didn’t see any former students.

The group rode to the prisons and back on an inmate-transport bus, complete with steel-mesh gates separating seating areas and covering all windows, and a big box of shining metal handcuffs sitting ready. There was lots of animated talk among the legislators on the bus ride back to the capitol.

“You’re more fun than 40 inmates,” the bus driver told the lawmakers as they departed. “We’re no quieter,” responded Rep. Janet Miller, R-Boise.

The driver smiled. “I had to bite my tongue, because usually when the inmates are that loud, I yell at them.”

Stop that ringing

After at least one loud, jangling cell phone went off during the prayer that opened the joint session of the Legislature on Monday night for the State of the State address, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb brandished the heavy wooden gavel he uses to call the House to order. Waving it, he announced, “Please, we’d ask anybody that has a cell phone to turn it off, or it will be absconded and mashed with this mallet here before your eyes.”

The Idaho-Mongolia connection

As Idaho’s lawmakers convened their session, they were joined by a delegation of government officials from - where else? - Mongolia. House Speaker Bruce Newcomb got to play the diplomat, as he told the group, “Of course we’re always interested in how other governments work, particularly Mongolia, which we don’t hear much about in Idaho.”

Lawmakers clash

When Sen. Edgar Malepeai accompanied a delegation from the Senate to the House to report that the chamber was ready for business, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb expressed doubts about whether Malepeai’s attire met the House dress code. But the bright-awful-orange shirt, clashing orange tie, and borrowed, regulation-blue Boise State Alumni jacket were an obligation for the Democratic senator from Pocatello. He had bet Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, on the outcome of a Boise State-ISU football game back in the fall - with the loser to wear the other school’s colors on the opening day of the legislative session. That means Werk escaped starting off the session in orange and black.

Who’s afraid of the big mad cow?

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (shown at right with U.S. Rep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho) bit into a freshly barbecued, juicy-hot double hamburger at a beef rally across from the state Capitol on Friday, and encouraged Idahoans to keep eating beef, despite a mad cow scare in Washington. That scare, nearly everyone at the rally noted, involved a cow that came from Canada.

“The system works,” the governor declared. “They found that one cow … and could identify it. … So folks, eat beef — eat it with the assurance that it is safe, it’s good for you, it is nutritious.”

Hundreds of people lined up for free, freshly grilled hamburgers at the Boise event, sponsored by the Idaho Cattle Association.

“Y’know, the American public is subjected to a terrific amount of information about food. Some of it is hard to sort through,” said Ted Hoffman, a veterinarian and cattle rancher from Mountain Home, and an ICA past president. “But it’s not hard to sort through when we say we have enough faith in this, we’re going to cook some and give it to you now.”

The Cattle Association wants Idahoans to put beef on their menus an extra time each week, to help the industry make up for lost export business due to the mad cow scare.

Eight miles, more bucks

Acting University of Idaho President Gary Michael charmed a joint legislative committee on employee compensation with his wit and business knowledge from his many years as CEO of the Albertson’s grocery store chain. But he also had some tough news for the lawmakers: UI is losing valuable professors and researchers because of low pay, some just down the road to Washington State. There, they can make as much as 30 percent more, he said.

Professors and staffers don’t even have to sell their houses or take their kids out of school to make the move, he noted.

“We train ‘em, and they hire ‘em,” Michael said of WSU. But he said the issue reminded him of a previous business venture, in which his wife had asked him, “What if we train these people and they leave?” He said he’d responded, “What if we don’t train ‘em, and they stay?”

The university has “very, very competent people, and in many cases they’re over-qualified for what they do,” Michael said. “Some turnover is fine, but if we continue down this path … we’re going to tend to dumb ourselves down to a place we’re not going to like.”

Saving time and words?

State officials are serious about not letting this year’s legislative session run as long as last year’s record-long, 118-day marathon _ so serious that Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has decided to do away with the traditional two opening speeches of the session, the State of the State and the budget address, and combine them into one. The governor cited the fact that the budget is the main issue in the state anyway, plus described the move as a “gesture to economy.”

“Last year, we took the time necessary to do what was right for the State of Idaho,” Kempthorne said. “Combining the two speeches gives the Legislature a two-day head start on their business this year.”

So the governor will spill his whole agenda for the session - numbers and all - in a State of the State address Monday night to a joint session of the Legislature. Idaho Public Television will broadcast the speech statewide at 7 p.m.

Not THAT desperate

With states across the country pressed for cash, a few are looking at selling naming rights to state parks, highways, bridges and other landmarks – especially if it means avoiding tax hikes.

South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said, “We ought to try to be innovative. Colleges and universities have been doing it for years.”

Illinois’ governor proposed corporate sponsorships for state programs. And in Massachusetts, the House passed a bill to sell naming rights to state parks and forests, but it was killed amid an outcry in the Senate, where critics predicted it would lead to giant plastic Coke bottles atop the state Capitol.

Idaho’s no stranger to budget problems, but Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s office says there’s no interest here in selling any naming rights.

“The naming of buildings in the state government in Idaho is reserved typically for people who have had long, distinguished careers in public service,” said spokesman Mike Journee. “The governor believes that departing from that is not a good thing.”

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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