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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2005

Courthouse remodel goes down

After a debate that ran well into the lunch hour, the Idaho Senate defeated SCR 102, the bill to remodel the old Ada County Courthouse, on a 16-18 vote. Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, led the opposition, arguing that a remodeled version of the historic structure will cost more in the long run than just tearing down the old courthouse and building something new. Official cost estimates for the two plans are close to even.

Now, the Senate State Affairs Committee may have to reconsider an alternative plan, SCR 101, that it defeated earlier. That measure calls for a tear-down and new building.

Three years ago, both options died in the full Senate, leaving Idaho with no plans for the building across from the state Capitol that now belongs to the state. Officials hope to locate new, larger legislative hearing rooms and office space there. But for the last three years, it’s just sat vacant while lawmakers bickered over which plan to choose.

Just think what they could do

Beautiful, startling images of Idaho’s landscape, wildlife and people soared across the display screens as Idaho Public Television General Manager Peter Morrill presented his budget request and an update on IPTV to legislative budget writers. But there was also a caricatured image of Morrill that popped up on the screen in a Saturday Night Fever-style disco suit – to illustrate that most of IPTV’s broadcasting equipment dates from the era when disco was all the rage. Much of it was purchased in the 1970s, and is outdated and sorely in need of replacement.

House Appropriations Chairman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said she was much impressed with the beautiful footage. “If you can do that with that old antiquated equipment – you do a wonderful job, the pictures are beautiful,” she said. “I don’t know what you’d do if we actually gave you good equipment.”

Responded Morrill, “I’d like to find out.”

Marriage amendment clears committee

After a hearing that stretched for more than three hours and saw dozens of people give heartfelt testimony on both sides, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 5-4 – with no discussion at all – to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships. Idaho law already forbids same-sex marriage.

The measure, SJR 101, now goes to the full Senate, where senators plan to debate and vote on it on Wednesday morning.

To pass, it needs a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature, plus a majority vote of the people at the next general election.

The vote in the committee went like this: Voting no: Senators Stegner, Little, Stennett and Malepeai. Voting yes: Sens. Darrington, Geddes, Davis, McKenzie and Burtenshaw.

Two girls for every boy…

North Idaho College President Michael Burke has been making the rounds of legislative committees, giving his budget pitch to JFAC this morning and briefing the House and Senate education committees yesterday. At the Senate Ed Committee, he revealed that NIC’s enrollment is now 63 percent female, and the number has been rising every year.

“If you follow that trend line, in about the year 2030 we will enroll the last male student at North Idaho College,” Burke said to laughter.

Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, said, “I now think I understand why so many boys from this community are going up to the place with the beach and the gender imbalance.”

Added Sen. Bert Marley, D-McCammon, “I couldn’t help but think about the song ‘Surf City’ – the beach and two girls for every guy…”

Or, as the classic Jan & Dean beach song has it,

“We’re goin’ to Surf City, ‘cause it’s two to one,
You know we’re goin’ to Surf City, gonna have some fun, now
Two girls for every boy!”

Dueling press conferences?

How could this happen? Groups both opposing and supporting the anti-gay marriage amendment have scheduled press conferences today – both at noon, both on the second floor of the state Capitol, both apparently unaware that the other will be there, too.

The Interfaith Alliance of Idaho plans to have members of the clergy and human rights activists respond to issues surrounding the debate on the amendment, and distribute materials from churches. The Marriage Protection Alliance plans to have attorneys and representatives of Focus on the Family speak in favor of the measure.

One’s closed, the other’s open

It’s happened again, for a second day in a row. The House Majority Caucus met behind closed doors for about 45 minutes to discuss the state budget, including presentations from experts on various line items and how the budget works. At the same time, the House Minority Caucus met to discuss the same thing – and its meeting was open.

House GOP Caucus Chair Julie Ellsworth said the majority caucus hasn’t taken a position. “It’s just getting the information out to everybody about it,” she said. The group, which includes more than 80 percent of the House, may hold another session if needed, but one’s not scheduled yet, she said.

House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “That’s partly the difference between the two parties and part of the reason why we need a more balanced political makeup. It’s a budget process – it should be transparent. I don’t know why they’d do it in closed caucus.”

The Democrats, for their part, are discussing everything from whether tuition should be charged at state universities to whether there’s a better scenario they could propose for the state budget. Sayler said the caucus members will be working on budget scenarios over the next few days, and will continue discussing them openly.

Closed doors, he said, just create suspicion. “It always raises questions – what are they talking about? Are they making deals?”

Crowd had other things on its mind

Sandpoint Police Chief Mark Lockwood had a full house this morning when he briefed the Senate State Affairs Committee on the work of the Statewide Interoperability Executive Council, which he chairs. The committee room was standing-room only, and people spilled out the doorway.

“The events of 9-11 illustrated the lack of interoperable communications around the country,” Lockwood said in his short remarks to the committee. “We want to make sure we are better prepared in Idaho if something happens again.”

The state’s microwave radio backbone that stretches from Bonners Ferry to Pocatello is “one of the largest in the country, and Idaho’s greatest asset for communication,” Lockwood said.

The crowd in the room wasn’t unduly excited about the topic, however. They were there for a big hearing on whether the Ada County Courthouse should be demolished and replaced, or renovated. The state owns the historic structure across the street from the state Capitol, and it’s sat vacant while lawmakers have debated the question for more than a year.

Among those waiting to testify were Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and several experts on Idaho history and architecture. The issue was up next after Lockwood’s talk.

Packed room, no decision

After almost two hours of heated testimony and questioning, the Senate Transportation Committee decided by one vote this afternoon to delay a decision on a bill that would mandate all gasoline sold in Idaho be at least 10 percent ethanol by 2010.

On a 5-4 vote, the committee decided to continue its hearing on Feb. 10 – several people still were waiting to testify.

The proposal is being promoted by the Idaho Farm Bureau as a way to support agriculture, but Idaho’s only ethanol plant, which made ethanol from potatoes, has shut down. Others may be in the works, however.

‘Welcome to the inquisition’

Senators on the Senate Education Committee grilled state Board of Education member Karen McGee for an hour today at her re-confirmation hearing, on everything from concerns about charter schools to a new alternate teacher-certification test.

“Welcome to the inquisition,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told McGee, “I think you’re as crazy as us senators for volunteering to serve in a war zone. … It does have some heat with it.”

McGee took it all cheerfully. “I don’t mind the debate,” she said.

But she did cut off Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, when he asked her about donating money “to a political organization that worked to defeat members of this committee, in one case successfully.”

“I will comment on policy – I don’t think we should get personal,” McGee declared.

After that high-intensity lead-in, the 15-minute confirmation hearing for Sue Thilo of Coeur d’Alene in her appointment to the same board was a relative cake-walk. Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, asked Thilo, “After the previous interview, are you sure you still want to go through with this?” “No!” Thilo responded amid laughter, and then said, “Yes, I’m honored to be here. … There will be times of debate and times of difference of opinion. I look forward to the challenge.”

The guv was there

When the Red Hot Mamas from Hayden went by in the inaugural parade, there was a familiar face standing at the side of President George W. Bush – Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Kempthorne, who spent the past week in Washington, D.C. working with other governors to lobby for more state aid for Medicaid and attending inaugural festivities, was among several governors joining Bush in the viewing stand for the parade. As the Idaho act went by, he stepped up next to the president, who had First Lady Laura Bush on his other side. That prompted some viewers to wonder if Kempthorne’s prominent viewing spot signified that he’s up for an administration job – something that’s been rumored off and on.

There’s no word on that front. Kempthorne’s press secretary, Mike Journee, said, “He wasn’t there the entire time. He did come up when there was an Idaho part of the parade going by.”

Changing the rules

Senate Republican leaders want to change the Senate’s internal rules to allow official Senate committee meetings to be closed for any reason. They also want to delete a section of the Senate’s internal rules that notes that if there’s a conflict between the rules and state laws or the state Constitution, the rules defer to the law or Constitution.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said he plans to bring the changes to the Judiciary Committee next week. That route means the rule change would need only a simple majority for approval, rather than the usual two-thirds.

The Legislature is now being sued by the Idaho Press Club over holding closed committee meetings, which the club argues violate the Constitution.

Senate Democrats discussed the rule changes at an open caucus meeting today, and said they didn’t like ‘em. But their numbers are a small minority in the Senate.

Not what she said

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, had questions when legislative budget writers were reviewing budget requests from the state’s public health districts. Among them: Why, when an employee retires, they get credit only for half of their unused sick leave, rather than all of it. Some people, he said, will “take a sick day just to take a day off. … Seems like you’re penalizing the person that’s really working hard and loyal to the company, and the other ones are getting rewarded for it.”

House Appropriations Chairman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded, “They’re following, probably, the state guidelines?”

That was the answer. Carol Moehrle, 2nd District Health director, responded that when employees retire, they can convert half of their unused sick leave into health benefits. “They don’t get paid out,” she explained. “It’s the same for all state employees.”

Harwood said, “Then what you’re saying is we need to change that, huh?”

“No, she didn’t say that,” Bell said to laughter.

Senators impressed by judges

Senators on the Health & Welfare Committee were so impressed by a presentation from 1st District Judge John T. Mitchell from Coeur d’Alene and 7th District Judge Brent Moss from Idaho Falls that they want to see the two judges’ “mental health courts” expanded statewide. The courts, like Idaho’s drug courts, provide specialized services to drug offenders who also suffer from mental health problems.

Mitchell told the panel the clients at his court have made great progress. “The change in them has been incredible, and it’s only been four months,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what they’ll be like in six months.”

Here, the two judges, Moss, left, and Mitchell, right, address the committee. After hearing from the judges, Senate Health & Welfare Chairman Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the program should be “enthusiastically supported.”

Fish are people too?

Those friendly folks at PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, put on a little demonstration in Boise today to let people know that “Fish are Friends, Not Food.”

At the Skipper’s seafood restaurant, the group pushed its “fish empathy project,” which, according to the group’s press release, is based in part on new research that shows that “fish learn faster than dogs!”

Said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk, “Fish are not swimming vegetables. They’re complex and intelligent animals who feel fear and pain, just as we do.”

And for the next act…

The entire state Capitol has turned into something of a three-ring circus today, with the first, second and third floors of its ornate central rotunda crowded with displays, booths, and crowds of browsers sampling Idaho products. It’s the annual “Buy Idaho” show, which showcases dozens of Idaho businesses and their products, and draws folks in to try everything from the gourmet popcorn to the special sausage to the pure bottled water.

To top things off, the fourth floor of the Capital also is filled with displays for Boise State University’s lobbying day at the Statehouse. In between the crowds, lawmakers are threading their way through to their various meetings and sampling the wares along the way.

Not the conventional wisdom

Legislative budget writers usually talk about saving money by privatizing government services, but this morning, the Department of Health & Welfare told them they could save millions by doing the opposite – “in-sourcing” a bunch of information technology workers who now are outside contractors.

“The state can save approximately $3 million in total funds over the next two and a half years,” Dave Butler, deputy director of management services for the department, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We feel we can provide better service to the public as well as the divisions that we serve.”

Butler, who just joined the state a year ago after a career at Albertson’s, said when the state contracted out the work, it was a boom time for the high-tech business. “Y2K had us all scared,” he said. “I.T. professionals were in demand, commanding premium salaries on the open market.”

Since then, there’s been the dot-com bust, and a flood of new information-technology professionals entered the market. Demand, and wages, have dropped.

Butler said when he broached the idea earlier to lawmakers, they asked him “why I want to increase the size of government.” As a private-sector guy, he said, he’s learning that many judge the size of government by the number of employees. But if a higher employee count means less spending of taxpayer money, he said, “then I think it’s a benefit to each and every one of us.”

Lawmakers were leery. “You go against every magazine I get that says privatization of government services is the only way to go out there,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair.

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, an accountant, said he wants to see all the figures. “I commend you for trying to save money – I think that’s wonderful,” he said. “I don’t want to discourage you in that in any way.”

Everybody’s doing it

Citing the many health benefits of cannabis, medical marijuana activist Tim Teater outlined a proposal to legalize the drug at a press conference at the Capitol this afternoon. In front a smattering of reporters and cameras, Teater said it’s time for Idaho to join other states – including every state in the Northwest – in giving patients and their caregivers more alternatives.

“Idaho needs to step up to the plate,” said Teater, the state coordinator for the Idaho Affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. He wants lawmakers to pass legislation allowing patients suffering from serious illnesses the chance to grow marijuana. If the Legislature did so, Idaho would join 12 other states that have similar laws. Marijuana is used to help treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

No legislative sponsor has been named, however.

So that’s the word

What do you call a third-year college student who’s in her second year at North Idaho College? A “super-sophomore.” That’s according to Heather Erikson, NIC student body president and super-soph.

Crow opens door

House Tax Chairwoman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, has cracked open the door to reconsidering Idaho’s numerous sales tax exemptions. For years, Crow has been the chief opponent of re-examining exemptions, and has thwarted attempts. But this week, she said it might be time to take another look.

However, the avowed opponent of virtually all tax hikes said she’d consider the idea, “Only if something else takes their place that is better for the taxpayer. It isn’t going to be something for nothing.”

Unemployment compromise reached

Here’s an unlikely prospect: Business and labor sitting down together to work out a plan for increased unemployment taxes on businesses and reduced benefits for workers. But that’s really what’s happened. Today, the state Department of Commerce and Labor unveiled compromise legislation on Idaho’s unemployment system, worked out over the past two years by interests ranging from Micron Technology to the Idaho AFL-CIO.

This comes after a three-year freeze on tax rates, which otherwise would have risen through the roof thanks to the recession, as many Idaho workers were laid off. While the freeze saved Idaho employers millions, it also depleted the state unemployment trust fund, and the new legislation is designed to keep the fund solvent.

The freeze ended Jan. 1. Without changes in the law, unemployment tax rates would now shoot up 113 percent. Instead, the compromise legislation calls for them to rise 12.5 percent this year, and then to rise or fall as needed each year, in increments rather than sudden jumps. Benefits would be slightly reduced – the maximum payment would drop from $325 a week to $312 in 2005, plus some workers would get a week less of benefits and others would take longer to qualify. The benefits and tax rates were tied together, so in the future, when the economy recovers, tax rates would go back down and benefits would go back up.

“You’ve got to look at both sides,” said Dave Whaley of the Idaho AFL-CIO. “We’ve got to have the jobs for the workers. We’ve also got to have those unemployment benefits that will carry them to another job.”

Teresa Molitor of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry said, “The business community was prepared to absorb a tax increase of some sort. … We think that this package is kind of the definition of fairness.”

Roger Madsen, state Commerce and Labor director, noted that eight states have seen their unemployment programs go bust, forcing them to borrow money from the federal government, which then forces even higher tax increases. “It’s a very important program, very controversial,” Madsen said. “It’s doing its job in Idaho.”

Two Shepherds among the flock

There are two Rep. Shepherds in the House of Representatives now – Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, now is joined by Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, who defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Chuck Cuddy in the fall election. To make matters just a bit more confusing, when it came time for representatives to select their seats in the House chamber, the new Shepherd picked a seat right next to Mary Lou’s.

But the House has ways of keeping from mixing them up. Mary Lou is listed as Shepherd(2) – the Shepherd from District 2. Paul is Shepherd(8) – the one from District 8.

Safety in the Statehouse

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had just finished detailing all the safety problems in the state Capitol, as part of his pitch in his State of the State address for renovating the historic structure.

“Thousands of children visit this building every year,” the governor said. “Yet the only part of the Statehouse that has fire sprinklers is the area that caught fire several years ago. If you have a heart attack or any sort of a medical emergency, the paramedics’ gurney will not fit into either of the small, outdated elevators. There are no emergency exits.”

After the speech, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis was among a committee of lawmakers who formally escorted Kempthorne back downstairs to his office. On returning, a short-of-breath Davis reported to the House that Kempthorne had “wonderful sugar cookies in his office…in the shape of Idaho.” House Minority Leader Wendy Jacquet was quick to add that the cookies had frosting, too.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb swiftly retorted that Davis should be “mindful of the governor’s speech.” Amid loud laughter, he said, “The paramedics’ gurney can’t fit in the elevators in case of a heart attack.”

Activists rally for health care

Less than an hour after the legislature convened, backers of an all-inclusive health care system gathered on the Capitol steps to plead their case.

With white signs that read “Insure Idaho!” about 150 Idahoans rallied
over rising health and prescription drug costs, the increasing burden on
small business owners and the plight of the uninsured.

“Insurance is a necessity, not a luxury,” activist Jesus Torres told the crowd.

The rally kicked off what backers described as a new community alliance for affordable health care that will push for “transparency, integrity and accountability.”

The Legislature’s here

At noon on Monday, the House and Senate will convene, and then, at 7 p.m. Mountain time, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne will give his combined State of the State address and budget message to a joint session of the Idaho Legislature. This is it – the governor will set the agenda, and then, for the next three months, we’ll see what state lawmakers do with it.

You can listen to the House and Senate sessions and to the governor’s address live on the Web at www.idahoptv.org, and the speech also will be broadcast statewide on Idaho Public TV.

9th Circuit says ‘pimp’ can be compliment

According to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, “rollin’ deep” means “driving along in a cool car;” “kick flavor” means “to perform, to be entertaining; to “scope” means to “evaluate a member of the opposite sex visually;” and a “hottie” is “an attractive or sexually promiscuous person of the opposite sex.”

So why is the high court defining slang and hip-hop terms? Because Evel Knievel has lost his defamation suit against ESPN. That’s right. The famous daredevil, whose notorious feats included risking his life on national television in an unsuccessful 1974 attempt jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket-powered motorcycle, filed a defamation suit against ESPN. He had attended ESPN’s Action Sports and Music Awards in 2001, and ESPN then published a photo of him at the affair on its extreme sports website.

Knievel’s objection was the caption accompanying the photo, which showed him wearing a motorcycle jacket and rose-tinted sunglasses, with his right arm around wife Krystal and his left around another young woman. The caption read, “Evel Knievel proves that you’re never too old to be a pimp.”

After a Montana court threw out the defamation suit filed by Evel and Krystal Knievel, the couple appealed to the 9th Circuit. But a three-judge panel sided 2-1 with the Montana court, saying the photo, which was displayed on the website for six days, could only be viewed after seeing nine others ahead of it, each showing celebrities at the event with slangy, flip captions, many of which clearly aren’t literally true. The language, the court majority wrote, is “lighthearted, jocular, and intended for a youthful audience.”

Although the Knievels’ lawyer argued that “pimp” was always an insult where he grew up, the court noted that “today it’s a very ambiguous term, used as either a compliment or an insult towards a male. In its positive form, it means that the person is ‘cool.’ In its negative form, it insults their attitudes, clothing, or general behavior.” The word also sometimes is used “when complimenting a person on their mastery of the subject matter,” the judges wrote.

“Read in the context of the satirical, risqué, and sophomoric slang found on the rest of the site, the word ‘pimp’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as a criminal accusation,” the majority concluded.

The dissenting judge, however, noted that the dictionary definition of “pimp” still suggests it’s a word for a criminal, a man who solicits clients for a prostitute. He favored allowing the case to go to trial.

In addition to the definitions of the various slang terms, the court opinion features an interesting rundown of Knievel’s career as a motorcycle daredevil – including “setting a world record in 1971 when he cleared 19 Dodge cars” – and an extended quote from Shakespeare in the dissent – pretty good reading for a court record.

New justice sworn in

Former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones donned the black robe and took his seat Monday as Idaho’s newest state Supreme Court justice. After Chief Justice Gerald F. Schroeder administered the oath of office to Jones, there were some remarks by people who have known and worked with Jones over the years.

Among them: Attorney Jack McMahon, who recalled the day many years ago when Jones called him at the Public Utilities Commission to ask why he hadn’t applied for the job of chief deputy to the attorney general. “I said I didn’t have one of the necessary credentials,” McMahon recalled, “… I didn’t have an ‘R’ after my name.”

Jones, a Republican, made it clear that McMahon was to do the job, and “never to let politics have anything to do with it,” McMahon recalled. “His first and foremost client was the people of the state of Idaho.”

McMahon also said word has it that a former Supreme Court justice was welcomed to the court because he’d reduce its workload, because the attorney in question had brought so many appeals to the high court. “If anybody’s brought more appeals than Jim Jones, I don’t know who,” McMahon said. “He’s been up here 27 times in the last 10 years, and won 17 of them.”

Attorney Clive Strong recalled Jones’ penchant for practical jokes, particularly around April Fools Day, and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne lauded Jones’ service to his fellow veterans. Jones is a much-decorated Vietnam veteran, who also served two four-year terms as Idaho attorney general and worked many years as an attorney in Jerome and Boise.

Jones told a packed court chamber that he looks forward to working on the high court. “Despite what you hear, the people here do get along, they enjoy working together and they are dedicated to justice,” he said.

Said the new justice, “I see the law being the glue that holds our society together, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to keep that glue there.”

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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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