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Eye On Boise

Archive for March 2005

Not such an emergency after all

The lawyers have determined that a minor error in the legislation approving the Nez Perce water rights agreement does need to be corrected, but it didn’t need to be corrected before midnight tonight. That’s the deadline for all parties to approve the agreement – and they have. The House Ways & Means Committee introduced legislation to fix the error earlier today and the House then quickly passed it. The Senate may get to it tomorrow.

He’s ‘not very happy’ with boost

The conference committee has agreed unanimously to split the difference, and give tobacco wholesalers a roughly $300,000-a-year windfall at state expense, rather than the $800,000 to $1 million they wanted or the $500,000 or so the Senate agreed to give them.

“I think that they want to balance their budgets on the backs of small businesses in the state of Idaho, that’s what I think,” snapped Jerry Deckard, lobbyist for the wholesalers, after the vote. He and partner Roger Seiber had presented sketchy figures to the panel showing that three wholesalers estimate their costs to affix stamps on cigarette packs at anywhere from 2.8 to 3.4 cents per pack, while the current law just gives them about 1.48 cents a pack. But he didn’t mention that the number of packs sold in Idaho is dropping steadily – which presumably increases their take from the state per pack.

The conference committee voted to set the wholesalers’ cut at 3.3 percent, rather than the current 2.61 percent or the Senate’s proposed 4 percent. Asked if he wasn’t happy with the boost, Deckard said, “Not very happy – not after I demonstrated what the actual costs are.”

The conference committee is still ironing out differences on how to distribute the cigarette tax proceeds, and will go back to work momentarily after a break to meet with legislative leaders.

Capitol in turmoil

The whole state capitol is in turmoil, with lobbyists, agencies and legislators scrambling to see if their bills have been vetoed, House and Senate members pointing fingers at each other, and everyone who thought they were about to go home going nuts instead. To top it all off, state officials have discovered a last-minute error in already-passed legislation on the Nez Perce water rights agreement, and now have to rush through a correction – which has to pass both houses and receive the governor’s signature today, the deadline for final approval of the agreement. Meanwhile, Rep. JoAn Wood, the House Transportation chairwoman whose committee kicked off the mayhem yesterday by sidetracking the governor’s roads bill, remained intransigent as of a few minutes ago. Asked if her committee will be meeting again soon, she said, “We would if we had anything to do.” Here’s the list of the vetoed House bills: HB 280, 188a, 70, 277, 68, 54, 193 and 38.

VETOED - times eight!

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne just slammed his big, red VETO stamp down on eight House bills – that’s eight – and declared, “Every House bill that comes down here is veto fodder.”
The governor’s angry that a House committee sidetracked his $1.6 billion statewide highway construction proposal yesterday, and he’s flexing his veto muscle to make sure the plan gets back on track. Legislators won’t be finishing their session until they work with Kempthorne on the road bill, he warned. “I’m willing to stay as long as it takes,” he said. “So I’m going to take care of some of these House bills.”
That said, he slammed the VETO stamp onto each of the eight bills with a loud bang, one after another. “And I’ve got a whole lot of other bills I can take care of,” Kempthorne warned, pointing to a stack of 47 other House bills that are awaiting his signature. “It is time for us to have cooperation.”

The vetoed bills dealt with everything from agriculture to parks to child protection to income taxes. “Some of ‘em have merit,” Kempthorne said.

The road plan, which would utilize GARVEE bonds to borrow against future federal highway allocations, is a centerpiece of Kempthorne’s legislative agenda this year. It includes major upgrades to U.S. Highway 95, the accident-plagued road that’s the state’s only north-south highway. “That is legislation … that provides for the safety and well-being of our citizens when they travel the highways,” the governor said. “I’m determined that we are going to connect Idaho.”

Not in the governor’s possible-veto stack are four bills implementing a multimillion-dollar water settlement. They’re House bills, but they’re waiting right now on the Senate calendar, and haven’t been voted on yet there. “The indication I’ve gotten from the Senate leadership is that they may not take up the water bills so that they can protect them,” Kempthorne said. “That’s probably a good idea.”

Senators seek payoff to tobacco sellers

Incredibly, when the amendments to the cigarette tax bill came out in the Senate today, they included raising the percentage payout to tobacco wholesalers. A lobbyist for the wholesalers, Jerry Deckard, had made a pitch unsuccessfully to raise their take from 2.61 percent of the tax to 5 percent. That got rejected in the House, and generated little enthusiasm at a committee hearing this morning – but senators at the last minute decided to give them 4 percent.

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, estimated that upping the figure to 5 percent would have given the wholesalers a $1 million-a-year windfall, at state expense. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, co-sponsor of the Senate amendments, said he thought that figure really was closer to just $800,000.

Either way, that’s a cool half-million bucks that senators decided the tobacco wholesalers should pick up, in exchange for stamping cigarettes. They’ll do the same amount of stamping or less – the amount of cigarettes sold in Idaho is dropping.

The other amendments make the current tax rate of 57 cents a pack permanent, direct the gains from the tax in the second year and thereafter to renovating the state Capitol, and raise amounts going to a tumor registry and anti-cancer program back to match current allotments, which the bill earlier had dropped slightly.

Senators just passed the amended bill on a 29-6 vote.

The ugly ties are out

There’s a tradition among Statehouse reporters, started by the famed Bob Fick, formerly of the Associated Press, that when the legislative session has dragged on long enough, reporters start wearing hideously ugly ties, in an effort to prompt lawmakers to wrap it up – so they can stop looking at the unsightly things. This being the 80th day of the session, the nasty-looking neckwear is out on display. Reporters Corey Taule, of the Idaho Falls Post Register, and Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Statesman are among those today sporting ‘70s-era ties that have been moldering in the Statehouse basement for years. Some legislative pages and at least one legislator have also gotten into the act. Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, is wearing a black-checked affair complete with a prominent hanging price tag from “Savers,” a local thrift shop.

Ah, the politics

The Senate Local Government & Tax Committee voted this morning to amend the bill extending Idaho’s cigarette tax rate of 57 cents a pack for two more years. Without the bill, the rate would drop back down to 28 cents a pack.

Senators want to consider making the rate permanent. But that’s not the only amendment that could be in the works. Anti-cancer advocates told the committee this morning that Rep. Jim Clark’s bill lowers the distribution to two health funds by one percentage point each, and that change would lose them just enough money that they’d lose their federal grants – worth over a million dollars. They want the point added back in.

And Jerry Deckard, a lobbyist for tobacco wholesalers, told the committee that his industry wants its 2.61 percent cut for the cost of affixing tax stamps on cigarettes to be raised back up to 5 percent, its level before the tax increase two years ago. “We believed at that point in time it was appropriate for everyone to share in the pain,” Deckard told the committee, but no more. “We think we’re due.”

The only problem with that: The reason the percentage was lowered was to keep the wholesalers’ revenue even, as the tax rate nearly doubled. Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said by his calculations, kicking the wholesalers’ cut back up to 5 percent would give them “about a million-dollar windfall” – and that’s per year. His House bill as originally drafted didn’t mention the wholesalers’ rate, and House GOP Caucus Chairman Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, caught the omission and wrote it into the bill before it was introduced to avoid handing an extra million dollars a year in state money over to the wholesalers.

After hearing from Clark, the Senate committee wasn’t looking very excited about Deckard’s pitch, but any senator can offer amendments to the bill when it comes up for amending. Some still want to use the bill to lash out at Indian tribes by attempting to tax reservation sales. The bill could be amended in the Senate as soon as this afternoon.

O, what a scene of foolery

The Idaho Legislature has adjourned on April Fools Day twice before – on April 1, 1994, closing an 82-day session, and on April 1, 1987, ending an 80-day session.

But Boise State University political scientist Jim Weatherby points out that lawmakers appear to have intentionally avoided an April Fools Day ending many other times, ending in the four days preceding it nine times since 1967, including three adjournments on March 31st. “What I remember is past legislatures avoiding an April Fools Day adjournment, but when they actually happen, I don’t recall a lot of fallout,” said Weatherby, a longtime watcher of Idaho politics. “They’ve hovered around that, and flirted with it many times, but it was only those two sessions. I don’t remember any extraordinary amount of abuse heaped upon them.”

So why would lawmakers be shy of the date? “I mean, it’s just setting themselves up for ridicule on that day, clearly,” Weatherby said, “but it was interesting to me – I don’t remember, nothing really stands out that they were terribly embarrassed by adjourning on that day.”

Word is, they’re talking

The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee is expected to vote today on the landmark Nez Perce water rights agreement, but it hasn’t happened yet. Word is that the committee opened its meeting to public comment from tribal members, and that’s been going on for hours.

Water bills clear the House

It took two long hours of hard debate, but the House just passed three major water bills – including the funding bill that addresses a southern Idaho water crisis and also funds a series of North Idaho water projects.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said funding the North Idaho projects will help avoid a crisis in North Idaho’s future like that now facing the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. “If we are not able to fund these projects right now, we will have a bigger water problem than we have right now,” he said. The North Idaho projects include studying the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, monitoring the use and re-use of water in the region, and more.

Several representatives said the water issue is a statewide one, and a statewide approach is appropriate. “We’re all in this together,” said Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

The bills, in the end, passed easily, and now head to the Senate. HB 373a, allowing the purchase of water rights at Bell Rapids and setting up bonding authority and a revolving loan fund at the Idaho Department of Water Resources, passed 65-4. HB 374a, expanding the role of water districts in dealing with the issue, passed 64-6. HB 392, the funding bill, passed 63-7. All of North Idaho’s representatives voted in favor of the bills, except for Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who voted against the first and third, and Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, who voted against the second.

A fourth bill that completes the package is being reworked and a new version is scheduled to be introduced tomorrow morning in the House Ways and Means Committee. That’s the measure that makes water district membership mandatory.

Backers of the bills in the House today said Idaho is facing a drought of biblical proportions, even though it’s been raining out today. Said Bedke, “Remember that God will help those who help themselves.”

Wow - they just did it all

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee just finished a marathon meeting in which it resolved virtually every remaining funding issue of the legislative session, from a multimillion-dollar water settlement to raises for state employees. Starting with a 7:30 a.m. worksession, the 20-member committee worked straight through to 11:10 a.m. – with a fuming Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis standing in the doorway as the joint panel worked more than an hour past the time the Senate was supposed to convene, leaving the whole Senate waiting.

“A very visionary group we have here this morning – and brave, indeed,” said Co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, as the panel voted unanimously in favor of the giant water funding bill, which funds a series of North Idaho projects as well as addressing a southern Idaho water crisis.

Here are some highlights of the decisions:

RAISES: State employees won’t get any raises at all next year unless the year-end budget balance for the state is at least $22.3 million more than current projections show will be there. Then, if that money does show up, they’d get just a one-time bonus averaging 1 percent, distributed by merit. Public school employees would get a similar deal – up to a 1 percent bonus if that extra money shows up – but no public school employee who makes more than $68,625 a year would be eligible for any of it. Democrats objected to the plans, and they passed on party-line votes.

WATER: Idaho would spend $28.5 million during the current budget year - $21.3 million from the general fund and $7.2 million from unexpected liquor funds due to increased sales – to pay for the first phase of a southern Idaho water deal, including buying out water rights at Bell Rapids. Much of that would be repaid with 3 percent interest by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Then, the state would spend $4.45 million in state general funds and $1.2 million in other funds next year for a statewide water funding package that includes programs at the Idaho Department of Water Resources, the Soil Conservation Commission, the DEQ, and more, and gives one-time funding to four North Idaho water projects – the Rathdrum Prairie Collaborative Study, Rathdrum aquifer spring and well monitoring, Palouse Basin Aquifer projects, and a Rathdrum Prairie effluent study.

FISH & GAME FEES: The panel approved spending authority to allow Fish & Game to increase fees by about 10 percent, as called for under a bill now pending in the Senate, but objected to some of the spending plans, including $100,000 for public opinion surveys.

Other decisions covered funding for various bills that are working their way through the Legislature or have already passed, from contractor licensing – which will increase the Bureau of Occupational Licenses workload by 70 percent – to drug lab cleanups.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, gave Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the finance vice-chairwoman, full credit for getting the North Idaho projects included in the statewide water bills. “Those projects would not be in there save for her – she has worked very diligently to make sure that North Idaho interests were equally represented as South Idaho,” Cameron said.

Or, perhaps, if someone else were quiet…

After the Senate’s sound system repeatedly failed, buzzed, and went in and out this morning, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis informed the Senate that there were a number of things that would be tried to see if they could get it working. The plan, he wisecracked, would require Sen. Bert Marley to remain silent for the rest of the day. Marley, D-McCammon, who often disagrees with his GOP colleague from Idaho Falls, of course did nothing of the sort.

Pushing toward adjournment

Both houses of the Legislature are trying, in their own way, to wrap up the legislative session. But with the Easter weekend coming up, the Senate plans to quit at noon on Friday – Good Friday – and the House won’t be in session at all. Then, the Senate plans to take Monday off, while the House is in session. Still, both say the three-month legislative session could end next week. Today is the session’s 74th day.

Last year at this time, it was all over – the 2004 session was 69 days long and ended on March 20.

Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?

Just as Rep. Jim Clark was ready to start his opening debate in the House today on SB 1074a, the dog racing simulcasting bill, his neighbor, Rep. Ken Roberts, turned on some music. As “Who let the dogs out??” pulsed through the House chambers, Clark drew a laugh from his fellow legislators that may have helped the bill pass 51-19.

The measure allows the off-track betting on simulcasts of horse and dog races now conducted at the Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park to move to another location in Kootenai County if the park’s owners sell the building or convert it to other uses. Having earlier passed the Senate, the bill now goes to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

And they say they’re pro-business

Jaws are still dropping over anti-abortion activist David Ripley’s comments to the House Health and Welfare Committee yesterday that a proposed family-planning bill would be a way “for the government to get deeper into the sex-facilitation business.”

Birth-control pills replacing God?

For anyone who missed it, here’s the central part of Rep. Janice McGeachin’s tearful tirade in the House Health and Welfare Committee yesterday against a bill that would have given some low-income Idaho mothers, age 19 or older, access to cancer screenings, family planning and contraception.

McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said, “While I personally understand the importance of having good family planning, I also represent a large constituency that doesn’t even believe that contraception is necessary or correct or even appropriate in their lives and they have a really difficult time … using their tax dollars to support that.”

She continued, “It’s very upsetting to me when our U.S. Supreme Court says we can’t pledge allegiance to our God and we can’t have prayer in our school and we can’t have a Bible in our school, and yet we can have this. … It’s not the proper role of government.”

An end in sight?

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis told the Senate this morning that the plan is for the Senate to adjourn at noon this Friday, then not meet on Monday, to allow the House to catch up on pending legislation. Then, if all works as planned, both houses would plan to wrap up the legislative session Wednesday.

Corporate incentive bills triumph in House

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s corporate tax incentive package – which gives an array of tax breaks to companies that bring in 500 new high-paying jobs and spend $50 million in the state – passed overwhelmingly in the House just now, as did another bill to give similar breaks to small employers who bring in as few as 10 jobs paying $40,000 a year.

Among North Idaho representatives, just Reps. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, and Phil Hart, R-Athol, voted against the governor’s bill, HB 306. They said it would only worsen the property tax burden homeowners are facing. “If you give tax breaks to huge companies, you’re shifting it to others,” Hart told the House. The bill passed, 61-9, and now moves to the Senate.

The small-employer bill passed with only two no votes, from Reps. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, and Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins.

Broadsword speaks out

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, wants everyone to know why she voted in favor of HB 33, the bill to define “economically viable alternative” to field-burning as only something that achieves the same agricultural results and costs farmers no more in the short or long term. All other North Idaho senators opposed the bill, arguing in part that it will discourage the search for alternatives to the practice, even if they cost only a tiny bit more than burning.

“I have constituents who are grass-field burners and I have constituents who live in the area that gets the smoke,” Broadsword said. “I think we need to encourage our farmers to keep farming.” She said if the Rathdrum Prairie were developed into homes and streets rather than left as grass seed fields, “you’re putting more pollution into the air.”

“I have sympathy with folks who have asthma – in fact, I have asthma myself,” Broadsword said. But she said the burning last summer lasted just a few days. “It was an inconvenience,” she said.

She also noted that the definition of “economically viable alternative” that the bill writes into law “has been upheld in court.” Opponents of field-burning sued the state over the state agriculture director’s determination for two years that there was no economically viable alternative, so field-burning should be allowed. He opted to use the strict definition of viable alternatives that now is proposed in the bill, and the state won both cases. The bill, which is now on Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s desk, writes that stringent definition into state law.

Any debate on ‘this good bill?’

Lt. Gov. Jim Risch added a rare editorial comment on a bill as he presided over the Senate today. “Is there further debate on this good bill?” Risch asked, drawing startled glances from some freshman senators. The bill in question was HB 178, to require child safety seats or booster seats for kids up to age 6. Idaho law currently requires safety seats only for those under age 4 or under 40 pounds.

Risch’s daughter-in-law, Jeannette Risch, brought a similar bill to the Legislature in 2003, and it overwhelmingly passed the Senate, but died in a House committee. This time around, the bill passed and was sent to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Rep. Anderson is on the move

The first annual “Legislators on the Move” competition winners were announced today, and Priest Lake Rep. Eric Anderson finished in 5th place by logging 510, 981 steps, or roughly 255 miles. Nearly a third of the Legislature (28 lawmakers) signed up for the contest, which was sponsored by Regence BlueShield of Idaho. They all were given pedometers that tracked how many steps they took over the past six weeks.

Rep. Darrel Bolz, R-Caldwell, grabbed first place and gets $5,000 from the health insurance company to give to a school of his choice for fitness-related causes. The marathon runner amassed 746,686 steps. Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, took second and Rep. Mark Snodgrass, R-Meridian, finished in third place.

Asked what the secret to his success was, Anderson simply said, “Golf.” He gets $250 to hand out to any school he chooses.

Legislative horse-trading time

Here’s a hint as to why Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, was so hot to get a compromise bill passed to substitute for HB 143, the bill that would’ve removed the authority from the state DEQ to review many water and wastewater system plans – even though Compton made it clear he hated HB 143, calling it a “crappy, crappy bill.” The sponsor of HB 143, House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, was holding Compton’s simulcasting bill hostage in the House.

Compton’s bill, SB 1074, is designed to allow the off-track betting on simulcasts of horse and dog races that now occurs at the Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park to move to another location within Kootenai County if the park’s owner sell their facility or convert it to another use. It passed the Senate on a 24-11 vote on Feb. 24th. But instead of popping up for a House committee hearing, SB 1074 went to House Ways and Means – the leadership-controlled committee that is used to bury bills or hold them hostage when that’s politically expedient.

After Compton’s committee voted, at his urging, to introduce a new compromise bill to replace HB 143, the Ways and Means Committee met and agreed to refer the simulcasting bill to the House State Affairs Committee, where it is scheduled for a hearing on Monday.

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, is the House Ways and Means chairman, and he said he favors SB 1074, and in fact plans to sponsor it. But he went along with the leadership’s order to hold the bill all this time because that’s his role as Ways and Means chairman. “I do what I’m told to do,” Clark said.

Once every 11 years

Because state employees are paid every two weeks, a quirk of the calendar means that once every 11 years, there’s an additional paycheck within the state’s fiscal year. That’s because there’s slightly more than 52 weeks in a year, and over the years, those extra days cycle around until there’s an extra pay period. Next year is the year, and lawmakers have to come up with the money – which isn’t a raise for state workers, who still just get their paychecks every two weeks.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has decided to get the necessary $29 million largely from an “economic recovery reserve fund” that the state set up to hold money from the second year of a cigarette tax increase. They’ll take about $16.5 million from that fund, which will use up all but about $3 million of the fund. The rest will go into the state’s general fund, and may help fund a water settlement. Federal and dedicated funds within agency budgets that go for payroll expenses will make up the rest of the 27th payroll expense.

JFAC members groused a little about the process, and wondered if they couldn’t come up with some better approach before it happens again in another 11 years. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, the Legislature’s youngest member, turned to Rep. Frances Field, R-Grand View, one of the oldest. “Frances and I will volunteer to work on it,” McGee said to laughter.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, retorted, “I know Frances will be here.” McGee is serving his first term; Field is in her 11th.

Water funding bill in the works?

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, dropped a somewhat tantalizing hint as she was pitching the Idaho Department of Water Resources budget bill to the Senate this morning. She had noted that the budget includes funding for a feasibility analysis of adjudicating water rights in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. That brought a question from Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, about the rest of the water projects recommended by a North Idaho working group that met over the summer and fall, as part of a giant interim committee looking at statewide water problems.

Keough acknowledged that the rest of those projects – along with other projects around the state – aren’t in the IDWR budget. She told the Senate, “It is my understanding and I believe there is a commitment that we will take a look at those projects missing from this budget in an end-of-the-session water omnibus bill.”

GARVEE bonds pass Senate

In the end, there were only four votes against Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s proposal to fund $1.6 billion in highway construction through GARVEE bonds, which bond against future federal highway allocations. The measure cleared the Senate on a 30-4 vote, after a bid to amend the bill failed 9-24.

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, talked about all the people who have died on dangerous U.S. Highway 95 – 29 just last year. “They would say, my God, let’s fix a piece of road that we’ve been talking about for years, and stop killing people,” Compton said. He called the plan “one of the boldest and most creative that I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been in this body.”

The bill, SB 1183, now moves to the House.

What lurks under the dome

Workers who have been cleaning and repairing the state Capitol dome have discovered something interesting as they work on the small dome that sits atop the larger dome, 288 feet up in the air. The smaller dome has a silver coating, but it’s just layers of paint and gunk. It appears that the dome underneath may be made of honey-colored sandstone, just like the rest of the historic building – at least according to “initial scrapings,” says Jan Frew of the state Division of Public Works.

The workers, who are accessing the high dome via a small cage of scaffolding that’s been set up around it, also are cleaning and repairing the eagle that tops the dome. The eagle is bronze-plated copper, and with its pedestal, is 5 feet 7 inches high.

Just don’t look back

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, was carrying a bill on penalties for inattentive driving when House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, interrupted him with this question: “Would this take care of the driving habits of the gentleman from (District) 1?”

Harwood responded, “I’m not sure anything would take care of the driving habits of the gentleman from 1.” Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, then jumped up to announce, “Just a point of clarification – that would be the gentleman from 1B.”

Rep. George Eskridge, the District 1B representative, leaned back in his chair with a grin. But once the bill, SB 1067, had passed on a 57-12 vote, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb offered an explanation for the comments. During a trip up north, he said, he and other members of leadership “had an occasion to ride with him, and we almost got run over by a semi truck.” Later, at a town meeting, Newcomb said, a local told him that any atheist new arrival to the area is “required to ride with George so he can get in touch with his personal savior.”

At that point, Eskridge stood, and declared, “I would remind the speaker that he and the passengers got there safely, and the logging truck was behind them – you can’t get run over by something that’s behind you.”

Dead, dead, dead - times seven

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee officially killed seven homeowner property-tax relief bills this morning, opting instead to call for an interim committee to study the issue and develop proposals for next year.

Meanwhile, North Idaho folks are planning to rally for property tax reform Thursday on the courthouse steps at 5:15 p.m., with red, white and blue balloons and plenty of outrage. There are loud rumblings about a voter initiative.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, who proposed one of the bills, joined the committee’s other three Democrats in opposing their summary dismissal. “I feel a little caught in the middle here,” he said. Sayler said he wants to trust that the interim committee will bring about real change. But, he said, “Even as we speak, in my hometown there’s a demonstration going on on the courthouse steps on this very issue.”

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I was hoping that we could do at least one of these bills to show that we are concerned. … I am discouraged that we were not able to get at least one of these bills out of here.”

Committee Chairwoman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, said, “I can see no better way to do it in a focused manner and not a piecemeal manner, than to do it in this committee that will deal only with that one subject. We’ve had these bills in here for years. It’s such a complicated matter. It’s easy to pass a bill. The hard part is to plug the hole that’s created.”

License plate bill against license plate bills

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, got worked up enough as she ran down the list of causes that want new specialty license plates in Idaho that she told the House there are even proposals to benefit “spraying and neutering of pets.”

Wood, the House Transportation chairwoman, sponsored HB 101a to ban any new special license plates in Idaho beyond those approved this year. Three new ones are pending right now, in addition to the 54 on the books.

“Enough is enough,” Wood declared.

Opponents disagreed, saying specialty plates raise money for good causes and people like them. “I don’t know why we’re so dead-set on taking something away from people that they happen to enjoy,” said Rep. Kathy Skippen, R-Emmett.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said 86,000 Idahoans had some kind of specialty plate in 2004. She herself has three – two bluebird plates and one Lewis & Clark. She told the House, “If everybody wanted to get one, we could sell 15 times that many, so think of the potential there. I think this is a program that people enjoy.”

But the House voted 36-32 to pass Wood’s bill, which now moves to the Senate.

Of all things

The Idaho National Guard has been plenty busy of late, what with its largest deployment in history under way. But now comes word that the Guard has discovered a new species of wildlife – never seen before – on its training site in southern Idaho.

“This animal, from all accounts never seen before anywhere else in the world, has been found south of Boise on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation area, some of which is under the stewardship of the Idaho National Guard,” according to a media advisory from Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, the Idaho Guard’s public affairs officer.

The Guard will hold a news conference tomorrow at Gowen Field to announce the discovery and show video of the critter.

Nez Perce agreement heads to full Senate

There was just one “no” vote, from Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, as the Senate State Affairs Committee voted this morning to approve the landmark Nez Perce Water Rights Agreement. The pact now heads to the full Senate. If it passes there, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has promised to sign it into law. To take effect, the agreement, already approved by Congress and the president, needs approval from the state and the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee by March 31.

A birthday budget

After months and months of intensive study and long hearings by a variety of committees and subcommittees, lawmakers set a budget for Medicaid this morning that adds $10 million above the governor’s recommendation to cover expected increases in caseloads. That comes after every other piece of the state Health & Welfare budget was closely scrutinized and various savings were targeted, to allow more money to go into medical care.

Health and Welfare Director Karl Kurtz, looking fit and healthy after months of recovering from a serious illness, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, “We are very delighted and very pleased with the actions of the committee.”

What he didn’t say – but lawmakers quickly pointed out – was that today is his birthday.

“Director Kurtz, here the birthday person brings the cake,” committee Co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell said to laughter.

Clark chairs first meeting - finally

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, chaired his first committee meeting today – two months into the legislative session. That’s because the panel that he chairs, the House Ways & Means Committee, typically isn’t called into session until the speaker of the House wants to quickly push something through.

Today, Clark’s committee introduced two bills – one sponsored by House Assistant Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and the Idaho Association of Counties, to address the burden of proof in property tax appeals, and one from House Health & Welfare Committee Chairwoman Sharon Block to start requiring co-payments for prescriptions for some Medicaid patients.

Clark said he lost a bet – he had figured his leadership-dominated committee wouldn’t meet until March 15.

Noh more to say

Former longtime Sen. Laird Noh was in the midst of his testimony on the Nez Perce water rights agreement when Senate State Affairs Chairman Don Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, cut him off – his three minutes were up.

“Y’know, I’ve always wanted to do that,” Burtenshaw said to laughter.

“Mr. Chairman, I’ve never wanted to be caught,” Noh responded.

Several senators then had questions for Noh, who as the longtime Senate Resources chairman helped negotiate the agreement. Then it was Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett’s turn. “You played a key role in getting us to this point, and I want to ask whatever question is necessary to allow you to finish your testimony,” Stennett said.

Noh took the hint, and did so.

Nez Perce hearing

So far, today’s Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on the Nez Perce water rights agreement is a little more low-key than the earlier House committee hearings. Only about 100 people are in the audience at Boise City Hall, while two or three times that many packed the earlier hearings at Boise State University. And many of those scheduled to testify this morning also testified at the House hearings.

But senators are asking different kinds of questions than their House counterparts, including legal questions about the ins and outs of the complicated agreement, court decisions, precedents and so forth.

“We’re still going to get all of the benefit of Judge Wood’s decision – it will stand,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said while questioning Roger Ling of the Federal Claims Coalition.

He and other senators noted that Idaho Judge Barry Wood’s earlier decision to reject the Nez Perce Tribe’s off-reservation instream flow water claims addressed just a small part of what’s covered by the far-reaching water rights agreement.

But Dan Johnson, executive director of the North Idaho Jurisdictional Alliance, who testified next, told the panel that the earlier decision “should be the end of the discussion – the state should stand by their guns.”

This afternoon, public testimony will be taken. Among those waiting to testify are representatives of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which held a press conference on the state Capitol steps yesterday and threatened to sue the state, the federal government and the Nez Perce if the agreement is enacted.

The Sho-Bans claimed that the agreement wrongly includes water that’s within their aboriginal land boundaries. But state officials have dismissed those claims, saying The Sho-Bans voluntarily withdrew their water rights claims in the Snake River Basin Adjudication in court proceedings several years ago.

The agreement already has been approved by Congress and the president. To take effect, it needs approval from the state and the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee by March 31.

Land board mad at legislators

Idaho’s Land Board members – who include the governor, the attorney general, the state superintendent of schools, the secretary of state and the state controller – are ticked at the Legislature for backing them into a corner on school endowment funding.

The Land Board a year ago lowered expected payouts to beneficiaries, including public schools, from the state’s permanent endowment funds, based on earnings. But when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee got ready to set the public school budget, it decided to rely on the fund paying schools a 5 percent payout rather than the 4 percent the board earlier had set.

Various staff members from JFAC, the Endowment Board and the Land Board worked on the plan, and several Land Board members were consulted. But the board as a whole didn’t appreciate JFAC acting before the board made the call. New projections that the state will make an extra $5 million from increased timber harvests on state endowment lands next year allow the increased funding, which would give the public schools an additional $4 million-plus next year.

“I’m concerned when I hear discussion that perhaps there’s a challenge that’s been issued by one branch to another,” Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said. “I don’t think that serves the public.”

Said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, “The horse has left the barn and running, and this horse is still at the starting gate. I don’t quarrel with the figures – I quarrel with the process.”

The Endowment Board met in an emergency meeting this morning and approved the 5 percent payout. After much discussion, the Land Board then also voted to approve the figure, during its meeting this morning, over the objections of state Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard.

“This to me is going a dangerous step forward by giving a signal that, in a sense, it’s OK to balance the budget with money that’s intended to be a consistent stream over time for the schools of this state,” she said.

Ysursa declared that the Endowment Fund “is not and will not ever, on our watch, turn into the water pollution control fund,” a fund lawmakers traditionally have tapped into to cover a variety of budget shortfalls. “This fund is too important for that.”

The Land Board called legislative budget director Jeff Youtz forward and worked him over, giving him plenty to pass along to JFAC about how to do such things in the future. “This has been a good discussion – Jeff, I’m glad you were here,” Kempthorne said. “We did not accept anyone’s perception that this was a challenge. We don’t want to get into that, because we have the last say.”

Bicycle bill rolls on through

Sen. Joyce Broadsword’s compromise bill on when bicyclists should have to stop for red lights cleared the Senate today on a 29-3 vote, with the only surprise by that point being that anyone voted against it.

From a brouhaha that had cyclists swarming committee hearings and safety concerns clashing, the issue has been settled way down by the latest bill, SB 1131. It’s a compromise between law enforcement and the bicycling community, Broadsword told the Senate. Rather than the earlier bill, which ordered cyclists to wait at red lights until they turn green, the new one requires cyclists to stop, but then allows them to proceed as long as they yield to traffic. Signals, Broadsword explained, “don’t change for a bicycle, and they don’t want to wait there all night.” In the earlier committee hearings, bicyclists also argued that it’s not safe for them to wait until signals turn green because that puts them with the traffic, rather than separate from it, and cars are likely to turn right and hit them.

The only votes against the bill came from senior GOP Sens. Dean Cameron of Rupert, Denton Darrington of Declo and Bart Davis of Idaho Falls, none of whom said why they opposed the bill. It now moves to the House.

Noble’s statement to the Senate

Sen. Jack Noble submitted this written statement to the Senate this afternoon:

“Dear Mr. President: I was present this morning with council(sic) in the Senate Committee on Ethics for the debate and adoption of the Report on my conduct. I was extended every courtesy, treated fairly, and given proper consideration by Chairman Hill and the members of the Committee. I wish to repeat my apology to you, to the entire Senate, and to the Committee on Ethics for the actions which caused this process. I stand ready to accept the judgement of my colleagues on the floor when the Report is received. Sincerely, Senator Jack Noble”

Senate-passed bills went in ‘a hole’

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb has assigned a bill to expand family-planning services to more low-income Idaho women to a House committee that some of the bill’s backers consider a black hole. The House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Hayden Lake GOP Rep. Jim Clark, hasn’t met yet this session.

The measure passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Another Senate-passed bill, to set up a Medicaid buy-in program for the disabled, also reportedly is headed to the same panel. Newcomb said he plans to hold the bills in Ways and Means until the final weeks of the session, to ensure there’s money in the state budget to cover their costs.

The subject came up during a contentious Senate debate this morning on Senate President Pro-tem Robert Geddes’ decision to assign the contractor registration bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee, rather than the Commerce Committee. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis moved to override that decision, and the Senate split right down the middle, forcing Lt. Gov. Jim Risch to break the tie – which he did by backing Davis.

During the hour-long debate on that move, Coeur d’Alene Sen. Dick Compton expressed concern about how such things work, and alluded to the fate of the family-planning bill, saying, “What the heck’s wrong with this system when the leadership on that side can hand it off and put it in a hole?”

Panel votes to censure Noble

The Senate Ethics Committee has voted to censure Sen. Jack Noble, R-Kuna, for ethics violations, after a vote to expel him from the Senate failed on a 3-3 party-line vote.

If the full Senate approves the committee’s recommendation, Noble will be required to stand in the well of the Senate and receive a verbal rebuke, plus lose any leadership positions he holds. He’s currently vice-chairman of the Senate Education Committee, a position he would no longer have under the recommendation.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he agonized over his vote on the six-member ethics committee. Committee members initially were informed that state legislators can’t be recalled by voters; based on that, Goedde said he’d favor expulsion. But during the early-morning meeting of the panel today, the committee was informed that the Idaho Constitution allows all state elected officials to be recalled, including lawmakers. Goedde said that changed his mind. “It ought to be the voters of his district who weigh his effectiveness,” Goedde told the committee. “For that reason I don’t think I could support expulsion.”

Goedde offered a motion to censure Noble and strip him of membership on all Senate committees except the committee of the whole, but ended up withdrawing that motion. Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, expressed concern that that move might leave Noble’s district with “less representation than the rest of the districts in the state … because of circumstances beyond their control, and how fair is that?”

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the ethics committee chairman, said, “There will be many who will criticize what it is that we did. No one really wins in these situations – everybody loses.”

Noble sat stone-faced through the proceedings, conferring occasionally with his attorney, former Lt. Gov. David Leroy. Leroy said at the end of the meeting that Noble would have a written statement later today in response to the committee’s vote.

Gettin’ a legislative spanking

When House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, asked for unanimous consent to move up the Nez Perce water rights agreement on the House calendar, as planned, Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, threw a wrench into the process by objecting. House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, who was celebrating his 65th birthday that day and already had had his own Tax Committee rebel against him by killing the governor’s corporate incentive tax package, banged his gavel and ordered Barrett into his office.

Five minutes later, Newcomb and Barrett emerged, Barrett saying, “I’ll let everyone think that you gave me a good spanking.”

“I didn’t give you a good spanking,” Newcomb said, laughing. “Well, you tried!” Barrett huffed. “No, I didn’t,” Newcomb said, putting a hand on Barrett’s shoulder as the two went back into the House chamber. There were no further objections to the procedural move, though Barrett debated long and hard against the agreement.

Ethics committee to reconvene Friday

The Senate Ethics Committee adopted its extremely damning findings and conclusions about Sen. Jack Noble (see below), but agreed to allow his attorney, former Idaho Attorney General and Lt. Gov. David Leroy, to submit a written response to those before they make their final decision. The ethics panel – the first one convened in 15 years – will reconvene at 7 a.m. on Friday.

They basically say ‘he did it’

The Senate Ethics Committee is now debating its findings and conclusions in its investigation of Sen. Jack Noble of Kuna. Its draft conclusions, which haven’t yet been adopted, are very serious:

“1. The enactment of SB 1085 would have provided a potential personal monetary benefit to Sen. Noble, even though he and his wife were not personally eligible to be a contract distributor of liquor under existing Idaho State Liquor Dispensary rules, and he should have disclosed that potential personal monetary benefit to the Senate State Affairs Committee.
2. Sen. Noble gave false or deceptive information in response to Senate State Affairs Committee member questions and misled the Senate State Affairs Committee as to the origin of SB 1085.
3. While testifying under oath, Sen. Noble willfully and contrary to his oath provided false information to the Senate Committee on Ethics.”

Oddly, Noble isn’t in the room – he’s sitting just around the corner, at his desk in the Senate chambers.

Might he resign?

Rumors are running wild all over the Statehouse that embattled Sen. Jack Noble, R-Kuna, is about to resign. The Senate Ethics Committee is scheduled to meet in just over an hour to deliberate on whether he should be reprimanded, censured or expelled from the Senate for ethics violations.

What a squeaker!

Sandpoint Sen. Shawn Keough’s passionate defense of SB 1140, a measure to expand family planning services to more low-income Idaho women, helped pull off a one-vote victory today, as the bill passed the Senate on an 18-17 vote. Keough and other backers, including Senate Health & Welfare Chairman Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the measure was one of the few ways Idaho can do something constructive to reduce future Medicaid expenses. Keough noted that nearly 40 percent of Idaho’s births now are paid for by Medicaid.

The bill would provide family planning services, including prenatal care and contraception, but not abortion. However, opponents said it would fund organizations like Planned Parenthood, and tried to tie the measure to everything from abortion to homosexuality.

“I know this is an emotional debate for a lot of folks,” Keough told the Senate, “but this is an important issue, one we cannot ignore.”

All of North Idaho’s senators backed Keough, except for Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake. The bill now moves to the House.

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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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