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Eye On Boise

Archive for November 2005

Citizen group pans closed meetings

The Common Interest, a citizen group dedicated to reducing partisanship and special interest influence, has announced the results of its in-depth study of open legislative committee meetings, one of three issues it selected to examine over the past year. It found that after extensive briefing on all sides of the issue, 95 percent of its members opposed current House and Senate rules allowing committee meetings to be closed for any reason, and 68 percent were “strongly opposed.”

“We regard this as a fundamental violation of the basic principle that the people shouldn’t be excluded from their own business,” said the group’s founder and president, Keith Allred, a Harvard professor and professional mediator. A majority of the group, however, did favor allowing closed meetings under very limited circumstances, including to discuss pending litigation or security matters.

The Legislature currently is facing a lawsuit from the Idaho Press Club, charging that closed meetings of official legislative committees violate the state Constitution. The Idaho Supreme Court will take oral arguments in the case on Jan. 9. Allred said, “If the Press Club prevails before the Supreme Court, committees will likely be required to always be open to the public. However, if the Supreme Court finds that the Legislature has the constitutional authority to close committee meetings … The Common Interest would actively urge legislators to revisit current Senate and House rules.” He added, “Even if the Legislature has the constitutional authority to close committee meetings for any reason, our members – the common citizens of Idaho – do not feel that that is wise policy.”

He invited people to review the extensive briefing materials on the group’s website. “While our members came out decidedly against the current policy, we invite all concerned citizens to review our briefing materials, draw their own conclusions, and share those conclusions with their legislators,” Allred said.

The group also announced the four issues it will focus on for the upcoming legislative session: Property taxes, K-12 education funding, overcrowded prisons, and eminent domain. Members will research the issues, and if the group then takes a strong position one way or the other, will advocate for that position in the Legislature.

The Common Interest now has more than 700 members from all political persuasions and all corners of the state, Allred said. The donation-supported group, whose founding board members also include prominent former legislators from both parties like former Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, and former Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin, D-Orofino, is designed to give citizens who aren’t part of any special interest a chance to have a voice in the political system. All members must commit to voting in the primary and general elections.

Member Anne Hutchinson of Meridian, a retired Hewlett-Packard employee, said, “This gives us a chance to really see the issues and think them through. We get great information on both sides of the issue.”

Said Allred, “The only thing we have in common is that we’re Idahoans who care about the state.”

They said, ‘Please don’t go’

Carl Bianchi’s not-retiring-yet story is better than a certain senator’s. Bianchi, director of legislative services for the state, had announced plans to retire at the end of this month. But with a legislative session looming and no replacement for the director in sight, Bianchi was prevailed upon to stay on a little longer – and he’s agreed to stay until June.

That’s just nothing like the legendary non-retirement of state Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls. Richardson, a nine-term lawmaker, announced several years ago that he was retiring. Colleagues wished him well and lauded his service at a retirement party in the rotunda of the state capitol, complete with cake. Then, he decided to run again instead. He’s still in office.

Federal judge overturns anti-union bill

Back in 2003, Republican legislators who were angry at the state’s teacher’s union pushed through the “Voluntary Contributions Act,” outlawing unions from using dues for political activities, requiring them to pay for political activities out of separate, segregated funds, restricting how they can raise those funds, and banning all payroll deductions for union political activities even if authorized by the employee. The measure also set out criminal penalties for violations. The bill, HB 329, passed the House 40-29 and the Senate 19-16, and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed it into law.

It was blocked by a temporary restraining order that same summer, and now, a federal judge has declared the law unconstitutional, saying it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Not only that, the state conceded in court that all but one of the law’s clauses was unconstitutional, and defended only the ban on payroll deductions.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, in his decision, ruled that the ban was a content-based restriction on speech. “From the expansive universe of conceivable ‘activities,’ the VCA singles out the political for special treatment,” he wrote. “To determine if a payroll deduction runs afoul of the VCA, and warrants criminal sanctions, the content of the activity must be shown to be political and not, say, charitable.”

The law still allowed payroll deductions for other types of activities.

The judge said the law eliminated “the best method for unions to fund political speech. While alternatives exist, they are considerably less effective. With restricted funding, the ability of the unions to engage in political speech will be diminished.”

He did rule in favor of the state in one narrow situation – regarding payroll deduction for state employees for political activities where the state has to pay the cost of the payroll deduction. In that case, the state’s argument that payroll deduction made it partially subsidize the political activity held, the judge said; but if the organization receiving the deduction covered the cost of payroll deduction, it didn’t. He overturned the law entirely with regard to all other employees, including those who work for local government and private employers.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of Idaho unions including the AFL-CIO and unions representing firefighters and teachers.

Speaker says ‘None of that!’

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, issued a stern statement today to members of a legislative interim committee who held a closed-door Republican “caucus” meeting this morning to work out a deal on state employee pay legislation.

“I would like to make it clear as speaker of the House, that OUR policy is that no committee, standing or interim have a session in which a subcommittee meets behind closed doors. … On the House side, our policy is to avoid closed-door meetings of subcommittees and/or regular committees UNLESS it is to gain legal counsel.”

He added, “When someone in a joint committee wants to have a closed-door meeting to discuss issues before the committee, I would instruct House members not to participate. The word ‘caucus’ is an inappropriate term for a joint committee.”

Risch drops out of governor’s race

Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch now says he’ll run for re-election as lieutenant governor – rather than running for governor next year. Risch had been widely expected to challenge U.S. Rep. Butch Otter in the Republican primary this spring – a campaign he’d long anticipated.

Then, at just after 4 p.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, Risch had a press release faxed out from his law office announcing, without explanation, that he’d run for re-election instead. “We have had substantial successes as we have worked to grow Idaho’s economy and provide quality jobs for Idahoans,” Risch said in his release. “Working to improve the quality of life for Idahoans is one of the highest callings of public service, and I look forward to making more progress if re-election to a second term.”

Risch couldn’t be reached on the phone, and his office reported that he and wife Vickie “have left town for the weekend.”

Otter had announced his candidacy for governor unusually early – in December, before he’d even taken the oath of office for his current term in Congress – and begun piling up campaign funds, in what many saw as a pre-emptive strike against rival Risch. Ever since then, Risch has been quashing rumors that he’d drop out of the race in the face of the wealthy, well-connected congressman’s early start.

One other candidate, Democrat Jerry Brady, also has announced he’ll run for governor next year. Current Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is bowing out after his second term.

Announcements, announcements

State Sen. Bert Marley, D-McCammon, will announce his candidacy for state superintendent of schools tomorrow on the Statehouse steps at 1:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Coeur d’Alene High School Principal Steve Casey, a Republican, is making his formal announcement for the same position today.

Already in the race are two other Republicans, businessman Tom Luna and state Rep. Steve Smylie, R-Boise; and one other Democrat, Jana Jones, chief deputy to current Supt. Marilyn Howard.

It could be even worse for E. Idaho

The Idaho Falls Post-Register, in a recent editorial, says Eastern Idaho interests that are challenging the current legislative redistricting plan, claiming it favors North Idaho, “should be careful what they wish for.” Why? Because growth in the past five years, since the 2000 census, has been concentrated in Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties – not in Eastern Idaho.

“Kootenai County has grown so quickly that whatever advantage it got from the redistricting commission has evaporated,” Post-Register editorial writer Marty Trillhaase wrote. “Eastern Idaho’s lawsuit says the north is 13,318 people light for the number of lawmakers assigned to it. But Kootenai County’s population alone has jumped by more than 14,200 since 2000.” That means if updated figures are used, Eastern Idaho could actually lose even more representation, as districts are adjusted to match the population and make sure they still reflect the one-person, one-vote rule.

“As bad as the ‘02 plan was for eastern Idaho, a 2005 plan could be even worse,” Trillhaase wrote. “Until this region figures out how to expand its economy and population to keep up with the western and northern sections of Idaho, every reapportionment will force us to yield legislative clout to those regions. We’re playing a losing game here. There’s no need to rush into the next round.”

Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree

Idaho Tax Commission tax policy manager Dan John attributed this riddle to Mark Twain today at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference: “What’s the difference between a tax man and a taxidermist? The taxidermist leaves the skin.”

And Chris Mooney of the Ada County Realtors reported to the group: “There are only really two groups of people in the state of Idaho that complain about taxes – that’s men and women.”

Just go right ahead and eat

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was touting his Medicaid reform initiative to more than 400 folks at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference today over lunch, when he had a few comments about the high health and financial costs of obesity. The average American gained 10 pounds between 1990 and 2000, Kempthorne said. As the diners glanced uncomfortably at each other, thinking back, the governor added that not coincidentally, during that same period, airlines spent $275 million on additional fuel to carry the extra weight. That brought plenty of laughter, which the governor followed up with: “If you haven’t had your dessert yet, go ahead and eat.”

You can tell the governor is excited

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is clearly excited about his Medicaid reform initiative, which he officially unveiled at a press conference in his office today. The plan, which depends on federal authorities issuing an unprecedented blanket waiver or super-waiver of dozens of federal rules, would vastly simplify Medicaid into three systems aimed at the needs of three different populations: Healthy low-income children and adults, the disabled, and the elderly. The hope is to serve those populations’ distinct medical needs better, while at the same time cutting back on the runaway growth in costs that’s threatening to push Idaho’s Medicaid spending past its education spending by 2021.

“I just think it makes sense,” an enthusiastic Kempthorne said after the press conference, “because if you do nothing, we know the outcome.”

One sign of how excited the governor is: This is the first of his press conferences that I can remember that started right on time. Typically, Kempthorne’s press confabs get going about 10 minutes late, sometimes more; though his press secretary, Mike Journee, loyally reports that the conferences start whenever the governor starts speaking, “so they always start on time.”

Not too flippin’ sweet

What’s up in Preston, Idaho – the town where the popular Napoleon Dynamite movie was filmed? Just today, former Preston Police Chief C. Scott Shaw was sentenced to one to five years in prison for misuse of public money and perjury. And yesterday, the Idaho Attorney General filed a criminal complaint again former Preston Mayor Jay Brent Heusser, charging him with a felony crime of presenting a false claim. The mayor allegedly tried to bill the city for $1,300 for a trip to Washington, D.C. when the county Drug Endowment Fund had already paid for the trip. The police chief pleaded guilty in September to two felonies, using public money for personal purposes and then lying about it under oath in a lawsuit over his firing as chief.

The local Chamber of Commerce likes to proclaim, “There’s something for everyone in Preston, Idaho!!”

Senator says he ‘drilled’ oil execs

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig put out a news release declaring that he “drilled oil executives” in a hearing yesterday on gas prices. “When gas is cheaper on Capitol Hill than it is in Idaho, I’m frustrated,” Craig said. “Idaho consumers are paying through the nose for gasoline, diesel and natural gas, and we need some answers.”

The congressional hearing featured a panel of oil company CEOs, followed by a panel of state attorneys general. “The good news is that the attorneys general told us they have investigated price gouging thoroughly, and it is not occurring as widely as it has been portrayed,” Craig said. “The bad news is that gas pricing is so hard to understand and even harder to explain, that five CEOs could not explain to me why gas in Idaho is more expensive than in Washington, D.C.”

National voice brings debate to state

The national debate that’s raging over the idea of teaching “intelligent design” in public schools comes to Idaho this week, as the Rev. Barry Lynn arrives in Boise to speak. Lynn’s in town to speak at an ACLU banquet, but on Friday morning, he’ll give a public lecture at Albertson College in Caldwell entitled “Intelligent Design vs. Evolution” that’s free and open to the public. Lynn is an advocate of separation of church and state who co-hosted the radio show “Pat Buchanan and Company” for two years and also co-hosted a weekly radio program called “Review of the News” with Col. Oliver North. He’s a lawyer as well as a minister. The free lecture will be in Boone Hall, Room 127, at 11:30 a.m. on Friday.

People really are voting

Today is not a particularly big Election Day in Idaho, what with no statewide issues on the ballot and mostly just city elections going around the state. (Kootenai County is an exception, with a countywide ballot issue on a local-option sales tax.) But here in Boise, where there are a couple of lively city council contests at stake, there appears to be a surprisingly high turnout so far – at least based on the experience of the workers at my local polling place, a small fire station off Bogus Basin Road.

They reported that they were swamped over the lunch hour and have seen far more voters than expected, and when I voted at shortly before 2 p.m. local time, they’d completely run out of the little “I Voted!” stickers that usually are handed out to voters. This is the first time I can remember, in nearly 20 years of voting in Idaho elections, that I haven’t gotten a sticker.

High school redesign redesigned

After six public hearings and lots of outcry, a state Board of Education committee has modified its plans for redesigning high school curriculum in Idaho. Gone are requirements for 6th through 8th graders to have at least a C average in all core courses in order to get into high school, for high school students to match their elective classes to a career focus, and for a “post-secondary readiness plan” that students now prepare in 8th grade to be moved back to 6th grade. But the rest of the program is largely intact, aimed at requiring more math and science for Idaho high schoolers, along with a senior project and a requirement for all students to take the ACT, SAT or Compass test by the end of 11th grade.

Board member Sue Thilo said, “The board received hundreds of comments on the high school proposal. … We’ve listened and reviewed the comments carefully. … The revised plan will increase rigor in key subjects in our schools, ensuring every year in high school counts.”

The proposal goes to the state board on Nov. 16; to take effect, it needs approval from the state Legislature.

One idea they liked

Members of the Legislature’s interim committee on property taxes found one idea they really liked this morning – because it would help vulnerable seniors pay their property taxes without costing the state, counties, or other taxpayers a penny. The idea, hatched by committee staffer Jason Hancock, is to have the Idaho Housing and Finance Association pay the taxes for eligible seniors. Then, the taxes IHFA paid would accrue with interest as a lien against the home, to be paid off when the taxpayer dies. The lien, and any other liens on the home, couldn’t exceed 80 percent of equity.

Committee members ranging from Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, a conservative, anti-tax Republican, to Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a pro-education Democrat, spoke out in favor of the idea. “Of all the ideas we’ve talked about, this is one that could help these people, they could stay in their homes, and it would not cost the other taxpayers anything,” Moyle said. Sayler said, “It’s a worthy concept – I could support that.”

There’s less agreement about the thornier issues the panel addressed this morning, including local option taxes, development impact fees and more. At the committee’s last meeting, it adopted two recommendations to the Legislature: To expand the homeowner’s exemption to include the value of land, and to increase the “circuit breaker” exemption from property taxes for the elderly or disabled. There are still more than a dozen ideas on the committee’s list of proposals, and they’re scheduled to vote on all of them this afternoon, in the hopes that this will be their final meeting.

At the last meeting, there were three motions to replace the main school operations property tax levy with state funds – which would provide hundreds of millions in property tax relief, but likely would require raising the sales tax – but none of the three passed. That proposal is also up for discussion again this afternoon.

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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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