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Eye On Boise

Archive for December 2006

Bowl game bet

BOISE – Gov. Jim Risch has placed a friendly wager with Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry on the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl, in which Boise State will take on the Oklahoma Sooners on New Year’s Day. “All Idahoans are excited about this game against Oklahoma and are confident that the Broncos will prevail against this legendary team,” Risch said in a statement. “I am very happy to put up some of our state’s best products. I know, however, that Gov.-elect (Butch) Otter will be collecting on this wager.” Henry was also confident in the outcome of the game. “I have unwavering confidence that Coach Stoops and our Sooners will make Monday a triumphant one for the Crimson and Cream,” he said in a statement. “Boise State is an excellent team, but I plan to kick off the new year with another OU victory.” The governor whose team comes up short will donate a basket of goods from their state to a charitable organization of the winning governor’s choice. The Idaho basket will include 10 pounds of Idaho’s Famous Potatoes, four filet mignon Kobe beef steaks from Snake River Farms, and an IPOD and memory stick that use memory chips made by Micron Technology in Boise. Kick-off for the 36th annual Fiesta Bowl is set for 5:30 p.m. Monday.

Risch roadless plan accepted by feds

Gov. Jim Risch’s proposal on how to manage 9.3 million acres of roadless federal lands in Idaho has been approved by the U.S. secretary of agriculture, and will proceed with environmental analysis and public comment as part of formal rulemaking. “It is not often that the federal government moves with such speed, but I am very pleased that they have given quick approval to move forward,” Risch said. “The management plan is a common sense approach that benefits the land and the public.”

Getting paid for not working

A state agency deputy director who was replaced last June is still on the state payroll, drawing his full $87,000-a-year salary through Dec. 31 even though he hasn’t come to work since June 8.

That’s the highest-cost example this year of the use of paid administrative leave by the state – a type of leave that’s entirely discretionary, has no time limits and even allows the employee to continue accumulating state-paid vacation and sick leave benefits while on paid leave. Former state Agriculture Department Deputy Director Mike Everett has been on paid administrative leave since the day Gov. Jim Risch announced his replacement.

“I thought he was gone, period,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “If that’s the way the system is set up, it’s a disappointment to me. … It’s a heck of an amount of money.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the joint committee’s Senate vice-chair, said, “I knew that Mr. Everett had been dismissed or relieved of his duties. … I find it very curious. … I know we have a surplus, but there’s always other needs that we could be funding.”

According to records from the state Controller’s Office, 1,291 state employees have received paid administrative leave since June. All but 60 of those received less than 40 hours of the paid leave. After Everett, the next highest paid leave totals were racked up by a Commerce and Labor employee who has been paid for more than 12 weeks of leave since June. Three employees at the Corrections Department and one at Juvenile Corrections each have received six weeks or more of paid leave. One employee each at the departments of Health and Welfare, Idaho State Police and Idaho Historical Society has received four weeks since June. Read the full story here in The Spokesman-Review.

Groups call on Simpson, Sali to back Pelosi agenda

An array of activist groups led by United Vision for Idaho held a press conference today to call on Congressman Mike Simpson and Congressman-elect Bill Sali, both Republicans, to back key elements of new Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s economic agenda for the first 100 hours of the new Congress, including raising the minimum wage, cutting interest rates on student loans, repealing tax breaks for big oil while investing in alternate energy, and allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prescription drug prices for seniors. “We can’t imagine that either Congressman Simpson or Congressman-elect Sali would oppose any of the four major things we’re proposing here,” said Bill Whitaker of United Vision.

However, Sali’s campaign for office included independent TV ads demonizing Pelosi, and Sali spoke out in political debates against the minimum wage.

“There need to be large, bipartisan majorities if we’re going to pass these things out of the House and get the president to sign them,” said Roger Sherman of United Vision, who said Simpson has been receptive to a minimum wage increase. “I think there’s a lot of Idahoans who are affected by all of these things.”

The push for the economic changes, called “Change America Now,” is part of a national campaign by organizations in 31 states. The Boise press conference included the Idaho Community Action Network, the Idaho Progressive Student Alliance, and the Sierra Club Northern Rockies Chapter along with United Vision for Idaho.

The ‘Euro Bandit’ is actually from … Kuna?

A bank robber who’s knocked over 16 banks in three states and had become known as the “Euro Bandit” because bank tellers described him as having a “European accent” has been caught, convicted and sentenced to prison – and he turns out to be from Kuna, Idaho. Hildeberto Machado, 45, is a Portugese citizen, but was a legal resident of the U.S. who had been living in Kuna. He was arrested June 9 after robbing a Bank of America branch in Sultan, Wash., when a witness got the license number from his getaway car. He admitted to bank robberies in Washington, California and Idaho between November 2005 and June 2006. The “Euro Bandit” was sentenced in federal court in Seattle to six and a half years in prison, three years of supervised release, and $33,440 in restitution.

Wolf delisting in the works

The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says his agency will start removing federal protections from gray wolves in Montana and Idaho by January – even if Wyoming hasn’t come up with an acceptable wolf management plan. Wyoming’s lack of such a plan has stalled movement on the issue in the region even though both Idaho and Montana have management plans already in place.

Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, who met with Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall today, said, “We should not be held hostage by another sovereign state who wants to do something different. While I am encouraged by what I heard today, promises have been made in the past that have not been kept.”

Hall told Risch his agency is preparing a two-pronged approach for delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana. One approach includes Wyoming, if their legislature approves a new management plan in their upcoming session, and the other excludes Wyoming if no progress is made, the governor’s office reported. Under the plan, Idaho could manage wolves within its borders in a year. Risch has been pushing the delisting issue since he took office. “Idaho should not be penalized for doing what was required, and I have continually told the federal government that,” he said in a news release today. “We will be able to maintain a viable population of wolves in the state that is in balance with other game populations.”

‘Another gem for the Gem State’

Gov. Jim Risch held what’s likely to be his last official press conference in his term as governor today, to announce that the Nature Conservancy is giving the state a big gift – the Thousand Springs Reserve and Ritter Island on the Snake River for a new state park, plus a million-dollar endowment to pay for managing the new park in perpetuity.

“Even for you, I think it’s going to be difficult to find a dark side to this,” an enthusiastic Risch told the assembled members of the press.

The preserve includes 310 acres and the Minnie Miller Springs, which is one of the largest remaining natural spring complexes in the Thousand Springs area. Thousand Springs is the spot where clear, 58-degree water that’s traveled 50 miles underground through the desert spurts out of a nearly vertical bluff of lava rock in an array of natural springs. Some of the water comes from the Lost River and Little Lost River, whose waters disappear underground far away and are “lost” before re-emerging at the springs.

The preserve includes historic sites, picnic areas, abundant wildlife and more. “Christmas has come early for Idahoans,” Risch said. “Today we add another gem to the Gem State. … It’s a magnificent piece of property.”

Otter sending more agency heads packing

Gov.-elect Butch Otter has notified three more current state agency heads that they won’t be staying on for his administration, meaning they’ll be leaving their jobs at the end of this month: Pam Ahrens, Department of Administration; Carolyn Terteling-Payne, Human Resources; and Rayola Jacobson, Occupational Licenses Bureau. Also, Idaho State Police Director Dan Charboneau and Public Utilities Commissioner Dennis Hansen have elected to retire at the end of the year, leaving additional posts for Otter to fill. Last week, Otter notified three other agency heads he wouldn’t be keeping them on – Pat Takasugi, Agriculture; Karl Dreher, Water Resources; and Roger Simmons, Lottery Commission.

Comings and goings

Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, is resigning from the state Senate to join the staff of new 1st District GOP Congressman Bill Sali. Sweet will head up Sali’s district offices in Idaho. That means the Republican party’s legislative district committee must submit three nominations to the governor and he then has 15 days to appoint a replacement senator.

Sali also named Rob Schwarzwalder, a Washington state native whom Sali described as “an experienced D.C. hand who has never lost touch with his roots in the Pacific Northwest,” to head up his Washington, D.C. operations, and picked Boise attorney Lisa Tanner, a Bonners Ferry native, to head his D.C. legislative staff.

Meanwhile, Gov.-elect Butch Otter announced that he’ll be keeping on 12 state agency heads from the Risch administration: Richard Armstrong at Health & Welfare; Lois Bauer, Idaho Commission on Aging; Jim Caswell, office of species conservation; Olivia Craven, Commission on Pardons & Parole; Brad Foltman, Division of Financial Management; Gavin Gee, Department of Finance; Toni Hardesty, DEQ; Molly Huskey, state appellate public defender; Maj. General Lawrence LaFrenz, Idaho National Guard; Roger Madsen, Department of Commerce & Labor; Dyke Nally, liquor dispensary; and Brent Reinke, juvenile corrections. Otter said his transition team will have additional announcements in the next few days. Already, he’s already identified three agency heads who won’t be staying on: Pat Takasugi, agriculture; Roger Simmons, lottery commission; and Karl Dreher, water resources.

Over at the state Department of Education, the Idaho Statesman reported today that new GOP Supt. Tom Luna will send 20 department employees packing when he takes office. When current Democratic Supt. Marilyn Howard took office from GOP predecessor Anne Fox, she jettisoned just one department employee right off, and two others after a couple of months.

The full story on state bonuses

Lost amid the criticism in the past two weeks of outgoing Democratic state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard for giving most of her employees year-end bonuses was the fact that most state agency heads are doing the same – and lawmakers directed them to do just that. Year-end bonuses for state workers come from salary savings in the agency’s budget, which can develop because there’s a vacancy or another reason why money intended for salaries has gone unspent. The Legislature this year specifically directed all state agencies to use such savings to compensate valued employees “before other operational budget priorities are considered.” That line was written into every state agency’s budget at the recommendation of a legislative interim committee that studied Idaho’s employee compensation system over the past year, because lawmakers recognized that most state workers are seriously underpaid.

According to the state’s annual study of its employee compensation, completed Dec. 1, Idaho’s state worker pay now lags 15.6 percent below market rates – a slight improvement from last year’s 16.5 percent lag. The report recommends that state employees get merit-based increases averaging 5.8 percent next year, at a cost of $37 million to the state general fund – and similar increases each year for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, more than 20 state agencies gave out bonuses in recent months. Read the full story in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Governor: Bonus was just offset for insurance mixup

Gov. Jim Risch’s office says the $2,000 year-end bonus he gave to one of his employees was actually just an attempt to make up for an earlier record-keeping mixup that meant the employee didn’t get state-paid health insurance for several months. “They goofed up,” said John Sandy, Risch’s chief of staff. “He was paying insurance for he and his family out of his own pocket, somebody that really excels in here and whatnot. … I said, ‘We’ve gotta make this at least partially right with this person, it’s not right.’ There was more out-of-pocket expense than this, but at least it helped make up a little bit of it.”

The payment technically was a year-end bonus, or “short-term merit increase,” according to state records, funded by salary savings – the very thing Risch has criticized outgoing state schools Supt. Marilyn Howard for giving to her employees, though lawmakers directed all state agencies to do just that to reward valued state employees this year. Many did, including outgoing state Controller Keith Johnson and state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “The governor isn’t being overly critical of anybody, whether it’s Marilyn Howard or Keith or a department head or anybody,” Sandy said. “Where his big heartburn is, is let’s pay people, let’s not try to skimp and save and hold vacancies. … Gov. Risch thinks you ought to put it in the salary, be right up-front.” State employee salaries long have lagged far behind market levels, which has prompted the Legislature to encourage any salary savings to be spent on bonuses as a way to reward some workers without increasing the state budget.

Risch last week called for a new law to require state Board of Examiners approval before any elected official gives out employee bonuses. Sandy said Risch would’ve been glad to take the issue with his employee to that board. “I don’t think he woulda minded that at all,” Sandy said.

Boise doctor sentenced for injecting mall patients with unapproved toxin

Let’s say you go to the Boise Towne Square mall to get medical treatments designed to partially paralyze your face to make it look more youthful, through injections of Botox. (The Canadian Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports, “Botox injections relax the muscles that create wrinkles thereby lessening the appearance of frown lines, laugh lines and crow’s feet. After a Botox injection, for example, you are no longer able to frown so the lines created by frowning are eliminated. … Results usually last three to six months.”) The doctor’s clinic is handily located right near Mervyn’s, not far from Mrs. Field’s Cookies. The treatments are pricey as can be, but, ah, what price youth?

It turns out that for many patients, that price included headaches and other symptoms that lasted for six months, because the doctor involved had cut the Botox with a much less expensive toxin that not only hadn’t been approved by the FDA, but was labeled “not for human use.”

That doctor, Dr. Ivyl Wells, stood before a federal courtroom packed with more than 80 people yesterday, including former patients and their families, and was sentenced to six months in prison for injecting 200 of his patients with the unapproved toxin. He pled guilty in July to two counts of mail fraud, one count of adulterating a drug with intent to defraud, and one count of misbranding a drug with intent to defraud. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge also gave Wells a $40,000 fine, two years of supervised release following his prison time including six months of home detention, and 300 hours of community service. Federal prosecutors had sought a two-year prison term, but it apparently weighed in Dr. Wells’ favor that he’d already paid $88,000 in restitution to his victims by refunding the hefty fees they’d paid him for the service.

“I was lied to and stolen from – I trusted him with my life,” said one patient who was identified only by her initials, G.B. Another patient, T.D., who spoke at the sentencing, said, “He risked my life without care or conscience. My hope is that the court will recognize that he did this intentionally, knowing it could cause harm.” Three victims spoke at the sentencing; three other former patients spoke in support of Dr. Wells, former operator of Skinovative Laser Center in the Boise Towne Square mall, with one calling him “very professional.”

In the plea agreement, the doctor admitted that he observed the labels and knew about the warnings, and that he knew the TRI Toxin he injected into his patients was not FDA-approved Botox. He mixed the two half-and-half. Wells surrendered his Idaho medical license in October 2005 after charges were filed.

It really is new math

A sampling of the numbers from five legislative sessions over the past 15 years shows that never before, in any of those sessions, has either house held the minority party to fewer seats on the joint budget committee than its entitlement based on its percentage of seats in the chamber. Instead, in the 1991, 1995, 2001, 2003 and 2006 sessions, the party split in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee either exactly matched the split in the full chamber, or it was rounded to match under the usual mathematical rules of rounding – for example, this year, when Democrats held 18.6 percent of House seats, they got 20 percent of the seats on the House half of JFAC.

Here are the numbers: This year, the minority party held 20 percent of the seats in the Senate, and 20 percent of the Senate seats on JFAC. They had 18.6 percent of the seats in the House, and 20 percent of the House seats on JFAC.

In 2003, Democrats again held 20 percent of the Senate seats, and got 20 percent of the Senate JFAC seats. In the House, they held 22.9 percent of the seats, and got 20 percent of the JFAC spots.

In 2001, there were just three Democratic senators, or 8.6 percent of the Senate. The Senate Finance Committee had 9 Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Lin Whitworth, D-Inkom, for a party split of 90 percent to 10 percent. In the House, Democrats held 12.9 percent of the seats, and got 10 percent of the seats on JFAC.

In 1995, the Senate was 22.9 percent Democrat. It gave Democrats 20 percent of the Senate seats on JFAC. The House was 18.6 percent Democrat, but allocated 20 percent of its JFAC seats to Democrats.

And way back in the days of actual bipartisan split in the Idaho Legislature – 1991, when the Senate was split 21-21 between Republicans and Democrats – the Senate sent six Republicans and six Democrats to sit on JFAC, an even split. In the House, Democrats held 33 percent of the seats in the chamber, and their numbers on the House half of JFAC matched that exactly – 33 percent.

Never in any of those sessions, in either house, did the majority try to give the minority fewer seats than their percentage numbers dictated, until this year’s move by the new House GOP leadership (27.14 percent Democrats in the House, 20 percent of the House seats on JFAC). This year’s move is particularly noticeable since Democrats picked up six seats in the House this year, but still got the same number of JFAC seats they held in the 2006 session when they had just 18.6 percent of the House.

Doing the math

With the open warfare today between the new House GOP leadership team and the House minority caucus – Democrats walked out of the House today en masse after new Speaker Lawerence Denney decided they shouldn’t gain a single seat on the joint budget committee even though they picked up six House seats in last month’s election – everybody’s doing the math. Denney says he’s being fair to the Democrats because their overall percentage of all committee seats matches their representation in the chamber. The Dems say the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is unique in setting the state budget, and they deserve representation there that matches their numbers.

Democrats now hold 19 of the 70 seats in the House, or 27 percent. Since the House Appropriations Committee, the House half of JFAC, has 10 members, 27 percent of the seats there would be 2.7 seats. Denney gave them just two. House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a retired high school teacher, said, “2.7 always rounds up to 3 in my math – I don’t understand the logic of rounding it down to two.”

Overall, 194 committee assignments were made today for the 70 House members. Twenty-seven percent of that would be 53.19. Democrats were allotted 53 of those assignments – a very close number, but certainly not an over-generous one. The percentage of minority members on individual committees was held down to 25 percent on the Business, Health & Welfare and Judiciary committees, and just 23 percent on Commerce. The 18-member committees – Education, Resources, Revenue & Taxation, and State Affairs – all got five Democrats each, or 27.7 percent. The two 14-member committees, Transportation, and Environment & Energy, each got four D’s, or 28.6 percent. The two other 10-member committees – Agriculture and Local Government – each got three Democrats, or 30 percent. JFAC was the only 10-member House committee held to just 20 percent Democrats.

As a sign of his generosity, Denney pointed to the House Ways & Means Committee, a leadership panel that rarely meets and that traditionally includes both parties’ leadership teams. As usual, it’s split down the middle between the two parties except for a GOP chairman, so the D’s have 43 percent of the seats on that seven-member panel.

Democrats said they offered to give up seats on several other committees to get the key seat on JFAC, but the Republicans refused.

Denney flexes political muscle, Democrats walk out

The House has just announced its new committee assignments and chairmanships, and the new GOP leadership team decided to keep Democrats at just two seats on the House portion of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee – the same number that Democrats held last year before they picked up six House seats.

“I think we’ve been totally fair with them,” Denney said, noting that overall, Democratic seats on committees match their representation in the chamber. “Certainly you can argue that JFAC is more important,” he said. “It’s my decision. … I don’t look at it as retribution, I think it’s fair. I think what we gave them is fair.”

Democrats strongly disagreed. “This is a breach of trust,” House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet told the House. “We won our seats, you won your seats. … It is political. It is mean-spirited.” Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the move effectively disenfranchises tens of thousands of Idahoans who went to the polls and elected Democrats this year, increasing their numbers in the House.

Democrats then stood and walked out of the House chamber en masse, as Republicans stayed seated.

House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “If this continues, it’s going to be a very tough session and a very contentious one, and I’m very disappointed that they chose to go this route. I guess it’s a reflection of the political agenda of the new leadership.”

Senate: ‘We’re organized’

Idaho’s state Senate has finished assigning chairmanships and committee memberships and adjourned its organizational session. The House, on the other hand, still has to come back tomorrow to finish the job. In the final list in the Senate, new Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, ended up as vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I’m pretty excited as a freshman to be put on as a vice chairman, and that is a big priority for us, so it’s a very appropriate place for me to be,” Hammond said. He said the panel’s new chairman, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, already has assured him that “Highway 95 is a major priority for us.” Hammond said the highway, the state’s only north-south route, needs to be improved to the same standards that most southern Idaho roads already meet. “That’s a darn busy highway, and it’s still unsafe,” he said. “I mean, if that were a four-lane road, I’d be much less reticent to drive up to Sandpoint for a day. I think a lot of people would.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, will continue as chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, will continue as vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. In addition, Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, will be the new vice-chair of the leadership-dominated Senate State Affairs Committee, Moscow Sen. Gary Schroeder will continue as chairman of the Senate Resources Committee, and Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, will continue as vice-chair of the Health & Welfare Committee.

Keough, for the second time, turned down the chance to chair the Transportation Committee in favor of keeping her seat on Finance, which makes her a member (and, in fact, a vice chair) of the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I was next in line, but as before, I think that the seat on JFAC is of critical importance,” Keough said. “Last time, my constituents were very supportive” of that decision, she said. She noted that she still has a seat on the Transportation Committee, too.

Putting together the puzzle

It’s hurry up and wait at the Statehouse today, as legislative leaders puzzle over how to fit together the jigsaw of committee assignments and chairmanships. The House has adjourned until 8 a.m. tomorrow, admitting it won’t get it done today, but the Senate is still working on it. Among the news so far: Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, will chair the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee, and Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, will chair the Senate Transportation Committee. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, is taking over the Health & Welfare Committee, and Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, was tapped to chair the Senate State Affairs Committee. The Senate has posted a sheet for each committee in the hallway with chairs and members written in blue marker, but some names have been crossed out and the membership lists reportedly have changed from what the posted lists show, so things are still somewhat in flux.

New Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, a former state Board of Education member, initially was going to be on the education committee, but he said that’s changed, and now he’s on Health & Welfare instead. The freshman senator did get Commerce and Transportation, though, he said, and he wanted those. “Those two can really matter for Post Falls,” he said.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, is a new member of the Senate Finance Committee, and was conferring with Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, that panel’s vice-chair. “I think it’ll be really good for my district,” Broadsword said. “Sen. Keough and Rep. Eskridge are good role models and mentors and they will help me as I find my way through the maze.”

On the House side, chairmanships were shifting quickly, and nothing had proceeded beyond back-room negotiations. The House plans to announce committee chairmanships and memberships tomorrow. One member who’s up for a chairmanship – though it’s not clear yet which one – had an eventful two days, to say the least. Rep. Bill Deal, R-Nampa, lost to Rep. Lawerence Denney last night in the battle to be House speaker, and then today he had to leave the House chamber to go to the emergency room. Luckily, the House includes two medical doctors – Reps. Fred Wood and John Rusche – and they helped out. Deal returned this afternoon looking his old self. “I just got ill this morning and I talked to my good friend Dr. Fred Wood, and said, ‘I’m not feeling too good,’” Deal said. “I got checked out. They had just marvelous care at St. Luke’s. They found I had a little intestinal infection – nothing that can’t be fixed by a little antibiotics.” He added, “I’m feeling great –look at me. And it’s my birthday.”

Earlier, House members had sung Happy Birthday to Deal during their session.

Taking the seats of power

Newly elected (or re-elected) state lawmakers took their oaths of office this morning, and then launched right into the nitty-gritty of legislative politics – jockeying for committee assignments and chairmanships. That will last for hours, and possibly into tomorrow. But first, in the House, came the circus-like ritual in which the members select their seats on the floor of the chamber. Initially, most of the most senior members who get the earlier picks took the same seats they’ve had for years, including prized aisle and back-row spots. But then Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, headed clear to the other side of the chamber, quickly followed by Reps. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, who took St. Maries Rep. Dick Harwood’s seat, and Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls. That left the three sitting in roughly the mirror image of where they’d sat before, on the opposite side. “It’s time for change,” Clark said afterward with a chuckle, as passers-by commented about how they’d “moved the rednecks over to the other corner.” It seems that Clark, Lake and Rep. Ken Roberts had become known as “redneck corner” when they were on the other side of the room. Roberts had to move to the center of the chamber this year, though, because he was elected House majority caucus chair and now sits with leadership.

Then, Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, took Coeur d’Alene Rep. Bob Nonini’s seat, as Nonini stood shrugging in mock disbelief. Nonini sat next to Anderson. “I wouldn’t sit by him,” new Speaker Lawerence Denney commented to laughter. But it turns out it was all just in fun – Nonini wanted the new seat, away from a large pillar. “They were just playing,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls. Henderson had started off the morning session by offering the opening prayer, in which he quoted Thomas Jefferson and Proverbs. “We pray for the wisdom to be continually inspired by the principles and intentions of those who established the basis of our freedoms – and who entrusted the future of our representative republic – to those of us who were chosen in free elections by our fellow citizens,” Henderson told the House.

The very last legislator to select a seat was newly elected Democratic Rep. Liz Chavez. She took the last seat left – the one next to where Henderson used to sit, but one that’s now deep into Democratic territory since the minority party has picked up six additional seats.

‘We don’t have a lady this year’

House Republicans generally praised all their leadership candidates last night after the votes were taken for remaining civil. Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, complimented the GOP leadership hopefuls for remaining “gentlemen,” then added wistfully, “I can say ‘gentlemen.’ We don’t have a lady this year.” Former Majority Caucus Chairwoman Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, who was the only female legislator in House GOP leadership, lost to a Democrat in last month’s election. On the Democratic side, however, House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet retained her post unopposed. See the full story on last night’s leadership contests in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Denney is the new House speaker

Conservative Rep. Lawerence Denney of Midvale was elected speaker of the Idaho House tonight after a close-fought race with moderate Rep. Bill Deal of Nampa. Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, lost his own leadership bid for assistant majority leader in the House to Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “You win some, you lose some,” Clark said. “Scott’s a great guy – he’ll do a wonderful job.”

Denney, a farmer who’s starting his sixth term in the House, declined to comment after the vote, because his new role as speaker won’t be official until the full House votes on it in the morning at the official organizational session. Deal also declined to comment.

“I think the tone has been very good,” said new House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who ran unopposed for that position. “Bill Deal was very gracious in giving his support to Lawerence.”

Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I’m proud of ‘em all. It was very civil.”

Governor ‘spills the beans’

Gov. Jim Risch, in addressing a large ballroom full of legislators, lobbyists, business leaders and more as the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference’s keynote speaker, made an unusually early announcement of what his economists expect for state general tax revenue in the coming year – a key figure because it’s the amount that serves as the basis for the state budget lawmakers will set. “It’s going to be slightly north of $2.7 billion that the Legislature will deal with this year,” Risch told the crowd. He added that he “spilled the beans” early. The figure is up from this year’s $2.3 billion, reflecting continued strong economic growth in the state. Risch shared some of the priorities he’s writing into his proposed budget for next year – something he’s required by law to develop, then turn over to Gov.-Elect Butch Otter. “I have every confidence that he will take that budget and make it substantially better before he presents it to you,” Risch declared.

There’s no saying how many of Risch’s detailed proposals Otter will choose to propose to lawmakers. Otter wasn’t around to say because he’s still back in Washington, D.C. finishing out his term as the congressman from Idaho’s 1st District. Risch said, “Come January first, we’re going to have a new governor. An army can only have one leader. …. It’s important that we all get behind him. He is going to be the leader come Jan. 1.”

Among the budget plans Risch unveiled today: He wants to double last year’s legislative commitment of $5 million for challenge grants to expand broadband service to additional Idaho communities, which has reached 73 so far. Risch said he’s written in $10 million in one-time money for that, “because that’s been so successful.”

He promoted his nursing education initiative, which includes $15 million, $4 million of that ongoing. He called for spending $6.5 million to continue the “Access to Recovery” anti-substance abuse program when a federal grant goes away. He said he’s proposing $875,000 for the final funding piece to start construction on a sorely needed detox center in Boise. And he touted his plan to phase out the sales tax on groceries over six years, though Otter’s backed increasing the grocery tax credit instead. Risch also called for a new law to prevent state elected officials from granting employees bonuses without approval from the state Board of Examiners, a swipe at outgoing Democratic state schools Supt. Marilyn Howard.

On property taxes, Risch said, “I shouldn’t gloat. However, perhaps you noticed that 72 percent of Idahoans said we did the right thing.” Risch noted that his tax shift plan – which cut property taxes statewide by $260 million while raising the sales tax a penny – won the endorsement of 72 percent of voters in an advisory vote in the November election. “I think we did the right thing,” he said.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said he’s been hearing similar sentiments from his constituents. “Every day since people got their tax bills, I’ve been getting phone calls, people stop me at church or at the supermarket, saying, ‘Thank you – it’s worked out exactly as you said it would,’” Henderson said.

Risch was introduced to the crowd amid praise over his accomplishments in his short seven-month term as governor, from the major tax reform bill he pushed through in a special session of the Legislature to his work on plans for roadless areas. Tom Ryder, a Simplot Corp. executive who chaired the taxpayers association conference, said of Risch, “He is our hero because he gets things done.” Henderson said, “I can tell you, Jim Risch has gained so much respect. Wow, he’s gonna be a hard act to follow.”

Leadership battles shape up today

As political leadership races shape up today – with votes coming up tonight for House speaker and several other contested leadership positions in both parties – it’s interesting to take a look at campaign contributions by the two candidates facing off for speaker. Nampa Rep. Bill Deal, a moderate, pro-business candidate, gave $16,890 this fall to GOP candidates for the state House, though $4,500 of that went to candidates who lost last month. He bet on more winners than his rival for the post, conservative Midvale Rep. Lawerence Denney. Denney handed out $8,520 to GOP House candidates, but more than half of that – $4,820 – went to unsuccessful candidates like former state Rep. Julie Ellsworth of Boise, former House Education Chairman Jack Barraclough of Idaho Falls, and GOP challengers Sharon Culbreth in District 4 and Joshua R. Thompson in District 30.

The vote for speaker tonight is widely expected to be close. “I think it’ll turn on the new people, the nine new people that we have,” said Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. Clark is running for House assistant majority leader, against Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, had considered a run for majority caucus chairman, but then withdrew, leaving Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, unopposed, barring a last-minute candidate. “It’s just not the right time in my legislative career,” Nonini said.

Nonini agreed that the speaker contest will be close. “That’s what I’m hearing too,” he said. “The funny part of it was, during the North Idaho tour, if you talked to Lawerence and Bill and added up the total number of votes they both felt they had at that time, it added up to 60 – and there’s only 51 of us. It’s kind of funny.” The votes are by secret ballot in a closed caucus dinner meeting, to add to the mystery.

On the Democratic side, House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, is facing a challenge from two colleagues, Reps. Elaine Smith of Pocatello and Nicole LeFavour of Boise. House Democrats also have a two-way battle for the open minority caucus chairmanship between Reps. John Rusche of Lewiston and Anne Pasley-Stuart of Boise. Little change is expected in Senate leadership.

Negotiations still under way on fuel taxes and tribes

Idaho’s Indian Affairs Council, which includes state legislators and representatives of the state’s five recognized Indian tribes, met today at the state capitol, with council Chairman Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, and council Vice Chairman Chief J. Allan, head of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, presiding. Among the council’s business: An update on the ongoing negotiations between the various tribes and the governor’s office over fuel tax issues. “Most definitely the tribes have been negotiating in good faith, and the governor simply ran out of time to complete these negotiations,” Jorgensen told the council after hearing the update. “And the governor-elect is eagerly anticipating a chance to continue those negotiations. … I’m just hopeful that we can get this thing taken care of very soon.”

The council meeting also included Reps. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, and Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, as well as representatives of the Kootenai, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute tribes.

Nez Perce Tribe official Sam Penney noted that the fuel tax issue caused “conflict and hard feelings” during the last legislative session, and council members representing both the state and the tribes said they hope there’ll be no repeat of that, and that the negotiations will be allowed to conclude. The Shoshone-Paiutes already have negotiated a compact with Nevada, in which half of their reservation falls, over the issue.

“The reality is that each tribe is separate and unique,” Jorgenson said. “That’s the one thing I can say has come out of all these negotiations.” That means separate agreements must be negotiated to address the differing issues rather than a “uniform compact,” Jorgenson said.

Get thee to a nursing school – or engineering, management or teaching…

Want your kid to get a job in Idaho in the next decade? The latest report out from the Idaho Department of Commerce & Labor says the hottest occupations in Idaho through 2014 will be nursing, teaching, engineering, skilled trades, and management. Two-thirds of those jobs will require a post-secondary academic degree.

“These projections clearly show that affordable, accessible post-high school education and skill training will be critical for meeting the employment demands of Idaho businesses in the coming decade,” said Bob Uhlenkott, head of research for Commerce & Labor.

The report projects job growth in Idaho at 2 percent a year through 2014, about twice the national rate. That reflects a leveling off from the 3 percent to 4 percent increases of the past few years. The report predicts that of the 20 fastest-growing jobs, seven will be in health care and five computer-related. At the same time, low-paying clerk jobs will drop by 17 percent by 2014, the report predicted, as those jobs are increasingly replaced by computers or other technology.

Judge says school lawsuit NOT over

Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail issued a ruling today in the long-running school lawsuit saying that the case is not over and the state is not off the hook for allowing schoolchildren across the state to go to deteriorating and even unsafe schools. School districts won their lawsuit against the state last December when the Idaho Supreme Court ruled the current system for funding school construction unconstitutional, and ordered the Legislature to fix it. But last spring, attorneys on both sides of the case said the high court’s clerk told them the case was now over, and at a hearing on related issues in September, the Supreme Court justices indicated they thought they’d handed the final word on the issue over to the Legislature and ended the case.

That prompted the state’s attorney, Deputy Attorney General Mike Gilmore, to tell Bail at an October hearing that he didn’t think the Legislature needed to do anything further. “Right now there’s nothing indicating that a court judgment requires changes,” Gilmore said.

In her ruling today on several pending motions in the case, Judge Bail strongly disagreed, writing in a footnote, “This is a plain misreading of the Supreme Court’s opinion, which made it manifestly clear that it was confident that the Legislature will make the necessary changes in the system of school funding in ‘good faith and in a timely manner.’ Hopefully, the legislators and legislative counsel will read the opinion for themselves.”

Bail ruled that she has no jurisdiction to rule on pending motions in the case for now, because the Supreme Court retained jurisdiction in the case in its December 2005 decision, in which it issued its formal opinion that Idaho’s school funding system is unconstitutional. “While the Opinion is final, the case is not over,” Bail wrote.

In her ruling today, she also wrote, “It is not credible that, after all of this time, that the Supreme Court has somehow abandoned Idaho school children. … This court disagrees. The parties should re-read the Opinion. The Supreme Court indicated a desire to give the Legislature time to act. The Supreme Court has consistently and firmly acted with respect to every single appeal in this litigation. It has been consistent throughout in holding that the Legislature cannot simply ignore its constitutional duty which is imposed by the plain language of Article IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution.”

In September, the Supreme Court justices said they’d further clarify their position on where the case stands when they issue a ruling in a related matter, regarding a “special remedial master” whom Bail had appointed to pinpoint needed school repairs. That ruling is still pending.

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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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