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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2006

Medicaid buy-in clears House committee unanimously

It’s been 10 years in the works, but a Medicaid buy-in bill, HB 664, just passed the House Health & Welfare Committee on a unanimous vote. The bill would allow disabled people to keep their Medicaid coverage when they go to work or increase their hours or pay, by letting them pay premiums on a sliding scale. Until now, many disabled Idahoans were discouraged from working or increasing hours or earnings for fear of losing the very medical services that allow them to work.

A thrilled Rep. Kathie Garrett, R-Boise, a sponsor, said, “It came out unanimous – they understood that concept that in Idaho we value work, and this is a work opportunity program.” Kelly Buckland, director of the state Independent Living Council, also is sponsoring the bill, along with Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb’s moving testimony in favor of the bill may have pushed any doubting representatives into supporting it. He recalled a friend who was injured in a hay-bale loading accident and paralyzed – and how much difference it made to him when a tractor was retrofitted so he could once again plow and disk his own fields. “We have a tendency to just look at the numbers, but overlook the faces behind the numbers,” Newcomb told the committee. Sure, the program will cost the state $233,900 next year and $397,200 in fiscal year 2008. “But you know what, that’s a small price to pay to give people the ability to live independently,” Newcomb said. “In my view … it’s the Christian thing to do.”

Medicaid buy-in passed the Senate last year, but failed to get a hearing in the House Health & Welfare Committee, so today’s unanimous vote was significant. “We’ve got a ways to go, but that’s obviously a great sign,” Buckland said.

A group of people in wheelchairs who sat through the committee hearing couldn’t contain a few shouts of “Yay!” as they rolled out of the hearing room. Bobby Ball, head of a small non-profit, said, “I haven’t taken a raise in about five years. … So I’m going to take the raise when this goes through, and I’m going to buy something real big for my grandbabies.”

Senate wants to imprison pregnant moms who use drugs

Pregnant women who illegally consume any controlled substance would be guilty of a felony, under a bill that just passed the Senate on an 18-16 vote. The bill suggests that drug court or treatment be considered for the women, but makes it clear that it’s not guaranteed and that incarceration is the other option.

All of North Idaho’s senators voted against the bill except Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake. The debate was intense, reports S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff.

“Being addicted to meth is not a crime – it’s a disease,” said Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, an attorney. “It’s a disease that requires medical treatment, not incarceration.” She added: “We should be focusing our efforts and money on substance abuse and treatment, not incarceration.”

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, also an attorney, countered, “It at least provides some protection for that baby. … At least she can’t get the drugs during that time, and there’s a better chance for that baby.”

Senate Health & Welfare Chairman Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “It is my great fear that now these mothers will not step forward because they fear there’s a felony charge waiting for them.” He noted that he’s by no means soft on drug use. “I hate meth. I’ve seen what it’s done to our community, I’ve seen what it’s done in North Idaho. We’re the hotbed for meth. I hate drug dealers. If I had my way we would put them in the stocks in the city square and stone them.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, cautioned, “This isn’t only meth that we’re dealing with, and I have yet to see scientific evidence that can link marijuana use with ongoing impact to a child. … We’re walking down a road in statute that’s not supported with scientific evidence.”

The bill applies to any illegal ingestion of any controlled substance by a pregnant woman, as well as to anyone who gives illegal drugs to a child under 18. It now moves to the House.

Rathdrum aquifer protection bill criticized by Hayden Lake lawmaker

When North Idaho Reps. Bob Nonini and Frank Henderson went before the House Resources Committee this afternoon to pitch their bill to protect the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, they knew it might not be the most welcoming place – southern Idaho lawmakers had made clear in recent months that they don’t want the bill to apply to them. That’s why it was put together to apply only to the one aquifer.

But there was another witness testifying against the bill at the committee hearing: Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. Angering his fellow North Idaho representatives, Clark found lots not to like in the bill, picked it apart, and told the committee, “This needs a lot more work.”

The only other person to testify was Norm Semanko, head of the Idaho Water Users Association and a candidate for North Idaho’s seat in Congress. He wanted the bill amended to make it even more clear it doesn’t apply anywhere but the Rathdrum aquifer.

Nonini, in his pitch to the committee, noted that the Spokesman-Review editorialized in favor of the bill, HB 650, which allows an aquifer protection district to be set up to generate fees for aquifer protection. He called the S-R “a paper I don’t always agree with and a paper which I will say doesn’t care for me one bit.” Clark, from the audience, urged S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff, “Quote, him, quote him.”

The committee put off a vote to Wednesday to look into possible amendments. After the meeting, Nonini said of Clark’s opposition: “It’s because his name’s not on it.”

Second verse - a lot like the first

GOP leaders introduced a new school facilities bill today – on a 4-3 party-line vote in a hastily-called meeting of the House Ways & Means Committee. Notice of the meeting was posted inside the House chambers – while the House was in session and the public wasn’t allowed in the chambers – about an hour and a half before the noon meeting. It wasn’t on public notice boards that display legislative committee agendas in the Rotunda, nor on the Internet. “I didn’t even think about the Internet last night,” said Ways & Means Chair Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. “I forgot.”

The new bill, described by legislative budget analyst Jason Hancock as “son of 690,” makes only two significant changes from the controversial HB 690 that GOP leaders proposed earlier: It allows most school districts to continue to receive a minimum 10 percent bond levy subsidy on bonds their voters pass, as they’re entitled to under current law (HB 690 eliminated most districts from the program), and it requires school districts to submit an annual maintenance plan based on “best practices.” House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said both ideas were taken from a Democratic alternative bill, HB 691. But the Republicans opted against changing their bill’s most controversial provisions – requiring that in order to access $25 million in state funds to fix unsafe schoolhouses, a school district would have to be taken over by the state, run temporarily by a state official who could fire its superintendent, and its patrons ordered to pay a no-vote property tax increase to pay back the state funds after they’ve specifically voted twice against such an increase.

“I think any bill that you bring like this has to have vinegar to go along with the honey,” Denney said. Otherwise, he said, “We end up building all the buildings in the state.”

The new bill, like HB 690, puts little new state money into school construction other than the $25 million loan fund, which education officials said no one would ever tap because of the restrictions.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb told the Ways & Means Committee that the measure makes it possible to guarantee there are no unsafe schools in the state, while at the same time, “People who refuse to pass a bond don’t get off scot-free when other people have passed bonds.”

The Idaho Supreme Court in December declared Idaho’s system for funding school construction almost entirely with local property taxes unconstitutional, and ordered the Legislature to fix it.

Eminent domain bill applauded

The House just voted unanimously in favor of HB 555, legislation sponsored by a group of legislators headed by House Speaker Bruce Newcomb plus the governor’s and attorney general’s offices, that puts limitations on the use of the power of eminent domain for private parties, urban renewal or economic development purposes. All the bipartisan testimony was in favor, no one spoke against the measure, and it passed 67-0. It now moves to the Senate.

Idaho AFL-CIO endorses Larry Grant in 1st CD

The Idaho AFL-CIO, the state’s largest organized labor group, has endorsed Democrat Larry Grant in the 1st District congressional race. Grant, a retired Micron executive from Fruitland, faces Coeur d’Alene businessman Cecil Kelly in the Democratic primary – though most of the focus thus far has been on the crowded GOP primary race, which has six candidates. The Idaho AFL-CIO has about 10,000 members in Idaho.

Dave Whaley, president of the group, said it is confident enough in Grant as a candidate that it’s making the endorsement early. Grant welcomed the endorsement, saying, “Skilled labor is the backbone of this country.”

Current 1st District Rep. Butch Otter, a Republican, is giving up the seat to run for governor.

Former governor warns against GARVEE, lawmakers react

Top legislative leaders Bruce Newcomb and Bob Geddes were asked today about former Gov. Phil Batt coming out against the “Connecting Idaho” project building major highway improvements by borrowing against future federal highway funds through GARVEE bonds. Batt wrote a guest opinion that appeared in the Idaho Statesman today panning the idea, and backing a pay-as-you-go approach.

“I think it makes a difference,” Newcomb said of Batt’s statements. But he told the Idaho Press Club that this week also saw “an important paradigm shift,” when the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees came out in favor of using GARVEE bonds – something both opposed last year – and called for simply scaling back the “Connecting Idaho” program to fewer projects.

Geddes said senators have been talking with the governor about splitting the program into several bills. “I don’t think he’s OK with it at all,” Geddes said. “A lot of the Legislature feels like part of the agreement last year was to give the legislators an annual look at GARVEE. … If we see problems, we want to have the flexibility of being able to step back a little bit. We’re still working on that issue.”

‘Let’s kiss the guy with the gun’

It’s tax-exemption time. The House yesterday passed a sales tax exemption for the film industry, and today, House Rev & Tax held hearings on a couple more – including one proposed by Rep. Bill Sali, R-Kuna, to exempt shooting range fees from sales tax.

According to S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff, always feisty Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “We just gave entertainment a big old kiss the other day. Let’s kiss the guy with the gun.” To which Rev & Tax Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, responded, “We know you know about guns.”

For those who don’t remember, Barrett was stopped at the Boise airport a few years back with a handgun in her purse – she’d forgotten to remove it before flying.

Morty mucks around in the milfoil milieu

House Agriculture Chairwoman Rep. Frances Field, R-Grand View, charms those who attend her committee meetings with her courteous welcome and her friendly insistence that everyone stand and introduce themselves at the start of the meeting. On Wednesday, when she got to Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who was at the committee to back a bill on his favorite topic this year, Eurasian water milfoil, Anderson quipped: “I’m Representative Morty Milfoil.” Anderson’s been talking milfoil this year to everyone in sight, including an array of legislative committees. He then quickly clarified that he’s really Rep. Anderson.

Forget lawmaking - this is football

S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff reports that Vandal football fever spread through the Idaho Statehouse today, as the Senate and House took breaks from their regularly scheduled lawmaking to recognize newly hired University of Idaho football coach Dennis Erickson, who was visiting the Capitol with UI President Tim White.

“Go Vandals,” said Senate Majority Caucus chairman and UI graduate Brad Little, R-Emmett, after he welcomed Erickson back to Idaho. Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, left his desk for a moment and was seen having his picture taken with Erickson, who coached the Vandals in the early 1980s and won two national championships with the University of Miami in the 1990s.

Applicant secrecy bill withdrawn

HB 570, which would have added a public records exemption to Idaho state law to cover the identities of applicants for public employment – including all public jobs, paid or volunteer, other than elective offices – has been withdrawn. House State Affairs Committee Chairman Bill Deal, R-Nampa, asked unanimous consent in the House this morning to pull the bill back to committee, and no one objected. “I think the House bill needs to have a second look,” Deal told the House.

Questions have arisen over the bill’s broad nature, and whether it would impose secrecy on candidates for such high-profile public positions as city police chiefs, state Fish and Game Commission members, school superintendents and more.

High marks for all but penmanship

Longtime state Rep. Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls, had high praise for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo as he introduced him to the House chamber this morning, where Crapo spoke to lawmakers on what’s going on in Washington, D.C. – but Barraclough also had one small criticism: “I know he was magna cum laude at Brigham Young University and cum laude at Harvard, but he sure didn’t get an A in penmanship, I’ll tell you that.”

Perhaps the lawyer-senator should have been a doctor?

They fixed it back in the ‘60s

Would you believe that current Idaho law authorizes mayors to call on “every male inhabitant in the city over 21 years of age to aid in enforcing the laws”? A newly elected Idaho mayor who was reviewing the statutes that describe her duties found that odd, and contacted Rep. Jana Kemp, R-Boise, who is sponsoring HB 559 to change “male inhabitant” to “resident.”

Kemp told the House just now that the mayor asked her, “Why is it that I can only call upon male inhabitants to enforce the law?” Kemp’s bill passed the House on a unanimous, 69-0 vote.

But a look into the law’s history is even odder. The law, as you might think, originated in 1893. But it was amended in 1967 when it and several surrounding sections were recodified. At that point, the enlightened ‘60s legislators changed it from the original wording, which had authorized mayors to call on “every male inhabitant over 18 and under 50” to enforce laws. That’s right - they just changed the age.

Don’t try anything on new parole commissioner

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, was praising the qualifications and experience of a nominee to the Idaho Board of Pardons and Parole, Robin Sandy, when she noted that in addition to all her other experiences, Sandy enjoys shooting trap. “She and I have had many enjoyable days doing that,” Lodge told the Senate. “She’s a good shot.”

Committee approves Miss Idaho’s bill, but tries to stop similar ones in future

Post Falls resident Tracey Brown, the reigning Miss Idaho, isn’t sure if she’s the first Miss Idaho to use her post to successfully pitch a bill to a legislative committee. But the 19-year-old had everything lined up Monday: Two legislative sponsors, and two officials from the Idaho Primary Care Association, all speaking in favor of her bill to create a special license plate to benefit breast cancer education and screening. No one spoke against the idea, which is also backed by the American Cancer Society, and the House Transportation Committee voted to send HB 607 to the full House for a vote.

Brown introduced the committee to her mom, Debbie, a breast cancer survivor. “Because my mom did detect her cancer early, she’s here with us today and she’s a five-year survivor,” Brown told the lawmakers. The special license plate features a depiction of a pink ribbon, the symbol for breast cancer awareness, and the statement, “Early detection saves lives.” A portion of proceeds from sales of the special license plate would go to the Idaho Primary Care Association to pay for breast cancer screening for low-income, uninsured women around the state. “I ask that you support this bill,” Brown told lawmakers.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, was one of the two legislative co-sponsors. After the meeting, a beaming Nonini noted that Brown, a 2004 Post Falls High School grad, is from his legislative district. “Rep. Henderson and I are quite proud,” he said.

Brown said she’s been working on breast cancer awareness for the past five years, ever since her mother was diagnosed. So it was natural to make the issue her focus as Miss Idaho, she said. She was crowned last June.

Her bill was one of three special license plates approved by the same committee on Monday. The other two are HB 605, to benefit historic preservation, and HB 608, to advertise, but not raise money for, the National Rifle Association.

But then the committee turned around and passed HB 609, to prevent any future special license plates from raising money for anything other than state highways. House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, and Senate Transportation Chairman Skip Brandt, R-Kooskia, are co-sponsoring the bill. Brandt said the bill would deal with the “onslaught of special license plates” – Idaho has more than 50.

Rep. Kathy Skippen, R-Emmett, noted that legislation to ban all new special plates failed last year. “I don’t know why we are so dead-set on eliminating something that people in Idaho obviously like,” she said. “I drive down the road and I see special plates all the time.”

After committee members clarified that their vote wouldn’t stop the breast cancer, historic preservation or NRA plates they’d just voted to approve, they voted 10-4 in favor of the no-new-fundraiser-plates bill. If it passes both houses and is signed into law, it would take effect for any plates proposed in 2007 or later.

It’s the most secure file server around

North Idaho College President Michael Burke was describing how NIC moved into the former Kellogg City Hall to set up an outreach campus for the Silver Valley, during a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee special hearing on community colleges this morning, and he noted that NIC is using every inch of the building. “We occupy the entire building,” he told lawmakers. “Our file servers are now residing in the cell that prisoners were locked away in. We have probably the most secure file servers in northern Idaho.”

Eight property tax relief bills pass the full House

Eight property tax relief bills just passed the House after a debate lasting more than three hours, including a 50 percent increase in the homeowner’s exemption, shifting half of school operations funding off the property tax, and raising the sales tax by half a penny to help make up the difference.

House Tax Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, called the bills the “cream of the crop” of the more than 35 property tax bills her committee debated this year. The bills now move to the Senate, where they’ll first go through committee hearings. Here’s what happened:

HB 422, a proposal from an interim legislative committee to increase the “circuit breaker” tax break for the low-income elderly and disabled, passed 69-0. The income threshold would rise to $28,000, and the maximum benefit would rise from $1,200 to $1,320.

HB 421, a proposal from the interim committee to increase the homeowner’s exemption to $75,000, count land in the value and index it to inflation in the future, passed 69-1, with just Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, voting no.

HB 676, to eliminate a notorious tax loophole that allows some developers and land speculators in rural areas to pay just pennies in taxes on high-value rural development land, passed 69-0.

HB 508, a proposal by Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, to let taxing districts exclude only half the value of newly annexed property from their 3 percent cap on budget growth, rather than the full amount as now, passed 42-27. Among those objecting was Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who said the measure would keep growth from paying for itself – and pass the costs of growth on to existing residents.

HB 678, also by Roberts, to shift half of school operations funding off the property tax and onto the state general fund, passed 52-17.

HB 679, also by Roberts, to raise the sales tax by half a penny to partially offset that shift, passed on the closest vote of all, 37-30.

HB 680, a new version of a proposal from Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to set up a state-funded deferral program to allow some low-income elderly homeowners to defer paying property taxes until after they die or sell their home, passed 67-2.

HB 480AA, a proposal by Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, to allow local voters, with 2/3 approval, to order local governments to cut their budgets, passed 62-7.

Anti-tribal gaming bill killed in committee, 13-4

After two and a half hours of testimony, the House State Affairs Committee today killed a proposal from top GOP leaders in the House and Senate to mount a taxpayer-funded challenge of the voter-approved Indian gaming initiative.

Former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Bakes warned that if Idaho’s limited tribal casinos on reservations aren’t shut down, the whole state soon will be taken over by gambling. “The state of Idaho will look like the state of Nevada with slot machines in every grocery store, service station, restaurant, airport,” Bakes told the committee, according to S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff. He added, “Money and corruption follows gambling.”

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, chairman of the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs, responded, “The implication that all gaming leads to corruption is like saying all politicians are corrupt.” The council, he said, exists to help resolve state-tribal issues. Last month, Jorgenson sent a notice to every legislator asking about upcoming legislation that could impact state-tribal relations so the council could review it at its Jan. 18 meeting. He never heard from the bill’s backers before the meeting. “The intent here is to discuss issues and work collaboratively to resolve issues as opposed to having everybody go on the war path, excuse that expression,” Jorgenson said. “This is not chicken little. The sky is not falling. The sky is not falling. The sky is not falling.”

HCR 35 was sponsored by House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, Senate President Pro-Tem Robert Geddes, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, and House Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Bert Stevenson. The Indian gaming initiative passed in November of 2002 with 57.8 percent of the vote.

That must be a fine and pleasant district

Former state Rep. Gary Ingram, R-Post Falls, had this response to current Rep. Jim Clark’s legacy of “fine pleasures” legislation: “Did it all begin when I carried the liquor by the drink on Sunday legislation back in the ‘70s? No one thought it could be done. Jim now represents the same district that I did when it was District 2.”

They’re talkin’ rewards and punishments

GOP legislative leaders introduced their school facilities proposal in the House Education Committee today, calling for earmarking $25 million from the state surplus, plus an additional $8 million to $9 million a year in aid for school repairs and bond levies in poorer districts. “We need to make sure we don’t punish the districts that have stepped up to the plate and funded schools through bonds,” said committee Chairman Rep. Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls. “At the same time, we don’t want to reward districts that haven’t funded their schools.” House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, according to the Associated Press, added, “It’s a good time to set up that fund now that we have the means.”

The school districts that successfully sued the state over inadequate funding for school construction immediately called the plan inadequate. “That would only be a drop in the bucket,” said Stan Kress, Cottonwood Joint School District superintendent. The districts have proposed a $50 million a year plan. A competing measure from House Democrats John Rusche and Shirley Ringo would give $35 million up front to help repair deteriorating schools and dedicate 5 percent of state sales tax revenues, about $55 million annually, to an ongoing school construction account.

The debate is on

The Senate has been debating the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment for the last hour and a half, and is well into the lunch hour. So when Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, got up just now to start his debate, he said, “I guess everybody thought they were going to lunch soon.” Not yet, anyway.

It’s been an interesting debate thus far. Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, who is of Samoan descent, noted that at one time, the law of the land would have prevented him from marrying his wife – because it would have been marrying outside his race. “If the civil rights act was placed before the people, do you think they would have voted for that?” he asked. In his experience at the time, he said, many that he knew would not have. “Let’s not let government get involved in discriminatory policy that divides this country,” Malepeai told the Senate. “The clergy can’t even agree on this issue. … Folks, let’s keep the morality of this issue with our religious institutions.”

Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, told the Senate, “I’ve heard it over and over again and frankly I’m tired of it … the claim that this discriminates.” The amendment, he said, is designed instead to “help protect us against activist judges.”

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said, “We’re all free, free to do what we want within the laws of the land. Now is this an expansion of the law that’s going to take away freedom? No.” People can still enter into whatever private contracts they want, he said. “To tell people they’re wrong sometimes is the greatest freedom of all,” Corder told the Senate.

Brady pays Kempthorne’s tax bill

Jerry Brady, the Democratic candidate for governor, sent an “open letter” to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne today saying he’s sent Valley County a check for $9.73, the amount of property taxes overdue on Kempthorne’s 14 acres there. Brady said he did so to make two points about property taxes – that the so-called “developer’s discount” loophole that allows land like Kempthorne’s to pay just pennies in taxes needs to change, and that Idaho homeowners need significant property tax relief, something Kempthorne hasn’t endorsed. “Your hands-off approach to property taxes is ill suited to the needs and demands of homeowners across the state,” Brady wrote. “Right now you are doing nothing and showing no leadership. As governor, I will, and there will be property tax reform.” Brady, of course, isn’t running against Kempthorne, who’s not seeking re-election. He’s facing U.S. Rep. Butch Otter in the gubernatorial race.

‘Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…’

An exhibit about the film industry in Idaho in the state capitol today is drawing lots of attention – partly because it includes an Idaho resident who’s best known for having portrayed “Mary Ann” on the TV show “Gilligan’s Island.”

Dawn Wells, aka Mary Ann, has been a member of the Idaho Film Industry Task Force and a strong proponent of encouraging growth in Idaho’s film and television industry. Wells is the founder of the Idaho Film & Television Institute in Driggs, where she trains Idahoans who are interested in pursuing a career in the film and television industry. Each year she also organizes the Spudfest Film Festival in Driggs, which showcases independent filmmakers.

The exhibit, in the fourth-floor rotunda of the capitol, is called “Film Idaho Day” and will run all day. It includes opportunities to participate in hands-on demonstrations including a chance to try out acting skills in a “green screen” movie.

(AP file photo)

‘We’re not done yet’

It wasn’t about property taxes – Rep. George Sayler’s proposal in House Rev & Tax this morning was to give people who donate to Project Safe Place’s teen crisis programs an income tax credit. The committee agreed to introduce the bill, which Sayler said should help the program that provides immediate help and resources for young people in crisis as it faces severe reductions in its federal funding. In Coeur d’Alene, the program recently lost $100,000 in federal funds – two-thirds of its annual budget, reports S-R reporter Erica Curless.

It was the first time in a long time that Rev & Tax didn’t have a property tax bill on its agenda, which instead was filled with income tax credit and sales tax exemption proposals. When Sayler went to present his proposal, he happily pointed out that it wasn’t a property tax bill. Committee Chairwoman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, responded, “Isn’t it nice to do something other than property tax.” But not everyone was so convinced. A man in the back was heard saying “We’re not done yet!”

That’s definitely not Rep. Hart

I’m laid up this week after knee surgery this morning, but S-R reporter Erica Curless, who’s filling in for me over at the Statehouse, sent over this note: Rathdrum resident Tina Jacobsen is filling in for Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, this week. Hart, who owns an engineering firm in Hayden, is an expert witness in a trial and will be absent all week. Jacobsen, a Republican, ran for Kootenai County Clerk in 2002 against lone elected Democrat Dan English.

Idaho’s substitute system is something of a rarity among states: When state senators or representatives are going to be gone, they can appoint someone to serve in their place. That’s often meant a legislator’s spouse – or even mom – gets a chance to serve. The substitutes cast votes, attend committee meetings and everything else.

It’s on the agenda

The House Education Committee has scheduled the “School Facilities Improvement Act,” to be presented by House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney and Rep. Scott Bedke, for introduction at its Wednesday meeting. The panel meets at 9 a.m. in Room 406.

Democrats want hearing on public lands bill

House and Senate Democrats are calling on Senate Republican leaders to allow a hearing on legislation by Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, calling on Congress not to sell off public lands to raise money. “Idaho’s public lands are not for sale. The public won’t stand for it and the Legislature should be leading the way,” Stennett said at a press conference Friday attended by every House and Senate Democrat, along with former longtime Idaho Fish and Game Director Jerry Connelly.

Stennett originally wrote SJM 116 to address a bill Rep. Butch Otter had co-sponsored in Congress calling for the sale of millions of acres of federal lands to raise money to pay for damages from Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. After an outcry, Otter, who is running for governor, withdrew his sponsorship and said it was a mistake. But Stennett said the measure has new urgency now that President Bush has proposed the sale of public lands to raise funds as part of his budget plan.

Stennett filed SJM 116 as a personal bill, but he said the chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee told him Republican leaders are holding it, and he won’t get a hearing unless they give the go-ahead.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said GOP leaders haven’t made a decision yet on whether to allow a hearing on Stennett’s measure, another similar measure sponsored by Rep. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, or a different bill.

“I was a little taken aback when President Bush made that announcement, and frankly I’m very concerned about that proposal,” Davis said. “I certainly find value in the concerns that Sen. Stennett is expressing.”

‘It’s cranking up’

The formal reading of bills across the desk in the House this morning went on – and on. At its end, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb commented, “We just read another 33 bills across the desk. I just went through 33 more bills that are just House bills to be introduced on Monday. So it’s cranking up. This week I think we probably had pretty close to 200 bills – so be prepared.”

With the week marking the deadline for introducing new bills in non-privileged committees, stacks of new bills were OK’d by committees for introduction, promising plenty of debate to come.

Feels like the first time

The vote in the House Rev & Tax Committee to send a bill increasing the homeowner’s exemption to the full House with a “do-pass” recommendation – with only one committee member dissenting – is historic. Since 1982, similar legislation has been proposed in 11 different annual legislative sessions. Never before has it cleared the Rev & Tax Committee, where all tax legislation begins.

Property tax issue making headway

Both the House Rev & Tax Chair, Rep. Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, and Rep. Dennis Lake, the co-chair of an interim committee on property taxes, say they’re thrilled that there’s been so much progress this week toward addressing property tax issues in the Legislature.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Crow said. “You have 35 bills out there – that’s never happened. It’s been a monumental task, but if something good comes out of it, it’ll be worth it.”

She added, “I’ve bent over backward doing things that have never been done to do this.” Those include introducing every property tax bill brought to the committee – a huge list that caused the committee’s agenda on its first day of deliberations to be more than 30 bills long – and giving every one of them a public hearing. (Crow called an impromptu hearing Wednesday morning on HB 569, a bill her committee had introduced a day earlier; all others were heard in a week and a half of hearings ending the day before.)

Crow said she hopes people don’t have unrealistic expectations, because relief can only go so far. “People think immediately that they’re going to get this huge tax relief,” she said. “Some people are really going to be upset, and then here we are again.”

Though she’s maintained that property taxes fundamentally are a local issue, Crow said Thursday that there’s a role for the state, local government and citizens in addressing property taxes. Legislators can change laws; local government can control spending; and citizens can show up and comment at local budget hearings and carefully consider whether to vote for additional tax levies. “We all have to work together,” she said. “I haven’t, to my knowledge, done anything except to try to help the taxpayer as much as I can.”

Lake, who brought seven bills from the interim committee to House Rev & Tax, said he’s been pleased with the reception. “What tickles me about the whole process is the interim committee was able to set the tone for what was ultimately decided, and that’s what interim committees are for,” he said.

So far, the only two bills that have cleared Rev & Tax have been interim committee proposals.

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said, “We’re going to get some property tax relief like we hoped to, and it’s going to be statewide.” He added, “For the first time since I’ve been here, we’ve had an outright great discussion of the issues in Rev & Tax committee. Every RS was printed. Every one has gotten at least one hearing. All of the ideas are on the table.”

School funding shift fails on 7-12 vote

After long and heartfelt debate – including many compliments for Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, for his creativity in fashioning HB 505 to replace all property tax funds for school operations with a 1 cent sales tax increase – the bill went down on a 7-12 vote in the House Rev & Tax committee.

In the end, the bill drew opposition both from those who worried that it’d leave schools short on funding, and those who thought it raised too much in additional taxes. “Where are we going to come up with the money – I’m so tired of hearing that when we have a $200 million surplus,” said Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star. “I don’t want to raise sales tax.”

Roberts acknowledged that the sales tax increase would raise only $210 million and school funds that would need replacing next year – even if costs grew only 3 percent from this year – would total $244 million, which leaves a $34 million gap. But he and backers of the bill said lawmakers would come through for schools, and appropriate the needed funds. “The $34 million is an issue that we have to deal with, but we have under current tax policy a surplus that’s being generated right now,” Roberts told the committee.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, who supported HB 505, said, “Schools have always been, always will be funded.”

The two North Idaho members of the committee, Reps. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, and George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, both voted against the bill. Clark said he had several problems with the bill, including possible loss of local control and the idea of raising the sales tax. Sayler noted competition for state appropriations with growing Medicaid and corrections budgets, and said schools could be left short.

When HB 505 was killed, the committee had at that point killed all the bills before it to look at shifting school operations funding from local property taxes to another source, including a proposal from a legislative interim committee. Committee Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, said, “At this point I would suggest that all of those that have bills in the M & O arena get together and come up with something that is more palatable.”

Interpreter standards win committee’s support

Up in the Gold Room of the state Capitol, the hearing that just wrapped up featured sign language interpretation of every word uttered, for an audience that included more than a dozen deaf students. The bill that was up for hearing, SB 1316, sets standards for interpreters for the deaf in Idaho schools. It won unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee.

One mother of a deaf student who testified said parents and others have struggled to get standards established for the past decade, to ensure deaf students are adequately educated. “Ten years is an entire education for a deaf student, for any student,” Leslie Garringer told the committee. “I didn’t think we’d ever be in this room.”

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake.

Rev & Tax says ‘no’ to caps on assessed value

Among the 14 property tax reform bills that just went down to defeat in Rev & Tax were HB 503, by Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and HB 455, by Rep. Bill Deal, R-Nampa. Eskridge’s bill, which had seven co-sponsors, would have capped increases in annual tax values for homeowners at 3 percent. Deal’s bill, which had six co-sponsors including Eskridge and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, would have capped increases in values for all types of property at 5 percent a year.

House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said of Deal’s bill, “While it’s a good idea, I don’t think it’s quite the right idea.” House Assistant Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, called Eskridge’s bill “a good concept” but said if it doesn’t also limit local government spending, he wouldn’t support it.

How about a property tax break for developers?

Subdivision developers in the state’s three most-populated counties would get a big property tax break, under legislation introduced Tuesday morning in the House Rev & Tax Committee. The bill “puts a legitimate process in place for developers to be assessed and taxed on lots they haven’t sold,” said Scott Turlington of Tamarack Resort, the bill’s sponsor. “They would be assessed at one-third of current value.”

That’s more than many lot owners at Tamarack are paying now, under a notorious tax loophole created in 2002 that’s become known as the “developer’s discount.” It gives developers and land speculators in rural areas a tax break originally designed for farmers, leaving owners of half-million-dollar lots paying less than $20 a year in taxes. But Turlington’s bill creates a new tax break, just for developers. “Let’s call it what it is,” he said.

North Idaho members of Rev & Tax were aghast when they read the bill that they’d earlier unanimously agreed to introduce without discussion, as committee Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, told the panel it was merely a fix to an earlier bill. “I think that’s a terrible move – that goes against everything we’ve been trying to do for the taxpayers of Kootenai County,” said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene. “I’m surprised that they would have the gall to do it.” Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden, said, “I can’t support that – it’s just that simple.”

The current “developer’s discount” doesn’t apply in counties with more than 100,000 population – that’s Kootenai, Ada and Canyon counties. It also applies only to land that once was farmed, and only in rural areas. All those restrictions are lifted in the new bill. “It seems to me that uniform application of state law is the way to go,” Turlington said. Want to know more? Read the full story in today’s Spokesman-Review.

‘We’re a budget-driven body here’

The state budget, the school facilities lawsuit, increased school enrollment, the sale of Albertson’s – all were discussed by the Senate Majority Caucus behind closed doors, according to Caucus Chair Brad Little, R-Emmett. “Since the governor developed his budget, things have changed,” Little said.

He said Senate GOP leaders wanted all their caucus members to understand the different factors playing into budget decisions, including the school facilities lawsuit. The Idaho Supreme Court in December declared Idaho’s system for funding school construction unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to fix it; a leadership bill is in the works and is expected to emerge later this week. “We talked significantly about the school facilities lawsuit,” Little said. He added, “We’re a budget-driven body here. All the services are tied to the state budget.” So why not discuss the state budget in public, rather than in secret? “That’s the venue that we meet in,” Little said. “It’s a political strategy session.”

House members reportedly focused on the budget in their closed-door caucus, but members emerged talking about everything from how much state employees should get in raises to property tax reform. House GOP leaders declined to comment on their caucus.

Bill introduced to end field-burning secrecy

Locations of upcoming field burns would no longer be state secrets in Idaho, under legislation introduced in a House committee this afternoon. “This was requested by our sheriff and our emergency services,” said Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, who’s sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. “We’ve got some real public health and safety issues.”

Trail told the House Agriculture Committee that his local law enforcement and fire officials frequently get calls about fires, and spend hours “running around the country” in his rural county looking for the fires, only to find they’re permitted agricultural field burns. The state Department of Agriculture refuses to disclose the time, date and location of upcoming field burns, citing a public records exemption that was enacted in 1992 – long before the department took on regulation of field-burning.

A family in Trail’s district returned from a camping trip last summer to find its property on fire from an out-of-control field burn next door – and the residents said they’d never have left town if they’d known of the upcoming burn.

Keough told the committee the law change would allow people to “take proper precautions” when they know a field will be burned, such as whisking asthmatic children out of the area. The committee agreed to introduce the bill, though Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, voted no.

Bonner commissioner urges support for property tax reform bill

Bonner County Commissioner Karl Dye told the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning that the Intermountain West is becoming the “Third Coast” – the place where people want to retire and live out their life in a beautiful setting. That’s pushing up local property values.

Dye spoke out in favor of HB 503, proposed by Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and co-sponsored by six other lawmakers: Reps. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake; Bill Deal, R-Nampa; Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls; Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene; Clifford Bayer, R-Boise; and Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. The bill would cap increases in tax values for owner-occupied residential property to 3 percent a year.

With values rising quickly, “How can you budget and know that you have enough money to retire?” Dye asked. “What this bill does is … it makes our property tax system more predictable. … It gives them some security for the future that they can stay in their homes.”

‘Swimmers have drowned in it, boaters have lost boats’

Idaho water bodies are being taken over by a nightmarish monster, according to state Agriculture Director Pat Takasugi – as Eurasian water milfoil multiplies and its thick mats of plants fill the waters.

“Swimmers have actually drowned in it, boaters have lost boats, and fishermen, obviously you can’t fish in it,” Takasugi told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. “Fish can’t go in there, and other plants can’t compete with Eurasian water milfoil.”

His illustration was a picture of a tangle of the stuff in Lake Pend Oreille, but it’s not only there – it’s in much of the state, Takasugi said. A hunter recently told him “he was losing his decoys because Eurasian water milfoil was breaking loose and taking his decoys down the river,” Takasugi said. Worst of all, after the stuff is treated at great expense, it’s easy for it to come back. “It only takes a small segment of Eurasian water milfoil, three quarters of an inch long, to repopulate and grow,” he told lawmakers. Treated areas “have not proven to be regeneration-free the next year … So there’s no sure way of killing this thing.”

The noxious weed is even showing up in isolated ponds, Takasugi said, where it’s been spread by birds.

The ag budget request – and the governor’s recommendation – includes a $100,000 boost in general funds next year for noxious weed control, but that’s likely just a start.

Other news in Takasugi’s budget presentation: Field-burning is on the increase statewide. “We’ve found that with the rising cost of fuel, a lot of farmers have chosen to burn stubble,” he said. As a result, the state smoke management program is collecting more in fees than anticipated; the budget includes a request to spend another $72,100 in fees for the program next year.

‘Rumor that this is a political process’

The state Change in Employee Compensation Committee, a panel of legislators charged with recommending how much state employees should get in raises next year, met in a hastily called session today, with the aim of recommending more money – possibly another 2 percent, on top of the 3 percent merit raises state workers were just granted – for state salaries next year. But the joint House-Senate panel didn’t get to a final decision and Senate Republicans want to hold a closed-door caucus on the issue. As the CEC committee wrapped it up for today, Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, noted that there’d been talk of a Senate GOP caucus – to which Democrats, of course, aren’t invited. “We are the 12 that have been entrusted by leadership to make these decisions,” she noted. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, responded, “I couldn’t agree with the senator more – this is the CEC committee.”

Co-chair Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, commented, “There’s a rumor going around that this is a political process.”

Co-chair Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, tried to make a motion, but Schaefer said, “It’s the chair’s understanding that we’re going to have a hearing. … No motions would be made until the Senate has a caucus.”

Schaefer then recessed the meeting at the call of the chair, saying it won’t reconvene again until after Tuesday of next week.

Issues speeding along, including trucks

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, missed the vote on introducing the higher truck speed limit bill in committee yesterday because she’d been called by leadership into a meeting on budget issues. “And I missed Health and Welfare because we were meeting on school facilities,” said a somewhat frustrated Keough. Things are getting hot and heavy in the Legislature – with many major issues shaping up all at the same time, from property tax reform to school construction to the state budget to the governor’s initiatives.

Keough said she knew about the truck speed bill, and is tentatively supportive at this point. “On the freeways, I don’t think any of us like speeding trucks because they’re so big and we’re so small,” she said. But, she said, “I travel a lot. Sometimes I think the bifurcated speed system causes … safety issues at times.” If all drivers, both truckers and regular motorists, were responsible, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, she said. “If we were all great drivers, it wouldn’t be a problem – but we’re not.” She added, “I think it makes sense to look at the issue.”

He’s tooling along, getting passed

The Idaho Transportation Department had just finished briefing the Senate Transportation Committee on the process it goes through to set speed limits in Idaho, when Committee Chairman Skip Brandt, R-Kooskia, had this question about a 55 mph stretch of Highway 55 near Shadow Valley Golf Course that he travels every time he heads back north up to his district: “When I’m heading home, I’m either holding up traffic or they’re going past me, and I’m going 55. … Is that an area that’s been studied lately?”

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes had the quick answer: “Just by you.”

No time to bother with public testimony

The House Resources Committee today voted to send a memorial to Congress calling for allowing helicopters to land in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness for the purpose of putting radio collars on wolves. Normally, of course, wilderness areas are places where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed and aircraft don’t land – and the Forest Service has told Idaho just that. “This would have to be a special exception,” said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene. The committee was so keen to pass the measure that it voted to both introduce it and send it directly to the full House for a vote – without first holding the usual public hearing. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, offered a substitute motion to follow the usual procedure, but only Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and the panel’s three Democrats (including Jaquet and Sayler) voted for that option, and the measure zoomed out of the committee.

“There was obviously some people that wanted to testify, and I felt we should give ‘em that opportunity to come in, though I think the Forest Service is wrong,” Eskridge said. “It’s a public meeting. That’s what committee meetings are about.”

Would we head for the ocean?

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, had a quick comeback to Judith Brown of the Idaho Center on Budget and Tax Policy, when she told lawmakers this morning that Idaho actually ranks low compared to other states in local government spending, and therefore shouldn’t further limit local government spending in its effort to provide property tax relief. “In terms of total local spending, Idaho ranks 35th out of the states,” Brown told the Rev & Tax Committee.

Roberts responded, “I wonder, if all the states decided to move out in the middle of the ocean, would we follow suit because that’s what the majority of states decided to do?”

He pushed and pushed ‘til she snapped

Chuck Thomas, head of Citizens for Annexation Reform, finally pushed it too far at the property tax hearing this morning. Thomas has testified repeatedly to the House Rev & Tax Committee on various property tax bills over the past three days, usually returning to the theme that developers are getting a free ride and foisting the costs of growth onto everyone else, regardless of the topic of the specific bill at hand. Today he told the panel that a “cartel” of developers, Realtors, and the Association of Idaho Cities is the bad guy in all this, saying, “They own over 50 percent of our legislators.”

That was when Rev & Tax Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, cut him off, admonishing him to address the bill at hand, which was about removing a cap on property tax replacement funds for schools. Later, Thomas was back up at the podium, speaking against a bill to eliminate the “forgone balance” in local government property tax increases and make new construction allowances from the 3 percent local government budget cap into a temporary, one-year deal. Crow told Thomas, “I have to tell you again to stick to the bill,” and Thomas responded that he was – because he was talking about the impact of growth on schools. “Well, excuse me, but I don’t agree with you,” Crow responded. “Let’s stick to the business at hand, please.”

Finally, Thomas wanted to come up and testify again, this time in the closing moments of the hearing, on a bill no one else had testified about. It was Rep. Mike Moyle’s bill to allow any 25 local taxpayers to demand an election to force a cut in local budgets, which would go through if a majority vote supported it. Crow said: “I don’t think we want to hear from you again today, thank you,” and that was that. The hearing was over.

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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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