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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2006

‘I have not lobbied, I do not lobby, and Mr. Secretary, I have no intention’

Phil Reberger, former chief of staff to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, has sent a letter back to Secretary of State Ben Ysursa responding to an investigation into whether Reberger lobbyied without registering with the state as required. In his letter, dated today, Reberger admits he attended a dinner meeting with Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and with two representatives of Reberger’s client Unisys Corp., Dan Carter and Brian Ridderbush, along with two of Reberger’s partners at the Sullivan & Reberger lobbying firm, Pat Sullivan and Andrea Mihm. Both Sullivan and Mihm are registered lobbyists. Idaho law doesn’t require registration for those who lobby only executive branch agencies – an omission that apparently has covered Reberger’s consulting work for other clients such as Washington Group International, which won a disputed $50 million Idaho Transportation Department contract.

“I did not lobby, I exchanged usual pleasantries with Senator Cameron and listened to Dan Carter respond to Senator Cameron’s questions and provide information about the contract Unisys was awarded through the State of Idaho procurement process,” Reberger wrote. “I did not participate, in any manner, in what was a useful exchange of information about the provisions and effect of the contract – no legislative request or action was discussed by Unisys or Sullivan & Reberger.”

Unisys recently won a Medicaid contract that’s worth as much as $50 million in coming years – the competing bidder, the firm that has held the contract for the past 27 years, is challenging the contract award in court. Cameron has publicly expressed concerns about the decision. As co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, he’s addressed the issue as part of the committee’s examination of the Health & Welfare Department’s budget. The budget decisions are pending.

Reberger wrote in his letter, “I have not lobbied, I do not lobby and, Mr. Secretary, I have no intention of lobbying.”

However, attached to his letter, he included a completed lobbyist registration form to represent Unisys Corp. in the Legislature on issues involving state revenue, budget, bids, fees, funds and more.

He wrote, “Despite these facts and to the contrary, a perception – in this politically charged environment – has been portrayed in the media that I lobbied without registering. To mitigate that inaccurate perception, a registration form and fee accompany this letter pro forma.”

Property tax solution: Big break for elderly millionaires?

When one of the more than 30 property tax relief bills that’s pending in the Legislature came up for a hearing today, Rep. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, the sponsor, got some questions about her proposal from fellow House Revenue & Taxation Committee members.

The bill, HB 470, would give a $150,000 property tax exemption to any homeowner over age 70 – regardless of their income. “Their belief is that they have paid their fair share over the years,” McKague told the committee. “It’s not fair, and we need to do something. This is one choice.” McKague said the big property tax break would allow seniors to “free up some of their hard-earned dollars to help with medical needs.”

When Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, asked why McKague didn’t include any income qualifications if she wanted to target struggling middle-income seniors, she responded, “It’s the American way, the cornerstone of our American way to be able to own your own property at some point in your life, not based on what your income is.” Faced with additional questions about income and need, McKague told the committee, “Income does not come into the equation on this particular bill.”

Only three citizens testified on the bill, and all supported it. “I’m probably obviously over 70 and definitely in favor of this bill,” Robert Johnson of Boise told the panel. “I have 190 Idaho residents on my email list all 70 and over, and all are in favor of this bill.”

McKague is a five-term lawmaker from Meridian who introduced identical legislation both last year and the year before.

Roger Sherman, program manager for United Vision for Idaho, said after the hearing, “We’re concerned about anything that’s only age-focused. It benefits everybody over 70, but there are a lot of people over 70 who don’t need the break. J.R. Simplot is certainly one of those. There are many people in the state who have significant wealth and don’t need the break.”

Simplot, 96, is the potato-and-microchip magnate who’s the richest man in Idaho.

Overwhelming support at property tax hearing

Here’s my tally: 23 people testified before the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning, six of them twice, and only one out of the whole group opposed increasing the homeowner’s exemption or expanding the circuit-breaker exemption for low-income seniors. That was Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks, who spoke against the homeowner’s exemption.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, co-chair of an interim legislative committee that held hearings on property taxes all over the state, told the House committtee, “The homeowner’s exemption is something that is foremost in people’s minds. … I think it’s become a political issue and I think it’s one that we will need to deal with.”

Boise retiree Don Bizallion told the panel, “I’m not a lobbyist, I’m just an individual, a homeowner, a property taxpayer getting eaten alive. … It’s not working.”

Charlotte Snow of Eagle, breaking into tears, told the lawmakers, “My only fault is I have land. … Basically you have taxed me out.”

The committee this morning was considering several bills to expand the circuit-breaker and increase the homeowner’s exemption. It still has two more homeowner’s exemption increase bills to go, which Chairman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, said the panel will take up tomorrow morning at 9. No word yet on which category of bills they’ll move to next.

Someone was there to fix things

In a crowded elevator at Boise City Hall on the way up to the House Rev & Tax Committee’s hearing this morning, a well-dressed woman asked, “I assume we’re all going to the property tax hearing?” “I think that’s a good bet,” responded Dan John, tax policy manager for the Idaho State Tax Commission, who was wedged into the same elevator. At that, a young man wearing ID tags around his neck spoke up, saying, “I’m here to fix something.”

Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, a member of the committee, responded with a mutter, “I don’t think we are.”

Secretary of State to investigate Reberger

The Associated Press just reported this scoop: Secretary of State Ben Ysursa has opened a formal inquiry into whether Phil Reberger, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s former chief of staff, violated Idaho lobbying law when he met with a state legislator earlier this month over a disputed $50 million state contract. Reberger worked for Kempthorne in both the governor’s office and his U.S. Senate office for 11 years, before resigning in 2002 to become a consultant. He represented the successful bidders in two recent, controversial, huge state contract awards – the giant Medicaid contract that recently was awarded to Unisys Corp. and is being challenged in court, and the contract to oversee the state’s biggest-ever highway project, which went to Washington Group International.

AP reporter John Miller reported, “On Jan. 17, Reberger and Unisys officials met with Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, to discuss the contract, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed by EDS Inc. EDS contends it was improperly disqualified from bidding. Reberger is not a registered Idaho lobbyist, and Ysursa wants to find out if the meeting met requirements that people who are being paid by companies or special interest groups to lobby lawmakers on issues before the Legislature report their activities and spending to the state.”

Idaho Statesman political columnist Dan Popkey first revealed the meeting in a column earlier this week headed, “Governor’s ex-chief of staff should admit lobbying.”

Idaho law doesn’t require lobbyists to register if they only lobby executive branch agencies, though two senators are working on legislation to change that. According to the AP report, Ysursa sent a Jan. 25 letter to Reberger saying, “I am requesting that you provide me information pertaining to the manner and character of your meeting with Senator Dean Cameron and Unisys Corporation officials on January 17, 2006. … I am specifically interested in the context of the meeting in relation to” Idaho’s lobbying disclosure laws.

It seems that boo-boos happen

Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, a longtime radio broadcaster, told state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard this morning that he’d heard on the radio that the high school redesign plan was being put off a year, and he wondered what was up. “I’d like an update where the reform stands today,” Richardson said. “We don’t know,” Howard responded. “We heard there was a meeting yesterday.”

House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, admonished Richardson, “Perhaps the broadcast media makes as many boo-boos as some of the other media,” which caused all eyes to swivel to the two print reporters covering the JFAC meeting, myself and the Post-Register’s Corey Taule. Then there was a commotion on the back bench, where two senators and two representatives scrambled, and then held up a sign for the press’s benefit dubbing Bell’s comment a “cheap shot” and “blog material.” So noted.

Sharp words for governor’s proposal

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s community college initiative raised all kinds of questions in JFAC this morning, to the point that at the end of the hearing, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I don’t feel like we’ve even scratched the surface yet.” Much more discussion is needed, Cameron said, to determine “both philosophically and financially where we’re going – if we’re going anywhere with this.”

Several members of the joint budget committee objected to the idea of state-funded community college services for some parts of the state, while the areas around the two existing community colleges pay local property taxes to help support them. “I believe that’s unfair,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.

David Lehmann, the governor’s policy director, wasn’t fazed by the hostile reception. “Naturally they’re going to have questions,” he said. “We’re proposing something that people have been talking about for years. … Clearly there’s some more discussion that needs to take place.”

Setting the UI president straight

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, took issue when University of Idaho President Tim White told legislative budget writers today that higher education provides great benefits to the economy, the environment, security and society. “In my community, we have four people, the only thing they got was high school graduation, and yet they’re the main contributors to our community,” Harwood told White. “The key to being successful is to find something you love to do and doing it – not really the education.”

Harwood’s official legislative bio notes that he’s a high school graduate who holds a welding blueprint reading certification from North Idaho Junior College.

Putting it away for a rainy day

Here’s how House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, described HB 409, the bill to put $70 million into the state’s rainy-day fund, also called the budget stabilization fund: “We’re finally to the point where we can stop robbing and start putting something back.”

Her opening debate on the House floor in favor of the bill was so persuasive that no one else got up to debate, and the bill passed, 68-1. The only one to vote “no” was Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, who wanted some of that money to go to state employees.

“I don’t have a problem with putting money into the rainy-day fund,” he said after the vote. But Schaefer, who co-chaired an interim committee that studied the state’s employee compensation system and recommended big changes, said the state’s way behind on what it should be paying state workers, especially in certain job categories. Schaefer noted that he also didn’t vote for the 3 percent merit raises that were signed into law today, though he didn’t vote against them; like seven other House members, he missed the vote. (That’s generally called “taking a walk.”) “It’s not enough,” Schaefer said. “We should be at least at 4 percent, should maybe have 5.” He said he’s preparing legislation to add another 2 percent in raises in the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

The meaning of life

Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, had this question today in the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting: “I just kind of want to know, what is the meaning of life? … What does life mean?”

It actually wasn’t a philosophical question – Richardson was wondering whether Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s bill to set mandatory minimum life sentences for designated violent sexual predators who reoffend really meant what it said. It did.

Only two reps oppose state employee raises

The House just voted 60-2 in favor of immediate, merit-based raises for state employees averaging 3 percent. The bill had earlier passed the Senate unanimously.

The two House members who were against it? Reps. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, and JoAn Wood, R-Rigby. Eight other House members missed the vote.

Luci’s crystal ball

The prediction of the week award has to go to State Board of Education spokeswoman Luci Willits, who, on the eve of votes in the House and Senate Education committees on the board’s high school curriculum redesign, said it would be close in both houses.

She was right on, as the House Ed Committee deadlocked 9-9, and the Senate Ed Committee rejected the plan, 5-4.

They let Dell do it

House Rev & Tax members are chortling over how they got Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, to make the motion this morning to introduce a property tax reform bill that closes a tax loophole for developers and land speculators. The loophole opened after Raybould originally brought legislation designed to help farmers, and his bill got off track, was amended, and morphed into the loophole. Attempts to fix it made it worse, to the point that now, owners of million-dollar resort lots at the new Tamarack Resort are paying just pennies in property taxes – and their neighbors are picking up the difference. Raybould’s been none too happy with the mess. As the committee this morning made motions to introduce 12 property tax bills, one after the other, they came to the one from an interim committee to close that loophole. There was a pause, and everyone looked at Raybould. Then he made the motion, and the bill was introduced.

And this one WASN’T unanimous

The House Education Committee this morning deadlocked 9-9 on the state Board of Education’s “high school redesign” plan to beef up the state’s high school curriculum and graduation requirements. That caused a flurry of confusion and dismay before lawmakers determined that the result was that the decision on the curriculum redesign essentially has shifted to the Senate Education Committee. That’s because it takes rejection of this type of administrative rule by the committees in both houses in order to stop a rule from taking effect. The Senate committee, which just went through two days of hearings on the plan, is scheduled to vote this afternoon. If they approve it, the plan stands. If they reject it, expect more confusion as this question gets examined: If the House committee just failed to support a motion to pass the plan, did they actually reject the plan?

The new property tax bills

Here are the 12 new property tax bills just introduced in the House:

• HB 418, sponsored by House Tax Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa; Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake; and Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star; to replace half the property tax funding for schools with money from the state general fund, and also to cap school property tax budgets to 3 percent growth a year plus new construction. The bill would be retroactive to Jan. , 2006.
• HB 419, sponsored by the same three lawmakers, to eliminate the “foregone balance” that allows local government agencies that forego tax increases to recoup some of the foregone taxes in later years. This bill also would be retroactive to Jan. 1.
• HB 420, from the same three lawmakers, to put a moratorium on increases in taxable values for one year.
• HB 421, from the co-chairs of the legislative interim committee on property taxes, Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, to increase the homeowner’s exemption from the current maximum of $50,000 to $75,000 and index it for inflation. Retroactive to Jan. 1.
• HB 422, from the co-chairs, to expand the “circuit breaker” exemption for low-income seniors and the disabled, raising the income threshold to qualify from $22,500 a year to $28,000, and raising the maximum benefit from $1,200 to $1,320. Also retroactive to Jan. 1.
• HB 423, from the co-chairs, to count land value in the homeowner’s exemption.
• HB 425, from the co-chairs, to set up a tax deferral program for seniors.
• HB 424, from the co-chairs, to replace half of current property taxes that fund schools with money from the state general fund.
• HB 426, from the co-chairs, to allow schools to charge impact fees on new residential construction.
• HB 427, from the co-chairs, attempting to close a property tax loophole for land speculators and developers.
• HB 428, from Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, to close the same loophole in a different way.
• HB 429, also from Jaquet, to repeal the $75 million cap lawmakers imposed last year on an existing property tax replacement program for schools, which this year left schools short more than $8 million.

He doesn’t like what they said last Tuesday

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne today inexplicably released a rebuttal to comments last Tuesday – the day after his State of the State message – by Democratic legislative leaders critical of his proposed $50-a-head energy rebate.

“I fully expected a rational discussion on my proposal to provide immediate energy assistance to Idaho families at a time when they most need it. I’ve heard first-hand the eagerness Idahoans have for this relief during my travels around the state in recent days,” the governor wrote. “Instead, Democratic leaders have been dismissive and turned a deaf ear to my plan to help Idahoans with the rising costs of natural gas, electricity and gasoline. These out-of-touch Democratic leaders have even called my plan to provide relief to hard-working Idahoans a ‘gimmick.’”

That was, in fact, the term Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, used for the proposal in his response the morning after the governor’s speech. But a lot of the lack of enthusiasm around the Statehouse in the past week over Kempthorne’s proposal has actually been coming from lawmakers from his own party – the Republicans.

It’s cheerful, colorful and crowded

It’s “Buy Idaho” day today, which means the capitol rotunda, on three floors, is packed with displays and free samples of Idaho products, from huckleberry hand lotion to potent salsas to pickled dilly beans. Legislators are among the happy crowds checking out and trying the wares, but leave it to a lobbyist to rain on the parade: “It looks just like a flea market,” one muttered.

Sorry to disappoint the kid, but…

Over the weekend, I watched “Idaho Reports” with my 12-year-old son, and he distinctly heard the governor promise to send a $50 check to every “man, woman and child” in Idaho. He perked right up. “I’m a child,” he said. “I want my 50 bucks!”

I explained that he’s paid neither the power bill, for which the governor’s rebate is supposed to make up, nor the taxes. He thought about that for a while, then said, “Well, you wouldn’t get it if it weren’t for me. So I’m willing to give you half.”

When I told that story to a group of legislators yesterday, one advised, “Tell him not to spend it yet.” Another suggested that my 12-year-old was the first person he’d heard of who actually supports the governor’s initiative. Bottom line? The governor’s $50-a-head energy rebate isn’t getting much traction in the Legislature.

First property tax discussion is a wild one

People spilled out into the hallway and packed into the doorway as the House Revenue & Taxation Committee held its first discussion of the session on property taxes this morning. The interim committee that held a dozen hearings around the state and heard from 1,500 Idahoans on the issue over the summer wasn’t invited. Instead, Rev & Tax Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, set up her own list of speakers that she chose to educate the committee.

First came Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. Hendricks said his group opposes “shifting property tax to agricultural real estate.” Though residential property now pays more than 63 percent of Idaho’s property taxes and all other categories have been declining for the past decade and a half, Hendricks said farmers are cultivating less ground – in part because so many homes are being built. “The 36 percent agriculture, timber and mining used to contribute is much smaller than the 10 percent of the overall pie that we contribute today,” he told the committee. “It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to expect a shrinking land classification to pay more.”

Then came Steve Ahrens, head of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the powerful business lobby. Ahrens laid out various options on property tax relief – not the same options the interim legislative committee endorsed – and said IACI will decide later which to endorse. At the top of his list: An $80 million-a-year property tax break for businesses, by repealing the personal property tax on business equipment, machinery and furnishings.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, asked Crow whether the interim legislative committee – which he co-chaired – would also be making a presentation. She said no.

“I would hope that those who should’ve, did hear your presentation as part of the presentations given last week,” she said. Those presentations were to a leadership panel – not to Rev & Tax. “We’re not going to have a presentation as such,” Crow told Lake, “but when your bills come before us, you can expand as much as you want.”

Lake is Crow’s vice-chairman on Rev & Tax.

Lake responded by asking some questions of Ahrens – starting with why Ahrens had completely different numbers on the impact of increasing the homeowner’s exemption than the interim committee got from its expert staff.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, who served on the interim committee and is a member of Rev & Tax, asked Ahrens what could be done about a constituent of his in Coeur d’Alene who has lived in the same home since 1942, is retired, lives on Social Security, doesn’t qualify for public assistance and whose home is a “scraper” – something a wealthy investor would just tear down to get the valuable land underneath. But skyrocketing values have pushed his property taxes up so high he can’t afford to stay in his home. “What would you say to this man?” Sayler asked Ahrens. “How can this be a fair and balanced system?”

Ahrens responded, “I don’t know what I’d say to that guy. … You have to make laws that deal with the majority.”

The final speaker for the day was Phil Homer, lobbyist for the Idaho Association of School Administrators. He stressed the importance of property tax as a stable funding source for schools, and urged against replacing half that property tax with state funds – a move recommended by the interim committee.

Crow said she has some other speakers lined up for tomorrow – from the Association of Idaho Cities, the Realtors, the Idaho Association of Counties, Associated Taxpayers of Idaho and the Idaho Tax Commission. “The interim committee’s already made their presentation,” she said. “It was a matter of time, I guess. I picked what I thought were the players from every area I could think of. These are the head honchos in each of the different categories.”

Crow also told her committee: “I’ve been saying this forever: The property tax issue is in the wrong venue. It should not be here. It should be in your cities and counties. … They collect it, they spend it, and we really have nothing to do with it except set the broad outlines.”

The interim committee made seven recommendations, including increasing the homeowner’s exemption, counting land in it and indexing it for inflation; shifting half of school funding from property tax to state funds; expanding impact fees and allowing schools to charge them; expanding property tax aid to low-income seniors and setting up a deferral program; and repealing a tax loophole for developers. All would require the Legislature to change state laws. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, in his State of the State message, recommended only the aid for low-income seniors and the deferral program.

Crow said she plans to hold a big hearing on Jan. 30 on all property tax bills that come before her committee. Then, the panel will wait and mull them over before taking a final vote. “We’ll hear every bill,” she said, and take testimony from everyone interested. “We’ll take as long as necessary to get through them.”

MLK Day draws crowds to Capitol

The Statehouse was brimming with people lobbying, applauding, waving signs and standing up for human rights on Monday in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.-Idaho Human Rights Day.

Joe McNeal V, age 11, read from King’s famous “I have a dream” speech as part of the official state ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. The youngster went right on with the speech, even though his microphone was cutting in and out, perhaps with more aplomb than some speakers several times his age. When Boise Mayor Dave Bieter got his turn to talk, he suggested young McNeal would be a good candidate for Idaho governor someday.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne gave the youth the pen he’d just used to sign a proclamation declaring the holiday, and told the crowd that the first proclamation he ever signed as an elected official was the one marking the same holiday 20 years ago.

“Many here today were not even born until after Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short, and yet while so many young people never saw or heard that great man in life, Dr. King’s message still lives and rings true in the hearts and minds of young and old,” Kempthorne said in his annual MLK-Idaho Human Rights Day address. “As Dr. King said, everybody can be great if we’re willing to serve one another, to love one another and to be tolerant of our differences.”

Unlike some past years, Kempthorne was not heckled as he gave the address in the rotunda of the Statehouse, with people watching and listening from each of the Capitol’s three main floors. The day’s observances also included a march from Boise State University to the Capitol ending in a rally on the Statehouse steps, and a protest calling for stricter legislation on the use of pesticides around farm workers.

Why they did it

Wonder why the Legislature adopted the governor’s revenue projections, when their own estimates were $43.7 million higher for the current fiscal year and $77.3 million higher for next year?

“Taking a cautious approach was warranted in this case,” said Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “If we have excess revenue at the end, that’s not a bad thing.” Added Rep. Kathy Skippen, R-Emmett, “We’d rather be cautious than foolish.”

The Legislature’s Economic Outlook Committee voted 7-2 last week – along party lines – to adopt the governor’s figures despite its own higher estimates. Then, on Friday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee adopted that proposal on a 17-2 vote, with just Reps. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, objecting.

House Democrats then put out a statement opposing the move. “This was set artificially low,” Henbest said in the statement. “When they take money off the table like this, we can’t change direction and fix some of the systemic problems that are at the root of our unmet needs.” She predicted another “surprise” surplus next year, “And nobody knows who will end up with most of that,” she said.

The party split wasn’t complete on the issue, however. In the JFAC vote, the two Democratic senators, Sens. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, and Bert Marley, D-McCammon, voted in favor of adopting the committee’s report.

The projection matters because it’s the basis for setting the state budget – and determines how much lawmakers can plan to spend.

Two big pieces of Guv’s agenda clear JFAC - unanimously

Two giant pieces of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s agenda for this year’s legislative session cleared the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning on unanimous votes – giving state employees an immediate, permanent, merit-based pay raise averaging 3 percent, and depositing a big chunk of the state’s budget surplus – lawmakers decided on $70 million, up from Kempthorne’s recommendation of $67 million –to the state’s rainy-day fund.

“It was a relatively easy decision, because the money was there, the urgency was there – there was no reason to delay it,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who serves on JFAC. Both bills still must pass the full House and Senate, but once the 20-member joint budget committee makes a budget decision, it almost always passes into law.

Lawmakers more optimistic than governor - initially

The Legislature’s Economic Outlook Committee’s median revenue estimate was $77.3 million more than Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s figure - but then the committee voted 7-2 to adopt the governor’s more conservative numbers anyway. The number matters, because it’s the basis for setting the state budget for next year. “That’s kind of a milestone,” said Senate Tax Chairman Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, for “that very conservative committee.” Bunderson said he couldn’t recall the legislative panel’s estimate exceeding the governor’s estimate like that before, and added, “I think even the governor would hope that the committee’s projections would be realized.”

A higher revenue estimate means the possibility of a bigger state budget. But committee members said they decided to be cautious and go with the governor’s figures.

Bleary-eyed Demos say it was good

Democrats are bleary-eyed in the state Capitol this morning, after many boarded a bus early yesterday afternoon for Pocatello and didn’t return until close to 2 a.m. The Democratic Party was holding its Stallings Banquet, with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate minority leader, as keynote speaker.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, was in his JFAC seat bright and early at 8 a.m., but had hardly slept. “It was a good crowd – it was good,” he said of the Pocatello event.

Bogert to serve on Basin Commission

Michael Bogert, former legal counsel to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, has been staying away from Idaho issues he dealt with here in his new job as the regional head of the EPA in Seattle. But now, Bogert has been named the federal representative on the Coeur d’Alene Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission, which is overseeing basin cleanup in North Idaho.

“After assuming the EPA post, Bogert recused himself from all matters involving EPA’s activities in the Basin in order to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest,” the EPA said in a press release. “However, consistent with federal ethics rules, EPA recently determined that Mr. Bogert could serve as the federal representative on the Basin Commission. EPA found that due to his knowledge and experience, his presence on the Commission would be beneficial to the federal government and to advancing cleanup work in the Basin.”

Bogert said in the release, “I am looking forward to working closely with other Commission members on the critically important issues affecting the health and welfare of so many people in the Basin. I am proud of what we and our state, tribal, county, federal and public partners have already accomplished, but work remains to be done. Continued collaboration is essential to producing our shared goals of human health and environmental improvement in the Basin.”

Chances for supermajority change

When Gov. Dirk Kempthorne first asked lawmakers to lower the supermajority for school construction bonds from two-thirds to 60 percent, the idea didn’t go anywhere. It would take a change in the state Constitution, and that means, first of all, each house of the Legislature would have to favor the change by a two-thirds vote, and then it’d have to pass with a majority at the next general election.

However, several things have changed this year. First, the Idaho Supreme Court ordered the Legislature in no uncertain terms to make major changes in how Idaho pays for school construction, in a ruling shortly before the session convened. Lowering the supermajority was one of the items on the justices’ list of suggestions.

Idaho has long been considered the toughest place in the nation to build a school, because it’s the only state that both provides no direct state funding, and requires local taxpayers to vote by a two-thirds margin to raise their own taxes to foot the bill. Some small steps toward state subsidies have been taken in recent years, but it’s been one step forward, one step back.

Here’s the other thing that’s changed: Since the Supreme Court ruling, the top GOP leaders in both houses both say they’ll support putting a constitutional amendment before the voters. House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, told me, “I think the court has instructed us we need to do something in that regard, so that’s it.” Senate President Pro-Tem Robert Geddes said, “I think I could support that under one condition – if elections are consolidated in May and November.”

In Kempthorne’s State of the State message on Monday night, that’s exactly what he proposed – lowering the supermajority to 60 percent if the vote takes place at the primary or general election.

“Place the issue before the people – let them help resolve this issue, the very same people that have the wisdom to elect us,” Kempthorne told a joint session of the Legislature – and they applauded him.

And from the other side…

Idaho’s House and Senate Democrats held a joint press conference this morning to respond to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s State of the State message last night and point to their own priorities. Among their points:

• Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, called Kempthorne’s $50-per-person energy cost rebate a “gimmick,” because it’d go to the wealthiest Idahoans as well as the poorest. “The money the governor has earmarked for this would be far better spent giving energy assistance to Idaho’s poorest residents, and there would still be plenty left over to fix the state’s crumbling schools,” Stennett said.

• Democrats want to raise Idaho’s minimum wage a dollar, from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour.

• They’re calling for a 4 percent pay raise for all state employees, including teachers. Kempthorne is proposing a 3 percent pay raise effective at the end of this month for state employees excluding teachers, and a 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers next year, along with a boost in the minimum teacher salary.

• House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “Since the governor has failed to lead the way on property tax reform, we will step up to the issue ourselves.” Democrats are backing a doubling of the homeowner’s exemption, repeal of a loophole that allows some land speculators and developers to pay almost no property tax, and allowing local option taxes to pay for infrastructure in high-growth areas. They also back expanding the “circuit breaker” exemption for low-income seniors and the disabled, agreeing with Kempthorne on that one.

• The Democrats also called for ethics reforms, schoolhouse repairs, re-examining sales tax exemptions, rejecting construction of coal-fired energy plants and more.

Stennett had an example ready on the $50 energy checks, but had to ad-lib a little due to a front-page headline in Boise’s Idaho Statesman today about Don Simplot, oldest son of J.R. Simplot, filing for bankruptcy due to a string of failed business ventures. “J.R. Simplot doesn’t need another fifty bucks,” Stennett said, adding in a mutter to laughter, “maybe someone in the family does.”

Stennett was asked about Kempthorne’s proposal to spend $2 million to purchase 30 acres of additional land around the Simplot mansion that wasn’t included in J.R. and Esther Simplot’s donation of the home to the state for a future governor’s mansion. Said Stennett, “It’s turning out to be a fairly expensive gift.”

The shoe heard ‘round the state

When Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, made their presentation to legislative leaders this afternoon about the outcome of the interim committee they chaired – which is proposing major property tax relief – Senate President Pro-Tem Robert Geddes, R-Soda Springs, started it off by telling her, “Sen. Keough, I’ll run the gavel if you promise to keep your shoes on.”

That was a reference to Keough’s calming of a rowdy Sandpoint hearing over the summer, when Keough famously pulled off her navy-blue pump and banged it on a table to restore order. “The operative word there is gavel – you have one, I didn’t have one,” she responded.

Keough said the committee’s final report will be hitting legislators’ mailboxes soon, but noted that with residential property taxes rising more quickly than any other category, the committee heard an earful from about 1,500 people around the state at its dozen public hearings.

Among the questions members of leadership from both parties had for the committee co-chairs: How losses to schools from reductions in property taxes would be made up.

“Job well done,” Newcomb told Keough and Lake at the end of their presentation. “And I think my conclusion from your efforts is that Sen. Keough and Rep. Lake, you’re going to have to serve in the Legislature forever, because you know too much about property taxes, and we can’t afford to see you take that knowledge away.”

They’ll show us ‘quick’

As the Idaho Legislature convened officially at noon today, members of both houses expressed hope for a short session. “We’re looking for a very quick session,” Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, told the Senate on behalf of the House. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, the Senate president, responded, “We likewise are looking for a short but productive, efficient, well-run and harmonious session.”

But bear in mind that Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes’ stated goal for the session is 75 days – which would mean it’d end March 24th. He suggested that’s “a good goal,” and realistic, though perhaps optimistic. But it’s not exactly quick. Washington plans to wrap up its legislative session this year in 60 days.

It’s WGI and CH2M Hill - again

The Idaho Transportation Board has finished re-interviewing and re-ranking the two bidders who want to oversee the state’s biggest-ever highway project, and once again, Boise-based Washington Group International came out on top.

The board will take a final vote on Jan. 18 to negotiate a contract with WGI and the engineering firm CH2M Hill to oversee the “Connecting Idaho” project, which will be funded with GARVEE bonds, or Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles. Competing bidder Parsons Brinckerhoff, a New York-based firm that’s handled most of the statewide GARVEE programs in the nation, lost out again, but this time, at the end of eight hours of interviews, discussion and scoring at an open board meeting, it wasn’t complaining. “This process was open and fair – I have no complaints at all,” said Jim van Loben Sels, senior vice president for Parsons Brinckerhoff. “We’re disappointed in the outcome, but you win some, some you don’t.”

WGI, a politically active company and strong supporter both of the legislation that authorized the GARVEE program and of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, was celebrating. “It’s something that we really wanted to do for the state of Idaho,” said President and CEO Stephen Hanks.

The project manager contract is worth up to $5 million a year for 10 years, or $50 million. The “Connecting Idaho” project includes major highway construction all around the state, including major upgrades to U.S. Highway 95.

ITD board re-interviewing bidders

The Idaho Transportation Board is meeting right now to re-interview the two leading bidders to oversee the state’s biggest-ever highway construction project, the GARVEE bond-funded “Connecting Idaho” project. First, Parsons Brinckerhoff and Washington Group International each drew a card – PB pulled a 5 of clubs, while WGI got the king of spades. That allowed WGI to make the call in a coin toss, which it won – and then chose to make its presentation second, letting PB go first.

After the two presentations, lots of Q & A, and some board discussion, the board is scheduled to award the big contract – worth up to $5 million a year – this afternoon. Its initial award to WGI was challenged both by PB and by federal authorities for improper political considerations in steering the contract to a local firm – something not allowed under federal regulations. This time, board members have been instructed to stick to their four criteria, and not talk about who’s local and who’s not. Both firms are stressing their Idaho ties – WGI is based in Boise, and PB’s lead person for the Idaho project is the just-retired former chief engineer at ITD.

Otter: ‘I was wrong’

U.S. Rep. Butch Otter has withdrawn “for now” his sponsorship of federal legislation to sell off millions of acres of Idaho’s federal public lands to raise money for Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. In a rather humble guest opinion sent out this afternoon to news outlets across Idaho, Otter said, “My critics are correct that this bill is not the right approach.”

“I was wrong. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last,” Otter wrote.

Otter had vigorously defended the land sell-off bill for the past three weeks. In a statement defending it on Dec. 19, he called the bill “a responsible option to consider” and said, “It also might be worth asking where the criticism was when the federal government sold large portions of the Boise Foothills to the city of Boise. Are such transfers only valid when they are proposed by self-appointed conservationists, and not by those who espouse the broader concept of multiple-use stewardship?”

The “oops” on that was that Boise held an election on whether to secure permanent public-access easements on the foothills land, and it passed. Otter’s bill favored sales to private owners – not “multiple use stewardship.”

Otter clearly had been taking lots, and lots, of heat for his position. Today, he wrote, “Thank you to the people who have called and written and stopped me on the street to express their earnest thoughts on this matter.”

Jerry Brady, the Idaho Falls newspaper publisher and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who revealed Otter’s quiet sponsorship of the bill, said, “What he says is, ‘For now, I have withdrawn my sponsorship.’ It does leave a question open as to whether he really is contrite, or whether he intends to find some other way to sell the public lands. … How do you not understand the consequences of selling 5 million acres of land, and why did it take this long – why did it take me to bring this up, and then it took 17 more days for him to realize he’d made this mistake?”

Brady, who faces Otter in the race to become Idaho’s next governor, said the whole thing raises questions about Otter’s reasoning and decision-making. “He should be held accountable for even having gone this far,” Brady said. “Everywhere I go people are upset about this. So finally he’s changed his mind.”

Keough makes most-influential list

State Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, is the only North Idaho resident who made the annual list of the 25 most influential people in Idaho put together by political historian Randy Stapilus and his Ridenbaugh Press. This year’s list focuses on “agents of change” in 2005 – people who played central roles in change that made a difference in the state, for bad or good.

The list is heavy on top elected officials – Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is listed at No. 1 – along with some CEO’s, major developers, a few activists (Frank Vandersloot of eastern Idaho, No. 15, and conservative Rev. Bryan Fischer of the Boise area, No. 17), two university presidents (Bob Kustra of Boise State at No. 8, Richard Bowen of ISU, No. 20), one reporter (Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, No. 22), and one Democratic leader (Richard Stallings, No. 23). There’s also one criminal – the notorious accused murderer and child molester Joseph Duncan (No. 6), whose crimes are prompting changes in criminal laws in both Idaho and Washington.

Keough, listed at No. 24, is one of only three state legislators to appear on the list, which cited her leadership on property tax reform. The other two legislators are House Speaker Bruce Newcomb (No. 5) and House Tax Chairwoman Dolores Crow (No. 19). See the complete list at ridenbaugh.com.

Public land sale idea criticized

The ripples are still spreading from U.S. Rep. Butch Otter’s sponsorship of federal legislation to sell off 15 percent of Idaho’s public lands – a move that attracts extra attention because Otter is running for governor of Idaho. On Jan. 1, the Lewiston Tribune, in an editorial by Jim Fisher, noted that Otter was sponsoring the legislation “with some of the House’s flakier members – including one named Flake.” A few days earlier in the Idaho Statesman, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus decried Otter’s plan in a guest editorial, saying, “Selling off our public federal lands to pay for the damage of Hurricane Katrina is like selling your backyard to cover the costs of a fire in your garage. It doesn’t make sense.” Meanwhile, letters to the editor in newspapers across the state have raised concerns about Otter’s plan.

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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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