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Eye On Boise

Archive for March 2006

Unversity Place litigation settled

A settlement has been reached in litigation over the University of Idaho’s failed University Place real estate project in Boise. Under its terms, the UI Foundation will pay $2.5 million and the various parties’ insurers will pay $5.8 million, for a total $8.3 million mediated settlement. Of that, $5.8 million goes to the foundation’s Consolidated Investment Trust, and the other $2.5 million goes to the university.

In a joint statement, the parties, who include law firms, insurance companies, the UI Foundation board, and former UI officials including former President Robert Hoover, said, “The settlement is a reasonable resolution of an extremely complex matter, avoids substantial future litigation costs, and is in the best interest of the University community.”

The amount being paid by each party is being kept secret.

Garvee bill sidetracked, tempers flare – all part of the chess game?

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb has assigned the GARVEE bonding bill – the funding for the first year of the “Connecting Idaho” highway plan, including major upgrades to U.S. Highway 95 – to the House Transportation Committee, though it’s an appropriation bill that’s already cleared the joint budget committee, and that committee’s not so friendly to it.

Told that the rumor is he sidelined the bill to punish North Idaho Sens. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, and Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, for debating against his failed water bill in the Senate yesterday, Newcomb said, “That’s a good rumor. There’ll be others, but that’s a good one for starters.” The speaker said he’s “giving the germane committee a chance to take a look at it.”

Meanwhile, angry senators reacted by holding Newcomb’s bill to impose a two-year moratorium on coal-fired plants – it’s already passed both houses, and just needs a signature in the Senate before it heads to the governor for signing.

North Idaho senators were furious. “If that’s what he’s doing, I guess I have to say I’m not as respectful of him as I have been in the past,” said Jorgenson.

Said Compton: “Like the hundreds of people who’ve been killed on 95 don’t count, I guess – let’s punish Compton and Jorgenson.”

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne isn’t concerned at this point, he said, and his transportation board chairman, Chuck Winder, is reserving judgment. “Obviously it’s not the normal process,” Winder said. He tried to go see Newcomb, but the speaker was in the midst of a retirement party in the House caucus room, where friends and foes crowded in to eat cake, congratulate him, and present him with a gold ring graced with the state seal and a shotgun as he retires after eight years as speaker and a long career in the Legislature.

“Obviously it’s bittersweet,” Newcomb said as he was surrounded by well-wishers. “I’ve made a lot of good friends here. It’s just been a great experience and great relationship with everybody I’ve ever met in this process.”

He admitted, “I kinda like the chess game that goes along with being speaker.”

Speaker responds to Senate water vote

Here’s how House Speaker Bruce Newcomb responded right after the Senate voted 14-21 against his water recharge bill, HB 800: “I don’t know where you go from here. … I hope it keeps the discussion alive. … The good part of this is there’s an institutional memory now – it’s been passed on.”

He has a point. Senators sat through a six-hour committee hearing that went through, in great detail, many issues relating to the 1984 Swan Falls Agreement and related water rights matters. They also had a detailed, heartfelt, three-hour debate on the bill in the full Senate.

Newcomb, surrounded by reporters and TV cameras after the vote, is retiring this year after being the state’s longest-serving House speaker. “Now that I’m leaving, I feel good about the fact that the institutional memory’s been passed on and people now understand, to some degree, what the Swan Falls agreement’s really all about,” he said.

The speaker mused, “Issues are changing, that’s bound to happen over time – especially when you have scarce resources.” He expressed hope that negotiations still will lead to using at least some water to recharge the diminishing eastern Snake Plain aquifer this year. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that you stabilize the aquifer,” Newcomb said.

Now, he said, the focus shifts to property taxes, the biggest remaining issue pending in the Legislature, along with remaining bills like GARVEE bonding, community college funding, and an economic-development and parks funding bill.

Water bill fails on 14-21 vote

After a debate stretching for more than three hours – from 11 a.m. right on through the lunch hour and into the mid-afternoon – the Senate has just voted down HB 800, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb’s water recharge bill. The measure was strongly opposed by Idaho Power Corp., the big southern Idaho power company, which said it would take water the company otherwise could use for power generation without compensation, and use it to recharge the eastern Snake Plain aquifer. Backers of the bill said the recharge could be accomplished with excess water in this high-water year that should rightfully belong to the state, not to Idaho Power.

Senators endured hunger pangs, flaring tempers and strong feelings through the debate, which was intense. “In my opinion, those statements that it will raise electrical rates are not only false but misleading, and it is designed to scare you and scare your constituents,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Cameron, the Senate finance chair, added, “If I have ever generated any political capital in this body through funding projects … I would lay all that on the desk” if it’d get the Senate to vote for the bill. He called the decision “one of the more significant votes that this body may take this decade.”

But Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, said, “It’s been rushed through, there’s been a lot of lobbying pressure and it really doesn’t feel very comfortable.” Opponents said the bill would just lead to litigation with Idaho Power, rather than to recharge of the aquifer. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had been negotiating a recharge deal with the company before the bill was proposed that would’ve included paying for some water.

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “It is abundantly clear it is drawing late in the session, tempers are short. … Vote no for the sake of the citizens of Idaho, because the costs for the litigation are far more than it might cost to pay for some small amount of water.”

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, said for all the talk about lobbying pressure, “I’ll tell you where the greatest pressure came from – across the body, holding bills unless we vote. … I resent that. … This should go to the courts to be decided, not here.”

Senate passes resolution stopping high school redesign

The Senate has just voted 24-11 for SCR 134, a resolution sponsored by Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, that rejects the high school curriculum redesign rule that the House Education Committee accepted last week. There was a long and intense debate, and in the end, the strong Senate vote came over the objections of Senate Education Chair John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who debated twice against the resolution.

“Thirty-nine states require (of) their students more than we do,” Goedde told the Senate. “More and more states are raising the bar. Do we want to be among them, or do we want to be on the sidelines as other states better prepare their students?”

The redesign plan, developed by the state Board of Education, would require four years of math in high school and three years of science, plus a senior project and other requirements. But Schroeder noted that public comment has been running strongly against the rule, and people are concerned about electives and a well-rounded education. “Should we use the power of the government to force something upon the people that they don’t want?” he asked.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I stand before you not only as a senator but as a mom.” She told of sitting down with her son to decide which courses he should take in high school to match his career goals – and how those goals, and the appropriate courses, differed among her two kids. “We want our students to have the very best education, well-rounded in all subjects,” Keough said. “I don’t think we’ve looked at the entire picture. We need to do some more homework.”

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, also spoke out. “The assumption by this rule (is) that all high school students would be better off if they took four years of math and three of science. … The fact of the matter is not all people have an acuity for math. … If a person is math-oriented, if they’re going to be a rocket scientist, they’re going to take the math anyway.”

SCR 134 now moves to the House. If it passes there, it undoes the House committee’s decision, and the board’s redesign rule dies.

Lawmakers honor Bianchi

Legislators filled the Gold Room this morning to honor Carl Bianchi, the director of legislative services who tried to retire before this legislative session – but was prevailed upon by legislative leadership to stay on through June.

“When he announced his retirement, we turned into lobbyists,” Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes told the crowd to laughter. “Carl will be missed, and there’ll be a lot of times in the future when we’ll say, ‘What would Carl say?’”

Bianchi acknowledged, “I wasn’t supposed to be here this session and I agreed to come.” But he said having “one more roller-coaster session in the Legislature” turned out to be a gift, and he praised his staff and lawmakers for their work. The assembled legislators honored him with a sustained standing ovation, before House Speaker Bruce Newcomb wrapped it up, saying, “Well, back to work now everybody – we’ve got a little bill on the Senate side this morning.” Newcomb’s controversial water recharge bill is up for debate in the Senate today, a key battle in the closing days of the session that has the retiring speaker worried.

Punching a $40 million hole…

Here’s Rep. Jim Clark’s explanation of the new House property tax bill that was introduced today: “What this will do is it will punch about a $40 million hole in the budget.”

Yes, Clark, R-Hayden Lake, doesn’t like the bill, which eliminates school operations property taxes and raises the sales tax a penny – but doesn’t make up the full loss to schools. He’s holding out for HB 481, a one-year freeze on property taxes that he co-sponsored with House Tax Chair Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, and Assistant Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. That bill’s sitting in the House Rev & Tax Committee, where it could re-emerge at the pleasure of the chairman.

A soft chair and the mice out

When JFAC approved funding this morning for the Capitol renovation project – including moving the Legislature into the abandoned old Ada County Courthouse across the street for at least two future sessions while the work is done, Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, commented as she made the motion – in JFAC’s elegant, marble-columned hearing room – “Basically I guess what I’m doing is throwing us out of this beautiful room and into an abyss which we know not of – so when I get through, I guess I want a soft chair, a phone system, a computer system and the mice out.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the panel’s other co-chair, responded, “We might be lucky to get a soft chair.”

Coal-plan moratorium passes, and coal plant proposal is off

HB 791, placing a two-year moratorium on development of new coal-fired power plants in Idaho, just passed the Senate on a 30-5 vote – but the project that prompted the moratorium is off. Lobbyist Roy Eiguren distributed copies of a letter today from Sempra Generation to the governor, in which the San Diego, Calif. firm said it’s decided to sell the development rights to the coal plant it had proposed in Jerome County. In the letter, Sempra president Michael Niggli said the Jerome County site “offers prospective owners excellent access to rail, existing transmission, land and water rights.”

But the proposal had raised huge opposition – particularly because it would have used Idaho water and created Idaho pollution in order to generate power for use elsewhere. The two-year moratorium bill, which now goes to the governor, was sponsored by a bipartisan group of six lawmakers, including House Speaker Bruce Newcomb.

Clashing property tax proposals emerge in House, Senate

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 6-3 to send the full Senate SJR 108, a constitutional amendment that would shift school operations funding off the property tax, and raise the sales tax by whatever amount needed to cover the schools’ loss – likely one and a quarter percent. Meanwhile, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning voted 11-8 to introduce and send to the full House a new bill from Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, to eliminate the school operations property tax, but raise sales tax by just a penny. That would leave a $40 million gap in school funding.

Which one will pass? Will either? The constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote in each house – which could be hard to get – plus a majority vote of the people next fall. The tax-shift bill, which most are calling the “M&O” bill because it eliminates the 3-mill school Maintenance & Operations levy, could run into trouble with lawmakers concerned about school funding.

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, asked the State Affairs Committee, “How can we assure the schools that the funding will be there – when we’ve already proven that we can’t assure them?” reports S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff. Three years ago, lawmakers approved an unprecedented mid-year holdback on school funding, prompting a thousand teachers to march on the state capitol protesting the permanent mid-year budget cut.

Relations between the two houses, as they often do in the final showdown of a legislative session, are deteriorating. In the House committee, Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, who voted for Moyle’s lengthy bill saying it could be worse, said, “Maybe if we churn out enough paper we can roll it into cylinders and go across the way and whack some senators, because they’re responsible for the predicament we’re in.”

Waiting in the background is legislation to freeze property taxes for one year – a possible fallback if the House and Senate can’t agree on any changes in school property taxes.

JFAC agenda includes ‘Strengthening Idaho’

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s agenda is up for Wednesday morning, and don’t be fooled – it’s all there. There are decisions on funding on various bills that have passed, from capitol restoration to elected officials’ salaries; decisions on funding school-construction legislation; and something called the “Strengthening Idaho Act of 2006.”

That, basically, is everything else. Members of the joint committee will vote, one project at a time, on how to spend the remaining $50 million or so the state has left in next year’s budget, with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s parks initiative up first. Items that could get funding as part of the Act include an array of economic development projects, milfoil eradication, scholarships and more. If all goes as planned, JFAC will spend the rest of next year’s budget as it makes those decisions, and the stage will be set for wrapping up the session.

Arguments over teacher pay – but then all agree

When the House debated HB 845 this morning, the slice of the public school budget that includes funding for teacher pay, Rep. Bill Sali, R-Kuna, debated against the bill sponsored by Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, but then voted for it. The bill was approved unanimously.

S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff reports that Sali began his remarks by emphasizing, “It’s not my intention to declare war on our teachers.” But then, he continued, “By raising their starting salary to $30,000, you’re pushing all teachers well into the top half of all wage earners in the state.” He said teachers work only nine months out of the year. “I’m not sure what message we send to all of the other working people in the state when we single out teachers in this manner,” Sali said.

Rep. Stan Bastian, a school administrator, spoke in support of the salary increase. “I take this as almost a personal issue,” he said. “The profession needs the support of this legislature. … How many professionals do you know of that require degree and certification that start so low? … I think it’s a false premise to say that we need to compare teachers to all workers in Idaho. We need to compare teachers to all professionals who have a four year degree in Idaho.”

Bedke said the boost in starting teacher pay is needed. “We need to attract new good teachers to Idaho,” he said. “I think that this is consistent with what we’ve said over the years – if we’d had it we’d give it. We have it this year.”

The budget bill now moves to the Senate.

Candidate for governor announces engagement

1st District Congressman Butch Otter, who’s running for governor, has announced his engagement to Lori Easley, a vice principal in the Meridian School District. A photo of the engaged couple is posted on Otter’s campaign website, showing the two smiling tensely. The site notes that a wedding date has not yet been set.

Otter is in a four-way race for the Republican nomination for governor, but he’s a clear front-runner as a sitting congressman and the state’s longest-serving lieutenant governor, while the other three candidates haven’t held state office. Two Democrats are running, including Jerry Brady, who took 42 percent of the vote against Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in the last election. So are two third-party candidates.

Otter’s marital status – he’s been single since his divorce 13 years ago from the former Gay Simplot – would have made him highly unusual were he to be elected governor. Typically, the Idaho governor’s spouse has taken a fairly high-profile ceremonial role as the state’s First Lady. Ironically, if Otter were to get married and be elected governor, he and his new wife would become the first official occupants of the state’s new governor’s mansion – the former home of J.R. Simplot, the richest man in Idaho, who donated the landmark hilltop mansion to the state for a new governor’s mansion. Simplot, of course, is Otter’s ex-father in law.

It’s a hot time in the Gold Room

Things are getting hot in the Gold Room of the state Capitol, where people have been lined up shoulder-to-shoulder for hours and every seat is full, as testimony stretches on about a controversial bill regarding water rights, Idaho Power, and recharging the Snake plain aquifer. Among the testimony: One speaker told the Senate Resources Committee that the Legislature shouldn’t be “meddling with water rights.” It’s so hot in the room on this spring afternoon that even with the windows all open, it feels more like July in the sagebrush desert than March in Boise…

Developer’s discount elimination bill passes House, heads to governor

HB 676a, the bill to eliminate a notorious tax loophole for some rural developers and land speculators, just won final approval in the House after it was amended in the Senate – on a unanimous vote. “This is the bill that’s been floating around and we’ve been trying to close this loophole for four years,” said Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “I’d appreciate your green light.”

The unanimous, 63-0 vote might not seem that remarkable – after all, the House had passed the bill earlier, and the Senate amendment merely struck a clause that allowed the loophole to continue if land was sold to family members – but there had been widespread rumors that there would be a move to send the bill back to committee, rather than concur with the Senate amendments, and to do the same to all the property tax relief bills, in favor of studying the issue for another year. That didn’t happen – and that’s significant. Still pending is major legislation to increase the homeowner’s exemption, which is pending House approval of Senate amendments, and to shift part of school funding off the property tax and raise the sales tax, which is in a Senate committee.

‘A bad day for bad people’

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne declared, “This is a good day for law enforcement. This is a bad day for bad people,” as he signed legislation today to crack down on gang activity and to toughen sex-offender registration and sentencing laws. People need to know where sex offenders are, Kempthorne said. “It’s a matter of public safety, and it’s the community’s right to know.”

The governor gave a nod to Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, and Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, for helping craft the sex offender bill, SB 1312. “Certainly the horrific crimes that have taken place in North Idaho have brought national attention to this issue, and I truly believe that the actions we have taken in this legislative session are proactive instead of reactive.”

The governor noted that the Criminal Justice Commission he appointed recommended both the gang crackdown and the tougher sex offender laws. However, he also charged that commission with addressing Idaho’s fast-growing prison population, which currently includes hundreds of inmates housed out-of-state because Idaho prisons are overflowing. That problem won’t worsen with this year’s new tougher sentencing laws, Kempthorne said – even though an array of tough bills are going through to lengthen prison sentences. “The problem is breaking the law. This allows law enforcement to be more effective. … If we had other legislation that was also going after bad people, I’d sign it,” he said.

The governor also noted that the state will build a new 400-bed substance abuse treatment facility for prisoners next year – more beds than will be in a new 350-bed prison addition. Efforts like that will help reduce recidivism among Idaho criminals, he said. “Those who want to turn their life around now can do so.”

The governor also visited with Statehouse reporters at the Capitol for the first time since he was nominated by President Bush to be the next Secretary of the Interior. The pending Senate confirmation process has “increased the workload” he faces, he said, and he expects some “shuttling back and forth” to Washington, D.C. in the coming weeks, even as he wraps up a contentious legislative session.

Nevertheless, he said, “This is going to be a successful session.” His Medicaid reform initiative alone is “a huge initiative,” he noted, that’s now won legislative approval. “We’re going to get it done. It’s an enormous success. This will be the largest single restructuring of Medicaid in United States history, and we’ve done it here in Idaho.”

Kempthorne also said he’s continuing to press for legislation to fund new community college courses in unserved areas of the state – like Boise – though the bill’s been stalled. “If it had been easy, I suppose it would’ve happened 20 years ago,” he said. “The concept has support … but it is the funding which is the sticking point.”

He was non-commital on a series of property tax reform bills now moving through the Legislature. “I just need to see what the final total package is,” he said.

With some lawmakers suggesting the legislative session could run for another two weeks, Kempthorne offered no estimate. “But see, I mean, I’m here anyways,” he said.

‘Patron Saint of the North’

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, was giving a rundown of everything North Idaho lawmakers have had to go through in the past to cadge a bit of money each year to protect water quality in the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, and he mentioned the role Senate Finance Vice Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, played in that process. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch then observed, “Sen. Keough was on the phone and didn’t hear you call her the ‘patron saint of the North.’”

Compton was speaking in favor of HB 650a, the aquifer protection district bill. His comments apparently were persuasive – the Senate passed the bill unanimously. It had earlier passed unanimously in the House, so now the bill heads to the governor’s desk.

Minimum wage bill killed, 12-5

The House State Affairs Committee, after a hearing that ran nearly two hours, has voted 12-5 to kill HB 843, a Democratic proposal to raise Idaho’s minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $6.15, and to index it to inflation in the future. Opponents said the move would just push up prices and lead to unemployment, while supporters called it a dignity issue and said it would enable low-wage workers to be less dependent on government-funded welfare programs. More than a dozen people testified for and against the bill. Idaho’s minimum wage hasn’t risen since 1997, and it’s tied for lowest in the nation.

In the end, just the panel’s three Democrats, Reps. Mary Lou Shepherd of Prichard, Elaine Smith of Pocatello and Anne Pasley-Stuart of Boise, were joined by two Republicans in voting for the bill. The two Republicans were Reps. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, and Janet Miller, R-Boise.

Crowd bids farewell to influential tax chair

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee meeting room was transformed into a party room this morning, with three kinds of cake, lots of visiting and reminiscing, and congrats to longtime Chairwoman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, who is retiring after this session.

When Randy Nelson, head of Associated Taxpayers of Idaho, arrived with his usual thick black briefcase, Crow asked him what she always asks him at committee hearings: “Do you have a handout?”

Reps. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, came in together. “We’re the gentlemen from District 5 – we come as a delegation,” Nonini told Crow. “You’re just going to see if I’m going to run that RS,” Crow responded with a chuckle, as Nonini began saying, “We’ve got an interchange…”

It didn’t take long before both Nonini and Henderson were on their knees in front of Crow, mock-begging her to revive a bill that was unceremoniously killed earlier, to provide a tax incentive for sporting-goods giant Cabela’s to build a store in Post Falls. The measure may get new life, the two hinted.

Legislative leaders, lobbyists, staffers, pages and others who have worked with – or even clashed with – Crow over the years came by to eat cake and congratulate her on her service. Crow has been the House tax chair for the past eight years – serving as the de facto gatekeeper over all tax legislation in Idaho – and is among the Legislature’s longest-serving members, serving her 12th House term. She was first appointed to the Legislature by Lt. Gov. David Leroy in 1983.

“I have very much enjoyed working for the citizens of the State of Idaho, hearing their concerns and trying to find solutions to their problems,” Crow said when she announced her retirement. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to protect the interests of the state’s taxpayers and lower taxes during my time in the Legislature.”

Crow served eight years as chair of the House Environmental Affairs Committee and four years on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee before taking over the tax committee. Because tax legislation is constitutionally required to start in the House, that panel – and its chairman – plays a key role in Idaho tax policy, deciding which ideas get a start in the Legislature and which don’t.

Crow and her husband Wayne, who passed away in 1998, were longtime Republican Party activists in Canyon County.

What comes next? Crow, a retired businesswoman who has six children and a half-dozen grandchildren, said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m gonna do something.”

‘A very liberating feeling’ – but not for the majority

A retroactive sales tax exemption for shooting range fees and membership dues just cleared the Senate on a 27-8 vote, but not without a lot of debate. Several senators noted that the bill, HB 686, would treat shooting clubs differently from all other clubs. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked, “Why should we treat a gun club differently than my golf club?” Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, the bill’s sponsor, said gun clubs provide “a great public benefit” by providing firearms education. “There’s no similarity,” he said.

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, noted that he’s not running for re-election, and when you’re not seeking re-election, “You can vote exactly how you feel about it and not worry about who’s going to send out a letter against you.” That, he said, “is a very liberating feeling,” and he voted against the tax break. The bill now goes to the governor.

North Idaho water adjudication bill passes

HB 545, the bill to adjudicate all the water rights in North Idaho, just passed the Senate on a 30-5 vote and headed for the governor’s desk. “There is nothing more sacred in the state of Idaho than water,” sponsor Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, told the Senate. “Water up north is just as sacred, just as precious and more beautiful than what we have down here – I’m sorry to say that, but it is true.”

Adjudication is a complicated and costly court process that sorts out who has rights to how much water. The state is just completing the largest adjudication in the nation, sorting out rights in the Snake River Basin in southern Idaho. With the North Idaho adjudication, which would include the Coeur d’Alene/Spokane river basin, the Palouse river basin, and the Kootenai/Clark Fork river basin, all the water rights in the state would have been adjudicated. The idea is to use the existing water court from the southern Idaho case and move right on to the North Idaho issues.

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the state of Washington is laying claim against North Idaho’s water, and the adjudication will help Idaho defend its water. “Unless we have some pretty good legal basis to hang our hat on, they’re going to get their way,” he told the Senate.

But Sen. Skip Brandt, R-Kooskia, who unsuccessfully led opposition to a water rights agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe last year, said, “A state agency has employees that now need something to do, so we’re going to walk through a door again that we can’t back out of.” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, agreed and voted against the bill.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said legislation the House has been working on to nab water from Idaho Power Corp. to recharge the Snake plain aquifer will turn Idaho water rights law on its head, and make the adjudication useless, so he voted against the bill. “There’s a chance the whole adjudication process is going to get tossed out on the other side of the rotunda,” he said.

But the bill passed, and with funding already approved earlier in the morning by the joint budget committee, it’s now up to the governor.

‘A good day for North Idaho’

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, commented, “It’s a good day for North Idaho,” just after the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee voted unanimously just now to approve funding for the North Idaho water rights adjudication. Just before that, they’d voted 19-1 in favor of a new GARVEE bonding plan that restores $35 million in funding for the Garwood-to-Sagle project to turn congested U.S. Highway 95 between Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene into a four-lane freeway.

And that was before the unanimous JFAC vote to fund SB 1407, which adds a new district judge in North Idaho (and also one in Canyon County). The bill already has passed the Senate and is awaiting a final vote in the House. Since 1995, court caseloads in Kootenai County have jumped 40 percent, while they’re up 51 percent in Canyon County.

The big news is the highway bonding plan, which re-jiggers the $200 million first round of bonding to take in the Highway 95 project and reduce funding for an eastern Idaho project that wasn’t yet ready to go.

“It has been a good morning,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “The co-chairs were very sensitive to the northern legislators who worked as a team to restore that funding and additionally held the department to accountability in terms of what the real numbers were.”

The $35 million figure, Keough said, is what the Transportation Department now says it will take to acquire right-of-way and do engineering in the next two years for the freeway project.

The one “no” vote on the bonding plan came from Boise GOP Rep. Cliff Bayer. He said he’s concerned that there’s a movement on to “push the property tax issue to the ballot when we should deal with it,” and at the same time to move forward with GARVEE bonding – which he believes should go to a vote of the people. “There are big questions regarding constitutionality,” Bayer said. “I could support a very significant GARVEE program if it were through the ballot to the people, as provided by the state Constitution.”

An Idaho Attorney General’s opinion last year cleared the GARVEE bonding plan, which comes under a special law Congress passed to allow states to borrow against future federal highway allocations. But Bayer said he still has questions and wants an independent legal opinion.

Meanwhile, property taxes are on the agenda for the Senate today. Already, the Senate has voted near-unanimously in favor of setting up a new interim study committee on property tax issues next summer – with the idea that this session will address some, but not all, of the problems.

A constitutional amendment also is in the works to address shifting school funding from the property tax to the sales tax. That would require two-thirds legislative approval plus a vote of the people next November. And some of the House-passed property tax reform bills could come up for votes in the full Senate today; the first one, eliminating a tax loophole for rural developers and land speculators, passed yesterday.

The North Idaho water rights adjudication funding addresses legislation that likely will come up for final passage in the Senate today. Approved funding is $1.3 million for next year – and it could add up to as much as $16 million by 2015. Idaho is just completing a huge, multimillion-dollar water rights adjudication in southern Idaho. The process sorts out who has rights to how much water.

Even Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, supported the funding. “I think this is a necessary evil – I think we have to do this,” he said.

“It’s a recognition that northern water quantity and water quality issues are as important as those in the south,” Keough said, “and this is the beginning of a very long process.” Adjudication, she said, will allow North Idaho to protect its water against calls from downstream interests, including those in Washington.

Enough is enough!

Everyone’s starting to feel it – this legislative session has gone on too long already. Lenette Bendio, attaché in the legislative bill and mail room, decided to announce her feelings about it today by hanging a bright red “Out of Order” sign around her neck. “We’ve been here three months – that’s long enough,” she said gruffly, adding that she felt a “little levity” was in order along with the message.

Her move was the first, but immediately afterward, the first ugly ties of the spring began to sprout on members of the Statehouse press corps. That’s a tradition started by former longtime AP correspondent Bob Fick – wearing a tie so awful that legislators looking at it might become so disgusted they’d wrap up their session and go home for the year.

Ricardo Ochoa of Idaho Public TV donned his flowery number this morning and asked if it qualified as an ugly tie. The ladies in the bill and mail room all agreed – it did.

Divided Idaho Supreme Court rules 3-2 against openness

In a 3-2 decision, the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled against the Idaho Press Club in its lawsuit challenging closed meetings of official legislative committees as a violation of the Idaho Constitution. Justice Daniel Eismann, writing for the majority, agreed with attorneys for the Legislature that the Constitution’s prohibition of secret sessions of the Legislature doesn’t apply to committees – even though those committee do the bulk of the work of the Legislature and are the only place in the legislative process where the public participates and offers testimony.

Justice Eismann noted that the case presented “various policy arguments as to why legislative committee meetings should always be open. We cannot use policy arguments to give a constitutional provision a meaning that is not consistent with its wording. Such policy reasons could certainly be considered by the legislature when deciding whether to permit its committee meetings to be closed. They may also support a constitutional amendment broadening the scope of Article III, Section 12. We cannot use them, however, to vary the plain meaning of that constitutional provision.”

In the dissent, Justice Jim Jones wrote, “The fact that the Legislature has chosen to establish committees and delegate a good deal of the legislative work to those committees should not deprive the people of the ability to have access to, and input in, meetings of committees where legislative business is being conducted. Bills are formulated in the committees, committee competing proposals are considered, amendments are made, public policy is formulated, and the people are entitled to participate. They have a limited ability to do so when the Legislature debates and votes in full session. If legislative committee work is shielded from public view, what is there to keep either house from conducting even more of its legislative work in committee, including perhaps the final debate, leaving only the final vote to occur in open session? This is not a wise road upon which to embark.”

Justice Roger Burdick concurred with Jones in the dissent. Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder and Justice Linda Copple Trout concurred with Eismann in the majority opinion.

Maybe Risch will get his session

At first blush, it certainly seems that with only 8 months in office and no legislative session, the upcoming Risch Administration might not make much of a mark legislatively, despite Gov. Jim Risch’s long history as one of the state’s most skilled state senators and Senate leaders. But there is that pesky school lawsuit that’s been going for the past decade and a half, in which the Idaho Supreme Court has retained jurisdiction and ordered the Legislature to fix an unconstitutional system that relies almost entirely on local property taxes to fund school construction. What if the bill that’s moving through now – to offer $25 million in state loans to replace unsafe schools only if the state takes over the school district, sends in a supervisor who could fire the superintendent, and imposes no-vote property tax increases to pay back the loans on local patrons who’ve already voted against them twice – doesn’t satisfy the court? Then Gov. Risch might have to call a special session of the Legislature to come up with a better school-funding system. And no doubt, he would…

All the tricks and turns of the ‘devil’s workshop’

The intricate rules the Senate follows when it meets as the “Committee of the Whole” in its 14th Order of business to amend bills have their quirks. Today saw a few. In one, Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, an accountant, was arguing in detail for a complicated amendment to a property tax bill, when he was cut off – his 5 minutes to debate were up. Hill quickly sat down, blushing, but then there was no debate against the proposal, so he was immediately given another 5 minutes to close debate and asked to stand up again.

In another, Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, had proposed an amendment to strike the enacting clause of the bill to shift school operations funding off the property tax. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, leapt up and cited an obscure rule that he said states that a motion to strike an enacting clause is a non-debatable motion – so no one, including Langhorst, should be allowed to say anything for or against that amendment. Senators from both parties quickly huddled in the aisle of the Senate, each waving their rule books, as Davis brandished his and pointed to it. In the end, the ruling went in Davis’ favor, and no arguments either way were allowed on the Democrat’s amendment – it was voted down without debate. Never mind that many in the Senate can remember previous amendments striking the enacting clauses of bills – and the debates on them.

Risch won’t run for governor

Lt. Gov. Jim Risch just announced that if Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is confirmed as the new Interior secretary, he’ll step in and serve out Kempthorne’s final term as governor, but he won’t change his plans to run for re-election as lieutenant governor.

“I think the decision comes down to this: Do I want to engage in what would be a difficult and contentious campaign, or do I want to discharge the duties of the governor of the state of Idaho? I’ve chosen the latter, and I think that’s the right decision,” Risch said.

This will make him a historical anomaly: The first sitting governor to run for lieutenant governor.

Risch got a laugh out of that, but said he’s made his decision. When he first decided last fall to seek re-election as lieutenant governor rather than challenge Congressman Butch Otter for the GOP nomination for governor, Risch said it was in part because of his family, which surrounded him at his announcement today in the governor’s office. A young grandson cooed, “Papa, mama, dada.”

Risch acknowledged, “It’s no secret that I’ve wanted to do this job for a long time.” In the eight months that he’ll serve as governor, he said, “I’ll do the best that I can possibly do for the people of the state of Idaho.”

He met with the Prez in a less-than-fresh suit and still got the job

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne says he took a red-eye flight to D.C. on Wednesday night for morning meetings with National Guard officials and the congressional delegation, and then met with the president and was asked to be the next Secretary of the Interior. On Thursday afternoon, Kempthorne told reporters, “I’ve not yet been back to the hotel to change my suit. It’s been a fast-paced day – I think probably indicative of things to come.”

Property tax debate starts, doesn’t get too far

The Idaho Senate has adjourned for the night after amending just one property tax bill, HB 676, the bill to do away with a loophole that allows some rural land developers and speculators to pay agricultural rates, giving them a huge tax break. Unanimously, with no debate, the senators approved an amendment to delete a clause that allowed the loophole to continue if an owner transferred land to family members.

The senators had started debating amendments to HB 421, the bill to raise the homeowner’s exemption, when it got late and they had a non-debatable motion to adjourn. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, loudly declared a “no” vote, but she was out-voted.

“I’m very disappointed today that we adjourned in the middle of the amending order to allow the Democrats to go to a fundraiser,” she said afterward. “This is a huge issue for people in northern Idaho. We’re being chastised by people at home saying we’re not doing anything,” and it’s time to do it, she said.

So as of the end of tonight’s debate, two bills had survived the amending order and moved on to full Senate consideration: HB 680, which sets up a state-sponsored deferral program to allow some low-income disabled or elderly homeowners to defer their taxes until they die or sell their homes; and HB 676, to do away with the so-called “developer’s discount” tax loophole. The Senate goes back in session tomorrow morning at 9.

Kempthorne to replace Norton as Interior secretary

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has been nominated by President Bush to be the new Secretary of the Interior, replacing the departing Gale Norton. If confirmed, Kempthorne would be the second sitting Idaho governor tapped for that post. Then-Gov. Cecil Andrus was named Interior secretary in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

Kempthorne, who’s been in Washington, D.C. for meetings, is planning a press conference there in less than an hour.

Late this afternoon could be the time

Senators are now looking to start amending property tax bills around 4 this afternoon, after they weren’t quite ready to start this morning. With six major House-passed property tax reform bills awaiting amendments – and one of the year’s hottest political issues hanging in the bargain just as lawmakers are filing for re-election – Senate Majority Caucus Chair Brad Little, R-Emmett, is referring to the upcoming round of amendments as a “rodeo.”

It’s unanimous - those who lobby the executive branch should disclose

It was unanimous – a 35-0 vote in the Senate just now – to pass HB 707, the bill to require those who lobby the executive branch to register with the state and disclose their spending, just as do those who lobby the legislative branch. The issue has been particularly controversial this year as huge, multimillion-dollar state contracts have been awarded to firms that hired the governor’s former chief of staff, Phil Reberger, to represent them as they sought the bids. Reberger registered as a lobbyist only after the Secretary of State’s office opened an investigation into his meeting with a key legislator about one of the contracts. HB 707 earlier passed the House on a unanimous 68-0 vote. It now heads to the governor’s desk.

Talkin’ amendments

The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee is going over possible amendments to the various property tax bills and their impacts, and conferring publicly with experts like state Tax Commissioner Duey Hammond and administration chief economist Mike Ferguson. It’s the same workshop format the committee has used all session to study, in-depth, the property tax issue. Tomorrow, however, the style changes – when the bills come up for amendment in the full Senate’s 14th Order. Then, it’s up to all the senators to figure out which amendments to paste onto which bills, all within the strict procedural and debate limits of the formal order.

Among the amendments being kicked around upstairs right now: Trying an advisory vote or constitutional amendment on the idea of raising sales tax to offset a cut in property taxes for school operations. Committee Chair Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, just said that’s the kind of major change that really should go to a vote of the people.

Big changes discussed in deaf and blind education

For only about $150,000 more a year, Idaho could provide regional educational programs for deaf and blind students in five regions of the state, rather than run its current school for the deaf and blind in Gooding – where enrollment has been falling, as it has for traditional residential schools for this population nationwide.

That was the conclusion of a report developed by three members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee – Reps. Kathy Skippen, R-Emmett, and Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, and Sen. Patti Anne Lodge – and legislative budget analyst Jason Hancock that was presented to the House Education Committee this morning. The school now enrolls only one student from north of Boise, and has 38 residential students. The legislators said they’re not criticizing the school, which they called a “beautiful” and well-run facility. “We want to give the best possible service to these students,” Lodge told the House committee. “The old-model schools are closing down all over the United States, and we need to step back and say, ‘What’s best for the kids?’”

The committee agreed to introduce legislation based on the report, but if the change happened, it wouldn’t be until fiscal year 2009, which means the 2008 Legislature would make the final call.

Hancock noted that the school’s 40 acres of land includes 20 acres that were deeded to the state by former Idaho Gov. Frank R. Gooding, who served two terms about 100 years ago. The land must be used for a school for the deaf and blind or for some other state institutional purpose – or it returns to Gooding’s heirs. So if the school closes, the state will have to think carefully about how to continue using the site.

“When we stopped and looked at the facility, we were all blown away,” Skippen said. “It’s a beautiful facility.”

Announcements, announcements…

It’s the political season, and candidates are announcing – including Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, who announced he’ll run for another term. Today on the steps of the Capitol, Sayler was among a crowd of Democrats at the announcement of Jackie Groves Twilegar, a new candidate for state controller. Twilegar, who has an MBA in finance and economics from Northwestern University and has worked in finance for big corporations, banks and her own small business, is backed by former longtime controller J.D. Williams, who signed on as her campaign treasurer.

“I thought she was very articulate, sounds well-qualified, deeply rooted in Idaho values,” Sayler said after listening to the Boise woman’s announcement. Twilegar is married to Ron Twilegar, a Democrat who served in the state House and Senate in the 1970s and ‘80s and served on the Boise City Council when Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was that city’s mayor.

Already in the controller’s race are Republicans Donna Jones, a former legislator from Payette and director of the Idaho Real Estate Commission; and Royce Chigbrow, a Boise CPA who has served as campaign treasurer for high-profile Republican candidates.

Current state Controller Keith Johnson, a Republican, is giving up the post after one term to run for the 1st District congressional seat. Before he took office, the controller’s office had been held by Democrats since 1959.

Medicaid reform wins approval

Reforms of the fast-growing Medicaid program won strong support from the state House on Tuesday, just after a budget was approved for the program for next year that counts on just a 7.8 percent increase – half of last year’s hike. “There is a tie between this and the Medicaid reform,” Rep. Kathy Skippen, R-Emmett, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I think a lot of people are working very hard to try to make the system provide for those who need it.”

The overall Medicaid reform bill, HB 776, passed 56-11 and now heads to the Senate. All North Idaho representatives voted in favor except Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. The $357.1 million budget bill cleared JFAC unanimously.

Anderson sports a shiny lapel pin saying “COAL”

It’s not an acronym. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, really is wearing a shiny gold lapel pin spelling out “COAL,” as the debate rages in southern Idaho about mercury pollution and other issues surrounding a proposed coal-fired power plant in Jerome County. Legislation is pending to impose a two-year moratorium and take other steps regarding the proposed plant.

Anderson said he’s wearing his pin as “a little bit of a protest.” He said he also has pins that say “NUCLEAR,” “HYDRO,” and “WIND,” and he’s been wearing a different one each day. A member of the House Energy, Environment & Technology Committee, Anderson said he’s been getting lots of calls and emails opposing one type of energy or another, but believes what Idaho really needs is an integrated energy plan – to be developed by a proposed interim legislative committee – that addresses all aspects of the issue. “We have to figure out what we need and what we can do,” he said. “That’s why we need an integrated energy plan.”

Guv signs bill limiting personal use of campaign money

Without comment, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has signed into law HB 556, which limits personal use of campaign contributions. The measure, which passed both houses unanimously, prohibits candidates or office-holders from using the money for food, clothing, rent, country club memberships, or other expenses that they’d have whether or not they were campaigning or in office. It was prompted in part by Kempthorne’s own frequent use of campaign funds for lunches near the capitol. The measure was one of 19 bills Kempthorne signed into law today, all of which passed with little controversy. One was HB 415, another campaign finance reform bill, which bans contributors from using multiple subsidiary organizations to get around contribution limits. Most of the others dealt with insurance issues, but they also included the wine shipment bill, HB 454, and the “55 Alive” bill, HB 462, which lets insurers offer discounts to 55-year-old drivers who take a safety course, rather than just those 65 or older.

Don’t eat - no, eat

Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, is a nurse who has made a point in recent years of urging her fellow House members to lose weight and eat healthy. But today, she was sponsoring a resolution at the Senate State Affairs Committee, HCR 60, that promotes hunger awareness and declares October of 2006 to be “Hunger and Food Insecurity Awareness Month.”

Henbest told the senators, “This is an interesting resolution for me, because I’m the one who keeps harping on people in the House for eating too much food.”

The resolution makes note of hunger problems in Idaho.

‘Two strikes and you’re out’

The Legislature gave final approval to SB 1301 today, to set mandatory minimum life sentences for designated violent sexual predators who reoffend, and mandatory minimum 15-year terms for other sex offenders who reoffend. “We’re talking about two strikes and you’re out,” said Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, the bill’s House sponsor. The measure, proposed by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, passed the House unanimously and headed to the governor’s desk. The fiscal note on the bill says, “This bill will have some fiscal impact from enhanced incarceration.”

Behind-the-scenes prep starts for big tax debate in Senate

Senate Republicans – that’s all but seven members of the Senate – went behind closed doors for an hour today to talk about property tax reform in a closed majority caucus. That’s among the hottest issues hanging fire in the Senate right now – the Senate Local Government & Tax committee has sent six bills to the Senate’s amending order, where any senator can offer amendments. That process likely will start early next week.

Majority Caucus Chair Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, said the committee has been immersed in studying the issue all session, but the rest of the Senate needs to get up to speed. As part of the closed-door session, all members got copies of the same packet of background about the issues that Committee Chair Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, has distributed to his committee and the public.

The process of amending bills in the Senate’s amending order, the 14th Order, is an intricate one. “The 14th Order is a tough place to write tax policy,” Little said, noting that the order has limits on debate and other quirks.

Asked if the Senate GOP discussion could have taken place in the open, Little said, “Yes.” The reason it didn’t? “Because it was a caucus meeting, and a caucus meeting is defined as a closed meeting.”

Minority Democrats caucused at the same time in the open, however, and talked about the same topic.

Red team takes the blue team, 43-23

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, made an impassioned pitch to the House Thursday to let bail bond agents have an extra six months to nab and turn in bail-jumpers and still get paid, but the House killed the bill, HB 450, on a 43-23 vote.

Clark said, “We’re talking about chasing the bad guys who have jumped bail. … We’re not talking about … world peace. We’re talking about criminals.”

But opponents of the bill said Aladdin Bail Bonds, the multi-state firm whose lobbyist sought the bill, grants bail bonds on credit, while longstanding Idaho tradition among bail bond agents is to require collateral. That’s more likely to bring the bail-jumpers in within the existing 90-day period, they said.

“The system is working,” said Rep. Mike Mitchell, D-Lewiston. “This new company can work within the 90-day limit just like the other bail agents in Idaho.”

Clark characterized the issue as one pitting a “red team” against a “blue team,” with different views of the bail issue. In the extensive House debate, several members said they were on the “red team” against the bill. Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, spoke in favor of it, and said, “I’m on the green team.” “Blue team,” corrected House Speaker Bruce Newcomb.

Several representatives characterized the bail bond company in question as the “Wal-Mart” of bail bonds, and Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, hearkened back to Clark’s advocacy for “mom and pop” cigar stores on an earlier bill. “It sounds to me like this is going to hurt the little mom and pop bondsman – we might could call them the little retail cigar store bondsmen,” he said.

Mitchell said there was one difference between the “red team” and the “blue team”: “The red team is right.” “This is about the best debate I’ve heard,” commented a chuckling Newcomb.

When the House voting board lit up with red lights and it was clear the bill had failed, Newcomb announced amid surging laughter, “The red team wins.”

Women’s Commission budget no longer controversial

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee just unanimously approved the budget for the Idaho Women’s Commission for next year – which in itself is unusual. For years, a few committee members have objected to the idea of a women’s commission – most notably Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, who long maintained that women already have improved their lot and there’s no men’s commission. But Richardson said today that he met with a member of the commission and gained new understanding of what the commission does, including helping guide displaced homemakers to needed state programs and services. Now he supports the commission. “I have great respect for some of the things they have been doing,” he said.

But this year’s squabble over the tiny budget – it totals less than $40,000 in general funds – actually was among the female members of JFAC, who had questioned whether the funding was unnecessarily being spent on an executive director position – now vacant – when it could go to grants and other more direct efforts to help women and families. In the last week, JFAC members Reps. Margaret Henbest, Shirley Ringo, Kathy Skippen and Maxine Bell met with the governor’s office and three members of the women’s commission, and pinned down just what the staffing needs are for the commission, which have to do with coordinating meetings, responding to numerous phone calls and emails from clients, and publishing a $7,000 legal guide for women every other year that’s widely distributed, including to other state agencies. In the end, the women legislators crafted a budget that allows for 16/100 time funding for the executive director, and directs the rest of the agency’s budget into its services, including additional efforts to coordinate with educational institutions to offer seminars for women.

Ringo said the new budget reflects “what we learned about the focus of the women’s commission.”

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, then made a disclosure of his own – his wife serves on the women’s commission. “I applaud the efforts of the past week,” he said.

School construction funding issue splits down party lines

GOP leadership-backed legislation on school construction funding passed the House today on a largely party-line 52-14 vote. The bill, HB 743, puts about $5 million in new state money into school building maintenance next year, while requiring local school districts to contribute $44 million. It also sets up a $25 million loan fund to replace unsafe schoolhouses, but districts couldn’t access it unless they’re taken over by the state, a supervisor is appointed who can fire their superintendent, and their patrons are hit with no-vote property tax increases to pay back the loan after they’ve twice voted against the increases.

“I don’t think it’s possible to create a perfect bill,” said Rep. Steve Smylie, R-Boise, who is running for state superintendent of schools. “This bill takes major steps.”

Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, questioned how school districts could come up with the money, and said, “It’s just a new plan to squeeze blood out of a turnip.”

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, a sponsor of the bill, said, “We don’t have a statewide problem. We have a problem in a few areas of the state.”

House Education Chairman Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls, said, “In my heart of hearts, I feel this is about as good a bill we can come up with that we can afford.”

The vote was almost a straight party-line split, with all Democrats voting “no,” and all Republicans except Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, voting “yes.” Four were absent.

Historic drop in cigarette sales

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden was back in Washington, D.C. today, where, as co-chair of the national Association of Attorneys General Tobacco Committee, he made this announcement at a news conference: U.S. cigarette sales in 2005 dropped 4.2 percent from 2004, the largest one-year percentage decrease since 1999. But the really remarkable number is that cigarette sales in the United States have dropped more than 21 percent since the 1998 settlement between state attorneys general and tobacco companies that resulted in huge payments to states, along with new restrictions on tobacco advertising and marketing (such as the demise of the once-ubiquitous cigarette pack vending machine). It should also be noted that recent years have seen large cigarette tax hikes in many states, making the smokes much pricier – a move that in most cases was aimed at discouraging smoking.

A statement from Wasden’s office noted, “The 378 billion cigarettes sold in the United States in 2005 represented the lowest number of cigarettes sold in the United States since 1951. This decline is even more impressive because the United States population has more than doubled since that time.”

Of course, Idaho is counting on cigarette tax proceeds to fund various state projects, including the renovation of the state Capitol.

North Idaho project shorted, ITD board, governor upset

Some analysis of the plan JFAC approved this morning to fund a $200 million GARVEE bond program shows that funding for one of the Idaho Transportation Department’s top priorities – a freeway to replace the congested highway between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint – has been defunded in favor of an eastern Idaho project that’s not even ready to go.

“To me, that was a real surprise, that they took that much money and put it over to U.S. 30, because we can’t even use it there,” said Chuck Winder, chairman of the Idaho
Transportation Board. “We’d rather spend it on Garwood to Sagle. Our hope is that it would be amended.” Improving standards for U.S. Highway 95 is “one of the highest priorities” for the department, Winder said. It’s the state’s only north-south route, and the frequent scene of deadly accidents.

The huge Garwood-to-Sagle project on Highway 95 is projected to cost $324.2 million by the time it’s all done; the department’s recommendation for the first round of GARVEE bonding was to spend $40 million on right-of-way purchases and engineering for the project. JFAC’s approved plan puts only $3.4 million toward it, and targets $65.6 million to U.S. Highway 30 from McCammon to Soda Springs in eastern Idaho. Winder said only one project totaling about $29 million is ready to go there – the rest of the money couldn’t be spent there yet. “We would like to see that $36 million go to Garwood to Sagle,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne issued a strongly worded condemnation of JFAC’s move to trim back his highway proposal: “I’m very concerned that today’s vote by JFAC leaves a number of highway priorities without adequate funding. It was said during today’s committee debate that this proposal is ‘simple and meager.’ I agree. This proposal raises questions about our future ability to address safety needs on our roads, improve highway efficiency for Idaho goods and commerce, and connect Idaho.”

High school redesign could wait ‘til next year

A concurrent resolution calling for more study of a proposed high school curriculum redesign, and then addressing it legislatively next year rather than this year, was introduced today in the House Ways & Means Committee, according to S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff. Rep. Larry Bradford, who sponsored the resolution along with Rep. Jana Kemp, told the committee that a survey of school superintendents around the state didn’t necessarily show they found the plan unworkable: “They just felt like we were being rushed into it,” Bradford said.

Medicaid buy-in bill wins unanimous House support

It’s been more than 10 years in the works, but legislation designed to let disabled people go to work without losing the very Medicaid coverage that enables them to do so just passed the House unanimously. Last year, similar legislation passed the Senate, but didn’t get a hearing in the House.

The plan costs a little money - $233,900 next year and about $400,000 the following year. Disabled Medicaid recipients who go to work or increase their hours or pay would pay premiums on a sliding scale, rather than losing their coverage entirely. During the House debate, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb told the House, “Of all the things we spend money on in this place, these are the best dollars we could possibly spend.”

The 65-0 vote on HB 664 makes it highly likely to now go all the way – pass the Senate, get the governor’s signature and become law.

Can’t skip election, gotta fund it

As legislative budget writers set the budget for the Idaho Secretary of State’s office this morning, Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, noted one of the line items. “As much as some people would like to skip the election this year, I think we ought to fund it for $350,000,” he remarked.

Every seat in the Legislature is up for election this year, and the filing period just opened today. As of mid-morning, the first two candidates to file for North Idaho legislative seats were both incumbents – Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, and Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, both of whom filed for re-election. Candidates have through 5 p.m. on March 17 to file.

The Secretary of State’s budget won unanimous approval in JFAC, 20-0.

Lobby bill passes House unanimously

HB 707, bipartisan legislation to require those who lobby the executive branch of state government to register with the state and disclose spending just like those who lobby the Legislature, has passed the House on a unanimous, 68-0 vote.

Floor sponsors Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, noted that Idaho is now one of only 14 states that doesn’t have such a requirement. “It’s about time,” Jaquet said. Clark said, “It will shine a light, and a very bright light, on the executive branch. … HB 707 will make government more transparent.”

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb is the lead sponsor of the bill, which goes farther than an earlier measure developed in the Senate.

Equity fight ends with $3.9 million agreement

The long fight between the state’s universities over “funding equity” – meaning the University of Idaho was seen as getting more state money comparatively when other colleges were growing faster in student populations – ended this morning. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a budget for universities for next year that includes a $3.9 million equity payment – $2.2 million of that goes to BSU, and $1.7 million to ISU. As a result, all three university presidents and the state Board of Education are signing an agreement saying that’s it, the equity fight is over. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, credited UI President Tim White with prompting the resolution, which Werk called “a real step forward for our college and university system. It’s a banner day.”

The fact that the state actually has money this year to budget – unlike recent tight budget years – makes this solution far more palatable than the last attempt at addressing equity, when the state Board of Education last year took $196,800 away from the University of Idaho and gave it to BSU, ISU and LCSC. UI, which was struggling with its own budget cuts at the time, didn’t appreciate that.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb to retire

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb announced today – on his 66th birthday – that he won’t seek re-election after this session, and will retire after 20 years in the House, eight as speaker. “I’m proud of the people I served with, the trust we developed and the work we did,” Newcomb said in his announcement. “I’m grateful for all the help, support and constructive criticism I’ve received over the years, from here in the Legislature and most of all from the good folks back home who put their trust in me to represent them. Thank you.” He added, “This place and these people are like home and family to me. I met my wife here, and some of my best friends in the world. It’s going to be hard to go, but it’s time to get back to the ranch and leave the heavy lifting to younger backs. I’m leaving the House in good hands, with smart people who care as much about Idaho as I do.”

GOP school facilities bill clears House committee, 16-2

HB 743, the Republican House leadership’s bill to address school facility funding, cleared the House Education Committee this morning on a 16-2 vote, after a Democratic alternative, HB 691, failed on a 4-14 vote. Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, said, “I don’t think either bill is perfect, but we need to address a problem. I like first steps that are not huge, and I like to be able to pay for what we’re going to walk into.”

But Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, a sponsor of HB 743, cautioned, “I don’t want to mislead the committee. In 25 years our numbers are going to look a lot like 691. … We are going to be ramping up to a greater and greater ongoing cost. … Have no illusions, my colleagues – this is going to cost the state of Idaho a lot more money.” That’s because a bond levy equalization program that was approved three years ago – and has yet to be funded, other than through sidetracking lottery funds that school districts already had been receiving – would be fully funded under the bill. It covers only new bond issues, so the cost starts small, but rises in future years as more bonds are passed.

The GOP plan directs about $5 million in new ongoing money to school maintenance next year, while also requiring districts to invest more into maintenance. It also creates a $25 million loan fund to rebuild unsafe schools – but only after the state takes over a school district, appoints a supervisor who can fire the district superintendent, and orders a no-vote property tax increase to pay back the money after district voters have specifically rejected the idea twice.

The Democratic plan would have created a $35 million fund to fix unsafe schoolhouses on an emergency basis, with school districts paying back the money through one of several options, but included no state takeovers or no-vote tax increases. It did, however, put about $60 million a year in new ongoing state money into school building maintenance and construction, in part to match a portion of bond payments for all existing and future school bonds that voters around the state pass.

The Legislature is under an Idaho Supreme Court order to fix the state’s property-tax-heavy system for financing school construction, which the court declared unconstitutional. Rep. Joe Cannon, R-Blackfoot, asked, “Assuming that our past funding practices is what got us in court, how do you justify telling the court that your plan does not go back and correct past indiscretions?”

Committee Chairman Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls, said the state can’t afford to go back and subsidize existing bond issues, as the Democratic plan proposed. “Of course if you spend more money, it’s going to benefit more school districts, but if we can’t afford it…” he said.

House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, also a sponsor of HB 743, was pleased the bill came out of committee, but said, “This is only the start of the process. I predict that it will pass on the floor, and hopefully it has as good luck in the Senate.”

This one is unanimous too

HB 415, another campaign finance reform bill proposed by Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, just passed the Senate 35-0, after earlier unanimously clearing the House. This one prevents campaign contributors from getting around contribution limits by giving from multiple subsidiaries – which has happened in recent Idaho elections, perhaps most notably from various divisions of the southeastern Idaho company Melaleuca Inc. “The contribution limits that we operate under right now do not mean much if a contributor can form multiple splinter groups and circumvent the limitations,” Senate Majority Caucus Chair Brad Little, R-Emmett, told the Senate. No one disagreed.

Pages honor Speaker on 66th birthday

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb had the giggles today, as the House pages honored him on the occasion of his 66th birthday, reports S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff. The House took a break for the unusual bit of business, and the pages presented Newcomb with cupcakes glowing with 66 candles and read him the following poem, written by page Carl Dayton:

It’s your birthday
And you’re turning 66.
And we hope by now, you’ve had your fun and kicks

But just in case
you have a bad day
slam that gavel down
and make everyone afraid

Especially that one page
who walked down in the well
know he won’t do that again
but wasn’t that real swell?

So in the end,
we hope your birthday’s great
Our hats off to you, Mr. Speaker
It’s you we appreciate!

After more than an hour’s debate, Senate rejects hunting-rights amendment

Plans to amend the state Constitution to make hunting, fishing and trapping a right rather than a privilege fell short in the Senate today, getting an 18-16 vote – well short of the two-thirds required to amend the Constitution. Among the concerns: If hunting is a right, that restricts the state’s ability to remove hunting privileges for such reasons as child support violations, not to mention poaching. The measure had 14 co-sponsors, including Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, and Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard. Had it passed – which would have required two-thirds votes in both houses plus a majority vote of the people – Idaho’s Constitution would have gotten a new section that started with: “RIGHT TO HUNT, FISH AND TRAP. All wildlife within the state of Idaho shall be preserved, protected, perpetuated and managed to provide continued supplies for the citizens of Idaho to harvest by hunting, fishing and trapping for the continued benefit of the people.”

Quick-thinking page preserves House protocol

House and Senate pages are kept busy during formal floor sessions, delivering messages, carrying documents back and forth and so on, but they try to do so without interfering with the debates in any way. So when Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, rose to open debate on HB 583 in the House just now, on expungement of criminal records on innocent parties, an innocent page was passing right in front of her, and sank to his knees, hiding behind the desk in front of her, for her lengthy opening debate. At its end, House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, commented, “Good job, Ian. Ian got caught right in front of her, so he was on his knees the whole time – but he knew better than to get up.”

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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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