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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2007

Musical accompaniment for debate

The House was in mid-debate, when suddenly, without warning, Hayden Lake Rep. Jim Clark’s laptop computer started playing a sprightly electronic version of “Happy Birthday.” All the legislators around Clark turned to look at him, and as the music continued, Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, shook a finger at Clark, who cowered behind his computer screen. Finally, the melody stopped.

Later, Clark explained that it wasn’t his birthday. “It’s from my daughter – she’s a couple days late,” he said. “My birthday was last week.” Clark, who turned 63 on that recent landmark, showed how he’d just clicked on an email from his daughter with the subject line, “A belated birthday wish from Julianne.” But then he demonstrated how the email contained a greeting card, and he’d clicked a link that said “PLAY.” “I clicked ‘play,’ but I didn’t think it was music,” the red-faced legislator explained.

‘Politically loaded’ question?

As budget writers were debating the budget for the Attorney General’s office, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, noted that the Legislature is passing another parental consent abortion bill this year. Past legislation on that topic has cost the state hundreds of thousands to defend, unsuccessfully, in court. Hearing that the state’s special litigation fund contains about $2.1 million, Werk asked if the office has enough in reserve to cover more litigation in light of this year’s move. “I’m not going to allow questions that are politically loaded,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded. Werk apologized and said he simply wanted to know if the office had enough in reserve to cover anticipated litigation in the coming year. A staffer for the Attorney General answered yes, based on current projections.

State Hospital North isn’t accredited - yet

When the budget for the portion of the Health & Welfare Department that includes State Hospital North came up this morning, some members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee wondered why it included $40,000 for an accreditation analysis. Last year, JFAC asked State Hospital North to get accredited, and it’s still not. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, wondered what the state gets for the $40,000. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, a physician, had a detailed answer. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations, or JCAHO (pronounced “jay-co), has a detailed process it will go through to identify needed improvements in policies, procedures and practices at the hospital to meet accreditation standards, from patient care to management to expenditures. Making those improvements upfront will be much cheaper than going through a detailed accreditation and failing, Wood said. “If they don’t, the chances of failure are extremely high, and there’s a period of time in which they cannot reapply.”

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who serves on the advisory board for State Hospital North, agreed, and said it’s important to get the accreditation. “Having JCAHO accreditation will help them attract the kinds of employees that they need,” she said, and is “one of the things that doctors look at” when considering employment. “I really feel that this is a step in the right direction, and that the state should support this.” JFAC voted unanimously to approve the budget proposal, including the $40,000 – recognizing that there could be a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 the following year for the actual accreditation process.

As he made his argument, Wood told the committee, “In the 30 years that I’ve been in the practice of medicine, I’ve gone through about 10 to 12 JFAC inspections.” Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, interjected, “Not JFAC inspections.” “JCAHO inspections,” Wood corrected.

Incidentally, the State Hospital South has JCAHO accreditation.

Governor doesn’t want his negotiations cut off by lawmakers

Gov. Butch Otter is negotiating with Idaho Indian tribes over gas taxes and said he doesn’t want lawmakers to cut off the negotiations July 1. On Tuesday, House Speaker Lawerence Denney introduced new legislation to replace an earlier House GOP leadership bill that sought to take away gas tax revenue from any tribe that doesn’t reach an agreement with the governor by July 1. The new version of the bill, introduced on a party-line vote in the House Ways and Means Committee, would give the governor and tribes until Dec. 1 to reach an agreement.

“The governor is focused on the negotiations,” said David Hensley, Otter’s legal counsel. “The governor told me that we need a longer time frame if we’re going to be realistic about reaching an agreement with the tribes, and we need some time to sit down and work through that.”

Denney also made another change in the bill he introduced Tuesday to replace HB 188: He eliminated a clause that said even if tribes reached agreements with the governor, they’d be voided if lawmakers didn’t approve the agreements at their next legislative session. “We have agreed to strike” that clause, Denney told the Ways and Means Committee, “which basically says if we do nothing, if the Legislature does nothing, we negate the agreement between the tribes and the governor.”

Democrats on the committee objected to the new version, saying there’s no need for any legislation when the tribes and the governor already are in negotiations. Read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Ways & Means meets

The House Ways & Means Committee doesn’t often meet, but it met today. On the agenda for the leadership committee: Two new bills, one from House Speaker Lawerence Denney that’s a new version of controversial HB 188 (tribal gas tax negotiations), and one from Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, to require that women seeking abortions be shown ultrasound images of their unborn fetuses if such images are taken in conjunction with the abortion procedure. McGeachin said her intent was that “if a woman actually could see the picture of her unborn child, that she would make the decision to choose life.” Both bills were introduced on straight party-line votes, with the Republicans voting in favor and the Democrats voting against.

Whoops - Roberts says he didn’t vote that way

Though the official record of the Rev & Tax Committee meeting today showed Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, voted in favor of a motion by Rep. Bill Killen to amend HB 245, the personal property tax phase-out bill, here was Roberts’ answer when I asked him why he cast that vote: “That’s in error.”

He checked, and sure enough, the committee’s record shows him voting “yes” on the motion, but he’s sure he voted “no.” (One observer suggested representatives need to speak up when they say “aye” or “nay.”) If he had voted “no,” the motion would have failed 7-11, rather than 8-10. Roberts is a co-sponsor of HB 245, which made his apparent vote for amendments especially interesting. “I did not vote that way,” Roberts said. He added that he supports the bill. “I think the taxes are too much on that kind of equipment,” he said.

A tragic coincidence

Check out this report from S-R reporter Parker Howell:

Just minutes after lawmakers advanced a bill this afternoon that would prohibit teen drivers from carrying more than one teenage passenger, the last of five Idaho teenagers died from injuries sustained when their vehicle plunged into a Gem County pond. The middle and high school students from Emmett ranged in age from 12-15, according to The Associated Press. The car, driven by a 15-year-old, shot off Highway 52 north of Emmett into a pond near Black Canyon Dam this morning.

Drivers may be licensed at 15 in Idaho, with some restrictions. The legislation, sponsored by two North Idaho senators, would limit teen drivers to carrying one non-family passenger in their first six months as licensed drivers. Police said the children in the car were from two families in the Sweet area. SB 1119 would also extend the time for teens to complete 50 hours of supervised driving practice and yank licenses from those who receive alcohol-related violations.

The crash happened when the vehicle slid off icy state Highway 52 and into the pond about 7:30 this morning, according to the Associated Press. A passing driver noticed the car in the pond and notified authorities. Divers found the car in about 20 feet of water with the victims still trapped inside.

No, no, and yes

The House Rev & Tax Committee this morning had three proposals on its agenda for local-option taxes. The first was from the city of Lewiston, which wanted to impose its own local hotel/motel tax. “Lewiston and our region has seen a change in the economy – our natural resource base has eroded, and much of what was previously used for timber land is now used for recreation,” Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the panel. Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, joined him, noting that the new 2 percent bed tax would need a two-thirds vote from local residents to be approved, and it would fund economic development and promotion. The two Lewiston legislators noted that smaller tourist towns can do this now, but there’s nothing in the law that fits Lewiston. “It’s an effort to de-emphasize property tax utilization by the local municipalities,” Stegner told the committee.

House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, moved to reject the proposal, and not introduce it or allow a hearing. His motion passed, 10-8. Afterward, Stegner said he knew going in that the measure would be a tough sell in the committee. The outcome, he said, was “not inconsistent with their approach to dealing with innovation.”

Then, the committee took up a proposal from the Idaho Sheriff’s Association and the Idaho Association of Counties for a local option county sales tax bill. The idea was to expand the current law that’s successfully been used by Kootenai and Nez Perce counties to fund new jails and property tax relief with a locally approved sales tax, to let other counties do the same. “Here we are, back wanting to expand it,” groused Roberts. Said Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, “You’re drifting this out into the smaller areas, and I just don’t think that is a wise tax policy.” Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “This is an option – it’s worked.” But the panel voted 11-7 against introducing the bill or allowing a hearing on it.

The third one up was a much-watched proposal to allow a local-option sales tax to support public transit. It’s an extremely hot issue in the Boise area, where traffic chokes the freeways every morning and night during rush hour, and it gets worse and worse each year. This time, the bill wasn’t killed outright. Roberts’ motion to reject it failed on an 8-10 vote, and Rep. Leon Smith’s motion to introduce the bill passed, 12-6. Now the measure could come up for a hearing before the same committee.

Another Otter initiative fails

The governor’s proposal to fund $15 million in new research grants through the Higher Education Research Council for research projects specifically aimed at economic development wasn’t even discussed as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set the budget for the state’s four-year colleges and universities this morning. All three proposals on the budget, which were hotly debated by committee members on other issues, set aside just $1.56 million for that purpose, rather than $15 million. There’s already money in the base budget for the HERC, so that brings the research grants for next year up to $3 million.

The issue that caused the scuffling in the joint committee was occupancy costs for new higher ed buildings. One proposal was to fund some; another was to fund more; a third was to fund none. Lawmakers split, and in the end, voted unanimously for the proposal to fund some. They agreed that they need a more firm policy in the future on funding occupancy costs for such buildings.

The budget that was approved sets the state funding for four-year colleges and universities next year at $264.2 million, an 8.4 percent increase from this year. Gov. Otter had called for spending $275.7 million, a 13.1 percent increase, but that included the one-time boost for research grants.

Sorting through the numbers

JFAC has launched into Health & Welfare budgets, starting with the complex budgets for the newly reformed Medicaid program. A bipartisan group of senators and representatives has worked on each piece of the budget, which includes so many parts that Health & Welfare budgets will take up much of both today’s and tomorrow’s budget-setting. Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, raised issues with the very first motion, made by Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, regarding Medicaid administration. Fulcher said he recognized all the hard work that had gone into the budget, which includes the complex reprocurement process for a Medicaid information system that’s being largely funded by the federal government. So, he said, “I don’t want to just take a dump on it.” But, he said, “I’m not sure we’re going in the right direction.” The motion passed, 16-3.

Wood said by the time all the motions are debated, Idaho will spend roughly $543 million in state general funds on Health & Welfare programs. If all the various motions that committee members have worked on are approved, he said, “We come in within $20,000” of Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some variations within the parts of the budget, he said. “We’ve paid particular attention, tried to make sure that the taxpayer’s dollar was wisely spent.”

Continuing with its ambitious budget-setting agenda, JFAC is scheduled to do half of Health & Welfare today, and then set budgets for the Industrial Commission, the state treasurer’s office, the Idaho Millenium Fund, state colleges and universities, and community colleges. It’s not clear whether they’ll get to all of those today, but they might.

Child abuse lawsuit bill passes House

Victims of child sexual abuse in Idaho will have more time to sue their abusers under a bill the House passed Monday, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. Despite concern that the legislation would expose employers to undue liability for workers’ abusive acts, lawmakers voted 60-7 for House Bill 125, which gives victims five years to sue after they discover abuse that has caused long-term health effects. Victims currently have until age 23. Many victims are not able to come to terms with abuse until “well into their adult years,” necessitating more time for them to seek damages, said sponsor Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg. The bill allows victims to sue abusers’ employers if they have shown “gross negligence” in hiring or training practices or have covered up a worker’s abusive behavior, said Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, an attorney who practices employment-related law. That standard protects businesses, he said. Read Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Committee kills day-care bill at late hour

Saying mothers should stay home with their children, members of a House committee have killed legislation to require minimum safety standards and criminal history checks for Idaho day-cares. “It’s gut-wrenching for me,” Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said before the 6-5 vote against the bill. “What can we do to keep mom at home?” Loertscher said he “cannot imagine” ever taking a child to a day-care center, and said, “There is no substitute, there is absolutely no substitute for families taking care of children.” Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “Being separate from your mother … there’s reason to believe this could be harmful.”

The House Health and Welfare Committee kept backers of the day-care licensing bill waiting until long after 5 p.m. for a hearing that was scheduled to start at 1:30 – after it was put off last week – then limited them to three minutes apiece to testify in favor of the bill. A stunned Cathy Kowalski, a Coeur d’Alene early childhood consultant who has worked on the bill for three years, said, “I think it is a committee whose members are definitely out of touch with the needs of their constituents, and I think the working families in their districts need to let them know.” Sylvia Chariton, who testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the American Association of University Women of Idaho, said, “It’s ridiculous – those men live in a time warp, when 60 percent of all mothers of children under 6 years of age take them someplace to be cared for.”

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the committee, “For working parents it is a vital concern.” His bill, HB 163, originally would have set minimal health and safety standards, training requirements and staffing levels and required criminal history checks for day-cares caring for as few as two unrelated children, but he offered amendments to raise that to apply only to those caring for six or more children. “We’re not trying to be burdensome,” Sayler told the committee.

In the final vote, the committee’s three Democrats and two Republicans voted in favor of the amended bill: Reps. John Rusche, D-Lewiston; Lynn Luker, R-Boise; Sue Chew, D-Boise; Margaret Henbest, D-Boise; and Sharon Block, R-Idaho Falls.

Six Republicans voted against the bill even as amended: Reps. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home; Loertscher; Thayn; Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins; Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls; and Jim Marriott, R-Blackfoot. Read the full story here in the Spokesman-Review.

Anti-hunger advocates speak out

Anti-hunger advocates gathered on the Statehouse steps today, holding signs with slogans including, “No more hunger in Idaho!” “Food is a basic right” “Hungry for Justice” “Idaho is the 8th hungriest state in the nation” and “No one should suffer from hunger.” Religious leaders from groups such as Catholic Charities of Idaho, the Interfaith Alliance, and several area churches spoke, and called for a targeted grocery tax credit to help alleviate hunger among Idaho’s poor.

“We do have the resources, we have the experience, we have the knowledge to eliminate hunger, but we do not have the collective will,” Marie Wilske, parish social ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities of Idaho, told the crowd. Retired Presbyterian Pastor Ed Keener said, “We come together because we think that faith is a healing force in our society.”

The advocates, some of whom fasted to help make their point about hunger, called for amending HB 81 to target it toward the low-income, index it to inflation, and allow families that receive food stamps to fully participate. That would remake the bill more along the lines of how Gov. Butch Otter first proposed it, as a targeted credit for the poor, with some changes. The bill as it stands now would increase the grocery tax credit for all Idahoans from $20 to $50 a year, regardless of income levels, and from $35 to $70 for seniors. It’s on the amending order in the Senate. The Senate went to that order today, but didn’t get to the bill.

Schools get 5.9 percent hike, under JFAC budget

After all that debate, all those motions, and all those numbers, here’s what the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee decided this morning on the public schools budget: They set it at $1.37 billion in state general funds, a 5.9 percent increase over this year’s budget. That’s only very slightly more than the 5.5 percent increase Gov. Butch Otter recommended, and well under the 7 percent increase new Supt. Tom Luna sought to $1.38 billion.

Yet, Luna was happy, saying he got “99.9 percent” of what he wanted. The reason? The forecast of the number of students who will show up at Idaho’s public schools next year has been lowered by 50 support units, or 50 classrooms worth of students. That means the same money will go a little further, assuming that projection is correct.

Given that as a bottom line, budget writers were able to fund most of the line items Luna requested, including most of his “classroom enhancement package” to put extra money into specific items including textbook purchases, classroom supplies, and remediation for students who repeatedly fail the ISAT, the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. His plan to pay tuition for all high school juniors and seniors who pass the ISAT to take college classes while they’re still attending high school, however, was nixed.

Luna said, “We ended up with about 99.9 percent of what we asked for, so considering years past, I think this is a great day for education, for the children of Idaho and for the people of Idaho. This is what happens when people are working together.”

If the forecast proves too low, Idaho would tap into its school budget stabilization fund to make up the difference. That fund now has more than $100 million sitting in reserve.

That didn’t happen

Talk about an ambitious agenda – JFAC this morning was scheduled to set the budget for public schools, parks and rec, and Medicaid, too. Certainly everyone’s trying to make this a short session, but that proved a bit much. The joint committee ran well over its scheduled time and barely finished public schools, after doing parks first. Medicaid will have to wait a day.

JFAC debates, nixes Craig-Wyden replacement money

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, tried to add funding to replace 70 percent of lost Craig-Wyden funds to rural Idaho school districts to one of the motions for the public school budget – if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the payments. But her move fell short on a 3-17 vote – only Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, backed Keough’s motion.

The committee’s four Democrats backed a different motion that included both the Craig-Wyden replacement funds and a 1 percent increase in discretionary funds for school districts.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, spoke out against the Craig-Wyden replacement, saying the $3.5 million would help school districts but not counties, which also are losing money because of Congress’ failure to reauthorize the payment program for counties and school districts that formerly got forest receipt money. Plus, Eskridge said the move “takes away the responsibility of the federal government in terms of managing federal lands in a reasonable and prudent manner and puts the cost on the back of the Idaho taxpayers.” He also said he worried that a state replacement-funding move would sap support from U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s efforts to get funding reauthorized.

Keough countered that the money wouldn’t be paid out if the federal funds are reauthorized, and school districts have to set their budgets now by state law. Without any source to replace the funds, she said, they’ll be forced to ask local property taxpayers to approve tax increases. Broadsword said in Shoshone County, “They are talking about a four-day school week with the loss of the Craig-Wyden money.”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, also spoke out against the move, saying he thought the school budget stabilization fund should be reserved for state funding shortfalls, not federal ones.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, had made the recommendation to JFAC. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, included it in her budget proposal for the operations portion of the school budget, in which she also included a 1 percent increase in discretionary funding to school districts. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, proposed the successful motion, which didn’t fund either a discretionary increase or the Craig-Wyden funds, but like the other plans, did include funding for a $9.95 million textbook purchase program requested by schools Supt. Tom Luna and a $100,000 study of rural school needs. Bayer’s motion passed on a 15-5 vote, with Keough joining the panel’s four Democrats in opposing it.

JFAC backs eastern Idaho park purchase, Eagle Island bridge

As it begins its biggest day of budget-setting of the session, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning voted 17-3 to add funding to the parks budget for next year for a $3 million bridge at Eagle Island State Park and for $2.14 million to purchase land for a new park at Rising River in eastern Idaho. Aside from those two major additions, the parks budget the committee set reflects only a modest 4.7 percent increase in funding. The bridge at Eagle Island will allow a major gravel-extraction project to go forward that’s expected to fund the majority of the cost of an extensively revamped state park there. The eastern Idaho park purchase completes a plan set in motion by former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to add a new park in that part of the state. A committee has spent the past year selecting the site, but Gov. Butch Otter hadn’t recommended any money to buy the land.

The three “no” votes came from Reps. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, and Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, and Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls.

“This is a choice piece of land,” Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, told JFAC. “I think if we’re going to get some park land, we need to move and today needs to be the day.” Snake River frontage like that plot of land is going quickly, Richardson warned.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, supported the budget but warned that Idaho needs to invest more into maintaining its existing parks, and said this budget doesn’t do a lot in that area.

GOP wage bill clears House after much debate

The House has voted 47-19 in favor of HB 184A, a Republican bill to tie Idaho’s state minimum wage to the federal minimum wage – which it already matches – and to keep a “tip credit” that allows tipped employees to be paid as little as $3.35 per hour by their employers. Amendments to the tip credit would require that for tipped workers whose tips plus the $3.35 an hour still doesn’t add up to minimum wage, the employer would have to make up the difference.

The bill is sponsored by all four members of House GOP leadership, plus two other GOP lawmakers: Reps. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake and Ken Andrus of Lava Hot Springs. House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, the bill’s lead sponsor, said just tying Idaho’s rate to the federal level for the future would free lawmakers from dealing with the issue. “This would be probably the last time we would have to deal with a minimum wage bill,” he said.

Democrats strongly objected to the bill, which was offered in place of their proposal to raise Idaho’s minimum wage and index it to inflation in the future. “This cements Idaho’s minimum wage to the absolute bottom,” said Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise.

Republicans spoke out against the minimum wage in general. Andrus, who gave part of the opening debate as a co-sponsor of the bill, read a letter from an employer in his district, and commented, “The message is to let the marketplace determine minimum wage and don’t force businesses to have a hardship on them.” He said he employs a 15-year-old for $5 an hour, but, “If I am forced by law to pay him substantially more, I won’t do it … and he’ll go and play video games like most of his peers do.”

The bill now moves to the Senate.

Guv says we’re not adequately funding schools

Gov. Butch Otter was asked today, at the City Club of Boise, whether he supports early-childhood education, as in pre-kindergarten, as part of Idaho’s public school system. Here’s his answer:

“I am supportive of pre-kindergarten education, but not at the state level. And let me tell you why. Before you say, ‘Well there’s ol’ Butch again, just like in 1974 when he voted against kindergartens, he hates little kids.’ That wasn’t it at all. Folks, remember in 1974, we had the same argument in ‘74 we’re having in ‘07. And that is we are not doing an adequate job now of funding grades half-a-day-of-kindergarten through 12. So when we arrive at a point when we are adequately funding K-12, then we’ll consider adding additional burden to that system.”

No decision today on day-care licensing bill

Two and a half hours into the House Health & Welfare Committee’s meeting today, the panel finally took up HB 163, Rep. George Sayler’s bill to impose at least minimal health and safety regulations and criminal background checks on all Idaho day-care providers who care for at least two or more unrelated kids for pay. Sayler, after meeting repeatedly with committee members who opposed the bill on philosophical grounds, offered amendments he had worked out with them – to exempt from regulation anyone who cares for five or fewer unrelated children.

But committee members said they were confused by the amendments and had trouble following which changes went where in the bill, in part because Sayler had printed a copy of the bill off the Internet, so it showed slightly different page numbers than the version lawmakers had in front of them. The committee decided to put the bill off until next week. Cathy Kowalski, who had traveled from Coeur d’Alene to testify in favor of the bill, told the panel she’d come back – because it’s that important.

Sayler called the experience “very frustrating,” but said he remains optimistic that some changes to make Idaho day-cares safer will pass this year. “They say politics is the art of the possible,” he said.

Kowalski said, “I think what’s appropriate would be for parents to continue to reach out to their legislators and to the committee to let them know that this is a very, very important issue for them.”

Gov. Otter rails against bill he co-sponsored in Congress

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter took on the “RealID” act of 2005 today, describing it as a “terrible idea” that came from his own Republican Party, a $39 million boondoggle for the state of Idaho and akin to the original Patriot Act, which he opposed. “This beats it all,” he told the Boise City Club.

Otter acknowledged that he voted for the bill when he was a congressman, and said initially, it didn’t sound like it’d much affect Idaho. The reason? It sought to require certain information to be on every driver’s license, and Otter said he determined that Idaho already had that information on all state driver’s licenses. But he said he didn’t realize that extensive changes would be required, including the re-issuing of every Idaho driver’s license at a cost of $39 million, and another $4 million a year cost to the state to maintain the new system. “It’s $39 million, quite frankly, that I think we could use in the education system, or I’d put that into the endowment for scholarships,” Otter said.

Otter was one of 140 co-sponsors of HR 418 in 2005, according to congressional records. He said his initial information gave him no pause. “It was kinda like I’m giving ‘em the sleeves out of my vest – I can go ahead and vote for that,” he said. “Well, the devil is in the details.”

If Idaho doesn’t comply, its residents won’t be able to get into federal facilities or even onto airplanes by using their driver’s licenses as ID, he said. Those who have a passport, however, would be OK. “I got to thinking, 39 million bucks – I could almost buy everybody in Idaho a passport rather than go through that 39 million bucks,” the governor said.

The Idaho Legislature already has spoken out against the federal requirement. The House on Tuesday passed a non-binding memorial to Congress on a unanimous, 69-0 vote, opposing the RealID plan as an “unfunded mandate” and a “backdoor attempt to institute a national ID card.” The measure is now pending in the state Senate. Read the full story here in The Spokesman-Review.

Bill bans funeral protests

Funerals for both soldiers and gay people may become off-limits to disruptive protesters under a bill lawmakers advanced Wednesday, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. Sponsored by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest River, HB 194 aims to prevent anti-war protesters from disrupting Idaho military funerals, as they have done in other states, by making such actions a misdemeanor. While some lawmakers said the bill could spur free speech challenges, members of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee agreed that protecting the sanctity of all funerals is simply “common decency.” “It’s a sad day when you have to tell people that they have to keep their political views out of the very private grieving that goes on at funerals,” said Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello.

The bill allows prosecutors to target anyone who “maliciously and willfully disturbs the dignity or reverential nature of any funeral.” Other states, such as Missouri and Kansas, have similar anti-picketing statutes, and the language passes constitutional muster as a “time, place and manner” restriction under the First Amendment, said Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen. Earlier this month, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law the “Washington Rest in Peace Act” in time for threatened protests at military memorial services in Yakima and Spokane. Read Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Let’s do what?!

Thank S-R reporter Parker Howell for the following report:

Members of the House State Affairs Committee heavily razzed Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, this morning for bringing them another bill for consideration. The committee is one of a few with the privilege to introduce legislation this late in the session. When lawmakers questioned Clark’s proposed changes to Idaho’s Open Meeting Law to further regulate use of closed meetings, he took an unusual tack to convince his colleagues to give the bill a full hearing. “I say let’s have a hearing and take our clothes off and go after it,” he said, prompting cries of disgust and mock outrage. One lawmaker mentioned the “mental images” that Clark evoked, and another asked if the committee might need to go into a closed meeting to discuss the matter. Clark turned bright red before saying that at least the committee seemed loosened up.

His unorthodox tactic might have worked, because the committee agreed to introduce his legislation requiring that meetings to be held in public places and that minutes of closed meetings include their subject matter. Clark said concerns about North Idaho urban renewal district officials having meetings in private homes prompted the legislation.

CAFO testimony bill passes Senate, 30-4

The Senate has just voted 30-4 in favor of SB 1056, legislation to remove the current one-mile residency limit on who can testify at a public hearing on siting of a confined animal feeding operation. The current law says only those whose primary residence is within a mile of the proposed operation are allowed to testify. “This is not just a little bit wrong – this is way wrong,” Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, the bill’s sponsor, told the Senate. The measure would allow any “affected person,” meaning anyone with an interest in real property that could be adversely affected by the approval or denial of the permit, to testify, regardless of the distance to their property.

Several senators said that didn’t go far enough, and 1st Amendment free speech rights should allow anyone to testify at a hearing. But a bill simply opening up it up to anyone died in the Senate in 2005 on a tied, 17-17 vote. Stennett said he’d like to go further, but the bill was a compromise. “That’s where we cut the baby in half,” he said.

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “Certainly tying it to real estate may not meet all of the requirements of the 1st Amendment, but we get a heck of a lot closer than we did before.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “This is probably one of the most important issues we’ve voted on this year.” The bill now moves to the House.

No decision yet on business tax break bill

There was so much testimony for and against that the big hearing in the Gold Room this morning on HB 206, IACI’s bill to eliminate the personal property tax over the next eight years, was continued to Friday. The House Rev & Tax Committee will continue the hearing on Friday at 9 a.m. in its regular meeting room.

First budget-setting: Not extravagant

Legislators began setting state agency budgets for next year today, and at least initially, they stuck fairly close to Gov. Butch Otter’s bare-bones budget recommendations. For the state Department of Environmental Quality, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set a budget that increases the agency’s state funding by 6.8 percent, slightly above Otter’s recommendation of 5.9 percent. But much of the difference came from an item lawmakers are including in every state agency budget, to restore health care premium funding to its normal level after surpluses last year allowed the state to give workers a one-month “premium holiday.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, made a last-minute addition to the DEQ budget - she added back in $60,000 on a one-time basis to increase mercury monitoring around the state. Lawmakers agreed with the governor on funding a new underground storage tank spill prevention program, but not providing any new staffers. DEQ Director Toni Hardesty said the department will shift workers from other programs to run the new effort. “We’re prepared to do that,” she said.

The DEQ budget also includes $1.5 million for a new pilot program lawmakers approved last year to offer private owners incentives to clean up their own contaminated properties. Also approved today were budgets for the PUC and the Office of Species Conservation, which will continue largely as-is; and the state Department of Agriculture, which came through with Otter’s anti-noxious weed initiative intact and even slightly expanded.

Senate passes wolf bill unanimously

The Idaho Senate has voted unanimously, 35-0, in favor of SB 1086, legislation to set up a system for hunting tags for wolves under state management once they’re removed from the endangered species list. “Let me tell you, hunting is part of the rural culture in Idaho, especially in my district,” said Senate Resources Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow.

Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, said, “The thing that I think is common ground for everyone on this issue is that we need to have this back in control of the state of Idaho. … It’s one very important step forward regardless of which side of the wolf issue you land on.”

Schroeder said hunting groups, environmental groups and more have come out in support of the bill, and he hasn’t heard from anyone who opposes it. “We are going to manage them the same way as we do the other large carnivores, bears and cougars,” he said.

Ban smoking in bowling alleys, unanimous committee says

The House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously in favor of legislation to end the exemption for bowling alleys from Idaho’s ban on smoking in most public places, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. About 20 bowlers wearing bright-green stickers saying “Bowlers for Clean Air” crowded into the already full meeting room. Lawmakers also heard testimony from a young girl who asked, “You don’t want to kill a kid, do you?” Even Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, a smoker, was convinced.

What was with that veto?

When Gov. Butch Otter vetoed his first bill last week, few lawmakers were familiar with the low-profile proposal from the state Tax Commission, and even fewer were fired up about it. “It was a noncontroversial bill,” said Rep. David Langhorst, D-Boise, the bill’s Senate floor sponsor. The measure cleared both houses of the Legislature on nearly unanimous votes. Lawmakers and political observers say Otter was flexing his political muscle to send a message that may have had little to do with the bill: He won’t hesitate to take a stand. “He has found the veto stamp in the governor’s office and knows how to use it,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus.

The bill, HB 8, would have changed a state law that requires the Tax Commission to send certified letters notifying taxpayers whose property – bank accounts, paychecks or other assets – it is planning to seize for past-due taxes. Because half those certified letters are refused or returned, the Tax Commission wants to switch to first-class mail. That would have saved taxpayers $25,000 a year in postal charges and stopped wasting money on letters that weren’t getting delivered. Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

‘Day of Remembrance’ proclaimed

Today has been declared a “Day of Remembrance” by Gov. Butch Otter to honor Japanese-Americans who were interned at concentration camps during World War II, including camps in Idaho. This is the sixth straight year that an Idaho governor has signed such a proclamation. “It is a time to reflect on the need for tolerance,” Robert Hirai, representing the Japanese-American Citizens League of Idaho and Eastern Oregon and the Friends of Minidoka, said before Otter signed the proclamation, flanked by a large group of area residents of Japanese ancestry. A new national monument is in the works at the former Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, and the National Parks Service reported progress on research for interpretive displays there. Otter, reading from the proclamation, said, “The U.S. government has recognized the injustice of the evacuation and the internment.” He also noted that some of those present were old friends from his days at Simplot Corp., when he worked with them in the farming business. “I’m very impressed that they remembered me,” the governor said.

That’s no rat, that’s the governor

Standing on display along a side wall in the governor’s office is a real stuffed otter, holding tiny U.S. and Idaho flags. Gov. Butch Otter explains that the work of taxidermy was presented to him by the Safari Club International when he went off to Congress, and the animal came from along the Portneuf River in the Pocatello area. “A lot of folks, when I was in Congress, they’d come in and look at that and say, ‘Wow, that’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen,’” Otter recalled with a chuckle. “I said, ‘No, that’s an otter. There’s only one rat in this office, and you’re talking with him.’”

Rev & Tax to hear personal property tax phase-out Wednesday

Rep. Dennis Lake, chairman of the House Rev & Tax Committee, said today that he’s tentatively planning to hold a public hearing Wednesday morning on IACI’s bill to phase out the personal property tax on business equipment, a tax break for business that will total close to $100 million a year by the end of the phase-out. The measure, HB 206, was introduced on Friday; read the full story here from Saturday’s Spokesman-Review.

Clark pitches drug court expansion

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was one of a parade of committee chairs to address the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee over the past two days. The joint committee is taking input from the germane committee chairs on the budgets for the agencies the committees deal with, in anticipation of starting setting agency budgets next week. In Clark’s pitch, he talked about his bill to shift $2 million in liquor proceeds from the general fund to expand drug courts, allowing 275 more offenders to enroll. He argued that will save the state money in the long run, because it’s cheaper than building prison space and locking up those offenders. Clark also pushed for $250,000 to fund a state Office of Drug Policy, including an administrator and two staffers, rather than the $140,000 previously in the governor’s budget for a “drug czar.”

Trouble with vote-by-mail bill?

The House has just voted 53-16 to return the vote-by-mail bill, HB 94, to the House State Affairs Committee, at the request of the chairman, Rep. Tom Loertscher. Loertscher said there was a problem with the bill that needed another look in committee. “This is so vitally important to the process of electing our elected officials, and that’s why we want to make sure that there’s not a hole in this somewhere that would cause some kind of a problem in the election process,” Loertscher told the House. Backers of the bill were suspicious, as Loertscher opposes the bill, and wanted to make sure that the committee’s strong majority vote in favor of the vote-by-mail measure was respected. But the bill’s floor sponsor, Rep. Clete Edmunson, said he had no problem with the move. “The good gentleman from 15 and a couple of others have brought up some good points. It is a good bill,” he said. “We want to make sure it is correct when it gets down here.”

Meyer: No grass seed on Rathdrum Prairie in 2008

Rathdrum grass seed farmer Wayne Meyer, a former state legislator, says he wasn’t surprised by the state’s decision to end all field burning in Idaho – except on Indian reservations – due to a federal court ruling. “Three days after the ruling came out I listed 300 acres for sale – and I’ve already got two offers from developers,” Meyer said. “It’s not what I wanted to do, but I don’t have any other choice.” He added, “For 2007 we’re fine, but for 2008 there won’t be any grass seed on the Rathdrum Prairie.”

Meanwhile Patti Gora, executive director of Safe Air For Everyone, a Sandpoint group formed by area physicians to oppose field burning on public health grounds, welcomed the state’s decision. The group opposes field burning because of the impact of the smoke on area residents with respiratory problems. “When we look back on the history of this issue, there are lives that could have been saved,” Gora said. “I’m glad that the governor’s office is finally recognizing the importance of this decision and acting appropriately.” Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Otter signs liquor politics bill

Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 2 into law, eliminating longstanding restrictions on political activity by employees of the state liquor dispensary. Dispensary chief Dyke Nally told lawmakers that his employees want to be free to have a political yard sign or attend a candidate barbecue just like any other state employee. The bill passed both houses unanimously; Otter signed it into law yesterday, along with a dozen other bills.

Consumer protection paying off for state

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden reported this morning that his Consumer Protection Unit recovered more than $1.6 million for Idaho consumers last year – the 16th consecutive year in which the amount recovered exceeded the state’s general fund budget appropriation for the consumer protection unit. At the end of 2006, he transferred $150,000 in surplus money from the program to the general fund. That makes more than $1.5 million in such transfers since 2003.

It’s eco-something

Ted Rea, interim president of the Idaho Elk Breeders Association, was praising the elk farming industry after this morning’s Senate Agriculture Committee hearing when he made this slip: “This is just one form of eco-terror, eco-tourism.”

After two hours of testimony and debate on four bills, S-R reporter Parker Howell reports, the committee voted down three bills aimed at stopping so-called “canned hunts” in Idaho or otherwise putting restrictions on elk farming, and instead voted 8-1 to pass an industry-backed bill setting up a licensing system under the state Department of Agriculture.

Goedde says Idaho lost grant

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, making his committee’s recommendations to JFAC this morning on the public school budget, said he’s disappointed to have to pass along a recommendation for an interim committee to study mentoring, master teachers and merit pay for teachers. Idaho was in line for a federal grant to launch a pilot project on pay for performance in three school districts, Goedde told the joint budget committee, but lost the grant for a second time for lack of a state matching appropriation. “This year’s … was ready to go,” Goedde said. “Once again, for the lack of $543,000, Idaho lost the opportunity for $17 million in federal funds over five years to pilot this project. … The chances were very good that Idaho could have been the recipient of the grant.”

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he takes some of the blame for that, but asked how much state money would be required over the life of the five-year grant. Goedde’s reply was that after the initial $543,000, the state would have to pay another $11.5 million over five years. “I certainly wasn’t pointing a finger at you,” Goedde told Cameron.

Goedde’s committee, after taking testimony from an array of education groups, had several specific proposals to add to Supt. Tom Luna’s budget proposal for public schools for next year. They included putting $10 million more into teacher salaries than Luna’s recommended 3 percent increase; spending $3.5 million from the state’s school budget stabilization fund to make up 70 percent of the federal Craig-Wyden payments to rural school districts that are expected to be lost next year; and giving rural school districts access to loans or grants from the school budget stabilization fund if needed. He also said if JFAC doesn’t fund all of Luna’s proposed classroom enhancement program, which would give specific funding for more school supplies, textbooks, remediation and advanced classes, that he’d favor letting Luna decide how to divide up the remaining money between those four aims. Nonini made a similar recommendation.

Senate committee unanimous on lifting 1-mile gag rule

When a 20,000-cow confined animal feeding operation was proposed 300 feet from his house, Dean Dimond wasn’t too worried at first. “I thought, aw, this isn’t so bad – we got laws to protect us. We’ll get the neighbors together and see what we can do to work it out,” Dimond told a Senate committee Wednesday.

But Dimond soon found out that a 7-year-old state law was being invoked by his county commissioners in Jerome County to keep anyone whose primary home is more than a mile from the project from testifying at the planning and zoning hearing. Even his father, whose farm land is adjacent to the project, was excluded because his home is elsewhere.

“I’m just astounded,” the Eden-area farmer told the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee. “I beg of you to please, please look at expanding that a little bit.”

Though two previous attempts to repeal the one-mile limit law have failed since 2000, the committee voted unanimously Wednesday for SB 1056. The measure would allow anyone with an interest in property affected by a confined animal feeding operation – or CAFO – to testify, regardless of distance to their property. Backers of the bill said the noise, dust, flies and odor from CAFOs travel more than a mile and affect businesses, property owners and others as well as homeowners. Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Who’s a couch potato?

The House State Affairs Committee’s lengthy debate about vote-by-mail legislation this morning included some exchanges in which committee members got a bit huffy. Here’s S-R reporter Parker Howell’s description:

Some representatives accused fellow committee members of having little faith in common voters to be informed and honest, prompting outcries of offense from their colleagues. “We’re not talking about lazy couch potatoes here,” said Rep. Clete Edmunson, R-Council, adding that the bill would help families and those who have to travel long distances to vote. “You have to have faith in your local county officials.”

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, spoke against the bill, saying it would facilitate voting by the uninformed. But Rep. Mark Snodgrass, R-Meridian, said he was offended. “I think there are people who have given their lives for the right of people to vote, and those people did not give their lives so that only informed people could vote, they gave their lives so that everybody could vote,” Snodgrass said. “When we start saying we only want informed people to vote, or we only want specific people to vote, I think that goes against every fiber in my body.”

Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Eagle, said, “Just because I’m worried about voter fraud, doesn’t mean that I think that the people of Idaho are going to commit fraud. I actually find that part personally offensive that people are so offended by probing questions,” he said. “Apparently it’s not a good thing to ask probing questions when you’re in the legislature. That’s been my experience so far.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, called talking about lazy voters “somewhat distasteful,” while Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest River, said he took “a little bit of offense to the personal nature” of the debate. Labrador had the last word. “Just a point of clarification,” he said. “I have not heard a single member of this committee refer to voters as lazy.”

Vote-by-mail bill clears House State Affairs

The House State Affairs Committee has voted 11-7 in favor of HB 94, the bill sponsored by county clerks to allow counties the option of going to an all-mail election, after a debate stretching for nearly two hours and lots of testimony both for and against.

Packing ‘em in

People are spilling out out both doorways from the House State Affairs Committee this morning as it holds a public hearing on vote-by-mail legislation.

Meanwhile, Meanwhile, the House Education Committee has a full house in the Gold Room for two resolutions dealing with recognizing American Sign Language coursework for foreign language credit and with the educational needs of the deaf and hard of hearing. Both of those resolutions won the education panel’s unanimous support.

Land Board wary of ditching float-home rent policy

If the state strictly limits the number of float-home moorings on state-owned lakes, is that a free market? State Land Board members indicated Tuesday that it’s not – and questioned a recommendation from the state lands staff to repeal the board’s reasonable-rent policy for float-home tie-ups and throw the issue open to market forces.

“This is a very small marketplace,” noted Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Idaho forbids the permitting of any new float-home sites on Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille lakes, and there are only about 100 sites now on each of the two state-owned lakes.

Rather than adopt the staff’s recommendation, the Land Board voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to research the issue. Three of the four members at the meeting – Gov. Butch Otter, state Controller Donna Jones and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna – were participating in their first Land Board meeting. “That would at least give me more time to learn more about this,” Luna said.

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, welcomed the Land Board’s decision. “It’s not the free market there – I think special considerations have to be given to at least the owners that are there now,” Clark said. He said he and other area lawmakers have been meeting with float-home owners and hoped “to stop the Land Board from doing something stupid.” Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Federal law like ‘The Matrix,’ lawmaker says

Civil liberties advocates and security experts say implementing a federal act ordering states to standardize driver’s licenses would be unfeasible, violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans and cost billions of dollars, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. Members of a four-person panel gathered in the Gold Room this afternoon and criticized the federal Real ID Act of 2005 – a requirement Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, called constitutionally questionable, an unfunded mandate and an attack on states’ rights. Hart introduced a joint resolution last week that would bar the Idaho Legislature from enforcing the act and ask the state’s Congressional delegation to oppose it.

“I’m particularly bothered by the privacy issues and the federal government mandating something on the states,” Hart said. The act aims to create a national database of identity information, add security features to IDs and make cards easily readable by machines by May 2008, Howell reports. Only upgraded licenses would be accepted for boarding an aircraft or entering certain federal buildings. It would cost $11 billion to implement over five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Real ID mandate has created strange bedfellows, Howell reports. Today’s panel included representatives from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Idaho Department of Homeland Security. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us, in order to win the war on terror, to become like those we fight,” said Bill Bishop, director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. Bishop said Congress passed the act “extremely hastily” as a silver bullet to dealing with terrorism. Hart compared the law to something from the 1999 science-fiction blockbuster “The Matrix.” Read Howell’s full story here.

Elk hearing draws hot crowd

Just how crowded was it at this morning’s hearing on elk farm legislation in the Gold Room, the capitol’s largest hearing room? S-R reporter Parker Howell reports that it was shoulder-to-shoulder, hot, sweaty, and packed as the Senate Ag Committee held public hearings on four different bills regarding elk ranching and canned hunts. The panel plans to make a decision on the legislation on Thursday.

Things are just super

At this morning’s Land Board meeting – the first for new board members Gov. Butch Otter, state Controller Donna Jones and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna – Otter referred to Luna as “Super Luna.” A bemused Luna responded to Otter, “Super Governor.”

Bill would undermine negotiations with tribes

Legislation introduced yesterday by House GOP leaders would undermine ongoing negotiations between the governor’s office and Idaho Indian tribes. Here’s how: The bill would impose the state’s tax on reservation gas sales but suspend its application if a tribe reaches agreement with the governor’s office over the issue by July 1. However, it would rescind that decision if lawmakers the following year don’t approve the agreement.

“They said, ‘You can enter into an agreement with the governor if you do it by the first of July, but we have the right to take it away in January of 2008,’ ” said Bill Roden, lobbyist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “What kind of nonsense is that? There’s absolutely no reason, there’s no way to have open and honest negotiations with that kind of a threat staring you in the face.”

Bob Wells, Gov. Butch Otter’s legislative liaison on transportation and tribal issues, said, “We’re right in the middle of negotiations.” Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Otter signs first bills

Gov. Butch Otter has signed his first batch of bills – and they include HB 29, the $1.7 million supplemental appropriation to finish renovating the old Ada County Courthouse to house the next two – or three – legislative sessions while the capitol is renovated. Ironically, the capitol renovation was also the issue that prompted a big clash between Otter and lawmakers in his first month in office. Other bills signed into law in the governor’s first batch include measures to pay the bills for fighting last summer’s wildfires (SB 1034) and a bill clarifying shorthand court reporter certification rules.

Second time’s the charm

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, successfully introduced a bill today to require party registration in Idaho – a bill the House State Affairs Committee had refused to introduce last week, without noticing that the co-sponsors included the entire House GOP leadership team. A trip to the party leaders’ woodshed followed. Hagedorn told the committee this morning that he’d made a few changes to the bill “based on many of the comments you made last week.” The bill still requires Idaho voters to register with a political party or to register with no party, and then doesn’t let them vote in a party’s primary unless they’re registered members of that party. It does allow an exception, however, if a party chooses to open its primary to independents or to members of other parties. The concept, though endorsed by the Idaho Republican Party platform, is a controversial one in a state in which a third of voters identify themselves as independents. The measure is now sponsored by 21 House Republicans.

Panel unanimously rejects Harwood church bill

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, proposed legislation this morning in the House State Affairs Committee to exempt churches from workers compensation laws, but the committee voted unanimously to return the bill to Harwood for more work. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, an attorney who handles workers compensation issues, said while he saw merit in Harwood’s intention to exempt churches from the requirement to have worker’s compensation on pastors on separation of church and state grounds, the bill was overly broad, and also would have exempted church secretaries, janitors, and even people who work in church-owned businesses such as thrift shops and farms.

“I’m familiar with this area of the law,” Luker said. “Can you explain to me why this is so broad?” Harwood responded that he thought it wasn’t. “A lot of churches don’t want to pay it, a lot of churches are paying it now and want to remain paying it,” Harwood said. “I don’t believe the state should be the one saying ‘you’re going to.’”

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, a human resources consultant, asked Harwood, “So you do not believe that church workers should be protected from workplace injuries, from injuries suffered on the job?” “Did I say that?” Harwood responded with a smile, as committee members around the table muttered that his bill said that. Harwood said his own church only has 20 or 25 members, and shouldn’t have to buy workers compensation insurance on its pastor if it doesn’t want to. Pasley-Stuart then asked Harwood, “So if something were to happen to your pastor … how then would this be handled?” Harwood responded, “With the insurance we have on the pastor now, and the church would take care of the pastor – that’s what the churches is supposed to do.”

He told the committee, “We don’t allow the church to tell the state what to do. … The state is coming in … saying you mandatorily got to do this. It’s a double-edged sword when you’re talking about separation of church and state. If you want separation of church and state, then that’s what we should do.”

Luker said he’d be willing to work with Harwood on a narrower version of the bill, because requiring churches to cover pastors or ministers does “get into a religious issue.” But he also noted that Idaho’s workers compensation insurance rates are based both on the salary of the worker and how hazardous the job is: “Frankly, I don’t think the premium on a pastor is going to be that much, because it’s not a hazardous occupation.”

Waiting for the big bills as budget deadlines loom…

Legislative budget writers are struggling with how they’re going to budget for a newly split-apart Commerce and Labor department – when the Otter Administration hasn’t even yet presented legislation to split the department into two agencies. House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Otter’s budget analyst, Randy Tilley, this morning, “Mr. Tilley, we need the legislation in place before we can do the budgets.” Deadlines are looming, she noted – lawmakers are scheduled to start setting agency budgets next week. Tilley responded, “We’ve got the legislation in the governor’s office. … We expect to get that out probably in the next day or so.” Commented Bell, “We wouldn’t mind if it stayed the way it was.”

Budget writers had the same question when they came to the budget hearing for the state Division of Financial Management, which is scheduled to take in some of the major functions of the state Division of Human Resources and the Department of Administration, both of which Otter wants to disband. Brad Foltman, DFM administrator, said the legislation for the human resources changes is “over 90 pages,” and that’s the simple one. The Department of Administration legislation is “approximately 100 pages.” Those bills, he said, “should be before you in a couple of days.”

‘We have a Bonner and Boundary county…’

State Commerce & Labor Director Roger Madsen told legislative budget writers this morning that rural broadband grants from the state of $4.9 million, matched dollar for dollar by industry, expanded service to 79 Idaho communities in the past year, with nearly 50,000 potential new customers. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, noted that he’s gotten complaints from his constituents that the service hasn’t come their way, to which Madsen responded with a long list of North Idaho towns that Verizon got matching funds to serve, including Athol, Plummer, Kellogg and many more.

Eskridge noted that those towns weren’t in his district. “Maybe we should let Verizon know that we have a Bonner and Boundary county,” he commented. Madsen responded, “Good idea. … I’ll send them a letter this afternoon.”

The department had asked for $10 million more in broadband matching grants for next year, but Gov. Butch Otter recommended zero.

Otter’s agency revamp plan gets rocky reception in JFAC

Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to revamp state agencies, eliminating two, got a cold reception Friday from House and Senate budget writers, the AP reports, another sign the new chief executive and the 2007 Legislature are still struggling to define their relationship. At a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearing Friday, lawmakers from both parties said Otter’s moves to trim government and make it more efficient may be laudable, but they’ve yet to see any actual analysis showing how the moves will benefit Idaho taxpayers. Read AP reporter John Miller’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

High school students get crash course in Idaho politics

From driving go-karts with North Idaho representatives to sitting through lengthy committee meetings, several high school seniors from North Idaho spent the past month trading textbooks for a crash course in Idaho politics. Read S-R reporter Parker Howell’s full story here on the pages’ experience in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Traffic builds, roads deteriorate, but lawmakers leery of new fees

Idaho’s growing like mad, and so are its transportation needs, lawmakers heard Thursday, but the revenue that pays for that, the state’s 25 cent per gallon gas tax, has been relatively flat for more than a decade. That’s why the Idaho Transportation Board is recommending dramatic fee increases – 75 percent boosts in vehicle registration and permit fees, a 7 percent surcharge on gas, new development impact fees, fees on rental cars, and more. Four of those fee-increase bills were introduced Thursday in the Senate Transportation Committee, but Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said they were introduced “just for discussion,” and some senators were uncomfortable with even introducing the bills. Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

‘Axles 101’

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, conducted a little class for his fellow members of the Senate Transportation Committee just now entitled “Axles 101,” complete with some huge props – giant trucks parked in front of the state capitol, and glossy posters and about how Idaho should allow heavier trucks on its roads because of various features of the trucks’ axles. Corder, who owns a trucking company, was drafted to conduct the session by his fellow senators on the committee, while the Idaho Transportation Department provided informational packets about trucks and regulations and a lobbying group brought in the big trucks and the posters. Corder pointed out the different features of the axles on the trucks and how they work. “This one is a steerable axle,” he said, pointing to one. The smell of new rubber was pungent in the sunshine as lawmakers and a few lobbyists milled around the trucks and their giant tires. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, recessed his committee meeting after the panel got done introducing a slate of bills to allow the members to head down to the steps for Corder’s presentation.

House passes grocery tax credit hike

The House has just voted 62-7 to pass HB 81, Rep. Cliff Bayer’s bill to raise the grocery tax credit from $20 to $50 for everyone, and from $35 to $70 for seniors. The vote came after nearly an hour of debate, including sharp warnings from some lawmakers about the bill’s cost, $47.5 million a year. The measure now moves to the Senate.

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee chose HB 81 over Gov. Butch Otter’s plan for a targeted, means-tested credit that would have given up to $90 a year in grocery tax credits to the lowest-income Idahoans, $105 for seniors, but little or none to the higher-income; the price tag on the governor’s bill was less than half as much, at $22 million a year. Ten North Idaho lawmakers co-sponsored Bayer’s bill.

Lawmaker: Lowe should ask for a bonus

Pamela Lowe, the new ITD director, flew calmly through 48 pages of slides, charts, graphs, tables and solid information about everything that’s going on at the state Transportation Department in her presentation to JFAC this morning, and then, when members asked her extensive questions for close to another two hours, she came up with more charts and graphs along with firm, candid and detailed answers, often including specific examples. “I’d ask for a bonus if I were you,” Rep. Fred Wood told her. “You’ve had the hardest job here in front of JFAC, and I thank you for your candor in your presentation.”

Budget writers have lots of GARVEE questions

JFAC members have been grilling new Transportation Director Pamela Lowe about GARVEE bonding plans for major highway improvements around the state. Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, wondered whether the bond funds couldn’t be targeted toward actual construction costs that are ballooning, rather than also covering design and engineering and the like. “You certainly could” do that, Lowe responded. “Doing that now would cause some juggling in the program.”

Several lawmakers wanted to know how the GARVEE program is affecting other, non-bonded, everyday highway projects around the state, and Lowe said there is an impact. “You have to make holes in the program to pay that debt service, and that debt service, because it’s a federal obligation, is going to come first,” she said.

However, she noted that at least in the initial years, several of the GARVEE projects already were on the drawing boards for Idaho anyway, so they were removed from the regular highway plan – freeing up funds for the bond payments. There will be more impact in later years, she said.

Overall, Lowe said, “I recognize the GARVEE program has had a rough start. … Certainly the numbers have changed,” and the bonding program is starting a little more slowly than originally anticipated. Yet, she said, “I believe the GARVEE program will … prove to be a good value to Idaho’s taxpayers. … We can build these needed projects now, not 25 years from now.”

All the GARVEE-funded projects, including major upgrades to U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho and major freeway upgrades in the Treasure Valley, are scheduled to be completed by 2013. Without GARVEE, that work wouldn’t get done until 2032, Lowe said.

A plastic card instead of piece of paper…

Any family that’s had a teen go through driver training knows that a piece of paper serves as the teen’s driving permit – not exactly the easiest thing to keep intact, safe, and secure for the young driver. The Idaho Transportation Department, as part of its budget request for next year, is proposing to replace that slip of paper with a digitized plastic card that includes a photo ID. The budget item only requests spending authority for $50,000, and Gov. Butch Otter is recommending approval. The card, new ITD Director Pamela Lowe told the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, will be “more secure and more durable.”

Senator with ‘gumption’ proposes disclosure bill

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, has joined two other lawmakers to introduce legislation requiring that sales prices of Idaho real estate be disclosed confidentially to the county assessor. That’s not required now – even though assessors are, by law, supposed to assess property at fair market value. “Assessors are very hamstrung in their ability to determine market value, and have to rely on exquisite mathematical calculations,” Keough told the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee. As a result, Keough’s home county, Bonner County, had 600 appeals of taxable values last year, as people objected to values that were calculated through mathematical “trending” formulas.

Sen. Lee Heinrich, R-Cascade, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, are co-sponsoring the bill. Jaquet said in her district, “Many people in the very high-end homes are not paying their fair share, because the assessor isn’t getting accurate information.” Fewer and fewer of those high-end homeowners are voluntarily disclosing sales prices, she said.

The committee agreed unanimously to introduce the bill, and Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he’ll look forward to holding a hearing. “We may need to move to the Gold Room on this,” he said, referring to the capitol’s largest hearing room.

After the vote, Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, told Keough, “This is a big one – this takes a little gumption, so good for you.”

Keough co-chaired an interim committee on property taxes the summer before last that held hearings around the state. Though that panel didn’t endorse price disclosure legislation, Keough said she’s been hearing increasingly from property owners and local Realtors that price disclosure is needed to make taxable values more realistic and accurate. However, she said some large lobbying groups may oppose the bill. “My hope is that people on the ground and that the Realtors that support this will let their legislators know,” she said. Keough said she’s been hearing of high levels of discontent with Idaho’s market value-based property tax system, especially in high-value parts of the state, in recent years. She said, “If they can’t change the system, they especially want the system to be based on facts … instead of some wild guess.”

Of camel’s noses and tents

In a legislative cliché that’s perhaps second in popularity only to the acclaimed “slippery slope,” the “camel’s nose under the tent” made a starring appearance at the House Rev & Tax debate today over lowering the supermajority vote to form a community college district, a proposal the committee rejected.

“The 60 percent is the nose of the camel, according to some,” acknowledged Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, the bill’s sponsor, though he countered that by noting the plethora of districts that now can be established by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds margin, including fire districts, water districts and sewer districts. Alex LaBeau of IACI then testified, “It is a far cry from the camel’s nose being under the tent.”

John Watts, lobbyist for the Idaho Chamber Alliance and a former state Fish & Game Commission member, then offered this, citing his involvement with the Legislature since 1983: “I have full faith in this committee right here to shoot the camel between the eyes if it gets more than the nose under the tent.” Allowing a 60 percent vote only at general elections to form a community college district, Watts said, won’t result in a cascade of similar bills. “I have full faith and confidence this committee will not allow a stampeding herd of camels.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, then asked Watts if he weren’t afraid that if the camel got its nose under the tent and it was the only such camel, that the EPA would put it on the endangered species list. Watts responded that “levity aside … I, over 23 years, Mr. Chairman, have watched you do your due diligence.”

Raybould then brought the camel back up again, saying this bill involves a big camel – compared to which the other districts Watts mentioned are “mice.”

Later, Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “As far as the camel, poor old hapless camel. I’m from Custer County. The first thing that comes to mind is shoot, shovel and shut up.”

Other notable quotes from the committee debate:

“This isn’t just for your district, it’s for the whole state.” – Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, to Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star

“We’re not asking this committee or the Legislature to force anything on anybody. We’re asking for the citizens of that district to tax themselves and determine their own fate.” – M.C. Niland, board chair, Nampa Chamber of Commerce

“This is designed as an incentive to draw people to the polls – that’s really what it’s for.” – Alex LaBeau, executive director, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry

“We need an educated workforce. … We have a high high school graduation rate, we have a low go-to-college rate.” – Dwight Johnson, executive director, Office of the State Board of Education

“Just so you know, I sit between these two.” – Rep. Dennis Lake, after an exchange between Reps. Leon Smith and Jim Clark over Clark asking Smith a “retaliatory” question similar to one Smith asked when he voted against an earlier bill that Clark had sponsored

The dramatic votes

There were three votes on HB 84, the bill to make it easier to form community college districts in Idaho – a key initiative of new Gov. Butch Otter. The measure would’ve lowered the supermajority to form a new district from two-thirds to 60 percent if the vote took place in a general election. In the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning, the first vote on the bill came on an amended substitute motion from Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, to send the bill to the full House without recommendation – after it appeared likely that a motion to send it with a recommendation that it “do pass” wasn’t going to fly. “I think the full House deserves the opportunity to debate it,” Jaquet told the committee. “There’s a lot hanging on this.” That caused Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, to grumble, “We should just do away with the whole committee system and do it all out on the floor. … This is what we make the big bucks for.” Jaquet’s motion failed, 7-11.

Then, the committee voted on a substitute motion from Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, to hold the bill in committee. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, speaking in favor of Barrett’s motion, said, “If there’s a two-thirds majority for the other elections, why not have a two-thirds majority in this election to protect the taxpayers of the state?” He even proposed striking the 60 percent clause from the bill, though sponsor Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said that would “gut” the bill and committee chairman Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said that was the substance of the bill. Barrett’s motion failed on a tied, 9-9 vote, with Lake and Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, voting “no” though they had opposed the previous motion.

Then, the committee voted on the original motion, Smith’s motion to pass the bill. Lake voted in favor, but Wood voted against, and the motion failed, 8-10. “The bill’s dead,” Lake said.

Rev & Tax kills Gov. Otter’s community college bill

Once again, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted down a major initiative of the new Republican governor, Butch Otter. This time, the panel voted 10-8 against passing HB 84, the bill to allow formation of a community college district by a 60 percent, rather than two-thirds, vote if the vote takes place at a general election. The bill already had been scaled back from Otter’s original proposal, which called for the 60 percent threshold if the vote took place at either the primary or the general election.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said she didn’t think much of arguments that the state needs more workforce training, like that provided by community colleges. “I really find it a little offensive to imply that we’ve got a bunch of dummies out there in the workforce,” she said.

Three members of the House GOP leadership – Reps. Mike Moyle, R-Star, Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly – joined in the majority to kill the bill, and argued strenuously against it. “I think we feel pretty strongly that whenever you assess property taxes, you need to do it with a pretty high threshold,” Bedke said. “The right plan will pass at 66-2/3.”

Broadsword: Don’t make kids into ‘ping-pong balls’

Idaho shouldn’t have exceptions from its child safety seat law for overcrowded cars without enough seatbelts or for nursing infants, Sen. Joyce Broadsword told the Senate Transportation Committee today. “The children of our state are our most precious resource,” Broadsword, R-Sagle, told the committee.

She said the two exceptions that currently are included in Idaho’s child safety seat law are preventing the state from qualifying for federal grants that would help low-income Idaho families buy car seats. The issue was brought to her attention by pediatricians, she said. Broadsword said the exceptions pose a danger to young children. “Allowing them to become ping-pong balls in the back of a car is not, in my opinion, a good way to protect them,” she told the committee, which then voted unanimously to introduce her bill.

Common Interest to focus on election reform

The Common Interest is planning to focus on election reform issues this year – including hot topics like vote-by-mail and changes in the primary system. Here’s a report from S-R reporter Parker Howell:

A citizen group influential in last year’s property tax debate will lobby for election reform this year as its top priority, its leader
announced this morning. The 1,073-member The Common Interest, headed by a Harvard professor, will study proposals for vote-by-mail and changing the state’s primary system — controversial topics this year.

Although a House committee rejected an effort to close Idaho’s primaries Monday, Republican leaders aim to renew legislation to require Idaho voters to register with a party to participate in the state’s primary. Currently, voters can choose which party’s ballot to vote on Election Day.

The Common Interest’s members also chose K-12 education and health care affordability and accessibility as priorities. They ranked Statehouse restoration and legislation to restrict elk ranching and “canned hunts” lowest of the 25 issues they considered.

Group founder and President Keith Allred said his organization may create longer-term committees to research education and health care
because they will be difficult issues to influence during a single session.

Partisan fur flies over rejected leadership bill

A cagey House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts wouldn’t say yesterday why House Republicans went into a hastily called, closed-door caucus, saying only, “We had some family stuff to talk about, a family meeting.” But his secret is out now, as partisan fur is flying over a House committee’s inadvertent snub yesterday to GOP leadership over a primary election reform bill.

Roberts considers House GOP business to be “family business,” and said earlier that when you have a family meeting, you “don’t involve the neighbors.” The nosy neighbors, in this metaphor, are the public that elected the lawmakers in the first place.

The bill in question was a proposal to require party registration and closed primaries in Idaho, something the Idaho Republican Party voted at its convention this year to support. But the House State Affairs Committee voted 9-8 on Monday against introducing the bill, with members saying Idaho has an independent streak that forced party registration would violate. Surveys show a third of Idahoans say they’re independents – and under the bill, independents couldn’t vote in primaries at all.

But what the committee members overlooked yesterday was that the measure wasn’t just proposed by freshman Rep. Marv Hagedorn of Meridian. It also was sponsored by the entire House GOP leadership. Furious leadership members called the emergency closed caucus meeting, and are planning a new version of the bill.

The Associated Press called the dustup “a rare public example of a flub in a party with a normally insurmountable advantage over Democrats.”

Rep. Mark Snodgrass, R-Meridian, and Rep. Max Black, R-Boise, conceded they hadn’t seen the leaders’ names on the measure before voting against it. “It’s a courtesy to the speaker to at least print the bill,” Black told The Associated Press. “I let myself go up there without adequate information.” Said Snodgrass: “I probably didn’t pay as much attention (to the sponsors’ names) as I probably could have. Should it come back, I would vote to print the bill.”

Panel kills governor’s bill, passes HB 81 instead

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted to kill Gov. Butch Otter’s targeted grocery tax relief bill, which sought to give a big tax break on groceries to low-income Idahoans, but little or nothing to those with higher incomes. Instead, the panel passed HB 81, sponsored by Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, and a large group of other legislators, to raise the grocery tax credit for everyone from $20 to $50, and for seniors from $35 to $70. The bill would cost the state an additional $47.5 million a year in lost sales tax revenue.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, chairman of the committee, said, “I think the governor knew that his proposal had some objections built right into it, because it was not only a tax relief measure, it was also a tax increase built into the same bill for some people.” Higher income people who now get a $20 annual grocery tax credit would’ve lost it under the governor’s bill, HB 80.

Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, tried to amend the governor’s bill to the expand income categories receiving the credit and remove a prohibition on any food stamp recipients receiving the credit, but that move failed on a voice vote. The governor’s bill then was killed in committee on a voice vote, and HB 81 was sent to the full House on a 14-4 vote.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said, “I had a problem with the governor’s bill. My problem is it’s a Robin Hood scenario – take from the rich and give to the poor. The middle class needs some help, and this was going to cut the middle class out.”

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, also voted to kill the governor’s bill and to pass HB 81 instead. “I appreciate the intent to give the relief to the low-income people, but when we raised the sales tax, everyone got hit with that,” Sayler said. Lawmakers raised the sales tax in August from 5 percent to 6 percent.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who also voted to kill the governor’s bill and pass HB 81 instead, said, “We just improved on it a little bit – that’s not a defeat, that’s a win for the governor.”

Lake, however, said the bill may change when it hits the Senate side of the rotunda. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, agreed. “Not very many of our bills get through there the same, do they?” he asked.

House backs human rights resolution, some dissent

A resolution declaring Idaho legislators’ support for human rights passed the House overwhelmingly on Monday, but nine members voted against it – including three from North Idaho. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said North Idaho doesn’t need any reminders that it once was home to the Aryan Nations hate group. “I just think there’s a group of people … that like to keep sore wounds opened up,” Nonini said after the vote. “Those people (the Aryan Nations) have gone away – we don’t talk about it in North Idaho.” Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

It’ll cost less to hunt wolves

The Senate Resources Committee today agreed to introduce legislation from the Fish and Game Department setting up a program to allow hunting of wolves in Idaho once the animal is removed from the federal endangered species list, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. But the Fish and Game Commission’s earlier decision to charge $26.50 for a wolf tag for an Idaho resident has been modified; now the price is $9.75.

The reason: Commissioners had planned to raise tag prices for mountain lions and bears back up to $26.50, their former level before those tag prices were lowered a few years back, and then charge the same for tags for all three types of predators. But the commission didn’t end up lowering the lion and bear tags, so it asked lawmakers to set the wolf tag price at $9.75, the same as the lions and bears. Non-resident tags would be $150. The legislation also legalizes wolf hunting for the first time in Idaho under the regulation of the Fish and Game Department, once wolves are no longer listed as endangered.

If she were governor…

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, opened her pitch for her grocery tax relief bill with this comment: “Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I wish I were governor and had Michael Ferguson working for me. He made a good presentation.”

Ferguson, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief economist, had made the pitch for Otter’s grocery tax relief bill, complete with pages and pages of background information, colorful examples, and ready answers to detailed financial questions that lawmakers posed to him. Ferguson said the governor’s bill would give a $90 grocery tax credit to low-income Idahoans. “Disregarding any other considerations, it would obviously be nice to offer the $90 … to everyone,” he said. But, he said, “This bill deals with the scarcity of financial resources.” Idaho doesn’t have enough money to do it all, he said. “This bill makes the judgment call that upper-income Idahoans prefer the budget stability that comes from this approach for funding state needs in education, public safety, etc. … This bill is targeted at Idaho’s working poor.”

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, in pitching his own bill, to raise the credit to $50 for everyone and $70 for seniors at more than twice the cost of Otter’s plan, said his bill “benefits all Idaho residents across the board.” He said, “I would propose with a flat rate it inherently benefits those who have less, and therefore spend less, more.”

Rep. Phil Hart, who pitched HB 82 along with Rep. Jim Clark, noted that Kootenai County residents who are going to Spokane anyway often do their grocery shopping there, because Washington doesn’t tax groceries. “If we were to pass HB 82, those dollars would be spent in Idaho and not in Washington,” Hart said.

Jaquet, in support of her bill, said, “Everybody is saying, ‘Please remove the tax … please take it off for everybody. They want the effect at the cash register every day. … Nobody should be taxed on a life necessity.”

Hearing testimony favors Otter bill

The public hearing on the four grocery tax relief bills has just concluded, and here’s the overall score: After the sponsors of the four bills spoke, seven people testified. Four of the seven spoke in favor of Gov. Butch Otter’s targeted tax credit proposal, HB 80. One preferred Rep. Wendy Jaquet’s proposal, HB 83, to remove half of the sales tax from groceries right away. Two others expressed no preference, but cautioned against causing instability in Idaho’s revenue system that could threaten funding for schools or other programs.

“I think this was probably one of the best hearings I’ve sat in in 11 years in the Rev & Tax Committee,” said Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, who sponsored one of the bills. “There was a lot of information. Everyone was treated with a fair hand. It’s going to give us some time to think about it, and we’ll come back in the morning and we’ll vote.” He added, “I still like mine.” Clark’s bill, HB 82, would take the sales tax off groceries in a four-year phase-out. “I just thought there had to be one option on the table to take it all off. So we’re in play,” he said.

Committee Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “My sense is that HB 82 and 83 are probably too expensive for us to take that approach in solving the problem.” He and other Rev & Tax members said they’re well aware that any decision they make affects the state budget – and drives decisions on funding for crucial state programs. Tomorrow morning, committee members will be able to ask questions of Tax Commission experts and others on the numbers, and decide which way to go, he said.

Deputy director ends long paid leave

Here’s a follow-up to a story I reported on in December, when it turned out that a deputy director of the state Agriculture Department who was replaced last June was still on the state payroll, and was drawing his full $87,000-a-year salary through Dec. 31 even though he hadn’t come to work since June 8. The final chapter: Deputy Ag Director Mike Everett is no longer a state employee. He retired On Dec. 31st, according to the department’s human resources manager, Ken Miracle.

Everett was the highest-cost example this year of the use of paid administrative leave by the state – a type of leave that’s entirely discretionary, has no time limits and even allows the employee to continue accumulating state-paid vacation and sick leave benefits while on paid leave. According to records from the state Controller’s Office, 1,291 state employees received paid administrative leave from June to December. All but 60 of those received less than 40 hours of the paid leave. After Everett, the next highest paid leave totals were racked up by a Commerce and Labor employee who was paid for more than 12 weeks of leave.

Then-Gov. Jim Risch announced Everett’s replacement on June 8. Lawmakers were surprised to find out in late December that he was still on the state payroll.

Democrats push campaign finance reform

GOP senators bristled, harrumphed and took umbrage this morning when faced with legislation sponsored by all seven Democratic senators to start a public financing program for state campaigns in Idaho, and to require financial disclosure of state elected officials’ assets – saying backers of the bills were essentially questioning their integrity and suggesting they’re corrupt.

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, told the Democrats “I take exception pretty strongly” to several pages of findings at the start of the public financing bill that said the current campaign finance system “undermines democracy” and “creates a danger of actual corruption.” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he personally doesn’t spend his time as a lawmaker fundraising, and asked Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, “Aren’t you prohibiting and stifling free speech?”

Former state Rep. Jim Hansen, D-Boise, told the Senate State Affairs Committee that elections are “an expression of our freedom, as you know, but we also know that it’s not free.” The public financing bill was an attempt to offer a way to sever the link between money and politics, he said, and was modeled after laws enacted by initiative in Arizona and Maine. “It’s been extensively tested in the courts and upheld,” Hansen, an attorney, told the panel.

Both bills were killed on party-line votes, but Hansen said their public airing was valuable, and he praised committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, and Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, for allowing the hearing. “You need to start the discussion with legislators in a public forum,” Hansen said afterward. “You need to have public conversations.” More than half a dozen people testified in favor of the public financing bill, SB 1037; none testified against. It was the first time that the proposal was the subject of a full public hearing. The last time it was proposed, several years ago, the motion to introduce the bill and allow a hearing died for lack of a second.

No guarantees on newest abortion bill

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, introduced legislation this morning designed to require parental consent for minors’ abortions. Idaho already has passed such legislation three other times, only to have it overturned in court each time – with the state being ordered to pay court costs and attorney fees. The 2005 version still is on appeal at the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Deputy Idaho Attorney General Bill von Tagen, asked by the Senate State Affairs Committee whether the newest bill is likely unconstitutional as well, said, “We have the highest degree of confidence in this legislation that we feel we can have,” though he noted that there are no guarantees.

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “We have spent an enormous amount of money in this area of law trying to defend unconstitutional legislation.” He voted to introduce the bill – the committee’s vote was unanimous – but said his vote was only “in order to have a full hearing on the bill and to get all the information we’re lacking here today.”

Fulcher said, “Senators, I can promise you nothing in terms of what may happen to this in terms of court action.” But, he said, “Today we have no active parental consent law in the state of Idaho – personally I believe we should.”

Otter opposition to new liquor stores puzzles lawmakers

Idaho’s state liquor dispensary could serve a growing customer base better and make more profit if it opened three new stores, but Gov. Butch Otter opposes the move as growth in government. Otter recommended against the three new stores – one of which would be in the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls area – in his proposed state budget for next year, lawmakers learned Thursday. Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Tribe: Field-burning ruling doesn’t apply on reservations

The Nez Perce Tribe has put out a press release noting that this week’s 9th Circuit court ruling on field burning in Idaho doesn’t apply to Indian reservations. The ruling found that field burning actually has been illegal in Idaho under federal law since 1993 because of provisions approved by the EPA in Idaho’s state implementation plan for the federal Clean Air Act. Rebecca Miles, Nez Perce tribal chairman, noted, “The state implementation plan applies elsewhere in Idaho. On Indian reservations in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, the Clean Air Act’s Federal Air Rules for Reservations (FARR) apply.” Those reservation rules weren’t at issue in the 9th Circuit case.

At least two Idahoans would pay $6k a bottle

Idaho’s state liquor dispensary has seen a huge jump in sales since 2002 – 87 percent – but not because Idahoans are necessarily boozing it up more. Instead, according to dispensary Superintendent Dyke Nally, the increase is coming from two things: population growth, and customers buying more-expensive liquor. Idaho is seeing new residents who are “more affluent consumers,” Nally said, “people from other areas who had experienced drinking higher-priced products.” So while sales are up 87 percent in dollars, they’re only up 59 percent in bottles. Per capita consumption is generally flat.

Here’s proof of the trend: The liquor dispensary’s priciest product normally is a French cognac, Remy Martin’s Louis XIII, that sells for $1,300 a bottle, earning the state a $547 profit. “We sell a few of those each year,” Nally told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. So it was a risk when the dispensary decided to order in a bottle of special 50-year-old scotch that sells for a whopping $6,000. Would it sell? Surprisingly, Nally said, “We had two people fighting over it.” That was over in the Sun Valley area.

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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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