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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2007

Senator: Human life worth more than moose

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, just convinced the Senate Judiciary Committee to endorse his bill to revoke hunting privileges for life for anyone who shoots someone while hunting and then is convicted of manslaughter. “It seems to me that a person’s life is worth more than that of a moose,” Jorgenson told his fellow senators on the panel. “If you go out and shoot a moose illegally, you’ll lose your hunting privileges for life.”

The lawyers on the committee had lots of questions about the bill – for example, Jorgenson said it wouldn’t apply to someone who shot their hunting partner by accident, but Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, an attorney, pointed out, “Manslaughter is negligence or accident – that’s what manslaughter is.” Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, also an attorney, noted that a charge of involuntary manslaughter is covered by the bill. “By definition, involuntary manslaughter, you didn’t intend to kill,” she noted.

But Jon Heggen, bureau chief for law enforcement for the state Department of Fish & Game, said the F&G Commission had its staff analyze the bill, and during a telephone conference this morning, the commissioners adopted a motion supporting it. “We appreciate Sen. Jorgenson’s bringing to the forefront this legislation,” Heggen told the senators.

At that, the committee passed the bill, SB 1022, and sent it to the full Senate for a vote.

Four grocery tax bills introduced

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has agreed unanimously to introduce four grocery tax bills: One from Gov. Butch Otter to create his targeted grocery tax credit, which gives a much higher credit to low-income Idahoans and costs the state an additional $22 million a year; one from Rep. Cliff Bayer to raise the existing grocery tax credit from $20 to $50 for everyone, and from $35 to $70 for those over age 65; one from House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, to eliminate half the current 6 percent sales tax on groceries, at an annual cost of $90 million; and one from Reps. Phil Hart, R-Athol, and Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, to phase out the sales tax on groceries over four years, by taking a percent and a half off each year.

Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said he’ll schedule a hearing next week on all the bills. “We want to expedite it, because this is one of our linchpins for doing the whole budget scenario,” Lake said. “So we’ll push it right along.”

9th Circuit: Field burning is illegal in Idaho

Field-burning has actually been illegal in Idaho under federal law since 1993, a federal appeals court ruled today. “This decision shows that the handwriting is on the wall for field-burning in Idaho,” said David Baron, a Washington, D.C. attorney with Earthjustice, which represented Safe Air for Everyone and the American Lung Association of Idaho in the case against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the groups’ favor, and ordered the EPA to reconsider SAFE’s challenge to a 2005 EPA decision approving field-burning in the state. Patti Gora, executive director of Sandpoint-based SAFE, said, “The agency needs to get back to the business of protecting human health. … I hope that we can come up with a solution that is reasonable and works for people, so that they really don’t have to get in any more car crashes or be taken to the hospital or miss work or flee their homes. It’s really a good day for those people who have worked long and hard and given so much to bring this to the attention of the folks that it needed to get to.”

The court ruled that Idaho’s state plan for implementing the federal Clean Air Act permitted agricultural field-burning when it originally was written in 1972, but deleted that section in amendments approved in 1993. The EPA approved amendments to Idaho’s state plan in 2005 clearly legalizing and regulating field-burning, and SAFE challenged the decision. The agency said field-burning had been legal all along in the state, and the plan change was merely a clarification.

Not so, the court found. The justices ruled that Idaho’s state plan – which has “the force and effect of federal law” – clearly “did not permit field burning” all those years. “We’re obviously disappointed in the decision, and we’ll be reviewing it to determine what our course of action is,” said Toni Hardesty, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality. Read the full story here.

Idahoans differ from their lawmakers on energy proposals

According to a new statewide poll, Idahoans see availability of renewable resources as the state’s top energy priority and support using both incentives and regulations to cause change, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell – positions considerably more aggressive than those embodied in state energy plan that lawmakers unveiled last week.

The survey of 513 Idahoans by the Energy Policy Institute at Boise State University also found that residents are more comfortable with state intervention in siting of potentially polluting power plants than lawmakers. “I think Idahoans want more action than the Legislature has said they probably want to take in a plan,” said John Freemuth, interim associate director for the Center for Advanced Energy, which helped with the survey.

The state plan suggests an advisory state body to help with siting and prioritizes conservation before renewables, calling them a more cost-effective option. Look for full coverage of the survey in tomorrow’s Spokesman-Review.

Wings plan presented amid questions

The compromise plan between the governor and the Legislature over adding underground “wings” to the state capitol is being presented to the state Capitol Commission now, but not without some concerns being raised. Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, told the commission, “I stand very reluctantly.” The deal, he noted, was worked out between legislative leaders and the governor, but as a senator, he wasn’t privy to details and didn’t know what the deal really would cost taxpayers. “I think it’s imperative that we know before we continue on what the costs of redoing this are – what are we getting?” Coiner asked. “There’s talk of savings.” But in talking with contractors, Coiner said he’s gathered that “basically we’re going to get two single-floor (wings) for the same cost” as the original plan for two two-story underground wings. He questioned whether the state is headed toward a compromise that works politically, “but doesn’t work in reality for getting what the people of the state of Idaho really need in this process.”

Keith Johnson, head of the state Department of Administration, said, “I think Sen. Coiner’s exactly right – those are very legitimate questions that need to be addressed.”

Commission members said if they vote today to endorse the compromise, that’ll just be the first step to give designers the go-ahead to find out what the changes will cost and how they can be done. A formal change in the capitol master plan still would have to be approved by the commission.

The compromise as presented includes eight points:

1 – Single-story underground wings to add space at the east and west ends of the capitol building, rather than two-story underground wings.
2 – The first floor of the state capitol building would be “allocated to the Legislature for additional space,” rather than being occupied by the executive branch of state government.
3 – Costs per square foot for the wings would be locked in, rather than using any savings to “enhance the original interior design.”
4 – Any savings from the reduced scope of the wings would be “held as surety to complete the renovation of the capitol building proper.”
5 – On completion of the capitol renovation, any remaining savings would go to the capitol annex, the former Ada County Courthouse across the street from the capitol.
6 – Remodeling and renovating the old Borah Post Office, also across from the capitol, “should be placed on the Permanent Building Fund list as a priority.”
7 – All requests for change orders would go through the state Department of Administration.
8 – Additional details would be developed by the Department of Administration, the Capitol Commission and the contractors.

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes told the commission that the Legislature wants the capitol to remain a working building, not become a museum. That means adding larger hearing rooms so the public can attend legislative hearings. “Our primary goal was to have additional large rooms to allow the public to participate in this process,” he said. “I think we’re fine with the agreement if the Capitol Commission chooses to agree with it as well.”

One in every 36 adult Idaho males in correctional system

State Corrections Director Brent Reinke said with Idaho’s growth in prisoners, parolees and probationers, 19,000 offenders are now managed by the Department of Correction. “We are involved in the lives of one out of every 36 adult males in Idaho,” he told JFAC. “That’s a fairly significant number.”

Save more, or spend on schools, grocery tax relief?

The House voted unanimously Monday to raise the cap on Idaho’s rainy-day fund, but that change could have a tough time competing against school funding and grocery tax relief, a key senator said. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, would lift the limit on the state’s budget-stabilization fund to 8 percent of Idaho’s yearly income, from the current 5 percent, starting with the 2007 budget. The Senate Finance Committee, however, will hold the bill until Republican leaders set priorities for the session, said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, committee chairman. “It actually isn’t a bad idea,” said Cameron, who is also co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “The difficulty for us as we are starting to look at the budgets and the amount of money it would require, and look at the tax proposals that are perpetually coming out of Rev and Tax. There just frankly isn’t enough money to do both.” Read Parker Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

New chamber alliance lists legislative agenda

The new Idaho Chamber Alliance has adopted these issues as its legislative agenda this year: Supporting an expanded community college system, including lowering the supermajority to form a new community college district. Increasing high school graduation requirements in math and science. Supporting local-option taxation to fund public transit systems. Supporting reporting of retail sales by county or zip code. Supporting additional funding for science and technology, as recommended by a state advisory council. The new group also is watching health care, GARVEE bonding and expansion of nursing programs.

Alliance Executive Director Kent Just said after the group’s first big legislative confab today, “We’re extremely pleased with the turnout, we’re extremely pleased with the very warm reception our new alliance has received, not only from the governor but from legislators. They seem to have immediately grasped what we’re doing.”

Chamber members from all over the state hosted their local legislators at the alliance’s luncheon today, and afterward, lawmakers and business people mingled, with some talking legislation and a group from North Idaho sitting down for an impromptu discussion of transportation issues.

Jonathan Coe, head of the Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber and president of the new statewide alliance, said, “We represent over 9,000 Idaho businesses. They employ … literally hundreds of thousands of Idahoans.” The chambers, Coe said, “bring to the public dialogue a very important perspective, and we hope we can do a little better job of delivering it than in the past.”

From ‘Idaho is not for sale’ to ‘chief salesman’

Democrat Jerry Brady gave Butch Otter a run for his money in the last gubernatorial election by running under the campaign slogan “Idaho is not for sale,” criticizing Otter for first supporting, then rejecting a plan to sell off public lands. But now Otter is governor. Today, speaking to the Idaho Chamber Alliance, Otter had this to say to chamber officials and business people from around the state: “I’m going to be your general sales office here in Boise. … If you hear of a business lead, tell us. … Just call the general sales office for Idaho, and that’s the governor’s number.”

A huge audience of more than 300, including much of the Legislature, had mixed reactions. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch said, “He had the same pitch when he was lieutenant governor, and did it very successfully, and I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll do it very, very successfully as governor.” Added Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, “We’ve always done that. We make a difference when we let prospective companies know that the political process in Idaho is friendly and understanding for business. On the other hand we don’t give away the company store. But we’ve got a great workforce.”

Said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, “I think if I’d a been him, I would’ve chosen my words a little more carefully there.” But Sayler said he sees value in a governor trying to help sell Idaho’s products and workforce to companies interested in the state. “It has to be helpful,” he said.

It’s ‘Idaho Film Day’ in the capitol

Dawn Wells, who portrayed Mary Ann on the famed TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” has a message for legislators when they visit the displays at ‘Idaho Film Day’ in the fourth-floor rotunda of the state capitol today. “We’re here for the incentives for the film industry,” she said. “I think we’re on our way. We really think it’s suitable for our area.”

Lawmakers approved a tax incentive for the film industry last year, and another is in the works. Wells, chairman of the board of the Idaho Film Institute in Driggs, said her focus at the institute is on training, “discovering the talent in Idaho and keeping them here.”

Along those lines, she was joined today in the capitol by young people dressed up as Gilligan and Mary Ann, along with Idaho potato icon “Spuddy Buddy,” a film crew with all its equipment filming people as they walked by, and displays that ringed the entire rotunda from Idaho businesses that are in film or related fields. Along with the message, many legislators were bestowed plastic flower leis to match the island theme, and a lighted palm tree twinkled in a capitol corner.

Deep in the recesses of the capitol…

More than 100 years ago, an elaborate vault was built in the state capitol for the state treasurer to keep the state’s treasury – the money. “All state moneys in the custody of the state treasurer not otherwise deposited or invested … shall be kept in the vault and safe as provided for that purpose in the capitol building and in no other place,” Idaho state law says. The vault’s still there in the state treasurer’s office. Small, carved black lion heads snarl over its doorway, and it’s still in use – what money the treasurer’s office has on hand, which these days isn’t so much as most of the state’s assets are deposited or invested, is still kept in the safe inside the vault.

So now that it’s time for all state offices to move out of the capitol this spring for a three-year renovation project, it actually takes a change in state law to allow the state treasurer’s office to keep its cash on hand somewhere else while it operates in temporary quarters. The Senate State Affairs Committee, by a unanimous vote, agreed this morning to introduce a bill making just such a change. The measure also allows the original furniture of the capitol to be moved out for the renovation – the law requires it to stay – and allows legislative sessions to take place outside of the capitol building during the renovation.

Incidentally, if the law weren’t changed and state Treasurer Ron Crane moved the state’s money out of the capitol safe this spring, he’d face possible penalties of one to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

The deal: Single-story wings

Both the Legislature and the governor will ask the state Capitol Commission when it meets on Tuesday to approve a change in the capitol renovation and expansion plans to include single-story, rather than two-story, underground wings at either end of the state capitol. The idea is to preserve plans to add large public hearing rooms, but cut back on planned office space for legislators. Gov. Butch Otter, who ran TV ads against the wings during his campaign, issued a stop-work order on the whole capitol renovation project two weeks ago over the issue, prompting a standoff with the Legislature – which already had approved the project and sold $130 million in bonds.

Members of the Senate Majority Caucus, briefed on the agreement today, were “pleased that it’s out of the way, and we’re going on,” said Caucus Chair Brad Little, R-Emmett. Resolution of the issue should get the legislative session back on track to end in March as scheduled, he said.

Little said Otter was concerned about possible cost overruns on the two-story underground wings, especially given the big cost overruns that the U.S. Capitol has experienced on its new underground visitor center. “The governor wanted a higher level of confidence,” Little said. So both sides agreed that the entire $130 million in funding for the project would remain available to cover any overruns as the project progresses. The hope is also that despite the need to redesign plans, not going as deep with the wings will shave time off the construction and keep the whole project on schedule.

“Hopefully the taxpayers will come out ahead – the people will have a place for hearings, and we’ll have maybe a shock absorber for any unknown costs,” Little said. He said there’s also “maybe a better understanding” that the state will eventually make permanent use of two nearby state-owned buildings, the old Borah Post Office and the old Ada County Courthouse. Both buildings will house state offices and the Legislature during construction on the Capitol renovation, so they’ll serve as “swing space” for the next three years.

Deal on capitol wings

Members of leadership from both houses emerged from the governor’s office a few minutes ago and said there’s an agreement in principle on the capitol wings, though it’s not final. “It’s our opinion that the Capitol Commission still has a significant stake – so we can’t accept an offer or reject an offer,” said Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes. “I think in principle, we’ve all agreed that the capitol needs to be renovated and that there’s probably a need for some expansion, and there’s where we’re still negotiating.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “The Capitol Commission has not been advised of anything, and we think they’re probably the most important player in this whole thing.”

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke said the governor and legislative leaders have agreed on some “upper limits” to the project, which Geddes said means “no cost overruns, very strict oversight and control of what happens,” and no willy-nilly change orders. Geddes added, “And I think the fences will stand.”

Jon Hanian, Gov. Butch Otter’s press secretary, said, “I can confirm that we do have an agreement in principle. … It is too preliminary right now for us to say anything.” He added, “There are still a lot of details to sort out, but I think it is fair to say that they’ve achieved a breakthrough.”

The Capitol Commission meets in Boise on Tuesday.

Deal in works on capitol wings?

House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he and other members of legislative leadership will be meeting with Gov. Butch Otter “sometime today” on the capitol wings issue that has stalled the entire renovation of the state Capitol, and put a damper on the opening weeks of Otter’s first legislative session. As part of the dispute, Otter issued a stop-work order on the capitol renovation project that lawmakers and two previous governors approved, after the state already had sold $130 million in bonds and started work. Otter opposed the inclusion of underground “wings” to expand Statehouse office and hearing room space. “I think he has an offer to make to us, and we’ll go from there,” Denney said. “We’re all supposed to meet with him sometime today.”

Grocery tax bills coming

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, says he hasn’t been buried in grocery tax relief proposals, after asking all lawmakers to get him their proposed bills by today. He has Gov. Butch Otter’s bill in hand, and a couple others. “We’ll be having the print hearing middle part of next week, on all the bills we have,” Lake said. “My current expectation is there will be three or four.” He added, “It’ll be interesting, but it’s not going to be as complicated as I thought it would be originally. There’s not that many different ideas out there.”

Conservatives clamor against streamlined sales tax

HB 7, a bill to deepen the state’s involvement in the Streamlined Sales Tax Project that may someday lead to taxing Internet sales, nearly died in the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning when conservative lawmakers clamored to kill it. “This is unconstitutional,” said Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, a tax protester who refused to pay his federal income tax for seven years while unsuccessfully challenging the IRS. “The ability to buy products without a sales tax is an oasis of freedom,” Hart said, according to the Associated Press. But the bill passed on a 9-8 vote.

Ironically, Idaho already requires its residents to pay sales tax on Internet and catalog sales – they’re supposed to report and pay such taxes on their income tax returns. But few do, and it’s not enforced.

With a single vote separating the bill from failure, the Associated Press reported, the health problems of one panel member - Rep. Jim Clark - turned out to be decisive. Clark suffered a minor stroke last Friday, and won’t return before Monday, at the earliest. Had he been there, Clark said, he’d have voted the measure down; a tie would have killed it. “I hate it,” Clark told the AP in a phone interview from his Hayden Lake home. “I think we can take it down on the (House) floor.”

‘Ripe for investigation’

As Supt. Tom Luna proposes a big new state investment in textbooks, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, decried “the overall cost of textbooks,” saying, “It just seems like such a racket out there, and something that’s ripe for investigation.” Luna acknowledged that the costs are high.

Luna has the answers

So far, new state schools Supt. Tom Luna has had the answers when members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee fired questions at him about his budget proposal. First, Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, questioned Luna about his proposal to separate funding for improving technology from remediation for students who are failing the Idaho Standards Achievement Test – a combination that Cameron engineered to force districts to choose which was more important to them. Cameron asked how much of the $9.8 million set aside for the two last year actually got spent on remediation, rather than on upgrading technology. Luna said based on the reports he’s gotten back from districts, it’s “roughly $829,000 spent on remediation. The rest was spent on technology needs.” Luna’s budget for next year proposes $9.8 million just for technology, plus another $6 million for ISAT remediation.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, asked Luna, “What would be the most important effort that you want to pursue, and how could we support that effort?” Cameron cautioned, “Be careful what you ask for.” Luna answered, “What happens in the classroom.” He pointed to his budget proposal for a $24 million “classroom enhancement package” that includes money specifically for textbook purchases, classroom supplies, remediation for kids who are falling behind and college classes for high-performing high school juniors and seniors. “The first step in that direction is the budget I’ve presented to you today. … So I would encourage you to consider it and fund it in its entirety,” he said.

Jorgenson, Clark target urban renewal districts

Two North Idaho lawmakers are going after urban renewal districts, introducing legislation designed to sharply rein them in because of concerns over what Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, calls “taxation without representation.” His two bills, co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, were introduced yesterday in Rev & Tax, but are strongly opposed by leaders of North Idaho urban renewal districts, who call them “misguided legislation.” Read Parker Howell’s full report here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Luna pledges to start Indian ed office

Idaho’s new school superintendent wants to establish an American Indian education office in his department, but not add two positions, as former Supt. Marilyn Howard had recommended. Instead, Luna said he’ll come up with the positions from within existing staff numbers. “There has been talk about creating this position since the early ‘90s. I think it’s now time to move ahead,” Luna told lawmakers.

Kane letter warns Otter is risking ‘millions’

Here’s an interesting letter sent by Idaho Capitol Commission Chairman Jack Kane, the former adjutant general of the Idaho National Guard, to Gov. Butch Otter about the standoff between Otter and the Legislature over the capitol renovation project:

January 23, 2007

Honorable C.L. Butch Otter
State Capitol Building
2nd Floor, West Wing
Boise, Idaho 83720-0034

Dear Governor Otter:

As Chairman of the Idaho Capitol Commission, I wish to express my concerns regarding the delay in implementing the Capitol Master Plan project. If action is not taken quickly to get the project back on track, we risk wasting not only the millions of dollars already spent on the project, but the very real possibility of another year’s delay – a delay that would add millions more in costs to the project. The Capitol Commission has already approved the official Capitol Master Plan which calls for the restoration of the capitol and the construction of atrium wings. This single restoration and expansion plan is based on HCR 47, which the Capitol Commission agreed was the most cost effective yet forward looking solution to this once-in-a-lifetime undertaking.

The Capitol Commission’s long history goes back to the original construction of the building in the early 1900s. The commission was re-established and redefined by statute in 1998. The Governor and the Legislature wisely agreed that a separate commission with sole authority to make decisions about Idaho’s most important building was required in order to take the politics out of those decisions. Idaho Code 67-1608 provides the Idaho Capitol Commission the sole authority to develop a comprehensive master plan for long-range modifications and improvements to the capitol building and its grounds, and that all such projects shall be in conformance with the master plan and may not be implemented without the written consent of the commission.

I stand ready at any time to offer you my assistance as Chairman of the Capitol Commission to facilitate a discussion and quick resolution to the current status of the Capitol Master Plan project. Speaking on behalf of the Commission, I know we would all be willing also to meet with you at your convenience. We are scheduling our January meeting for early next week. Please let me know if I can be of assistance in the meantime.


Major General Jack Kane
Chairman, Idaho Capitol Commission

Cc: Capitol Commission Members

Bonners Ferry was the ‘friendliest’

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s “Idaho Corps of Discovery Passport” program has expired, ending on Dec. 31, 2006, but the rave reviews are still being tallied from Idaho families who took the challenge to visit all 44 counties and get their “passports” stamped in each. The program coincided with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration.

Carl Wilgus, tourism division administrator for the state Commerce Department, said, “The program was a huge success, judging by letters received from those who actually completed the journey.” More than 50,000 “passports” were distributed; nearly 1,000 came back with all the stamps, earning their holders a certificate signed by the governor and a replica of a Lewis and Clark peace medallion.

Wilgus said in a survey of those who completed the program, travelers chose Bonners Ferry as the friendliest town they visited. Favorite historical sites and landmarks were Craters of the Moon, the Cataldo Mission and the City of Rocks.

Here are some of the comments his office received: The Smith family of Rexburg wrote, “My daughter, her son and I took your challenge to see Idaho. Jared was in fourth grade and studied Idaho history. Seeing Idaho really left an impression on him. He says he never wants to move out of Idaho. We all gained a greater appreciation of Idaho and its history.” Barbara Olmstead of Mountain Home wrote in, “I just wanted to write you a quick note to say thank you. My husband and I had the time of our lives on our quest to complete our passports. We saw so many amazing things we would have missed out on had it not been for your great program. The interesting people, weird hotels, historic marvels and road mishaps made for a lifetime of wonderful memories and fabulous stories we’ll treasure forever.”

A bear of a message

Cute little teddy bears dressed in crisp white nurses’ uniforms graced the desks of every JFAC member this morning, as the joint committee heard budget pitches from the College of Southern Idaho and North Idaho College. Both colleges want to expand their nursing education programs. Gov. Butch Otter has recommended funding for new nursing ed buildings at CSI and at LCSC, but not for more faculty, pay and training – though those were recommended by a state nursing task force.

Jerry Beck, CSI president, said nursing students in his campus Surg-Tech Club have been selling the little bears as a fundraiser. They come in various colors and some have little surgical masks or other outfits, but JFAC was presented with all nursing bears. “They’ve been around campus six months,” Beck said, “so they decided they wanted to give members of JFAC something to think about.”

JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, thanked Beck for his presentation at the end of his budget pitch, and added, “Especially thank you for the little nurse – I don’t plan to need one.” That prompted some good-natured murmurs about how everyone needs one eventually.

Otter budget funds nursing buildings, not faculty

Although Gov. Butch Otter wants to spend millions on building new nursing education buildings, his budget includes no funding for $13.6 million in additional faculty, training and pay recommended by a state Nursing Task Force.

“You can’t have one without the other, can you?” asked a surprised Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, who served on the nursing task force.

Otter recommended $37 million to build new nursing education buildings at Lewis-Clark State College and at the College of Southern Idaho. He also included $635,000 in one-time spending in his budget to buy new clinical simulators for all six Idaho institutions that offer nursing education, and to lease some additional space.

“The governor did not address in his recommendation increasing the number of nursing faculty,” said Jane McClaran, Otter’s budget analyst for higher education. “It simply did not fit into his ongoing general fund budget.” Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Sali sponsoring anti-abortion legislation

New Idaho Congressman Bill Sali says he’ll be co-sponsoring a “Right to Life Act” to be introduced in Congress later this week “that affirms the personhood of the unborn.” In a statement, he said, “I promise to be a voice for these small humans – both in Idaho and across the nation.”

Sali is known for pushing an array of anti-abortion legislation during his 16 years in the state Legislature, though much of it was struck down by courts as unconstitutional. In his campaign for Congress, he said he’d continue to work on the abortion issue, but downplayed it in favor of focusing on immigration issues and federal spending.

NIC Prez Burke praised by lawmakers

North Idaho Reps. Bob Nonini and Marge Chadderdon, both Coeur d’Alene Republicans, heaped praise on outgoing North Idaho College President Michael Burke today, as he addressed the House Education Committee to tell the members about NIC and what it’s up to. Burke leaves in March to head a college in California.

Nonini, the committee’s chairman, told Burke he’ll “always have friends in North Idaho,” reports S-R reporter Parker Howell, who covered the meeting. “You’ve been great for Coeur d’Alene, great for the community, great for the state of Idaho. You set a mark in my opinion that other university administrators and presidents can achieve to,” Nonini said.

Chadderdon said she often attends events on the NIC campus during summer. “It’s quite social,” she said. “It really never ever eludes the fact that all of a sudden you’ll see Dr. Burke or his family, someone there representing the college. I’m always impressed how much you care for the activities,” even though they are outside the realm of academics.

Burke said it was a privilege for him to serve as president for nine years. “These are extraordinary institutions led by extraordinary people,” he said.

Where a community college education can lead…

Asked about community colleges, University of Idaho President Tim White said he started his own higher education at one, which at that time was called a junior college. “I am a personal testimony to the power of that level of education,” he said.

Seven miles away, 20 percent more pay…

Idaho’s higher education leaders talk a lot about how their faculty salaries lag behind comparable institutions in the region. The University of Idaho has a particular problem competing with Washington State University, UI President Tim White said, because it’s just 7 miles away, but has a faculty salary structure that’s “15 to 20 percent higher than ours.” In looking at faculty turnover, he said, “In every case where we lose somebody who we don’t want to lose, salaries and benefits are often the leading concern.”

UI attracting first-generation students

University of Idaho President Tim White told legislative budget writers this morning that 37 percent of new freshmen who enroll at the U of I are the first generation in their families to go to college. “That’s a proud statistic for me,” he said, noting that he is an immigrant and was himself the first generation of his family to go to college. “I always joke that I’ll be the last to leave,” he said to chuckles.

They agree - Gould is tough, smart

Former state Rep. Celia Gould, R-Buhl, won unanimous confirmation from the Senate this morning as the new state director of agriculture. Senators noted her qualifications, including an extensive background in agriculture and service in the Legislature from 1986 to 2002. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, recalled a time when she stood up to him on an issue. “She certainly brings with her an ability to make her wishes known,” he said. Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, said, “Somebody asked me if she’s tough enough to head the Department of Agriculture – there’s your answer. She is not only tough but she is smart, and she will do well at the Department of Agriculture.”

The one thing

If there were just one thing he could ask for, BSU President Bob Kustra told legislative budget writers this morning, it would be to preserve the proportion of state general fund support in the university’s budget. “Please keep that 28 percent where it is today,” he told lawmakers. “If that general fund continues to decline, then your questions are going to get tougher – why are our students paying more, why are they leaving the state. … I know the days are long gone when universities could count on 40 or 50 percent.” But the current level of state funding is “what we need to do the job we do today, and if it goes down, that makes life very difficult indeed,” he said.

He can do it all

JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, marveled over the distinguished background of Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas, which she noted includes kinesiology, orthopedic surgery and poultry science. “So if you have a chicken with a bad foot…” she said to laughter. Vailas was in to make his budget pitch to JFAC on behalf of ISU.

No resolution yet on Statehouse wings standoff

Gov. Butch Otter met with legislative leaders from both parties and both houses this afternoon for an hour and a half, but there’s still no resolution to the standoff between the governor and the Legislature over expansion of the Statehouse. The meeting included experts involved with the project and a PowerPoint presentation. “I think one of the main purposes of this meeting was to get everyone on the same page in terms of the … information that was used by the Legislature in reaching the conclusions it reached,” said Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director. “Beyond that, it was a discussion between the people involved about where we go from here. No resolutions were reached, no conclusions were reached. … I think everybody’s described it as useful and productive.”

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, said lawmakers have been studying and debating the issue since 1995, and it makes sense to bring Otter up to date on the factors that led them to settle on building underground wings to expand Statehouse hearing rooms and office space. The project was in the early stages of site preparation – $130 million in bonds have been sold for the Statehouse renovation and expansion – when Otter issued a stop-work order last Friday.

Seeing evil

One Boise attorney who sat in on the arraignment of convicted killer Joseph Duncan this morning in a Boise courtroom said he came because he wanted to “see evil.” Joseph Edward Duncan is accused of the most heinous and horrifying of crimes, the kidnapping and murders of a Coeur d’Alene family, and the kidnapping, torture and molesting of two of their young children for seven weeks before killing one. Only young Shasta Groene survived the harrowing ordeal.

Today, Duncan was arraigned in federal district court in Boise on a 10-count federal indictment. He’s already been convicted of kidnapping and murder on state charges for the slayings of three family members. The federal charges involve the two young children, whom he took across state lines into Montana; the maximum penalties include both death and life in prison several times over.

Dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and canvas sneakers, Duncan appeared very pale, and his curly hair was wispy and appeared to be thinning or graying on top. Wide-eyed, Duncan squirmed, fidgeted, and looked alternately at the judge, the papers in front of him, and the courtroom ceiling as the charges against him were read.

When the judge asked if he was entering a not-guilty plea – a standard procedure at that point in an arraignment – the convicted killer balked. “Oh, that’s not right, that’s not right,” Duncan blurted out, as his defense attorney, Thomas Monaghan, sought to quiet him. The two conferred, and Monaghan told federal Magistrate Judge Mikel Williams that the defendant would remain silent, and “we’d ask the court to enter pleas of not guilty at this time.”

Williams set Duncan’s trial to start at 9:30 a.m. on March 20th, before U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge in Boise.

Luna unveils budget proposal

New state schools Superintendent Tom Luna unveiled a $1.38 billion budget request for public schools today that calls for funding 3 percent in raises for teachers next year and making new state investments into classroom supplies and textbooks. “This budget supports our teachers in a new and bold way,” Luna said, noting that he’d raise the minimum teacher salary to $31,000 from the current $30,000.

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said, “We know that inflation is 3.8 percent, and so for educators to realize any actual money, that’s not going to happen. So we’re hoping that the Legislature will work to increase the 3 percent to something better.” Lawmakers have been talking about 5 percent raises for other state employees next year, though no decision has been made yet. Gov. Butch Otter called for 5 percent in merit raises, but making state workers cover increases in their benefit costs.

For schools, Luna’s budget reflects an overall 7 percent increase over this year’s general fund budget for education, but just a 1 percent increase in discretionary funding to school districts. “We need to make sure that the classroom environment is the focus of the new spending,” Luna said. The plan includes a $24 million “classroom enhancement package” to direct state funding specifically to textbook purchases, classroom supplies, remediation for kids who are falling behind and college classes for high-performing high school juniors and seniors. Luna will pitch the plan to legislative budget writers next week; read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Annual BSU public policy survey released

The annual BSU Public Policy Survey was released this morning, and among its findings was this: 70 percent of Idahoans in the survey said they agree that the state should adopt an “English only policy.” The number was even higher in North Idaho – 75.4 percent. Here are some of the other findings: There was little agreement on whether or not Idaho should ban elk farms; 80 percent said libraries are “very important;” 62 percent think additional public funds should be used to help provide health insurance to those who can’t afford it; and 60 percent said the state is headed in the right direction, down from just under 64 percent last year.

Idaho tribal leaders weigh in on courthouse murals

After viewing controversial murals in the Ada County Courthouse, slated to temporarily house the Idaho Legislature next year, members of the state’s tribes seemed to agree the paintings should be preserved – just not necessarily where they are now, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell.
North Idaho tribal representatives and lawmakers toured the courthouse Wednesday, part of an unprecedented move by legislators to ask the tribes what to do with the murals, the most contentious of which depicts a Native American man about to be hanged by armed whites.

Some native members of the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs said the lynching mural, while not based on a specific event in Idaho history, represents the oppression of their ancestors, while another said it is simply offensive.

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and council vice chairman, said he favors removing the murals, or at least installing interpretive signs. If a guest came into his house and noticed something offensive, he would take it down, he said. Read Howell’s full story in today’s Spokesman-Review.

‘I wasn’t trying to duck the vote’

OK, why did Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, disappear shortly before the debate and vote on the BSU Broncos resolution in the House today? It turns out he had two people waiting for him – a senator and a staffer for the governor – to talk about legislation regarding state anti-drug efforts, including a new office of drug control policy (now known as the drug czar). “I wasn’t trying to duck the vote,” said Clark, who’s the new House Judiciary Committee chairman. “I just didn’t want to keep those two guys waiting on me – especially since I’m trying to have a good working relationship with the governor’s office.”

Idaho House honors BSU Broncos

The Idaho House just voted unanimously for a resolution honoring the Boise State Broncos on their Fiesta Bowl win. HCR 7 passed on a unanimous, 68-0 vote. During the debate on the resolution, Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, sang a line from the state song, “Here We Have Idaho.” House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, stood and draped a lighted, blue and orange feather boa around her shoulders and waved an orange and blue pompon. Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, called the Bronco win “a victory that reflects the entire state,” but noted that the song Nielsen sang “was written by a Vandal.” Amid laughter, House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “That’s non-debatable,” as House Majority Leader Mike Moyle rose to talk. “I was gonna object,” Moyle said, before telling his own story of going to the game and even getting high-fives and hugs afterward from Oklahoma fans.

New Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said as a graduate student at BSU, he’s seen how great the institution is from the inside. “I think if they cut me open my blood would be blue all the way through,” he said, adding, “I hope that Boise State and the other universities in the state of Idaho are given the opportunity to shine not only on the athletic field but in the academic arena as well.”

As the voting board lit up with green lights for the “yes” votes, one, that of Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, briefly lit up red. Harwood laughed and quickly changed it to green, and it was unanimous.

Battle brewing over substance abuse funding

A battle is brewing between legislators and Gov. Butch Otter, after Otter recommended no funding at all in his budget for substance abuse services now being covered by a soon-to-expire federal grant. Lawmakers from throughout the state have been working on the substance abuse issue for several years, and a joint committee that met over the summer has extensive recommendations for expansion of the state’s efforts in that area.

“We’ve had a number of legislators meeting all summer long, trying to come up with solutions regarding mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “And yet the governor’s budget seems to go backward from last year’s effort.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the Senate Finance vice-chair, said, “It’s critically important.” With treatment, she said, “We have seen that the results are tremendous. If we’re concerned about building prisons and the money that takes away from other areas like education, we need to pay attention to the success we’ve seen from our substance abuse efforts and fully fund those.”

The state Health and Welfare Department requested $6.5 million in next year’s budget, and 33 new positions, to replace the federal Access to Recovery grant that’s funded contracted substance abuse treatment services in Idaho for the past three years. The agency also asked for an additional $6 million and 14 more positions to expand those services. Otter didn’t recommend a penny for either request. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the budget on Tuesday; read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Capitol renovation talks: ‘A lot more discussion to do’

Gov. Butch Otter met with House and Senate majority leadership today on the standoff over the capitol renovation project. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said, “We had a frank discussion about our differences, and how the renovation and expansion of the capitol ought to proceed, and of course it centered around the legislative proposals for wings vs. the governor’s concern about the need for those wings. We aired our positions frankly, and agreed to meet later this week to broaden those discussions.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “I think we’ve got a lot more discussion to do, and I think in the next couple of weeks we will come to some resolution.”

Mark Warbis, the governor’s communications manager, said the governor is also talking with legislators in everything from “casual meetings in the corridors” to telephone calls. “It’s truly a discussion, not a negotiation or a series of meetings. It’s a discussion.”

Meanwhile, concerns are beginning to mount about what penalties, fees and damages the state could face as a result of Otter’s stop-work order on Friday on the renovation project, which cut off work by three contractors who were hard at work on the capitol grounds. Otter supports the renovation of the state capitol, but opposes the addition of underground “wings,” which lawmakers approved last year to add more meeting and office space to the historic but often crowded capitol. The state already has sold $130 million in bonds to finance the project, which includes both the renovation and the wings.

Whoops, not THAT Steve Kren

The governor’s office is making a correction – it turns out the Steve Kren that Gov. Otter appointed to the Legislature is NOT a Nampa city councilman – he’s the son of the Nampa city councilman who shares his name. “It happens all the time, I am told, because they’re both involved in politics, they’re both in Nampa, and they’re both named Steve Kren,” said a just slightly red-faced Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director.

Warbis said Otter wasn’t confused about which Steve Kren he appointed – he appointed the son, who is under 30 and who was nominated by a party district committee. “There was no confusion about that – it was only confusion about that information,” he said.

Capitol renovation talks are on

Gov. Butch Otter is meeting with at least some legislative leaders this morning to discuss their standoff over the addition of underground “wings” to the state capitol, but Otter’s communications director, Mark Warbis, said Otter will be talking with many legislators informally about the issue. That’s how Otter works, Warbis said.

Otter issued a stop-work order on the capitol renovation project on Friday, just as construction workers had set up fences on the capitol grounds and were preparing for preliminary site work for the wings. Lawmakers debated for years before settling on the underground wing plan last year to expand the capitol, in which people straining to hear spill out of crowded hearing rooms whenever a legislative committee debates something important. The additions are part of a renovation of the historic, but deteriorating, capitol building that’s scheduled to be completed in time for the 2010 legislative session. Otter’s stop-work order has raised fears among legislators of throwing off both the schedule and the budget for the project, for which $130 million in bonds already have been sold.

He took ‘road less traveled’

State Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong opened his JFAC presentation this morning by noting that he retired in June after 36 years with Blue Cross of Idaho, but his retirement only lasted as week – as he was then appointed director of the state’s largest department by then-Gov. Jim Risch. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, told Armstrong, “As you had a choice of what you were going to do when you retired, thank you for taking the road less traveled.”

Otter plan would eliminate many state employees’ jobs

Idaho will eliminate 94 state employees’ jobs under a governmental reorganization plan Gov. Butch Otter wants in place by July 1, and dozens more will have to reapply for a chance at new versions of their old jobs. “I am proposing significantly reprioritizing and restructuring state government,” Otter said in his State of the State message.

The details of what that means are just now becoming clear: Otter wants to “devolve” or eliminate two state agencies, the 180-employee Department of Administration, and the 36-employee Division of Human Resources. Those agencies’ functions would be parceled out to other state agencies or contracted to the private sector. In the process, 94 state jobs would be eliminated, while more than 100 others would change and move to other agencies. Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Celebrating Martin Luther King’s legacy

Here’s a dispatch from S-R reporter Parker Howell on the festivities today in the state Capitol for Martin Luther King Jr.-Idaho Human Rights Day:

Instructed to tell one truth and one lie about himself to a small group of Idahoans this afternoon, Gov. Butch Otter paused to think. “I am always right,” he said with a grin. “And in being always right … this is too obvious.”

The members of Otter’s group, participants in a “Mix It Up” activity in the Statehouse rotunda, were later surprised to learn that he really was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. The “Mix It Up” program, recently used by students at Weiser High School, aims to help people make connections across social barriers.

Otter and a few legislators participated in the event as part of a ceremony to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Although state and federal workers take the day off, the Idaho Legislature keeps working. During a short speech, Otter signed a proclamation declaring today “Martin Luther King Jr. Idaho Human Rights Day.” He reminded listeners about the importance of voluntarism and community service and urged them to reaffirm principles of freedom and justice for all.

The Idaho Voices for Diversity choir twice sang “Don’t Laugh at Me,” and keynote speaker Dr. Vincent Kituku, a native of Kenya, urged audience members to take action. “Human rights is not just words,” he said, his voice echoing around the marble chamber.

The annual ceremony inside the Capitol followed a march from the Boise State University campus to the Capitol steps, where hundreds gathered to listen to speakers. Many held signs celebrating peace and tolerance.

Nonini offers tribute to Burke

Today was Dr. Michael Burke’s ninth, and last, time hosting lawmakers at an annual pizza lunch sponsored by the state’s two community colleges. Burke, president of North Idaho College, didn’t mention his upcoming departure – he’ll start a new job at a California college in March – but Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, rose during the question-and-answer period to point it out. “He has done a great job in North Idaho,” Nonini said, and led a loud round of applause for the outgoing president. His voice breaking just a little, Burke responded, “It is hard to leave, to be honest with you. Thank you, Bob.”

More out-of-pocket costs for state employees

Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Brad Foltman, is briefing the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning on Otter’s proposed budget. Among the details he’s revealed: Otter’s plan to give merit-based raises averaging 5 percent to state employees but hold benefit costs neutral could mean state workers pay more for their health insurance. “For the employee, there is a very high likelihood that those with many dependents will see a change in their costs,” Foltman told the panel. “It could mean the deductibles are higher, co-payments.” The increases will be similar to what people across the country face in their health insurance costs, Foltman said. “We think it’s important to maintain the coverage that we have. … It does reflect the governor’s desire to have more personal responsibility evident in how people utilize those services.”

Governor issues stop-work order

Gov. Butch Otter has issued a stop-work order on the the capitol renovation project, including the construction of underground “wings.” His office confirmed this afternoon that the construction contract includes a five-day notice provision to stop work, and Otter issued that five-day notice today. “The governor did ask them to stop work,” said his press secretary, Jon Hanian. “Discussions with the Legislature are ongoing as to the future of the project.”

Otter didn’t mention the Statehouse renovation project in his State of the State address, but he tucked an item into his budget calling for proceeding with the renovation but not the addition of two underground “wings” designed to add public meeting and office space to the historic building, and to instead “hold in abeyance” the wings idea. The change would move the annual bond payments down from $20.1 million to $17.6 million, according to Otter’s budget. Lawmakers who debated for seven years before settling on the “wings” approach haven’t been happy about Otter’s proposal, and some have suggested it could cost the state more money than just proceeding with the plan that’s already in place.

Construction fences went up all around the capitol within the past two days, to allow for site preparation for the excavation required for the new wings. “They had to begin to keep the project on schedule,” said Gary Daniel, communications coordinator for the state Capitol Commission. But heavy equipment that had been working outside the capitol has stopped, and now there’s nary a worker around.

Otter appoints Hagedorn to House

Marv Hagedorn of Meridian, who lost to Rep. Mark Snodgrass, R-Meridian, in the GOP primary in District 20 last spring, has been appointed to the House by Gov. Butch Otter to replace Rep. Shirley McKague, who was appointed to the Senate. Hagedorn, who is vice chairman of Idaho Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, took 40.8 percent of the vote to Snodgrass’ 59.2 percent in the primary. Now the two will represent the same district.

Otter says he’d like to shoot a wolf

“I’m prepared to bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself,” Gov. Butch Otter declared to cheers at a snowy sportsmen’s rally on the state Capitol steps just now. Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife-Idaho organized the event to rally for immediate wolf delisting from the endangered species act. As part of the event, Otter signed a proclamation declaring today to be “Idaho Sportsman’s Day.”

Lots of folks in bright-orange caps, some carrying signs, are gathered out in the snowy weather for the rally. The group also has launched a petition drive.

Sali proposes suspending the law of gravity

New Idaho Congressman Bill Sali stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday and proposed a bill to reduce gravity by 10 percent to combat obesity – a bill he had all prepared, in his hand – saying that was no more unreasonable than the Democratic legislation to raise the minimum wage. Both, he said, defy “natural laws.” It’s a rhetorical tactic Sali’s used before in the Idaho Legislature, and now has brought out on the national scene. The minimum wage bill passed, however. Read Parker Howell’s full report here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Otter: Idaho Guard should not be called

Governor Butch Otter just issued this statement, in advance of President Bush’s nationally televised address tonight:

“Idahoans serving with my old outfit, the Idaho Army National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade, spent 18 months deployed for their mission in Iraq.

“DOD regulations state that units may not be deployed more than 24 months over a five-year period. That would suggest the 116th has only six months left before exceeding the two-year limit. As most units sent to Iraq are staying longer than six months, I think it unlikely the 116th will get that call.

“Additionally, many of the unit’s equipment needs have not been addressed since returning from Iraq. Members also are in the middle of transitioning from tanks to armored personnel carriers, and that training is still underway.

“For all of these reasons I believe it unlikely that the 116th will be recalled for active duty in Iraq. Idaho families already have made tremendous personal sacrifices for this war. I would certainly make a personal and persuasive argument to the President that our men and women have gone above and beyond.

“However, if the order comes, the men and women of the Idaho National Guard have told me they will answer the call to duty as they always have, once again proving that we owe them all an incalculable debt of gratitude.”

Lawmakers see the real thing inside state prisons

Space for housing the severely mentally ill and rehabilitating drug offenders is lacking in Idaho prisons, legislators learned firsthand Tuesday on a tour of state lockups south of Boise. Two dozen lawmakers visited a crowded mental health ward, talked with inmates in a coveted treatment program and toured a semi-permanent but flimsy structure housing inmates – similar to a new one Gov. Butch Otter has proposed building this year. S-R reporter Parker Howell went along on the tour; read his full report in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Big Bronco parade will be on the 20th

Boise State University has announced plans for a parade and a “Statehouse Salute” to the Bronco football team for its Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win and undefeated season, all on Jan. 20th, a Saturday. Details still are being settled, but the parade, which is being planned in cooperation with the governor’s office and the Boise mayor’s office, is set to start at 3 p.m. It’ll go from the Boise State campus to the state Capitol, where the “Statehouse Salute” will be held on the Capitol steps. That’ll be followed by an autograph session with Bronco players and coaches from 5-7 p.m. at Boise State in the Caven-Williams Sports Complex, with the Fiesta Bowl trophy on display. Right after that, the Bronco men’s basketball team plays Hawaii at Taco Bell arena; a ceremony honoring head football coach Chris Petersen and the Broncos will be held at halftime.

Dems say they’re ready to work with Otter

Minority Democrats from both the House and the Senate gathered today to give their response to Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message and budget proposals. Overall, they said they’re ready to work with the new GOP guv. “While we are Democrats and Republicans, in our hearts we are all Idahoans, and we want to make the best public policy for the broadest range of people,” said Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

One sign of that already? “We spent a great deal of time yesterday, (House Minority Leader) Wendy (Jaquet) and I did, with the governor,” Stennett said. “We asked him for 10 minutes, and walked out an hour and 10 minutes later.” Jaquet added, “He said he’s unlocked all the doors, and he had.” The two said the new governor appears to be open to working with them. “He did give us his cell phone,” Stennett said. “That’s not something we’ve had from our previous governors.”

Stennett said Democratic caucuses will be guided by three “overriding values” this session: “Protecting Idaho’s way of life, standing up for the middle class, and making government more responsible and responsive to the voters.” He added, “We hope that despite some differences, our Republican colleagues will join with us in upholding these principles.”

He and Jaquet, D-Ketchum, outlined some of those differences, including the food tax (“Why don’t we just stop taxing food?” Jaquet asked), education (the Dems are focusing on early childhood education and Stennett said, “Unfortunately, Gov. Otter made no mention of the importance of this emerging key reform that is needed in Idaho’s education system”), and energy (Jaquet called for a focus on alternative energy sources and state oversight of power plant siting). The Democrats came out in favor of Otter’s proposal for community colleges, including allowing community college districts to be formed by a 60 percent vote, rather than a two-thirds supermajority, if the vote takes place at a general election. They also called for health care reform, a higher minimum wage and a ban on “shooter bull” operations, and opposed “massive tax giveaways to big business at the expense of the middle class.”

Governor’s agenda is before lawmakers

An ebullient Gov. Butch Otter laid out his vision for Idaho on Monday, calling for $22 million in credits to mitigate the sales tax on groceries for low-income residents, eliminating a large state agency, and moving to a “pay as you go” approach for new buildings and other new initiatives. Read the full story in today’s Spokesman-Review.

‘My door is always open’

At the conclusion of his first State of the State message, new Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers, “I want each of you to know that my door is always open, and I am eager for your insight and perspectives.” He had taken pains throughout his speech to name individual legislative chairmen who he said he’d work with on his proposals, and reached out to lawmakers “on both sides of the aisle.” He concluded, “Please join me in working to make Idaho even better. Together, we can prepare Idaho to become what America was meant to be.”

Was it a joke?

There was a little pause after Gov. Otter, after talking about his plan for a new “sprung structure” to help house Idaho’s overflowing prison inmate population, said this: “In addition, I will ask Chairmen Darrington and Clark to join me in exploring other innovative ways to address prison crowding – including the Pro Tem’s idea for hot-bunking.” Then, Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, whose suggestion last year that “hot cots” – the idea of having inmates sleep in shifts, thus using fewer beds – was a viable option for prison crowding drew widespread publicity, started clapping loudly, and chuckling lawmakers joined in.

Education proposals

Otter just told lawmakers he’ll recommend a public school budget of more than $1.36 billion in general funds. For colleges and universities, he’s calling for $275.6 million, including $12.9 million to help make salaries more competitive. “And speaking of universities, how about those Broncos?!” he asked to loud applause.

But an even longer and more sustained round of applause followed Otter’s announcement that he’s recommending spending $38 million in state money to create an endowment for needs-based scholarships for Idaho students headed to Idaho colleges. That endowment would provide $2 million a year in scholarships from its earnings.

Otter also called for a $5 million “carrot” to encourage the formation of a new community college district, such as one for the Boise area.

He also called for fully funding former Gov. Jim Risch’s nursing education initiative – not by bonding for half of it, as Risch has suggested, but by paying for the whole $37 million up-front.

Otter wants 5 percent for state workers

Idaho’s state employees are underpaid, new Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers. “For too long we’ve shorted them on pay and then padded their benefits. To begin changing that, it’s my recommendation that we fully fund a 5 percent merit-based increase in employee compensation.” He said he looks forward to working with legislative committee chairmen to get that done – and at that, he drew strong applause.

Gov’s first applause line: ‘It’s great to be back’

Gov. Butch Otter was ebullient as he entered the House chamber, greeting legislators with hugs and handshakes. His first applause line was an enthusiastic, “It’s great to be back!” He also drew a laugh by telling freshman lawmakers, “I’ll do everything I can to make sure your time here goes smoothly, and I hope you’ll do the same for me!”

Full plate of issues

The state Legislature convenes its annual session today with a full plate of issues. It’ll all be kicked off at 1 p.m. today (noon Pacific time) with Gov. Butch Otter’s first State of the State message, in which he’ll also unveil his state budget. You can watch live at To read about the issues facing the legislators as they begin their session, click here for The Spokesman-Review’s Sunday report. Click here for a report on how you can watch the Legislature live all session, and here for how to contact North Idaho legislators.

It turns out Al Gore is really popular in Boise – at least now

Idaho didn’t give Al Gore much support when he ran for president – he tallied 27.6 percent in the state in 2000 to George W. Bush’s 67.2 percent – but Gore’s upcoming lecture at Boise State is such a hot ticket that BSU’s Frank Church Institute announced today it’ll move the talk to the giant Taco Bell Arena.

All the tickets for event, when it was scheduled for the Jordan Ballroom, had sold out in 10 minutes. Gore will speak on Jan. 22nd at 7 p.m., on “Global Warming: Beyond the Inconvenient Truth.”

The institute said that all the earlier free tickets that were distributed will be honored, and those who paid for reserved seating will be seated in a special section on the floor of the arena. Also, 1,000 free tickets have been set aside for BSU students. Tickets for the arena lecture will be $5, and will be available beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Taco Bell Arena Box Office, at (208) 426-1766, at all Select-a-Seat locations, and online at

Reason to cheer

Major General Larry LaFrenz, adjutant general of the Idaho National Guard, served as master of ceremonies for today’s inaugural. At the end of the program, after inviting the public to a reception in the governor’s office, LaFrenz had his own big applause line: “Thank you so much for attending, and how ‘bout them Broncos??”

It’s the very same number…

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, after the loud blasts of the 19-gun salute that marked the inauguration of new Gov. Butch Otter, wondered to friends, “Is there any relationship between the 19 shots and the number of Democrats in the House?” There are now 19 Democrats in that chamber. Laughing, she asked, “Are they trying to pick us off one at a time?”

New guv won’t try to compete with football championship

For years, the governor’s State of the State speech was given around mid-day, not long after the Legislature’s official convening of its session at noon. But the last few years former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne moved the big speech to an evening time slot, smack in the middle of prime time. That’s changing this year – Gov. Otter has scheduled his address to a joint session of the Legislature for 1 p.m. on Monday.

His communications director, Mark Warbis, said, “I don’t know that this is entirely the reason, but I think one of the main reasons is that is the night of the national championship game for college football – and there’s much less likelihood of people watching it if we’re up against that.”

It’s Senator McKague

Gov. Butch Otter has named the replacement for Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, who resigned to work for new Congressman Bill Sali: It’s longtime state Rep. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian. McKague, a conservative, has served quietly in the House for the past decade. She’s a Nampa High School graduate, retired legal secretary and former service station owner. Otter said, “Representative McKague has been a stalwart, reliable and hard-working member of the House. Senator McKague will bring those same qualities to representing her constituents in the Idaho Senate. She is a public servant in the best tradition of a citizen legislator, and I’m proud to make this appointment.”

The appointment now kicks off a new round of reshuffling, as the new senator lacks the seniority to nab former Sen. Sweet’s committee assignments, including a JFAC seat. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes said he anticipates various shuffling around among committee positions as a result, which will happen on Monday, the first day the Legislature convenes.

The appointment also means Otter will need to choose a replacement for McKague in the House, based on nominations from a party committee from her district. That will all happen within the next 30 days.

Overflow seating added

With such high interest in the Jan. 22 Al Gore global warming lecture at BSU, the university has just announced that it’ll make available free overflow seating for those who want to watch a live video feed of the lecture. That’ll be in the Special Events Center and the Lookout Room, both of which are also in the BSU student union, where the lecture will take place in the Jordan Ballroom.

Getting ready to have a ball

Possibly the coolest thing about Idaho’s traditional Inaugural Ball, which is coming up on Saturday at 7 p.m., is that it really is open to the public. Tickets are $20 for everyone – even for legislators and their spouses who will be participating in the formal processional led by the new governor and first lady down through the rotunda of the Capitol. Formal dress is optional – but, of course, oh, so appropriate. Doors open at 7, and the “Grand March” starts at 8. All the money from the ticket sales goes to the Inaugural Ball Fund, a non-partisan fund that puts these things on when a new governor is elected. The 25th Army Band will play, and a photographer will be on hand for those who want to purchase photos to remember the evening. Tickets can be purchased online or in the state Capitol, first floor, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, or by calling the Coeur d’Alene or Idaho Falls offices of the governor (that’s 292-2521 in CdA, 557-2500 ext. 3760 in I.F.).

The ball follows the public swearing-in of new Gov. Butch Otter on Friday at noon on the steps of the Capitol, a free event. Other planned inaugural events include a country-western concert at the Morrison Center on Friday night ($35 tickets) and a “Black Tie and Boots Ball” at BSU organized by the Idaho Republican Party later on Saturday evening. The word is that when country star Josh Turner performs on Friday night, a certain cowboy governor might be invited up on stage to croon along.

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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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