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Eye On Boise

Archive for March 2007

The session that was

Frustrated lawmakers are heading home from their three-month legislative session without the one thing many had as their top priority to accomplish this year: Relief from the sales tax on groceries. Read the full story here on our overview of this year’s just-concluded legislative session. And don’t forget some of the memorable quotes from this year’s session; check out Parker Howell’s compilation here.

Settlement reached in University Place scandal

Boise attorneys Roy Eiguren and L. Edward Miller will keep their licenses to practice law and no longer face charges stemming from their involvement in the University Place saga, the Idaho Business Review reports. The agreement between the attorneys and the Idaho State Bar was filed today; read the full story here.

‘Last bill – maybe – of the session’

The House is now debating HB 336, the compromise highway bonding bill. “We’re to the last bill – maybe – of the session,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle told the House.

An ode to the 2007 Idaho Legislature

Out on the Moyle highway
You’ll need no social engineer
It’s a slippery slope where they tax your food
And the end of the session is near.

There will be no smoking while bowling
But they’ll try to keep mom at home
Here at the Idaho Statehouse
Mini-wings will sprout from the dome.

So watch for the nose of that camel
It’s poking right under your tent
Sit back and enjoy the politics
And watch where your tax dollars went.

- Betsy Z. Russell

House Appropriations Committee meets

The House Appropriations Committee, the House half of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, is meeting now to consider introducing the new highway bonding bill. The bill sets a maximum of $250 million for GARVEE bonding for next year, and lists the six highway projects but gives ranges, rather then set amounts, for each. For the Garwood to Sagle project on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho, the range is from a minimum of $23 million to a maximum of $77.1 million. For the Worley North project on Highway 95, it’s $11.2 million to $12 million. State Highway 16 from I-84 to Emmett ranges from $4.3 million to $17 million; I-84 from Caldwell to Meridian ranges from $58.1 million to $126 million; and I-84 from Orchard to Isaacs Canyon ranges from $28 million to $30 million. The McCammon to Lava Hot Springs project ranges from $38.4 million to $40 million.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said he wanted to be clear that by having those dollar ranges in there, he could assure his constituents in North Idaho that at least $23 million will be available for land acquisition for the Garwood to Sagle project. “Correct?” he asked. “That’s correct,” responded legislative budget analyst Eric Milstead.

Committee Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, almost called for a vote before noticing that Rep. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, who was sitting by himself at his regular JFAC desk far off to one side of the room, had a question. When she apologized, he responded, “It is a very big room for a small number of people.”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, moved to introduce the bill and send it to the House’s 2nd reading calendar, and Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, seconded the motion. It then passed unanimously, 8-0.

Still waiting…

Both houses have taken a lunch break, and are scheduled to come back into session at 1:30. Perhaps then we’ll know if they can come together today on a highway bonding plan and end the legislative session, now in its 82nd day…

Possible new GARVEE number: $250 million

The draft that’s being considered by lawmakers to settle the standoff over GARVEE highway bonding has a different total than the two bills that died earlier. It’s $250 million. The last two proposals totaled $246 million, and the governor’s original proposal totaled $264 million. The $250 million reflects the ranges added for possible spending on each project, but is nowhere near enough to spend the top possible amount for each project. Instead, it’s a figure in the middle. The total of the low ends of the ranges for each project is $163 million. The total of the high ends of the ranges for each project is $302 million. But the bill would limit GARVEE bonding to more than $250 million, with each project’s spending to fall within its range.

The waiting game

With legislative leaders working on a compromise on a highway bonding plan, most rank-and-file members have been left sitting around, waiting. So, what do to? Here, Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, tries some Sudoku on the computer.

Leadership emerges with possible compromise

House and Senate GOP leaders just emerged from two hours of closed-door meetings saying they have a compromise proposal on highway bonding. Now, “We’ll go to caucus,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. The proposal is acceptable to leadership on both sides, “contingent upon whether or not we can sell it to our caucuses – which both sides may be in trouble,” Denney said with a chuckle. GOP caucuses will meet behind closed doors. If the caucuses accept the plan, he said, “Then we (leadership) will have to meet again to discuss procedure.”

How to get something big out of the capitol

When they took down the giant murals on the fourth floor of the Capitol yesterday, it was clear they wouldn’t go down the winding stairways of the rotunda, so the murals were lowered down through the center of the rotunda with ropes. With lawmakers at an impasse and the overdue legislative session dragging on, that prompted suggestions that perhaps the same technique could be used on them as a way to extract them from the capitol…

Don’t forget the float tubes, kayaks and rafts

Let me get this straight. Our libertarian, less-government governor now is interested in having Idaho license canoes? That idea was basically shouted out of the Legislature the last time it was proposed. But today, Gov. Butch Otter allowed HB 200, raising boat registration fees, to become law without his signature, and issued a statement saying that the bill was “not adequately inclusive of all Idaho recreational watercraft users.” Only users of motorized watercraft have to pay, Otter noted. “My office will work with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and user groups to identify a more fair and equitable way of addressing such recreational watercraft costs as facilities maintenance, rescue operations, rules compliance, parking and access,” he wrote.

They’re talking…

Talks between House and Senate leaders and the governor appear to be bearing some fruit, possibly in the form of a new version of the GARVEE highway bonding bill. “We’ve all been down in the governor’s office,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “Now the House knows the Senate doesn’t want to go down that road. … Now it’s time for us to step up and strike a compromise.” In the Senate a few minutes ago, several North Idaho senators hurried to assure Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, that they “really do like GARVEE,” they just didn’t like the bill they helped vote down. Davis hinted that some kind of resurrection is in the works, or at least in its early stages…

Senate kills GARVEE bill

After two hours of tense debate, the Senate has voted 23-12 to kill a controversial highway bonding plan that pitted the House against the Senate. The defeat, which throws into doubt the plans to wrap up this year’s legislative session today, came because the bill listed specific road projects and specific dollar amounts for each – the opposite of what Gov. Butch Otter called for at the opening of this year’s legislative session, when he said those decisions should be left to experts, not politicians.

North Idaho senators argued strongly against the bill, saying it takes the state down a dangerous road toward politically picking road projects and letting lawmakers direct state dollars right to their districts.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “The people of Idaho need to understand that this project list was developed by a small handful of legislators and a private contractor. This project list and dollar amounts were not approved by the Idaho Transportation Department and the Idaho Transportation Board.”

Keough noted that one Treasure Valley project, on state Highway 16 from Emmett to I-84, gets $17 million next year under the bill. The original GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonding plan envisioned just $4 million this year for that project, and a total of just over $9 million throughout the program. She asked how that project grew so much. “It did not go through ITD, it did not go through the ITD board,” she said. Some say the project is ready to go, but that’s true of many projects around the state, Keough said. “I can pull out five. But my project and your project weren’t represented at that table with a small group of people and a private contractor for the state.”

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “It’s a trophy bill for the Treasure Valley.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s long been a proponent of bonding to fund major improvements to Idaho highways, including Highway 95, the state’s only north-south route. But Goedde said he voted for GARVEE bonding last year for the wrong reason – because North Idaho would get lots of money. “I’m here to tell you I was wrong,” he said. This year’s bill sends more than 70 percent of the next round of bonding to the Treasure Valley, which has just 20 percent of the state-managed road miles, Goedde said. “Now that may be well and good, we may need that money – but I question whether we should be making that allocation,” he told the Senate. “We’re going to fight this battle every year before GARVEE’s done. There’ll be winners and losers on this floor. I say let’s stop it now. .. I say we can wait a year, if that’s what we need to do and do it right. I would rather not spend money than do it wrong.”

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “Senators, here’s the problem now – if we stop now, we will never be able to catch up with these projects. … We do GARVEE bonding now, or we don’t do it at all.” Federal dollars are drying up, McGee warned. GARVEE bonds borrow against future federal highway allocations to build projects now. He noted, “This is the plan that the joint committee sent us … twice.” Some want another bill, he said, but, “We tried that.” The second bill had the same project list as the first one the committee passed. McGee said the projects listed in the bill are the same ones originally targeted for the GARVEE program. “We didn’t just dream ‘em up,” he said. “A small group of legislators in a room – this is how we do things, this is how we write bills.”

Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, said, “We’re talking about who won and who lost, and guess what, senators – we lost. … Frankly … I think it’s time for us to go home.”

Governor signs English language bill

Without comment, Gov. Butch Otter has signed SB 1172 into law, declaring English to be the official language for state business in Idaho.

Election bill backer hoping for more time

S-R reporter Parker Howell reports that advocates of changing Idaho’s primary election system to avert a potential legal battle between the state and the Idaho Republican Party have come up with yet another plan. The proposal comes hot on the heels of SB 1244, introduced by a Senate committee Monday, that would require Idaho voters to publicly register their political affiliation and would allow registered independents to publicly choose which party’s ballot to vote on Election Day. The latest proposed bill, which has yet to be introduced in the Senate, would delay implementing new primary election restrictions until July 2009 to satisfy county clerks who expressed concerns about the cost and practicality of SB 1244. The proposed measure is also designed to protect independent voters’ privacy by allowing them to choose privately which ballot to vote. Keith Allred, president of the non-partisan advocacy group The Common Interest, is pushing the idea. How far it goes this year will depend on how fast lawmakers move through remaining legislation, Allred said. He noted that he may be the only person in the Statehouse hoping the Legislature runs through next week.

Senate overrides Otter veto on bowling alley smoking

The Senate has voted 29-6 to override Gov. Butch Otter’s veto of the legislation banning smoking in Idaho bowling alleys. “For us to walk away and assume his veto is somehow better than our collective wisdom would be a great disservice to the people we represent,” Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told the Senate. There was no debate, and the override passed overwhelmingly.

‘Rotting on the docket’

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, says last Friday was really time for the Legislature to go home – but they’re still going. Today, he’s come up with a new “term of art” to describe bills still on the calendar – they’re “rotting on the docket.”

‘Just one more service we provide’

At this crazy point in a legislative session, everyone’s under pressure – but some handle it with humor. Lenette Bendio, attaché in the legislative bill and mail room, had this sign posted on her counter today: “Sarcasm – Just one more service we provide.”

House votes to override veto on grocery tax

The House has voted 48-22 to override Gov. Butch Otter’s veto of HB 81a, the bill to increase the grocery tax credit across the board. Otter wanted a targeted, means-tested plan instead, but lawmakers didn’t support that. “Everybody knows the track record with this bill and the broad support that’s been demonstrated,” said Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, the bill’s lead sponsor. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, noted that Gov. Otter likely was listening. “We’ll all be good friends when this is all over,” he said. “Many of us feel it is very important that we take home to our constituents some sort of a tax relief package this year. This is about tax policy, it’s not about political stances. It’s about good tax policy.”

Now the issue is up to the Senate, which also would have to vote by a two-thirds margin to override the veto for the bill to become law; that body earlier voted unanimously to pass the final version of the bill. Lawmakers raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent in August, as part of a property tax relief plan, without making any adjustment for basic food items. Idaho is one of a minority of states that fully applies its sales tax to groceries.

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, opposed the override, saying she preferred to entirely remove the sales tax from food, but if that couldn’t be accomplished, she favored a “sliding scale” as the governor proposed. “The problem that I have with the bill today is that we would be going home giving people 20 more dollars,” she said. “We haven’t resolved that bigger … problem. … Let’s at least try to take care of the people that are the most affected.” And if not, lawmakers should come back in January to try to write a better bill, she said.

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said in his three years in the House, he’s learned that “you don’t always get what you want.” Hart said he favored removing the sales tax from groceries and originally voted against HB 81. But, he said, “I think it’s what we have on the table right now. I think when we came into town with a $200 million surplus, we need to give some money back to the taxpayers.” He added, “As the legislative branch of government we have the ability to move past the governor if he disagrees with what we think we should do – that’s the way the constitution has it set up.”

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, noted that Otter’s plan would have taken away the current $20 annual grocery tax credit from middle- and upper-income families, while giving low-income families a much larger credit. “The problem that I saw in his proposal was that it was a tax increase in the same legislation that it was a tax decrease, for some classes of people,” Lake said. “We considered that legislation.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said the bill will cost the state lots of money – about $32 million a year – while not giving much relief to Idahoans. The bill would double the current annual credit from $20 to $40 for everyone, and from $35 to $60 for seniors.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “We spend a lot of taxpayer money – we do it every session. Therefore, how about an honest thank-you for the goose that lays the golden eggs?” Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “I’m not one that wants to go against the governor of this state of my party, but I do believe this is the right thing to do.”

Rep. Clete Edmunson, R-Council, said, “I’m just extremely disappointed that we have to stand up here and override one of our own.”

Who’s afraid?

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, just noted that Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis was “frowning” so he said he’d refrain from a comment he was about to make in JFAC. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “Don’t be afraid of my leadership – I’m not afraid of yours.” Wood responded, “Senator, you’ve made that abundantly apparent this morning.”

This morning’s House-Senate battle in the committee over GARVEE bonding having concluded, JFAC is debating possible funds to match a federal grant for emergency communications interoperability.

JFAC backs list of GARVEE projects again

On a 12-8 vote, JFAC has just approved a motion from Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, to fund GARVEE projects next year at the same level as his earlier successful motion – $246 million – with the same list of dollar amounts per project. That includes spending $50 million that originally was targeted to the Garwood to Sagle project on Highway 95 in North Idaho to instead expand two Treasure Valley projects, on I-84 from Caldwell to Meridian and for a new road from I-84 to state Highway 44. There was one change from the earlier plan that had cleared JFAC and then got pulled back – Henderson’s new plan no longer orders ITD to extend a multimillion-dollar management contract and instead calls for the contracting process to be “transparent.” Like the earlier plan, it includes a clause allowing ITD to move money around between projects if necessary, but not to add or remove any corridors. Warned Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, “We have politicized more than is politicized already.”

Otter willing to wait on grocery tax?

Gov. Butch Otter today, for the first time, sounded ready to let the grocery tax relief issue go for this year. “My bill wasn’t going to take effect until 2008,” he said. “What I’m saying is that we could get busy in early January next year, use this next 10 months to kind of get the wrinkles worked out of our tax relief package … and be ready to hit it hard next January.”

His comments came after a bill-signing ceremony for the Board of Education budget bill – and on the eve of a scheduled vote in the House on whether to override his veto of HB 81a, the across-the-board grocery tax relief bill that lawmakers in both houses overwhelmingly approved. Otter’s been holding out for his targeted plan to give the relief just to the low-income. If legislators want to override his veto, he said, “That’s their prerogative.”

Lawmakers who campaigned for election with grocery tax relief as a top issue – and promised the folks back home they’d deliver – aren’t excited about waiting a year. “If we don’t override his veto, none of us go home with anything,” said Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. Said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, “It’s just another debate on the floor at this point – we either override or we don’t. … The caucus is pretty adamant that they want to try it.”

House members debate how to pay teachers

As the House debated the public school budget today, there was lots of back-and-forth about the budget plan’s 3 percent raises for school employees, as opposed to the 5 percent merit-pay increase state agency employees are getting, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who sells health insurance, suggested paying teachers on commission. “If I want to go make more money, I have to work a little harder,” he said. While Nonini said he knows “we can’t get government to work like business every time,” lawmakers can try, he said. “Maybe we need to upset the apple cart and wake some people up.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, argued that his son makes only $26,000 a year while stationed in Iraq by the military. “There’s no question our teachers are very, very important to us,” he said. “We’ve got to build in the flexibility to either have them paid on merit or have them accept the fact that they’re going to be paid on a percentage of the scale.” Hagedorn said lawmakers have “not been allowed by unions and by others” to create that flexibility. But Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, a former teacher, took issue with Hagedorn’s comparison. “It makes it no less acceptable that we pay our military such … a small amount of pay. But to justify teacher pay based on how poorly we pay our military is really, really sad,” she said.

Revolving door bill wins speaker’s support

The House Ways & Means Committee has voted unanimously to introduce legislation to ban former legislators from working as paid lobbyists for one year – with House Speaker Lawerence Denney as a co-sponsor along with House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet. “This is one of the basic tenets of democracy – our constituents want to trust us, and one of the things they ask for is tougher ethics laws,” Jaquet told the committee. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, made the motion to introduce the bill, which is being referred to the House State Affairs Committee for a hearing.

A few minutes before the vote, Denney, sitting on the House floor, said, “In this game that we play, perception is everything, and it’s more perception than reality. I’m still not 100 percent sure that it’s necessary, but perception is reality and the perception is that it’s necessary.”

Now they’re moving

The three public school budget bills that the Senate passed this morning have been rushed over to the House, where they’ve suspended rules and taken them up right away. This kind of speedy movement happens only at the end of a legislative session – and suggests there may be light at the end of the legislative tunnel…

Otter sets April 17 water summit

Gov. Butch Otter has scheduled his long-promised “water summit” for April 17th in Burley. “The Idaho Supreme Court’s March 5 ruling that the state has authority to manage ground water and surface water as a single resource cleared the way for that summit to occur,” the governor said in a statement. “The Idaho Department of Water Resources and my staff have been working hard the past few weeks to put the summit together. I’m happy to announce that it will occur April 17 in Burley, and that a list of principle and supporting participants in the negotiations is on its way to completion. I will be personally involved and will do my best to ensure the summit is a success.”

Apple slices vs. orange segments

Kurt Douglas, an engineer at Micron Technology, is filling in for Boise Sen. Elliot Werk today. In the Senate, Douglas spoke out on the school budget and the 3 percent vs. 5 percent for raises. “Five percent of an apple is always going to be perceived as more than 3 percent of an orange,” Douglas told the Senate, and voted “no.”

Senate adjourns in memory of Rep. Miller

The Senate has just adjourned until tomorrow in memory of former Rep. Janet Miller, R-Boise, whose funeral is this afternoon. The former lawmaker and longtime Republican activist died last week of cancer. Both houses are adjourning early today to allow lawmakers to attend her funeral.

Senate passes public schools budget bills

The Senate has passed the remaining pieces of the public school budget – a key move toward finishing up the legislative session. The bills still need House approval and the governor’s signature to become law. Objections to the budgets came from a handful of senators, mainly Democrats, who objected that school employees are being given 3 percent for salary increases, while state employees, throughout state agency budgets, were given 5 percent for merit increases. Moscow Republican Gary Schroeder told the Senate, “We provided a 5 percent salary increase for other state employees doing secretarial work. For secretaries in school districts, we only provided 3 percent.” They’ll want to know why, he said. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “The reality is that teachers are on a different pay system than state employees. … You cannot compare the two systems.” The bills now move to the House.

Lurching toward – adjournment?

The news yesterday about the prospects for ending this now-overdue legislative session was almost too depressing to post – there was none. House Speaker Lawerence Denney said at noon that he hadn’t spoken with the governor since the previous Wednesday. This morning’s JFAC meeting was canceled, and Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron told the Senate yesterday the joint budget committee was “aiming for next week,” at which Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis objected, saying it would surely be sooner than that. Today, things are looking a little brighter – even though yesterday’s partly cloudy skies have given way to snow, sleet, rain and wind. Under the capitol dome, the forecast is improving.

Cameron said this morning that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will meet tomorrow morning, and will vote on GARVEE bonding, interoperability, and a trailer bill on funding for a nursing task force. “We’re closer,” Cameron said. “We have a clear understanding of what our options are.”

Davis said, “We’re probably done this week. Some real progress was made yesterday with the other body and the gentleman on the second floor – we’re optimistic.”

Primary election bill back in play

The Senate State Affairs Committee has agreed on a party-line vote to introduce legislation changing Idaho’s primary election system. Under the proposed plan, Idahoans would have to register with a political party, but they could choose ‘independent’ and still vote in primary elections. However, their choice of which party’s ballot they vote at each election would be public record. This “modified closed” primary system was promoted by The Common Interest, a citizen group, as a way to avoid losing a lawsuit from the GOP if that party attempts to unilaterally close its primary.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “One of the hardest things we’ve had to do here is taking off our party hats. … It can be very easily misconstrued that this is the Republicans trying to push something down someone’s throats.”

Keith Allred, head of The Common Interest, said the modified closed primary system has been shown in empirical research to result in election results that are more representative, rather than dominated by party extremists or “tomfoolery” where members of one party attempt to sabotage the results for another party. He said lawmakers face a “stark choice” – if they don’t pass the bill, “it is likely that, after a messy litigation process, Idaho’s open primary statute will be trumped by an internal Republican Party rule that closes its primaries, including closing them to independents.”

Democrats on the panel were suspicious, however, and county clerks testified that the state should “go slow” on changing the primary system – that there’s not time to move to a new system before the 2008 election. “It’s going to be a major change in the election process,” said Sharon Widner, president of the Idaho Association of County Recorders and Clerks.

State Affairs Chairman Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said the bill will return to the committee for a full hearing before proceeding further – though time is running out for this year’s legislative session.

Dems call for ‘revolving door’ law

House Democrats have drafted legislation to ban legislators from being paid as legislative lobbyists for a year after they leave the Legislature, and House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the bill will be considered next week in the House Ways & Means Committee. “We have talked with the speaker,” Jaquet said. “There will be Ways & Means next week. … This will be placed on the agenda.”

Violations of the proposed new law would be a misdemeanor.

Denney was in meetings and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. “He thought it was a good idea,” Jaquet said.

The Democrats were responding to revelations this week in an Associated Press article that Denney advised the developer for a new Cabela’s store in North Idaho to hire former House GOP Caucus Chair Julie Ellsworth of Boise as their lobbyist to get their STAR financing bill through the Legislature, and fire their previous lobbyist – who had backed Denney’s opponent in his bid for House speaker. They did, and the bill passed with Denney and the House majority leader as co-sponsors – though last year it died in committee. Ellsworth was defeated in the November election by Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise.

Jaquet said she didn’t think Ellsworth did anything wrong. “I think she was totally within the law. All we’re saying is that the law should be modified in the future,” Jaquet said.

Duncan trial set for next January

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge has set Joseph Duncan’s trial on federal kidnapping, murder and child-molesting charges for next January, splitting the difference between the prosecution’s request to start the trial in July and the defense’s to put it off until August of 2008. The judge also noted that Steve Groene, father of the surviving victim Shasta Groene, “suffers from an advanced form of cancer,” and wrote, “To the extent it becomes necessary, the Court suggests that it may be appropriate for the testimony of Mr. Steven V. Groene to be taken by video deposition.” Groene told the court last week that he’s dying of throat cancer and may not be around in August of 2008 – leaving Shasta without any parent to support her through the trial if it were delayed until then. Duncan already has admitted killing Shasta’s mother, older brother, and mother’s fiancé. Read S-R reporter Taryn Brodwater’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

He’s serious, even driven

Although Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, has been teased by fellow lawmakers about his concerns about state agencies’ use of vehicle fleets, he wants to contact every state agency over the summer and submit a report on vehicle use to the Legislature next year, Parker Howell reports. Nonini said he wants to know how many employees use the cars and how many miles they log. He has criticized the state’s vehicle-management plan for selling cars too soon, and he thinks some agencies may have too many vehicles. “I’m serious about that,” he said. “All the humor aside, it’s still an issue I’m going to pursue.” He plans to give his results to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Nonini’s concerns were prompted before he became a lawmaker, he said, because he rented an office for 17 years in Coeur d’Alene that shared a parking lot with a Department of Health and Welfare office. He could never find a place for his customers or himself to park because of state-owned vehicles in the lot, he said. But Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, told the House the state just did a vehicle audit about three years ago.

‘We really could be done tomorrow’

But we won’t be. That was the message House Majority Leader Mike Moyle just gave the House. “You guys have done a really good job today and we’re caught up, we really could be done tomorrow. But there’s a few things in the wings,” he said. “One of them is GARVEE. The Senate has sent the GARVEE bill back to JFAC.” That’s the highway bonding plan. JFAC will meet on Monday morning to consider the issue, Moyle told House members. So for now, the House has adjourned for the day. It’ll come in at 8 tomorrow morning for a brief session, then leave early. Those who were worried about getting packed up and out of town by Saturday can relax, Moyle said – they’ll still be here next week.

‘Don’t think it has anything to do with me’

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said of Gov. Butch Otter’s veto of the bill to ban smoking in Idaho bowling alleys, “I don’t think it has anything to do with me.” Hill, the Senate tax chairman, was the lead Senate sponsor of the smoking bill – his name was on the bill. He also had spoken out against Otter’s proposed means-tested grocery tax credit on tax policy grounds – criticism Otter bristled about in his veto message on the bowling/smoking bill. Hill said he never used the phrase “social engineering,” but said, “I talked about we shouldn’t set social policy with tax policy. … I just felt like social policy should be set with social services.”

Hill said he respects the governor’s views. “He’s just doing what he thinks is right – I don’t question his motives,” the senator said. “I really think he’s doing what he believes in. … Knowing the way the governor feels, I think we need to honor that – I don’t want to drive any kind of wedge between the governor and the Legislature over something like this.” Hill added, “Is it in some kind of retaliation or anything? I don’t believe so. I just think that’s not the way the governor works.”

Still, he said, “Even the tobacco companies aren’t denying that second-hand smoke has very, very adverse consequences, and you go to a bowling center and there are children there.” He said, “It’s an important issue and I’m disappointed, I feel bad about it.”

The House’s ‘fleet vehicle investigator’

Lawmakers have gotten a lot of mileage out of criticism by Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, of vehicle fleets used by state agencies, Parker Howell reports. Last week, Nonini voted against a Department of Health and Welfare funding bill, arguing that he sees unused vehicles sitting in the parking lot of an agency in North Idaho. He also disapproved of the state’s fleet-management plan, which replaces vehicles after 80,000 to 100,000 miles, saying he sold his last car after 212,000 miles. Introducing Nonini this morning to debate in support of a vanity license plate that will provide money to military families, Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Wallace, said she would yield to “the fleet vehicle investigator.” She added, “There is not a fleet of vehicles I can find in this legislation.”

On Wednesday, the House relaxed its rules to make a special presentation to Nonini. Legislators gave him his “own fleet of cars” – the “Fast Lane Super Vehicle Collection” of 20 miniature, die-cast vehicles. The red package sat on Nonini’s desk Wednesday afternoon. After the ceremony, he said another lawmaker had sent him a pair of flip-flops with a car design. The sandals came with a note thanking him for debating HB 307 because of his vehicle concerns, but later voting for it – in essence, doing a flip-flop.

Otter vetoes bowling alley smoking ban

Gov. Butch Otter has just vetoed HB 121, the bill to ban smoking in Idaho bowling alleys. “Given legislative concerns about ‘social engineering,’ particularly in regard to my proposal for targeted expansion of the grocery tax credit, in the interest of consistency it seems reasonable to conclude that such concern would extend to this legislation as well,” Otter wrote in his veto message. “Social engineering by government should be of special concern when it also involves the private property rights of our citizens. H 121 imposes an unreasonable burden on private property rights as well as legitimate and lawful business activities.”

Idaho three years ago banned smoking in restaurants and most other public places where children under age 21 are allowed; only bowling alleys were left out. Student bowlers from throughout southern Idaho came to the Legislature this year to testify in favor of the bill, saying they shouldn’t have to endure a smoky environment to bowl.

Look out, ‘exceptional words’ are flying

Just before the vote on the tribal fuel tax bill, HB 249a, Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, asked to have the Senate put at ease and a big brouhaha among leaders from both parties ensued, with rule books waving. The problem? Sen. Lee Heinrich, R-Cascade, the sponsor of the bill, had used “exceptional words” in his closing debate, Stennett charged. That violates Senate Rule 41, which was vigorously invoked last week by Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, against Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, after Werk used the phrase “by God” during an emotional debate against a bill. Darrington called that “profanity,” and Werk was sanctioned by having the misstep noted in the Senate’s journal. Heinrich, in his closing debate, used the phrase, “God forbid.”

“I don’t see how that differs from ‘By God,’” Stennett said.

But this time, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, who was presiding over the Senate, overruled the objection, saying the only penalty for using “exceptional words” is to have to yield the floor and stop speaking. Stennett waited until Heinrich finished before lodging the protest – but so did Darrington last week when he criticized Werk’s wording. When told of that difference in handling the issue, Risch said he wasn’t there the previous time – and said if he were pressed, he’d rule that Heinrich’s words weren’t “exceptional.”

The other difference: Last time, it was a member of the minority party who was the target of the protest, while this time it was a Republican senator. Stennett said, “What I’m trying to get is some fairness in rulings.”

Risch did warn the Senate “to be cautious and use circumspection while debating.”

GOP senators talk GARVEE

The Senate Republican caucus has emerged after long hours in caucus debating over the GARVEE bonding plan. “We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re talking about doing something with GARVEE,” said Caucus Chairman Brad Little, R-Emmett. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said he’s glad that lawmakers outside the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee are taking a detailed look at the highway bonding plan and its implications. “Everybody is getting a better understanding of all of the consequences and opportunities,” he said.

Having fun in State Affairs

After dealing with topics such as restricting Idaho’s primaries and making English Idaho’s official language, the House State Affairs Committee tackled a less controversial topic this morning, reports Parker Howell: who showed up to meetings earliest. Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, distributed prizes to the earliest and latest arrivers. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, won a Cabela’s gift certificate for being the most-prompt member of the 18-lawmaker committee. “Did you pay sales tax?” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, asked Loertscher. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, received a John Deere alarm clock for being the one to frequently arrive latest. Earlier in the meeting, committee members played with colorful balloons, kazoos and Disney coloring books – “something that could come in helpful as we sit around on the floor the last couple of days,” Loertscher said. Another lawmaker quipped that it would give them another pastime besides playing solitaire on their laptops. “This has been quite a study in human behavior,” Loerstcher said. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest River, took second for earliest arriver.

House rebels over ‘radiator cap’, keeps tax loophole

The House has voted 53-17 against concurring in Senate amendments to HB 74, which originally was an innocuous tax break for a specific charity on airplanes it uses overseas in charitable missions, but had been remade in the Senate into a bill to stop Cabela’s and other big, multistate retailers from evading Idaho sales tax on online sales after they’ve built stores in the state. Legislation to do away with the tax loophole that allows retailers who set up separate corporate entities for their online and brick-and-mortar operations to evade the tax earlier died in the House Rev & Tax Committee without a hearing.

So senators took the tax-break bill – one of many they’re sitting on this year until a more complete look is taken at tax exemptions – and “radiator capped” it. That’s the term for treating the bill like a car on which they’ve unscrewed the radiator cap, and then driven it off and driven an entirely different car in, screwed the cap back on and called it the same vehicle. That process left HB 74 no longer addressing anything about charitable airplanes, and instead focusing on closing the sales tax loophole for online sales.

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “I think it was inappropriate for the bill that this body passed and sent over to the Senate to be stripped out the way it was and sent back as an entirely different bill.” Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, referred to the amended bill as “stinky cheese.” House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, urged against the move, saying the House should debate the sales tax loophole issue. But House Rev & Tax Chair Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told the House, “That bill was held for particular reasons and it was felt that it was better to not have that come forward.”

‘It’s here, and we’ll have to deal with it’

The Senate was creeping toward HB 249a on its calendar this afternoon – the highly controversial bill to impose the state’s gas tax on Indian reservation fuel sales if tribes don’t reach agreements with Gov. Butch Otter by Dec. 1. At the same time, leaders of all five of Idaho’s Indian tribes were gathered in the rotunda just outside the Senate chambers for today’s meeting of the Idaho Indian Affairs Council, which includes legislators, tribal representatives, and a representative from the governor’s office. It was starting to look like the Senate was going to launch into debating the legislation just 15 minutes before the council meeting was scheduled to start – which would’ve meant the tribal leaders would’ve been stuck outside, waiting to get into the designated room for the council meeting while the Senate debated legislation they strongly oppose. But Sen. Lee Heinrich, R-Cascade, the floor sponsor, asked the Senate to hold off for a day, “in order for me to receive some additional information that I intend to use.”

Just a few minutes later, the council meeting started in the caucus room behind the Senate chambers, and the fuel tax bill was a hot topic. “We will be debating it tomorrow,” council Chairman Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, told the group. Bob Wells, the governor’s office liaison to the council, said, “We did not initiate the legislation. We would not have brought that legislation this year, but it’s here, and we’ll have to deal with it.”

Lee Juan Tyler of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes urged a veto if the bill passes. “Hopefully the governor will veto this thing on behalf of all our tribes,” he told the council. “There’s other issues out there – we’ve got to get together as Idahoans, as Americans.”

Jorgenson told the tribal leaders, “Tomorrow will be, I think, a very good debate. Certainly your interests will be made a matter of record, and there are a number of people who support you strongly.”

‘It’s an awkward position to be in’

Here are a few North Idaho lawmakers’ reactions to the governor’s veto of the grocery tax relief bill:

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “I think should this veto survive, it might give more impetus to considering real grocery tax reform down the road,” such as completely removing the sales tax from groceries. “It’s an awkward position to be in, because you want to get anything you can for the citizens of Idaho,” he said. “Clearly this was a compromise, and it’s better to get something than nothing. That’s why I voted for it in the first place.”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said he’d vote to override the veto. “I promised our constituents up there that we would enable some relief under grocery tax, so I would absolutely do that,” Henderson said.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said he was “disappointed” by the veto. “I understand it isn’t what he wanted, but if you look at all the different iterations that started in the House and what came through …. I would assume some kind of a compromise is better than nothing at all. I still hope that we can revive something and provide some kind of relief on that sales tax issue.”

Gov. Otter: ‘It’s the wrong thing to do’

Gov. Butch Otter has vetoed the grocery tax relief bill that lawmakers in both houses earlier passed by overwhelming majorities. “It’s the wrong thing to do,” Otter told The Spokesman-Review. “It spends $11 million more than we wanted to.” He said “the most obvious and glaring” objection he had, though, was, “It doesn’t really get that tax relief to the people that really need it.”

The legislation would have raised the annual grocery tax credit for all Idahoans from the current $20 a year to $40, and from the current $35 for seniors to $60, with an annual price tag of about $32 million. Otter has been holding out for his own targeted plan instead, which would give a break of up to $90 a year for the lowest-income Idahoans, but would phase out as incomes rise. Middle- and higher-income Idahoans would lose their current credit; the total cost to the state would be $22 million. But he acknowledged that based on their earlier votes, lawmakers could easily override his veto. “That’s their prerogative,” the governor said.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “I think we have to take action.” He noted, “Certainly it passed by large majorities up here.” Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Both Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats plan to caucus this afternoon on the issue. “We might look at the option of lowering the impact a little,” Geddes said. “We could let it sit there. Or perhaps the caucus will want us to look at override.” Read my full story here at

It’s true – Otter vetoed HB 81

The governor’s office confirms that Gov. Butch Otter has vetoed HB 81a, the bill to increase the grocery tax credit – the one that won final passage in the Senate unanimously and the House with just six no votes. The veto message is expected out shortly.

Senate backs overriding Panhandle Health rule

The Senate has voted 23-8 in favor of legislation rejecting stricter septic system rules for North Idaho, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. Concerned that Panhandle Health District rules will hinder development by requiring larger drain fields and septic tanks, especially on expensive lakefront property, Panhandle homeowners and builders have mounted a last-ditch effort to overturn the rule and seek a compromise. Sponsored by Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, SCR 121 overrides the sewage rules, which allow septic system size to be based on a home’s square footage rather than the number of its bedrooms. Although health district officials have said the rules are needed to protect waterways, they did not object to SCR 121 to allow for negotiations. The resolution still must be approved by the House and Gov. Butch Otter before the session ends – potentially as soon as Friday.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee passed the resolution early this morning, Howell reports, and the full Senate voted less than one hour later – a process that normally takes days. Debate in committee and on the floor focused largely on the legislative propriety, not the science, of the rules. Some lawmakers criticized the last-minute nature of the legislation. “An 11th hour fix to me is always a bad fix,” Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, said in committee. But Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said it’s “blatantly unfair” to make North Idaho’s rules more strict than those elsewhere in the state.

Driver’s license bill hits close to home for lawmakers

The House has given final passage to tougher requirements for new teen drivers on a 55-12 vote, but not without plenty of concerns and personal anecdotes, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. When several legislators expressed concern that new restrictions on unrelated passengers would hinder teens working on farms, Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said he’s sensitive to rural folks, but there’s a reason the requirements won’t be a problem: “Everyone in Oakley and every other small town in southern Idaho is related by blood, adoption or marriage.” That’d make them exempt from the restrictions, he said.

Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Eagle, declared a conflict of interest. “My son and all of his friends are all taking driver’s ed, and they have been all lobbying me against this bill,” he said. Coeur d’Alene GOP Rep. Marge Chadderdon said her granddaughter just completed driver’s training and passed along a special request from her instructor: to vote in favor of the bill. House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, also supported the bill, saying one of her sons crashed and the other got a ticket soon after earning their licenses.

Grocery tax bill clears House with just 6 no votes

A bill increasing Idaho’s personal grocery tax credit to $60 quietly passed the House this morning, leaving only Gov. Butch Otter to sign off on the measure. Otter originally requested more relief targeted toward low-income Idahoans, and it’s unclear whether he will veto it sometime this week, keeping lawmakers at the Statehouse longer than their March 23 goal, or give in – since both houses had more than veto-proof majorities in favor of the plan. The House passed HB 81 on a 63-6 vote. All Panhandle lawmakers voted in favor of the bill.

Dancers rattle capitol

A troop of young Irish dancers rocked capitol reporters today – literally, reports Parker Howell. The Treasure Valley girls from the An Daire Academy of Irish Dance performed in the first-floor Statehouse rotunda in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, ringlets flying, shaking the reporters’ work area directly below them with their enthusiastic kicks, stomps and tappity taps.

House sends parental consent bill to governor

SB 1082a, which requires parental consent for minors’ abortions, passed the House this morning on a 53-14 vote, after much debate. The bill previously passed the Senate and now goes to the governor’s desk. “This is a very, very important decision in a young person’s life,” Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the House. “Parental consent is a very important part of what we do in a lot of arenas, not just in this one.”

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said, “I’m in favor of this legislation, but I’d like to point out something I think is problematic in this process. … We need to get them education, we need to get them child care … so that they feel like their decision to keep their baby is one that they’re not going to regret.”

Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, said the measure would require a runaway to go back to her parents for consent. “Some families barely function,” she said. Added Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, “Unfortunately this law is not going to reduce the number of abusive families, but it can harm young girls by delaying access to appropriate medical care.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “We’re dealing with a minor here that, frankly, by the fact that they’re pregnant, has demonstrated some lack of common sense.” Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, responded to that. “I would like to remind the body that there are a great number of things that contribute to teen pregnancy, and they are not all the fault of girls. … It takes both the boy and the girl to make a teen pregnancy.”

Immediately after her comments, another lawmaker introduced a fifth-grade class that was visiting the capitol and watching from the gallery.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said, “I believe the children should be able to get to their parents, talk to their parents, and over the years we’ve moved away from that perspective. I think this would help maybe bring it back in that direction.”

Idaho has passed parental consent bills several times previously only to see them overturned in court. Loertscher said this year’s bill has exceptions for victims of rape and incest and for medical emergencies, and is patterned after an Arizona law that’s stood up in court.

Non-compete bill brings fiery debate, defeat

Last-minute IACI legislation to enforce non-compete clauses against Idaho employees was defeated in the Senate this afternoon, after a dramatic debate that earned a rare rebuke for a senator’s use of “profanity.” Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, loudly criticized the debate of Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, because Werk used the phrase “by God” in his emotional comments against the bill. Werk apologized to the Senate, but Darrington insisted that the misstep be noted in the Senate journal.

The bill, SB 1203, was introduced just last week, long after the deadline for most bill introductions, at the urging of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. IACI lobbyist Mark Dunham said a 2005 Idaho Supreme Court ruling dealing with non-compete clauses made some of his group’s members nervous. “These agreements are routinely used throughout the state of Idaho in virtually every business setting,” Dunham said.

But Werk said, “No other state in the nation has done this – none.” The measure actually would put Idaho employers at a disadvantage in trying to recruit top candidates to come work here because workers could face such onerous sanctions when they left the job, he said. “I’m asking you to say no to this 12th-hour attempt to turn back hundreds of years of jurisprudence,” Werk declared. Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, an attorney, said, “I thought this was a body that stands for not encouraging activist courts. … I’m convinced the lawyers tucked away in a corporate board room who drafted this bill are playing a game with the Idaho Legislature.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s floor sponsor, said, “We tell the courts all the time what to do, and I don’t know that this is any great leap.” But the bill died on a 16-18 vote.

ATV bill shot down in Senate committee

North Idaho ATV riders have at least one more year to ride on paved roads following a Senate committee’s vote against a bill to outlaw them on some highways. The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-1 against HB 187, which would have required local governments to pass ordinances if they want to allow ATVs on paved roads, reports Parker Howell. Currently, some counties, including Kootenai and Shoshone, allow ATV riders with motorcycle license plates and insurance ride to ride on pavement as long as they follow traffic laws. Panhandle riding groups and sheriffs, as well as several North Idaho senators, opposed the bill, saying it would hinder local officials and reduce access for riders.

The House has concurred

By unanimous consent, the House just concurred in the Senate amendments to the grocery tax increase bill, HB 81. “The amendments that came back from the Senate on the grocery tax credit bill simply bumped down the values for everybody from $50 to $40 and for seniors from $70 to $60,” Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, told the House. “There are no other alterations.” Now, the bill as amended just needs a final House vote of approval to go to Gov. Butch Otter – where its fate is uncertain.

Fuel tax bill passes Senate committee

HB 249, the bill to impose a Dec. 1 deadline on negotiations between Idaho Indian tribes and the governor over fuel taxes, passed the Senate Local Government & Tax Commttee this morning on a 6-3 vote, and now heads to the full Senate. Sens. Brent Hill, Lee Heinrich, Shirley McKague, Tim Corder, Curt McKenzie and Jeff Siddoway voted in favor; Sens. Joe Stegner, David Langhorst and Diane Bilyeu voted against.

“This doesn’t really enhance the options of the governor with regard to settlement,” Stegner told the committee. “I find this unhelpful to this process.” Added Langhorst, “I think if this law passes, we’re going to see an instant lawsuit that’ll tie this up longer than December.”

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, told the panel, “There are considerable other things that the state of Idaho does for our neighbors on the reservations. … This one is a matter of fairness.”

The bill says that if tribes haven’t reached agreement over fuel taxes with the governor by the cutoff date, they lose and the state imposes its state fuel tax on the reservations, which would garner the state an additional $3 million a year. At a hearing the day before, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said they’d sue if the state did that, and they expect to win. The Sho-Bans also have passed a tribal resolution stating that if the state imposes its fuel tax on the reservation without an agreement with the tribes, the tribes will begin taxing agricultural products raised by non-Indians on their reservation, which lies in the heart of Idaho’s potato country and includes thousands of acres leased to non-Indian farmers.

Langhorst said, “The need for funds is real, but part of that lays right on this body, that we haven’t found a way to sufficiently fund our highway maintenance. I don’t believe that should fall on the tribes.”

Hill said, “The money, I guess, is one thing, but my obsession with fairness forces me to support this motion. … We’ve been working on this for years. … There has not been a resolution. It’s time to take a position.”

Full house, no decision

There was a full house this afternoon for the Senate committee hearing on the tribal fuel tax bill, HB 249. But the committee barely had time to take testimony; it put off its debate and vote to tomorrow, in part because several committee members were gone for much of the testimony, presenting bills in other committees. “Our apologies,” Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Vice Chairman Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, told the crowd. “Both the House and the Senate, we’re on a very tight time schedule. … We’re going to try to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to have their say.”

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the panel that tribes promised last year to negotiate with the governor over fuel taxes, and just because the state’s had three governors since then is no excuse for not having reached agreements. The bill sets a cutoff date of Dec. 1 – if tribes and the governor haven’t reached agreements by then, the tribes lose and the state imposes its state gas tax on reservation fuel sales. “We need the money, we need the tax money to do what we should do to properly take care of our roads,” Wood said.

Tribal representatives told the senators that the tribes need their own fuel tax money to take care of their own roads; some said if the state tries to impose its tax on them, they’ll sue. Several told the committee that it was Gov. Jim Risch who ended negotiations with them after a few meetings last fall, saying he’d run out of time and was turning the issue over to incoming Gov. Butch Otter. Otter has started negotiations, but some tribal officials said they’re waiting to hear from him.

Lee Juan Tyler of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said his people are “the first Americans – be proud of us.” He said, “When you take this fuel tax away, it’s going to destroy us. … Enough is enough. Negotiate with us faithfully. What was said here was disrespectful.”

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “We feel we’re close, but we also don’t like having a bill like this over our heads saying, ‘You have to get this done Dec. 1.’” Allan said the Coeur d’Alenes have serious concerns about details of the bill, and refuted rumors that they’ve dropped their opposition. “The main issue is it does not respect the tribal negotiations with the governor,” he told the committee.

Committee Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who missed most of the testimony, asked petroleum marketers lobbyist and backer of the bill Suzanne Budge Schaefer to come back and “summarize” before the senators debate and vote on the bill tomorrow. The committee then began a hearing on HB 245, the personal property tax elimination bill, but had time for only two people to testify before it, too, was put off to tomorrow.

Teachers object, Nonini not moved

Idaho teachers oppose a proposed salary plan allowing them to trade tenure for more pay and want to play a role in considering alternatives, S-R reporter Parker Howell reports, and they told lawmakers that this morning. At an informational hearing in the Gold Room on HB 294, school administrators said they support the alternative model, which offers at least $3,000 more to teachers to give up their continuing contracts, because it will boost pay and help them attract better employees. But teachers said they have been conspicuously absent from formulating complex and unjust legislation. “None of the professionals who will be directly affected by this legislation were consulted during this drafting,” said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association. “Involvement of those who are directly affected by the new compensation system is critical to its success.”

About 25 teachers attended the informal hearing, Howell reported. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, designed the plan in part to make it easier for districts to fire poor educators. He wants the proposal to be discussed over the summer for consideration next year.

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said elected officials, not teachers, are stakeholders in the issue because they set the nearly $1.4 billion public schools budget, Howell reported. “I get frustrated when I hear the IEA and somewhat of the administrators refer to themselves as the stakeholders,” Nonini said. “They are the employees of the people of Idaho. When we spend that kind of money in a system, we can make those decisions. If the decisions we make aren’t the right decisions, then we can be challenged in elections every two years as many of us are.”

House defeats state lottery budget

In a 34-34 tie vote, the Idaho House has defeated the budget bill for the state Lottery Commission. The problem? “An objection to the use of children in advertising the lottery,” according to Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, who led the opposition. “The objection is not to the lottery or to the funding, but to the exploitation of children,” Pasley-Stuart said. “The use of children to advertise … gambling is reprehensible.”

Pasley-Stuart said she objected to the use of photographs of children in classrooms in the state lottery’s annual report, alongside touts of how much money the lottery raised for schools. She wants the budget bill rewritten to include just one change: Prohibiting using children to advertise or promote the lottery. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, served notice of possible reconsideration after the vote, so the measure, SB 1197, still could come back up. It earlier passed the Senate on a 29-4 vote.

A squabble over highway bonding

What a squabble that was in JFAC this morning over GARVEE bonding. The successful plan lists out this spending, totaling $246 million, for the next round of highway bonds:
- $23 million for Garwood to Sagle on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho
- $12 million to finish the section of Highway 95 from Worley north
- $17 million for a new connection from I-84 to Highway 44 near Emmett
- $126 million for I-84 from Caldwell to Meridian
- $28 million for I-84 from Orchard to Isaacs Canyon
- $40 million for U.S. 30 from McCammon to Lava Hot Springs
But, of course, Gov. Butch Otter called on lawmakers in his State of the State address this year NOT to list specific highway projects in legislation, and instead to leave that judgment to the professionals at the Transportation Department and the Transportation Board.

ITD had planned to spend another $50 million on the Garwood to Sagle project, the congested section of Highway 95 between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, but that was partly for an interchange that North Idaho lawmakers objected to. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, was hopeful the money could speed up other aspects of the project, but lamented that instead those funds were moved down to the two Treasure Valley projects, for the Caldwell-to-Meridian freeway and the new road to Emmett.

“Should the Legislature continue micro-management in this fashion, the north will be outvoted and out-maneuvered politically, and that’s a really depressing thought,” Keough said.

Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, pushed hard for an alternative plan he co-sponsored with Keough, to instead fully fund the governor’s $264 million bonding proposal and on top of that, add $23 million to be spent on regular highway projects in the State Transportation Improvement Plan. Keough said those everyday projects have suffered because of need to pay interest payments on GARVEE bonds, and the $23 million would offset that to keep the regular highway plan intact. The alternate plan didn’t list specific projects.

Cameron told the joint committee, “You have a tough decision before you and a tough philosophical decision.” The whole point of GARVEE bonding is to borrow to allow projects to be built sooner, avoiding rampant inflationary costs for highway construction materials while addressing safety needs, he said. But if projects in the STIP have to be put off to pay GARVEE interest, the same inflationary problem happens with them. “It only makes sense from an inflationary standpoint if you are not causing inflationary costs to compound” for regular highway projects, he said.

Cameron also said, “The intent of listing the six projects is to supplant our knowledge for that of the board. … We’ve had members of the Legislature go down to intersection by intersection to review these projects. That’s inappropriate.” It means, he said, “Those with the power get the projects, and those without the power do not.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, proposed the lowest-price plan at $211.7 million. His proposal directed the Transportation Department to use the money only for the same projects started with this year’s $200 million round of GARVEE bonding. Werk said the figure was based on work that actually could get done in the next fiscal year.

Henderson said to him, the list of projects was a “scorecard.” “This then becomes, in my mind, the scorecard for ITD and the Washington Group on how well they accomplish this project,” he said. Henderson earlier had suggested that Idaho might not want to issue any more GARVEE bonds next year, because it was still working on this year’s projects. “I thought, hey, if they’re not getting anywhere, don’t give ‘em any money,” he said. “But as I talked to leadership, the additional appropriation came around.”

Henderson said the issue is so touchy that Jeff Malmen, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of staff, changed a single word in his motion “within minutes of when I walked in there.”

Even with the GARVEE program, JFAC members generally agreed that Idaho will need to raise gas taxes in the future to keep up with its pressing transportation needs. “A gas tax increase is inevitable,” Keough said. “The need is there, the money is not. Whether we do GARVEE or don’t do GARVEE, we’re looking at a gas tax increase of some sort very soon.”

Otter made a similar statement yesterday to the Idaho Press Club. He also indicated that the $246 million was a figure he “could live with.” His original proposal was for $264 million in GARVEE bonding next year.

ISU gets go-ahead, not money

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted unanimously to let Idaho State University proceed with its plans to purchase of the former Jabil Circuits plant in Meridian, but not to give the school $5 million for the project. Backers had brought a last-minute request for $5 million in state funds to match a $5 million donation from an unnamed foundation and $7.5 in university-issued bonds for the project, as part of a hush-hush deal that’s only been discussed up to now in closed meetings of the state Board of Education. JFAC instead passed a resolution authorizing the university to go ahead with the project with its bond funds and foundation donation, subject to approval from the state Board. That’ll allow ISU to purchase the building and start the project, but probably not expand the building to include a second story. “In the future they may come back and request through the normal process that additional $5 million,” said Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron. “This doesn’t preclude them from doing that.”

Otter makes Brandt a county commissioner

Former state Sen. Skip Brandt, R-Kooskia, who gave up his Senate seat to run unsuccessfully for Congress last year, was appointed to an opening on the Idaho County Commission today by Gov. Butch Otter. Brandt, 42, succeeds Commissioner John Schurbon, who died on Feb. 27 less than two months after taking office. Brandt, a hardware store co-owner and former Kooskia mayor, was among three candidates nominated by the county GOP central committee. “He will do a great job on the Idaho County Commission, and I’m proud to be able to make this appointment,” Otter said.

Romney stops in ‘small corner of America’

Here’s Parker Howell’s report on a stop by presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the state capitol today:

A solitary figure speaking from the steps of the Idaho Statehouse Tuesday, Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seemed unfazed when a sign-wielding protester shouted questions about Romney’s Mormon beliefs. Romney, in town for a private fundraising event, said he is courting evangelical Christian leaders who share a similar social outlook. “Fundamentally, Americans want to support a person who is a person of faith who believes that America has a great future and whose values are American values,” he said.

As he spoke to the press, the protester boomed out in a British accent, “Mr. Romney, why doth the Mormons say that Jesus is the Devil’s brother?” Security guards escorted the heckler across the street. He and a companion held neon orange and yellow signs. One read: “The blood of JESUS CHRIST … cleanseth all from sin.”

“Sadly, religious bigotry is still alive in some small corners of America,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman, said after the event.

‘They could send it back’

Gov. Butch Otter was none too pleased with the job the Senate did this morning amending the grocery tax credit bill, and, in comments to the Idaho Press Club just an hour after the Senate vote, bolstered the threats some senators had alluded to that the amended version could be headed for a veto. “I think I sent a pretty strong signal,” Otter told the Press Club. He said he favors a means-tested credit that costs the state about $22 million a year – not an across-the-board credit like the Senate-approved plan, which has an annual price tag of $32.6 million.

The governor said, “I will not look favorably on that. … They could send it back to the amending order again, maybe.”

He said, “I think we need to target that tax credit with what money we do have available on an ongoing basis, and I believe that to be $22 million.”

Two amendments up this time

The Senate has just gone into its 14th Order to consider amendments, and there are two amendments up for HB 81, the grocery tax bill. One is from Sens. Russ Fulcher and Brent Hill, to just adjust the amount of the increase in the grocery tax credit – where HB 81 would raise it from $20 to $50 for everyone, the amendment would set it at $40; for seniors, instead of raising the credit from $35 to $70, it would raise it to $60. The other amendment, from Sens. David Langhorst and Clint Stennett, would remake the bill into a modified version of Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for a targeted tax credit for the low-income. The modified version would keep the current $20 annual credit for everyone in addition to the targeted credit.

General warns of ‘bad guys’

The commander of U.S. forces in Japan is an Idahoan, and today he made several presentations to lawmakers at the state capitol. Here’s S-R reporter Parker Howell’s report:

Idaho native Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, commander of U.S. military forces in Japan, praised cooperation between the United States and Japan against potential East Asian threats during presentations to lawmakers Monday. An F-16 fighter pilot raised in Castleford, Idaho, Wright now commands about 50,000 troops. His force sits across the sea from more than 2 million potential “bad guys” in China and 1 million real bad guys in North Korea, he said. “They do not share our values for a better world, necessarily,” he said of Chinese leaders. Led by Kim Jong Il, North Korea has ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan and doing a lot of damage in dense urban areas, and Il has the ability to destabilize Pacific East Asia and cause far-reaching economic instability, Wright told lawmakers. “The defense of America starts in Japan,” he said.

Wright said he’s never forgotten the vistas or independent spirit of Idaho during his nearly 40-year career in the Air Force. He thanked members of the House Transportation and Defense Committee Monday for their leadership. “What you have done is take on the challenges of making this nation the greatest nation in the world, enduring,” he said. “Believe me, there’s a lot of bad guys out there that would take us down in a minute. We let them in the room, they will take every one of us out in a New York second.”

About the official language…

Editorial writer Tom Henderson of the Lewiston Tribune had this line in an editorial today: “And here you probably thought Idaho already had an official language. Judging from the Legislature, you probably thought it was gibberish.”

House opposes pact with Canada, Mexico

The Idaho House has voted to back a non-binding memorial to Congress opposing an international pact with Mexico and Canada. Here’s Parker Howell’s report:

The United States should withdraw from an international pact with Canada and Mexico because it would be a road to security risks and potential economic damage, the House said Monday in a joint memorial. The memorial calls for Idaho’s Congressional delegation to work against the 2005 Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) or any other agreement seeking to create a “North American Union.”

The White House-led pact aims to increase security efforts, expand economic opportunity and help combat infectious diseases among the nations, according to the program’s Web site. It is not a treaty and does not look to create a North American union, according to the site. But lead sponsor Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said the partnership lacks Congressional oversight. The memorial is modeled after those in other states, including memorials being considered in Washington and Oregon, she said.

The agreement is an end-run around a treaty that should have been approved by the Senate that was “handled under the radar, out of the media, by the bureaucracy of the federal government,” said Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. The memorial states that an international highway from Mexico to Canada might be part of plans for a North American union and opposes use of federal fuel taxes to build such a highway. There isn’t enough traffic to justify such a large highway, and it would be a “gigantic pork barrel project” that would partially be bankrolled by taxpayers, Hart said. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said such a highway would encourage importers and exporters to move goods through Mexico rather than U.S. ports. The SPP Web site states that U.S. government is not planning a superhighway, although some state and private interests are working on an international highway.

The only lawmaker to criticize the bill, Rep. Nicole LaFavour, D-Boise, said she was “somewhat troubled” with parts of the memorial about immigrants. Many immigrants have lived in the country for generations and are “unfortunately characterized by some of the language,” she said. “Mexico is the primary source country of illegal immigrants, illegal drug entry and illegal human smuggling into the United States,” according to the memorial.

JFAC sets ITD budget, puts off GARVEE

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has set the budget for the Idaho Transportation Department, the last remaining state agency budget to be set – but has delayed a decision on GARVEE bonding. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the joint committee hopes to get to that on Wednesday.

Gov. Butch Otter has proposed another $264 million round of bonding for major highway improvements, following up on this year’s first $200 million in bonds. The bonding is for major highway improvements around the state, including upgrades to Highway 95 in North Idaho and expansion of freeways in the Treasure Valley. GARVEE bonds allow the state to borrow against its future federal highway allocations, thus getting more work done more quickly and getting ahead of the current extreme inflation in materials costs.

The budget set for ITD this morning, proposed by Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, totals $496 million, which is very slightly below Gov. Otter’s recommendation and represents a 1.3 percent decrease from this year’s budget. The transportation budget includes no general tax funds, relying instead on federal money and dedicated funds from fuel tax and vehicle registration fees. Henderson’s proposal shifted $3.5 million from replacement items to construction and right-of-way acquisition, reducing replacement items from $22.2 million to $18.6 million. “My motion takes away maybe some critical things in replacement,” Henderson said. But, he said, “It’s so critical that we build as many roads as we can.” The budget proposal won unanimous support from the joint committee on a 20-0 vote.

Shift to homeowners continues

Even after lawmakers last year raised the homeowner’s exemption for the first time in a quarter-century, owners of residential property are continuing to pick up a bigger and bigger share of Idaho’s property tax burden, while the share for other types of property – businesses, farms and utilities – is dropping.

The Idaho Tax Commission’s figures for 2006 show that residential property accounted for 64 percent of property taxes paid – up from 63.2 percent the year before. Back in 1990, it was just 47.1 percent. “We saw a clear pattern of shifting from other sectors onto the residential,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who co-chaired an interim legislative committee that studied property taxes in 2005. “We’ve been trying to balance that. … However, we’re still out of whack.”

But this year’s major property tax legislation is a plan to phase in a $100 million property tax break for businesses by eliminating the personal property tax on business equipment. In the first year, the bill would shift nearly $10 million in property taxes to non-business property, including homeowners. In each subsequent year, depending on appropriations, the state would take millions from its sales and income tax revenue to reimburse counties for additional reductions in the property tax on business equipment. Read the full story here in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

IACI bill on personal property tax passes House

The House has voted 47-20 to pass HB 245a, the bill sponsored by the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry to phase in a $100 million property tax break for businesses by eliminating the personal property tax on business equipment. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Opponents said the bill – which would shift the first-year cost of the tax break, just under $10 million, to other property taxpayers – would undo part of the benefit of last year’s first-ever increase in the homeowner’s exemption. “We will have given property tax relief, and then we will have taken it away,” said Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise. Added Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, “I think we really are going in the wrong direction here.”

But backers said the bill does away with an unfair and cumbersome tax on business equipment. “Yes, for this year, we do shift some taxes,” said House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot. “I challenge anyone, anyone to justify personal property tax. I find no justification for it whatsoever.”

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the House, “It’s the people who demand services who drive the taxes up, so to argue that residential is not paying their fair share, let’s take a look at how many of the services that are being demanded are actually being demanded by residential, and paid by all of us.”

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, sounded a similar note. “You need to ask yourself who is demanding the services” that impact county budgets, he said. “Is it ag? Is it mining and timber? I don’t think so. It is residential.”

No debate on controversial ATV bill

The House on Thursday voted unanimously – with no debate – to pass HB 187 to ban all-terrain vehicles from paved city and county roads unless local governments pass rules allowing them, a measure strongly opposed by Panhandle ATV riders and sheriffs. Read Parker Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

House opposes preschool, says that’s parents’ job

State education officials should help equip parents to tutor their young children rather than offer state-funded preschool, according to a resolution the House passed on a 48-19 vote Thursday. Read Parker Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Governor cancels live statewide TV appearance

Gov. Butch Otter had been scheduled to appear on Idaho Public TV’s “Idaho Reports” this Friday night and take calls from the public in a live broadcast, but he’s canceled due to illness. His office reported that Otter may have bronchitis, and is canceling all his appearances Friday. His press secretary, Jon Hanian, said the governor is eager to reschedule, but does yet not have a date.

Amendments, amendments

The House is in its amending order now, amending HB 245, the bill from IACI to phase in the elimination of the personal property tax on business equipment. Democrats offered an amendment to trim the business tax cut back to just its first year – in which an estimated 81 percent of Idaho businesses would be relieved of all personal property tax. That would exempt personal property up to $50,000 at each business. The Democratic amendment also called for the state to reimburse counties for the cost, which would be just under $10 million, rather than shift it to other property taxpayers in the county.

HB 245 as written would shift that first-year cost to other property taxpayers, then have the state pick up the cost for bigger breaks in subsequent years, adding up to nearly $100 million a year by 2015. Seven Republicans rose to support the 19 Democrats in their proposal – including Reps. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, and Steven Thayn, R-Emmett – but the 26 votes fell short of a majority. Next, the House debated amendments to the bill proposed by House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly that were negotiated with IACI. Those mostly minor amendments passed.

That’s it for now…

The Senate has now dissolved its Committee of the Whole Senate without successfully approving any amendments to the grocery tax bill, HB 81, but the bill remains on the amending order. When formally reporting to the Senate the progress of the Committee of the Whole, Chairman Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said the committee “reports progress, although it’s little progress, and beg leave to sit again.” The Senate is taking a break now, and will come back on the floor at 4 p.m.

Debate is on regarding amending grocery tax

The Senate is in its 14th Order, debating possible amendments to HB 81, the grocery tax credit increase bill. Five possible amendments were filed, but Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, withdrew one as the debate began, saying, “We have worked to achieve a compromise.”

The amendments range from just doubling the current credit; to raising it slightly less but requiring annual increases until it offsets the entire sales tax on groceries; to taking out the extra credit for seniors; to generally following Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to target the credit to the low-income.

Sen. Jeff Siddoway challenged Sen. Joe Stegner’s ruling that the amendments all conflict, saying his amendment to take out the senior differential could work in combination with one of the other proposed amendments. After a big huddle, senators agreed. Now, they’re debating the various amendments.

Last-minute university plan raises eyebrows

Idaho State University is asking for $5 million for a project in Meridian, where the university wants to buy and renovate part of the former Jabil Circuits plant, which is now owned by the Meridian School District. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said the facility would allow 11th and 12th graders in the area to study health professions and related fields through dual enrollment in high school and ISU at the same time. It would also allow ISU to consolidate some of its functions in the area that now are in leased space. Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, said, “We know that we have a shortage in the area of health occupations … and I think this is a good fit for the Treasure Valley.”

The proposal came before JFAC this morning at the tail end of budget-setting. ISU wants $5 million in state general funds for the project to match another $5 million it’s getting from an unnamed foundation. The Pocatello-based university would bond for the remaining $7.5 million cost of the project, which includes buying a portion of the former Jabil plant from the Meridian district for $5.2 million, $10.2 million in renovations and $2.1 million in construction expansion.

Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, said, “A couple of years ago we dealt with a last-minute, somewhat vague proposal that dealt with commingling of foundation dollars and buildings. It ended up not being a great project.” That was the University Place project proposed by the University of Idaho in Boise, which won legislative approval but ended up collapsing in a scandal that led to the resignation of then-UI President Robert Hoover.

“So I have a lot of reluctance, without some time and examination, to jump in on this,” Henbest said.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked state Board of Education fiscal officer Jeff Shinn if the state board has discussed the project. “The state Board of Ed has not discussed this project in open session,” Shinn told JFAC. Later, when Shinn briefly left the room, House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, commented, “Perhaps he went back to the closed meeting.”

Cameron said he’s concerned about encouraging universities to go around the usual processes for getting major building projects approved. “Early on, when ISU approached me with the idea I thought it sounded like a great idea, and it does sound like a great idea,” he said. “But at the same time I have a lot of concern with the process we’ve gone through here.”

Bastian said, “I think this is a win-win situation, one for ISU to perform its health education mission, for Meridian School District and the students of the district to have this opportunity to seamlessly go from high school to a higher education institution, and therefore I support this.”

Henbest said, “Great ideas have staying power, and the rush to do something without a clear and open and public review of the details is concerning to me. There doesn’t seem to me to be any clear evidence that we have to do this this week, and we can’t do it next year with a lot more daylight shed on this proposal than we currently have. If it’s a great idea today, it’ll be a great idea next year.”

Tax deed bill dies in committee

Legislation from Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, to force counties to return surplus proceeds to owners when it auctions off properties for unpaid taxes died in a Senate committee on Wednesday, after earlier passing the House 43-26. Read Parker Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Malepeai’s words bring pause to Senate

The Idaho Senate has voted 20-15 in favor of SB 1172, declaring English to be the official language of the state of Idaho, in a debate that took a personal turn. “It’s not for shutting people out, but bringing people in,” Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, lead sponsor of the bill, told the Senate. “When we speak a common language we are unified.”

Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said quietly, “Looking around the chamber, I think I’m probably the only one that has English as a second language.” Malepeai recalled that his late father and his uncles served proudly in the U.S. military. “They spoke very, very broken English, but they were proud American Samoans,” Malepeai said.

As the immigration debate has built in this country, Malepeai said a business posted a sign saying, “You’re in America – speak English.” “I’m not sure my parents would feel comfortable walking into a business like that,” he said. Every Idaho county does its official business in English. So does every state agency. “Is there any question that English is the official language?” he asked. Legislation declaring an official language may seem straight-forward, he said. “But the unintended consequence is that sign – you’re in America, speak English. … It hurts the spirit when you see something like that.”

Malepeai said democracy and freedom are what unites all Americans. “That is what unifies people in this country – not the English language,” he said.

A hush fell in the Senate after Malepeai’s comments, and no one else debated the bill. Richardson, the bill’s lead sponsor, gave a brief closing debate. He said 28 states have passed laws declaring English to be the official state language. The bill requires all “transactions, proceedings, meetings or publications issued, conducted or regulated by … the state of Idaho, or any county, city or other political subdivision in this state” to be in English. It includes exceptions for matters of public health and safety, promoting tourism and economic development, non-English phrases “as part of communication otherwise in English,” and for libraries’ foreign language materials.

“We have to be able to talk to each other,” Richardson said.

The vote was surprisingly close, for a bill that’s co-sponsored by 18 legislators, including nine senators. The bill now moves to the House.

Rev & Tax kills public transit tax

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee, after hearings that stretched for two days, has voted 11-7 against legislation to allow a local option sales tax to fund public transit, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. The bill was heavily backed by Treasure Valley interests, because the valley’s freeways are choked with traffic at rush hour. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, led the opposition to the bill, which is now dead for the session.

Not exactly appetizing…

Rep. Scott Bedke was telling the Idaho Press Club a story about how well lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter get along, by remembering a time several found the governor in his office in the early morning and came in to visit. “We went in and talked to him in an informal way, ate jelly beans out of that crystal cowboy hat that he has on the desk there,” Bedke recalled. At that point, Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes interjected, “By the way, there’s two flavors – ear wax and booger.”

“Said Sen. Geddes,” Bedke said. Geddes responded, “My kids read Harry Potter.”

Asked about it, Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “I’ve had those jelly beans – they’re disgusting.” But they’re not Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans of Harry Potter fame, Hanian said. They’re sour apple and some other actual flavor. “They’re legitimate jelly beans, they’re not practical joke jelly beans,” Hanian averred.

New ‘teacher compensation model’ in the works

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, announced today that they’ll be introducing legislation later this week to set up an “alternative teacher compensation model” in Idaho, though they won’t push for the bill to pass this year.

Bedke told the Idaho Press Club, “We shouldn’t have a system that allows for sub-par performance when it comes to the teaching of our children.” Geddes said in meeting with his local school superintendents over the years, he’s learned that they seldom “terminate a bad teacher” because of the cost involved. “I’m not saying that there’s an overwhelming number of bad teachers,” Geddes said, but he said districts should be able to replace those who aren’t performing. So, he said, he and Bedke have come up with this plan: “We would pay them more money if they sacrificed their tenure.” He said, “That’s kind of the direction that Rep. Bedke and I are pursuing at this time.”

If every teacher wanted to choose the new alternative compensation model rather than our current system, Geddes said, it’d likely cost the state another $70 million a year to pay them more. So the plan would need lots of discussion and planning before it could be put into effect. That’s why the GOP leaders decided to just introduce the bill now, and let people kick the idea around over the summer. Said Bedke, “I would like for this to be a starting point for discussion in the interim.”

The news came as Geddes and Bedke addressed the Idaho Press Club at the group’s annual “Headliner” luncheon with legislative leaders today. Bedke filled in for Speaker Lawerence Denney, who backed out due to a family obligation. There was plenty of news as the two legislative leaders spoke and answered questions from the media. Among the highlights:

• The Senate will go to its amending order, the 14th Order, on Thursday to amend the grocery tax credit bill, HB 81. Geddes said, “One of the options will be to reduce the overall cost … simply double what is already available.”

• The House is looking at possible changes to HB 245, the bill to phase in a $100 million property tax break for business by eliminating the personal property tax on business equipment. That’s why the bill has been “hanging on the calendar,” Bedke said, rather than coming up each day as the House moves through its agenda. “Some of the new members are saying, ‘If we know this is going to be changed in the Senate, why don’t we do it here?’” Bedke said. “That’s why it’s hanging.”

• Asked about Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to disband the state Department of Administration, Bedke said, “It’s likely we won’t do it this year.” Geddes said he hopes lawmakers will introduce the bill for consideration later. “I’m not sure that we’ll even have a vote on that bill this year,” he said.

• A new verb was coined: “Garvee-ing.” The context: Idaho is struggling with the costs of growth, and even big steps like bonding for highway improvements don’t seem to have caught the state up to the need. Yet, there’s legislative resistance to much change. Geddes said, “Are we going to grant local-option sales tax? I represent rural Idaho, and I don’t see how that will help my small communities. Everybody has to weigh that.” Still, lawmakers recognize that pressing growth-related problems – like traffic congestion in the Treasure Valley – need some solution, and if they don’t allow the local-option sales taxes to fund transit that locals are proposing, they’ll need to offer some other option. “The issues are not going away,” Bedke said. “I don’t think anybody disputes the fact that the valley is growing and mass transit will be part of the answer.”

• Legislative leaders have been meeting weekly with the governor, and mainly, lately, they’ve been talking about GARVEE bonds. That’s one of the major issues hanging as the legislative session draws to an end this month; Otter has proposed another $264 million round of GARVEE bonding next year for highway improvements, after this year’s first $200 million effort.

• Asked about immigration issues and an official-English bill, Geddes responded in German, prompting a response from a reporter, also in German. Geddes said he sees great value in people knowing other languages, but he supports the official-English bill. “I don’t see the fear in Sen. Richardson’s bill,” he said, adding that he’s been to Canada and seen the confusion caused there by having two official languages.

Newest special plate: ‘Support our Troops’

It seems that no legislative session goes by without the creation of at least one more special license plate. Today, the Senate voted 24-11 for a new “Support Our Troops” plate to benefit Support Our Troops Inc., a charitable organization that’s organized in all 50 states. Already, 45 states have established special license plates to fund the group; the proposal is pending in the rest of the states. Money raised by the special plates would go to Idaho military families for “living, educational and health care needs,” according to the bill. SB 1131 now moves to the House.

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, long has opposed all special license plates. “I will be voting against this bill, not because I have any particular disagreement with the purpose of this bill,” he told the Senate. “I have a general disagreement with a proliferation of specialty license plates. … We give them out politically to a select group of people whom we choose to favor.” Said Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, “We’ve got too many special license plates.”

Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, told the Senate, “It’s a way for people who wish to, to show their support. If you don’t like it, don’t buy one.”

Citizen legislators juggle interests

Jeff Siddoway sells hunting trips for “monster elk” on his private eastern Idaho ranch. He’s also a Republican state senator, reports AP reporter John Miller. So when Siddoway helped kill a bill to outlaw “shooter-bull” operations – there are 17 in Idaho, including his – his e-mail box bulged with messages telling him he should have abstained. Two months into 2007, lawmakers from Alaska to Virginia have wrestled with similar conflict-of-interest issues, highlighting a tension that has been at the heart of citizen legislatures since their founding: Members leave real-world jobs to serve part time in America’s state capitols, often bringing them into close quarters with issues they hold dear.

“Having a conflict of interest is not a bad thing. It’s to be expected in a citizen legislature, where people come to the capital for a while, then return to their jobs,” Peggy Kerns, who directs the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver told the Associated Press. “It’s what somebody does with that conflict that’s the issue.” In 64 of 99 state legislative chambers, lawmakers must abstain from voting in certain situations, according to Kern. In 21 others, legislators must vote, but have the option of asking fellow lawmakers to let them abstain. Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Supreme Court issues water ruling

The Idaho Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited water ruling, and it reversed the lower court, which had declared unconstitutional Idaho’s rules for “conjunctive management” of surface and groundwater. Instead, the high court upheld those rules, plus settled various related questions. “The resolution of those substantive principles is going to be very helpful, because now we know what the governing law is,” said Clive Strong, chief of the Natural Resources Division for the Idaho Attorney General’s office.

The Supreme Court was unanimous in its ruling, so reconsideration is unlikely. “The state won in a big way,” Strong said, adding, “I would say that the people that won are the citizens of Idaho, because it’s provided some well-established principles of law that will now govern how we administer surface and groundwater rights.”

You can read the complex ruling here, or the Supreme Court press release summing it up here.

Pages put pinch on House

House pages have decided to officially move St. Patrick’s Day from its usual March 17th date, which falls on a Saturday this year, to Friday the 16th – at least for the House. House members were just warned that members who don’t wear green on the 16th will be required to pay $1 to the “pages’ milkshake fund.”

Early learning standards a communist plot?

The Idaho House has just wrapped up a rambling debate and killed HCR 18 on early learning standards. Check out this report from S-R reporter Parker Howell:

The House rejected a nonbinding resolution asking state agencies to develop learning standards for young children and to create a quality-based ranking system for distributing federal childcare money to preschools. Some opponents of HCR 18 compared the proposal to Communist Russia and said it infringes on parents’ role in raising kids. But supporters said better standards are necessary to help low-income children and kids of single mothers.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said asking the Idaho Health and Welfare and Education departments to create standards eliminates market forces. It’s a “worthy goal, maybe, but it’s pie in the sky and it just gives us warm, fuzzy legislation,” she said. “In Old Russia, the state owned children for all intents and purposes” while women dug ditches and the “truly talented people defected. …This is not the proper role of government,” she said. The House voted 43-27 against the bill.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the House Education Committee, called the resolution an end-run around childcare licensing requirements proposed by Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, that died in another House committee a week ago. “I can share with the body that this legislation is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent,” Nonini said. “I think it’s a road we don’t want to go down.”

Sponsors, however, said the bill encourages competition and offers only suggestions. “This bill does not require anything of anyone,” said co-sponsor Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise. Discussing recipients of the Idaho Child Care Program, which subsidizes childcare for low-income, working Idahoans, Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, said, “Very often, these are single mothers, and we all have an opinion about that, but like it or not, there are single mothers in Idaho.”

She told the House, “This is not the fearful, communistic plot that you think it is,” but was outvoted.

A waiting game?

It was looking like two major issues – amendments to the grocery tax credit bill in the Senate, and debate on a big property tax break for business in the House – were shaping up to happen at the same time today, but now neither one apparently is going to be taken up today.

The Senate won’t be going to its amending order, the 14th Order, until “deep into the week,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. That’s where HB 81, the grocery tax credit increase, is sitting, awaiting amendments. “It’s going to take some time to draft amendments,” Davis said. “I haven’t the foggiest idea yet where the Senate wants to go on it.”

In the House, HB 245, IACI-sponsored legislation to phase in a $100 million property tax break for business, is on the 3rd Reading calendar, which is where bills get debated and voted on, but it’s way down on the calendar. “I just don’t think we’re going to get there today,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. Denney said he’s a little anxious to see the Senate do whatever it’s going to do on the grocery tax bill. “I wish they would get it up and do something with it,” he said. “I would like to know what we’re going to do with that before we do the personal property tax bill.”

Scholarship bill back in committee

Why is it that the governor’s scholarship endowment bill, HB 217, has been pulled back to committee? House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he pulled the $38 million scholarship bill back to his committee yesterday because of concerns that the amount may need to be adjusted. “Thirty-eight million is a lot of money – I’m not sure if JFAC has all of that left at this point,” Nonini said.

In fact, just today, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee finished setting all the general fund budgets, and their appropriations add up to $2.81 billion, $29.1 million below Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation – without the scholarships being funded yet.

There are other factors that count in the budget picture, too. Lawmakers have funded $7 million in health insurance costs for state employees that Otter hadn’t included in his plan. They’ve spent millions less on building projects and on higher education research grants than he proposed, but haven’t yet funded a grocery tax credit increase, for which Otter set aside $22 million; grocery credit legislation that awaits amendments in the Senate would cost $47.5 million. Other bills still pending in the Legislature also could have budget impacts.

Nonini said he hopes to work with JFAC to make sure the scholarship legislation matches the available funds.

Tax break debate put off

The House was clicking through the bills on its agenda so quickly this afternoon that it came right up to HB 245, major legislation to phase in a $100 million tax break for business over the next eight years at the urging of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. But the House hadn’t been expected to get to that measure, which is the subject of much debate, this afternoon. When it came up, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, rose and said, “Mr. Chairman, it’s late.” Therefore, he asked to move the bill down on the calendar, to follow the other House bills scheduled for debate on Monday, and the House unanimously agreed.

It’s a dairy day in JFAC

Of all the weighty matters on the JFAC agenda for budget-setting this morning, the biggest crowd was drawn by a $10 million proposal for a new dairy research lab in the Magic Valley for the University of Idaho. The plan, proposed by Gov. Butch Otter, won the committee’s support, but there was lots of discussion about the details and how it would work. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, noted that the results of research into environmental issues relating to dairies could be controversial, and he questioned whether that would become public and whether the industry would influence that research. “We’re not doing it specifically for any particular industry,” Rich Garber of the UI told the committee. “Idaho Code does specify that all of the research results will become public.”

The plan calls for a 1,500-cow dairy along with a research facility.

Before this morning’s JFAC meeting, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, presented Werk with a black-and-white stuffed cow that moos when squeezed, saying she wanted to recognize her “city cousin” for his attention to the issue; Werk displayed the stuffed cow on his desk during the meeting. “It may be the only cow in my district, but it’s a valuable cow,” Werk declared.

The plan calls for the university to sell or trade some land near Caldwell, though that would require congressional approval, to match the state expenditure.

JFAC members said the plan is important. “You’d probably not have any cheese on your pizza if this industry were to go away,” said House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “As I’ve watched this industry grow, I think there are some challenges with that growth, and this will help us meet those challenges and keep Idaho Idaho as this industry grows. … Even though I’m up north where these dairies are not, this is a growing industry for our state and we need to support this effort.”

Commissioners to get 5 percent pay hikes

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted unanimously to approve 5 percent, across-the-board pay hikes for the commissioners who serve on the Industrial Commission, Tax Commission and Public Utilities Commission. That would take industrial commissioners’ salaries from $82,951 to $87,099; tax commissioners from $79,009 to $82,959; and PUC commissioners from $85,222 to $89,483. Five percent is the same amount that’s being funded for merit-based increases for state employees in all agencies, but the joint committee approved a public schools budget that includes just 3 percent for teachers and other public school employees. The commissioners’ salary bill, like all budget bills, still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law.

Idaho looks at tightening teen driving rules

The same day that five Idaho children died in a teen-driven car, a state Senate committee gave its blessing to a bill to restrict teen drivers, reports S-R reporter Parker Howell. Among other things, the bill proposed by two Panhandle lawmakers would limit drivers younger than 17 to no more than one unrelated teenage passenger for their first six months of unsupervised driving. Teen drivers are far more likely to be involved in collisions than older drivers, research shows. Read Howell’s full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

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About this blog

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

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

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