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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2008

But 30 pounds per person would be more…

When Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, made the motion to introduce the new grocery tax relief bill in Rev & Tax this morning, he noted a “grammatical correction” needed in the bill’s statement of purpose. “On the third line, that is $30 instead of 30 pounds,” Raybould said, prompting some puzzled laughter. Now, it wasn’t that the bill actually was written with the new grocery tax credit translated into British pounds – if it had been, it would have been more generous. But a typo placed a pound sign - # - in front of the 30 instead of a dollar sign. It’ll be corrected.

Divided Senate kills iSTARS teacher pay plan

The Senate debated long and hard, right through the lunch hour, on SB 1436, the remaining version of the much-modified “iSTARS” teacher merit pay plan, before killing it on a close, 16-19 vote. You can read my full story here. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I would submit to you that this is the first step – we have to start somewhere. I don’t think anybody here disputes that we aren’t paying our teachers well enough now.” Opponents noted that teachers who don’t qualify for the program’s bonuses – which are for student test scores, taking leadership positions or teaching in hard-to-fill jobs – would get only a 1 percent raise next year, and that the plan comes in $9 million to $10 million over the amount the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has targeted for public school funding next year. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said passage would mean other cuts in education – including eliminating state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s proposed math initiative and no money for Luna’s proposed 1 percent increase in discretionary funding to school districts.

Critics said the plan’s bonuses don’t actually target the best teaching. But Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “We’ve spent dollars over the years and no one seems to be happy with what the program is doing. We can continue to do the same thing, or we can be willing to step out and make some bold changes.” Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told the Senate, “We have some wonderful teachers, and I’d like to see us reward ‘em better. We also have some that are probably better truck drivers,” and Pearce said the state should “help ‘em move on.” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor, said, “Pay for performance has been shown to raise student achievement and to lower the number of teachers leaving the profession.” Several senators said they agree that it’s time for merit pay for teachers – but said this wasn’t the bill that accomplished that. Like other states have done, they said, Idaho should involve teachers in building a merit pay plan that they can support.

Hearing ends after more than two hours

After more than two hours of tough questions, the Senate Education Committee completed its hearing with the state Board of Education at 6:30 Boise time. Paul Agidius, the board’s vice-president who was filling in as president because Milford Terrell is out of the country, said, “I think it was a good airing of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of questions that we just don’t know who did what, because it wasn’t at our level. I hope that it came across that we are taking steps … to ensure that the process works properly in the future, and errors like this can’t happen.” You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

‘We’re airing the problems’

At a brief break from the long, sweaty hearing at which senators are grilling the state Board of Ed, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think we’re airing the problems.” He said, “It’s accomplishing what I expected that it might – when faced with past problems, I think it’s human nature to be defensive, and I’m seeing some of that. But I’m also seeing that everyone has admitted that mistakes have been made, and there’s been corrective actions taken, which is positive.” The hearing has resumed now and questioning has begun on the “Gear Up” grant.

Senators question testing contract

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, questioned how the state Board of Education could have framed a request for proposals for a statewide testing program that left key parts in optional add-on sections, rather than in the main, base portion. “Why would you have an RFP formulated that didn’t include what you were required to have by your own rule? … Can you explain that?” he asked. Board member Laird Stone responded that multiple committees and a consultant helped formulate and review the RFP, and the state Division of Purchasing recommended that just the federal requirements be in the base portion. Perhaps another review was needed, he said, but it should’ve been by attorneys familiar with the legal requirements, not by the board, he said. The board ended up having to cancel 2nd and 9th grade ISAT testing for lack of funds; they were add-ons in the contract, though they were required by state board rules.

‘Perhaps you do have too much responsibility’

After running down the list of state agencies and programs the state Board of Education oversees, Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, questioned whether the board has too much on its plate. Board members said the smaller programs don’t take a lot of their time, but Jorgenson said, “Perhaps you do have too much responsibility. … Wouldn’t you be better off just focusing on what it is you’re supposed to do?”

Jorgenson also asked if the board has adequate staff, and board members said they currently lack both a chief fiscal officer and a chief academic officer – and they don’t have sufficient funds to hire at the level required to fill them. “Both of those positions, we lost the personnel while Karen McGee was our interim director,” board member Paul Agidius told the Senate Education Committee. Added board member Blake Hall, “Unfortunately when we get someone good, they get hired away, they get hired away by one of the institutions.” Idaho’s universities pay more than the board office, Hall said.

Jorgenson asked why those two key employees left, and Hall responded, “Personnel matters are matters that are privileged, and I’m not able to disclose those under state law.” Said Jorgenson, “I’m not asking for the personnel files, I’m merely asking did they quit, were they fired?” Hall said he still couldn’t say, but, “I can tell you that some of the people you’ve made inquiry on did leave of their own volition to take better-paying jobs.” Both positions remain vacant.

Hill publishes book after 12 years’ work

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, has published a book he’s been working on for 12 years, entitled “A Matter of Principle,” that’s geared toward young adults and was inspired by his reflections on how he became interested in politics. Hill, a fourth-term senator, is the chairman of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee. Click below for the full announcement.

‘Now just a small pool’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney welcomed a visitor back to the House chamber today – former Speaker Tom Boyd. Denney noted that Boyd was speaker when Denney started as a freshman lawmaker, and welcomed Boyd to the new tighter temporary quarters, in which Boyd sat wedged into a small back corner. Referring to the gracious “well” area that curved around the front of the speaker’s desk in the state capitol, Denney commented, “The well has shrunk, and it’s now just a small pool.”

Governor’s scholarship plan trimmed back

Legislative budget writers this morning debated a proposal to go along with Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to set aside $50 million in a trust fund for scholarships for needy students next year, another to put $20 million in, and a third to put in $10 million – matching last year’s deposit – and allow for $2 million in one-time funding for scholarship awards next year, to match what was funded this year. The $50 million proposal, backed by Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, got only three votes. The $20 million proposal, from Rep. Shirley, Ringo, D-Moscow, got just four votes, from the panel’s four Democrats. Then, the original $10 million motion passed 19-1, with just Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, objecting.

This year, the Opportunity Scholarship program is handing out roughly 700 scholarships of up to $3,000 to needy Idaho college students. They’ll have to apply again next year to keep their scholarships, but those who got them this year will have priority. Demand for the scholarships has been huge, and more than twice as many students qualified as received awards.

Ringo argued for dipping into the state’s overflowing reserve funds, if necessary, to make a one-time deposit into the scholarship trust fund. “I know that we’re under some very challenging constraints,” she said. “I wouldn’t indicate that I’m willing to raid other budgets that are austere, but I would be willing to explore rather extraordinary measures to fund this, even to the extent of perhaps borrowing or taking from some of the available pots of money.”

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the governor is “to be commended” for making the scholarship proposal. “Unfortunately, when he set his budget, resources were at a different point, revenue was at a different projection, and we were not facing the difficulty that we’re facing today,” he told the committee. “And while we do have money in reserve accounts and our budget stabilization account and the public schools stabilization account, now is not the time to be withdrawing from those accounts in order to balance the budget. I would gently ask you that if you can’t balance the budget on projected revenues now, how will it be when revenues are even worse, if in fact things continue in the direction that they have been?”

Cameron noted that budget decisions that still haven’t been made – including funding for public schools and higher education – will be “really tough decisions.” He said, “While scholarships are important, they’re not more important than some of the other issues, like appropriately funding higher education or appropriately funding public education.”

The approved budget eliminates $2 million in ongoing funding for the scholarships that lawmakers approved last year, but replaces that with $2 million in one-time funds. That means next year’s scholarships will be for the same amount as this year’s, plus any extra from earnings on the existing trust fund. The following year, lawmakers would again have to decide whether to add to the earnings to keep scholarships at the same level.

Mel Richardson to retire

Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, has announced that he’ll retire at the end of his current term, his 10th in the Legislature. Richardson, who served two terms in the House and then eight in the Senate, said, “After 20 years, it’s just time. Health wise, everything is great. I just felt like there are people who’d like a turn. I’m announcing it now so that people who would like to get in can run.” Some capitol denizens already have tasted Richardson’s retirement cake – because he announced his retirement back in 2002, and appeared to be leaving, but then decided to run again after all. This time, Richardson, a longtime radio broadcaster, said it’s for real. Click below to read the full announcement.

Lobbying bill has support from both state, lobbyists

Legislation introduced by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa this morning to clarify and expand Idaho’s lobbying laws has backing even from the lobbyists themselves, according to the Associated Press. AP reporter John Miller reported that Skip Smyser, head of the Legislative Advisors group at the Capitol, said there had been some disagreement under existing lobbying laws over what was required to be reported. If this legislation passes, it will eliminate the uncertainty, he said. “It’s good to clarify,” Smyser said. “The lobbying community has been very much involved and I believe will overwhelmingly support this.” The changes were sought by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa after a June 2007 Idaho attorney general’s opinion concluded entertainment and relationship-building at events such as the Idaho Governor’s Cup, an annual charity golf event where lobbyists can pick up the tab for lawmakers to attend, meet the definition of lobbying. Click below to read Miller’s full report.

Public schools budget-setting delayed

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee had been scheduled to set the public school budget tomorrow morning, but now that’s been delayed to next week because of the Senate Education Committee’s passage yesterday of the revised iSTARS teacher pay legislation. “We don’t want to be out in front of the public policy decision,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “So we’ll put it off until after action on the Senate floor.”

The problem: The budget-setting so far has left room to spend about $24 million on increased school salaries next year, enough to give teachers 3 percent raises plus raise the minimum teacher salary by $500 a year. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna wants to instead give teachers just 1 percent, plus the $20.55 million iSTARS incentive bonus program for some of them, plus the $500 increase in the minimum, plus 3 percent for classified employees while holding administrators to just 1 percent, for a total of $33 million. “As we understand it, it would put us outside the target by about $9 million,” Cameron said. “Frankly, I’m not tickled about it. We’ve got to figure out how we’ll react.”

Public schools budget-setting likely will be pushed back to Tuesday, Cameron said. Also, some issues have come up between lawmakers, corrections and the governor’s office over the budget numbers for the prison warehouse conversion into inmate treatment beds, so that, too has been put off. It had been scheduled to be up first this morning. “We need some more time to negotiate with the governor’s office on it,” Cameron said. “We’ll postpone that.”

No irony there

The state Board of Education has sent out its schedule for meetings this week, and it includes “open government training” this Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., followed immediately by – you guessed it – a closed-door, executive session at 5 p.m.

Governor defends golf tournament

Gov. Butch Otter has sent out a statement speaking out strongly in support of the annual “Governor’s Cup” golf tournament, a fundraiser for scholarships at which “there are opportunities for business people and government people to talk.” He wrote, “Yes, there is golf, trap shooting, fly fishing and other entertainment at some of the most beautiful spots on Earth, like Sun Valley last year and Coeur d’Alene in 2008. Yes, there is camaraderie and good humor and – dare I say it? – fun.” Click below for his full statement.

Senate journeys over rough road

The Idaho Senate was locked in debate much of the morning over a proposed amendment to the chain-up bill, SB 1379. The bill now would require tire chains in dangerous, snowy conditions only for interstate truckers on three specific North Idaho mountain passes – Lookout, Fourth of July, and Lolo. Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, proposed an amendment to add White Bird Hill. The other three passes had been targeted as particular problem spots where there’s already sufficient chain-up area to impose the requirement on semi-trucks. Schroeder said White Bird Hill meets that criteria too, but others disagreed. After extensive debate, only a handful of senators supported the amendment, and it failed.

Eventful morning in JFAC

In an eventful morning of budget-setting, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning nearly killed the funding for the Women’s Commission, stuck close to the governor’s recommendation on prison funding, left the conversion of a prison warehouse into treatment beds for a decision tomorrow, and trimmed proposed new rural arts grants by half because of audit problems at the state Arts Commission. Overall, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, thought the budget-setting was “pretty good today.” “Today I thought was typical of what they’ve been doing the last few weeks,” he said: Essentially sticking close to the governor’s recommendations, with “just a little trimming.”

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, went after the Women’s Commission, which she called “a waste of money” and “a duplicative service.” Other members questioned what the commission accomplishes. The vote on its budget initially was split 10-10 – which meant it would have failed, zero-funding the agency. But then a slew of JFAC members changed their votes. The final vote, at 16-4, left the tiny agency’s less-than-$40,000 budget intact.

Budget motions for the state Department of Correction largely matched the governor’s proposals, but Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, led a move to delete $53,900 included as part of the governor’s “green initiative” to move new vehicle purchases toward hybrids or flex-fuel vehicles. That initiative has been trimmed in some budgets set by the committee, but not others. Bair’s motion passed, 12-8. JFAC also unanimously approved a small supplemental appropriation it had passed over earlier for additional office space for the Human Rights Commission.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said lawmakers yesterday met with corrections and administration officials and were persuaded that conversion of the prison warehouse into treatment beds should be funded. That’ll be taken up tomorrow morning. The prison budgets approved today include $24.5 million for county and out-of-state placement of inmates next year, down from the governor’s proposed $28.6 million, but state Corrections Director Brent Reinke said with the recent flattening of prison population growth, “It’s going to be close.” Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said, “This is kind of our best guess at this time.”

Legislation would end field-burning secrecy

Idaho would start a new field-burning regulation program that makes public health a priority, ends the state’s practice of keeping field-burn locations a secret and cuts off burning when pollution rises, under legislation introduced this morning. The new system is part of an agreement to allow field-burning to resume in Idaho; it’s been banned for the past year due to a federal court decision. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Substance abuse funds restored

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning shifted savings around, restored a federal grant, and added $10.5 million in one-time funds to the state Office of Drug Policy to bring statewide substance abuse treatment services for next year back up to this year’s level – rather than slashing them as Gov. Butch Otter had recommended in his budget. Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, was fuming after the joint committee’s action. “Yes, we need to do something about drug treatment, but this is a lot of money,” he said. “They’ve just busted their own budget, as far as I’m concerned.” Read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Hammon said by his calculations, budget writers have trimmed about $10.7 million from the governor’s budget recommendation in their budget-setting so far. But now, he said, “They’ve just spent it.” Otter wanted millions to go to 5 percent average raises for state employees, which the Legislature has cut back to 3 percent; and for other proposals, like adding forensics staffers to the state police crime lab, which lawmakers cut. “Is their priority state employees? No, it’s drug users, that’s their priority,” Hammon said. “All the money they’ve saved so far in the general fund, they’ve just spent.”

Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, said the joint committee tried to “meet the governor halfway” on substance abuse funding. “The governor vocalized some concerns that we don’t have the data yet” about whether treatment programs are working, she said. “It’s a Catch-22, because if you remove the effort, then the data’s going to look bad. This maintains the current effort. We’ll look at some data.” The one-time funding means lawmakers still will have to debate the issue and determine again next year whether to provide the funds, Henbest said. “It seems like a wiser approach.”

One-time funds like the $10.5 million that JFAC spent typically couldn’t be spent for items like state employee raises or adding new workers, because those are ongoing expenses. But Hammon noted that the Legislature shifted a big chunk of the state’s revenue forecast from ongoing to one-time, rather than accept the governor’s economists’ evaluation of how much of each type of funding the state should expect.

JFAC noted that overall, the budget they set this morning keeps statewide spending on substance abuse treatment at $27.4 million, and $25 million of that goes to the criminal justice population, including those in prisons – only about $2 million goes to community-based treatment. “We’ve always underfunded community treatment, forever,” Henbest said. “So we’re trying to ramp up that community side … but it’s taken a while. … We haven’t fixed it yet.”

State board issues response

The Idaho State Board of Education has issued this response to Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s investigation of an open meeting complaint against the board:

The State Board of Education accepts the findings and recommendations of Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, and would like to express its tremendous respect and appreciation for the work done by Attorney General Wasden and his staff. The Board intends to thoroughly review the report and findings.

The report, which is available on the Attorney General’s website, concludes among other things, that while the Board’s actions may have constituted a non-knowing violation of the Open Meeting Act, it does not give rise to the penalties provided for in the Act. No decision was made in the December 6, 2007 executive session; therefore the remedy under the Act to void a Board action is inappropriate. The summary also says the Board’s minutes setting forth the reasons for past executive sessions may have been too broad, and the Board should avoid including such broad provisions in their future minutes.

The Board reiterates its ongoing commitment to open government, and believes its practices support this commitment. The Board Office publishes Board meeting agendas on line in advance of its meetings with all supporting documents and materials for the public to review. The Board also takes additional efforts to ensure access for all Idahoans by holding regular meetings in different areas of the state. Finally, the Board provides toll-free telephone access to enable our citizens to listen to all the Board’s special telephonic meetings.

The Board is fully committed to serving the public in the most open and transparent manner possible and acknowledges that there is always room for improvement. The Board welcomes Attorney General Wasden’s suggestions for accomplishing this goal.

Board may have violated open meeting law, AG says

The Idaho State Board of Education may have violated the Idaho Open Meeting Law, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced this morning, but because of a recent state Supreme Court decision, he couldn’t find that they’d “knowingly” done so. “The board would benefit from receiving training on the open meeting law,” Wasden said at a news conference – adding that that training already has been scheduled. He also found that the board didn’t make a decision at a Dec. 6 closed meeting to eliminate 9th grade ISAT testing, so the Open Meeting Law’s sanction of overturning any decision made in a closed meeting doesn’t come into play. Though the board announced that decision in a news release the following Monday, Wasden said his investigation found that the release was inaccurate, and that the board didn’t make that decision until a special meeting called for that purpose on Dec. 20. That was a week after the filing of the open meeting complaint that prompted Wasden’s investigation.

Wasden said, “The open meeting law is really a critical factor in allowing the public to participate in our government.” He said his office advises a “more narrow interpretation” of the law than the state board has taken, and said the board’s upcoming training is “wholly appropriate.”

You can read the Attorney General’s full report here (it’s a very large PDF file), his news release here and his statement from the press conference here.

Taking it ‘day to day’

Gov. Butch Otter seemed to be walking just fine during his first day back at work after his Jan. 29 hip surgery, and impressed legislative leaders – with whom he met early Thursday – as being rarin’ to go. Said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, “He felt good, he looked good.”

Otter’s return to preside over a Thursday morning Land Board meeting actually came as a surprise to his staff, who expected him to participate by phone. “I think he’s anxious to get back,” Hanian said. “He has crutches, but he didn’t use ‘em today.” As to whether the governor’s back to stay, after recuperating and working from home for the past month, Hanian said, “It’s going to be day to day.” Otter left the office shortly after the Land Board meeting.

Senators change course, approve Terrell

The Senate Education Committee has just voted to reverse its earlier vote to hold the reconfirmation of state Board of Education Chairman Milford Terrell until after it calls the full board before the panel to explain financial problems. After the reconsideration carried on a 6-2 vote, the panel approved Terrell’s reconfirmation on a voice vote with just one dissent, and sent it to the full Senate. “I believe that Milford Terrell has done a great job in a difficult situation,” said Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle. “I think he is to be commended for that. … He deserves to have our support.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the committee chairman, said he’s secured commitments from all but one of the state board members to appear before the committee on Feb. 28th, but the one remaining member, Rod Lewis, is involved in an out-of-state trial and it’s not clear when he will be able to appear.

Goedde said he wanted the hold on Terrell’s confirmation lifted in part because Gov. Butch Otter is “back and engaged now,” and met with Senate leaders and asked them to move the confirmation along. Otter made his first public appearance today since his Jan. 29 hip surgery, presiding over a state Land Board meeting this morning.

Green out, Echeverria in at ISBA

The Idaho School Boards Association has announced that former Executive Director Cliff Green has “chosen to leave” his position “to pursue other employment opportunities,” and reported, “The Idaho School Boards Association Inc. and Dr. Green have reached an agreement which satisfies all parties.” Karen Echeverria, who has been serving as acting director, was named the new executive director of the group.

Pass different kind of test to get scholarship?

Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, got an enthusiastic reception in the House Education Committee this morning for her bill to start a pilot project to give scholarships to kids who remain drug, alcohol and tobacco-free – and pass random drug tests to prove it. HB 503 would give “Key to the Future” scholarships of up to $1,000 a year for two years to students who have at least a 2.5 GPA or at least 20 on the ACT and meet the requirements. They’re also expected to remain drug, alcohol and tobacco-free through college, though the random drug testing wouldn’t continue beyond the junior and senior years of high school.

Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, said she told two teens in her district about the idea, and “both of them said, ‘Well, finally. … Finally this is going to pay off.” Chavez said, “This just says thanks for doing the right thing for your body and for our society.”

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, called it “a unique approach” and said it’s worked for athletes. “The omens of success look very good,” he said. Rep. Jerry Shively, D-Idaho Falls, said he’d support the bill, but said, “I kinda hate to pay people for what they’re supposed to do. … It’s like paying ‘em a dollar a day to eat their oatmeal.” Block countered that the same approach works for adults, as in car insurance rate incentives. “All that we are doing for prevention of drug, alcohol and tobacco is not working,” Block told the committee. “Let’s try it – it’s a pilot project.” She said, “With this legislation, it is our hope that Idaho’s children will say, ‘I can’t do drugs with you, I can’t drink alcohol with you, I can’t smoke with you, I have to save my scholarship – and it will be my key to the future.”

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said, “I would’ve loved to get this, ‘cause I would’ve qualified for it.” Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, said, “To me it’s refreshing to finally reward the normal kid. We do reward the poor; if they don’t have enough money they get scholarships to go to school. And we reward the straight-A student.” But, he said, the state does “nothing for the normal kid.”

The bill cleared the Education Committee on a unanimous vote and now heads to the full House.

‘No frills’ budget set for Medicaid

Frugal budgets were set this morning for Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for the elderly and disabled. “There will be no rate increases for anyone,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley. “The economic times would indicate that that’s what we have to do.”

The overall increase set by JFAC for the state-federal program was just 6.9 percent, in a program where 15 percent increases have been common in recent years. Wood said when caseload growth, state employee raises and benefit costs are taken out, it’s actually a small decrease.

Among items that lawmakers trimmed were replacements of any vehicles with fewer than 95,000 miles on them, unless they were specialty vehicles. Said Wood, “It’s an extremely flat and prudent budget… There are certainly not going to be any frills there.”

Real estate disclosure bill clears committee – after 17 years

Legislation to require real estate sales prices to be disclosed to county assessors, so they can accurately calculate taxable market values instead of just guessing, cleared a Senate committee today after nearly two decades of unsuccessful tries. The bipartisan bill wouldn’t make that information public – it’d just require it to be reported confidentially to the assessor. Click below for AP reporter John Miller’s full report. The bill now moves to the full Senate.

The numbers tell the story…

Here’s proof that this year’s legislative session really did start off quicker and accomplish more in its earlier weeks than usual: More bills have passed both houses than at this point in the last five sessions (32); more have passed the Senate and are awaiting House action than at this point in the last five sessions (49); and more are awaiting the governor’s signature (19). At the same time, the number of pieces of new legislation prepared so far this year (735) is the second-lowest at this point since 2003, as is the number of bill introductions (382). Which all, taken together, suggests there’s been a rather fruitful spate of lawmaking going on…

Sudan divestment bill goes down, 5-4

After hours of impassioned testimony that stretched over two days of hearings, the Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 5-4 against SB 1367, the bill to divest state retirement fund assets from companies doing business with Sudan because of the genocide in the Darfur region. Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, cast the tie-breaking vote after the committee deadlocked, 4-4. “If we look at what damages our society here and our children, alcohol, drugs, the tobacco industry…” he said. “I see equal justification for a lot of those issues in divesting, but if we go down that road, I don’t know where we stop.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “Playing politics with retired Idahoans primary source of income in their senior and vulnerable years is an area of great concern.” But, he said. “I admit I don’t know where the line is drawn, but for me today, I’m going to draw it at genocide – and I’m going to support the bill.”

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, a co-sponsor of the measure, said it makes sense that the PERSI board felt it couldn’t make the change on its own. “I think it’s entirely appropriate that the PERSI board suggests they don’t have the responsibility or the authority to make these changes,” Stegner said. “That responsibility lies with this legislature – this is what we do. We set policy.”

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “If a person wants to opt out of PERSI, they’re free to do that.”

In the final vote, the senators voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Davis, Stegner, Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Kate Kelly, D-Boise. Those voting against were Sens. McKenzie, Jorgenson, Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, Brad Little, R-Emmett, and Denton Darrington, R-Declo.

Otter to lawmakers: ‘Let’s get to work!’

Gov. Butch Otter has released another op-ed piece to media across the state, this time pushing lawmakers not to put off transportation improvements because of budget concerns. “Simply put, the cost of addressing our transportation infrastructure needs is growing daily,” Otter said in the article. “Putting it off will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars more in years to come.” He closed with this: “My sense – backed up by many of you – is that Idahoans are ready to make measured, responsible, consistent investments in a safer, cleaner, more efficient transportation future. So as I told legislators as they started this year’s session: Let’s get to work!”

Of course, Otter has been recuperating at his Star ranch since his Jan. 29 hip surgery. Lawmakers are in their seventh week of legislating this session. Click below to read the full piece.

‘Motion for enlarged brief’ filed in Craig case

In Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s continuing court fight to withdraw his guilty plea in an airport restroom-sex sting in Minnesota, a new motion has been filed today by the prosecution. It’s a “motion for enlarged brief,” which in this case means the respondents want to file a brief to the Minnesota Court of Appeals exceeding the current length limit of 15,500 words. The reasons listed in the motion include:

“1 – Respondent is unable to address all pertinent issues within the current length restraints. 2 - The variety of novel issues presented by Amici Curiae’s brief are outside of the scope of the Appellant’s principal arguments. 3 – Respondent’s counsel has made honest efforts to confine its brief within the limitations prescribed by the Minnesota Rules of Appellate Procedure, but is unable to do so while presenting the Court with the information necessary to make an informed decision.”

Although just filed and posted today, the “motion for enlarged brief” was dated Feb. 14th, Valentine’s Day.

Otter’s not giving up yet

Gov. Butch Otter isn’t giving up yet on his proposal to shift Idaho State Police funding off the gas tax and onto the general fund, said his budget director, Wayne Hammon. Even though JFAC has sent strong signals that next year’s budget won’t contain that move – setting a budget this morning for ISP without it, and a spending target that doesn’t include it – Hammon said Otter still plans to present a bill to germane committees to make the shift, as part of his overall transportation funding package. “I believe we’re introducing it today or tomorrow as part of the governor’s big package,” Hammon said. If germane committees supported the plan and it passed both houses, JFAC could send a trailer bill to fund it, he said. “I still believe there’s room in the general fund budget to do it,” Hammon said. “If it dies in the germane committee, that’s a whole ‘nother deal.”

The budget cutting has begun

The budget-cutting has begun. This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set a budget for the Idaho State Police for next year that not only leaves out the $9 million-plus fund shift Gov. Butch Otter wanted in order to generate more money for transportation. It also cuts out the governor’s proposal to add six new forensics staffers, at a cost of $637,000, and trims a planned $715,700 investment in mobile data computers by half to $357,900. The joint committee deadlocked 10-10 on a motion to at least add back in half of the new forensics staffers, at a cost of $318,500. Then, the more parsimonious budget passed on a 12-8 vote.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, urged support for the forensics staffers. The city of Post Falls had to pay more than $4,000 to send out a DNA test in a criminal case to a private lab because the state lab couldn’t complete the test quickly enough, he said. Henderson said the state lab’s current goal is 90 days to turn around DNA tests – and with its current staffing, it only hits that goal 43 percent of the time. Said Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, “More and more of the work that we’re doing is in high-tech forensics. … In reality, justice delayed is justice denied.”

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, spoke out for the mobile data computers for ISP officers. Idaho clearly doesn’t have enough state police officers on its roads, he said. “ISP is staffed very minimally a lot of the time.” With the computers, the existing staff can be more efficient, he said, filing reports and doing other work from the road without having to return to the station. “We are extending the staff we have with these computers,” he said.

Committee Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, urged caution. “There are a lot of things that are needful, and there are a lot of things that are good,” she said. “But at the end of the budget setting, if you’re upside down, it really doesn’t matter. … Tomorrow, there’s going to be something else that isn’t quite adequate. … It just concerns me. I know this won’t be the last time (that lawmakers want) to do more and do better.” Her argument carried the day, with Rep. Darrell Bolz’ substitute motion passing, 12-8.

‘How could we vote against milk?’

According to research by the dairy industry, one reason milk was becoming less popular with schoolchildren was because of its unattractive packaging – those old paper cartons. So the industry developed round, 8-ounce plastic bottles, which kids then praised as making the milk more “cool,” easier to drink and tastier. Now, Deanna Sessions told the House Agriculture Committee, “More than 200 schools in Idaho participate in this program and are serving milk in this cool packaging.” Sessions gave a presentation on Idaho’s dairy industry to the Ag Committee today – just before the panel took up HB 485, the bill to make milk Idaho’s state drink. As a result, when the representatives debated the milk bill, Chairman Tom Trail was sipping chocolate milk, and others were enjoying milk, cheese, little plastic black-and-white cows and other goodies presented to them at the end of the Idaho dairy presentation.

“I think the stage has successfully been set” to consider the bill, Trail told the panel. Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who is co-sponsoring the milk bill with Trail, then told the committee that 26 states have a state beverage “or a spirit, in the case of Alabama – they have whisky.” Eighteen states have milk as their official beverage. Durst said milk consumption has been decreasing since 1988, and soda pop consumption has been climbing. “I think there’s a strong correlation between that and the amount of obesity we have with kids,” he told the committee. “The dietary decisions that kids are making now are going to impact their rates of heart disease in the future. … We as a government have a responsibility to do something about this.” Durst got backing for his official-milk bill from an array of Idaho ag and dairy groups. And he told the committee, “I just had a glass this morning – it was fantastic.” Added Trail, “I had a glass at lunch.”

Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, said he wondered what he was to tell his grandkids, who he’s been long trying to convince that “growing sugar beets is a positive.” Durst told him, “I believe they’re essential products to the cookies that I’m going to be dipping in my glass of milk.” And though Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, asked, “How could we vote against milk? It’s un-American, I think – definitely un-Idaho,” Stevenson still did just that. He was the only one, however, and the bill was sent to the full House with a recommendation that it pass.

More on the math

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee now says House Education Chairman Bob Nonini’s math may have been correct after all, depending on how you calculate. Nonini, quizzed by a JFAC member this morning, said a 1 percent increase in discretionary funding for school districts would cost $3.5 million. State budget figures show the 1 percent increase that state Superintendent Tom Luna requested for next year would cost $7.3 million. But Headlee just got back to me to say that part of that is because of the increase in student counts; if another 1 percent were to be added on top of next year’s budget request, without any change in student counts, it’d cost $3.5 million. “There’s just different ways of looking at it,” Headlee said. For his part, Nonini said he figured the number he gave was correct – because he got it from Luna.

JFAC accepts 3 percent for budget motions

At least for the purpose of preparing budget motions to be considered in the joint committee, JFAC has unanimously accepted the 3 percent CEC, or change in employee compensation, recommendation from a joint committee that met on Friday. That’s down from the governor’s recommendation of 5 percent average raises for state employees next year. Though individual members still could propose departures from that in individual motions on agency budgets, it sets the figure as the bottom line in all budget calculations – which makes it that much more likely to become reality. At this point, that 3 percent doesn’t apply to public school employees; no decisions have yet been made on that. JFAC starts setting agency budgets tomorrow.

Otter wants to trim water resources staff

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who paid a $50,000 federal fine in 2001 for destroying wetlands without a permit while creating ponds on his ranch near the Boise River, is proposing cutbacks in the state Department of Water Resources next year that will eliminate four of the five full-time staffers in the state’s stream channel protection program. Ironically, that’ll mean Idahoans with stream channel issues would interact more with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – the agency of which Otter ran afoul.

The governor actually ordered the cutbacks because he believed the agency no longer needed all its employees who are assigned to work on the Snake River Basin Adjudication, said Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, as the adjudication winds down. “The governor thought there ought to be some savings,” Hammon said. But Water Resources Director David Tuthill said the next budget year actually will be a “very busy year in the SRBA,” as the agency tackles more than 3,500 water rights claims with objections still outstanding. The final decree for the Snake River adjudication is expected to be signed in 2012. “We’ll continue to have a significant effort in SRBA until then,” he said.

Tuthill said he supports the governor’s recommendation. “The governor’s budget is our budget,” he said. So he had to find other places to make the cuts. “With the reduction in staff that is coming for next fiscal year, we won’t be able to continue to do what we do now,” he said. Tuthill decided to trim staff from three programs, dropping staffing for the North Idaho water rights adjudication from 11 to 8, trimming two positions from water management on top of one that was cut this year, and cutting four of the five full-time staffers from the stream channel protection program.

“This does not indicate that the program is not valuable,” Tuthill said. In fact, he said, the program has greatly improved the health of Idaho’s streams since it was established in 1971. But it’s one of the few at the department that has some overlap with federal programs – in this case, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permitting program. Some lawmakers are concerned about the proposed cuts; you can read my full story here.

Governor ‘disappointed’ with 3 percent CEC

Gov. Butch Otter is “disappointed” that lawmakers have slashed his proposed 5 percent average raises for state employees next year to 3 percent, said his budget chief, Wayne Hammon. “He’s disappointed we can’t do 5 percent – I had to go out and tell him we just couldn’t do it,” Hammon said. But failing that, Otter had been pushing for 4 percent. Hammon said the decision makes lots of room in next year’s budget for another top Otter priority, a $50 million trust fund for college scholarships for needy Idaho students. “There’s plenty of room now in the budget for $50 million for opportunity scholarships,” Hammon said.

Supporters of the 3 percent proposal said if the economy improves, lawmakers can add more for raises next year when they return in January. “It could be the first issue addressed, and we could try to make up the difference for state employees in the middle of the year,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron told the Joint CEC Committee. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

One proposal: 3 percent

The committee’s staffer, budget analyst Amy Castro, is now reviewing a proposed motion prepared for Rep. Ken Roberts that calls for 3 percent funding for state employee raises, with 1 percent to go across the board to all eligible employees with satisfactory evaluations, and the other 2 percent to be divided by merit and to target those who are being paid below market. The long, complicated motion also includes various provisions about benefits, including a clause to limit employees’ health insurance premium increases to a maximum of 29 percent. Employees would be offered an alternative plan to keep premium costs the same, but cut coverage.

CEC meeting will be broadcast

This morning’s meeting of the joint legislative committee on Change in Employee Compensation (CEC in legislative shorthand) will be broadcast live on the Internet on the JFAC channel, as it’s taking place in the JFAC meeting room (which has few audience seats). Go to www.idahoptv.org/leglive and select “JFAC” to watch and listen in. The meeting also will be played on low-power FM radio in the Capitol Annex, at FM channel 103.9, shown on in-house cable in the building on channel 69, and shown in the two public viewing rooms on the first floor of the annex. The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. mountain time, 7:30 Pacific.

State broadcasters make big donation to ‘Legislature Live’

The live Internet and digital TV broadcasts of action in the House and Senate this year got a big boost today, as the Idaho State Broadcasters Association contributed $35,000 toward the effort for this year’s legislative session. With another $25,000 from the Idaho PTV Foundation endowment, the service is fully funded for the session. Lee Wagner, ISBA president, said the group decided the service “was consistent with our mission as broadcasters across the state.” This year, in the Legislature’s temporary quarters in the old Ada County courthouse, there are no public galleries in the House or Senate chambers, so the live broadcasts provide “virtual” galleries. But Jeff Youtz, legislative services director, said they’re drawing thousands of viewers – far more than ever could have been accommodated in public galleries. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes called it “a great service,” adding, “Really the business that we’re doing here is the people’s business.”

Anti-dogfighting bill passes unanimously

Legislation to make dog fighting a felony in Idaho won final passage in the House today on a unanimous, 67-0 vote. “We want those dogs to be safe – they are our friends and our companions,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. “We have no use for those who participate in the cruel act of organized dog fighting.” Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, told the House, “I don’t know about your constituents, but mine throughout southeastern Idaho have been asking for three years for this bill.”

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said, “I’m going to vote for this bill, but I’m gonna do it holding my nose.” The reason? Harwood said if an offender got the maximum penalty, he’d pay a $50,000 fine and spend five years in prison. “But my thing is, they get a $50,000 fine, it costs the taxpayers $300,000 to put that guy in jail for five years. I’d much rather see a penalty of a big fine and then community service – I think that would’ve been a better way to go. But that ain’t here, and we’re gonna be voting on this.” Responded House Speaker Lawerence Denney, “I’m going to count that as positive debate.”

The bill, SB 1260, earlier had passed the Senate overwhelmingly. It now goes to Gov. Butch Otter, who has pledged to sign it into law. The change ends Idaho’s distinction as one of just two states – the other is Wyoming – that doesn’t make dog fighting a felony.

Clark is a state what?

Oopsy. An e-mailed invitation to a Rathdrum Chamber of Commerce town hall meeting with state legislators contained a few typos:

Your invited….

The Rathdrum Area Chamber of Commerce is hosing a Town Hall Meeting featuring State Senator Mike Jorgensen, State Reprehensive Jim Clark and State Representative Phil Hart.

What to fund…

Committee chairmen are coming before JFAC today to give their recommendations for state budgets in their subject areas. First up this morning was Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Goedde told the budget writers that his committee has three top funding priorities: Teacher pay, a longitudinal data system to track student information, and funding for concurrent enrollment, in which a student earns both high school and college credit at once.

On teacher pay, Goedde called for “a percentage increase that is economically realistic and consistent with the approach to CEC.” CEC is the abbreviation for “change in employee compensation,” and is legislative shorthand for the percentage figure set for funding state employee raises. He also said the Education Committee wants to review any proposed changes in teacher pay policies.

Incidentally, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, just announced that JFAC won’t meet tomorrow morning – instead, the joint legislative CEC committee will meet to try to come up with a decision on which budget writers can base their budgets, which they’ll start setting next week.

The data system that Senate Education backed already is funded in Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for the state superintendent of public instruction, at $3.5 million. However, Otter recommended no funding for concurrent enrollment, for which Superintendent Tom Luna requested $3.5 million. Most of the questions that JFAC members had for Goedde were about concurrent enrollment, with several members expressing support for the concept. “I was very pleased,” Goedde said afterward. “I think there is an interest.”

Ethics Committee: Craig brought discredit on Senate

Here’s a news item that’s just moved on the AP wire:

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate Ethics Committee says Idaho Sen. Larry Craig acted improperly in a men’s room sex sting. In a letter Wednesday, the ethics panel says Craig’s attempt to withdraw his guilty plea in a June arrest at a Minneapolis airport was an effort to evade legal consequences of his own actions. The letter says Craig’s actions brought discredit on the Senate. The panel took no further action.

Senators reach for middle ground on adjudication

Three bills were approved, one will be amended, and five were killed in the Senate Resources Committee this afternoon, as the panel struggled to find middle ground on a split in North Idaho over a proposed basin-wide water rights adjudication. In the end, the solution that emerged from the committee was this: The adjudication won’t be canceled. It will move forward, but the northernmost basin, the Kootenai-Moyie river basin, will be deleted; fees will be cut in half, and Avista Corp.’s fees will be cut from $1.9 million to $300,000; and domestic and stock water rights will be “deferred,” meaning it’ll be voluntary for those water rights holders to participate. They make up half of the water rights involved.

“None of us who cosponsored the original legislation ever intended to make this an effort that was pushing down to the people something that they didn’t want,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said her constituents would prefer to delay or cancel the adjudication, but the changes “will help.” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, told the panel that Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene need their water rights adjudicated so they can continue to drill wells and serve customers in their growing cities.

The Panhandle senators praised Senate Resources Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, and his committee for all their work on the issue. “They really listened to all sides,” Keough said. “Really, at the end of the day, that’s what you hope for. It was a fair process.”

The bills that passed – SB 1418, 1352, and 1354 – now will head to the full Senate, while SB 1353 goes to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendment. That’s the bill to ban measuring devices on domestic wells. State Water Resources Director David Tuthill said the department has no intention of installing meters on everyone’s wells, but it occasionally does install a meter when two users are disputing their share of a single spring, and the bill as written would have foreclosed that option. He and Keough will work on amendments to cover the North Idaho situation while leaving the department the flexibility to deal with disputes between users.

Hammond said in his fast-developing area, adjudication will allow individual water users to secure their water rights against someone coming in upstream and taking away their water. He’s just finishing up a new home, and its water source, while good now, could be compromised by some future user who hits the same source. “As soon as I can, I’m filing my claim and getting my water right adjudicated,” he said.

House buckles down

Today, the House will reconvene after lunch to continue its floor session from this morning, in which the chamber considered and voted on nearly a dozen bills. That means all early-afternoon committee meetings, which otherwise would be at 1:30, are held on adjournment of the House – which could be anytime after that. The House is coming back on the floor at 1:15.

The final bill taken up before the lunch break, HB 399, passed on a 49-18 vote. It raises the cap on annual community college tuition from $1,250 to $2,500, doubling it. However, Sen. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, noted that community colleges still can’t raise their tuition more than 10 percent a year. “It hadn’t been changed since 2002,” she said. At North Idaho College, she said, students pay about 23 percent of the cost of their education. Both NIC and the College of Southern Idaho are now close to bumping up against the cap. The new College of Western Idaho will be limited to the old amount of $1,250 for its initial year, or $625 per semester. Click below to see the roll call on the bill.

Aviation fuel tax increase passes

The Senate has voted 26-8 to pass HB 359, the bill to increase Idaho’s aircraft engine fuel tax by 1.5 cents per gallon. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, the Senate transportation chairman, said pilots have been contacting him about the bill, and they “tell me that this is desperately needed to take care of these runways these guys fly into. … Airports across the state of Idaho are going to benefit from this action.” That tax hasn’t been increased since 1991, it’s only 5.5 cents a gallon now for aviation gasoline and 4.5 cents for jet fuel, and it’s raising so little that various aviation support programs to Idaho airports have been eliminated for lack of funds. (Idaho’s gas tax for regular gasoline is 25 cents a gallon.) The increase would raise $429,000 a year more for the state Aeronautics Fund and allow the discontinued services to be restored.

“It is not without controversy and nobody likes to increase taxes, I don’t think any of us does,” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. “But from time to time we have to adjust these things.” Voting against the bill were Sens. Bilyeu, Fulcher, Jorgenson, McKague, Pearce, Richardson, Sagness (for Malepeai) and Stennett. It’s already passed the House (51-16), so the bill now goes to the governor’s desk.

Otter: There’s enough money for $50 mil scholarship fund

Gov. Butch Otter has issued a statement calling for full funding of his proposal to put $50 million into a need-based scholarship fund, saying, “Our economy is growing more slowly than it was a year ago. But wise and frugal management and planning by our Legislature has helped ensure we will have enough revenue this year to provide $50 million in one-time budget surplus for the Opportunity Scholarship Trust Fund.” He added that he “will not stand for the $50 million I proposed for the Opportunity Scholarship Trust Fund being used as a piggy bank or a slush fund for other priorities or initiatives.” Click below to read his full statement.

Health Data Exchange approved after debate

Faced with a request for $350,000 in one-time funding to kick off a “health data exchange,” a program highlighted by Gov. Butch Otter in his State of the State address this year to bring together hospitals and other health care providers around the state to help provide a patient’s information when it’s needed in an emergency – such as what drugs they’re on – the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning debated at length. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, questioned why the proposal came as a supplemental budget request, for funding in the current year, rather than just waiting for a new budget year. Analysts said the state Department of Health & Welfare sought a federal grant for the $350,000, but didn’t get it. The backup was to seek a supplemental appropriation. The money matches $2 million put up by private providers in the state.

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said, “They went out and they have secured $2 million in the private sector to be matched by $350,000 in public funding. The federal grant did not come through.” In 2006, lawmakers authorized $200,000 to start the health planning commission that came up with the program, Wood said, but he and Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, engineered a shift of $100,000 of that to fund additional WAMI medical education seats, leaving just $100,000 to fund the commission. Nonetheless, it has launched initiatives that stemmed from Medicaid reform efforts, including the health data exchange. “We’ve got the private sector willing to put up $2 million for what is an excellent cause, and we’re sitting here quibbling?” Wood said. “I think we’re remiss if we don’t.” Henbest called the Health Data Exchange “an important initiative for our state.” The funding was approved on a 15-4 vote.

‘Category 4 contracts’ idea is dead

House and Senate GOP leaders and the House and Senate education committee chairmen met with state schools Supt. Tom Luna this afternoon to discuss areas of agreement on Luna’s “iSTARS” teacher performance pay plan. The outcome, according to House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, was that Luna’s proposal for so-called “Category 4 contracts,” in which teachers would give up their continuing contract rights in exchange for higher pay, is dead. “The Category 4 thing is not going anywhere this year, in a pilot project or otherwise, in my opinion,” Bedke said after the meeting. He said he and others are still holding out hope for some kind of bill this year, but that its price tag will be a key issue, what with concerns over state revenues.

Car dealer upgrade bill killed

All future licensed car dealerships in Idaho, new or used, would’ve been required to have a permanent building on a foundation, permanent utilities, an operating restroom and a landline phone, under legislation that came up for a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee this afternoon. Existing dealers would have been grandfathered in, and the bill, SB 1378, was proposed by the Idaho Transportation Department and backed by the Idaho Independent Auto Dealers Association. Wilke Meyers of the association told the Senate committee, “Our association has taken the stand that the industry needs to uplift itself and be more reputable.” The department noted that it’s received 1,000 complaints about car transactions, mostly about purchasers not receiving appropriate titles. But senators said they didn’t think the proposed requirements would help with that. “Let’s deal with the consumer piece, not the aesthetics – let’s increase the bonding requirements,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. The bill was killed on a unanimous vote.

Remembering Lincoln on his b-day

Both the House and Senate had ceremonies today honoring Abraham Lincoln on what Skip Critrell, who dressed as Lincoln and delivered his Second Inaugural Address, noted would have been the 16th president’s 199th birthday. Lincoln fans are gearing up for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, which falls on this day next year. In his address, Lincoln urged the people of the United States to “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Church volunteers: Correct ‘crucial flaw’

Volunteers from an array of churches and faith-based organizations are at the Capitol Annex today, urging lawmakers to correct what they say is a “crucial flaw” in Idaho’s current grocery tax credit: That poor people are disqualified from receiving it. Anyone who doesn’t make enough to have to file tax returns – that’s at least $17,500 for a married couple filing jointly – is ineligible for Idaho’s current grocery credit. Various proposals to expand the credit over the past year would have corrected that, but none have passed. “This is the minimum they need to do on the grocery tax this year,” said Vivian Parrish of the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger. “Nothing was done last year. We are very concerned that this is an unjust flaw in the grocery tax credit.”

The Interfaith Roundtable volunteers have split up into pairs and are talking with legislators and giving them cookies to remind them of the issue. “We’re trying to catch all the legislators and tell them it’s really important,” Parrish said. Here, Parrish, of the Lutheran Church, and Sandy Berenter, of the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue, pause in a capitol annex stairwell between chats with legislators.

Lake returns, wins on bill

When Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, suffered a stroke during a House debate last Thursday, he was debating against a bill sponsored by his seatmate, Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, to shore up Idaho’s judges’ retirement system by creating a stabilization fund. Today, with Lake back in the House, Clark gave the closing debate that he’d started last Thursday, and the House voted – and the bill failed by one vote, 34-33. “That’s the first one he’s beat me on on the floor,” Clark said of his seatmate, recalling besting Lake similarly on a bill the two differed on back in 1999. “So we’re even.” Clark said he’s worked on the measure for two years, but he was philosophical about the loss. “Big issues like that take time,” he said. “So we’ll come back next year.”

Idaho lawmakers propose sentencing reform

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Monday designed to let Idaho judges waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders, if the crime stems from addiction that could be treated. “There are some people we don’t need to throw the book at,” said Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. “They’re not really criminals, they’re people with a problem. We want to help them solve the problem.”

Hart joined Reps. Lynn Luker, R-Boise; Raul Labrador, R-Eagle; and Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise; to introduce the bill, which the House Judiciary Committee agreed to hear. But it may run into trouble if it makes it to the Senate, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Denton Darrington, R-Declo, said, “It’s not going to pass.” You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Idaho headed toward fourth appellate court justice

Two bills that already have passed the Senate unanimously have now also won near-unanimous support from the House Judiciary Committee. SB 1270 adds a fourth justice to Idaho’s three-member Court of Appeals in 2009, due to skyrocketing caseload. SB 1271 removes the requirement that the state law library be located in the Supreme Court building or the state capitol. The courts plan to move the law library out to make room for the Court of Appeals to be located in the library’s current space, on the first floor of the Supreme Court building. Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, cast the only vote against SB 1271, while the committee was unanimous in support of SB 1270. Both bills now need passage in the full House and the governor’s signature to become law.

It’s the third-largest selling

Idaho’s Capitol restoration special license plate is now the state’s third-largest selling specialty plate, Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, told the Senate, and so the Capitol Commission would like to keep selling it. Otherwise, the law establishing that special plate would expire; HB 355 removes the expiration so the program can continue. Geddes said the commission wants to continue the plate both to raise money – it’s garnering about $80,000 a year in revenue – and to “maintain interest in the Capitol restoration as it is proceeding.” However, he told a story about spotting one on the car ahead of him at a gas station recently. He asked the motorists what they thought about the Statehouse renovation, and “they looked at me like I was from Soda Springs.” It turned out the motorists didn’t know anything about the renovation. Instead, they said, “We just like the plate because it matches the paint on our car.” That’s OK, Geddes said. And the Senate, on a 29-5 vote, agreed. The bill, having already passed the House, now goes to the governor’s desk.

Foster leaving as Democratic Party official

John Foster, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, has decided to leave his post in mid-March after serving for just under a year. Foster, who said the job simply didn’t leave him enough time with his young family, said he’ll “leave on the high notes of successful caucuses and a financially successful annual banquet.” He said he’ll continue to help the party “in some capacity,” and is job-hunting in the area of strategic communications and public affairs.

Tamarack on way to more liquor licenses

Tamarack Resort got a unanimous vote this morning from the Senate State Affairs Committee for SB 1382, legislation to allow the year-round ski and golf resort near Donnelly to get up to 12 non-transferable liquor licenses. It already was entitled to three under a law the resort persuaded the Legislature to pass in 2006. Scott Turlington, lobbyist for the resort and a former aide to then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, told the Senate panel the 2006 law helped out a hotel being developed by tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffie Graf. But now, the resort wants more for its various restaurant and hospitality properties. Under the bill, each license requires a one-time fee to the state of $25,000, plus a $3,500 annual renewal fee.

Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said he thought the bill was a good one and he’d support it, but he doesn’t like Idaho’s system that requires lawmakers to pass special-exception laws every time there’s a need somewhere for another liquor license. “I think as a state policy, I’ve had concerns about that,” he said. “We’re trying to come up with something that’s fair to local communities who want to have some kind of control over this. … I think this helps us move in that direction. … so that businesses like Tamarack don’t have to keep coming back to the state to get exceptions or exemptions.”

The existing law’s definition of “year-round resort” was tailor-made for Tamarack, applying only to resorts that are open to the public year-round; have at least 30K of groomed cross-country ski trails, two or more chairlifts and at least 2,800 feet of vertical for Alpine skiing; snowmaking coverage for 75 acres; a golf course with at least 18 holes; at least 12 miles of mountain bike trails; at least 70 private residences; and lodging and dining facilities that can serve at least two meals a day to 500 people.

Lake better, returning Monday

House members were just informed that Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, who suffered a stroke during a House debate yesterday, is due to be released from the hospital within the hour. “His condition is well,” Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, told the House. “His memory is all good. … He seems to be fully recovered. He should be back on Monday.”

Stennett is back

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, who underwent brain surgery last week, returned to the Legislature this morning, attending a Senate State Affairs Committee meeting. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, was presenting a proposed bill on energy efficient school building design when Stennett came in and took a seat. Werk stopped mid-sentence. “I want to stop if I may, and welcome Sen. Stennett back – it’s great to see you,” he said. Committee Chair Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said, “We all want to welcome you back.” Stennett said he’ll be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for brain cancer, but he’s back on the job. His initial prognosis, he said, is “that I’m going to do just fine.”

This time, safe boating bill is introduced

A new version of a boating safety bill from the state Department of Parks & Rec was introduced in the House Resources Committee today, though with several “no” votes. Under the new bill, no one under 14 could operate a motorized boat or watercraft in Idaho unless they’re supervised by an adult and have passed an approved boating safety course. The bill also amends provisions about overloaded boats and safe navigation. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, spoke out in favor of the new age restriction. “This is about safety,” he said. “We observe it routinely, that a boatload of kids, no older than 13, have no business being in a boat without the supervision of an adult.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, questioned the need for both adult supervision and the safety course. “If we require them to go through the course, why can’t we forgive the obligation to have mandatory supervision?” he asked. State parks division administrator Dean Sangrey responded, “We just feel it’s appropriate, and it’s not unreasonable.”

The overloaded-boat amendment caused some confusion because it included people being towed behind the boat. Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, noted that that section didn’t specify that it applied only to motorized vessels, as the age limit section did. She said it could apply to a canoe. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, responded, “I don’t mean to be facetious, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a canoe towing a water skier. It’d have to be a powered vessel.” In the audience, a grinning Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, whispered, “I have.”

Federal judge rebukes Idaho justices in school case

A group of school districts won a round today in an unusual federal lawsuit, in which the districts sued the Idaho Supreme Court justices who earlier ruled in their favor, declaring Idaho’s school funding system unconstitutional, but then failed to do anything about it. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

January revenues are down

Idaho legislators are expressing fears about whether they can fund Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget due to anticipated worsening economic conditions – and they got the first numbers today that bolster that fear. Though preliminary, state revenue figures for January show a sharp drop, coming in $36 million below projections. It’s the first such shortfall – December’s figures met projections, and November was the last of five straight months in which state tax revenues exceeded the state’s projections. “While we’re not raising the panic flag or a red flag, we certainly are raising the orange flag of caution,” said JFAC Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

Gov. Butch Otter continues to maintain that a $78 million proposal to grant average 5 percent merit increases for state employees is his top priority for next year’s budget. But Cameron said, “It’s unclear at this stage whether we can actually fit the 5 percent CEC into our budget.”

‘Water wars have spread to north’

County commissioners from Bonner, Boundary and Shoshone counties spoke forcefully against the proposed North Idaho water rights adjudication, in a Senate committee hearing this afternoon. Boundary County Commissioner Dan Dinning urged lawmakers to put the process on hold.

“We have issues there that I don’t believe were thought about when we began this adjudication,” he said. Among them: The Moyie River runs in and out of Canada in his county. “We’re going to be dealing with a province, a Native American tribe and Canada.”

Bonner County Commissioner Lewis Rich told the Senate Resources Committee, “I would guess 95 percent of the people or higher don’t want an adjudication, primarily because they don’t trust anyone involved with it.” Fellow Bonner Commissioner Joe Young said he was involved in the process early on, but information kept changing, from boundaries to the scope of the project. “I was a part of the process, but I guess I was ignorant, because I didn’t think things would change,” he said. “The lines were changed, the scope of work was changed, and quite frankly, that pissed me off.”

Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa told the panel, “Very few citizens in the north are informed, and most believe that they have been lied to.” He asked that the state “take a step back” on adjudicating, or legally sorting out, water rights in North Idaho. “We do have water, we don’t have money, we need information, and there’s no urgency in this process,” he said.

Senate Resources Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said, “We should’ve started from the grass roots up with the local officials. … I think we learned something here today.”

The committee was taking testimony on a series of six bills proposed by Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, to scale back, cancel, modify or slow down the basin-wide adjudication. Keough said her constituents fear the adjudication process is designed to take away their right to draw water from their wells, and some fear the state plans to put meters on all private wells and tax the water, though the state’s never done that. One of the bills specifically forbids that. Keough read a message from one constituent who wrote, “They will be facing a gun if they come to take our water rights.” Keough told the committee, “The water wars seem to have spread to northern Idaho.”

Craig staffer moves on

Sid Smith, press secretary for Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, has been named the new executive director of the Idaho Republican Party. Smith has worked for Craig for six years. He replaces Jayson Ronk, who went to work for the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry before Christmas; since then, the GOP position has been vacant. Smith said he’ll start his new job a week from tomorrow. Smith said he thought the position looked interesting. “Ultimately, with the senator being in his last year, I had to start thinking about the next step,” he said.

And it happened despite the weather…

The huge turnout for Idaho’s Democratic presidential caucuses last night came despite a major winter snowstorm in North Idaho, that at one point closed I-90 westbound at Fourth of July Pass. The freeway remained closed from 8:45 to 10 p.m., due to multiple semi-truck spinouts. Highway 95 also closed last night in Idaho County due to an avalanche on Whitebird Hill and blizzard conditions. Boise’s weather was clear last night, with the two to four inches of new snow that Boiseans are waking up to this morning holding off until well after the caucuses were done.

Idaho Dems turn out for Obama

With all Idaho counties’ votes tallied, Idaho’s Democratic presidential caucuses overwhelmingly favored Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who took 80 percent of the vote. Hillary Clinton trailed with 17 percent, while 3 percent were uncommitted and John Edwards tallied 1 percent. Obama took 79 percent in the 1st Congressional District, and 80 percent in the 2nd CD. A record-breaking 21,224 Idahoans took part in the caucuses. That’s more than four times as many as took part in Idaho’s last Democratic presidential caucus in 2004.

Obama’s lead large and holding

With 67 percent of the caucus results tallied, Barack Obama had 81 percent in Idaho, Hillary Clinton had 15 percent, 3 percent were uncommitted and 1 percent were for John Edwards, according to the Associated Press. A candidate needs at least 15 percent to meet the threshold for proportional allocation of delegates, so the final numbers will determine whether Clinton gets any of Idaho’s delegates or not. One thing is assured: Obama will get most of them. State Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark said Clinton’s campaign clearly was outworked by Obama’s in Idaho. “They were paying almost no attention to Idaho at all until two weeks ago, and Obama’s people have been here since last fall,” Roark said.

Idaho results start to trickle in

With 31 percent of Idaho’s caucuses reaching their final results, Barack Obama is sweeping the state with 74 percent. Hillary Clinton has 22 percent, 3 percent are uncommitted, and 1 percent are for John Edwards.

‘Gora Obama, Gora’

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who spoke for Obama at the Ada County caucus tonight, said he wanted to lead a cheer that wouldn’t be heard in Iowa or anywhere else, a “uniquely Boise” cheer. He also used that cheer at the Fiesta Bowl. The reason it’s so unique: It’s in Basque. “Gora Obama,” Bieter shouted, directing the crowd to shout back, “Gora!” In the Basque language, “gora” means exaltation, or “hurray.”

They had to go to Kinko’s for more ballots

Ada County Democrats had printed up 9,000 ballots for their caucus tonight, and they ran out. “They had to go to Kinko’s and make more,” said Idaho Democratic Party spokesman Chuck Oxley. Another 5,000 ballots were copied off. Some caucus-goers were held outside by the fire marshal as the arena hit capacity, but everyone’s ballots were collected. And some left after casting their first ballots, opening up space inside.

Idaho Democratic icon Bethine Church, giving the evening’s first campaign speech on behalf of Sen. Hillary Clinton, said, “This turnout shows that we are alive and well in Idaho.”

Record numbers flock to Dems’ caucus

With thousands in line, Ada County Democrats are scrambling to mobilize volunteers with clipboards to collect completed ballots from those still outside waiting in line for the presidential caucus. The Qwest Arena has a capacity of 6,500, and state Democratic Party spokesman Chuck Oxley said, “We can put a thousand people in the hallways around.” The hope is to collect everyone’s ballots for the first round of voting by 7 p.m. Mountain time, even if folks are still waiting in line. “So they’ll be counted, even though they’re outside,” Oxley said. “That’s how we’re coping with the overflow of people.”

This year’s presidential caucus clearly is setting a record for Idaho. The last time Idaho Democrats caucused, 5,000 people participated statewide, 2,000 of those in Ada County. Tonight, there are expected to be more than 5,000 in Ada County alone.

Merrill to run for House – but which seat?

Former Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill has announced she’ll run for the state House from District 14, but the GOP candidate hasn’t decided which seat she’ll seek. The two seats from that district currently are held by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and freshman Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle. “I believe my public service in Eagle can be invaluable to the people of District 14,” Merrill said in a press release. “Local communities are affected by almost every decision made in the State Legislature and I want to use my experience to give a voice to the cities.” Moyle, of course, is known for voting with rural interests, despite representing a fast-urbanizing district. Merrill, former president of the Idaho Association of Cities, said in her release that she’ll be talking with voters in the coming weeks to “determine where she could be of the best service to the legislative district constituents.”

Bill changing a single word fails – no, it passes

Legislation to change a single word in state law – changing “Albertson” to “The,” to reflect in the law regarding special license plates commemorating universities the recent name change of Albertson College of Idaho to The College of Idaho – passed the House today on a 69-0 vote, and now goes to the governor’s desk. Rep. Diana Thomas, R-Weiser, urged the House to support the change to match the name of “my alma mater,” which was previously The College of Idaho before it added the “Albertson” name.

Thomas, who was appointed to replace Rep. Clete Edmunson, R-Council, was carrying her first bill, so the House gave her its usual freshman hazing – House members initially voted “no,” then quickly changed their votes to “yes” just as the machine was locked. Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, also queried Thomas about whether the bill violated a constitutional prohibition on laws changing the name of a person or place. The answer: No, because the college’s name already has been changed. That was the last bill the House is taking up today; both parties are headed into caucus.

Emergency declaration expanded

Gov. Butch Otter has added five more counties to his disaster declaration due to the extreme winter storm conditions up north. Last week, Otter declared disaster emergencies for Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Latah counties. Now, he’s added Benewah, Clearwater, Fremont, Power and Shoshone counties. The declaration opens the way for state government support to the counties to cope with the effects of the storms. Already, more than 60 Idaho National Guard soldiers have been assigned to clear snow from school roofs in Shoshone and Bonner counties.

Judge: Duncan evidence won’t be suppressed

A federal judge has rejected motions by Joseph Duncan’s defense attorneys to suppress evidence seized from Duncan’s vehicle, which he was driving when he was found with young Shasta Groene, the only survivor of Duncan’s bloody attack on her family. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge cited numerous reasons for rejecting the motion, including a major one: Duncan’s red 2005 Jeep Cherokee was stolen, so he had no legal right to object to its search. You can read his decision here, and my full story here.

House passes driver’s license bill, 47-21

HB 366, legislation designed to deny driver’s licenses to those without documentation that they’re legally in the United States, just passed the House on a 47-21 vote, despite concerns raised by some representatives that the bill is flawed, and actually would deny driver’s licenses to an array of people legally in the country to work under various visa programs or awaiting word on asylum applications. Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, the bill’s floor sponsor, said, “I submit if their papers are good, they’ll get a driver’s license.” But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said the bill could create problems for many Idaho employers who need their employees who are here on foreign-worker visas to be able to drive. House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, moved to send the bill to the amending order to “fix this legislation,” but the motion failed on a divided voice vote.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “I think this is a good bill – it’s not a perfect bill, but I’d rather pass a good bill than not pass any bill at all.” Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said the measure would “increase the security of our state.” The bill now moves to the Senate.

Grocery tax bill killed

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted 10-8 to kill HB 439, the grocery tax relief bill. Read my full story here. The vote came after a hearing that stretched for more than two hours in a stiflingly hot, jam-packed committee room. Fifteen people testified, with eight opposing the bill and calling for instead removing the sales tax on groceries entirely. Three backed the bill as-is, and four others favored it but wanted an amendment to let food stamp recipients get the credit; the bill excludes them.

Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said the bill’s dead now, but he’s expecting new bills – and already has received two. “To the best of my knowledge, the governor’s office will have a proposal” as well, he said. He’s not set a date yet for the panel to consider new proposals. “It won’t be in the next couple of days,” Lake said.

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, lead sponsor of HB 439 along with 18 co-sponsors, urged the committee to support his proposal, which would have increased the current grocery tax credit from $20 to $30 for most people next year, and to $55 for families of four earning less than $25,300 a year. The credit then would have increased in subsequent years. The bill also would have eliminated the current exclusion from the grocery tax credit for low-income Idahoans who make too little to have to file income tax returns. Bayer said that change accounted for half the cost of the $23 million proposal.

Committee members made three motions. The first to be voted on, from Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, was to send the bill to the full House without recommendation. It died, 7-11, with five Democrats and six Republicans voting against, including Lake. The substitute motion, from Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, to kill the bill passed 10-8, with Lake switching sides and opposing that motion. Rep. JoAn Wood’s motion to endorse the bill and send it to the full House with a “do-pass” recommendation then wasn’t considered because Hart’s motion had passed.

Here’s the breakout of the 10-8 vote. Voting with the majority to kill the bill were Reps. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis; Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls; Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake; Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries; Hart; George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene; Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum; Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise; Bill Killen, D-Boise; and James Ruchti, D-Pocatello. Voting against were Reps. Gary Collins, R-Nampa; Mike Moyle, R-Star; Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa; Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg; Roberts; Wood; Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; and Lake.

Said Clark, “It was the right thing to do. If that would’ve gotten out of here, we wouldn’t see any other options whatsoever.”

Senators: Otter muzzling agency directors?

The Senate State Affairs Committee, which includes top members of leadership from both parties, today grilled Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, about word that state agency heads have been told not to share information with the Legislature about anything other than those items Otter is recommending in his budget. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said he’d heard that an email had gone out to that effect, and that worried him. “I just don’t want there to be any barrier to access to information to help us in doing our job,” Davis told Hammon.

Hammon said he wasn’t aware of any such email, and that agency heads are free to talk to lawmakers. “We are trying very hard to be open, to be more communicative, to be as cooperative as possible,” he said. The state Division of Financial Management, which Hammon heads, did review all budget presentations from agency heads, he said. He did say that all agency heads were asked to support the governor’s budget recommendations, even when Otter nixed items that they’d requested.

Hammon said when agency heads are asked about budget items they requested but that the governor didn’t back, they’ve been told to answer, but to support Otter. “I’ve told everyone who’s asked … ‘Yes, that’s an important item, if it wasn’t important we wouldn’t have asked for it. But we understand the governor’s priorities, and we support the governor’s recommendation.’”

Senators looking to oust 3 board members

The Senate Education Committee, which has expressed strong concerns about budgetary blunders at the state Board of Education and plans to grill all eight board members about it, also may push for ousting some of the board’s members. “I’m not going to be satisfied until two or three members of the board are removed,” said Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden, who noted that the Senate has subpoena powers. “This is not something that should be just swept under the rug.” The senators’ ire is focused on three former presidents of the board – Blake Hall, Rod Lewis and Laird Stone – on whose watch the budget problems occurred. Click below to read AP reporter John Miller’s full report.

‘It gave me hope’

Nineteen-year-old Michelle Butler, a college student from Boise, came away inspired – both by presidential candidate Barack Obama’s words and by the outpouring of support from Idahoans. “I was absolutely amazed at how many people showed up – that absolutely blew my mind,” she said. “It gave me hope. Maybe this country is going the right direction. I believe he is the leader that this country needs.”

Anthony Jordan, a 34-year-old physician from Boise, said, “It was amazing – it was great, it was inspiring. It was wonderful to see all these people turn out with such optimism and hope and enthusiasm. I was surprised.”

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus rallied the crowd before introducing Obama. “Man, what a beautiful sight,” he said. “Many, many familiar faces – and the beauty of this is there’s a lot of faces out there that are not familiar.” He said, “I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen a lot of political candidates come and go. I have not seen, since John F. Kennedy in 1960, a person that has the ability to bring together to excite and inspire the people of America like Barack Obama.”

‘Students made the difference’

Rallying the crowd, Idaho Obama volunteers T.J. Thomson and Kassi Cerami led the crowd in sending text messages with their cell phones that will get the senders regular updates on the Obama campaign, and talked up the upcoming caucus. Even 17-year-olds can participate in Tuesday’s caucuses, if they’ll be 18 in time for the November election, Cerami noted. “Seventeen-year-olds, let’s go Barack the vote,” she told the crowd, drawing a big cheer. “Students made the difference in Iowa, students made the difference,” she said.

Why folks are here

Here’s why Lori Wielenga of Boise, decided to come down to Taco Bell Arena on a cold, snowy morning to see a Democratic presidential candidate speak: “I support Barack, and I’m interested to see him in person, and I’m also proud that a politican decided to come and campaign in Idaho – so that made me want to come.” Wielenga is a 25-year-old employee of a Boise marketing firm.

Kaysi Love, 13, is here because “My dad loves Obama.” But she’s excited, too. “It’s pretty cool.”

Out on the floor of the stadium, many are talking on their cell phones, texting, or taking photos as they wait for the program to start. Serrita Beaulieu, 54, of Boise, said, “I’m just inspired by Obama’s candidacy, after the last eight years of our country being an embarrassment in the world with Bush. … I think he would be an intelligent, articulate, multicultural face for our country. And I’m so excited that young people are getting involved.”

Eric Kile, 36, said he’s here to “witness history in the making – or what could be history in the making.”

Huge crowd for Obama event

Traffic is backed up around BSU, lines to get in are stretching around the building and through the campus, and the crowd inside already is huge for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s appearance in Boise this morning. When I checked in at 7:30 a.m., I was told that about 100 members of the press had checked in ahead of me. At the main public entrance, a handful of anti-abortion protesters are exchanging jeers with the generally good-natured crowd. The crowd outside in line is heavy with college students. Professors at College of Idaho, Northwest Nazarene University and North Idaho College all told me last night that students on their campus are jazzed in a big way about Obama. Said Jasper LiCalzi of College of Idaho, “I’ve never seen any kind of enthusiasm like this amongst the students. He’s exciting. He has a presence in the state.”

Lobbyist decides not to help set lawmakers’ pay

Twin Falls Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins reported today that Gov. Butch Otter appointed his former chief of staff, Jeff Malmen – now a corporate lobbyist – to the committee that determines state legislators’ compensation. When the Times-News inquired about the quiet appointment, Malmen switched course and decided not to accept it. Keith Allred, head of The Common Interest, told the Times-News, “It would be unwise to have a lobbyist helping set legislators’ salaries. It obviously would be a conflict of interest if they would be trying to get a legislator to vote their way on a particular bill. Then the lobbyist has some influence over the legislator that they shouldn’t have.” Click here to read the full story from the Times-News.

DEQ: ‘Very close’ on field-burning legislation

Idaho DEQ Director Toni Hardesty, quizzed by JFAC members as to when Idaho will be moving forward to re-legalize field-burning, said legislation is in the works to set up a new air quality program required by a settlement between all the parties. “We’re very close, but there still are just a few minor issues between the parties that are being sorted out even as we speak this morning,” Hardesty told the joint budget committee. Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, said he’s anxious to have field-burning available as a tool for alfalfa farmers in his part of the state. “Will whatever decision we make in Idaho have to please the 9th District court?” he asked Hardesty. She responded, “Whatever decision we make in Idaho will have to be approved by EPA. … We have been working … with them through the process. … The only reason it would go back to the court would be if somebody sued over this, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid by having all the parties come together.”

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

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

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