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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2008

Trail: AG’s opinion a ‘bombshell’ on iSTARS

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, requested an Idaho attorney general’s opinion on a troubling question he said was raised by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s “iSTARS” teacher pay plan: What happens to a teacher who gives up continuing contract rights in exchange for higher pay, but then finds that the Legislature hasn’t allocated enough money for the extra pay? Luna said at a public hearing last week that in that case, the teacher could return to continuing contract status. But the attorney general’s opinion found otherwise, and raised other questions about iSTARS as well, including whether teachers would have to sue school districts. “If you read the attorney general’s opinion, Mr. Luna is 100 percent wrong,” Trail said, and iSTARS is “not only unworkable, but it very potentially is constitutionally flawed.” He added, “I don’t think he really realizes what a bombshell he has on his hands.” Luna, asked about the opinion, said he thought it was “highly unlikely” that lawmakers wouldn’t fund the plan once they’d passed it. He added, “It is one attorney’s opinion.” Click below to read the full opinion.

Mayors want local-option tax bill considered

Mayors from around the state gathered in a big clump after the Association of Idaho Cities legislative luncheon today, and joined transportation advocates to speak out for consideration of legislation to allow local-option taxes to fund transportation improvements, from roads to transit. The bill is being held up, they said, because some in House GOP leadership are insisting on a constitutional amendment instead – even though that would require an unlikely two-thirds vote of both houses plus a vote at the next general election, holding the whole process up at least a year. Idaho already has some local-option taxes that have been upheld in court, the mayors noted, such as resort-city taxes and county jail taxes, and they said there’s no constitutional issue with their bill.

“If you delay it by one year … think what one year’s inflation cost is going to mean to communities around the state,” said Twin Falls Mayor Lance Clow. Rexburg Mayor Shawn Larsen said, “We just want to get this out to the citizens … and not just hold it up in committee where it doesn’t see the light of day.”

Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas said, “This is all about taking this back to the citizens, letting them have a choice. Right now we can’t even give ‘em a choice.” Said Nampa Mayor Tom Dale, “We need to trust the voters.”

The measure, backed by a statewide coalition calling itself “Moving Idaho Forward,” would require a two-thirds supermajority vote to impose local-option taxes to fund transportation needs identified by local communities. Said Larsen, the Rexburg mayor, “This is about letting the people decide. … If they don’t want it, it’s not going to pass by a 66-2/3 majority.”

AP: French uranium enricher lobbying Idaho

A French government-controlled nuclear energy company is looking to possibly build a uranium enrichment facility in Idaho, the AP’s John Miller reports, and has hired Erika Malmen, wife of Gov. Butch Otter’s former chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, to lobby Otter and state legislators. The company, Areva Inc., is eyeing five states as possible locations for the plant, and a spot near the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho is on its list. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, is working with Idaho Falls leaders on a package of tax breaks designed to help lure the plant. Click below to read the full AP story.

A tax hike that’s got support

Here’s a tax increase that’s winning strong support – from the Idaho House, no less. The House just voted 51-16 in favor of HB 359, to increase the fuel tax on aviation gasoline and jet fuel by 1.5 cents per gallon. But there’s a reason: 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.

Here’s the scoop on the Obama visit

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s visit to Boise will be for an early-morning rally on Saturday at Taco Bell Arena. The Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign says doors will open at 7 a.m. The event is free, but people planning to attend are asked to RSVP by going to this website: http://idaho.barackobama.com/boise The campaign also advised, “For security reasons, bags are not allowed inside the event. Please limit personal items. No signs or banners are permitted.” The public will enter the arena through Door No. 3. The event is being billed as a “Stand for Change Rally,” at which Obama will “fire up supporters and undecided caucus-goers ahead of the Feb. 5th primary.”

Chani Wiggins, Obama’s Idaho campaign spokeswoman, said, “He’s on a huge multi-state swing before the Feb. 5 caucus/primary day.” With Idaho’s Democratic caucus on Super Tuesday, when 22 states and two territories will hold caucuses or primaries, Idaho Democrats are in the thick of the presidential campaign this year. “This is a really close race, and something that Idahoans need to get into their heads is that they have real power and influence,” Wiggins said. “This presidential nomination could be decided on a handful of delegates.” Idaho has 23.

Idaho lakes being cleared of milfoil

An aggressive state effort to eradicate invasive milfoil from Idaho lakes is resulting in “a significant reduction in Eurasian water milfoil populations statewide,” state Ag Director Celia Gould told legislative budget writers this morning. “In the past two seasons, all known lake populations in Idaho have been aggressively treated,” she said. In Cocolalla Lake, for example, 80 acres were treated in 2006 and 2007, and surveys afterward found no further infestation, Gould said. In Hayden Lake, 300 acres were treated, and now the infestation there is down to 7 acres. “Funding is requested to continue the fight against this aggressive invader and to continue the successful eradication effort,” she said.

After her presentation, Gould said, “There has been a lot of progress, but it’s such an aggressive problem that we really have to keep after it – we’ve got to get that one under control so we can start addressing quagga mussels and whatever hits us next.”

The fast-spreading mussels haven’t shown up in Idaho yet, but they’re spreading quickly into western states. Surrounding states have enacted strict laws, including Washington, which can intercept boats at the border and order mandatory cleanings and fines. “Idaho is instituting an outreach plan and an early detection monitoring network in an effort to keep Idaho free of the quagga mussel,” Gould told JFAC. “Quaggas threaten natural resources, agriculture, recreation and power generation.”

The department isn’t proposing any legislation at this point, Gould said, but some lawmakers are looking at it. “We’re certainly going to help out however we can with any technical assistance,” she said.

Rammell plans baboon ads in Senate race

The crowded GOP race for the retiring Sen. Larry Craig’s seat will swing onto the airwaves with the Super Bowl this Sunday, according to candidate Rex Rammell. The former elk rancher from eastern Idaho is spending $30,000 to purchase airtime across the state for a series of TV commercials featuring a baboon in the role of a senator, which Rammell then counters with, “It’s time for a new kind of senator.” A couple of the ads are posted on Rammell’s website, including one that his campaign spokesman, Chad Hammond, said likely won’t run – it shows the baboon making an obscene gesture.

So much for the non-issue of the session…

After a lively debate, two motions, and then an 11-7 vote to pass the bill, state Liquor Dispensary Superintendent Dyke Nally chided me for saying earlier, at the Boise City Club, that his bill to end the ban on Election Day liquor sales was “insignificant,” noting that there I was, covering the debate and vote. Now, I didn’t actually say the bill was “insignificant.” I called it a “non-issue.” Apparently, though, I was wrong – at least when it comes to the House State Affairs Committee. And it should be noted that the same day I made that comment, others argued that Election Day liquor sales could be significant, in that voters who’d had a stiff belt might find their ballot choices more palatable. But I didn’t say that.

No compromise yet on grocery tax

House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts says he “misspoke” yesterday when he said lawmakers and the governor had reached a compromise in the new grocery tax bill introduced this morning. “I had a misunderstanding, a miscommunication with the governor’s office,” Roberts said. “I maybe misread some information that they’ve given me. As far as their compromising on the bill, that’s not the case – I misspoke yesterday.”

Gov. Butch Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “The governor says we have not reached a compromise. Our position remains the same.”

Last year, the governor got into a veto fight with the Legislature over his insistence that grocery tax relief be targeted to the needy, and the Legislature’s insistence that it be across the board. As a result, nothing passed. Today’s new bill, introduced this morning, grants a higher credit to people who make $1,000 or less a year in Idaho taxable income, plus an overall increase for everyone.

Grocery tax bill introduced

With a unanimous vote, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted to introduce a grocery tax credit increase with a complicated mechanism that would give the poorest Idahoans a bigger boost, but still would give all Idahoans an increase. The change would cost the state budget $23.8 million the first year, another $18.1 million the year after, another $16.4 million the year after that, and it would continue to rise, though the increases could be halted by lawmakers due to economic conditions. Under the bill, Idahoans whose taxable income is only $1,000 or less a year would get a $55 per person grocery tax credit next year, while anyone making more than that would get $30 per person. The current credit is $20. The bill also extends the grocery tax credit to those who make too little to be required to file income tax returns; they’re excluded from the current credit.

The bill has 19 co-sponsors: Reps. Bayer, Vander Woude, Eskridge, Henderson, Nonini, Anderson, Chadderdon, McGeachin, Mathews, Roberts, Labrador, Kren, and Hagedorn, and Sens. Fulcher, Keough, McKenzie, Goedde, Broadsword and Hammond.

Snow day for the Boise schools

Boise schools have declared their first snow day in a decade, on a day when Bogus Basin ski resort is buried in fresh powder. I have one very ecstatic 14-year-old son. Alas for me, the Legislature still is in session.

iSTARS is off the agenda

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s “iSTARS” teacher pay plan was supposed to come up for a vote tomorrow in the Senate Education Committee, but now it’s off the agenda. “We’re just taking a cautious approach, making sure we have everyone’s questions answered before we have the vote on that,” said Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes, a co-sponsor of the bill. Asked if the bill is changing, Geddes said, “Possibly.”

“There are some people that have some heartburn over certain aspects of it,” Geddes said. “We’ll see if we need to make some adjustments before we move forward.”

Guv out of commission for ‘several weeks’

Here’s the press release on the outcome of Gov. Butch otter’s hip surgery today:

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter underwent successful resurfacing surgery on his right hip today. He thanked Idahoans for their support and asked for their patience during his recovery. “Lori and I will be focusing on getting me up and around for the next several weeks, so we hope you all will understand. We both appreciate your concerns and well-wishes more than we can express, and we regret any inconvenience this causes,” Governor Otter said. “There’s no good time for something like this. But I needed to take care of this little hitch so I can devote my time and energy more fully to serving the people of Idaho.”

The Governor spent much of Monday preparing for today’s surgery. His schedule of public appearances and other meetings has been cleared for his recuperation, and he apologized to all those individuals and groups affected by the changes. It has not yet been determined when he will be back on the job full-time.

The surgery was performed by Dr. Colin Poole of Intermountain Orthopedics at St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise. Governor Otter was resting comfortably after the procedure, which lasted about two hours. He is expected to be able to go home by the weekend.

Idaho prisons getting more violent

Idaho’s prisons are becoming more violent places, as three major prison gangs extend their membership through the system, state Corrections Director Brent Reinke told lawmakers on JFAC. That’s creating management issues, including a need for more solitary segregation cells at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. Reinke showed JFAC a video Monday morning of a violent uprising staged by gang members on two tiers at the Max, after their gang leader was moved from his cell to solitary against his wishes. Committee members watched the video with dismay. “It’s a whole different environment than what we’ve become accustomed to in Idaho’s correctional system,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Stennett taking leave for surgery

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, will take a leave from legislative service to undergo surgery to relieve minor swelling on his brain, a condition identified during a checkup last week. Stennett is arranging for a substitute while he’s gone, former Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorsen, but expects to make a full recovery and return to work during the current legislative session. “I’m very positive about my health and the future, and look forward to the day I can resume working for the people I represent in District 25,” Stennett said in a statement. His surgery is scheduled for this week.

Chambers back registration fee hike

The Idaho Chamber Alliance has come out in favor of increased vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation improvements. The group, which includes 20 chambers of commerce from all around the state, also has endorsed continued GARVEE bonding and local-option sales taxes to allow communities to fund transit or road needs. Chambers around the state have surveyed their members, said alliance Chairman Jonathan Coe, and there’s strong support for the registration fee hike to address Idaho’s transportation funding shortfall.

The alliance presented its legislative agenda to lawmakers at a well-attended legislative luncheon today. In addition to the transportation issues, it included support for urban renewal agencies, a constitutional amendment allowing “ordinary and necessary” projects to be funded without a vote, and increased funding for professional-technical education. “These are the kinds of things that will help our individual communities continue to thrive and grow,” Coe told lawmakers.

73 Idaho inmates refuse parole

In the past year, 73 Idaho prison inmates refused to be let out on parole – preferring to serve more time behind bars in order to finish out their sentences and then get out scot-free, without any need to check in with a parole officer, take drug tests or follow rules. “They don’t want parole,” said Olivia Craven, executive director of the Idaho Commission for Pardons and Parole, though all were eligible. “It doesn’t make sense to me either. They don’t want to follow rules, they don’t want to have someone over them.”

An additional 34 inmates in the past year refused to take part in programs that would help them qualify for parole, such as drug treatment or anger management.

Of the 73 who refused parole, the largest group – 14 – were serving time for possession of a controlled substance. Another seven are in for grand theft, and another seven for failure to register as a sex offender.

Of politics and closed primary elections

In Idaho, one of the most successful state political parties in the country is trying to torpedo the very electoral system that put it in power. Republicans now hold every statewide elected office in Idaho and three-quarters of the seats in the state Legislature. But some in the party think Idaho’s open primary system lets the party’s nominee choices be swayed by non-Republicans. Their bid to close Idaho’s primaries and turn away independents could change Idaho’s political balance. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

‘A training ground for those who sue us’

The Idaho Attorney General’s office is having increasing trouble recruiting and retaining attorneys, because its salaries are 27 percent lower than those in the Ada County prosecutor’s office and 45 percent below private-sector market rates in the Boise area. “We have a number of very dedicated people, people dedicated to public service, but we are having a problem trying to recruit and retain people,” Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told JFAC this morning. He’s requesting a half-million-dollar ongoing boost in his budget to address that parity issue in pay, though Gov. Butch Otter hasn’t recommended funding that. Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said, “It something I think we’re going to have to address.” Bolz said he’s been hearing complaints from agency heads about valued deputy attorneys general leaving because of pay.

Wasden said he’s lost three attorneys in the past month, each with five to 10 years experience. Each received at least a 40 percent pay increase by leaving. “One of the attorneys doubled his salary the day he left my office,” Wasden said. “The reality is my office has become a training ground for the attorneys who turn around and sue us.” The office has seen two-thirds turnover since 2001, he said.

Naturopath rules rejected

An Idaho Senate committee has unanimously rejected proposed naturopathic physician licensing rules, saying they were too vague on education and examination requirements to protect public health. According to the Associated Press, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee decision came after Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen said the rules gave no details for what an acceptable naturopathic education entails. The issue arises amid a rift between rival groups of naturopaths in Idaho who don’t agree on which standards should govern them and protect the public from poorly trained or sham practitioners. Even without rules, the Board of Naturopathic Medical Examiners, created in 2005, already has issued licenses to a handful of practitioners. Von Tagen said the board may have exposed itself to legal challenge.

Ah, the ‘Domes of America’

Every year, legislative offices receive a lovely calendar from the National Conference of State Legislatures titled “Domes of America,” with colorful close-up pictures of six of the nation’s state capitol domes, in all their intricacy. The calendar apparently was inspiring to some, including House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, who is seen here displaying a somewhat modified version.

The modified version, also titled “Domes of America,” follows the same format and layout – except that the six featured domes are the shining bald pates of six distinguished members of the Idaho House of Representatives.

Midwives rally for licensing law

Dozens of midwives, supporters, moms and babies rallied in Capitol Park and are parading around the block now, pushing strollers and carrying smiling, well-bundled babies. The group was rallying for licensure of certified professional midwives, which they’re pushing for in all 50 states. They maintain that doctors are trying to block access to legal midwifery care; in Idaho, the group is hoping to pass a voluntary licensing bill. “This affects every mother or mother-to-be in the state because it impacts their choices in healthcare providers during pregnancy and childbirth,” said Kyndall May, an Idaho midwife and one of the lead organizers of the rally. Among the slogans on signs carried by rally participants were, “A Baby Place midwife helped me out” and “Everyone promises, midwives deliver.”

‘Makes milfoil look like a dinner salad’

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, took on the nickname “Morty Milfoil” the last couple of years as he pushed to address the invasive Eurasian water milfoil that’s infesting Idaho’s lakes and waterways. Now, Anderson is concerned about a new menace: Quagga mussels. The thumbnail-sized mussels are “all over the east coast,” Anderson said, but he’s a member of the 100th Meridian Initiative, a group that’s pushed to prevent the spread of the troublesome mussel past the 100th meridian into the western half of the country. However, in January of 2007, one tiny quagga mussel was found at a marina at Lake Mead. “Four months later, they were in the hundreds of millions,” Anderson said. The mussels attach themselves to surfaces, like boat hulls, rocks and ropes. They reproduce so quickly that they can clog irrigation pipes and water intakes, and they compete for food with other critters like salmon fry, upsetting the whole food chain.

“This makes milfoil look like a dinner salad,” Anderson said. “This is critical. I honestly believe this is the biggest ecological and environmental threat we’ve ever faced. It’s a death sentence to so many of our ecosystems – they will dominate.”

Anderson’s pushing for Idaho to do what Washington did last year – impose strict controls to prevent the spread of the mussel, including stiff fines for knowingly transporting it. Anderson said Idaho may need wash stations so people can wash their boats with hot water, which kills the mussels, before and after boating.

Duncan told Shasta he killed other children

Young Shasta Groene told authorities that killer Joseph Duncan, during the weeks he held her captive at a remote Montana campsite, described killing at least three other children – a tip that prompted authorities to investigate Duncan as a possible serial killer. Duncan now is a suspect in child slayings in southern California and in the Seattle area. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Grocery tax plan coming, personal property tax not?

House Speaker Lawerence Denney told the Idaho Press Club at an annual luncheon today, “I think that you will be seeing a grocery tax bill come out relatively soon – probably within the next week or so.” But asked about a different tax issue – a proposed $100 million-plus tax break for the state’s largest businesses through the repeal of the personal property tax – Denney said the time may not be right. “This may not be the year that we have the funds to do that,” he said. “But certainly I think that’s something we will continue looking at, and whether we get it done this year or not remains to be seen.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes said the state can’t just repeal the personal property tax. In the Senate, he said, the debate is about offsetting any such change with other revenue. Cities and counties rely on those local tax revenues, and if they aren’t replaced, everyone else would have to pay more on their property taxes to make up the difference. “The question I think really does come back to the economy – can we replace those revenues for the counties and the cities with state funding?” Geddes asked. “Right now that’s looking very questionable at best.” He added, “A lot of pressure is being brought to bear on legislators to support that, but ultimately we have to balance the budget. … Sometimes you can’t always do what you want to do, because you have to do more what makes economic sense and is practical to do.”

Only exemption repeal killed

The House Rev & Tax Committee earlier rejected five of six proposed repeals of existing tax exemptions, but agreed to consider one, regarding vending machine sales. This morning, that one got killed too. There was a motion to pass the bill, but it failed, 3-13. Then, a motion to amend it failed, 6-10. Finally, the panel voted to hold the bill in committee, effectively killing it, on a voice vote.

Horrific, but true

When FBI Special Agent Michael Gneckow was being questioned by Joseph Duncan’s defense attorneys in federal court yesterday, attorney Thomas Monaghan asked Gneckow how authorities knew how to judge the credibility of the details provided by the sole surviving victim of Duncan’s attack on the Groene family, 8-year-old Shasta Groene, after her rescue from Duncan. “At the time, we simply didn’t know,” Gneckow responded. “Some of the information that was provided by S.G. was horrific in nature. Some of the things were difficult for some people to believe had actually occurred.” But as the investigation later showed, Gneckow said, “She was right on.”

Gneckow also said that the official name the FBI gave the case while it was searching for the kidnapped children in 2005 was “Captured Angels.”

Idaho, Washington reach water management accord

Idaho’s Department of Water Resources and the Washington Department of Ecology have jointly announced an agreement that they say will “guide how the two states will continue to coordinate with each other about water supply issues in the face of unprecedented growth on top of the Rathdrum Prairie-Spokane Valley aquifer.” The aquifer is mostly in Idaho, but is the drinking water source for Spokane and the region, and it’s been the focus of lots of tension in recent years with growth on both sides of the border. Half a million people in both states depend on it for their drinking water.

The agreement calls for joint use of sophisticated computer modeling that can calculate the impacts of proposed withdrawals of water from the aquifer. “With this tool the
water managers can make well informed decisions about water use,” the two state departments said in a press release. A comprehensive bi-state study of the aquifer completed last year made this possible, they said.

Shasta described Dylan’s murder

The night she was rescued from killer Joseph Duncan, young Shasta Groene gave such a vivid description of Duncan’s killing of her brother, Dylan, that authorities were left with no doubt that 9-year-old Dylan was dead. That came out this morning at a motions hearing in Duncan’s case in federal court. You can read my full story here.

Good news and bad at Health & Welfare

Kicking off three days of budget hearings on the giant Department of Health & Welfare, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning heard from H&W Director Dick Armstrong, who had good news and bad news. Among the good: Application processing times in both food stamps and Medicaid have dropped significantly while quality measures have improved; an emphasis on getting foster children into permanent homes is stabilizing Idaho’s fast-growing foster child population; and the department’s employee morale, job satisfaction and communications all have improved.

Among the bad: The situation for housing dangerous mentally ill patients is now “desperate,” Armstrong told JFAC. “Idaho statute is quite clear about the obligations … for mentally ill citizens who have committed a crime but are not competent to stand trial. … We present in this budget both short- and long-term solutions in a partnership with the Department of Correction.” The centerpiece is a new 304-bed, $70 million secure mental facility, to be shared by H&W and corrections. But, Armstrong said, “We are realistically looking at four to six years out before it will become operational. As you are all aware, we have people right now in our three hospitals who would be better served in a more secure environment.”

So in the short term, Armstrong wants to remodel a 20-bed unit at the Idaho State School & Hospital in Nampa into an interim secure mental facility. “This will help meet the immediate need we have today,” he said. “By modifying the 20-bed unit at ISSH we could use better security than we have at our other hospitals and reduce the liability to the state of Idaho.”

Once the new secure mental facility opens, the 20-bed interim unit could become a mental treatment facility to serve Treasure Valley area patients, Armstrong said, who now are sent far off to State Hospital North or State Hospital South. “Nothing in this interim solution is throwaway,” he said.

Marina, dock rules win committee support

The House Resources Committee has voted to approve two new sets of state regulations governing docks and marina leases on state-owned lakes, including a provision to allow up to 50 percent of a commercial marina to be converted to private, condominium-style ownership, as long as the rest remains open for public rentals. A subcommittee of the panel had reviewed both sets of rules, and had initially passed on the leasing rules to the full committee with no recommendation, and the dock rules with a recommendation that they be killed. Hagadone Corp. lobbyist Russ Westerberg testified against the dock rules to the subcommittee, but changed course today and backed the rules. George Bacon, state Lands Department director, said the Hagadone Corp. concerns were “just a misunderstanding about the rules.” Among the many changes in the rules are significant increases in dock permit fees designed to make Idaho’s navigable waters program self-supporting.

Bacon said the new 50 percent public-private rule for commercial marinas is aimed at preserving public access to Idaho lakes, by persuading some marina owners to keep their marinas at least partly open to the public, rather than closing down and having only private use of the lakefront. Though Idaho’s lakes are state-owned, much of the lakeshores is privately owned. Bacon acknowledged that some participants in the negotiated rule-making process to develop the new rules feared just the opposite effect – that more public access to Idaho’s lakes would be lost. “We agreed to disagree,” he said. The rules still need backing from the Senate Resources Committee to take effect.

Idaho considers anti-discrimination law

An Idaho Senate committee voted 6-2 this morning to introduce legislation to extend Idaho’s anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation. If enacted, the bill would make Idaho the 21st state to make that change. Legislative sponsors, who include both Republicans and Democrats, say the issue is not homosexuality – it’s discrimination. “It’s about due process, where everyone’s rights are protected,” said lead sponsor Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home. Idaho’s current human rights law, enacted in 1968, bans discrimination in employment, housing and places of public accommodation based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin, but doesn’t cover sexual orientation. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Craig: ‘A sterling three-peat’

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig has put out an op-ed piece about his website winning a third top award for congressional websites. Here’s his opening:

“Just a few days ago, the Congressional Management Foundation recognized the best websites in Congress and awarded my website, http://craig.senate.gov, a Silver Mouse award. Overall, the CMF ranked my website as the seventh best in the United States Senate. Special recognition was also given in the CMF report to a handful of congressional sites – mine included – that have consistently been recognized for excellence. The awards have been given four times, and mine has been selected three of those four times. I am one of just 11 members of Congress to have been chosen so often. I’m not alone in earning a Silver Mouse this year, however. Senator Mike Crapo received one for his website, too. It’s pretty remarkable for both senators from the same state to be so honored, and in that regard, Idahoans are fortunate.”

First lady not enamored of hilltop mansion

It turns out that Idaho’s first lady, Lori Otter, doesn’t think much of the prospect of moving into her husband’s ex-father-in-law’s hilltop mansion, which is now slated to become Idaho’s governor’s mansion. “Frankly, it’s not in a condition where I’m comfortable using it,” she told the Governor’s Housing Committee on Friday. “I wouldn’t want my dog on the back porch. That thing goes straight down.” The Associated Press reports that the first lady presented a PowerPoint presentation showing cracked granite, peeling paint and more inside the vacant 7,400-square-foot home donated to the state by Idaho icon J.R. Simplot, for which a renovation fundraising drive has stalled.

The first lady suggested there might be better options for Idaho governor’s housing, from building a new home on a site the state long has owned for that purpose, to converting part of the old Borah Post Office into a fourth-floor governor’s penthouse and third-floor ballroom. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter Simon Shifrin.

Role of Board of Ed debated

Idaho’s troubled state Board of Education should limit itself to policy-setting and not try to run programs, the board’s interim director told JFAC today. “I do not think the state Board of Education is particularly good at running programs,” Mike Rush told the budget writers. “The board ought to stay out, and to the extent that we’re in that business, we ought to take a look at getting out of that business.” Rush’s comments got strong positive reactions from legislators. “I thought he expressed that very well,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, who served on the board for five years. “I hope the board will consider those comments, because I think it makes sense. Just like any board, their chief purpose is policy-setting, and when they try to get too much into the operational side, it just creates inefficiencies.” You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

And here are links to my legislative stories in today’s Spokesman-Review: “Idaho’s ed chief pares teacher merit pay plan” “Boating safety bill rejected” and “Tax exemption reform gets cool reception.”

Libraries going strong in Internet age

State Librarian Ann Joslin says, “Idaho’s libraries are more relevant than ever.” Starting out her budget presentation to lawmakers, Joslin noted that the most likely age group to use libraries is 18-to-30-year-olds, and young families are the most frequent users. “Instead of the Internet making libraries less relevant, Internet use seems to create an information hunger that libraries and librarians help satisfy,” she said.

Minnick racks up campaign cash

Democratic congressional candidate Walt Minnick says he’ll end the quarter with more than $400,000 in campaign contributions in 2007 – even though he just announced and started his campaign on Nov. 14. That tally includes $100,000 of his own funds, and leaves him at the end of the finance period Dec. 31 with more than $310,000 cash on hand in his campaign fund. Said Minnick supporter Cecil Andrus, “I think this man has the organization already set up, he has the fundraising squared away to run the race.” Minnick, who’s in a three-way Democratic race against Larry Grant and Rand Lewis for the chance to challenge 1st District GOP Rep. Bill Sali, said his fundraising should set a record for first-quarter fundraising by a Democratic congressional challenger. The quarterly campaign finance reports are due to the FEC Jan. 31. Sali is being challenged in the GOP primary by Iraq veteran Matt Salisbury.

Humane Society names Idaho to ‘Shameful 7’

The Humane Society of the United States has named Idaho as one of its “Shameful Seven” states for lacking felony animal cruelty laws. “Forty-three states, plus Washington D.C., the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, recognize the gravity of these crimes and have felony animal cruelty laws on the books,” the group said in a news release. “Unfortunately, seven hold-out states have not kept up with the national trend of upgrading anti-cruelty laws, and still consider the torturing and killing an animal a simple misdemeanor charge.” Idaho is joined on the list by Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah and Mississippi.

Emergency: College has changed its name

Legislation just cleared the Senate Transportation Committee to amend the state’s existing special license plates that benefit colleges and universities to reflect Albertson College of Idaho’s name change to just the College of Idaho, its former name. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, sponsored the measure, SB 1259, which now moves to the full Senate. Included in the bill is an “emergency clause,” declaring, “An emergency existing therefor, which emergency is hereby declared to exist, this act shall be in full force and effect on and after its passage and approval.” That just means the bill would take effect right away rather than waiting until July 1, when the next fiscal year begins. But it sounds kind of dire…

Otter not backing math initiative funding

State Schools Supt. Tom Luna got some favorable reactions from JFAC members this morning to his proposed math initiative, but Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that Gov. Butch Otter hasn’t recommended funding the $4 million proposal. Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, told the joint committee, “It’s very expensive, and a lot of very expensive ongoing items are not funded in the budget. … We have not seen any information as of yet as to how last year’s money was spent. … We want to know before we commit that kind of money.” Luna said last year’s $350,000 in “seed money” was used to evaluate current math instruction, review research, and develop the initiative.

JFAC to Luna: iSTARS cuts not enough

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has cut the price tag for his “iSTARS” teacher merit pay plan from $60 million to $46 million, but JFAC made it clear to him this morning that that doesn’t cut it far enough. The governor’s budget, by setting aside enough for average 5 percent raises for teachers, provides only about $30 million to $35 million, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Luna. Luna’s $46 million figure is the entire amount for raises available for all school employees, including administrators and classified workers like school custodians. Luna said he’d give administrators just 1 percent and classified workers just 3 percent, and he’d end up only about $5 million off from the governor’s figure. But Cameron said, “I don’t think we want to implement a teacher pay system on the backs of the classified personnel. We have to be honest with the dollars.” He added that in his view, the governor’s budget figure is the most the state could allocate. “That’s the ceiling,” he said.

Luna trimmed back his program by cutting bonuses teachers would get for meeting various criteria from $2,400 to $2,200, and by revising his estimate of how many of Idaho’s teachers would participate from 30 to 40 percent in the first year, to 20 to 25 percent.

That was quick

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to introduce the “WeTeach” teacher merit pay bill, without any discussion at all – and without even having the bill’s sponsors say anything about it. With the vote already over, Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, told Idaho Education Association lobbyist Jim Shackelford, who was in the audience, “Thank you Mr. Shackelford. … I’m sorry we missed the PowerPoint.” Responded Shackelford with a smile, “It’s your loss. … We just won’t do it.”

Float-home bill raises eyebrows

Legislation requested by the state Land Board to define “reasonable” rents for floating homes on state-owned Idaho lakes was introduced in a House committee Tuesday, but members were wary of the idea. Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, said the issue is a “civil matter between float homes and marina owners,” and questioned why lawmakers should get involved. “Rent control, of all things,” sniffed House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. You can read my full story here. Also in today’s Spokesman-Review, you can read here about how Coeur d’Alene is in line for a new $24.2 million University of Idaho classroom building.

NIC prez gives first budget pitch

New North Idaho College President Priscilla Bell gave her first budget pitch to legislators on JFAC this morning, and won praise for her confident, dynamic presentation. “Thank you, Dr. Bell – you did remarkably well,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron told her. “I don’t think we are intimidating at all to you.”

She made a pitch for several items that Gov. Butch Otter didn’t recommend funding – a $307,500 campus technology upgrade and development of a new joint program with Spokane Community Colleges to train students in the hot fields of cardiovascular technology and aviation mechanics. “They’re very close to us and they have some programs we need,” she said. “Job growth in those areas is explosive. We have no programs in North Idaho.” But starting them up from scratch would cost “hundreds and hundreds of thousands,” she said. “So let’s give collaboration a chance.”

That proposal would only cost the state $115,000 next year, but Cameron and Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said such funding will be hard to find. “The governor’s budget is a very tight budget,” Cameron said. “He’s done a pretty good job with it. … The dilemma is there’s only about $300,000 left. … So in order for us to find funds for programs like that, we’ve got to reduce his budget somewhere else. Although we do that … it’s going to be a difficult proposition.”

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said employers are demanding programs from the college. “I think we need to look at any opportunity to provide those programs,” he said. “These educational challenges and needs are more than just, ‘It’s nice to have a well-educated community.’ They’re central to sustaining our success in economic development.” North Idaho has been successful in recruiting new employers, Hammond said. “We’ve got to be able to provide them with employees to do the work that they need done.”

White: It’s where they’re from that counts

With all the talk about a possible medical school for Idaho, University of Idaho President Tim White sounded a cautionary note to JFAC today. “There’s really not a correlation between having a medical school and having the right number of physicians for your state – it’s really rather surprising,” he told lawmakers. In fact, White noted that today there are 305 graduates of the WWAMI program now practicing as physicians in Idaho, “a rather stunning 70 percent return on investment, compared to a national return rate average for in-state medical schools of 40 percent.” WWAMI is a medical education program that allows UI students to attend med school at the University of Washington through a multi-state program. WWAMI has had 436 Idaho-sponsored graduates in the 36 years the program has been operating, White said. Currently, 37 percent of Idaho’s family practice physicians are WWAMI grads.

White said the only factor that really correlates to where doctors end up practicing, in the end, is “where they were in their home town as a kid.” So if Idaho wants to attract doctors in the future to its remote, rural communities, he said, “We’d better make darn sure … that we are recruiting students from those communities.”

‘Outdated’ law bans Election Day booze

It’s time for Idaho to repeal an archaic law that bans packaged liquor sales on election day – and that’s costing the state up to $400,000 in liquor sales every time there’s an election, state liquor chief Dyke Nally told lawmakers this morning. “Idaho is one of only nine states that still place election-day restrictions on liquor store operating hours,” Nally told the House State Affairs Committee. The law, he said, is “outdated.” The panel voted unanimously to introduce the bill; read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

One in four lawmakers are UI alums

University of Idaho President Tim White started off his budget pitch to JFAC this morning by paying tribute to some famous alumni, including Burton French, who was elected to the Idaho Legislature during his sophomore year at the university in 1898, became House Republican floor leader his senior year, and was elected to Congress the year after he graduated, going on to serve 13 terms. He also pointed to Ezra Taft Benson, who started at the university as a county extension agent in southeastern Idaho, became the founding chairman of the university’s Department of Agricultural Economics, served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower, and late in life became president of the LDS Church.

Then, he noted that among current Idaho legislators, nearly one in four attended the University of Idaho. Their numbers, White said, include the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, assistant majority leader and majority and minority Senate caucus chairs, plus seven of 24 current legislative committee chairs.

‘We are now officially in the black’

The Idaho State Board of Education has just voted 5-2 to approve amendments to its $22 million contract with Data Recognition Corp. for ISAT testing, officially canceling 9th grade testing and making other cost-cutting changes. “We are now officially in the black,” board President Milford Terrell said after the vote, adding gruffly, “We were officially in the black before.”

The two “no” votes came from state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who said he thought 9th grade ISAT testing was “absolutely essential” but that he understood the budget situation; and board member Rod Lewis, who questioned why the changes also included extending the contract for two more years, through 2012. Terrell said the extension was in exchange for DRC agreeing to cut its charges by $100,000 a year for three years. “That was … a carrot that we threw out to them for them to continue the contract with us and reduce the contract,” Terrell said. He noted that the state still could pull out of the contract at any time if the company doesn’t perform to its satisfaction or if the Legislature doesn’t appropriate the money to continue it. Lewis was persistent in his questioning, and grilled the board’s ISAT program manager, Margo Healy, about the details. Commented Terrell, “Boy, I thought it was hot this morning.”

PNWER, INL team up on energy

The Idaho National Laboratory signed an agreement with the Pacific Northwest Economic Region today to research electrical transmission options and costs in the region, with the research stretching across state and even national borders. “We have a transmission problem in the Pacific Northwest,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, the current president of PNWER, which is a cross-border economic group that includes officials from five northwestern states and three Canadian provinces, including Washington and British Columbia.

John Grossenbacher, INL director, said, “We like hard problems, and we like to apply the talent of the scientists and engineers we have to those problems.” Grossenbacher noted that INL’s research can provide the “knowable facts,” adding, “It doesn’t make the decisions any easier, but at least there’s a sound basis for the decision-making.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter praised Eskridge for bringing the group and INL together to focus on energy issues. “We do have energy problems staring us in the face in the future,” Otter said. The initial contract between PNWER and INL is for $30,000 for the transmission study, but Grossenbacher said that’s just the “first task.” Both sides envision additional collaboration in the future on everything from energy generation and its risks and environmental impacts, to transportation, disaster preparedness and grid security.

Bill makes dog fighting a felony

Dog fighting would become a felony in Idaho, and attending a dogfight – now legal – would become a misdemeanor, under legislation introduced today in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Brad Little, R-Emmett, presented the bill and it was quickly and unanimously approved for introduction. Little said he worked with the Humane Society, the wool growers, the governor’s office, the Farm Bureau, kennel clubs and lots of legislators to draft the bill, which makes a point of exempting the use of animals in management of livestock. “If I woulda put co-sponsors on it, I would’ve had to have two pages to it,” Little said. “This really goes after the group we want, which are the guys who are profiting from it.” Dog-fighting legislation was rejected the past three legislative sessions, largely due to opposition from ag groups. Little said he figures the chances of his bill succeeding this year are “really good, very good.”

Survey: Idahoans say Craig should go

The annual BSU Public Policy Survey was released this morning, and this year’s edition included a new question: “In your opinion, should Senator Larry Craig remain in office to complete his term?” The results: 57 percent said no, 37 percent yes, and 6 percent weren’t sure.

Here’s the kicker: The results were just as clear among respondents to the statewide survey who identified themselves as Republicans. Among the Republican respondents, 42 percent said GOP Sen. Craig should stay in office, and 58 percent said he should not.

Getting it going

Sandpoint Sen. Shawn Keough says she’s taking to heart the advice to speed things up this session – and that’s why she filed two personal bills in the Senate on Thursday. One would withdraw northern Bonner and Boundary counties from the upcoming North Idaho water rights adjudication, a measure she’s co-sponsoring with Reps. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, and George Eskridge, R-Dover; and the other would call for a comprehensive study by the Office of Performance Evaluations to define what constitutes “adequate” funding for public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Personal bills aren’t often known for going far, but Keough notes that some have passed into law.

“We were told to be efficient and expedient – so I saved about 10 days,” Keough said. “Both issues are very important to the people of my legislative district. I felt it imperative to get them on the table as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers endorse Otter’s revenue forecast

The Legislature’s joint committee charged with examining the state of Idaho’s economy and determining a revenue figure on which to set the state budget has endorsed the Otter Administration’s forecast, which calls for 3.4 percent revenue growth in fiscal 2009, following 3.5 percent in the current year, fiscal 2008. The decision came after the revenue estimates selected by each of the 12 committee members resulted in a median figure that was less than 1 percent off from the governor’s number of $3.0119 billion.

“In our opinion, Gov. Otter’s general fund revenue projections for fy 2008 and fy 2009 are reasonable for the purpose of the legislature making general fund appropriations for those years,” the joint committee said in its report, approved by a voice vote and scheduled for presentation to JFAC in the morning. “Because the committee median forecast is slightly lower than the governor’s forecast for fy 2009, we believe the legislature should take a cautious approach with regard to funding commitments to ongoing programs.” Otter’s forecast identifies $56 million of the revenue expected for fiscal year 2009 as “one-time” money only, which can’t be expected to come every year.

Minnick: ‘Reports won’t fix roads’

Walt Minnick, one of three Democrats running for GOP Rep. Bill Sali’s seat, issued this response to Sali’s remarks to the Legislature on transportation, including the GAO report Sali requested on barriers to road construction: “Congressman Sali’s remarks today are a perfect example of why Idaho needs a change in Congress. Not only has Mr. Sali done absolutely nothing to help Idaho’s deteriorating roads, he’s deliberately stood in the way. In November, he voted against $500,000 for widening Highway 95 near Moscow and another $500,000 for improvements on Highway 24 from Banks to Lowman. Now, he’s claiming he wants to help Idaho by calling for a report on federal regulations. Reports won’t fix our roads, action will.”

The bill Minnick is referring to is the one on which Sali claimed credit for helping add the Idaho funding, then voted against the bill, saying it contained “other unnecessary, bloated spending proposals.” The bill passed anyway.

Forest fire price tag for state: $21.5 million

Each year, the state has to pay the bills after the fact for the summer forest fire season on state lands, and the amount depends on the severity and location of the fires as well as the acreage that burns. Today, legislative budget writers paid this year’s bill: $21.5 million. About 350 fires burned on land protected by state agencies, down from 445 last year, but the firefighting costs and acreage burned were much higher: 68,675 acres burned this year, up from just 6,473 last year, when the firefighting cost was $4.4 million. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “Philosophically it would be nice to do a little more management and a little less firefighting, but we burn the acres and we need to pay the bills.” Her motion passed unanimously.

Otter to bring tribal agreements to lawmakers

Gov. Butch Otter will bring four fuel-tax agreements he negotiated with Idaho Indian tribes to lawmakers for their approval, even though there’s some legal question as to whether that’s required. “Rather than having a debate about whether or not we should, I think the governor feels it’s important to share that with the Legislature, let them see what the final product is, the hard work and dedication and result of our efforts,” said David Hensley, legal counsel to the governor, “and in doing so, see if the Legislature can give us a positive response in the form of support.”

Last year, skeptical lawmakers passed legislation over tribal objections seeking to impose the state’s gas tax unilaterally on tribal fuel sales on reservations. But they included an out: Any tribe that signed a negotiated agreement with the governor by Dec. 1 would be exempt from the new law. All three Idaho tribes that operate gas stations have done so, plus one that could in the future. “We were able to negotiate in good faith,” said Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief Allan. “It was a give and take on both sides.” Read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

The saga of the wandering coatrack

Everyone’s cramped in the temporary Statehouse, none more so than the press. The Statehouse press corps is crammed elbow-to-elbow into a 10-by-10 foot room, with overflow space consisting of a table in the basement hallway downstairs (pictured here, with AP reporter John Miller working away). We installed a small coatrack on the back of the door of our room, but with way too many coats, needed more. The free-standing hall tree that once stood in the spacious, though dark and airless, Capitol basement press bullpen disappeared in the move. So lacking any other option, I bought a new free-standing wooden coatrack at Fred Meyer, assembled it, hauled it down here and set it up in the basement hallway next to the overflow table on the first day of the session, with a label noting it was for press use. That worked for one day. The next morning, it was gone.

Within hours, the errant coatrack had been recovered from a second-floor office, where one of the secretaries had appropriated it. One Statehouse pundit theorized that the incident is a sign of a changing culture here, where lawmakers and staffers bereft of their usual surroundings are grasping at anything – even other people’s coatracks – to try to settle in. I’m not sure I buy that. But there’s definitely a big adjustment under way as Statehouse denizens try to adjust to their new, much smaller surroundings. The former Ada County Courthouse has just 36,000 usable square feet, compared to more than 67,000 in the state Capitol. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, has compared the situation to going camping for two years. To stretch that metaphor even further, it’s kind of like a big group camping trip, a family reunion, say, where Aunt Martha turns up in the wrong tent, the cousins are squabbling and the grandkids rampage noisily through the group campsite at dawn after the grownups were up late around the campfire. Unfortunately, there’s no fresh, pine-scented air.

An update to lawmakers on the Capitol renovation this morning said the “substantial completion date” is now targeted for Nov. 13, 2009, with final completion, when the Capitol would become usable again, “at least 30 days after that.” That’s cutting it close, certainly. If the schedule holds, just two legislative sessions will be held outside the Capitol. If it slips, it could go to three.

Idaho education ranked worst in nation

Ouch. Education Week has released its latest ranking of education quality among the states, and Idaho is in a six-way tie for last place. Joining us at the bottom of the rankings, with a grade of D+, were Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. The six indicators, which looked at everything from preschool to college and careers, were identified as: “Chance for success; K-12 achievement; standards, assessments, and accountability; transitions and alignment; the teaching profession; and school finance,” according to Education Week. Idaho got its worst grade, an F, in the “transitions and alignment” category, which included early childhood education, college readiness and economy and workforce. Education Week’s “Quality Counts” study and rankings were funded by the Pew Center on the States. You can read the full report here.

Those stars were familiar

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has been calling his teacher merit pay plan “iSTARS,” an acronym for Idaho State Teacher Advancement and Recognition System. But Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, who co-chaired a legislative panel with Rep. Bob Nonini over the interim that looked at teacher pay issues, said he tried to talk Luna out of using the acronym. “We told Luna that he was treading on someone else’s turf,” Geddes said. Idaho already has an ISTARS acronym, Geddes noted. It’s the Idaho Statewide Trial-Court Automated Records System (ISTARS). “They’ve already used that acronym once,” chuckled Geddes. “He said they would look into it, but they didn’t ever change it.”

Craig attorney issues statement

Sen. Larry Craig’s lead defense attorney, Billy Martin, has issued this statement:

“Our brief contains legal arguments supporting Senator Craig’s position that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea. Pursuant to Minnesota law, there is an insufficient factual basis to support the finding that he is guilty of violating any laws while passing through the Minneapolis airport. Thus, we renew our arguments that it is manifestly unjust to deny Senator Craig’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. The State has forty-five days in which to file a responsive brief. Throughout this trying time, Senator Craig has maintained his innocence and has remained a dedicated public servant who continues to serve the people of Idaho with honor and distinction, as he has done for the past 27 years.”

So it’s not really a new problem…

Phones in the Senate chamber have been ringing at inopportune times, and the Senate was just informed that they’ve now all been silenced until the new phone system can be sorted out enough to control the ring volumes. Commented Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, who was presiding, “The phone difficulty, by my count, has been going on for 34 years.”

Whoops, no vets cemetery in North Idaho

The $10 million that Idaho welcomed from the feds last year for a new veterans cemetery in North Idaho ran into a bit of a snag, according to Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon. Hammon just told JFAC that the feds chose a site for the new cemetery – but it’s in Spokane County. With a veterans’ cemetery going in just over the state line in Spokane County, one won’t be approved now in Kootenai County. But Idaho still has the $10 million in federal money for one. So Hammon said they’re looking now to southeastern Idaho, with an eye to using that money to build a veterans cemetery in Bannock, Bingham or Bonneville county.

Phenneger joins Senate race

Post Falls businessman Richard Phenneger commissioned a poll that showed only 21 percent of Idahoans were satisfied with the two major-party frontrunners for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat – Republican Jim Risch and Democrat Larry LaRocco – and now Phenneger’s running too. Phenneger, a retired airline and military pilot who’s built a career developing employee stock ownership plans for companies throughout the country, is a Republican; click here for my full story on his candidacy and his statewide poll, conducted by Robinson Research of Spokane. That brings the field of announced Republicans in the open-seat race up to five. In addition to Phenneger and Risch, there’s former eastern Idaho elk rancher Rex Rammell, Caldwell real estate broker and Iraq veteran Scott Syme, and former Caldwell city councilman Kent Marmon.

Denney wants it to be short

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, thanking Otter for his State of the State message, told the governor, “We look forward to working with you, and to having a very short and productive session.”

Guv makes transportation proposals

Gov. Butch Otter says he’ll support a proposal from Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, and others to raise Idaho’s vehicle registration fees to pay for fixing roads. “We must act without delay to address our growing transportation infrastructure needs,” Otter said. He also called for shifting half of the funding for the Idaho State Police, or $9 million, off of gas tax funds, and making up the difference from the state general fund. That would allow that $9 million in gas taxes to go to road construction and maintenance. Otter said he wants to shift the other half next year. He also called for approving the next $134 million round of GARVEE bonding for major highway projects, and said he’d support local-option taxation for “construction, repair and maintenance of public roads and bridges.” Otter quoted Ronald Reagan in expressing his support for local-option taxes, which he said should be approved by county, should need a two-thirds vote, and should be voted on only on the May or November primary or general election dates. “I may personally oppose a local-option tax that’s put before me,” he said. “But my neighbors and I should have the right to decide that for ourselves.”

Otter wants 5 percent for state employees, teachers

Raises averaging 5 percent should be granted for all state employees – including teachers, Otter told legislators just now. Lawmakers interrupted him mid-sentence with applause. “My budget proposes a 5 percent pay increase for all our state employees,” he said, adding, “And we must advance the important cause of ensuring that Idaho’s public school teachers as well, and to make sure that they are properly paid.” Actual amounts of raises for state employees are determined through a merit system, but the funding approved by the Legislature and governor determines the size of the pool.

Meth ads kick off today, guv says

The governor is touting the graphic anti-meth ads that are starting to air today all over Idaho – and calling for a $1 million state contribution to the effort from the state’s tobacco settlement fund. “You’re going to see disturbing and even shocking images of what meth does to people,” Otter said. “These public service spots don’t sugar-coat it, because it’s just that ugly. And Idahoans need to see and hear the truth about this drug.” He called methamphetamine a “21st century plague.”

‘Some would have liked a different outcome’

Gov. Otter defended the fuel tax agreements he negotiated with four Idaho Indian tribes, calling them “landmark agreements.” He added, “A lot of credit goes to the leaders of the Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce and Kootenai tribes. I realize that some people would have liked a different outcome. But those agreements bring us certainty, and they are the result of good-faith negotiations based on a shared interest in what’s best for Idaho.”

Lawmakers awaiting governor’s speech

Legislators and onlookers have been filing in to the BSU Special Events Center, milling around and waiting for the governor’s State of the State speech. First, a note on the time stamps that appear on these blog posts – they’re in Pacific time, as are our newspaper’s servers. But the speech is happening in the Mountain time zone. So if the time stamp says an item was posted at 2 p.m., it’s actually 3 p.m. in Boise, which is when the speech starts. Now, the House has been called to order in this unusual theater setting, the roll has been called, and the joint session is beginning.

View from the top

So who’s sitting in the new upper level of the House chamber? Its denizens include Reps. Bob Nonini, Eric Anderson, Frank Henderson and Cliff Bayer. It’s not that they got the short end of the stick. “We wanted to be up here,” said Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. “This was our first choice.” Grinning from his high perch, Nonini said, “There’s just something more, an aura about being above everybody.”

A look ahead

Here’s a link to my Sunday story looking ahead to the legislative session. It describes how lawmakers who will be crammed into an old courthouse for their annual legislative session – while the state Capitol is closed for a two-year-plus renovation – are hoping for a short, businesslike session that will wrap up long before campaigning starts for this spring’s primary election, but working against those hopes is a plethora of pressing issues, from taxes to roads to water, and a clear lack of agreement between the Republican-dominated Legislature and Republican governor over how to address them. Here’s how Jim Weatherby, longtime Idaho political observer, describes what’s coming: “I think it’ll be a wild session, a difficult session.”

Guv wants to raise pay, cut benefits

Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of administration, Mike Gwartney, told legislators this morning that the administration believes Idaho is underpaying for state employee salaries by about $110 million, but overpaying for benefits by $35 million to $40 million, and has too much liability for state retirees’ medical costs. This year’s annual report on state employee compensation shows that state worker salaries still are lagging 15 percent behind the market. But Gwartney said an administration task force concluded that benefits are above market levels. So Otter wants to raise pay and cut benefits. “It has to be a package deal,” Gwartney told the Change in Employee Compensation Committee.

Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, responded, “In the past we’ve made up for what we were not giving in salaries with benefits.” But representatives from Otter’s Division of Human Resources said studies show that costs the state more in the long run than just paying better salaries. You can read my full story here.

Otter’s recommending at least 5 percent merit-based increases for state workers each year for at least the next five years, while trimming back state-paid health benefits for employees over a four- to five-year period. Currently, the state pays 78 percent of the total cost of employees’ and dependents’ health benefits and employees pay 22 percent. Otter wants to move that to a 70-30 split to align with comparable private-sector employee health plans. He also wants to make cuts in retiree medical benefits – 36 percent of state employees are now 52 or older – to cut the state’s liability from $442 million to $190 million. “Mainly, the governor asked us to do this: I don’t want a state employee to leave here because they could get a better deal on the benefit side anywhere else,” Gwartney told the committee.

Younger workers value pay more than benefits, the administration said, so the state should revise its system to attract that future workforce. The average state employee is now 47 years old; the average age range of hires in the past year is 36 to 40. Among Otter’s recommendations is to eliminate retiree health benefits for any employee hired after July 1, 2008. So far, the joint CEC Committee has received 250 letters from state employees expressing concerns about the plan; written comments still are being accepted through Jan. 14 at CEC@lso.idaho.gov, by fax at 334-2668, or by mail at: Legislative Services Office, Attn: CEC Committee, 514 W. Jefferson, Boise, ID 83720.

Things of common interest

The Common Interest, the Idaho citizen group founded by Harvard Professor Keith Allred, has come out with its three top-ranked issues for the upcoming legislative session: Water, Transportation, and Growth Paying for Itself. The group will research those issues, decide on positions, and keep track of lawmakers’ votes. The group, whose 1,100-plus members all pledge to vote in both the primary and general elections, also will continue to work on two carry-over issues from last year, election reform and overcrowded prisons. Asked if the three issues that came out on top this year were really all the same issue – growth – Allred said yes. “It has really become more of a statewide issue, and not just Coeur d’Alene and the Treasure Valley,” he said. “I’m not so sure it’s an anti-growth sentiment. … There’s a question about whether we are managing it in a wise way.”

Primary bill in the works from Idaho GOP?

Asked if he’s seen a bill yet to close Idaho’s primaries to non-party members, House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “I have not seen one. The state Republican Party chairman said he will have one, but I have not seen anything.”

Sad but true?

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, speaking at the AP’s legislative preview program this morning, said, “I think we can shorten the length of our session by a week just by not having a gallery, and not having to introduce everyone who comes to visit.” This year’s legislative session will be held in temporary quarters so cramped that the only public gallery will be a virtual one – you can watch sessions live on the Internet.

When you - crash! - need a new car…

Idaho’s state Department of Insurance is objecting to a recent Toyota ad campaign that shows people destroying their old cars by smashing them with boulders or pushing them off the top of a parking garage so they can buy a new Toyota – because it says the ads encourage insurance fraud. The scenes depicted in the ads are crimes, the department said. “We’ve had some problems with that specifically here in Idaho,” said Don Roberson, fraud investigator for the Department of Insurance. Just this past summer, three southeastern Idaho residents tried to claim insurance money on cars they’d torched out in the desert.

Roberson wrote a letter to the president of Toyota asking that the ads be pulled, and he’s not the only one. James Quiggle, spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, said, “There’s been a lot of buzz among the states about this. … A lot of the fraud bureau directors are concerned, and to some degree offended, by ads that encourage a social environment that treats insurance fraud as fun for the whole family, or as a victimless crime.” Click here to read my full story at spokesman-review.com, and click here to see the coalition’s blog posting that includes videos of two of the ads.

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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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