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Eye On Boise

Archive for March 2008

School zone speeding bill heads to governor

Fines for speeding in school zones in Idaho would rise to more than $100, under legislation that won final passage in the Idaho House today. SB 1361a, sponsored by Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, now goes to the governor’s desk. It would set the minimum fine for school-zone speed violations at $75, plus $41.50 in court costs, for a total of $116.50. Local ordinances still could set higher fines. The bill passed the House on a 37-26 vote, with opponents raising questions about whether the fines would apply when school isn’t in session. They could, if communities choose to post signs saying they apply “when children are present,” rather than during certain hours or days.

Tent gone, but the circus hasn’t left town…

Something was missing from the Capitol Annex grounds today – the festive white tent in the back parking lot, with its scalloped-edge trim, that housed the deluxe flushing Port-a-Potties brought in for the legislative session. Though not heavily used, the potties were there to supplement the sparse bathroom facilities in the old courthouse that’s serving as a temporary Statehouse while the Capitol is being renovated. They’re gone now, and so is the tent. However, the session still isn’t over…

Governor signs grocery tax relief bill

Gov. Butch Otter has signed into law the long-sought break for Idahoans who have been paying full 6 percent sales taxes on their grocery purchases, ever since the Legislature raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 in August of 2006. “After a year and a half, we finally have arrived at a compromise,” Otter said. “It took a while to get it cooked up.” An audience of anti-hunger advocates applauded the signing. “I think it’s a good step in the right direction,” said Bishop Michael Driscoll of the Catholic diocese. “I think any time we do programs especially for the poor, it shows the compassion and the mercy of people in this state. We should be known by our compassion and care for others, especially in things so basic as hunger.”

Under the bill, most Idahoans’ grocery tax credit will rise from the current $20 to $30 this year – on next year’s income tax returns – while those who make less than $25,300 for a family of four would get a $50 credit per person. Seniors would get an additional $20. And in subsequent years, the credit would rise $10 a year, economic conditions permitting, until it hits $100 for everyone. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

‘We wish we weren’t here’

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, opened this morning’s Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee hearing with this comment: “Welcome everyone – we wish we weren’t here.” Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, responded, “The House concurs, Mr. Chairman – we wish we weren’t here either. But since we’re here, we can take care of some last-minute business.” Nonini then presented HB 655a, a measure to expand last year’s “STAR” financing mechanism, originally passed to finance a freeway interchange at a new Post Falls Cabela’s store through future sales taxes generated from the store, to make it more broadly usable statewide – including for a project to widen Eagle Road in Meridian. The bill narrowly cleared the committee, on a 4-3 vote.

Election names bill passes

SB 1514, the measure to require a parenthetical (a person formerly known as…) on the ballot following the names of candidates who have changed their names to political slogans, has passed the House 64-2 and now goes to the governor. Rep. John Vander Woulde, R-Nampa, said, “I think most of us are aware that there is a candidate that has changed his name to convey a political message, which I think confuses the issue on the ballot.” The thinking behind the bill is that voters might confuse the slogan for an issue vote, and choose it along with a candidate, thus spoiling their ballot and invalidating their vote.

“Pro-Life,” an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate who was formerly known as Marvin Richardson, objects to the bill. He was standing outside the House chamber before this morning’s session began, trying to make his point. Pro-Life said he doesn’t object to the idea of the parenthetical addition on the ballot. He just doesn’t like the law, because he thinks it’s unconstitutionally changing the rules midway through the election cycle. “It’s an ex-post facto law,” he said. “I don’t think anybody cares about the Constitution.”

Pro-Life said he actually thinks the parenthetical addition is a fine idea. “I don’t want anybody getting confused,” he said. “When I go out and campaign, people don’t believe my name is Pro-Life – I have to show ‘em my driver’s license. They think I’m lying.”

Local-option enabling legislation passes the House

The House has voted 66-0 in favor of HB 688, enabling legislation to accompany HJR 4, the local-option tax amendment. There was no debate. “This is necessary legislation and I would certainly urge your green light,” House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told the House. The bill would let cities and counties enact local-option sales taxes of up to 1 percent, if they do so by a two-thirds supermajority vote at a November general election. It would take effect only if voters in November agree to amend the constitution via HJR 4, which would limit all future local-option sales taxes to those terms – only by city or county, only by two-thirds, and only in November general elections. The amendment is pending in the Senate, where senators want to consider both the amendment and the enabling legislation together.

Senators send missive to state board

The Senate Education Committee this morning approved letters to the state Board of Education and to Gov. Butch Otter summing up their findings from months of complaints and a dramatic hearing in which the senators grilled state board members about their handling of the ISAT testing program, a million-dollar budget deficit and the scramble to save a federal grant. Said Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, “I am very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish. I think it bodes well for the future.” Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “With no objection, I will put these on letterhead and I will submit them to the governor’s office and the office of the state board, and I will personally deliver the governor’s copy.” Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said it’s been “a historic year in the education committee,” and complimented Goedde for his leadership. The senators also praised state board public information officer Mark Browning for consistently attending the panel’s meetings and promptly providing them with board information they requested.

The letter to the board members recommends that the board get annual refreshers on open meetings laws and policies and procedures for expenditure of funds, and calls for the board to “set a minimum attendance standard for its members and enforce it.” It also calls for a nationwide search for a new executive director. The letter to the governor recommends that the board “return to its constitutional mandate to provide ‘general supervision’ over education in Idaho,” rather than administer programs itself.

Personal property tax bill amended

HB 599, the bill to phase in a repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment, has been amended unanimously in the Senate. Senators changed the bill to exempt just the first $75,000 in value from the tax on business equipment, and to exclude operating property (utility property, like power lines). As a result, 86 percent of Idaho businesses would no longer have to pay the tax at all. The state would fully reimburse counties for their lost taxes, which would cost about $15.5 million a year – far less than the $120 million annual cost of the full repeal. Now, the Senate is moving on to debate the amended bill.

‘$68 million does not fill up a $200 million hole’

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, had this to say about the $68.5 million transportation funding bill that’s pending in the House: “$68 million does not fill up a $200 million hole. We’ve been saying all session long that this needs to be taken seriously, and not done piecemeal. … He’s willing to listen to other proposals, and he’s willing to be persuaded, but so far he hasn’t heard a persuasive argument.” Asked what message the governor was sending to lawmakers, Hanian said, “He’s putting them on notice, I think. He offered political cover on this earlier and they rejected it.”

Governor lashes back at lawmakers with veto

Gov. Butch Otter has issued another line-item veto, this time scratching out the funding for the Legislative Services Office for technology upgrades and to purchase 108 laptop computers next year for use by legislators. Though he doesn’t mention it in his veto message, the swipe appears to be payback for the Senate having voted to override his veto of substance abuse treatment funds. Otter said the $274,000 line-item veto came because the Legislature didn’t join in a new money-saving effort to consolidate computer purchases under the Department of Administration.

Craig-Wyden replacement bill passes Senate

The Senate has voted 34-1 for legislation to provide a “safety net” to Idaho school districts that will lose out if Congress doesn’t reauthorize so-called “Craig-Wyden” timber replacement funds. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said any congressional action, if it takes place, likely wouldn’t get school districts money until June, but they have to set their budgets now. “This provides a safety net,” Keough told the Senate. The bill, HB 532, would dip into the public school stabilization fund, which now contains $111 million, to pay Idaho school districts 70 percent of their lost federal Craig-Wyden payments in the coming year, or $4.3 million. It would scale back the payments in the following three years, to 55 percent or $3.4 million, then 40 percent or $2.5 million, and then 25 percent or $1.5 million. After that, the state payments would drop to zero. If federal funds are authorized, the districts would return the state money.

Keough said the fund earned $5 million in interest this year. “We can do this, senators, we can do this and help those schools. We can be a backstop,” she said, adding that her “preference” is that the federal government manage forests better so they’d be more productive and provide payments to schools. “Our school districts are hurting and we need to stand up and help them through this crisis,” Keough told the Senate.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said the money should come from the state’s general fund, not from the school stabilization fund, which is a backup for if student population estimates are exceeded, but other senators disagreed and said the fund is the appropriate source. Said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “The fund, in my mind, is to protect public schools and public schoolchildren. Without this safeguard, public schools would have to lay off teachers and children would have to go without an adequate education.” The bill now goes to Gov. Butch Otter.

ITD audit bill passes the Senate

The Senate has voted 31-2 in favor of HCR 50, to launch a $550,000 performance audit of the Idaho Transportation Department. “We want to dig into what is happening out at the Department of Transportation so that we all feel more confident when the time comes, and certainly I would argue that the time has arrived, where we’re prepared to ask for more funding for our roads, bridges and infrastructure across the state of Idaho,” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate. Minutes later, the House voted unanimously for HB 682, a trailer bill already approved by JFAC to fund the study. The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee earlier approved a resolution to do the study, contingent on HCR 50 passing both houses.

The measure is key to negotiations between the House and Senate on transportation funding – and its passage in the Senate is a sign that progress finally is being made on that issue, which has been much debated since the start of the session. Yesterday, the House Ways & Means Committee voted unanimously to both introduce and send to the full House a $68.5 million transportation funding bill. That measure increases car registration fees by $23.5 million, fees for light trucks and trailers by $6.7 million, heavy truck fees by $11.3 million, and adds 3 cents to the fuel tax to raise another $27 million. Gov. Butch Otter had called for $200 million a year to address a backlog in road maintenance statewide, but he’s signed on to the smaller bill. “It’s a first step,” Clete Edmunson, Otter’s transportation policy adviser, told the Associated Press yesterday, adding the 2009 Legislature will likely have to take up the matter again, to raise even more. Idaho registration fees and the state’s gas tax haven’t been increased in more than a decade.

Child death review bill killed

A Senate committee chairwoman has blocked legislation that would have ended Idaho’s distinction as the only state in the nation with no system for reviewing child deaths. Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said Idaho doesn’t need to review child deaths if every other state is already doing it. “We can use the information that they’ve gathered,” she said. “If they’re already doing it, what could be different in a child death in Utah or Montana that we wouldn’t have here? Why reinvent the wheel all the time?” House Bill 511 passed the House on March 17 on a 63-5 vote, and it cleared Lodge’s committee on a voice vote after a public hearing. But Lodge then asked the Senate to return the bill to her committee, where it’s now dead. “The concerns mostly were, what could this lead to?” she said. “Could this lead to maybe more usurping of freedoms? Could parents be charged?” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Senate backs repeal of unused tax exemption

The Senate has voted 25-10 for HB 661, a measure to repeal a never-used tax incentive bill enacted in 2005 to try to entice Albertson’s grocery store chain to keep its headquarters in Idaho. It didn’t. “Idaho’s a great place to do business,” said Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home. “We don’t have to give away the farm to get businesses to come to Idaho.” The bill, Corder said, is a “token effort from across the rotunda” to make a move toward repealing unneeded exemptions as the Legislature is in the midst of enacting massive new ones this year, including two designed to attract a French uranium enrichment firm and a huge tax break for businesses through repeal of the tax on business equipment. A more far-reaching review of exemptions, which was recommended by a joint interim committee, never happened.

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “If it’s not costing us anything, I don’t know why we would want to repeal (it),” when the headquarters incentive might attract another corporate headquarters in the future. Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, said, “This is silly. … Is this the best we can do on attacking this system of exemptions, $1.6 billion that stay on the books year after year without review?” He called the bill a “cynical piece of theater.” Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, noted that he voted against the exemption in the first place, and opposes moves to “booger up the tax code” to accommodate a single company. Since the exemption’s never been used, the repeal bill has no effect on the state budget. HB 661 now goes to the governor.

$68.5 million transportation bill headed to House

The House Ways & Means Committee has voted unanimously to both introduce and send to the full House a $68.5 million transportation funding bill. The measure increases car registration fees by $23.5 million, fees for light trucks and trailers by $6.7 million, heavy truck fees by $11.3 million, and adds 3 cents to the fuel tax to raise another $27 million. “This is the first step,” said House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “We don’t know if this bill can even be successful on the House floor.” Roberts noted that Idaho hasn’t raised its fuel tax since 1996. “It’s been 12 years,” he said. “It’s probably time to make a change, but it’s also a difficult time to make a change because of the price of gas.” The measure, presented by the Idaho Transportation Department, is “kind of the culmination of a lot of discussions” that have been going on all session and still were in the works as late as 9 last night, Roberts said. Gov. Butch Otter had called for $200 million a year more in transportation funding to address a huge road maintenance backlog.

Senate overrides governor’s veto

The Idaho Senate has voted 30-5 to override Gov. Butch Otter’s line-item veto of substance-abuse treatment funds in SB 1458, a supplemental appropriation in which Otter axed $2.4 million for treatment in the current budget year. “We believe that we can show that the money is being spent effectively, and it is saving taxpayer dollars and lives,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the Senate. The issue now moves to the House.

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, silenced the Senate with a heartfelt story about his niece, who became addicted to methamphetamine. “Melissa’s teeth are rotting out of her head because of meth use,” Hill said. “Her bright eyes have turned into hollow cavities in her face. She married a young man while he was out on parole and then she wondered why her marriage hasn’t worked out.” But the young woman got into drug court, and got treatment, Hill said. “She has a job, she’s supporting herself and her little boy. … There’s a light back in her eyes that was gone for a long time. I’ll always be grateful to the people of Idaho for saving my niece.” He told the Senate, “I have thousands of reasons to support this … and every one of them has a face and a name and a family, and I believe a purpose for living.”

Eighty percent of the $16.8 million in treatment funds that Otter vetoed in two bills, SB 1458 and HB 608, are for drug treatment for participants in drug courts and those on probation or parole. No action has been taken yet to override the veto of the House bill. Cameron said without the funds, 3,207 Idahoans would have to forego treatment in the coming year. If all of them were incarcerated instead, that’d cost the state $67 million a year.

“Enough is enough – we’re tired of paying for people to be in prison,” Cameron said. “Doesn’t it seem smart to try and treat those individuals while they’re incarcerated so that they don’t reoffend? Doesn’t it seem smart to try to affect those individuals before they’re incarcerated so that they don’t offend in the first place?” He noted, “This budget isn’t an increase – this is a maintenance. … We couldn’t afford to do more than we did this year. … So the question before you is, do you want to maintain the effort that we’ve started over the last couple of years or do you want to slide backwards? … This isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do.”

A few would gain a lot…

Under HB 599, the proposed repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment, 18 percent of the 53,718 Idaho businesses that now pay the tax would get 95 percent of the benefit, which translates to slightly over $110 million in tax relief for 9,887 of the companies. Of that, nearly $30 million would go to utilities. This is according to state Tax Commission data. Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the business lobbying group that proposed HB 599, said, “They’re paying it.” If a small portion of Idaho’s businesses are paying 95 percent of the tax, he said, it’s only fair that they get 95 percent of the benefit from the bill. “I wonder how many people they employ,” LaBeau said. “This is an onerous tax whether you’re small or big. … It’s universally despised.”

LaBeau said he wasn’t surprised that nearly all the testimony at a four-hour Senate committee hearing on the bill this week was opposed to the bill, but it passed anyway. County commissioners, city officials, school superintendents and more from across the state flocked to the hearing to object to the bill, while just a handful of business lobbyists favored it. “I wasn’t surprised by that – it came down to a fundamental philosophical difference,” LaBeau said. “Those that are advocating to get rid of the tax were those that pay it. Recipients of the tax don’t want it to go away.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, co-chairman of an interim legislative committee on energy, said he’s opposed to the bill because of concerns about how the break for utilities will play out. “When we go through rulemaking, we’re going to see the big problems, specifically caused by the power lines, towers, cable, underground gas lines – those are going to be defined as personal property,” Eskridge said. “That’s going to be a bigger hit than we anticipate. My concern is we’re not going to be able to afford the services we need and we’re going to see a tax shift. It’s just too big a hit.” Utilities, he said, are “not going to cut the rates” because they get the tax cut. “If you’re a property taxpayer, you have no option.” The bill could come up for a final vote in the Senate as soon as today.

Something to celebrate

The Statehouse press corps was outside the Capitol Annex just now, puffing on cigars. It wasn’t that the session had ended (though that’d be cause for celebration too). It was the arrival of little Rachel Ann Miller, 6 pounds, 15 ounces, daughter of AP reporter John Miller, second from right, and wife Melanie. Rachel, the couple’s first child, was born at 10:15 on Saturday night after 14 hours of labor, and the proud new father reported that mother and daughter are both doing fine.

Local-option amendment waiting…

The Senate State Affairs Committee this morning began its consideration of HJR 4, the constitutional amendment to limit local-option taxes, but ran out of time after the first presenter, House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. Meanwhile, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning introduced new enabling legislation that would let cities and counties impose local-option sales taxes by a two-thirds vote at November general elections if the constitutional amendment passes and is approved by voters. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, tried to propose an amendment to ban local-option sales taxes from being used for property tax relief – which is exactly what Kootenai County has used half its local-option tax proceeds for, to try to keep costs of serving tourists from falling solely on local property taxpayers. Raybould’s motion didn’t get voted on, because a motion to just introduce the bill and hold a hearing on it passed first on a voice vote. Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said he’ll hold the hearing tomorrow morning at 8:30.

Over in the Senate committee, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the full Senate won’t vote on the constitutional amendment until it also has the enabling legislation. “We have to have the enabling legislation,” Davis said. He added that he has “no idea” whether the amendment can get the required two-thirds vote in the Senate.

Democratic senators ‘call’ for revolving door bill

Invoking rules of the Senate, Senate Democrats have called for SB 1302, the “revolving door” bill to require a cooling-off period before government officials could immediately turn to private-sector lobbying, to be pulled from the Senate State Affairs Committee, where it’s sat all session without a hearing. Idaho now has no restrictions on the practice, often called the “revolving door.” The rules permit such a “call” in the full Senate, which is now debating a motion from State Affairs Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, to “excuse” the committee from reporting out the bill. “I think there’s a public cry for the issue to be considered in this legislature,” Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, sponsor of the bill, told the Senate.

McKenzie told the Senate, “The bill has been called for on the 79th day. I don’t think it is appropriate to pull a bill out from committee at this late date. … We have a committee process. … The committee process is important to getting our business done.” But Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, noted, “We are still introducing bills as of today. … I think this bill needs to be heard in the Senate. … I think that this Senate should hear this bill today, and it should be brought up immediately.” Said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, “It seems to me there is plenty of time to debate certain bills that are of importance to certain people, no matter what the lateness of time is in our session. I think this particular bill is very, very important.” Kelly told the Senate that in the past two years, at least eight people moved directly from either the Legislature or top government positions into private-sector lobbying. She said she receives contacts from constituents every day, asking, “Why isn’t it being voted on this year?”

Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, said, “When you become a committee chairman, part of the power and part of the responsibility of being a committee chairman is to set the agenda.” Said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “We simply do not have enough time to hear every bill and to vote on every single bill.” Stennett said the bill has been lying in the committee chairman’s drawer since January, and that he hasn’t responded to a written request for a hearing. He said, “I would hate to see us go home for another year without having the opportunity to vote on this bill.”

McKenzie said, “This is not the only bill or resolution in my drawer,” and urged senators to support his motion. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, told the Senate, “This procedure is perfectly legitimate,” and that he respected the Democrats’ use of the maneuver. However, he opposed it. McKenzie’s motion passed on a party-line vote.

‘Trust us, trust us’

After four hours of testimony, almost all of it against the bill, Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, explained why he was supporting HB 599 anyway, to phase in a repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment: “To me, this is a start – I can see that we’re going to have to change this all along so that it doesn’t injure the counties and the cities,” Siddoway said. “I’d like to say, ‘Trust us, trust us to get it there.’ To me this is a start.” But Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who cast the tie-breaking vote to pass the bill out of committee, said he didn’t expect the bill to be changed after it’s passed. “I think there are more positives than there are negatives,” Hill said. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

GARVEE bonding wins final passage

The legislation to do the next round of GARVEE bonding for the “Connecting Idaho” highway construction program has passed the Senate, 29-6. The bill, HB 657, already had passed the House and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter, who made it a top priority as part of the transportation initiative he proposed to lawmakers at the start of the session. The majority of this $134 million round of bonding will benefit gridlocked Treasure Valley freeways. “We haven’t done any improvements on these interstates for 40 years,” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate. “We’re running now at least 75,000 cars a day on a road that was built in the 1960s, during the Eisenhower Administration.” The only dissenters in the bill’s final passage were Sens. Bair, Coiner, Hill, Pearce, Schroeder and Siddoway.

No Senate vote on ITD audit today

The Senate just announced that it won’t go into its 10th order today – and that’s where the resolution for an audit of the Idaho Transportation Department is sitting, waiting for a Senate vote. That’s the measure the House wants approved before it agrees to transportation funding bills – the House isn’t convening at all today to allow a transportation deal to be hashed out.

Californian among 13 candidates to replace Sen. Craig

Hal Styles Jr. has never been to Idaho, but he’d like to be the state’s next U.S. senator. Styles noted that current Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is leaving office, “as well he should,” and said, “Idaho being one of the 10 best places to live and heavily Republican, which is what I am, I thought, well, this particular man can no longer serve the constituents well, and I can. So I threw my hat in the ring.” Styles was one of 13 candidates to file for the post by today’s 5 p.m. filing deadline, including eight Republicans. The crowd also includes Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, a Republican; former Idaho Congressman Larry LaRocco, a Democrat; Coeur d’Alene businessman Richard Phenneger, a Republican; and “Pro-Life,” an independent who legally changed his name from his less flashy former moniker, Marvin Richardson.

Styles said he’s planning to move to Idaho, probably in about six weeks or so, though he’s long been a resident of southern California, where he’s a real estate broker, flight instructor and retired securities broker. By law, Senate candidates are required only to reside in the state on the date of the November election. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Another veto from the governor

Gov. Butch Otter has vetoed another bill, this time a rather minor one from the state Department of Education that sought to give employees there the option to take Christmas Eve and the day after Thanksgiving as state holidays instead of the established holidays of Columbus Day and Veterans Day. The reasoning was that the change would allow department employees’ holidays to match those observed by public schools, but Otter said it wasn’t appropriate to change the law like that for just one agency. Click here to read his veto message.

Local-option tax amendment passes House

A constitutional amendment to impose new limits on future local-option sales taxes in Idaho, including requiring a two-thirds supermajority at a November general election and requiring the votes to be by county, just passed the House on a 51-19 vote – which meets the two-thirds requirement and now moves the amendment to the Senate.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “This will allow the people of the state of Idaho the opportunity to vote, to vote to decide if they want local option, and to vote to decide if they want those protections that are included in this constitutional amendment. This will allow our local people to have the power to determine their own destiny.” Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, responded, “I would have to beg to differ on this particular piece of legislation and the idea of a constitutional amendment. In my mind this is a way in which the legislature will move forward in actually restricting the ability of local governments to levy taxes. … It will make it harder.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said her district includes communities with local-option resort city taxes, which require just a 60 percent supermajority. “So many people come into our communities that they need extra fire, they need extra police,” she said. “The communities did not want to ask the property taxpayers to make up the cost.” That’s why they turned to local-option sales taxes, she said, which have been upheld in court twice as compliant with the state constitution – without any amendment. “What happened to local control?” Jaquet asked. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “We need to make it harder for those folks to levy taxes on the people.… We need to watch out for the taxpayers. This constitutional amendment does exactly that.” Added Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, “It does not forbid a local option tax, it just makes it a little harder.” Said Moyle, “These are not restrictions, these are protections. … We’re protecting the citizens.”

To amend the constitution, a two-thirds vote is required in each house of the Legislature, plus simple majority support from voters at the next general election.

New report: Substance abuse programs on track

According to a new report from the state Office of Performance Evaluations, new efforts to create tracking of data and outcomes from statewide substance abuse services in Idaho are on track and meeting recommendations made in two earlier performance evaluations. However, late yesterday, Gov. Butch Otter vetoed $16.8 million in funds for substance abuse treatment programs, slashing the very programs that would be monitored, saying there hasn’t yet been enough proof that they’re working. “The study shows that we’re on the right track,” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said after the new report was presented to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee this morning. “We just simply thought we were all on the right track and knew that the resources were desperately needed.” Bell said there’s a “chicken and egg” dilemma. Said Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, “We have the process in place (to track outcomes). If we pull the funding back, we’re not going to have any outcomes.”

Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, said after the meeting that the governor would have preferred to trim back the funds rather than veto the entire amount, but had no choice because of the way the budget bill was structured. “I’ve heard the chicken and egg argument – it’s a very large egg,” Hammon said. “He understands we have to have some drug treatment money. … The governor just doesn’t believe it needs to be $14 million a year from the general fund.” His line-item veto late yesterday struck $14.4 million from next year’s budget for substance abuse treatment services, and $2.4 million from this year’s budget that was in a supplemental appropriation bill. Eighty percent of that money goes to provide drug treatment to people participating in drug courts or on probation or parole. “He fully understands the Legislature is going to have to revisit this,” Hammon said.

Governor vetoes substance-abuse treatment funds

Gov. Butch Otter has issued his first veto of the legislative session – using his line-item veto to nix $16.8 million in substance-abuse treatment funding, a top priority that numerous lawmakers have been working on for several years. “There is no question that we need an effective, community-based substance abuse treatment system in Idaho,” Otter wrote in both his veto messages, one for SB 1458 ($2.4 million) and one for HB 608 ($14.4 million). “There also should be no question that I support providing adequate public resources for treatment. However, the item vetoed in this bill goes far beyond the scope of what state policy makers had in mind when our treatment program was created or what Idaho taxpayers should be expected to accept.”

The veto endangers funding that would pay to continue substance-abuse treatment for participants in drug courts across the state – which many see as the state’s biggest success story in getting at substance-abuse problems. It also crimps efforts to develop community-based substance abuse treatment services, rather than relying on prisons. “Those are two things that we’re doing right,” said Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, after learning of the vetoes. “That’s remarkable.”

“The Legislature over the last several years has had a paradigm shift,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Rather than continue putting money into prisons, he said, lawmakers want to invest in treatment. “It’s obvious that some haven’t made that shift – we’re disappointed,” he said. “We have to either re-do the budget or have to consider whether or not we override the governor. … It’s important to understand that what we did in that budget was not an increase over what we did last year. This was a maintenance of effort. We did not want to go backwards.”

Otter said there’s not enough data to justify the expense of the substance-abuse treatment programs. “It has been my consistent position that such investments must be justified over time by results,” he said, saying it would be “fiscally responsible and prudent to limit funding.”

Because the vetos are of one House bill and one Senate bill, both of which are budget bills dealing with substance abuse services, both houses will have to decide how to proceed. Said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, “There’s a lot of work ahead of us on that.” You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

ITD audit bill wins Senate committee support

Legislation calling for a $550,000 outside performance evaluation of the Idaho Transportation Department cleared the Senate Transportation Committee this afternoon on a unanimous vote, buoying House members who are insisting on the audit as a condition for going along with revenue bills to raise more money for road work. “I think it’s a good thing for us to do from time to time, take a good, thorough look at what we’re doing,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, before the unanimous vote. Added Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “This is not an effort to go on a witch hunt, this is not an effort to find skeletons, this is a partnership.”

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said the audit bill still has to pass the full Senate. “If the Senate accepts the audit, we’ll get together with ‘em and see what we feel like we can do,” she said.

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said after the vote, “The Senate’s done its part. That’s what they asked us to do – we just did it. We’re anxiously awaiting revenue enhancement bills from the House.”

Grocery tax credit hike passes Senate

A move to send the grocery tax relief bill to the amending order failed 10-25, and then the Senate voted 27-8 in favor of the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk. The move to amend was for fear of the out-years financial impact of the bill. “Next year’s budget is going to be even more difficult without the passage of this,” warned Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said, “We know there are concerns about the financial impact of this bill. It’s a big deal.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “It comes down to priorities. My question is, when are we going to put the families and the working people of Idaho as our first priority? Is this the best step? For me, no. It’s a bite, it moves us forward.”

What’s left of the big review…

Here’s a link to my story in today’s paper about what’s become of the big push to review all of Idaho’s tax breaks and see whether they’re still warranted, called for by a joint legislative interim committee. At this point, it’s down to three bills to repeal three exemptions, none of them involving sales tax breaks. State projections show Idaho is expected to collect roughly $1.4 billion in sales taxes in fiscal year 2009, which starts July 1, but $1.79 billion will be exempted through existing tax exemptions or credits.
Over the summer, a joint interim committee called for a review of Idaho’s tax breaks, set up criteria by which to evaluate them, and broke them down into three “tiers” in order of priority for review. The three bills that are moving forward are a small selection from that first-priority tier.

State retiree benefit cut passes Senate

A plan to cap medical benefits for current state retirees and eliminate medical retirement benefits for future hires passed the Senate late today after a heated debate, on a 23-10 vote. The bill, SB 1447, now moves to the House. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter Simon Shifrin.

Rammell: ‘Jim Risch is too old’

Here’s an item from the Associated Press:

Former elk rancher Rex Rammell has shed his Republican ties and will run for U.S. Senate as an independent because he says his former party has anointed Lt. Gov. Jim Risch as its chosen candidate. Rammell, 47, who last October said he’d run as a Republican for the seat now held by Sen. Larry Craig, conceded he couldn’t beat Risch, 64, in the May 27 GOP primary. He’s gathered 1,000 signatures needed to run as an independent before filing Wednesday with the Idaho secretary of state’s office. The two men have been at odds since September 2006 when Risch, then Idaho’s interim governor, ordered an emergency hunt for 160 domesticated elk that had escaped Rammell’s property near Yellowstone National Park. Rammell has named the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Risch in a civil lawsuit in 7th District Court. At a press conference in Boise, Rammell said Risch’s political career is nearing its end, making 2008 a bad time to run for U.S. Senate. “Jim Risch is too old to become a U.S. senator. You don’t become a U.S. senator in the sunset of your career,” Rammell said. Risch, contacted by the AP, said age should have little bearing on who becomes U.S. senator, and noted that Ronald Reagan was nearly 70 when he took office as U.S. president in January 1981. “I’d imagine somebody told Ronald Reagan the same thing when he ran for president,” Risch said.

Personal property tax bill amended

The House has approved an array of amendments to HB 599, the personal property tax repeal, but defeated one to cap the break at $50,000 in value for each business. That move would have cut the eventual cost of the business tax break from more than $120 million to just over $9 million, while still exempting more than 80 percent of Idaho businesses from the personal property tax entirely.

“We are looking at a downturn,” said Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise. “I believe this is a much more prudent approach to property tax relief. It does provide relief to all businesses in an equal fashion, but I think it provides more protection to smaller businesses.” Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, argued against Killen’s amendment. “Only 16 percent of the businesses would get the big advantage of this bill, that might be true, but who’s providing the huge amount of jobs in this state? It’s those businesses that would get the bulk of the benefit of this that are providing the bulk of the jobs in this state,” Raybould said. But Killen said small businesses provide the majority of jobs, both nationally and in Idaho. The House was divided, but it defeated Killen’s amendment, while passing several others designed to address far-reaching constitutional problems in the bill identified by an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion letter; click below for the full text of the letter.

Election consolidation bill pulled

The sponsors have asked the House State Affairs Committee to hold the giant, 93-page election consolidation bill, HB 637, and will instead work on the bill more over the summer and bring it back next year. Lobbyist John Watts said, “There’s a lot of ragged ends that need to be tied up. … There was no agenda to try to force this on anybody. We really want to create a good, solid election reform bill. We’ll get everyone at the table over the summer.” The measure sought to move all elections, for the hundreds of special districts across the state that now hold their own elections, under county clerks, who would run unified elections just twice a year with common polling places.

Otter signs liquor bill for Tamarack

Among bills signed by Gov. Butch Otter today was SB 1382, proposed by Tamarack Resort to let it have 12 special non-transferable liquor licenses instead of just three. Click here for a complete list of bills signed by the governor, by date.

Grocery tax relief clears Senate committee

A motion to send the House-passed grocery tax relief bill to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendment failed, 4-5, and then the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee voted 7-2 to send HB 588 to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.” Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, urged the panel to pass the bill as-is. Fulcher told the senators they had three options: “Passing the bill, doing nothing and telling our constituents why, or shipping it off to the 14th Order, where we make it better, and make it better all the way to the grave – and we’ve all seen the shenanigans that can happen there.”

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, proposed the amending, saying his preference was to pass the bill’s first-year increases in the grocery tax credit, but not to obligate future legislatures with automatic increases in subsequent years. Before taking up the bill, the committee heard five-year projections the panel requested from Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith, which showed that given various assumptions, the state won’t be able to afford to fund both the grocery tax credit increases in future years and the proposed personal property tax repeal that business interests have requested to phase in over the coming years. Stegner said he preferred, rather than setting future years’ increases in the grocery credit now, “to see whether or not we could afford ‘em as time goes by.”

Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, argued against the move. “I think if this goes to the amending order that we could very likely kill this bill for the second year in a row,” he declared, “and I don’t think we should do that.” Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said, “It’s a very good bill, and I think the fact that it extends, hopefully, depending on the revenues, into future years will be very helpful and hopeful to those that really need this credit.” The bill raises the credit from the current $20 a year to $30 for most Idahoans next year, and to $50 for the low-income. In subsequent years, state revenues permitting, it would rise another $10 a year until it hit $100 for everyone. The bill now moves to the full Senate.

‘Madam speaker’ gets House applause

Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, is currently presiding over the House of Representatives, filling in for Speaker Lawerence Denney. When the first representative rose to present a bill, Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, and said, “Madam Speaker,” Henbest responded, “That sounds great, doesn’t it?” and the House broke out into a round of applause.

Henbest is a highly respected six-term representative who is not running for re-election. Giving her a chance to preside as speaker, said House GOP spokesman Chuck Malloy, is “basically a tribute to her.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, when she introduced a bill, said, “Thank you, Madam Speaker,” and added, “It makes my day to see you up there.”

One little problem with felonious sheriff bill…

There was just one problem with the bill to ban convicted felons from running for sheriff in Idaho – it was unconstitutional. You can read my full story here. And here are links to my other stories in today’s Spokesman-Review: Float-home bill advances despite objections from Bayview developer Bob Holland, and Election Day liquor bill heads to the governor – which contains this tidbit: The reason Sen. Clint Stennett missed the first, tied vote on the bill was because he was undergoing his daily brain cancer treatment, “getting zapped,” in his words. His vote in the do-over helped put the bill over the top. Yesterday was a heck of a news day in the Capitol Annex. Among the other stuff that happened: Two giant tax breaks designed to entice the French firm Areva to build a uranium enrichment plant in eastern Idaho passed the Senate and headed to the governor’s desk; click below to read the full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Re-vote passes Election Day liquor bill

Sen. Lee Heinrich, who had voted on the prevailing side – against the bill – served notice that he’d ask for reconsideration of HB 348a, the bill to end Idaho’s longstanding ban on Election Day liquor sales (though the state has long allowed beer and wine sales despite polls being open). Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who had given a stirring debate against the bill focusing on the sanctity of Election Day and the role of elections in a free society, then moved to have the reconsideration vote occur immediately. That prompted the Senate to go at ease, and there was much head-scratching and consulting of rule books before determining how to proceed. By that time, both Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, and Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, were back in the chamber – both weren’t there for the earlier tied vote that killed the bill.

Because of parliamentary rules, Hill was obliged to vote for his motion – to reconsider – but then changed his vote to no. Still, it passed 20-14. Then, in the new reconsideration vote on the bill, it passed, 18-16. Schroeder and Stennett voted in favor; Heinrich stuck with his earlier vote against. In fact, no senator changed his or her vote, but the two who had been missing in the first vote put the bill over the top. In his final debate, bill sponsor Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said he agreed with Hill about the sanctity of elections. But, he said, “There’s also celebration – and celebration can be a political celebration, it can be an athletic celebration, it can be a religious celebration. It’s just how we individually choose to do that.” The bill, having received final passage, now goes to the governor. Click below to see who voted which way.

Hoover to retire as College of Idaho prez

Former University of Idaho President Bob Hoover, who has served as president of the private College of Idaho in Caldwell for the last five years, has announced that he’ll retire in June 2009, or sooner if the college’s board of trustees finds a replacement earlier. Hoover, 66, said he wants to spend more time with his family. Hoover was a popular president at UI until the university became embroiled in a financial fiasco involving an attempt to build a Boise branch campus, a ruckus that led to Hoover’s departure. Click below to read the full announcement from the College of Idaho.

House is unanimous for ITD performance audit

The House has voted unanimously, 67-0, for a $550,000 performance evaluation of the Idaho Transportation Department. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said “another set of eyes” is needed on the department. Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said ITD has had three directors in the past three years, and three board chairmen, and the state’s had three different governors and started GARVEE bonding. “There’ve been a lot of changes in the department,” Hart said. “We think it’s appropriate that we take a look at them through this performance audit, and make sure that if and when we give them more revenues that those moneys are being spent wisely.” The bill has 16 House co-sponsors, led by Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, including 14 Republicans and two Democrats. House GOP leaders have been adamant that they want the in-depth evaluation, to be done by an out-of-state consultant, as a condition of approving more fees or taxes for roads. The measure, HCR 50, now moves to the Senate.

Bayview developer fights float-home bill

Bayview developer Bob Holland pulled out all the stops in the House State Affairs Committee this morning, with both his development manager and his attorney arguing forcefully against SB 1433a, the bill to allow binding arbitration in float-home rent disputes. Nevertheless, the bill, which already has passed the Senate, cleared the committee on a voice vote. Dennis Scott, development manager for Waterford Park Homes in Bayview, told the panel, “You’ve been told that the reason for rent control is that marina owners are gouging them. … The state has created a very special class of citizens that doesn’t even require residency.” Scott noted that many float home owners are from out of state and said they’re “second or third homes. “Our lakes in Idaho … have been discovered by many people from out of state, especially California,” Scott told the committee.

Holland’s attorney, Erika Grubbs, told the committee that the bill targets “an illegitimate and fabricated need,” and said of float-home owners, “They no longer need to be coddled. It’s time they paid their own way in the world just like the rest of us.” She accused sponsors of the bill of proposing an emergency clause just to beat a big rent increase Holland wants to impose on float homes on June 1. Questioned by the committee, Scott said that increase is from $490 to $690 a month for some, and from $490 to $990 for others. Grubbs told the committee she has a sailboat at a Hagadone-owned marina on Lake Coeur d’Alene that’s due to be renovated, and she’s expecting a rent increase after the upgrades. “I no more expect this Legislature to protect me from that rent increase than I expect those leprechauns that are out there today to give me a pot of gold to pay for it,” she said. Instead, she said, she’ll “suck it up.”

Committee Vice Chairman Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who was sitting in for Chairman Tom Loertscher in presiding over the meeting, told Grubbs, “You ply your trade well. You represent your clients well.” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said, “I think this is a unique kind of home – it sounds like a wonderful way to live, it sounds like fun.” She said Holland’s proposed rent increase doesn’t sound “reasonable,” which the law requires for float-home rents. Four committee members asked to be recorded as voting against the bill, GOP Reps. Russ Mathews of Idaho Falls, Ken Andrus of Lava Hot Springs, Brent Crane of Nampa and Loertscher. Afterward, Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, said, “I had owned one at Hudson Bay at one time, absolutely adored it.” At the time, she said, she paid $85 a month in rent, and “I thought that was a lot of money” for a home floating on state-owned waters. “I think they should have the right to arbitration when it’s such a massive increase,” Shepherd said. Holland, after the meeting, said, “It’s probably just something that’ll come out in litigation,” and said he expects the issue to land in court.

Arizona-style immigration law rejected

The Senate State Affairs Committee has declined to introduce a bill this morning that would have sought to impose an Arizona-style anti-illegal immigration effort that would penalize employers who hire illegal workers. “The reality is that this law has passed in Arizona and has gone to court and was upheld,” Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, told the committee, after several members raised legal questions about the bill. “Whether or not this can happen in Idaho is yet to be seen.” Jorgenson asked the panel to just introduce his bill, and not proceed any further with it this year. But no committee member was willing to make a motion to introduce it. “The RS will die for lack of a motion,” said Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa.

Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes said, “I fear that the employers of this state just don’t have the wherewithal to determine if documents are valid or are forged or whatever. … Are we holding them to a standard that’s just virtually impossible to comply with?” Jorgenson responded, “I don’t think so,” and said the bill would exempt employers from federal reprisal if they’d taken certain steps to verify workers’ immigration status. However, he told the committee that the bill contained state misdemeanor penalties and could endanger business licenses for violators.

Weatherby: ‘Closing the door on local option’

BSU Professor Emeritus Jim Weatherby, who has watched the Idaho Legislature for decades, says, “Idaho has always been very centralized in its tax decision making.” But asked if the House GOP leadership’s contention that it’s actually now willing to open the door to broad local-option sales taxes – as long as they’re by two-thirds margins in the November general election, and only by city or county – Weatherby said, “That’s such a high bar for the passage of a local-option measure that I doubt many will be enacted.” Idaho has had local-option resort city taxes since 1978, Weatherby said, with 60 percent supermajorities, rather than 66-2/3. “In fact, I see them closing the door on local option, by putting it in the constitution,” he said. “To have a two-thirds voter approval requirement for a tax that can be repealed and changed by the governing body or the electorate is really extreme.” He added, “This is really junking up the constitution with an unnecessary amendment. We’ve had 30 years history of local option in this state, validated by Supreme Court decisions. A constitutional amendment is not necessary, and the two-thirds is not consistent with our local-option history in this state, particularly with regard to cities.”

Urban renewal bill killed in House

HB 616, promoted by Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, to put new restrictions on urban renewal districts in Idaho, was just voted down in the House, failing on a 33-37 vote. Much of the debate focused on the bill’s proposed ban of “shoestring” annexations into urban renewal districts, in which a piece of property is connected to the rest of the district by a narrow strip of land, such as a road. Hart told the House, “What this bill is doing is just adding a few sideboards, it’s adding some sunshine to the urban renewal agencies.” But Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said Twin Falls used a two-mile long “shoestring” to bring an old grocery store site into its urban renewal district – thereby attracting Dell Computer to the city with 700 new jobs. “It’s been a great thing for the city, and everybody’s happy with that shoestring,” he said. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, also spoke out against the bill, saying Coeur d’Alene’s urban renewal district used a “shoestring” approach to bring a school into its district, thus allowing its renovation but avoiding bringing any additional private property into the district. “In our community, urban renewal has worked, it’s been very successful,” Sayler told the House.

Local-option amendment gets party-line vote

A constitutional amendment to restrict all future local-option taxes in Idaho to two-thirds supermajority votes at the November general election, and to be only by city or county, cleared the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning on a 13-5, party-line vote. Democrats on the panel objected, and unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to change the supermajority requirement to 60 percent. Said Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, “We’re talking about holding local communities to a bar we don’t hold ourselves to.” But Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, called the two-thirds requirement “the only protection the taxpayer has, and even then you disenfranchise the one-third.”

A statewide coalition that has been working for more than two years to develop local-option taxing authority for transportation opposed the amendment. Spokesman Roy Eiguren said Idaho’s two-thirds supermajority is for property tax increases – not sales taxes, like the local-option taxes envisioned. Plus, he said requiring two-thirds within each county would crimp regional efforts to address regional issues. “Our view is that roads and transportation systems do not stop on the county line,” he told the committee.

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said between Ada and Canyon counties, Ada has two-thirds of the population, and Canyon one-third. If a two-thirds vote is required between the two for a local-option transportation tax, he said, it could pass with only Ada County votes, and without a single vote from Canyon County. “That’s a fundamental taxation without representation argument,” he said.

Former state Rep. Jim Hansen, who testified against the bill, said a school bond that passed in his district didn’t get the two-thirds margin in his precinct, but it passed district-wide. “The reality is we’re all in this together,” he said. “We breathe the same air, we’re on the same highways.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the constitutional amendment isn’t just about Ada and Canyon counties – it’s about the entire state, and the coalition pushing for local-option transportation taxes is statewide. Under the amendment, any local-option taxes still would have to be specifically authorized by the Legislature in enabling legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the amendment’s lead sponsor, said, “This is about empowering the people – this gives the people a chance to vote.” The bill passed on a 13-5 vote and now goes to the full House. It needs two-thirds approval from each house and a majority vote of the people at the next election to amend the state constitution. In the last two days, chambers of commerce in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Garden City have voted to oppose the amendment, while the Idaho Falls chamber voted to support it.

Goedde pulls teacher firing bill

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, pulled his bill this afternoon that sought to streamline the process for firing teachers. Goedde had reached agreement with the Idaho Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, on an amendment to the bill, SB 1437, to bring binding arbitration into the process. But the Idaho School Boards Association opposed the bill. “I hope I don’t ever have a school board trustee complain about the cost and time it takes to fire a teacher ever again, because I’ll remind them what happened today,” Goedde said.

Grocery tax hearing done, vote set for Tuesday

The Senate Tax Committee just wrapped up its hearing on HB 588, the grocery tax relief bill, but with a member missing and the Senate going on the floor in moments, it delayed its vote until Tuesday. “It deserves the time for the committee to debate the bill,” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. Committee Chairman Brent Hill said he’s asked legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith to prepare projections to show the committee what’s expected as far as state revenues for the next five years, “to see how we can afford this.” The bill would increase the grocery tax credit next year to $50 for the low-income and $30 for everyone else, from the current $20, and then increase it by another $10 a year until it hits $100 for everyone, economic conditions permitting. “Even though there are ways out, I don’t think we want to get into something that we might have to repeal next year,” Hill said. “I just came from a meeting in the pro tem’s office where we talked about projections for next year, and if I appear depressed, that’s probably the reason why. You should see me when I’m in a good mood.”

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told the committee, “I’ll just be blunt when I say I don’t think it’s exactly what anyone wants. I know it’s not exactly what I want. I think it’s what’s realistic. … It helps all Idahoans in bite-sized fiscal pieces with grocery tax relief.”

Most who testified at the hearing spoke in favor of the bill, though several anti-hunger advocates said they wished the measure didn’t exclude people who receive food stamps from the credit, because food stamps don’t generally cover poor families’ entire food costs.

Ruth Schneider of the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger said, “While I continue to have concerns about excluding those on food stamps, I urge you to move this piece of legislation forward. … This is a concrete step we can take for addressing hunger in Idaho. We can do this, and we can do this this year.” The group circulated petitions for just three weeks, in 16 different legislative districts around the state, and picked up 1,600 signatures in favor of the bill, Schneider told the senators – with most concerned that Idaho is the only state in the nation that excludes the poor from its current grocery tax credit. The bill changes that. “I can tell you people are concerned and want this changed this year,” Schneider told the committee. “We are counting on your leadership to make this happen.”

Hill praised those who testified – many of whom said they’d prefer to have no tax on food, but recognized that the state can’t afford that this year. Last year, Hill said, many people urged the panel to take the sales tax off groceries entirely rather than increase the credit. “That wasn’t one of the options we had,” he said. “As you all know, we walked away without anything.”

Lake dock bill killed, 5-4

Legislation to turn the legal clock back to 1953 to try to guarantee some Lake Coeur d’Alene property owners the right to put in a boat dock – though their property is now separated from the lake by a public road - died in a Senate committee this afternoon by one vote. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he was “greatly disappointed.” “I knew it would be close,” he said. “I’m greatly disappointed that five of those senators don’t support personal property rights – they support big government over personal property rights. That’s very disappointing to me.”

Senators on the Senate Transportation Committee all said they had great sympathy for the lakefront owners, but several said it’d be best to let a pending ruling come out in a court case over the issue before changing laws. “I’d like to have a little more time, have a year and see what the litigation does,” said Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, who noted that the bill, HB 565, as written would apply not only around Lake Coeur d’Alene, but anywhere in the state where waterfront property on a river or lake has a public road across it. During earlier House debate on the bill, Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, an attorney, said the bill was unconstitutional for “about three reasons.” The bill had narrowly squeaked through the House, on a 37-32 vote.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, spoke out in favor of the bill. “What we see is that people have had waterfront property, and by the efforts of the transportation department, have had that property converted from waterfront property to a secondary view lot without any compensation,” he said. Those voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Hammond, Geddes, Keough and McGee. Those voting against were Sens. Sagness, Langhorst, Heinrich, Corder and Little.

From mosquito abatement to cemeteries

According to the state Tax Commission, Idaho has 1,093 taxing districts, of which 931 levied property taxes in 2007. And that’s not counting irrigation districts, which technically aren’t taxing districts, and a few other types of districts. It does count cities, counties, school districts, highway districts, fire districts, mosquito abatement districts, cemetery districts, hospital districts and a whole lot more. When those districts hold elections, most occur on four established election dates, but others don’t, and many have their own unique polling places and election systems. Now Idaho’s looking at a proposal to roll all those elections together under the purview of the state’s 44 county clerks. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Personal property tax repeal clears Rev & Tax

The IACI bill to phase in repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment – which would give Idaho businesses a $100 million-plus tax break when it’s fully implemented – passed the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning on an 11-7 vote, after two long days of hearings. Before the final vote, a motion to amend the bill to cap the repeal at $50,000 of value – which would eliminate the tax for the vast majority of Idaho businesses, but leave it in place for the largest – failed on an 8-10 vote. Interestingly, both votes were bipartisan. Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said he was pleased that the bill passed, but asked if it’ll go all the way, he said, “probably not.” The reason: Problems, identified during the hearing, with how the bill affects things like new bonds and levies and the 3 percent cap on growth in local government property tax budgets.

“My sense is that even if it does pass, this is an issue that we’ll probably have to look at again,” Lake said. He opposed the $50,000 cap, saying he wouldn’t want to impose any tax on big business that wasn’t also imposed on small businesses. “You either have a business tax or you don’t have one,” he said. The bill now moves to the full House for consideration. Click below to see who voted which way.

Audit raises questions about state planes

Does Idaho really need three state airplanes, including one mostly used to fly the governor? That’s the question raised by a new legislative audit of the Idaho Transportation Department which states, “The urgency of trips and itineraries indicate that other less expensive transportation options exist in most circumstances.” The questions about the aircraft were the only finding of the audit, which is a regular legislative audit of ITD that’s part of the legislative auditor’s office’s evaluation of each state agency at least every three years. Its focus was “to evaluate the effectiveness of the Idaho Transportation Department’s internal control design and operation,” and no “material weaknesses” were found. But the audit raised several questions about the state planes. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

House introduces registration fee bills

The House Ways & Means Committee met on short notice this afternoon, and introduced three new vehicle registration fee increase bills. These are much, much smaller than Gov. Butch Otter’s earlier proposal for funding a road maintenance backlog, however, and less than half the magnitude of a $70 million car registration fee increase proposal floated by the Idaho Transportation Department last year. The first bill would increase truck registration fees, by differing amounts in different categories, to raise a total of $8.5 million per year. The second would raise car registration by a flat $24 per registration, to raise $30.2 million. The third would raise registration fees for school buses, motorcycles, on-road ATV’s and utility trailers, raising a total of $1.15 million per year. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said a group of House members who worked on the bills wanted to achieve “parity” between car and truck registration fees, and that trucks pay much more in gas tax because they get so much lower mileage per gallon. House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, objected to that idea, noting that a presentation earlier to the same committee suggested that trucks do more damage to roads than cars, and don’t pay their share.

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, noted that school districts wouldn’t be burdened by the proposed doubling of school bus registration from $24 to $54 because they’re reimbursed by the state for their transportation costs. House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, asked by a reporter why that proposal was included if the state would essentially be raising fees that it then has to pay, said, “There’s no saying this is going to pass. We’re doing a package.” Wood said House members want to develop a package of recommendations to the governor to address transportation, and the bills are part of that.

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “I think there’s more discussion going on and the discussions have become more serious. … I’m happy to see that the House is beginning to move on this legislation. This is obviously going to be one of the last decisions we make this session.”

Legislative doings galore

The Senate has just recessed until 4:30 this afternoon, before taking up any of the bills on its 3rd reading calendar, as both parties are going into caucus. Meanwhile, the House had computer problems yesterday when it tried to come back on the floor after lunch at 1:30, and so instead came back at 3:30. With hardly anyone watching – since few knew they were in session at the unaccustomed time – the House passed a slew of bills, including all three bills making changes in the North Idaho water rights adjudication. The water bills passed near-unanimously, with no debate, said a happy Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. Only one vote was cast against one of the bills, and Eskridge said when he asked Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, why he’d voted “no,” Smith thought he’d voted “yes,” so it was just a mistake.

With bills flying and lots of things happening now that we’re into the session’s 10th week, the House Rev & Tax Committee held a long, sweaty hearing this morning on the IACI proposal to eliminate the personal property tax, phasing in a huge, $100 million-plus tax break for businesses, but didn’t finish and continued the hearing to tomorrow. The House has once again skipped over the abortion coercion bill, HB 464, which has been sitting atop its calendar for several days, and the controversial midwife licensing bill, which also has been sitting on the House 3rd reading calendar, was just pulled by its sponsor, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. And there’s this interesting item on the Legislature’s social calendar for Wednesday evening, which shows the various receptions and other events hosted for lawmakers by lobbying groups and others: “5-7 p.m., Roy Eiguren Client Reception – for all legislators.” Seems like you could read that to suggest that the high-powered lobbyist’s clients include all legislators…

Idaho to take over fish farm in water deal

In a complicated deal designed to address the fight between spring water users and groundwater users in the Magic Valley, the state has hatched a plan to buy out a 400-acre fish farm, Pristine Springs, in partnership with the city of Twin Falls and area water users. Under the plan, which just won unanimous approval in JFAC, the state would loan $10 million, which water users would pay back at $1 million a year for 10 years; the city of Twin Falls would kick in $10 million; water users would pay $1 million; and $5 million would come from money now in the Idaho Department of Water Resources revolving fund. That’s a total of $26 million. The proposal replaces a $9 million request in Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal for “fallowing” of farmland. By buying out the fish farm, which holds substantial water rights, farm land wouldn’t have to be taken out of production.

“It is my understanding that the governor’s office is aware and is in support of this direction,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told JFAC.

Twin Falls is in “dire need” of water, said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. It’s now looking at a need to build a $30 million water treatment plant, unless it can get hold of lots more clear, clean water to dilute arsenic levels in its current water supply. The deal offers Twin Falls that chance. It also would resolve water calls from spring users. “All those calls are going to go away on a permanent fix,” Bair said. Said Cameron, “That gets it solved,” and added, “If we can buy this fish farm, then there’s no need for fallowing.” The fish farm property includes two small hydro generation facilities as well as 400 acres, the fish farm facility, and water rights. Idaho would decide later what to do with the property.

Prison warehouse conversion is a go

The vote was unanimous as JFAC took another look at the conversion of a Prison Industries Enhancement warehouse at the Idaho Correction Center into a 304-bed minimum custody drug treatment this morning, and approved it. The panel backed a $4,675,500 supplemental appropriation for the current budget year, plus a $1,421,000 appropriation for next year. The 2008 figure is slightly below the governor’s recommendation, while the ’09 number matches his. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I’m really proud of the effort that Idaho is making to move away from incarceration and toward treatment. We can’t turn that boat overnight.” The new facility would open in about two years.

It would replace the PIE program, which sought to provide inmate jobs by bringing in private employers, but never really got going. The warehouse conversion has been referred to in legislative shorthand as the “PIE” project. House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell said, “I have to tell you … this is the lease suggestive acronym I ever saw. I’ve had a hard time associating this with a metal building that we’re going to refurbish.”

Who’s filed so far

The first day of candidate filing for Idaho’s spring primary election drew two candidates to Idaho’s open-seat race for the U.S. Senate – Fred M. Adams of Idaho Falls, and Neal Thompson of McCall – and an array of legislative candidates, including a few challengers. You can click here to see who’s filed so far. Candidates have until 5 p.m. on March 21st to file.

One reason to wrap it up?

If legislators need a reason to start wrapping up their session, now that it’s moved into its 64th day, here’s one: Today is the opening of the filing period for the May primary election, and every seat in the Legislature is up for a vote. That means that while lawmakers are here making laws, their potential opponents could be back home campaigning up a storm. Here’s a link to our story about the opening of the filing period. And also from this weekend’s Spokesman-Review, here’s my full story about how two North Idaho legislators helped engineer Gov. Butch Otter’s first major transportation victory of the legislative session Friday, even though the new $134 million highway bonding plan is targeted to the southern part of the state.

How states could become top workplaces

The State Perspectives Institute at Boston College is partnering with the Boise-based Twiga Foundation, headed by former Idaho First Lady Patricia Kempthorne, on a project to assess the readiness of states to become “employers-of-choice” by recognizing the aging of the public-sector workforce and developing workplace flexibility practices to make states suitable employers “at all life stages.” Not mentioned: Raising pay and cutting benefits, as proposed by the current Otter Administration to make Idaho a more desirable workplace for younger workers. Click below to read the full announcement about the national project.

Eerie similarities…

Here’s something to ponder: Last week, just as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter withdrew his $150-per-car vehicle registration fee proposal, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter abandoned his unpopular bid to raise car-registration fees there an average of $100. His spokesman, Evan Dreyer, told the Denver Post that the governor had “challenged lawmakers to pick up the ball and move it down the field,” but, “At this time, there doesn’t appear to be any movement.” A state panel there had concluded that Colorado needed to raise another $500 million a year to adequately maintain roads and bridges. Here in Idaho, the figure is somewhere around $240 million…

Governor signs field-burning legislation

Gov. Butch Otter signed into law HB 557 today, the compromise legislation on field-burning. Otter, joined by ag representatives and the heads of the state departments of Agriculture and Environmental Quality, read a letter from Safe Air For Everyone executive director Patti Gora and praised her and all involved in working out the compromise, which sets up a new regulatory system that makes public health a priority while allowing field-burning to resume in the state.

“One thing this does tell me, when the traditional industries of Idaho, especially the natural resource agricultural industries, appear to come in conflict with growth and a new Idaho, we don’t simply have to give up on the old in order to enjoy and express our hope for the new,” Otter said. “Because we can, there is room, I’ve found, to accommodate both. And I can’t think of a better example than what these folks have come up with.” State Ag Director Celia Gould praised Otter, calling the agreement “a true reflection of the leadership that the governor has provided for us in his effort to solve problems, instead of stand in corners and point fingers.” Said Kent Lauer of the Idaho Farm Bureau, “We’re glad we’re here today. It has been a long process, it’s been a strenuous process. … We finally got there.”

Funding approved for new field-burning program

Idaho’s joint budget committee this morning unanimously approved funding for a new field-burning regulatory system in Idaho, to go along with legislation that passed unanimously yesterday to allow field burning to resume in the state with a new regulatory system that focuses on public health (you can read my full story here from today’s Spokesman-Review). “This has been a contentious issue in my district as well as other areas,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. He praised both the opponents and supporters of field-burning, who came together to reach the compromise. “They worked very hard in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality to come up with an agreement that I think is a win-win for everybody.”

The funding, contained in a trailer bill to HB 557, totals $606,400, and includes two new full-time staffers, seasonal workers, new air quality monitors, and a new web-based system to alert people to upcoming burns. The state Department of Agriculture will revert $209,000 that it now has for field-burning regulation to the general fund, offsetting some of the new funding. A $2 per acre fee on farmers who burn their fields also will pay for part of the program, offsetting another $200,000 or so.

Highway bonding for $134 million clears JFAC

Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for $134 million in additional bonding next year for the GARVEE highway bonding program won strong support in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, passing on an 18-1 vote with only Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, dissenting. Several committee members said it was difficult to vote for the bonding because the next set of projects is in the Treasure Valley. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that a Moscow-area project was on the bonding list, but never funded. She said, “To prove my statewide perspective, I’m still going to vote for the motion. But I want you to know how irritated I am.” Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said, “We all have our little districts that we represent, but on the other hand, we are state representatives – we represent all of the state of Idaho.”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, noted that work on North Idaho projects funded through the “Connecting Idaho” bonding program last year still will continue. “That money’s there and we’ll keep moving forward with the work,” he said. Henderson noted that traffic counts have risen sharply between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint in the last decade – 21 percent – but that in the same time period, they’ve risen 54 percent in the Treasure Valley. “You’ve got to respond to need,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can up north. Our judgment is you’ve got to do it down here.”

Gov. Butch Otter said, “I am VERY pleased with JFAC’s action this morning and its strong show of support for GARVEE. This is an important tool in helping meet Idaho’s transportation infrastructure needs and we are very pleased with this morning’s actions. This is a positive step forward on transportation.” In a statement, his office added, “The governor is very grateful for the leadership that the Legislature has shown on this issue this morning.”

Another big hole in the budget

It’s pretty much just what no one wanted to hear: There’s potentially another $38 million hole in the budget that lawmakers are nearly finished setting for next year. When Congress passed the economic stimulus act – the same one that’ll send rebates to taxpayers across the country – it included some goodies for business, in the form of bonus depreciation and a one-time option to deduct expenses early. Normally, Idaho conforms its state income tax laws to federal income tax laws. If we do so in this case – for the stimulus law that President Bush signed on Feb. 14 – it’ll cost $38 million in next year’s general fund budget, according to the latest figures, but bring Idaho an extra $1.5 million the following year and another $59.5 million in fiscal years 2011 through 2015. Over the whole time period, that’s a $20 million gain.

The problem: Next year’s budget, at this point, doesn’t have a spare $38 million. So when JFAC this morning set the capital budget for next year, covering major building projects, it left off the $70 million secure mental health facility. That facility still would be built, but lawmakers are toying with the idea of bonding for that expense, rather than paying cash up front, to allow some room for the IRS conformity cost. Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “Overall, Idaho would come out $20 million ahead over seven years, but it’s timing.”

In 2001-02, Idaho faced a similar dilemma, with a recession looming. That year, the state opted not to conform with a similar IRS one-time change on bonus depreciation. That saved the state money in that year, but cost it revenues in subsequent years, because of how that affected the timing of depreciation of business equipment. It also meant differences between state and federal tax calculations – differences that last for the entire seven-year term of the depreciation. “The hard part is for the citizen, because he’s got to keep two sets of depreciation schedules,” said Hill, a CPA.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the prospect of a $38 million hit has “really put our budget target in jeopardy.” The state still has money in all of its reserve accounts, which it could tap. But Cameron prefers not to, out of concern that further revenue declines are ahead. “I think we have the best bond rating available,” he said. “If the economy continues to deteriorate, we’re going to need every bit of available cash we can in order to sustain public schools and universities and public safety appropriations at the level we expect them to be at.”

Gov. Butch Otter today met with state Treasurer Ron Crane to look into the prospects for bonding. “With our bond rating, we get money cheaper than anybody else,” Otter said. “Ron has a professional that’s looking at that.” Otter said he’s reserving his decision on whether bonding for the secure mental facility is the way to go until he gets the results of that analysis.

Field-burning bill passes unanimously

HB 557, the mediated compromise legislation on field-burning, just passed the Senate unanimously, after rules were suspended to allow it to be taken up right away. The bill now heads to Gov. Butch Otter for his signature, and the state Board of Environmental Quality is racing to meet a court deadline to approve rules for the new smoke-monitoring system required by the bill. “In 12 years of service here, this is a good day,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “It’s good for the people that suffer from the smoke, and it’s great for the farmers, and I applaud the effort that’s gone into getting us here.”

Field-burning has been banned in Idaho for the past year, after a federal court ruled Idaho’s field-burning regulation system illegal. Health advocates, farmers, state agencies, tribes and more helped hash out the new agreement, which allows burning to resume, but with new statewide rules, including a cutoff of burning when air pollution reaches 75 percent of standards, more monitoring of smoke and regulation by the state Department of Environmental Quality, rather than the state Agriculture Department. The bill also ends the Agriculture Department’s previous practice of treating the locations of field burns as a state secret – giving nearby residents no warning that a field was about to go up in smoke. Now, said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, the state will make public, in advance, the date, location, acreage and crop type that will be burned. People with respiratory problems will be able to monitor upcoming burns on a state Web site.

Bair said since field-burning has been illegal in Idaho, there’s been a $10,000 fine for illegal burning. He said, “This is perhaps for the state of Idaho one of the most important pieces of legislation we will consider.” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I’m very pleased that we were able to reach a compromise and those grass growers will once again be able to have a good crop of seed. Instead of filling a lot of North Idaho farmland with houses, maybe we can keep that in agriculture.”

Senate kills greenhouse gas resolution

A resolution calling on the state DEQ and Office of Energy Resources to put together a report to the governor and a legislative committee on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, focusing on renewable energy opportunities for the state, was shot down in the Senate today, as several lawmakers questioned whether global warming is real. “There is some controversy over the issues of global warming and climate change,” said Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa. Said Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, “Some facts … are accepted by many people but I don’t think they’re proven.” Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “As we look nationally, we know that only one side of the debate has been funded.” He said, “I don’t want to see industry squoze down.”

Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, spoke out for the measure, SCR 128, which she noted is a follow-up to an executive order from the governor. “The scientific evidence is compelling that global climate change poses a threat to Idaho’s public health, natural resources, environment and to our most vital industries, including tourism, agriculture, recreation and forestry,” she told the Senate. Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, said, “There is no doubt in my mind that recently the climate has warmed. … I know that I feed a lot more hay than I used to. … I’m here to say that I think looking at renewable energy is something we ought to do.” But Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “It seems to me maybe we’re pandering just a little bit to some of the extreme environmentalists.” The measure failed on a 13-20 vote; click below for the roll call.

Otter withdraws registration fee hike proposal

Gov. Butch Otter today sent a letter to the Legislature, addressed to Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes, saying, “I am writing today to formally notify you of my intention to withdraw the proposed registration fee and rental car tax legislation that was presented to a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008. The reception with which my proposal was met compels me to conclude that – despite repeated pleas from your members – my leadership on transportation funding is not what the Legislature wants. Instead, the response of some in the Legislature left the impression that they instead desire political cover behind which they can continue avoiding a difficult but necessary responsibility of government.”

He wrote that he “remain(s) at your disposal to discuss the issue further.”

Who won the stare-down

For the last two days in JFAC, there have been long waits before anyone made a motion, as backers of competing budget plans for public schools and higher education vied for strategic advantage by hoping someone else’s motion would be made first – because the last motion made is voted on first. That means if it passes, the first (or second) motion might never get considered. Yesterday, committee members referred to the maneuvering as everything from a “tap dance” to a “stare-down.” Today, no one wanted to make the first motion on funding colleges and universities. Click below to see what happened.

Do-over on public school budget

In a very rarely seen move, JFAC this morning reconsidered the action it took yesterday on the teachers portion of the public schools budget, and passed an entirely new plan. This time, it was unanimous. The new plan includes a 2.5 percent base salary increase for teachers and a $750 increase in the minimum teacher salary, to $31,750. It doesn’t shift any money out of teacher pay to fund a concurrent enrollment program for poor high school kids to take college classes, but JFAC did approve $50,000 in another portion of the budget to set up a task force under state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna to develop a statewide concurrent enrollment program and bring it back for consideration next year. There’s also $50,000 for a task force to formulate a plan for better teacher evaluations in Idaho. Gone from the budget is language engineered by Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, to direct base salary increases only to teachers at the top end of the pay grid.

Said Bayer, “The language that was inherent in the motion yesterday, I will classify it as ahead of its time.” Bayer said he heard from teachers and others that it was unworkable. “Basically, this brought to light how the system is broke and needs to be improved,” he said, something that will take “substantial” discussion and action by germane committees to examine Idaho’s teacher pay system. “So if this forces a paradigm shift, great,” Bayer said. He proposed the new plan, which won him praise from all sides on the committee. Said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “I think we all want to do the best we can for teachers – we want to support them, and it’s easier said than done.” Hammond noted that actual raises that teachers receive are decided in their local school districts, not by the state Legislature, which merely provides a pot of money that districts supplement.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, thanked Bayer and the others who worked on the reconsideration and new plan. “I concur with putting some money into the teacher evaluation task force. … I think most of us are hoping that we, in the next session, will be able to move ahead with an alternative method of compensating teachers,” with all parties at the table. Said Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, “As we move toward a pay for performance criteria for teachers, we need to have a solid instrument (for evaluations). If we do that, we can build into pay for performance at least a recognition of what excellence in teaching is.” Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said, “I want to express my gratitude and appreciation for the leadership of the co-chairs and Rep. Bayer. In the four years I’ve been on this committee, we’ve never done a reconsideration like this.”

Idaho fares poorly in congressional power rankings

The website Congress.org has come out with its latest “power rankings” for members of Congress, both House and Senate, and Idaho didn’t fare so well. Of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the site ranked Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson 220th, and Rep. Bill Sali near the bottom at 423rd. In the Senate, Sen. Mike Crapo ranked 72nd of the 100 senators, while Idaho’s senior senator, Larry Craig, was ranked a dismal 98th.

The site, which is operated by two non-partisan firms that “specialize in facilitating civic participation” and offer such services as congressional and media guides, issue alerts and bill tracking, rated each current member of Congress on “criteria that demonstrated power and the ability to be effective in Congress in 2007 and 2008.”

Business tax break introduced

An annual business tax break of up to $120 million would be phased in over five years, under legislation introduced this morning at the request of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. The bill to phase in the repeal of the personal property tax on business machinery, tools, furnishings, equipment and fixtures was introduced in the Rev & Tax Committee on a voice vote with just one recorded dissent, from Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise. The bill lists 31 legislative co-sponsors, including one Democrat (Rep. James Ruchti), Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake of Blackfoot, and Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron of Rupert. A second Democrat, Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart of Boise, was initially listed as a co-sponsor but today pulled her name from the bill.

JFAC sets school budget with 2.2 percent for teachers

Teachers would get just 2.2 percent in funding from the state for base salary increases next year, plus a boost in the minimum teacher salary from $31,000 to $31,930, under a public school budget set by JFAC this morning after two hours of rancorous debate and several divided votes. “I’m trying to accomplish putting the money where it makes the most difference,” said Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, who engineered the teacher pay plan. Bayer lined out enough money to increase the minimum teacher salary by 3 percent, and to hike base salaries for those teachers who’ve taught for 14 years or more by 3 percent. But those in the middle would get no base salary increase, because Bayer said they already would get salary grid increases for their increased experience.

However, it’s up to school districts as to how they pay teachers, beyond the minimum salary – all the state does is provide a pot of money, based on the grid. So the result is simply a 2.2 percent increase in state funding for base salaries. State employees this year are getting a 3 percent increase in funding for their salaries, with 1 percent of that across the board and 2 percent distributed through merit raises.

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, joined Bayer in pushing his plan, saying he wanted to take the nearly $1 million in savings from teacher salaries and use it to fund a concurrent enrollment program to pay for college classes for needy high school students. “We’re gonna take the money and give it to the poor kids, so if you want to argue against that, let’s go,” he declared.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, spoke out against trying to change the state’s teacher pay system through a budget allocation. “If we want to change the grid, we need to go to the germane committee and talk about that there,” she said. “The substitute motion short-changes the districts, and it short-changes the middle section of teachers in this state. It will be very clear … that they were shorted and overlooked.” But she said districts will make up the shortfall, because they’re required to do so by contract. So they’ll cut elsewhere, whether it’s by cutting educational programs or supplies or going to voters to raise property taxes – the very property taxes that lawmakers in 2006 tried to lower. Keough said the most experienced teachers would appreciate raises, but “not at the expense of the entire system.”

She proposed an alternative plan to simply fund 3 percent for base increases for teachers and not change the minimum teacher salary this year. It failed, 9-11. Bayer’s motion then passed, 12-8. Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, and Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, tried to shift just over $2 million from pupil transportation costs to teacher salaries to generate enough for both a 3 percent base increase and a $500 hike in the minimum salary, but that move fell short on a 7-13 vote. The joint committee is not yet done setting the public school budget; two slices of it remain to be debated tomorrow, along with the intent language to accompany Bayer’s successful motion on teacher funding. Click below to see who voted which way in today’s budget fights.

Daycare bill dead - again

Legislation to impose at least minimal regulations on all Idaho daycares, including those caring for four or more unrelated children, died in committee today for the fourth straight year. “It’s frustrating, but the issue is not going away,” said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.

Rev & Tax passes grocery tax bill, 12-5

It looked like they wouldn’t have time to get to the hearing on the new grocery tax relief bill today, but then House Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake got a message. “The speaker sent word that he would hold the House at ease until we got it down there,” Lake said. “We appreciate that… We’re glad we got it done.”

A full hour after the House was supposed to go on the floor, the committee voted 12-5 in favor of the bill, which now moves to the full House. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said he would have preferred to take the sales tax off food, and he didn’t like how the bill excluded the very poor who receive a small amount of food stamps from the credit. But, he said, “I think we owe it to the people of Idaho to take some action and provide relief. … We can’t continue to ride a horse that won’t move.”

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, opposed the measure. “I think this bill adds complexity to the tax code, and I think we should move in the direction of simplicity,” Hart said. “I think the people that need this the most aren’t really going to feel like they got much – they want to see the taxes off at the cash register.”

The bill, HB 588, raises the current $20 per year grocery tax credit to $50 for low-income Idahoans, and to $30 for most everyone else. It also calls for the credit to rise by $10 a year in subsequent years, economic conditions permitting, until it hits $100 for everyone. It also ends Idaho’s unique practice of excluding the poor from the credit entirely – under current law, those who make too little to be required to file an income tax return, $17,500 a year for a married couple filing jointly, aren’t eligible for the credit unless they’re elderly, blind or disabled veterans. The bill fixes that. In the committee, those voting in favor of the bill were Reps. Collins, Moyle, Schaefer, Raybould, Roberts, Wood, Bedke, Sayler, Jaquet, Killen, Ruchti and Lake. Those voting against were Reps. Barrett, Smith, Clark, Harwood and Hart.

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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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