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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2009

The week that was…

Click here to watch a slide show of the 7th week of this year’s legislative session in photos. It was an eventful and in many ways grueling week and made for lively discussion on this week’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public TV, on which I joined Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon; former House Rev & Tax Chairwoman Dolores Crow; Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey; BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby; and host Thanh Tan to discuss the week’s developments, from the federal stimulus to the Micron layoffs to the beer and wine tax. The program first aired Friday night at 8; it’ll air again on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. Mountain time, 10:30 a.m. Pacific time, or you can watch it here online, along with the even more lively online-only “After the Show” discussion.

Minnick gets North Idaho road project moved up

Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick has jarred the Army Corps of Engineers into speeding up its work on an environmental impact statement that had been holding up the giant Garwood to Sagle construction project on Highway 95 in North Idaho. “It has been out there a while, I’m not going to tap-dance about it,” said Leroy Phillips, deputy division chief for the Corps’ Walla Walla district. “Once it was indicated that this has become a really high priority … it’s been brought to the forefront.” Now, the Corps is promising the draft EIS will be out for initial comment by March 13 - that’s in two weeks - and the final report will be done by March 20. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

‘Stimulus doldrums’ hit Capitol Annex

AP reporter John Miller notes that the House didn’t consider a single bill today - no committee hearings at all, and their session lasted just long enough for a prayer. Action in the Legislature has ground to something of a stall, as lawmakers await word on stimulus funding and the latest economic downturns. Click below to read Miller’s full report.

Lottery bill prompts Senate debate

Legislation to allow Idaho Lottery retailers to get larger incentive payments for increasing sales barely passed the Senate today, after much debate. “I don’t need someone asking me if I want to super-size my lottery ticket,” said Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “It’s designed for … nothing else but to get them to push the lottery sales within their store. I think that’s inappropriate for the state of Idaho, particularly when we’re taking money away from education.” Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, sponsor of the bill, said it was requested by the state Lottery Commission to allow incentive payments to retailers to vary and be as high as 2 percent, rather than the current 1 percent. No bottom-line change in proceeds to the state is anticipated, he said; it’s more a management issue for the lottery in dealing with the timing of incentive payments.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I think we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them run their operation.” But Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, said, “We don’t need to see individual businesses going into a marketing campaign to increase their lottery sales.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said the retailer incentives should come out of the lottery’s existing administrative overhead, which takes 3.1 percent of lottery proceeds. Stegner said the bill doesn’t address the merits of having a state lottery. “The fact is that the citizens of the state of Idaho have pretty consistently told us that they want this opportunity,” he said. “This program does generate $34 million annually, half of it going to the permanent building fund, half of it going to schools.” The bill, SB 1059a, passed on a 19-14 vote and now moves to the House.

Idaho must change stimulus spending plan for roads

It appears that Idaho will be able to replace the Dover Bridge in North Idaho, purchase a much-needed maintenance management software system for the Idaho Transportation Department, and pour millions into fixing roads statewide with federal stimulus funds, state lawmakers heard this morning. But there are two things Idaho can’t do with the money: Fund all eight of its high-priority “shovel-ready” projects, and pay off GARVEE bonds. The ITD’s list of eight projects, including the Dover Bridge, adds up to $182 million - the full amount available from the stimulus for highway infrastructure. But the bill requires some of the money to be spent in different ways, and it actually opens the door to using it to fix deteriorating Idaho roads, which state officials hadn’t anticipated. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The only undistressed spot?

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee is now briefing JFAC on the impact of the economic stimulus bill on transportation funding for Idaho. The state stands to receive $181.9 million for highway infrastructure investment, plus $18.4 million for transit capital assistance. There are some requirements for how the $181.9 million is to be spent; one is that priority go to “economically distressed” areas. “It’s my understanding that nearly all of Idaho fits in the definition of ‘economically distressed’ with the exception of the Ketchum-Sun Valley area,” Headlee told the committee, prompting some chuckles and  glances at Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who represents that particular area.

IEA: School cuts not needed

The Idaho Education Association has issued a statement that there is “more than enough money” to avoid proposed cuts in public schools next year, between federal economic stimulus funds and state budget reserves. “Idaho is eligible to receive more than $300 million for K-12 public schools from the stimulus package. We also have two rainy day funds totaling more than $250 million that could offset budget shortfalls,” IEA President Sherri Wood said. “Investing in our children and their education is the best way of guaranteeing a stable economy for our state and for our country. … It is imperative that we explore every avenue possible to find the financial resources needed to provide our students a quality education.”

The statewide teachers union called for making use of the Public Education Stabilization Fund, which contains $114 million; stimulus funds; and $67.3 million from the state’s general budget stabilization fund – 47.9 percent of what’s in that fund, because public schools comprise 47.9 percent of the overall state budget. Yesterday, state schools Supt. Tom Luna called for holding onto the $114 million reserve fund to cover any future budget shortfalls, and said he thinks the stimulus money isn’t enough to avoid up to $62 million in cuts he’s proposed for public schools next year. Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review.

 

Jorgenson: ‘I could be happy and end my career’

Here’s a link to my full story on the Idaho Senate’s near-unanimous passage today of legislation to help permanently disabled law enforcement officers like Mike Kralicek of Coeur d’Alene with health insurance costs for their families. Kralicek himself won’t benefit from the bill; it’ll help others like him who are injured in the future. But the Coeur d’Alene police officer who was shot in the face by a fleeing, handcuffed suspect three days after Christmas in 2004 and suffered critical brain and spinal cord injuries is a big supporter of the bill, as is his wife, Carrie.

“I think it’s about time we get something in there,” Kralicek told The Spokesman-Review. Carrie Kralicek praised the bill’s sponsor, Hayden Lake Sen. Mike Jorgenson. “He’s been behind us 100 percent, all of the way from the beginning,” she said. For his part, Jorgenson said, “I feel pretty good about getting this done. … I felt like if I could get this bill passed, I could be happy and end my career. I feel like this is one of the most meaningful bills I’ve ever worked on.” The bill, SB 1111, now moves to the House.

Fuel tax vote delayed

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — House leaders say it will be a week — or longer — before the Transportation Committee votes on Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s proposal to raise Idaho’s 25-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 10 cents over five years. At a hearing Thursday in Boise, industry, cities, counties and highway districts championed the proposal to raise $88 million annually by 2014. It’s all part of the Republican governor’s plan to boost revenue by $174 million annually to fix roads and bridges. But Rep. Ken Roberts, House majority caucus leader, says the vote will be delayed because a compromise is in the works. Many lawmakers are reluctant to approve multiple years of tax increases like Otter wants in a time of economic turmoil. Catholic Charities lobbyist Annie Henna panned proposed hikes, contending boosting struggling residents’ burden this year is ill-timed.

Luna: School cuts still needed despite stimulus

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has come full circle on school budget cuts. First, he proposed $62 million in cuts in education next year that he called a list of “bad ideas.” Then, when initial word came about the amount of federal stimulus money headed to Idaho, he said Idaho might not have to cut schools at all next year. Now, fresh back from Washington, D.C. and a White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Luna is again talking up to $62 million in cuts in schools next year. Nevertheless, he pronounced himself “pleased” and said Idaho shouldn’t have to make an additional $47 million cut to schools - by trimming personnel funding 5 percent across the board - as lawmakers called for on Feb. 13.

“What we have learned is that there is a considerable amount of money that will be coming to Idaho to stabilize our education budget,” Luna said at a press conference today, just hours after he returned from his trip. “It’s going to fill a lot of the holes, but it’s not going to fill all the holes.” He added, “We’re going to have to make some cuts in education.” Luna said he hasn’t yet decided just what he’ll propose to lawmakers, but he’s sticking by his earlier position that Idaho could cut up to $62 million from schools next year without reducing student-teacher contact time. Those cuts, which he outlined to JFAC earlier, before the stimulus bill passed, include a cut in personnel funding equal to three contract days; cutting building maintenance by a third; freezing teacher pay increases for experience; eliminating about 40 school administrators statewide; cutting transportation funding; and cutting textbook purchases by 40 percent. “Education is going to have to be trimmed,” he said.

Luna did bring back a big piece of good news for Idaho school districts: The federal government will be more than doubling the amount of special education funding it sends to the state - and that change is intended to be permanent. “It was obvious from the vice president and the secretary that they expect these funds to go on,” he said, though he added, “That’s between the president and Congress.” However, he said, “They made it very clear … that this is the new funding level for these programs.” Federal law requires the federal government to fund 40 percent of the costs of special education, which school districts must provide, Luna said, but the most the federal government has ever sent is 23 percent. That’s forced districts to dip into their other funds to make up the difference. “This gets it, obviously, to full funding,” Luna said. “They can spend those local dollars on other things.”

Injured officer benefit bill clears Senate

After five years of tries, Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, has won near-unanimous approval of his legislation to cover health insurance costs for the families of law enforcement officers who are permanently disabled in the line of duty. The bill, SB 1111, sets up a benefit that’s entirely funded by the officers themselves, and run through the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, at no cost to either the state or local governments. It passed the Senate 34-1 and now heads to the House. Jorgenson told the Senate, “A public safety officer that’s in this situation will qualify for retirement pay. But the cost to replace that insurance is close to 40 percent of their net income. That’s adding an additional tragedy to a tragedy that’s already happened. And let’s not forget that that tragedy happened because those public safety officers are out there protecting us around the clock, 24/7, no matter what the emergency is.”

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said he was concerned about the precedent the bill creates. “The reason that we have rejected this in the past is because it was difficult to justify special treatment for service in one sector of public employment vs. others,” he said, but the bill’s new approach of having the officers cover the full cost left him “actually quite torn.” The bill would provide a $100,000 lump-sum payment to cover the family health insurance costs. Jorgenson said each time the bill has failed in the past, he’s asked senators who opposed it to help him make it acceptable, and he thanked them all for helping him develop this year’s bill, which has approval from the PERSI board.

‘When the money’s gone, the job’s gone’

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, asked legislative budget analyst Ray Houston if all the federal grant money being made available through the federal economic stimulus will prompt the hiring of more state employees to administer all the grants. “DEQ is thinking they may need some temporary staffing,” Houston said. The Office of Energy Resources is working on a plan to present to the governor. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “We heard the governor say this again this morning,” when the JFAC co-chairs met with Gov. Butch Otter: Any state workers who are added because of stimulus funding must be temporary, limited-service positions. “When the money’s gone, the job’s gone, they’re gone,” Cameron said. He added, “It may help us to be able to keep from laying somebody off.”

It’s anything but simple…

A bewildering array of numbers, federal programs, individual titles and sections of the stimulus bill and changing rules was spun out to legislative budget writers this morning as they heard the first details on what the stimulus legislation means for Idaho’s health and human services programs. Among them: Idaho will automatically receive a huge boost in funding for low-income home weatherization - jumping the funding up from about $5 million a year to $31 million over two years. That program has been weatherizing about 1,400 Idaho homes a year; now funding will triple for two years. Legislative budget analyst Amy Castro said if the work were targeted to homes where families receive federal LIHEAP energy assistance help, it could reduce future costs for that and allow that aid to go to more families.

The biggest impact is a large increase to the federal match rate for Idaho’s Medicaid program. Idaho will qualify for a boost from just under 70 percent federal funding to just over 79 percent. That should save the state’s general fund $52 million in the current fiscal year, and $73 million in 2010 - but those figures are only after the budget cuts that already have been imposed in Medicaid. Castro also described numerous other sections of the stimulus bill and their potential impacts on Idaho, which vary and are quite complex. “I think what you have here is job security,” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Castro. “There’s not a person in this room that knows what you were saying - perhaps one senator.”

Idaho could lose $14 mil in stimulus

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the same economic stimulus bill that’s promising a billion dollars in federal funds to Idaho also could cost the state $14 million in state tax revenue. That’s because, as Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Nick Draper reported today, tax breaks contained in the stimulus bill require Idaho’s state income tax law to conform, or risk big hassles for businesses and other taxpayers when filing both state and federal income taxes. Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill developed the $14 million estimate, and will make a presentation to legislative budget writers next week. Already today, the Senate amended HB 64, the bill to conform Idaho’s tax code to various other federal changes including a new federal deduction that could cost the state $2 million, to strike the $2 million part (matching a new deduction for property taxes for non-itemizers). Click below to read Draper’s full story from today’s Post Register.  

Lots of questions about Internet bill

Rep. Steve Hartgen’s bill to ban Internet harassment ran into a blizzard of questions in the House Judiciary Committee today, which finally voted near-unanimously to hold the bill until next Thursday. Rep. Bill Killen, an attorney, asked Hartgen if the bill would cover his accessing a blog from Indiana that proved to contain material he found offensive. Hartgen said, “I think that would be a matter for the prosecutor to decide.” Rep. Raul Labrador, also an attorney, then said, “If it depends, I’m voting no. … If it depends, I have a real problem with this statute.” Hartgen said, “I think it would depend on what the prosecutor’s interpretation is. … That doesn’t really change, whether it’s Internet or telephone.” Responded Labrador, “But there is a huge difference, because the telephone message is directed at me,” while the blog is just posted in cyberspace.

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, posed a hypothetical about a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy who have consensual sex, take explicit photos, then break up, and then one sends the other the photos. “In this committee we deal with the real world, and the real world can be strange,” Hart said. “Where’s the line between a crime and consensual behavior?” Hart also asked how many people would end up in Idaho’s prison system if Hartgen’s bill became law. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, an attorney, asked Hartgen for a definition of profane language. After an hour of testimony, the panel put the bill off.

‘A powerful lobby…’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the rejection today of legislation to raise Idaho’s beer and wine tax to pay for substance abuse treatment. Among the tidbits in the story: Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, suggested that rather than focus on treatment, perhaps Idaho should focus on education and prevention, and look to the Idaho Meth Project as a model for how to approach alcohol abuse. That project includes a statewide “Not Even Once” ad campaign. Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, who fervently urged her fellow lawmakers to support the bill, said, “This is a powerful lobby that’s been lobbying us. … I resent having people in my district come to me and tell me they’ve been threatened with losing their jobs (if the bill passes). … I think that is unconscionable.”

Senate panel OKs help for struggling ratepayers

Here’s a news item from AP: “Idaho’s public utilities are a step closer to being allowed to set up programs to help poor, cash-strapped customers pay their power and gas bills with help from other ratepayers. The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 Wednesday for the measure being pushed by Avista Inc., which serves customers in northern Idaho. Neil Colwell said such a program, if approved by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, would likely add surcharges totaling just pennies a month to customers’ bills. That could prevent pricey service disconnections and other problems that regulated utilities later seek to recover during public hearings where they negotiate their rates. Colwell said such “uncollectibles” can wind up costing more later. The utility has a similar $3.5 million program in neighboring Washington and Oregon. The PUC supports the plan.”

Roden: ‘It was a good vote’

Asked how he pulled it off, here’s what lobbyist Bill Roden had to say about the lopsided vote today to kill the beer and wine tax increase bill: “It was a good vote.” He added, “We worked at it. But you know legislators, they listen to all sides.” Asked if he’d still work with proponents of the bill this year on a compromise, he said, “I don’t think there’s time this year to really consider it.” Roden, an attorney and former state lawmaker who’s successfully held off tax increases on behalf of the Idaho Beer & Wine Distributors for decades, said, “It wasn’t my effort only. You have to understand, this was a very broad coalition of groups - retailers, the wineries, the breweries, just the general business community.”

Roden, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, said this is his last session as executive director of the Beer & Wine Distributors Association, a post he’ll pass on to lobbyist and attorney Jeremy Pisca. Roden said he’s dropping a couple of his big clients after this year, the distributors and drug lobby PhRMA, but not retiring from lobbying - he’ll still be around.  His other lobbying clients include the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Delta Dental, and Qwest Communications Inc.

How they voted

Here’s the Rev & Tax vote that killed HB 140, the bill to raise the beer and wine tax to fund substance abuse treatment. The motion, by Rep. Ken Roberts, was to kill the bill:

Voting yes (to kill the bill):
Reps. Collins, Barrett, Moyle, Raybould, Roberts, Schaefer, Clark, Bedke, Harwood, Hart, Killen, Ruchti, and Burgoyne. - 13
Voting no:
Reps. Lake, Smith, Wood, Sayler, and Rusche. - 5

Beer, wine tax increase killed

After three days of long and intense hearings, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted 13-5 to kill legislation to raise Idaho’s beer and wine taxes. The measure, HB 140, was designed to raise a tax not raised in more than four decades, to fund substance abuse treatment services, an area the state has struggled the last few years to fund as it’s expanded services in an effort to trim the state’s large prison population. House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said, “I want to make sure I give notice to the beer and wine industry that it is time to step up to the table and have an increase that is supported by that industry, to help fund substance abuse treatment in this state.” However, he said he thought the bill, which the industry vehemently opposed, was flawed. Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said, “This is not the right time to be raising a tax on Idaho’s businesses.” Doing so, he said, “would send a message that their government doesn’t get it.” Click below to read more.

McGee: Use stimulus for road projects

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee’s message to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning had a marked difference from that of his House counterpart, House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, who addressed the panel last week. Wood said her idea was that Idaho should use the federal economic stimulus money to pay off GARVEE bonds, and then put the money that would have gone into payments on the bonds into rural road maintenance. “Stimulus money cannot be used to replace GARVEE dollars,” McGee told JFAC. “As we’ll hear on Friday, it certainly can’t be used to pay off the debt - there are simply too many strings attached.” JFAC will hold a hearing Friday on the federal stimulus money for transportation and how it could impact Idaho, and hear from its budget analysts who’ve been reviewing that.

McGee told the joint committee, “I believe the stimulus money should be used on one-time projects that would never get done otherwise … projects like the Dover Bridge … projects all over the state.” Between the stimulus funds and the GARVEE bonding program, which builds big projects by borrowing against future federal highway allocations, Idaho has the opportunity to create 3,000 jobs at a time when the state’s reeling from the sudden jump in unemployment. Asked by panel members whether it might not be a better approach to hold off on GARVEE bonding and turn to stimulus money for the projects that otherwise would have been up for bonding, McGee said no. “You reduce the bang for the buck in terms of the economy that you would have,” he said. “I don’t know the next time we’re going to have an $182 million infusion into our transportation system in Idaho.”

Ed chairmen talk school budget cuts

Both Senate Education Chairman John Goedde and House Education Chairman Bob Nonini had a similar message for legislative budget writers this morning: Preserve student-teacher contact time even as the state faces budget cuts in education. “The superintendent says it best - the students don’t get a second chance, they’re moving through the system,” Nonini told JFAC this morning. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said she appreciated the teamwork between the two chairmen, who told the budget committee they stand ready to move legislation through to allow additional flexibility at the local level to cope with budget cuts. Nonini said if budget cuts are avoided in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 through use of federal economic stimulus funds and draining the public education stabilization account, Idaho could end up with a $182 million shortfall for public schools in fiscal year 2011, if state tax revenues continue to fall. If they’re flat, it could be a $150 million shortfall, he said, and even if they pick back up a bit, “we’d still be short $88 million. We think a positive move forward would be to try to spread that out, possibly looking at some cuts in the 2010 budget.”

Early retirement cut might not save

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, in his presentation to JFAC this morning on education budgets, said his committee reviewed the $62 million in cuts for public schools proposed earlier by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, and had concerns about whether one really would mean savings. Luna proposed eliminating an early teacher retirement incentive program to save $4 million a year. But Goedde said it all depends on the assumptions, as far as who retires and who replaces them. The Idaho Education Association estimates eliminating the incentive could actually cost the state $9 million a year, as experienced teachers choose not to retire and be replaced by new, less experienced ones. Either number could be right, depending on the assumptions, Goedde told JFAC.

“So actually the number is probably somewhere in the middle?” asked Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. “That would be my guess,” Goedde said.

A stark choice on school cuts…

Idaho faces a stark choice: Impose unprecedented budget cuts on public schools next year, or stave off those cuts but risk deeper ones the following year. “I think it depends on how big a gambler you are, and I’m pretty pessimistic,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee. Here’s the problem: There’s enough money, between the stimulus money that’s due to start arriving in Idaho within the next 40 days and the state’s special school reserve fund, to protect schools from all the cuts imposed in the state budget this year, and from all the cuts now proposed for next year. But if 2011 were another down year, there wouldn’t be enough left from either source to avoid cuts that year. “We have no indication that 2011 will be any better - it may be worse than 2010,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

One passes, one stalls

The first two bills in Gov. Butch Otter’s six-bill transportation package came up for hearings in the House Transportation Committee today, and while one passed unanimously - HB 96, to repeal the ethanol exemption - the other stalled. HB 150, to add a $20 fee to every specialty license plate, provoked an array of puzzled questions from the committee, from whether holders of a personalized specialty plate would pay double the new fees - they would - to whether plate fees cover the Transportation Department’s costs - they don’t, when the cost of non-fee disability placards are counted in, but the bill would cover the gap - to whether higher fees might mean fewer takers, thus not raising the anticipated money (they might).

“I have some doubts,” said Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls. “What it does seem to do is we might be creating an unintended consequence … making a lot of people unnecessarily angry.” House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, questioned why only specialty-plate holders should subsidize disability placards, rather than all license plate holders. House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, moved to hold the bill in committee, and his motion passed unanimously. Committee Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said the panel still could reconsider it with some additional information, and perhaps an alternate version that better addresses some of the questions.

Clete Edmunson, Otter’s transportation adviser, said the administration separated the special-plate fee out from a larger registration fee bill “to clarify the situation,” but it may have just muddied it. He said they’d be glad to come back with more information. “There are a lot of questions here,” he said. “We can answer a lot more questions.”

Retiree benefits bill passes House

Compromise legislation to trim back Idaho’s costs for health insurance for state retirees, in part by moving all Medicare-eligible retirees off the state plan, passed the House today on a 59-11 vote. “I know there is opposition to this bill,” Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told the House. “We did the best we could.” Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, said she was the biggest opponent of last year’s version of the bill, but she’s a strong supporter of this version, HB 173, which was negotiated between lawmakers from both parties, the state Department of Administration, and the Idaho Public Employees Association. “This bill is a model of bipartisanship - we worked as one,” Pasley-Stuart said. The measure includes clauses allowing retirees to use unused sick leave to pay some premiums, and some other concessions. Opponents included House Commerce & Human Resources Chair Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, who said the state committed back in 1988 to providing health coverage for state retirees, and that it was “unconscionable” to change that.

“We’ve not remunerated state employees as we should, that’s clear,” Schaefer told the House. “We’ve done it for many years, that’s clear. Most state employees are not millionaires. … We are betraying their trust by changing this commitment that was made.” Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said longtime state employees feel “betrayed” by the change. “There’s a little group of people, not very many, and we’re all gonna die in the next maybe 20 years, that they could’ve made some accommodation for,” she declared.  The bill now moves to the Senate.

Another long beer tax hearing

It was another full house this morning for the hearing on the proposed increase in Idaho’s beer and wine taxes to fund substance abuse treatment. Today, another 25 people testified, 13 of them for the bill and 12 against. That’s after yesterday’s hearing, in which 14 testified for, nine against and one neutral. House Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said there are six lobbyists or legislators still signed up to testify; they’ll testify tomorrow, when the committee will meet back in its regular meeting room, and then take a vote on whether or not to pass the bill on to the full House. Said Lake, “We’ll see what the committee does.”

Luna heads to D.C. to seek stimulus answers

Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is heading to Washington, D.C. today to get first-hand answers about the federal stimulus package from Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other White House officials. “This is an important trip because the governor, the Legislature and I all have so many unanswered questions about the stimulus package and how it will impact public education in Idaho. I intend to get answers,” Luna said in a statement. He’ll join several other state education officials at a White House meeting on Wednesday afternoon. When he returns, he’ll talk directly with legislators, school district superintendents, local school board members, teachers, parents and “other educational stakeholders” about what he learns.

Why it may not be enough

JFAC learned this morning that Idaho’s share of stimulus money for education budget stabilization is $201.7 million. But that’s for both public schools and higher education, and it’s for three years: Fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011. Half the amount could be used up just to make up the fiscal year 2009 6 percent budget holdbacks. Though the state has initially planned to protect public schools from those holdbacks by use of its public schools stabilization fund, it might not be eligible for the federal money if it did that, as the money is to make up cuts. The public schools portion of the 2009 holdbacks of 6 percent is equal to $85.1 million, and the higher ed portion is $18.2 million. “That still doesn’t help us for 2011, which may be the worst year yet,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Paul Headlee, legislative budget analyst for public schools, said, “When you do the math, we don’t see the allocation to be sufficient to restore funding in those three fiscal years.”

Cameron called the talk that the stimulus could save Idaho from its first-ever public school cuts next year “exaggerated.” He said, “So obviously that’s disappointing news.”

Idaho looking at budget cuts despite stimulus

Idaho still will have to make substantial cuts in state agency budgets, despite the help it’ll receive from federal economic stimulus funds, state lawmakers said today. “There’s somehow this feeling that this bill will solve all the problems, and it just won’t,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Idaho still could face “reductions in every area,” he said. His comments came after JFAC held its first of four days of hearings today on what’s in the stimulus bill for Idaho. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Micron announces 2,000 more layoffs

Micron Technology, formerly the state’s largest private employer, announced today that it’ll phase out manufacturing of 200 mm wafers at its Boise plant, meaning 500 layoffs “in the near term” and “as many as 2,000 positions by the end of the company’s fiscal year.” In a press release, Steve Appleton, Micron chairman and CEO, said, “We remained hopeful that the demand for these products would stabilize in the marketplace and start to improve as we moved into the spring. Unfortunately, a better environment has not materialized, and we are at a point where we wanted to let our employees and the community know in advance what will occur later this summer.”

Gov. Butch Otter responded with a pledge of state assistance, including extending hours at Treasure Valley unemployment offices. “All of state government stands ready to assist people facing the challenges of unemployment, job training and placement needs,” Otter said. “I am directing Roger Madsen and his crew at the Idaho Department of Labor to extend their hours at Treasure Valley employment offices, and I want to assure everyone that our state employees and resources are focused on serving Idaho citizens at this difficult time.” Click below to read Micron’s press release and the full story from AP reporter John Miller, which includes this tidbit: Once the new layoffs are complete, not only will Micron no longer be Idaho’s largest private employer, it will trail St. Luke’s hospitals and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which have some 7,500 workers each.

Lake taken to hospital

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, was taken to the hospital today shortly after the House convened. “They’re just checking on him,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. “He wasn’t feeling good, so he went in to see if he was all right.” Last year, Lake collapsed during a House session due to what was described as a mini-stroke, though he quickly recovered. That’s why he wanted to make sure everything was OK today, Moyle said. “He’s had one before.” As of now, Moyle said, the House Rev & Tax hearing on the beer and wine tax increase still is scheduled to continue as planned in the morning. “The vice chairman can take over if he’s not here, if he’s feeling rough,” Moyle said.

Former GOP guv lauds Dem congressman

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, who also is a former chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, had this letter to the editor published in the Idaho Statesman today lauding Democratic congressman Walt Minnick:

‘I appreciate Minnick’s stand for responsibility’

“I didn’t support Walt Minnick during his campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nevertheless, I did listen to his strong statements concerning fiscal responsibility. I didn’t doubt his sincerity, but I thought he’d have to follow the big spenders, most of the time, once he became a member of the majority party in the House.

I’m sure Rep. Minnick knew that most Idahoans opposed the so-called “stimulus package.” Yet, I believe the reason for his “no” vote was a clear conviction that it is shameful to load a crushing debt on future generations of Americans and to totally usurp state rights and responsibilities.

I don’t yet know if I’ll back Mr. Minnick for re-election, but I want him to know that I appreciate him standing up for Idaho.”

PHIL BATT, Boise

One House member not convinced…

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle is a big gun-rights supporter, but he’s the sponsor of HB 137, the bill this year to allow the state parks board to regulate discharge of firearms in state parks, despite the “pre-emption” law lawmakers enacted last year sharply limiting any regulation of firearms by anyone other than the state Legislature. “We don’t want people shooting when they’re camping next to each other and getting hurt,” Moyle told the House, noting that the bill allows regulation only of discharge of guns, not possession. It also includes exemptions for self-defense and “lawful hunting.” Sponsors of last year’s pre-emption bill “support this change, and I hope you can too,” Moyle told his fellow representatives. He convinced almost all of them - the bill passed 66-1, with just Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, voting no.

Harwood said after the vote, “The parks, the way they do it now they call the sheriff - this don’t change that. This is just making a bill, as far as I’m concerned. They still have to call the sheriff.” Harwood said he checked with his local sheriff, and someone shooting in a state campground could be arrested and charged with a crime like reckless endangerment. “This is just one bill that I didn’t feel they needed to have,” he said.

Put off again

A vote on HB 61, the House-passed bill to make permanent this year’s 4 percent holdbacks, other budget cuts, and transfers from the public education stabilization fund, has been put off again in the Senate, this time until March 3rd. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the federal stimulus may make the transfers from the stabilization fund unnecessary by covering those costs for schools. “We’re awaiting that information,” he told the Senate, and anticipate “pulling that bill back, most likely, but I don’t want to do that prematurely.” The Senate agreed to hold off until March 3.

‘Hitting retirees kinda hard’

Here’s a sampling of some of the testimony this morning on the proposed hike in beer and wine taxes to fund substance abuse treatment. Of the 24 people who testified, 14 were in favor, nine against, and one neutral. Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said there are 34 more to go; beer and wine lobbyist Bill Roden will be up first when the hearing continues tomorrow. And now for the sampling:

Vaughn Killeen, former Ada County sheriff and executive director of the Idaho Sheriffs Association: “We have to remember the tax has not been increased since its inception.”
George Dillard, Idaho State Good Sams: “You’re hitting the retired community kinda hard.”
Roger Batt, Idaho Wine and Grape Growers: “This targeted increase is offensive to this segment of Idaho agriculture. … This is not the economic climate in which Idaho should be generating revenue for pet projects when everyone else is being asked to tighten the belt.”
Melanie Krause, owner and wine maker, Cinder: “This bill is going to make it very difficult for us to continue to exist.”
Moya Shatz, executive director, Idaho Grape Growers: “Raising the wine tax by 246 percent would cripple the budding wine industry here in Idaho.”
Mike Clark, Cambridge resident: “With the economy headed for the toilet, nobody wants to see a tax increase but I think this is a good one.”
Sherry Parks, director of behavioral Health, St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center: “Last year we treated close to 1,500 patients through the emergency room for substance abuse. … We spend over a million dollars on this population. … It’s a huge impact and it’s a very costly way to spend our taxpayers dollars and our health care dollars. … We feel like much more can be done earlier in the process to eliminate some of the high-cost treatments that we’re seeing in our facility.”
Mike Fitzgerald, former owner, TableRock Brewpub: “Most of the restaurants owned by us little guys are just shutting the doors.”
Janelle DeWeerd, freshman at Meridian High School: “Why not have the people that choose to drink pay for the cost of that choice?”
Hawk Stone, a Common Interest member who opposed the switch to a tax by price rather than volume: “It’s too expensive to get drunk on a $5 pint of beer.”
Bill Brockman, former Twin Falls county commissioner: “When the economy is good, people drink more to celebrate. During a recession, people drink more because they are depressed. … This fee is not mandatory - if you do not consume alcohol, it costs you absolutely nothing.”

Packed hearing for beer, wine tax hike

It’s standing-room only at the hearing this morning on legislation to raise Idaho’s beer and wine taxes - unchanged for the past four decades - to fund substance abuse treatment. “This increase is pocket change for the vast majority of responsible drinkers,” sponsor Keith Allred of The Common Interest told the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. Though the taxes would more than triple, the increase would be less than a dollar a month for a beer drinker who buys a six-pack a week, he said.

Every seat in the hearing room, a meeting room in the basement of the Idaho Supreme Court building that’s larger than any hearing room at the Capitol Annex, is taken, and people are lined up standing around the back and side walls of the room. Committee Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “We now have 54 people signed up to testify.” If the committee happens to get through all that testimony this morning and still has time to debate and vote on the bill, it will, he said. “We could vote today, but I suspect it will not be today.”

How long it is…

Idaho’s legislative budget director, Cathy Holland-Smith, told JFAC just now that the federal economic stimulus bill is 407 pages long. Legislative budget analysts have printed it out. The 1,100-page stack of papers U.S. Sen. Jim Risch earlier showed the Idaho Senate included the House version, the Senate version, and the conference report. But the 407-page version is the “joined, combined, engrossed version” that is the official bill, Holland-Smith said. Then, however, there’s the conference report. “It’s twice as long as the bill,” she said. “It is an integral part of the bill - it actually gives more information about ways we can use this money as a state.” Then, there are explanatory statements that also are key to understanding the lengthy legislation. All are now available online, at recovery.gov, at the conference report here and at several other sites such as stateline.org.

‘It is pretty restrictive’

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee are beginning a week-long look into what’s in the federal stimulus bill for Idaho. To start, JFAC Co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith, “I know how hard you’ve worked on this, to help us navigate this wild river. We seem to feel like we’re in a raft, and there’s no getting out.” Holland-Smith responded, “It’s been a real learning experience. … Our goal here this week is to lay a foundation so that there’s a proper context for the recommendations,” when Gov. Butch Otter lays his own recommendations before lawmakers in the coming weeks.

JFAC will hear about impacts on education and economic development tomorrow. They’ll take a break Wednesday and go back to reports from germane committees on state budget recommendations. Then, Thursday “will be a particularly long morning,” Holland-Smith said. “The impacts to health and human services are particularly complex.” Changes in the Medicaid formula will be covered, along with natural resources, energy and more. On Friday, the focus will be the impacts of the stimulus on transportation. “When it comes to Idaho, we’ve been having this long conversation for several years about how to fund the infrastructure,” Holland-Smith said. She’s had lawmakers come to her, hoping to fund new programs with the stimulus money. But, she said, “What I’ve found so far is there are some real limitations on the use of this funding. … It is pretty restrictive.”

Idaho stands to receive $201.7 million for education budget stabilization, $44.9 million for general-purpose budget stabilization, $181.9 million for highways and bridges, $2.6 million for Head Start, $3.2 million for educational technology, $5 million for homelessness prevention, and $2.1 million for dislocated workers, among a long list of specific purposes for which the state will receive funds. The total: $1.0234 billion.
 

The week that was…

Tune in tonight to Idaho Reports on Idaho Public Television, which airs at 8 p.m., to hear a discussion about the events of the sixth week of the Legislature. I join BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, Idaho Statesman Editorial Page Editor Kevin Richert, Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins, AP reporter John Miller and host Thanh Tan on the show this week. The program airs at 8 p.m., re-airs on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. MST, 10:30 a.m. PST. After it airs, you can also watch it online here, along with the online-only “After the Show” segment.

Here’s a link to the 6th week of the session in pictures; let your cursor hover over the photos to read the captions.

 

Stimulating times at the Statehouse

A small group of activists gathered on the Capitol Annex steps at mid-day today to urge Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers to make use of the federal economic stimulus funds. Holding signs with slogans like, “It’s our $$ Take the Stimulus” and “People not Potholes,” the activists from United Vision for Idaho and the Interfaith Alliance called for using the federal money for state programs and workers, rather than cutting the state budget. “In bad economic times, cuts only hurt more,” said Pam Baldwin of the Interfaith Alliance. Andrew Hanhardt, president of the Idaho Association of Government Employees, which represents state workers, said, “Use the money to keep state employees on the job and not in line for benefits.”

As lawmakers today wrapped up the sixth week of this year’s legislative session, it remained unclear just how the state will make use of the stimulus money. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has set four days of hearings next week, to hear from and question its budget analysts on what’s in the stimulus package and how it could affect Idaho’s state budget. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said Idaho still likely will have to make this year’s 4 percent holdbacks and the additional 2 percent cut lawmakers imposed permanent, but they might not have to dip into the public education stabilization fund this year as they’d planned. Budget cuts next year likely still will be steep, Cameron said, but a proposed 5 percent cut in personnel costs - a prospect that could even mean an across-the-board pay cut or layoffs - may not have to happen. Cameron said he’s “hopeful” cuts in public schools next year can be avoided, “but I can’t guarantee it at this point,” he said. “Every time we turn around, there’s another question.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter has assembled a special panel of three former governors and five former state budget directors - a group that’s half Democrats and half Republicans - to help him sort through some of the same questions. Interestingly, three of the eight are registered lobbyists for energy interests - former state budget directors Jeff Malmen and Mike Brassey both lobby for Idaho Power, and former state budget director Brian Whitlock for Battelle Energy Alliance. Also, former state budget director Marty Peterson lobbies for the University of Idaho, and former Gov. Cecil Andrus, though not a registered lobbyist, is affiliated with Gallatin Public Affairs, a Boise firm that does lobbying, consulting, and government and public relations.

Senate panel rejects human rights protections for gays

The Senate State Affairs Committee just voted down a motion to introduce legislation to extend the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination provisions to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, gave a heartfelt pitch to her fellow senators to introduce the measure, which she said has an array of legislative co-sponsors. “At least 20 members of our Legislature have members of their families that are gay or lesbian and directly affected by these issues,” she told the committee.

Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, a co-sponsor, recalled the recent Special Olympics in Boise, which he said celebrated a population, those with intellectual disabilities, that, in his childhood, was “warehoused, hidden out of sight of the public for many years. … Their families were not very proud of them. Today we celebrate them, we call them special.” He mentioned the civil rights movement, which brought the country from treating blacks as second-class citizens to the days when a black woman can serve as the nation’s secretary of state and the nation’s new president is of mixed race. “We don’t see color much any more as we used to,” Coiner said. “We’ve come a long way. The movement on that part of our society that are gay and lesbian, transgender - their movement is a few years behind, but moving. … We’ve got a lot of education to go.”

LeFavour said when she’s talked with other lawmakers about the issue over the past 10 years, many mistakenly believed that it’s already illegal to fire someone because they’re gay or lesbian. Last year’s BSU Public Policy Survey showed that 64 percent of Idahoans believe it should be illegal to fire someone because they are or are perceived to be gay. But since the state’s human rights law, which bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of race, religion and disability, doesn’t include sexual orientation, “By virtue of its omission, many employers and many individuals perceive that it’s OK to discriminate,” LeFavour told the Senate committee. “By our silence, we condone it.” Throughout Idaho, people live in fear that their employers will find out their sexual orientation and fire them, said LeFavour, Idaho’s only openly gay legislator.

She pleaded with the senators to introduce her bill, “just for the acknowledgement that this is an issue that deserves more discussion.” Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, moved to introduce the bill, and Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, seconded the motion, but they were the only two to favor the move in a voice vote, with Sens. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, and Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, voting no. That killed the bill.

LeFavour received hugs from a large crowd of supporters who had filled the committee hearing room, and who, afterward, crowded the Capitol Annex’s small second-floor foyer. “I’m so disappointed in my colleagues,” LeFavour said. “I know better of them, and I know in their hearts they know better. That’s the hardest part.” The Idaho Human Rights Commission, which in past years has endorsed and pushed for such legislation, with several new appointees, this year narrowly voted against it. LeFavour said she didn’t think that, in itself, hurt her bill’s chances. “You know, we don’t typically care what agencies think about a bill,” she said. “I think what needs to happen now is that people who care, across the state, need to speak up, and there are so many people who care, and we need them.”

Otter names stimulus panel

Gov. Butch Otter has named the eight-member panel that will help him study how Idaho can make use of federal stimulus money. It includes three former governors and five former state budget directors, and is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Click below to see the full list. Otter also announced that he’s signed an agreement to accept an additional $25 per week in stimulus funds to be added to every unemployment benefit check issued in the state through the end of 2009. That’s estimated at $1.2 million.

Put Idaho’s checkbook online?

Here’s a news item from the AP: ‘One Idaho legislator wants to put the state’s checkbook online, saying it will make government more transparent and could save money in the long run. Athol Republican Rep. Phil Hart told the House State Affairs Committee Thursday that though the searchable Internet database would have a $250,000 price tag, other states have used it to find wasteful spending. The committee agreed to give the bill a hearing. Some legislators balked at the project’s price tag. They say the purpose is important but the state shouldn’t spend so much money on a database while some of its employees have lost their jobs because of the economy. Other states such as Missouri have put state spending records online in a publicly searchable database. The information includes payments for janitorial services and what salary state employees are paid.’

Editor Dean Miller fired from Post Register

Idaho journalism circles have been buzzing today about the firing of Idaho Falls Post Register Editor Dean Miller, who’s been editor there since 1995 and formerly worked as the Statehouse reporter for The Spokesman-Review (at that time, I was Dean’s editor, a task both challenging and rewarding). Dean and I co-founded IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government, and he’s been a force in Idaho journalism for three decades, starting out at the Times-News in Twin Falls. In an article in today’s Post Register, Miller said any editor with more than a decade on the job is living “on borrowed time.” He said, “And I made it 14.” Click below to read the full Post Register article by reporter Corey Taule.

Hart: We’re keeping track of too many people

Athol Rep. Phil Hart wants Idaho to allow all evidence of a past arrest or trial that didn’t result in a conviction to be erased, including trial records and national law enforcement databases of arrests. He brought legislation today to allow a judge to expunge such records on request. “In the United States we have the highest population of people on parole or probation in the world,” Hart told the House Judiciary Committee. “I think we’ve got to look for ways to ratchet back the number of people we’re keeping track of and we’ve got records of.”

Committee members had lots of questions about the proposal, including how Idaho judges could expunge records they have no jurisdiction over, like national law enforcement databases. “I’ll have to admit I was not aware of that, so I’ll have to do some more work on that,” Hart responded. Hart proposed similar legislation in 2005; it passed the House but was killed in a Senate committee. Asked what law enforcement thought of the idea then, he said, “As I remember, law enforcement did not like this bill, and I’ll just leave it at that.” The committee agreed to introduce his bill, but the voice vote was divided, with at least three members opposing introduction.

Clark proposes banning repeat DUI’s from buying alcohol

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, proposed legislation today that would ban repeat drunk drivers or those who drive drunk at far above the legal limit from buying or possessing alcohol, for anywhere from five years to life. “Have you ever read in the paper about somebody with their eighth DUI, their ninth DUI, 10th DUI?” he asked the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. “This will put a stop to it. … This is a big idea. It’s a total shift in how we deal with these individuals.” Clark said the bill hasn’t yet been reviewed by sheriffs or others; he asked the panel to introduce it so that discussion could start.

The committee agreed unanimously. “It’s a different approach, and I think we should be open to different approaches,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. Clark said afterward that the 14-page bill isn’t modeled after any other state’s law, and is just something he worked up after hearing from a constituent who was upset about people getting DUI after DUI. “He was tired of seeing this stuff in the paper about people with 10 DUI’s,” Clark said. The lawmaker himself had a DUI in 1999, but it wouldn’t have fallen under the proposed law, because it was a first offense and Clark refused a blood-alcohol test, surrendering his license instead.

Clark’s bill would impose a five-year ban on alcohol purchase, consumption or possession for those who have a first-time DUI but register blood-alcohol levels of .20 or higher - the legal limit is .08 - or who have a second regular DUI within 10 years. Those who have a second DUI with .20 blood-alcohol or higher, a third DUI of any type with alcohol concentration of .04 or higher (half the legal limit), or who cause “great bodily harm, permanent disability or permanent disfigurement to another person” while driving drunk, would be permanently banned from buying, consuming or possessing alcohol. People under the bans would have special notations on their driver’s licenses or state-issued I.D. cards, and it’d be a misdemeanor for them to try to buy alcohol. “I know it’s lengthy, I know it’s somewhat of a new policy idea,” Clark told the committee. “I’m about begging you, if you will, to print this and let’s get it out on the streets.”

But Siddoway doesn’t like it…

The Senate has given near-unanimous final passage to HCR 10, a measure rejecting a rule from the state Lottery Commission that even the commission said would inadvertently have shut down the three-day-a-week charitable bingo at the Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park, in an attempt to target groups like “Big Bucks Bingo” in Garden City, which ran into legal trouble for trying to operate under the state’s charitable bingo law. Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, told the Senate the Greyhound Park bingo operation has raised $286,000 for various charities since 2004. “And bang, this Rule 303 of the Lottery Commission would have put them out of business in that charitable activity,” he said. “When this was brought to the attention of the Lottery Commission, they actually asked for this rule to be rejected.”

Stegner persuaded most of the Senate, but not Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who cast the only “no” vote.  He said afterwards, “I just wanted to leave it where it was - I don’t like these charitable bingo games.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

‘Too much government’

Sens. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Denton Darrington, R-Declo, cast the only “no” votes in a 30-2 vote this morning on SB 1061, a measure from Sen. Lee Heinrich, R-Cascade, to allow counties to ticket motorists who drive onto groomed snowmobile trails. “Too much government,” Darrington declared after the vote. “We just keep controlling everything.” “Too much regulation,” added Cameron, as senators around them chuckled. Heinrich told the Senate, “A groomed snowmobile trail seems to attract motor vehicle drivers up the trail and to an unwitting disaster.” Cars and trucks drive along the trails with “a false sense of security,” Heinrich said, until they suddenly sink through the firm crust and get themselves stuck, wrecking the trail in the process and requiring rescue. He said in Valley County, they tried “tank traps and large berms at the trailhead,” and that kept the cars off - but insurers balked because snowmobilers were wrecking on the obstacles. “We we are back to a smooth, inviting trail,” Heinrich said.

The bill easily passed despite the two longtime senators’ protest votes, and now heads to the House.

Wood: Buy back GARVEE bonds with stimulus money

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, is calling for the state to use federal stimulus money to “buy back some of the GARVEE bonds, reduce some of the interest we pay,” and “put that into maintenance” in rural Idaho. Wood, giving her recommendations to JFAC for next year’s budget, said, “There is stimulus transportation money earmarked for … (metropolitan areas) and public transit that would be used by the large cities. … The reason I suggest this is that the backlog of maintenance and preservation  is such a dire need … (and it’s) fallen so far behind in some of those rural areas. This is as urgent as congestion in the cities.” She added, “I believe … directing stimulus money this way is prudent.”

She is calling for approval for the Idaho Transportation Department to invest $6 million into new maintenance management and financial management systems, because “those technological tools are needed.” But as for GARVEE bonds, Wood said she doesn’t support issuing more at this point, focusing instead on buying some back with stimulus funds. “I really haven’t had an opportunity to talk to the governor about my ideas - you’re the first ones to hear them,” Wood told JFAC. “I hope that he’ll work with me.” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron responded, “I’m sure he will, I’m sure he’ll want to hear those ideas.”

Legislature to take Stimulus 101

The co-chairs of the Legislature’s joint budget committee have announced a plan to educate lawmakers about the federal economic stimulus money and its possible impacts on Idaho’s state budget, even as Gov. Butch Otter convenes his own executive committee to sort through the same thing and help him develop his own recommendations. Starting on Monday, JFAC will hold four days of hearings on the stimulus and its impacts, which its budget analysts are now extensively reviewing. “I don’t think they’re sleeping,” said Senate Finance Vice-Chair Shawn Keough. That will give lawmakers an opportunity to learn what’s in the stimulus bill, how it fits in with Idaho’s state budget, and to ask questions.

“It will familiarize us with the various pieces of the package, so that when we get the governor’s recommendations, we’ll be right alongside with him and not behind him,” Keough said. “It’s a great plan. There are so many questions out there - we all have questions, and the public has questions. The Legislature’s process is open to the public, so it’ll give the public an opportunity to get information also. Our staff is a non-partisan staff, and they’ll be working directly from the bill, so we’ll be getting an accurate report.”

Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget chief, said the governor’s executive committee won’t include any legislators. “That was a conscious decision the leadership and the governor made, in order to protect the separation of powers,” he said. The recommendations the governor presents after hearing from his panel will go before the Legislature to consider, so, “It was decided not to put legislators on there,” Hammon said. “What we’ll actually do is submit almost a revision to the governor’s budget.”

After next week’s hearings, scheduled to run Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 8:30 to 10 a.m. each day, lawmakers will be ready to weigh those, Keough said. JFAC’s hearings also are broadcast live on the Internet, so the public can listen in as well.

‘There’s a way to avoid it’

“It costs us an awful lot to take care of those who violate us out in the community,” Sen. Denton Darrington, the Senate judiciary chairman, told the joint budget committee this morning. “… Those who commit horrible crimes, it’s very expensive to take care of. And they don’t like being in prison, their families don’t like it, and they shouldn’t like it. There’s a way to avoid it. … There’s a way to avoid the bad food, the lack of visitation. … And that is: Do not do the crime and be put in there in the first place. I wish everybody in the state could hear me say that. Do not do it and you won’t be faced with those things – do it and you will be faced with those things.”

Darrington: Enough with private prisons

Senate Judiciary Chairman Denton Darrington, R-Declo, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations committee this morning, “I think there is a limit to how far we ought to go with our prison beds being in private hands.” Even big prison states like Texas are at about 35 percent private, Darrington said. “We’re in the 40s, and it’s going to creep up a little.”  He warned, “If our prison population gets too high of a number in private hands, there are ways in which we will have less control over our own system, I have no doubt. So I would say that we’re about as far as we ought to go, on percent of our inmates in private hands. I have no problem with what we’ve done, but we’d better have a word of caution.”

His comments came as the state Department of Corrections is looking into whether it could save money by privatizing the state prison in Orofino, a concept that’s raised big concerns in that community, where the prison is a major employer. JFAC is in the midst of hearing from the chairs of various legislative committees on their budget recommendations, to prepare for setting state budgets – though the actual budget-setting now has been delayed, while the state studies the impact of federal economic stimulus funds. JFAC’s Web site, which normally lists the budget-setting schedule, now says only, “The Budget Setting Schedule has been delayed indefinitely.”

Closed primary fight hits federal court

The fight between the Idaho Republican Party and the state over whether the state’s primary elections can be closed to all but registered party members - Idaho has no official party registration - arrived in federal court in Boise for arguments on Wednesday. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak; U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill didn’t indicate when he’ll issue his ruling in the case.

Reforms proposed for Tax Commission

Idaho’s state Tax Commission would be required to hold additional hearings on the controversial secret tax deals a whistleblower exposed last spring and submit annual reports on them to the governor and state Legislature, under legislation a Senate committee unveiled this afternoon. “We’re still awaiting an annual report this year,” noted Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, who worked on the bill with Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.

A longtime state tax auditor, Stan Howland, issued the whistleblower report to the governor and lawmakers in May, charging that millions in taxes owed by large, multi-state corporations were being illegally excused by a single tax commissioner, and confidentiality laws prevented anyone from finding out about it. Investigations ordered by the Idaho Attorney General and the governor concluded no laws had been broken, but the governor’s analysis, by a longtime CPA, called for reforms. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Of mice and miscues…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the stimulus-mouse flap, and here’s a statement from Brad Hoaglun, Sen. Jim Risch’s spokesman:

“The reality is the stimulus bill is so large and pushed through so fast that no one really knows conclusively what will be funded in the bill until federal agencies put together their lists (which was how the mouse came onto the radar screen). That is why Senator Risch has cautioned Idaho legislators from spending the money until they know how much money, how long it will last, and what strings are attached.  Many logical conclusions can be made about the stimulus spending, and will continue to be made, until specific projects are funded.”

Oops, no mouse in S.F….

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office says there is no truth to Idaho Sen. Jim Risch’s contention today that the federal stimulus package contains $50 million to save the “red-breasted harvest mouse” in Pelosi’s California district. Drew Hammill, spokesman for Pelosi, called the story about the mice “a total fabrication.” It apparently originated a week ago in talking points distributed by Republicans in Congress, charging that $30 million would go to the mouse. That, it turned out, was the entire amount the California State Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, had put together to show its “shovel-ready” projects eligible for stimulus funding, the San Jose Mercury-News reported. Those included five major wetlands restoration projects including some involving salt marshes, where the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse lives. However, Pelosi’s office said there are none in San Francisco. The conservancy is involved in a major restoration of the South Bay Salt Ponds south of San Francisco, but that’s not in Pelosi’s district, a small, urban district concentrated in the city.
 
Brad Hoaglun, Risch’s director of communications and senior adviser, said, “That’s good to know - I’ll make sure the senator doesn’t say it any more. That was apparently in there last week.” Hoaglun said the issue shows the complexity of the 1,100-page stimulus bill. He had no explanation for why Risch claimed the mouse would get $50 million, when last week’s claims were that it would get $30 million. “This was something that last week everyone was saying was in the bill,” he said. “It was part of talking points that circulated on Capitol Hill.”

Avista: Let us cut low-income a break

Avista Corp. and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission brought legislation today to allow utilities to voluntarily provide assistance to struggling low-income customers, and seek approval from the PUC to adjust their rates to cover the cost. “The need is urgent - it’s real,” Neil Colwell, lobbyist for Avista, told  senators this morning. As of last May, 16 percent of all utility customers in the state had past-due accounts, he said, and with the economic downturn, that’s likely worsened. Most states already have such programs, Colwell said; Avista operates them in Washington and Oregon. But Idaho’s law banning discrimination in utility rates prevents the firm from offering that type of assistance program here.

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, was wary. “This looks like a back-door approach to an additional tax,” he said. “Let’s say the recession deepens, and pretty soon 20 percent of utility bills are not being paid.” Everyone else could see big increases, he said. But Colwell said, “When people fail to pay their bills and we write those off, those costs go into the … rates” right now. The idea with the new legislation is to prevent that from happening, to “help customers before they get in so deep they can’t pay.” In Washington and Oregon, he said, “It imposes a small cost on customer bills … generally, you’re talking pennies on the total bill.” The Senate State Affairs Committee then voted unanimously to introduce the bill, which means it can proceed to full hearings.

Senators: Keep bingo at greyhound park

It took a bit of explaining, but the Senate State Affairs Committee signed on this morning to a House-passed resolution rejecting a rule from the state Lottery Commission that operators of the Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park say would force them to shut down their three-day-a-week charitable bingo. “If the rule is not rejected … the $35,000 to $40,000 a year that’s contributed by the foundation derived from charitable bingo to local charities would not continue,” Russ Westerberg, lobbyist for the Greene Group and Coeur d’Alene Racing Ltd., told the Senate State Affairs Committee.

The firms, which operate the former dog-racing park in Post Falls as a simulcast betting operation and event center, have been running charitable bingo there three days a week since 2003 through a separate charitable foundation, the Greene Idaho Foundation. The state lottery proposed rule changes for charitable bingo in the wake of an Idaho Supreme Court ruling in the “Big Bucks Bingo” case in Garden City, where a for-profit group was trying to operate under the charitable bingo law. But the way the rule was written, Westerberg said it would’ve cut off the Post Falls operation, where the for-profit Coeur d’Alene Racing loans the space, help from employees and sometimes subsidies to the charitable bingo operation.

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said the rule “says that employees of for-profit entities can’t operate charitable bingo. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in North Idaho. … We’re about to preclude that.” Even Lottery Director Jeff Anderson said the rule went too far; the committee voted unanimously to reject it. The resolution now moves to the full Senate for a final vote.

Retiree benefit change clears committee

Here’s a news item from AP: ‘Idaho state government retirees would be moved to private insurance plans according to a measure that cleared a House committee where a similar bill stalled a year ago. The Department of Administration made several changes to the bill including boosting a premium subsidy for early retirees to $155 a month from $100. There was just a single no vote from Boise Democrat Phylis King. Donna Yule, Idaho Public Employees Association executive director, said the bill was improved but still not good enough. She fears that about 200 of 2,200 Idaho state government retirees who are eligible for medicare but have high prescription costs will face substantially higher out of pocket drug expenses. The state says it has to trim retirees from insurance to reduce an unfunded medical liability of $477 million and growing.’

Risch: ‘It’s difficult reading’

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, addressing the Idaho Senate today where he once presided as lieutenant governor and as president pro-tem, hauled out the actual printout of the congressional stimulus bill - all 1,100 pages of it - and slapped it on the lectern. “If you go through this, you cannot tell the answer to three questions of the money - how much, when, and what strings are going to come with it,” Risch declared, slapping his hand on the stack of paper, which was secured by several rubber bands. “There is very little in this bill that talks about that.” He restated his opposition to the stimulus idea, saying the country can’t spend its way out of recession.

Shortly before his speech, asked by a reporter if he’s read the stimulus bill - which Risch opposed - he said, “I did read parts of it, but only parts. It’s 1,100 pages long. … And reading a bill is not like reading a novel. It’s difficult reading.” Risch disputed President Obama’s contention that the bill lacks earmarks, saying it has $50 million to save the “red-breasted harvest mouse” in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s California district, and $8 billion for a “magnetic, levitating, high-speed train from Disneyland to the Las Vegas strip” in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s district.

‘Air’s gone out of our balloon’

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, just commented, “It seems like all the air’s gone out of our balloon.” The panel, which wrapped up its agency budget hearings this morning and began hearing from chairs of germane committees on their budget recommendations, normally would move next right into budget-setting, but this year, everything’s uncertain because of the federal stimulus funds. Bell earlier announced that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would take tomorrow off, then corrected herself and said Friday would be the day off for the panel. A new schedule for budget-setting is expected out tomorrow.

CAT fund millions short

Blake Hall, administrator of the state Catastrophic Fund, which helps counties cover medical costs for indigents by covering the bills beyond $10,000 per case, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning that the fund is $2.5 million short for the rest of this fiscal year, and $10 million short for next year’s anticipated costs under the governor’s budget recommendation. Gov. Butch Otter has discussed raising counties’ deductibles from $10,000 to $15,000 or making other changes to the program, but counties are short of funds, too. “If we did this, then that additional obligation on the counties would have to come out of the property tax, right?” asked Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. Hall and several county commissioners provided uncertain answers; that’s one of the few funding sources counties have, but their property tax  budget growth is capped at 3 percent a year.

No legislation has yet been presented to change the system, but county officials and others have been meeting with Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. After his budget hearing, Hall said, “I guess the Legislature will have to decide what they are going to do.” He has a supplemental budget request pending for the missing $2.5 million for this year; if unpaid bills roll in, they’d just be rolled over to the next fiscal year, he said. “I think we’re facing the same problem that everybody in the state’s facing, and that’s there appear to be some real difficult decisions for the Legislature to make, with revenues lagging behind needs,” Hall said.

‘Desperate’ Sandpoint pleads for its ‘fair share’

The Sandpoint area is in “desperate” economic straits, and tourism businesses there aren’t getting their fair share of state tourism grants, the local chamber head, Amy Little, told state lawmakers today. She  and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, proposed legislation to give counties a share of the tourism grants proportionate to the bed taxes they collect (which fund the grants), rather than just allocating them by region, and requiring that the Travel Council seats rotate among residents of the various counties in each region. The bill, SB 1081, was killed in committee this afternoon on a 6-3 vote. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter: Study stimulus ‘til March 19

Gov. Butch Otter has issued an executive order creating a “stimulus executive committee” to study the federal economic stimulus and make recommendations within 30 days on how Idaho should spend the money. That could mean a considerably longer legislative session, as lawmakers must set a budget for next year, and will need to factor in the federal money. “There remain a lot of unknowns here,” Otter said. “It will take a lot of work to get our arms around all the implications of this law. We need to make sure safeguards are in place and that every ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ is crossed. This is taxpayer money, and all of us are committed to seeing it used in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

Otter gave each state agency until noon on March 4 to submit information to his office on how it anticipates using the stimulus money, and how it fits in with the agency’s mission, state law and the constitutional mandate to balance the state budget. Click below to read the governor’s full announcement.

‘Prolonging the session…’

Gov. Butch Otter will take his time figuring out what Idaho’s share of the federal stimulus will be, AP reporter John Miller reports - a move that could delay budget-setting for next year and likely prolong the 2009 legislative session. Click below to read Miller’s full report, which also says lawmakers are planning to stick by painful cuts in Medicaid they’ve already made this year, despite the infusion of millions in new federal funds.

Crapo: ‘Be very careful’

Idaho’s senior U.S. Senator, Mike Crapo, addressed the Senate and House today, and was held up for about 10 minutes in the Senate as that chamber wrapped up a hot debate on sewage rules. “I think I just interrupted a debate on septic tanks,” Crapo said as he opened his remarks to the Senate. “I think we had that debate when I was here. … It’s nice to see that some things don’t change.” Crapo is not only a former state senator, but former Senate president pro-tem.
 
He offered lawmakers what he called a bit of unsolicited advice about the upcoming federal stimulus funds. “You are going to now be faced with an interesting job, as somewhere between $600 million and a billion dollars of this bill will flow into Idaho, a lot of it flowing into programs that you administer as policy makers in the state. One of the big concerns that a lot of us have with this bill is that the increases in a number of these programs will be built right into the federal base and into the base of the states, so that we actually, instead of starting out the next fiscal cycle with a $1.2 trillion deficit, we will have a deficit that starts growing unbelievably large.
 
“I just encourage you, as you deal with this largesse that is going to be coming your way in terms of the stimulative dollars, that you pay very close attention to what it will do to your base in your budget here in the state,” Crapo told the Senate. “I’m not telling you what to do with it or how to handle it. What I’m saying is … I don’t think it can last forever.” He added, “I know that you didn’t necessarily solicit that advice and I know it’s not going to be easy as you deal with these issues, but I strongly encourage you to be very careful as you implement the utilization of these dollars as they move into the state coffers.”

Rejection of septic rules clears Senate, 27-7

It was quite a debate for a resolution rejecting an agency rule, but the Senate has voted 27-7 to reject a Department of Environmental Quality rule, approved 6-1 by that agency’s board, to stiffen requirements for new septic systems to protect water quality. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. “None of us wish to see our lakes and waters degraded,” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, told the Senate. “That’s not the point here. .. We’re sending a message to the agency.” She said the DEQ didn’t adequately prove to lawmakers that septic systems with more water flowing into them have a greater risk of failure. “It’s debatable,” she said. “By and large, there was no scientific proof that the failures of sewage systems in Idaho were in any way tied to increased flows.”

Opponents disagreed. Idaho’s health districts and the DEQ conducted a statewide wastewater generation study that included 2,800 homes and presented the results to the DEQ and the Legislature. They showed that one in seven are exceeding design standards. “Responsibility for the water quality of the state rests on our shoulders, and I would hope that we would always do our best to maintain that,” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, told the Senate. But several North Idaho senators spoke out in favor of rejecting the rule. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said health officials should educate people about how to better maintain their septic systems. “That would be a proactive thing they could do,” he said. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “Right now there is not an agreement on the problem or the resolution to the problem.” He said all involved should get together and agree on solutions. “No one would argue with protecting our water, especially those of us who life up near those beautiful waters.”

Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said the DEQ conducted an extensive and inclusive negotiated rule-making process before bringing the new septic rules to its board for approval. “This was a very deliberative, inclusive process,” she said. “When these systems start failing, it’s going to affect our water quality and it’s going to affect our tourism. It’s going to affect all sorts of things.” Broadsword, the measure’s sponsor, said, “I would agree that this was a negotiated rule-making, but there were folks that were left out of the negotiations.” During the roll call, Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, rose to explain his vote, and said, “Everybody had an opportunity to be there - some chose not to, and that bothers me.” Nevertheless, he voted in favor. The seven “no” votes included six Democratic senators plus Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow.

The septic rules, first proposed by the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho, led to something of a scandal when John Eaton, a lobbyist for the Realtors, withdrew a campaign contribution to Joan Cloonan, a DEQ board member and legislative candidate, after she voted for the rule - which his group opposed. State officials said no laws had been violated. Broadsword told Eye on Boise, “The flap over John Eaton didn’t even surface up north.” She said, “I didn’t really hear from the Realtors in my area, I heard from contractors, I heard from homeowners, and they were concerned about having to put in larger systems.”

Luna: ‘A good thing for education’

State Schools Supt. Tom Luna was prepared to go to the mat with his fellow state Land Board members this morning to try to get an additional one-time, $30 million payout from the state endowment to ease Idaho schools through budget cuts next year, but he withdrew the proposal this morning due to the oncoming federal stimulus money. Luna told the Land Board, “I submitted a budget to the Legislature identifying approximately $62 million from the public education fund,” which he said was the most he thought the state could cut in 2010 “without any long-term effect to the gains we have been making with student achievement. I also made it clear that any more cuts, we would need to look at other sources of revenue.” Then, it began to appear that schools could face up to $130 million in cuts next year. “Last week I requested this item be put on the agenda,” he said, for a “one-time distribution from the earnings reserve.”

Idaho’s endowment fund earnings go to schools and other beneficiaries, such as state universities, but a portion is placed into an earnings reserve fund, to allow full payouts in years when investment returns fall short. Luna said by the end of this fiscal year, the earnings reserve fund will have enough for three years’ payouts. “My question is, is it necessary to carry $90 million or three years’ worth of reserves, or wouldn’t two years be adequate under these circumstances, and do a $30 million one-time distribution?” He said it’s part of “looking under every rock” to find money for schools.

However, Luna’s fellow Land Board members raised questions about the plan, even as he sought to withdraw it. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said, “Any sort of request like this would have to be vetted first in front of the endowment investment board.” Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said, “We have a fiduciary responsibility here … taking a dollar today inhibits our ability to distribute that dollar in the future.” Gov. Butch Otter asked Luna if the schools would then pay back the endowment fund in better times, since the fund is experiencing big losses now, including another 5 percent loss in January. Then he told Luna, “I’m just jabbing you.”

Luna said he’s “pretty confident” that Idaho will receive $245 million over two years for school budget stabilization. “I’m pretty confident we have the numbers nailed down, but what we don’t have is the timing and the flexibility,” he said. At this point, he said, it appears that there’s no need for cuts in public schools at all next year - Idaho should be able to keep schools at the current year’s level. “I don’t see any increases in the 2010 budget - the goal is, and I think we’d be truly tickled after all we’ve been through, if we could end up with a budget equal to ‘09. That would be a good thing for education.”

‘Recession hit Idaho harder and faster’

State Labor Director Roger Madsen told lawmakers this morning, “The recession hit Idaho harder and faster” than other states. “After posting the lowest unemployment rate in the nation in 2007 … no state has seen as large a percentage increase in its unemployment rate as Idaho.” There are now 30,000 more Idaho workers out of a job than a year ago, Madsen told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, for a total of about 50,000, a record. All 44 Idaho counties have higher unemployment than a year ago, and phone calls to state unemployment offices have doubled since Labor Day. Since the end of 2007, 37 of Idaho’s 44 counties have seen their unemployment rates double.

The result has been a boom in unemployment benefit payouts. Those payouts, while no substitute for actual jobs, have had “a positive economic effect, certainly upon the families involved,” Madsen told lawmakers. Idaho’s unemployment benefit payouts have soared to the point that borrowing from federal funds will be necessary, he said. Meanwhile, budget cuts have eliminated 15 percent of the Labor Department’s work force. “We are attempting to cope with our biggest workload in history,” Madsen told JFAC.

Asked by lawmakers about January unemployment rates, Madsen said figures aren’t expected to come out until Feb. 27 because of federal benchmarking this month. “We expect ‘em to go above 7 percent soon,” he said. “The layoffs have continued.”

Read all about it…

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on the unanimous introduction yesterday of the new day-care licensing bill – the fifth straight year one has been proposed – and here’s a link to my full story on the reception in Rev & Tax yesterday for the bill to raise the beer and wine tax, which survived and is headed for a full hearing. Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey has a column today on the jockeying over who will fill the North Idaho seat on the state Board of Education when Sue Thilo’s term expires; here’s a link to the column, “Rep. Nonini pushes hard (real hard) for his pick for State Board.”

 

Back in the saddle…

Gov. Butch Otter is planning to be back in the saddle - literally - by this spring, and riding on the rodeo circuit again by summer, reports Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman. Otter, 66, just returned to work last week from major shoulder surgery after a roping accident. You can read Popkey’s full story here.

Day-care licensing bill introduced

The room was as packed as it could be at the Senate Health & Welfare Committee today, where there were a whopping 12 bills on the agenda for introduction. It’s the final day for introducing bills in non-privileged committees; the Senate plans to go back on the floor at 4 p.m. just to read across the desk the newly introduced measures in time for the deadline; many committee agendas are similarly packed today, though this one was the longest. Among the bills introduced today: The day-care licensing bill from Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, and Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home. Proposed and killed each year for at least the last five years, this year’s version, Corder told the panel, is “a fine piece of legislation for you to consider this year.” He said, “We cannot cover every problem or guarantee all facilities are safe all the time, but we can … protect more children than we are now.”

The measure would require licensing of all day-care operations that care for four or more unrelated children. It would set minimum standards including criminal background checks, health and fire safety inspections, and child-staff ratios. Sayler and Corder said they’ve worked with an array of groups, from health districts to the National Rifle Association, to fine-tune the bill. Sayler said the NRA objected to language in the bill last year on storage of guns at home day-cares; this time, the bill includes the NRA’s own suggested language. “We’re turning over every stone to try and meet these objections,” Sayler told Eye on Boise. “I think it’s a very good piece of legislation at this point. I think we’ve done everything we can to fine-tune it.”

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, questioned whether the bill would affect an aunt watching nieces and nephews, but Corder told him that’s specifically excluded from the latest version of the bill. Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, said he’d vote to introduce the bill, but still has doubts. “This is a comprehensive, bureaucratic, liberal day-care licensing bill not unlike what half the people wanted in 1986,” Darrington said, during what he called the “day-care wars … It was utter warfare.” But, he said, “I recognize times are changing a little.” The two co-sponsors were upbeat after the unanimous vote to introduce the bill. “We are looking forward to an actual hearing and a lot of good debate on the issue,” Sayler said. Corder said he thought Darrington was warming up to the idea. “I think he was much more warm about it this year than last,” Corder said. “It seems that way,” added Sayler.

Two years ago, the bill was killed in the House Health & Welfare Committee after several lawmakers said they thought mothers should stay home with their children. Last year, the bill was introduced, but didn’t get a hearing; Corder complimented Senate Health & Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, for taking that approach, and said the result was a much-improved bill this year. He said, “We’re both very proud of this - this is a much better piece of legislation than last year, by far.”

Budget decisions being rethought…

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, says the first effect of the new federal economic stimulus legislation’s passage could be that Idaho doesn’t have to make two big transfers from its public  education stabilization fund - one that’s in HB 61 and already passed the House, and another that was approved by JFAC on Friday. Both were to protect schools from budget cuts in the current year. But if stimulus money is coming do to just that, Cameron said, “Then it’s our desire to hold onto our stabilization monies.” Also, the unanimous vote in JFAC on Friday for a 5 percent cut in personnel costs statewide next year - possibly in the form of an across-the-board statewide pay cut, including schools - likely will have to be reconsidered, he said. “The difficulty we’re going to have is the stimulus doesn’t hit every agency,” Cameron said. “It potentially creates a problem of haves and have-nots, and I think there will be some difficulty in that regard.”

Lawmakers need to learn more before any decisions are made, he said. “Information is slowly trickling out. We also have to know when we would receive the money. … We’re still trying to analyze everything, we’re still trying to analyze the effects, and what can be done and what can’t.”

Could stimulus affect earlier holdbacks?

HB 61, the legislation that makes Gov. Butch Otter’s 4 percent holdbacks, or mid-year budget cuts, permanent, passed the House 68-1 a week ago, but when it came up for a vote today in the full Senate, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked to hold off for another week. “Since the actions of last Friday, we’re trying to get a handle on whether all of those actions were necessary,” Cameron told the Senate. Part of what’s needed, he said: More information on “that five-pound bill that Washington has sent us.” Federal economic stimulus legislation that passed Friday will send millions to Idaho, including money targeted specifically to avoid state budget cuts in certain areas.

Beer, wine tax increase introduced

It was a close 10-8 vote, but the House Revenue & Taxation Committee has agreed to introduce legislation that would hike Idaho’s beer and wine taxes - which haven’t been increased in more than 40 years - more than threefold to provide a stable funding source for substance abuse treatment. Keith Allred, head of The Common Interest, a good-government group, estimated that the higher tax would cost the purchaser of a weekly six-pack about 91 cents more a month. Idaho currently spends about $19 million annually on substance abuse treatment, Allred told the panel. “We’re just suggesting that some of that ought to be offset by those who drink alcohol.”

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “To me this is a tax, a tax increase that’s selective. This is not the time to be increasing taxes. I don’t drink any more, but I’m gonna be driven to drink if we don’t straighten up in the Legislature. This is not an illegal business. … I just think they’re paying fair taxes now and I don’t see any reason to increase it.” Allred said the beer tax, which is imposed per gallon and hasn’t risen since 1961, and the wine tax, also on volume and not raised since 1971, would have to go up much more to have the same purchasing power as when they were imposed. He also proposed switching to a percentage tax on price, rather than on volume, so such slippage wouldn’t happen again. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, questioned whether that approach would target buyers of the priciest products to pay for abuse by purchasers of the cheap stuff, but Allred, a former Harvard professor, said it evens out.  The 5 or 10 percent of alcohol drinkers who drink the most account for 70 to 80 percent of the alcohol consumed, he said. “So the beer tax and the wine tax turns out to be borne primarily by those who abuse it.”

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said just because the tax hasn’t been raised in more than 40 years is no reason to raise it, when another state tax, the kilowatt-hour tax, hasn’t been raised in 70 years. “Why don’t you just go after that instead?” he asked Allred. Allred responded, “The policy purposes … are quite different.” Clark moved to return the bill to sponsor rather than introduce it, but the motion failed, 8-10. The committee then voted 12-6 to introduce the bill and allow full hearings on it. Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, noted that when he co-sponsored a similar bill several years ago, it didn’t even get introduced. “There seems to be more support,” he said. “I think it needs to be done.” Click below to see who voted which way.

‘Turning the tables’

Each year, three North Idaho state representatives - Reps. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, and Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake - take the lobbyists out to dinner on the reps’ own personal dime. Last week, the annual dinner drew about 35 lobbyists, Nonini said. “It’s the fourth year we’ve done that. House leadership was there,” he said. The group enjoyed Basque food at Leku Ona restaurant downtown, and “we all put it on our personal credit cards,” Nonini said. “We just kinda turn the tables on ‘em, instead of them buying us dinner, we buy them dinner.”

Nonini didn’t volunteer this account; he was asked about it by Eye on Boise. “It’s just a good time to get everyone together,” he explained. “They’re supportive of us and they’re good, when there’s an issue out there that you want to talk about. … It’s just a thing we’ve done the last four years to show our appreciation for their willingness to help us understand issues.”

The week that was…

The fifth week of this year’s Idaho legislative session was a tumultuous one, opening with Gov. Butch Otter’s return to the legislative battlefield after shoulder surgery, pushing for his transportation package, and closing with painful decisions on deep new state budget cuts. But just hours later, on Friday afternoon, news of millions in federal stimulus money came raining down on Boise, which could obviate the need for cuts in public schools next year. The next day, on Valentine’s Day, a 10-inch dump of fresh power fell on Boise’s local ski hill, Bogus Basin. Here’s a link to the week in photos.

All those developments and more - except the powder day at Bogus - were discussed on Friday night’s Idaho Reports program on Idaho Public TV, on which I joined BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert, House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, and House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, along with host Thanh Tan, to discuss the week’s events. Thanh also interviewed the House and Senate transportation chairs, Rep. JoAn Wood and Sen. John McGee. Click here to watch the show, and the online-only “After the Show” discussion.

Luna: $346 mil on way for Idaho schools

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said this afternoon that he’s learned that Idaho schools are going to get lots of federal stimulus money “to the tune of $346 million over the next two years, and some of that money could be here as soon as next week. It appears we’re going to receive a considerable amount of money.” Of that $346 million, the largest part, $243 million, is for “budget stabilization,” Luna said, “to resolve the financial crisis that we were trying to deal with in the Legislature to cut public education. … That concern may have gone away. … So that is good news.”

Luna said he’s still not thrilled with the stimulus concept, because, “I am concerned that although we have averted the immediate consequences that we faced, we’ve pushed the consequences to a future generation. We’re doing it with borrowed money.” Nevertheless, he said, “We’ll use the dollars to fill in the gaps.” In addition to filling the holes in next year’s school budget, Luna said, the money may allow some one-time projects to be funded, but he doesn’t want to expand the budget beyond its current level. “This is money that’s only going to be coming for two years,” he said. “I think we would all be very pleased if we end up with a budget for 2010 that’s the same as 2009.”
 

Nonini: School cuts, ed bills may not be necessary after all

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, now says his controversial bills to make permanent cuts in laws governing school funding and teacher contracts may not be needed at all, what with big money coming Idaho’s way from the federal stimulus package. “It looks like Idaho could be in line for $160 million and some of that money could be available as soon as next week,” Nonini said. Some of the federal money is designed specifically “so teachers don’t get cuts in salary, teachers don’t get laid off and programs don’t get cut,” Nonini said. “We all thought it would be best to just not rush into the hearings.”

The stimulus money is “good news,” the House education chairman said. “We didn’t present this bill yesterday because we were mean-spirited or we were trying to get after anybody. Some things have changed just in the last few hours.” Idaho may end up not having to cut public schools at all, Nonini said. “That’s what we’re hoping - that’d definitely be the greatest thing, and that’s what it’s looking like.”

Ed hearings postponed

The three days of hearings that had been scheduled to start Monday on controversial education bills introduced yesterday have been called off. “We decided to hold off on the hearings for a week, refine some numbers and see if we can reach a consensus on what we’re going to do,” House Speaker Lawerence Denney said. “We may have a better picture of what the federal government is going to do.” A new version of the bills, which proposed permanent changes in state law to allow school budget cuts and also proposed putting all teachers on one-year contracts, likely will emerge, Denney said, or amendments to the current bills. “What we were interested in looking at is a sunset or some type of trigger mechanism in the bill,” he said. As for the contracts issue, he said, “That’s still up for negotiation.”

Plan anticipates $110 mil in school cuts

The budget target adopted unanimously by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today anticipates nearly $110 million in cuts to Idaho’s public school budget next year. That’s the $62 million already proposed by state schools Supt. Tom Luna, which included a cut equal to three days pay for all teachers and administrators, plus another $47.4 million to hit schools with the same 5 percent cut in personnel funding that’s proposed statewide. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the plan anticipates taking $17 million not from the public school stabilization fund, as Luna proposed, but from the state’s main reserve fund, the budget stabilization fund, to boost the school budget. That’s because most of the school fund already would be spent; some must be kept as a reserve against enrollment changes. Cameron said the idea is to make that shift from the main reserve fund “in order that we don’t have to take public schools to $130 million (in cuts), because that’s what their share would be otherwise.”

Read all about it…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com, “Idaho slashes budget, considers pay cuts,” on this morning’s fast-moving developments at the Legislature today. And here’s a link to my full story from yesterday on the House Environment Committee’s rejection of legislation to repeal last year’s much-debated vehicle emission testing law, though during the meeting, several panel members said they thought air pollution really wasn’t a problem. And here’s a link to my full story in today’s paper on the education bills introduced yesterday, “Critics blast school funding bills.”

And you can click below to read my full story on yesterday’s commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday with the unveiling of Idaho’s newly restored and relocated historic Lincoln monument; click here to read about Sen. Joyce Broadsword’s new bill on child-safety seats, which could bring Idaho thousands in federal funding to buy car seats for low-income families; click here to read about Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on the Obama Administration’s position on disability rights during his visit to Boise yesterday; and click here to read about the latest transportation funding bills proposed by lawmakers, from minting gold coins and selling them to trying to turn Idaho into a truck license-plate haven.


‘Our job is to balance the budget’

A target for setting next year’s budget of $2.5579 billion in general funds - a figure more than $100 million below the governor’s recommended budget - has been unanimously approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Getting there would mean a 5 percent cut in personnel funding statewide - and could even mean an across-the-board pay cut, if it couldn’t be accomplished through furloughs, keeping vacant positions vacant, layoffs or other moves. The governor would be authorized to make such a move. It would also mean $62 million in budget cuts for public schools next year, plus another $47.4 million from public schools for the personnel funding cut, bringing total school cuts to nearly $110 million next year; no increase in the grocery tax credit; no conformance with IRS tax law changes (a $2 million cost, and a bill that’s already moving quickly through the Legislature); no enhancements in any agency budgets, and more - all decisions that haven’t yet been made, and that, if they go otherwise, will require other cuts or other budget changes. The approach also anticipates spending $95 million from the state’s various reserve funds, another call that hasn’t yet been made.

The idea is that as JFAC sets every state agency’s budget, these assumptions will be built in as budget writers begin structuring budget bills. Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, said, “The governor is in support of this language, he’s reviewed it, and believes it will give him and his directors the flexibility they need to go forward … without being so prescriptive that it ties our hands down the road.” More flexibility, he said, will allow the state to “do the least amount of harm to our employees.”  

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “It turns us upside down in terms of what our goals have been.” Said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “We’re kind of in this gloom and doom scenario. … We’re taking some tough steps here, but we are going to get out of this, it could be much worse, and the steps that we are taking are positive steps that will allow us to turn around.” He said it’s most important to him to keep people working, including state employees. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “Our job is to balance the budget. We’ll do our job and we’ll trust that the directors will do their jobs appropriately.”

Lower revenue figure adopted

The revenue figure recommended by the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee for next year - a figure $100 million below the governor’s recommended budget - has just been adopted by JFAC. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, who made the motion, “I know that I for one when you proposed this number was a little bit reluctant. It appears your committee was dead right.” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “I would much rather that we as a committee set a low budget target than come back and do what we have just been doing with recissions. It’s much easier to not have to take it back.”

$28.4 mil transferred from school reserves

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has just voted unanimously to transfer another $28.4 million from the public education stabilization fund “as soon as practicable” to protect public schools from mid-year budget cuts this year. “When we set up the public education stabilization fund, we did so for this purpose,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who made the motion. “We were hoping we would never come to this day, but we are here. … It’s reflective of our desire, so far as possible, to hold K-12 harmless in these difficult economic times.”

JFAC approves $80 mil reduction for current year

“I hope people don’t think there’s a correlation between this motion and this being Friday the 13th,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz as he made a motion just now in JFAC to set a 2009 revenue figure that calls for an additional $80 million reduction. That puts the 2009 state budget at 12.2 percent less than fiscal year 2008. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, seconded the motion. Said Bolz, “I think this is the right move for us - I think it’s the only move we have at this point in time.” Public schools again would be protected from holdbacks by dipping into the public school stabilization fund, as happened with earlier mid-year budget cuts. The motion passed unanimously.

Otter imposes statewide hiring freeze

Gov. Butch Otter has imposed a statewide hiring freeze, a ban on all bonuses or pay increases, a ban on overtime pay without prior approval from his Division of Financial Management, and sharp limits on all purchasing. “I understand that implementing these instructions may be difficult, but I assure you they are necessary,” Otter wrote in a letter this morning to all state agency directors. The moves come because of the state’s growing revenue crunch, he said.

A 5 percent pay cut for all state employees?

Among the possibilities for balancing next year’s budget in light of dropping state revenues: A 5 percent cut in funding for personnel at all state agencies and institutions and public schools, which could come in the form of an across-the-board pay cut, furloughs or other moves. The governor would have to issue an executive order, likely in June, to accomplish such a pay cut. JFAC members are hearing about the idea at an early-morning briefing now. “We know that this language has been discussed with the governor and there is support for this type of approach,” legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told JFAC members. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the governor wants to let state agency directors decide how to cope with cuts. “I don’t think he’ll make that kind of an executive order unless he’s absolutely forced to,” Cameron said. This morning’s discussions are aimed at preparing JFAC to decide on such overall cuts and then build them into every budget they set for state agencies next year; no decisions have been made yet.

January revenue off by $33.1 million

January’s state tax revenues came in $33.1 million below projections, which puts the state $43.6 percent million below projections for the fiscal year to date. That means more holdbacks. This morning, JFAC is scheduled to take up additional budget cuts for the current, 2009 fiscal year of 2 percent. The joint budget committee also will set budget targets for the coming year, fiscal year 2010.

Speaker, Pro-Tem co-sponsoring ed bills

House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes both confirm that they’re co-sponsoring the new education bills, which make permanent changes to state laws to allow school cuts, with the House and Senate education chairmen. “Our names are on them,” Denney told Eye on Boise. “I have not pored through them to see exactly what they say. We do think those are important changes we need to make to give these school superintendents some flexibility. Generally, I totally agree that we have to make these changes to have the flexibility to do what needs to be done.”

Geddes said, “The only reason they’re good bills is we have really no other option to make the schools flexible enough to meet the funding goals. … At this point, I don’t know exactly what’s necessary. I think we’ve got just a list of options that we’re pursuing.” He added, “This is getting worse and more painful by the day.”

Goedde: ‘Liken it to zero-based budgeting’

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, says he’s co-sponsoring today’s controversial education legislation with House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs. “The bottom line in what we’re proposing here, with a couple of exceptions like (eliminating) early retirement (incentives), is to give local boards and local education associations as much flexibility as possible to use education money as they must,” Goedde said. “I think it all fits together.” The one-year contracts provision is “a flexibility provision,” he said. “I would liken it to zero-based budgeting. … We start all over and decide what’s the best way to spend the money this year.”

Goedde said he’s meeting with educators in Coeur d’Alene on Saturday morning, including local trustees, school administrators and the local teachers union. “I’m sure that I will hear a lot,” he said.

Keough: ‘This doesn’t do us any good’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, says she’s “distressed” by the far-reaching legislation introduced today to allow cuts in public education in Idaho, which include shifting all Idaho teachers to one-year contracts. “It looks as though a sledgehammer was used when a scalpel was needed,” Keough said. “My experience has been that the teachers union and teachers individually understand where we are with our economy, and have been trying to work with some of us … taking the steps necessary to see us through the downturn. … I’ve been working since November to try to make sure our lines of communication are open.” She said, “Today’s developments are distressing, because I know I was making progress in my district, and that we have a lot of trust and respect built. … We need everybody to pull together. This doesn’t do us any good, in my opinion.”

Veep is in Boise

Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in Boise for his visit to the Special Olympics, about four hours late due to weather delays. The welcoming party greeting him at his plane included Gov. Butch Otter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. The veep arrived about 2 p.m. Boise time, and was scheduled to head straight to Qwest Arena in downtown Boise to attend figure skating finals and meet with Special Olympics athletes and volunteers.

Committee rejects air quality repeal

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, failed to persuade the House Environment Committee this afternoon to introduce his bill to repeal last year’s much-negotiated, long-sought air quality vehicle emissions testing bill. The panel voted 6-5 to return the bill to its sponsor rather than introduce it. Harwood told the panel, “What this emission does is got the DEQ chasing the tail. … Our emissions have been going down since the mid-‘70s, down, down, down.” He said he feared the vehicle testing program would spread to North Idaho, because last year’s bill applies statewide to areas where vehicle emissions hit certain levels. “This started out to be an Ada County/Canyon County fight and it ended up to be a full-state emission program,” Harwood said. “We’re spending a pile of money testing for emissions for something that’s not going to make much of a difference.”

Committee members said they went through extensive negotiations and multiple days of hearings last year on the bill, and weren’t inclined to repeal it now just as the DEQ is in the midst of negotiated rule-making to put it into effect. Harwood said he has constituents concerned about the potential effect up north, but neither he nor they has been involved in the rule-making process. He did say, however, that he’s in negotiations with Roy Eiguren, a prominent lobbyist who represents Amalgamated Sugar, a major polluter in Canyon County, on the issue. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, the committee chairman, said last year’s bill keeps the EPA from taking over Idaho’s state-run emission program. “Last year there was a lot of negotiations that went on to make this bill palatable to the people,” said Raybould, who voted with the majority against introducing the measure. Harwood said his constituents are worried about possible vehicle testing requirements. “That’s been a big concern for folks,” he said, “that we’re going to have to comply when we don’t have any problem.”

Lincoln now gazes downtown

Schoolchildren and dignitaries pulled on the brightly colored, star-covered drape, and Idaho’s newly restored and relocated Abraham Lincoln monument was unveiled in its new spot, near the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Bannock Street, just south of the state Capitol. The hour-long ceremony commemorating the event was a chilly one, but schoolchildren, legislators and onlookers braved it. Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who formally accepted the relocated monument for the state, recounted a story of Lincoln’s humbleness - once, when a lady accused the president of being “two-faced” on a political issue, “The president responded, ‘Madam, if I had two faces, why would I be wearing this one?’ “

The school kids who were gathered included those from North Valley Academy in Gooding, who collected the most pennies in a “Pennies for Lincoln” drive to fund the move of the monument, and choirs from North Star Charter School in Eagle, who sang. “They know they played an important role in bringing this monument here,” state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said of the gathered schoolchildren. David Leroy, head of the Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, played master of ceremonies, and also invited the public to a birthday party for Lincoln to be held from 5-8 p.m. today in a heated tent near the statue, complete with a 200-candle birthday cake. Idaho Historical Society Director Janet Gallimore told the crowd, “Learning about the achievements of the people who came before us really helps all of us to achieve our dreams.” Little said, “Lincoln’s most lasting legacy to Idaho and the nation was opportunity.”

Lincoln measure passes - just in time

With a scant 20 minutes to spare, the House has voted unanimously, by voice vote, in favor of SCR 102, the resolution to declare Abraham Lincoln the honorary governor of the former Idaho Territory today, his 200th birthday. It’s a position he actually was offered before he was president, but turned down because of objections from his wife. The resolution is part of a state celebration of Lincoln’s birthday that kicks off at noon today, and will include the unveiling of the refurbished and newly relocated historic Lincoln monument, now located just south of the state Capitol.

‘Mean-spirited and wrong’

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, received the new education bills that were introduced this morning by fax while attending a conference in Seattle, and immediately went into a conference call to examine them. “I’m outraged - angry,” she said. “When the educators of the state of Idaho see this language, that’s what they’ll be as well.”

“Basically it’s an attack on collective bargaining and negotiations that have been in place since 1971. It says every contract will end at the end of the school year and you have to start all over again. That’s just an attack on educators, and has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with budget cuts,” Wood said. “This is mean-spirited and it’s wrong, and it doesn’t need to happen.”

‘They’re going to get a fight’

House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, says Democrats and education stakeholders have been working with state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna for weeks on ways to find savings in the school budget, but were never informed about the far-reaching bills introduced this morning. “Suddenly here it is,” he said. “We’ve got parents all over the state who have no idea this train is coming down the track,” with “monumental changes.” In the legislation proposed this morning by House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, “You’re putting jobs at risk at a time when unemployment is spiraling in the state,” Ruchti said. “I’m really surprised the superintendent and the House education chairman would take this approach.” He added, “In an economic crisis like we have right now, they’re going to throw this bombshell into it. … What they’re going to get right now is a fight on this.”

Permanent school-cut legislation unveiled

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the House Education Committee chairman, proposed two far-ranging bills this morning to make permanent changes in state law to allow cuts in Idaho’s public school funding. Among them: No state funding for field trips, including academic outings, ever again. All school district contracts with staff would expire at the end of every fiscal year, and no terms or conditions could carry over beyond that. Idaho would repeal the law that requires no reduction in salary or contract days for experienced teachers. School districts could impose reductions in force regardless of contract terms. State reimbursement to school districts for busing would drop from 85 percent of costs to 50 percent, though discretionary funding would increase to make up part of the loss. “This is not fun stuff … but we’re in a crisis,” Nonini told the committee. “The other thing we are accomplishing in this legislation is not to have teachers lose their jobs.”

Both bills - one on personnel and contracts, the other on transportation - were introduced on 11-5 votes in the committee; three days of joint education hearings are planned on them next week. Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, told Nonini, “With all due respect, these changes will impact our children in Idaho. … I understand that we all have to make sacrifices, I am well aware of that. But it appears to me from this RS that the sacrifices are being made by the teachers. They’re to teach the same amount of contract time but with less money, less assurance.” If the bill were passed, she said, “I can’t imagine a teacher from somewhere else wanting to come here.”

When Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, asked why the changes are all permanent rather than temporary, Nonini said, “Not knowing when these better times will come, it’s pretty hard to go in and put a sunset in there. … We think that recovery time is still a moving target.” Nonini said if economic times improve, any legislator in the future could propose changes to the law. Nonini said no Attorney General’s opinion has been sought on the bill, and he said he didn’t think it canceled existing contracts. “They still have their contracts, I think,” he told Eye on Boise. “What this legislation would do is just allow these school districts the flexibility to negotiate. … It gets the district and the teachers association to the table to negotiate.”

‘We currently have no choice’

Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe told legislative budget writers this morning that a state audit is right that deteriorating roads should be fixed long before they’ve gotten so bad, the so-called “worst-first” approach to road maintenance. But, she said, “Because of the lack of transportation revenue, we currently have no choice. … We can’t let ‘em turn to rubble.” The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has scheduled three hours for its budget hearing on ITD this morning; committee members have lots of questions.

Chilly reception for retiree health benefit cut

It failed last year, but the Otter Administration is pushing forward again with legislation to cut back health benefits for state retirees. It got a chilly initial reception yesterday in the House State Affairs Committee, but the bill’s not dead yet. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Biden visit delayed by weather

Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Idaho is being delayed a few hours due to bad weather, the AP reports. Biden is leading a Presidential delegation that is expected to arrive in Boise today, and the schedule features several events affiliated with the Special Olympics World Winter Games. Biden was initially scheduled to land in Boise mid-morning, but White House officials say that has been pushed back at least two hours due to bad weather back East. The first stop on his visit was to be the finals of the figure skating competition at Qwest Arena in downtown Boise. He is also expected to speak at a reception for some of the athletes, their families and volunteers. Joining Biden is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Olympic figure-skating medalists Scott Hamilton and Michelle Kwan.

Idaho celebrates Lincoln’s 200th birthday

It’s Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, and Idaho has a celebration planned featuring the unveiling of its newly restored and relocated statue of the 16th president, “The Emancipator,” which shows Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation. Idaho’s statue, first placed in 1915, six years after the introduction of the Lincoln penny, is thought to be the oldest surviving Lincoln monument in the western United States; this photo shows it when it still stood tucked away in a little-known spot on the grounds of the Idaho State Veterans Home last June.

The statue has since been lovingly restored to its former grandeur and moved to a high-profile location just south of Idaho’s state Capitol. It’ll be unveiled on Thursday in an hour-long noon ceremony featuring music, speeches, schoolchildren, the Army Tuba Corps, a costumed Lincoln portrayer reciting the Gettysburg Address and more. Elementary school students across the state raised $3,000 in pennies to help fund the refurbishing and relocation of the statue in a “Pennies for Lincoln” campaign; school kids will be among those pulling off a drape to unveil the statue in the noon ceremony.

The 6-foot, 4-inch bronze sculpture is life-size, and stands atop a nearly 10-foot-high sandstone pedestal bearing the date Feb. 12, 1915. Former Idaho Lt. Gov. David Leroy, a Lincoln buff and chairman of the Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, is inviting the public not only to the hour-long noon ceremony, but also to a “Birthday Party” for Lincoln to be held from 5-8 p.m. in a heated tent near the statue, featuring food, music and a 200-candle birthday cake. 

Lawmakers: Millenium Fund is ‘last resort’

The Millenium Fund Committee met today, and lawmakers on the joint panel sent a message to Gov. Butch Otter, the AP reports: Idaho should raid its tobacco-settlement fund only as a “last resort” if tax revenue collapses. Here’s the news from AP reporter John Miller: “Wednesday’s unanimous vote of Millennium Fund Committee comes after Otter last month suggested using $25 million from the $68 million fund to pay for programs that otherwise may be cut to balance the 2010 budget starting in July.

Separately, the 10-member panel recommended spending $1.9 million of the $4.9 million payout next year on drug treatment that otherwise might go shortchanged in the recession. Other recommendations: $500,000 for the Idaho Meth Project, $1.3 million for counseling and nicotine patches to kick smoking and $500,000 for courts helping kids curb anti-social behavior. These are recommendations; budget writers and the Legislature must still sign off before the cash is distributed.”

Idaho has more women lawmakers than average

Here’s a surprise: Idaho actually has more women legislators than the national average. Even though just 25 percent of Idaho’s legislative seats are held by women - eight of 35 in the Senate and 18 of 70 in the House - the figure’s even lower nationally, with women comprising just 23.5 percent of state legislators nationwide. That’s according to a 2007 study conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, for the National Foundation for Women Legislators.

The subject comes up because today, when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held its budget hearing on the Idaho Women’s Commission, which some lawmakers want to eliminate, Director Kitty Kunz said the Legislature and state leadership are a clear example of how Idaho’s women haven’t reached equity. The same 2007 study shows that Idaho lags behind other states in the number of women holding statewide elected office. Just one of the seven elected state offices is held by a female, state Controller Donna Jones, or 14 percent. Nationally, 24 percent of statewide elected offices are held by women. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

‘If you need to whack a mule…’

Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, had this to say today as she pitched a memorial about wolf delisting to the House Resources Committee: “If you need to whack a mule across the head with a 2-by-4 to get his attention, and all you have in your tiny, tiny toolbox is a foam-rubber shoe insert, the mule probably won’t get the message.” That message, she said, is that Idaho is “fed up with … federal foot-dragging.” Her proposed joint memorial, a non-binding message that lawmakers would send to Congress, the president and the Interior secretary, asks the feds to get wolf delisting back on track. “Idaho has dotted all of its i’s, crossed all its t’s and jumped through every hoop conceived by the mind of man,” Barrett declared. The panel voted unanimously to introduce the measure.

Tax revenue figures to be announced Friday

Final state tax revenue figures for January and an agreement between the governor, JFAC leaders and legislative leaders on a new budget target - and a plan to get there - are tentatively scheduled to be announced Friday during that morning’s JFAC meeting. “We have not reached agreement yet, but it’s our plan to get that by Friday morning,” said Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief. “We’re getting close to having an agreement.” Depending on how the revenues look, lawmakers could still look at imposing additional holdbacks during the current budget year.

Bill to raise dropout age killed

The House Education Committee has voted 9-8 against a bill proposed by Rep. Rich Jarvis, R-Meridian, to raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 18. “This committee is pretty well split,” said House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter Sarah Wire.

Former Rep. Wayne Meyer dead at 59

Former state Rep. Wayne Meyer, who represented North Idaho in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2004, died Monday of colon cancer. He was 59. Meyer, a Republican, was a bluegrass seed farmer from Rathdrum and served as a high school basketball referee for 22 years. Though he made issues regarding field-burning on the Rathdrum Prairie a high priority in his legislative service – an issue close to home for him as a farmer who burned his grass-seed fields – he also was heavily involved in education issues, and pushed strongly for creating dual-enrollment programs in Idaho, like those in Washington, to allow high school students to take college classes and get credit in both places.

 Meyer’s funeral will be Friday in Coeur d’Alene, at St. Pius X Catholic Church.

Why the numbers were different

When Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation bills were introduced yesterday, the numbers in the fiscal notes didn’t match up to his description of the program. For the first year, it appeared the package would raise only $42.9 million instead of $47 million, and in the fifth year, $171 million instead of $174 million. Today, Clete Edmunson, Otter’s transportation adviser, cleared up the mystery: There’s still another bill coming. The discrepancies were in the vehicle registration fees. When the whole package was separated out from one giant 160-plus-page bill to five separate ones, a piece about various other things that were impacted by registration fee changes, such as license plates, was pulled out, but didn’t get put back into one of the five bills. A sixth bill, containing those items, still is coming. “We’re going to bring a separate piece of legislation, hopefully introduce it tomorrow,” Edmunson said. “So that’s the difference.”

Not a single question for Women’s Commission…

The Idaho Women’s Commission had its budget hearing this morning, with legislation pending by one JFAC member, Sen. Joyce Broadsword, to eliminate the commission entirely; Broadsword sees it as obsolete. But director Kitty Kunz got not a single question from the joint committee after giving her budget presentation. “We feel our purpose and value is still necessary,” she told the lawmakers. “Have women in Idaho achieved equity? We only have to look at this body and the leadership in Idaho to see that that hasn’t happened. We have achieved a great deal … but we have … a long way to reach equity.” Less than a third of Idaho’s lawmakers are female, and just one of its statewide elected officials, state Controller Donna Jones. Kunz said the tiny agency used just $26,700 of its state budget of $30,600 last year. “Because of our frugality, we had money to give back to the state last year,” she said. “We’re well aware of being fiscally responsible and try to use our funds wisely.”

What about the mussels?

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, noted that the Legislature has “been very generous when we’ve had the money to be proactive on milfoil, and with the leadership of Rep. Anderson and others, made some great strides.” But now, she said, “Obviously, in our economic downturn we’re at a crisis point, and we have quagga mussels looming 100 miles from our border, so there’s a grave concern.” She asked state Ag Director Celia Gould if she’s “identified other funding sources that could help us with this threat?” Gould responded, “We just haven’t found that money tree for quagga mussels.” Ideas being “tossed around,” she said, include allowing the department to respond to problems with the invasive aquatic creatures through the use of deficiency warrants, as it does for agricultural pests, but she said she wouldn’t want to do that without clear direction from the Legislature. There’s also been talk of tapping into the small amount remaining for milfoil, she said. She told JFAC, “We’ll keep looking for grants – we’ll turn every rock over.”

Read all about it…

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review about Gov. Butch Otter’s pitch to raise taxes to fund more road work, and here’s a link to my full story about how cuts in rural economic development grants upset Idaho lawmakers. And over in the state of Washington, some lawmakers are looking at a novel way to help balance their state budget: A tax on porn. You can read that story here.

Black and white copies ‘work just fine’

State Agriculture Director Celia Gould described her department’s zero-based budgeting exercise in her budget presentation to lawmakers this year, stressing frugality. “I planned to cover budget highlights,” she told JFAC. “However, highlights is probably not a good word to use for anything headed our way in 2010.” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, complimented Gould for not providing the lawmakers with a ton of paper copies of the various reports and documents she cited. “We’ve been a little surprised at the number of copies, and particularly the number of color copies,” Cameron told Gould. “I notice that yours are black and white. They work just fine.”

Otter goes to bat for his transportation plan

Gov. Butch Otter, arm bound in a sling after shoulder surgery but vigorously greeting supporters, shaking hands (with his left hand) and touting his top priority - fixing Idaho roads - spoke out on the steps of the Capitol Annex today, urging lawmakers to pass his transportation plan. “This isn’t an easy task, but I feel it’s a necessary one,” Otter declared. “I certainly put this in the top of the category on necessary.” Otter was backed by a group of about 50 supporters, including GOP lawmakers, mayors, business people, lobbyists and more. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, about whom Otter said there is “no greater champion” for fixing Idaho roads, told the crowd, “We all know this is not easy, for us to think about raising new revenue … but it is essential. We face catastrophic results if we don’t fix Idaho’s roads and we don’t fix them now.” He said the governor’s plan would create “hundreds, possibly thousands of jobs.”

Otter said, “I can’t ever remember when I ever took the lead in raising taxes on anything for any purpose.” But he said this time, he’s convinced it’s needed. “I’m confident that we’ve made the right arguments in favor of this.” He said he’s willing to work with lawmakers, and welcomes their ideas. “There’s a great possibility during this process that we .. end up coming up with something better,” he said.

Guv’s transportation proposals introduced

The vote was unanimous on all five bills, as the House Transportation Committee voted to introduce Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation proposals. Some lawmakers made it clear, however, that they’re not yet sold on the governor’s plan. “I’m going to vote to print these today, but I want it known that during these tough times, this is not an easy vote,” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said. “I think the sixth bill here should be local-option authority, and we should include it.” The governor’s five bills would: Phase in a shift of funding for the Idaho State Police from the gas tax to state general funds, making the gas taxes that now go to ISP available for road work; impose a 6 percent daily excise tax on car rentals, raising about $2 million a year; increase the gas tax by 2 cents a year each year for five years, raising an additional $17.6 million next year and $88 million by 2014; increase car and truck registration fees over the next five years, while also increasing heavy truck registration fees 5 percent next year and launching a study of truck fees; and eliminate the current ethanol exemption.

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said hearings on the governor’s bills are more than a week away. “It’ll be a while, because we’ve got to introduce all the rest of ‘em,” she said, adding that she’s expecting as many as 15 other proposals. “Oh yes, we’ve got a lot of work coming,” she said.

PERSI fund dropped 25 percent

PERSI, the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, dropped from $12 billion to $8.5 billion in the past year, losing $3.5 billion. “We’re down 25 percent for calendar year ‘08,” Jody Olson, chairman of the PERSI board, told JFAC this morning. In fiscal year 2008, the fund was down just 4.3 percent. Rather than change contribution rates, the PERSI board voted in December to adopt the minimum cost-of-living increase for retirees in the coming year, 1 percent. “Up until last year, our retirees had full purchasing power from the time they retired,” Olson told lawmakers.

The cost-of-living increase each year for PERSI, by law, can be set by the board at anywhere from 1 percent, if the consumer price index goes up at least 1 percent, up to either 6 percent or the CPI. The CPI increase was 5.4 percent. Don Drum, PERSI executive director, said a contribution rate increase likely will be sought next year. PERSI was 105 percent funded at the beginning of 2008, and 93 percent funded at the end of the year, Drum said. “We’re anticipating that losses are cyclical and the market will rebound,” he told lawmakers. “We’re doing fairly well in comparison to our peer groups.”


‘A recession-proof business’

Liquor sales in Idaho are actually up 4.7 percent over last year, state Liquor Dispensary Superintendent Dyke Nally told lawmakers this morning. That puts it at a record $135.4 million in sales, up from $130.8 million last year, $78 million in 2003 and $58.1 million in 1998. Nally termed the newest sales figures “really quite remarkable” given the “tough economic times.” But he also said sales have been tracked through the last five recessions, and each time, “liquor sales have held,” often going up between 4 and 6 percent. “So it’s kind of a recession-proof business, or at least recession-resistant,” he said. The dispensary also is reporting record profits and record distributions to the state general fund, cities and counties and specific state programs.

Nally added, “It’s not that people are drinking more - Idaho remains 37th in the nation in terms of consumption, low. It’s population increase and people are purchasing better quality products, people are purchasing higher-end and more expensive products.” Also, he said, “We’re staffed leanly, and selling a lot of product.” The dispensary is proposing two new stores next year, in Post Falls and Meridian. They’ve opened nine new stores in the past three years, Nally said; each one was in the black usually within six months, and always within the first year.

‘The holdbacks - there are more coming’

Lawmakers are none too happy about how the state Department of Commerce had dealt with its budget cutbacks in part by sharply cutting into state funding for rural economic development grants. “We’re in tough times, and every agency has had to deal with holdbacks in different ways,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron told state Commerce Director Don Dietrich. “Your agency is one of the areas in which … we could actually turn the economy around a little bit. And yet as I look at … holdbacks, most come out of grants that could be money on the ground, rather than out of administrative staff and internal. … Can you explain … why it was easier to reduce grants, vs. try and absorb those reductions internally?” Dietrich responded, “It was a very difficult decision, to be quite frank.” The cuts in rural grants, he said, are “for a short period of time here, we’re talking hopefully a 12-month period.”

During that time, he said, federal HUD funds could help out, and demand for such grants is down anyway in this downturn. “In essence, we did not feel like we were short-circuiting the folks in our rural communities. Money is still available, the demand for those monies is still running at a reduced level, and I anticipate that probably through 2010 that will probably continue to be the case,” Dietrich said. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, warned, however, “It may be more than one year.” Cameron told Dietrich he saw a “chicken and egg” issue. “It seems to me that if there isn’t the demand, one of the things the department could be doing is trying to generate the demand. The holdbacks - there are more coming. I would encourage you to look at ways you could internalize those holdbacks rather than look at the local grants. We’ve got to look at ways to turn the economy around. Your agency is going to be able to do that. I think it requires not a diminished effort, but an increased effort in working with those local communities and working with those small businesses to advance forward.” Added Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, “It sounds like a de-emphasis of the rural programs through your department - I hope that’s not true.”

‘It’s almost impossible’

Last year, Idaho passed an incentive program to attract film production to the state, but didn’t fund it. This morning, Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, asked state Commerce Director Don Dietrich whether that ended up helping us or hurting us as far as attracting such businesses. “As you know, we did not fund that particular bill,” Dietrich told Eskridge and other members of JFAC, who are hearing the Commerce budget this morning. “So unfortunately, it did generate a lot of interest initially. … We did receive numerous phone calls and emails. … Yes, they came when you passed the bill, and we were unable to actually generally any dollars to that. … In my own mind, yes, we did lose an opportunity. We have had production companies call on a fairly regular basis, and that activity has backed up somewhat.”

Other states, including Utah, Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida and Louisiana, are courting film productions with big incentives, Dietrich said. “They are pouring millions of dollars into their film programs, so it is very difficult to compete … in fact, it’s almost impossible to pull a production company into the state without something on the table.”

What the cuts would mean to school districts

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, left, and Boise School District Superintendent Stan Olson, right, discuss the impact of proposed state budget cuts on the Boise school district. Boise-area legislators invited Olson and other local district officials to the Capitol Annex for the discussion. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who sat in on a few minutes of the briefing, said, “I appreciate the Boise legislators talking to their local school district - it’s the same thing we’re doing up home. … We’re all talking to our local districts.” Nonini said the biggest message he’s gotten is “the school districts need some tools they don’t currently have to get to those budget numbers.” He said he hopes to unveil legislation, possibly as early as Wednesday of this week, to make such changes.

Olson told the lawmakers that the proposed change in lottery and maintenance funds to districts could impact the payoff plans for the Boise district’s current bond issue. “We are not panicking - this is not an end-of-the-world scenario,” he said, but it could pose problems. The cuts, as proposed by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, would eliminate funding for 4.1 full-time administrative positions in the Boise district, district officials calculated. The district would lose $1.45 million from a proposed change in transportation funding allocations, and $91,000 from funds for field trips and other busing costs. It’d lose $740,000 per day for each day of cuts in funding for staff salaries, $370,400 from a proposed cut in textbook funding and $72,500 from a reduction in money for classroom supplies.

Durst explains his ‘no’ vote

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who cast the only “no” vote in the House today on HB 61, the bill that makes the 4 percent holdbacks permanent plus adds to them, said he voted against the bill for two reasons. First, “I didn’t think it was appropriate for us to be voting on budget cuts for every single agency in the state of Idaho in one bill,” he said. Second, he objected to some of the specific cuts, including those in Medicaid programs where cutting state funds means losing much more in federal matching funds. “I have a real problem with that,” he said. The 29-page bill passed 68-1 and now moves to the Senate. The only other House member who didn’t vote in favor was Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, who missed the vote.  

Fish & Game scales back fee increase proposal

The Idaho Fish & Game Department has revised its proposed fee increase to make it more “modest,” the department announced today. “In the light of tough economic times, Idaho Fish and Game has scaled back a proposed revenue increase to an overall 15 percent instead of 20 percent,” the department said in a press release. “Under the new proposal, the resident combination hunting and fishing license would not go up at all. Other changes from the original proposal include deer and elk tags, fishing tournament permit fees, controlled hunt application fees and the daily fishing license. A deer tag would go up just two bucks, instead of the proposed $5, and an elk B tag would go up $6. Nonresident hunting licenses also would go up $13.25, instead of $15.25 proposed earlier. Nonresident elk and deer tag increases also were scaled back.”

He’s baaaaaaack…

Gov. Butch Otter, who a week ago had shoulder surgery and who’s been out recovering, is back at work  now, at least part-time. Today, he’s meeting with the co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee about the latest state revenue figures; he’s scheduled to meet with legislative leaders from both parties later this week on the same topic. Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said the surgery the governor had to repair a torn rotator cuff and two detached tendons after a team-roping accident was a serious procedure. “It takes a while to recover from, and it’s pretty painful,” Hanian said, “but he is back.” He added, “You don’t really tell him ‘no.’” The governor wasn’t expected to show up at Saturday’s opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics World Winter Games - First Lady Lori Otter was expected to stand in - but he joined her, his right arm in a sling, and declared the games officially open.

Sen. Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, were looking forward to meeting with Otter today on the latest revenue news. “Hopefully we’ll get final numbers today,” Cameron said. “The governor’s going to meet with leadership later this week. Sometime between now and then, we’ll make a determination as to how bad fiscal year ‘09 is and what adjustments need to be made, and how we approach 2010.” The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee could adopt a target budget figure by the end of this week or early next week, Cameron said.

‘Don’t know that this is the end of it’

Legislation making the 4 percent holdbacks in this year’s state budget permanent - plus adding a bit more by cutting one-time funds - has cleared the House on a 68-1 vote. “This bill is key to balancing the fiscal year 2009 budget,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell told the House. “It’s like working in quicksand and I think we’re still slipping and sliding. … This day has come. I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to manage the people’s income to this degree, and that we’re not in any worse shape than we are. I would ask for your support. I don’t know that this is the end of it, but this certainly is the base from which we stand at this point in time.” The one “no” vote came from Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise. The bill, which earlier won approval from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, now moves to the Senate.

Budget cuts slow North Idaho water adjudication

Budget cuts at the Idaho Department of Water Resources won’t stop the North Idaho water rights adjudication, but they’ll slow it down, state Water Resources Director David Tuthill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. Among the department’s budget cuts are five of the 11 employees working on the adjudication. “So far we’ve received over 100 claims,” Tuthill told lawmakers. About a third of those were filed online, a new capability the department now has, he said. “This process is working very nicely.” He said, “We’re at a point now where we can reduce the effort and still be OK. We can slow down in our claims-taking… It is launched.” The newly “elongated” time frame for the adjudication now shows it being completely by 2018, with the first basin completed by 2015. That”s about two years longer than had been planned.

In response to questions from North Idaho lawmakers, Tuthill said there may be some added cost with the longer time frame, but the process appears to be moving along adequately. “We’re really leading the way with Washington,” he said. “I think this level of effort will maintain that.”

‘Not all impacts can be mitigated’

Among the state Tax Commission’s efforts to “mitigate” the potential $7.5 million loss in state revenue due to cutting year-round temporary audit workers as part of state budget cuts, are shifting additional duties to full-time employees, re-evaluating all support positions, some additional automation that’s in the works, modifying procedures where appropriate, and reassigning and reprioritizing some audit work to full-time auditors. The Tax Commission started charging taxpayers for the convenience fees for credit card payments or electronic checks on Jan. 1, saving an estimated $2 million a year. But the cutbacks are impacting services in the form of slower response to taxpayer inquiries, Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow reported to lawmakers. He concluded his budget presentation with this note: “Not all impacts can be mitigated.”

Also, in response to lawmakers’ questions, Tax Commission officials said some taxpayers are now choosing to send in checks rather than pay the 3 percent fee for a credit card payment; that actually creates other processing costs that aren’t present in electronic transactions.

$979k savings could lead to $7.5 mil loss…

This year’s 4 percent holdbacks prompted the state Tax Commission to impose a hiring freeze on full-time positions, impose a mandatory two-day furlough on all but its lowest- paid workers, reduce wages for tax-season temporary employees, and eliminate 58 year-round temporary positions, workers who were let go on Dec. 26. Of those, 47 worked in audits and collections. The personnel cost reduction saved $979,000, but the potential loss of tax revenue is estimated at $7.5 million, Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow told lawmakers this morning. “The agency is taking steps to reduce loss,” he reported. “It was preferable to eliminating full-time positions.” Full-time employees are picking up additional duties, and Chigbrow said he was pleased to report that, “Thirty-six of the 58 have come back and worked temporarily during the tax drive. … We get the advantage of their skills and experience for a few more months.”

The Tax Commission also is planning not to fill 12 full-time positions in support, Chigbrow said, to cope with budget cuts. “We’re 75 percent personnel,” he said. At the same time, the commission is anticipating an additional 82,000 returns this year, mostly paper returns, as a result of the expansion of the grocery tax credit to non-filers who previously weren’t eligible.

Paying taxes is voluntary?

Royce Chigbrow, chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, “Our tax system depends on the voluntary cooperation of our citizens and businesses,” and the Tax Commission has been working to “sustain the voluntary nature of the tax system.” If this is surprising - perhaps you thought it wasn’t “voluntary” as to whether you pay your taxes or not - Chigbrow said, “In the past fiscal year, voluntary payments totaled $3.39 billion, while another $200 million was brought in through audit and collection activities.” He added, “To put it another way, 95 percent of the revenue over the years has been brought in through voluntary” payments.

The key to that, he told lawmakers, is “maintaining an adequate audit presence,” saying, “Consider for a moment what would happen to voluntary collection if no one worried about being audited or no one was concerned about the accuracy of their returns. Obviously,” he said, it is “essential” to keep “honest taxpayers’ trust in the system,” that “Those who don’t pay their taxes or don’t pay their fair share will be identified and pursued.”

The week that was…

As the fourth week of the legislative session wrapped up, Senate Assistant Minority Leader Elliot Werk, D-Boise, left, and House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, joined the panel on Idaho Reports to discuss the latest developments. Here they are at the Idaho Public TV studio with- who else? - Big Bird. On the show, Werk and Nonini joined me, BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, and host Thanh Tan for the discussion; the show also features an interview of state schools Supt. Tom Luna by Thanh. Tune in tonight at 8, or you can watch it online here later, along with the online-only “after the show” discussion. And here’s a link to the week in pictures as a slide show.

Joint hearings set on school budget cuts

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s met with Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, and they’ve agreed to schedule three days of joint education committee hearings on legislation to change various state laws to allow cuts to public education next year. The hearings will start on Monday Feb. 16, and continue through Wednesday the 18th, he said. “We would hope that by late next week, there’ll be some legislation introduced,” Nonini said. Luna has called for various school funding cuts that would require changes in state laws, though he’s said most would just be temporary as the state faces a budget crunch. Nonini said the legislation might make the changes permanent, to give school districts more “flexibility.” He said there likely will be two bills.

CdA Lake management in budget spotlight

Funding to implement the new Coeur d’Alene Lake Management Plan is the only new budget item Gov. Butch Otter is recommending in next year’s budget for the state Department of Environmental Quality, which is facing a proposed 16.1 percent cut in its state general funds next year. The department, which has laid off seven people, eliminated its planning division and is planning to hold eight more positions vacant all next year to help meet the budget cuts, has made the Lake Management Plan funding its top priority for next year. The funding - $377,700, including $112,900 in general funds and $264,800 from the water pollution control fund - would pay for half the initial cost of putting the plan into effect, including staffing, equipment, outreach and education. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe would pay for the other half of the cost, matching the state’s contribution equally even though the tribe owns only the southern third of the lake.

Toni Hardesty, state DEQ director, told JFAC this morning that the 2002 EPA Record of Decision on the Coeur d’Alene basin Superfund cleanup, after extensive work by her predecessor, Steve Allred, state officials and Idaho’s congressional delegation, left out any Superfund “remedy” to clean up heavy-metal pollution that’s buried in sediments at the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Instead, she aid, “The record of decision allowed for the opportunity for the state and the tribe to develop a collaborative lake management plan, and if completed, implemented and effective, EPA would not need to proceed with a Superfund remedy for the lake.” Efforts to negotiate the plan failed in 2002, 2004, and 2006, but in 2008, with the help of a professional mediator, the draft plan was completed. It includes no new regulations, Hardesty said, instead relying on existing county ordinances  and state laws, monitoring, and an extensive outreach program to educate people in the area about how to avoid adding nutrients to the lake, which can cause the pollutants to be released from the lake-bottom sediments.

“What we heard from people loud and clear was we don’t want another bureaucracy,” Hardesty said. “When we sat down and looked at the regulations that are already in place, we concluded that wasn’t necessary.” But in order to avoid new regulations, she said, “People have to understand that when they’re fertilizing their lawn or doing other activities, that it can have an impact on the lake.” She told JFAC, “Successfully managing the health of Lake Coeur d’Alene and avoiding a Superfund remedy will be contingent upon the action of all who count on this cherished resource.” Part of the deal with EPA is that there’s no Superfund money available for managing Lake Coeur d’Alene - that’s why the plan needs state and tribal dollars to work, even in the state’s current tight budget. Helaman Hancock, legislative director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “I think it’s extremely important. One thing that we have to understand here is that if this lake management plan doesn’t get funded, the alternative is a federal Superfund remedy, which is not what we need in Idaho.” That’s why the tribe agreed to contribute so much of its own money, he said. “I think everyone agrees Superfund isn’t the answer.”

No park closures planned - yet

Asked about rumors that the state Department of Parks and Rec plans to close three state parks, state Parks Director Bob Meinen told legislative budget writers this morning that there are no such plans - yet. “A lot of what we do in the near future lies with this committee right here,” Meinen told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We have looked at the budget, we’ve made a recommendation and the governor’s made a recommendation. I believe that if the Legislature supports that we’ll be fine. … We’re looking at revenue streams and the economy. If there is cutbacks, and if there is reduction in the general fund and other funds for us to be able to operate, we obviously are going to have to adapt and address that. Our goal is to keep all parks open, keep ‘em safe, keep ‘em affordable for the families, and make sure that they are available when people want them.” If that can’t be accomplished, he said, some parks would have to be “mothballed for a time to save money. We don’t want to weaken the entire system. … If we can’t afford to keep ‘em all open, then we will have to mothball one or two, whatever that number is.”

Meinen said he’s heard strong support from the surrounding community to keep open Old Mission State Park at Cataldo, which is operated under contract by the state but owned by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “The (parks) board is the only entity, I can’t close parks, the board is the one that closes parks,” Meinen told JFAC. “We are not right now under the current budget under any circumstances, at a point where we’re even remotely considering closing any parks. … We’re waiting to see the budget that is given to the department and we’ll have to go from that point.”

Coming soon: Transportation bills…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the latest developments on the local-option tax issue - the House speaker is blocking bills there that don’t include constitutional amendments, but says they could go to the Senate; the Senate chairman says he won’t push a Senate bill that would just die in the House committee. On another note: House Speaker Lawerence Denney says the various transportation bills - including the governor’s package - will be introduced Tuesday in the House Transportation Committee. The governor’s proposals, which include gas tax and car and truck registration fee increases to fund increased road maintenance,  originally arrived in a single, 165-page bill, Denney said, but lawmakers persuaded him to separate it into several bills. He said, “Tuesday we are going to print transportation bills - the governor’s bills and any others that might come forward.”

And to wrap up a busy day, here are some of the choice quotes from this morning’s hearing in House State Affairs on Rep. Steve Hartgen’s proposed legislation to outlaw Internet harassment:
* Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian: “I personally get lots of emails that other people might be offended by. They don’t bother me none.”
* Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs: “I’ve had telephone calls that upset me from a constituent, and at some point I can hang up on them … but if they email me, that’s one way they can get the message to me and that will disturb my peace and my quiet.”
* Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle: Labrador told the committee he’s developed something of a following on the Internet, such that whenever his name appears in print, “They say something nasty about me … Somebody’s saying what a dummy I am or whatever. That’s protected by the 1st Amendment.”

Hill: It wouldn’t pass House committee

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, says he’s not likely to introduce local-option tax legislation in his committee this year, even though House Speaker Lawerence Denney said he saw no problem with senators doing so - since Denney’s blocking such bills from being considered in the House unless they contain a constitutional amendment. “My internal count in the House committee indicates there’s not sufficient support … to get it through,” Hill told Eye on Boise today. “I’m not interested in making members of the Senate go on record on that issue if there’s no chance to get it realized.”

Hill said he’s actually not a big supporter of local-option taxes. “I would not support a local-option tax in my community - I’d probably campaign against it,” he said. “My point is people ought to have that right to make that decision for themselves,” rather than having state lawmakers “dictate” it for them. “I guess I just have confidence in the local governments and the local citizens, that they’ll do what’s best for their community. … It’s the principle of local control.”

Big election consolidation bill introduced

This year’s version is 89 pages long, plus another separate bill on funding that’s a mere eight pages. The aim: Reform Idaho’s election system so that all local elections, whether they’re for city, county, sewer district, cemetery district, school board or what have you, are run by county clerks, and consolidate them on four specific dates with standardized polling places. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told the House State Affairs Committee today that he’s been working on the issue for four years and the current bill for a year, including numerous meetings over the summer this year with the associations of cities, counties, county clerks, school boards and the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. Though they haven’t all endorsed his plan, he said, “I will tell you that they’ve been at the table.”

The catch for the committee, however, was the $2 million fiscal impact the changes would have on the state’s general fund, starting in 2011, to fund the new consolidated election system. Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, said, “At a time of financial crisis, I’m not convinced that consolidation of elections is a priority.” Said Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls, “The question is, is this the right time? I think this is a good idea.” The two bills were introduced, but there were four votes against introducing the funding measure and two against the larger bill, all from the committee’s Democratic members.     

Plans being made to adjust ‘09 budget…

Idaho likely is looking at more budget holdbacks during the current budget year - or dipping into rainy-day funds - just to make it through, Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes and House Speaker Lawerence Denney warned today. “There are plans being made to continue to adjust the 2009 budget to keep our state in the black,” Geddes told reporters as the two addressed the Idaho Press Club. But it’s still unclear, he said. “We have not been given final numbers for January yet.” The two GOP leaders said even though Gov. Butch Otter is out this week recovering from surgery, they’ve been in close touch with his staff. “Even though the governor is not in the office this week, we met with his staff this morning,” Geddes said. So far, it looks like the 4 percent in budget holdbacks that Otter imposed in September and December are “probably not” enough, he said.

Senate backs bill to export wolves

The Senate has voted 31-3 in favor of SB 1015, which would require the state Fish & Game Department to ask all other 49 states if they want any of Idaho’s wolves. “The question is whether we need to kill wolves to protect livestock and big game herds, or whether there’s an alternative,” said Senate Resources Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow. “For legal, strategic purposes, we need to ask the question. … When we’re sued, we can point out that we did try and remove the animals and transfer them live to other states,” he told the Senate. Only Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, voted against the bill, which now moves to the House.

Idahoans hunting, fishing more in down economy

Fish and Game officials say sales of fishing and hunting licenses to state residents have remained steady despite Idaho’s shaky economy, the AP reports. Fish and Game Director Cal Groen told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning that as the economy worsens, people want to connect with nature through hunting and fishing. He said the state sold 1.3 million licenses and tags in 2008, and sales of fishing licenses increased 6 percent in the fall. Meanwhile, license sales from people coming from outside Idaho have decreased, which Groen attributed to the wolf’s effect on elk herds, not the economy.

Those online thingies…

The House State Affairs Committee got hung up when Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, objected to a clause in a bill from Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, that sought to outlaw Internet harassment, because it listed “MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Twitter” along with personal blogs. Labrador asked if there was “a technical term or a term of art” that could be used, rather than listing commercial names. Hartgen responded with a stab: “Internet posting sites?” But as the committee moved along, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, jumped in, saying, “They’re called social networking sites.” Later, Crane, 34, chuckled when teased about being the only committee member who knew that, and said he uses Facebook. “I think it’s a great way to connect with your constituents, I really do,” he said.

Speaker: Take it to the Senate

House Speaker Lawerence Denney is not allowing any local-option tax bill to be considered in the House unless it contains a constitutional amendment, a restriction opposed by many local-option backers. “That has been my position, that if it’s not a constitutional amendment, I’m not interested,” Denney told The Spokesman-Review.

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said when he tried to bring his local-option tax bill to the House Rev & Tax Committee, he was told that the speaker was reviewing all local-option bills. Durst said the first question he got in that review was whether it had a constitutional amendment, and when he said his bill didn’t, he was informed that the only way he could get it printed was as a personal bill. Denney is consigning all personal bills this session to the House Ways & Means Committee, which rarely meets; there, they’ll die without hearings. Durst said, “This is not a matter of not having sufficient support in the germane committee.  Ultimately, this is a matter of the speaker preventing any ideas that don’t align with his personal views from being heard.”

Denney said he doubts the bill could clear the committee anyway, and also that it could pass the full House. “This is an issue that has been around for a number of years,” he said. “We had agreement last year on the constitutional amendment, and people backed out. I think this is substantially different from just any issue - I think we have heard it. I think a constitutional amendment is the way it needs to be addressed.”  

But Denney said he’s not stopping the bill from being considered entirely - it could be proposed in the Senate, he said. While the House has often been zealous over the years at protecting its turf when it comes to introducing tax bills, Denney said, “I think the Constitution is fairly specific on all revenue-raising measures starting in the House. It doesn’t say anything about tax cuts, and it doesn’t say anything about tax policy.” Local-option tax legislation merely authorizes changes in tax policy, Denney said - it doesn’t raise any revenue.

He said there’s also another way local-option backers could get their bill enacted - they could go directly to voters with an initiative. The Legislature can overturn voter-passed initiatives, and it’s done so on a few notable occasions. But Denney said he wouldn’t try to overturn a voter-passed local-option tax measure. “If you allow the people to vote and they say that’s what they want, sure, I could live with it,” he said.

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said he has clear instructions from the speaker. “If there’s no constitutional amendment, it goes to him,” he said. “I may get it back later.” Asked if he had any problem with that, Lake said, “That’s his call - I work for him, he’s my boss.”

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, released a guest opinion this week opposing a constitutional amendment. “All agree that a constitutional amendment is not required, but by placing the provision in the Constitution, future legislatures will find it very difficult to ever rescind the local-option taxing authority or change the requirements for its implementation,” he wrote. “Idaho’s 2009 Legislature can thereby ensure that its preferences and priorities are binding on all legislatures in the future. However, the notion that today’s lawmakers are better equipped to make responsible decisions than future legislators is unwarranted.”

Idaho local governments have few ways to raise funds for local needs other than the property tax, the state’s most-hated tax.

Guv’s liquor license bill sets up a ‘brawl’

Gov. Butch Otter has long talked of changing Idaho’s liquor license system, which limits liquor licenses on a strict, population-based quota system that’s driven up their value to $100,000-plus, while making exceptions for essentially anyone with the wherewithal to hire a lobbyist and push a special bill through the Legislature. Now, Otter’s readying to introduce a 52-page reform bill, doing away with the quota system and making other sweeping changes. AP reporter John Miller writes that “foes promise a brawl.” Click below to read his full story.

Denney: ‘Take our best shot now’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney says amid Idaho’s gloomy budget outlook, he’s hearing lots of talk among state lawmakers about the federal economic stimulus legislation. “I fear there are those who will want to balance our budget with federal stimulus, and I don’t know what that will look like,” he said. “I suspect that a lot of the federal stimulus will have enough strings attached that we’ll either say yes or no.” Denney declared, “I think we need to take our best shot at setting our budget right now, and leave enough flexibility so that if it came, we could use it.”

Just making ‘em all float the same…

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, introduced legislation today regarding float-homes, an often-contentious issues in North Idaho, but the bill’s not particularly controversial. It changes a definition so that all float homes, regardless of which type of utility hookup and sewer lines they have, are classified as real property rather than personal property for tax purposes. Now, the float homes at Bayview that have sewer lines that connect to onshore systems fit the definition, but some on Lake Coeur d’Alene that have different types of onboard sewage storage systems don’t. The reason it matters: Last year’s legislation to give businesses a tax break on personal property tax otherwise would unintentionally apply to some float-homes, once it took effect (it hasn’t yet, due to down state revenues). The House Revenue & Taxation Committee agreed to introduce the bill, which Clark said came to him from Kootenai County Assessor Mike McDowell.

Not much stuff to give away…

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, in whose committee all tax legislation generally starts, told Eye on Boise today, “I am absolutely amazed at the lack of bills in this committee this year.” Reflecting for a moment on the state’s budget crunch, he added, “Then again, we can’t do exemptions, we can’t do credits, we can’t do deductions - that’s what this committee does, is all the giveaway stuff.”

A different guv for a day?

Abraham Lincoln would be declared the honorary governor of Idaho Territory on Feb. 12, when the state celebrates the famous president’s 200th birthday and unveils a newly relocated historic statue of Lincoln in front of Idaho’s state capitol, under a resolution that just passed the Idaho Senate on a unanimous voice vote; it now heads to the House. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said Lincoln once declined an offer to be governor of Oregon Territory, which then included much of the region, including present-day Idaho. Lincoln also has other ties to Idaho, including helping create the Idaho territory, helping select its name, and naming many of its first officials. “We will declare Feb. 12, 2009 to be a day in which Abraham Lincoln of Illinois is declared to be honorary governor of the Idaho territory,” Davis told the Senate. “We are hopeful that Oregon and Idaho and Washington and Montana will pass similar resolutions, and those are pending.”

‘The buildings don’t know we’re in a recession’

Tim Mason, administrator of the state Division of Public Works, told legislative budget writers this morning, “The buildings don’t know we’re in a recession. A year from now the things that are wrong with the buildings will still be wrong and they’ll be worse.” The Permanent Building Fund budget request, which is the state’s capital budget, has been scaled down significantly as far as any new construction. But Mason said the fund’s advisory council still supports doing needed maintenance and repair around the state.

Plans for a new metal maintenance shop building for the Department of Corrections in Orofino have been dropped from the division’s request for next year. Also off are plans to expand the state Historical Museum. Still in the request are $2 million to add to University of Idaho efforts to repair the Kibbie Dome, which has severe life safety problems, and $4.3 million to renovate Seiter Hall at North Idaho College, an outdated classroom building. “It’s really a disaster - it needs to be fixed,” Mason told lawmakers. “It’s going to need an extensive renovation, to include the infrastructure. We believe that’s a very important and a great use of dollars.” With the economic downturn, bids and costs are lower, Mason said, and it’s a good deal for the state to address maintenance and repair costs now if it can.

‘It’s all zeroes’

Presenting the state Division of Financial Management budget request to lawmakers this morning, Administrator Wayne Hammon said, “It’s all zeroes - there’s no inflation, no replacement costs, no line items.” The division has laid off one employee, and is in the highest category for budget cuts for the coming year in the governor’s recommendation, at 10 percent. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell told Hammon, “Thank you for partnering with us through this. We’ll all come out of this stronger and wiser.”

‘It’s not $35 million’

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, says the state’s tax revenue shortfall for January is not $35 million. Preliminary figures show that the month’s revenue fell short of the expected $267 million, Hammon said, but he’s not ready to release the figure, and wouldn’t say if it’s higher or lower than the $35 million figure that’s been tossed around. “That number that was in today’s paper is incorrect,” Hammon said. Final numbers usually aren’t available until the 15th of the month. “The earliest I’ve ever seen it finalized is by the 10th,” Hammon said. In addition to the January revenue figures, lawmakers and the administration were hoping to know the latest unemployment figures this week, but the state Department of Labor sent out an advisory today saying, “The Idaho unemployment rate for January 2009 will not be released until Feb. 27 due to the benchmarking process for employment data.”

That likely means the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will have to set a budget target without having the latest unemployment data at hand.

Capitol renovation ‘on time, on budget’

As the Capitol Commission has its budget hearing this morning, Jeff Youtz, legislative services director, wrapped up the progress on the renovation of the state capitol by echoing an earlier comment from Capitol Commission acting Chairman Steve Hartgen: “Those four great words, on time, on budget,” Youtz told JFAC. “That’s where we’re headed.”

Calif. judge: Duncan should stand trial there

Joseph Duncan, whose crimes against a North Idaho family in 2005 shocked the state, should stand trial for a 1997 child abduction and murder in California, a judge there has ruled. Duncan, who faces a possible fourth death sentence, is again asking to act as his own attorney. You can read the full story here at spokesman.com.

‘It’s like having a credit card’

State Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney was questioned by lawmakers this morning about his proposal to dip into the state’s budget stabilization fund for $35 million next year to offset unfunded liability for state retiree health benefits - if his legislation doesn’t pass to kick retirees off those benefits if they’re eligible for Medicare. “From my understanding, we’re not required to pay the full amount, but kind of pay as we go,” Rep. Darrell Bolz, House Appropriations vice-chair, told Gwartney, asking why he’d propose such a big payment in such tight economic times. Gwartney responded, “It’s a little bit like having a credit card and you only pay the minimum. Is there any requirement we fund it? No, but it would be prudent to do so. … The piper has to be paid someday.”

Millions of spam emails…

The state of Idaho gets 600 million emails a year, Greg Zickau, chief technology officer for the state Department of Administration, told JFAC this morning. “Five hundred and fifty million of those are spam,” he said. And within those spam emails are threats - malware that threatens the state’s computer network. “We are actually under attack each and every day,” he told lawmakers. “While we are standing here, someone has scanned our network, looking for vulnerability.” There are about 4,000 such attacks a day, he said. That’s part of the reason Admin is looking for funding for big upgrades for computer systems statewide, he said, though he acknowledged the tight budget situation. “I know that these are tough economic times,” Zickau said. “We’re not trying to say that our needs or our initiatives are more important” than anyone else’s, he said. Among the department’s requests is nearly $3 million for the Idaho Education Network, to expand broadband service to schools across the state and more.

Awaiting the revenue news…

With lawmakers anxiously awaiting news on how state revenues fared in January, the preliminary version of the numbers - not yet final - is circulating like mad, showing a $35 million drop below projections. Final numbers should be coming soon. JFAC has been awaiting the January figures before deciding on a budget target, after the Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee set a pessimistic figure $100 million below Gov. Butch Otter’s none-too-optimistic estimate. Here’s a link to Dan Popkey’s report in the Idaho Statesman today on the consternation over the preliminary numbers.

One agency to stay with Board of Ed for now

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to trim the duties of the state Board of Education by moving a slew of agencies out from under its oversight has hit a snag: the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. The division turns out to be one of the highest-performing of its type in the nation, with stellar numbers for helping disabled Idahoans learn new skills and find jobs. Administrator Michael Graham told lawmakers Tuesday that many of the agency’s clients have become taxpayers and are “adding real value to the state. That’s part of our mission.” Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, said the rest of the reorganization plan for the State Board of Education is moving forward, but the administration will wait a year and study the situation before shifting the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation over to the state Department of Labor. “We don’t want to do any harm,” Hammon said. “If it’s doing well, great. If it can be improved, better. … When we do it, we want to do it right.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

116th could go back to Iraq

When the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team deployed to Iraq in 2004, it was the largest deployment of any Idaho unit since World War II. Now, the same unit has gotten preliminary word that it could be going back to Iraq in 2010. Maj. Gen. Larry LaFrenz passed the word to lawmakers this morning during the budget hearing on the state’s military division. Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, Idaho National Guard spokesman, said, “It’s penciled in, but it’s definitely not in any ink form yet.” A Pentagon working model that gives troops an early heads-up that they could be called showed the 2010 deployment, which would likely be for 12 months, down from the 18-month 2004-2005 deployment. The 116th includes “more than 4,000 citizen-soldiers, and about half are from Idaho,” Marsano said. The rest are mostly from Montana and Oregon.

If the unit is deployed again, it could be many of the same men and women going for a second time, Marsano said, because many have re-enlisted. That gives the unit enviable experience, he said. Overall,  LaFrenz told lawmakers that enlistments and re-enlistments are high in Idaho. Said Marsano, “For both new enlistments and re-enlistments, we are near the top of the page nationally.”

When violators are pretty obvious…

Sen. Lee Heinrich, R-Cascade, said at one time he drove a groomer on snowmobile trails, and “I encountered motor vehicles trying to drive up groomed snowmobile trails.” That’s not a violation of the law now, he said, and counties can’t cite folks for doing it. So he proposed legislation today to make it an infraction. When Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, asked him how he’d enforce it, Heinrich said, “Generally, people that do violate this end up having to be towed out.” Amid laughter, he added, “It’s pretty easy to have a sheriff’s deputy there when a perpetrator is found.” The Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously to introduce Heinrich’s bill, which would return to the panel for a full hearing.

‘We feel we still have a mission’

Kitty Kunz, executive director of the Idaho Women’s Commission, says she personally disagrees with the idea that the commission has outlived its usefulness, as suggested by Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who’s proposed legislation to eliminate it. “We feel we still have a mission, even though it has changed since the 1970s, to educate women as to the laws of the state, refer them to resources in the state.” Kunz said she believes the commission’s work still fits within the laws that established it. She’s long heard objections that Idaho has no men’s commission. “We get that argument a lot,” she said. “We are assimilated into society now as far as in the workplace, those kinds of things, but they fail to see how we are still behind on many aspects, if you look at census data.”

Kunz said her commission had been working with the governor’s office on possibly consolidating offices for several of the state’s small commissions, such as hers, the Idaho Human Rights Commission and the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. That way, they could share phone lines and receptionist duties, “so that we can cut back on costs, but still exist - because we are addressing a need within the state.” But she noted that the governor is staying out of the dispute, leaving it to lawmakers. Said Kunz, “Women are half of Idaho, and we are not represented half throughout the state in all aspects.”

He only got the six hours

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, at the close of his budget hearing before JFAC today, was asked by Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, “Do you and Gov. Otter plan on rodeoing at the same time?” Little responded with a chuckle, “He keeps telling me it was the bit on the horse, so I might have to get him a new bridle. … It was pretty good surgery, but he’s back in business. I don’t know how much he trusts me to be governor.” Little was acting governor from 2 p.m. yesterday to 8 p.m., while Otter underwent shoulder surgery, which took a bit longer than expected. Still, he got a call, right on schedule at 8, telling him that Otter was back in charge. “Everything’s fine and he’s all scheduled for rehab,” Little said.

Little told JFAC, “The surgery was a success. He’s going to be winged up for a while … He’s a pretty tough guy, and I think he’ll rehab well.”

‘Well beyond trimming fat’

Budget cuts at the Idaho State Police are hitting hard, Col. Jerry Russell, ISP chief, warned legislative budget writers this morning. “We are now well beyond trimming fat and we are cutting into the agency’s bone and muscle,” he said. Among the ISP’s successes in the past year, he said, was a 97 percent increase in contacts with the motoring public between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. “With the reduction of funding, it’s likely that those 24-hour patrols will be diminished, in some cases ceased altogether.” Cutbacks in purchasing and supplies are pushing some equipment beyond its recommended lifespan, he said. “We have a significant fleet – we need to keep it operational.”

The governor’s recommended budget for next year for ISP calls for an 8.2 percent cut in state general funds, and a 5.1 percent cut overall. However, it’s one of the few areas where the governor is calling for adding staff, with a proposal for three new positions in forensics. He’s also recommending most, though not all, of the requested funding to move the department into its newly constructed Region 1 office in Coeur d’Alene, which is expected to be completed in late June; $300,000 for conducting background checks for people with access to vulnerable adults or children in long-term care, a program that earlier was federally funded as a pilot project; and $25,000 to continue a special gang enforcement project with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Questioned by Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, about whether he’s giving up on 24-hour patrol coverage, Russell said no – it’ll just be cut back. “We have an obligation to be out there as much as we can, and some of that will be 24-hour coverage, whenever we can do that,” he said. “The motoring public deserves it.”

In Idaho, more women work, earn less

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research studied the status and well-being of women across the states in 2004, and gave Idaho poor grades – mostly D’s and F’s – for measures including social and economic autonomy, employment and earnings, reproductive rights and more. Idaho ranked dead last in the nation for the percentage of women in managerial or professional occupations, at just 24.6 percent, and the state ranked 40th for women’s earnings compared to men’s. Overall, the institute found that more of Idaho’s women work than most other states’ women, but they’re not getting good jobs or good pay. The state ranked well in one area, however: Having a state Women’s Commission, like 41 other states. Now, Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, is proposing eliminating that commission. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Bell: ‘I don’t have anything against it’

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said she’s seen lots of attempts to eliminate the Idaho Women’s Commission over the years in JFAC.  “It seemed like there were always those, especially the males on the committee, who did not see the value of funding the commission. And frankly, there are some women on there now who feel the same way.” Former Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, often objected that Idaho had no men’s commission. “I remember remarking one time, ‘Well, you have a Sheep Commission,’” Bell said. “That didn’t go over too well.” Bell, who served a term on the Women’s Commission under Gov. John Evans, said, “I guess I don’t have anything against it, to be right honest with you. But it just seems that there were so many people who really couldn’t see the value in it.”

 

In 2006, four female legislators on the joint budget committee, including Bell, revamped and trimmed back the commission’s budget, winning a rare unanimous vote for its funding that year. “That was absolutely to keep them alive,” Bell said. The changes included cutting the commission’s director to one-sixteenth time, and targeting most of the budget into services, such as the book on Idaho family law that the commission produces and distributes every other year. Since then, the director has inched back up to one-third time, while the budget has dropped by $10,000.

 

Little is acting Guv

New Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who just was appointed to the office three weeks ago on Jan. 6, is now acting governor - at least for six hours. With Gov. Butch Otter going in for shoulder surgery this afternoon at 2, Little was assigned to fill in as chief executive from 2 to 8 p.m. today, according to the governor’s office.

Guv goes in for shoulder surgery

Gov. Butch Otter went in for shoulder surgery today, after a recent team roping accident, according to the email message below that went out today to state agency heads. Click here to read a letter from First Lady Lori Otter about what happened, which says in part, “The Governor zigged and his horse zagged; he caught the steer, but his shoulder didn’t fare well!” Otter missed a crucial month of last year’s legislative session when he unexpectedly went in for hip surgery; while he was gone, legislators stalled much of his agenda. Here’s the email from Otter’s chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck:

From: Jason Kreizenbeck
Sent: Monday, February 02, 2009 1:06 PM

Subject: Important Message

Honorable Constitutional Officers and Members of the Cabinet –

Attached to this note is an important letter from First Lady Lori Otter regarding the Governor.  Late last week, the Governor learned that he would need to go in for rotator cuff surgery to repair his shoulder following a recent team roping incident.  He will be having the surgery this afternoon, but should be home this evening.

We will be clearing the Governor’s calendar for the remainder of this week, but hope to ease him back into the office next week—which will probably be a welcome reprieve from his physical therapy.

The Governor thanks you all for your work and dedication.  Keep up the good work!

Thank you and let me know if you have any questions.
 

Jason B. Kreizenbeck

Chief of Staff

Office of Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter

‘We can ship some to California’

Senate Resources Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, a fur trader, brought a large wolf pelt to the committee hearing today and had it hung prominently on the wall as the committee prepared to hear a briefing on wolves and consider a wolf-transfer bill that Schroeder’s proposed. “It’s called a prop,” Schroeder explained. “I put it in my truck and I brought it down.” Schroeder told the panel that the pelt is from a Canadian wolf. “These things can take down big animals,” he said.

Schroeder said his bill, SB 1015, would declare that Idaho has a surplus of wolves. Within 30 days of passage of the bill, “Idaho Fish and Game will contact all of their agency counterparts in all the other states and ask if they want some wolves,” Schroeder said. Then, if no other state wants them, he said, Idaho could take steps toward killing surplus wolves. “They have a very serious impact on our big game herds,” Schroeder said. “If somebody wants them, we have surplus animals, we can ship some to California or New York or whoever wants them,” he said. If Idaho’s turned down by the other states, he said, “Then we need to kill some because nobody wants ‘em, and we can effectively say we offered them out and nobody wants them. … That’s all it is is strategy. It’s a strategy bill.” The bill won the committee’s unanimous support on a voice vote, and now moves to the full Senate.

Senate votes to repeal naturopath law

The Senate has voted 27-6 in favor of SB 1014, to repeal the 2005 law that set up a state licensing system for naturopaths. It’s never gone into effect, because warring groups of naturopaths have disagreed on the necessary qualifications, meaning rules to implement the law never have passed. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “This, in my opinion, is the way to allow them a fresh start.” Broadsword said the groups are talking now, and she’s hopeful they can work together over the summer and propose new licensing legislation next year. The bill now moves to the House.

Otter releases statement on Womens Commission

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, just released this statement about the governor’s work to eliminate or consolidate state commissions, including the Women’s Commission:

“We have been studying the idea of consolidating the administration of a number of commissions – including the Women’s Commission – as a way to save money. We have been working with Senator Broadsword and others on that effort. However, we will support whatever the Legislature decides to do as it works toward our shared goal of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of state government.”

IACI wants tax break for railroads, power lines

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: “Power lines and railroads could be eligible for a tax break passed last year by the Idaho Legislature to allow companies to exempt the first $100,000 of their business equipment from taxes, under a bill being considered by House Revenue and Tax Committee. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry told lawmakers on the panel Tuesday that it wants to make so-called “operating property” eligible for tax cuts. Currently, operating property doesn’t qualify. Alex LaBeau, IACI’s top lobbyist, said this proposal fits with his group’s aim of eventually eliminating the personal property tax completely.”

Broadsword: Eliminate Women’s Commission

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, has introduced legislation to eliminate the Idaho Women’s Commission, a state agency whose existence long has been controversial. “Thirty-nine years ago they were set out to get women to be more involved in social, political and economic areas of their communities,” Broadsword said, “and I think they’ve been very successful. Women are involved in everything these days. … I feel the commission has served its purpose, and it’s not something that needs to be funded by state dollars any longer, especially in this time of economic downturn.”

Broadsword presented her bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning, along with another to eliminate a never-funded state advisory committee on youth education. That group, enacted by law in 1992, was supposed to run radio and TV ads against drug and alcohol abuse among youth. Broadsword said it was never funded, and other groups are doing that now. The panel agreed to introduce both bills, but the two Democrats on the committee voted against the bill to eliminate the Women’s Commission, and Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, called it a “Draconian measure.” But Broadsword said she’s had support from other lawmakers from both parties for the move. The Women’s Commission may do valuable things, she said, but if so, they don’t match what it was originally set up in law to do, and its statue may need to be “revamped.” Broadsword said, “Folks in my area didn’t even know there was one.”

The legislation establishing the commission was line-item vetoed by Gov. Don Samuelson in 1970, Broadsword said, but it eventually came into being because “there was a need at that time. Times have changed.” She added, “It’s a new day - this isn’t the 1970s any more. Women are, they’ve entered the 21st century and they’re a contributing partner if not a driving force in all areas of life.” Both of Broadsword’s bills, she said, are part of work she’s been doing with Gov. Butch Otter’s staff to look at state boards or commissions that have become obsolete and should be eliminated. The governor has found “eight or 10” that were established by executive order and he can just eliminate on his own, she said, including the science and technology advisory council, the manufactured home park advisory council (“They’ve submitted their report,” Broadsword said), the roadless rule task force (“It’s served its purpose”), the Governor’s Council on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (“they’re already inactive”), and several that have been rolled into other groups, including the Idaho Council on Children’s Mental Health and the Suicide Prevention Council.

Broadsword said, “I think we need to find every penny we can. We’re cutting programs that have long-term consequences, and funding things that are not necessary for the state as a whole is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” 

Prisons shooting for ‘no growth’

The biggest news from Idaho’s state prison system is the fall-off in inmate growth, which lawmakers heard about earlier in the session when they discussed funding for the state’s substance abuse services. To meet proposed budget cuts next year, Corrections Director Brent Reinke said, “Instead of traditional cuts of 100 to 150 layoffs, we committed to a ‘no-growth’ initiative.” That means moving inmates into the right beds at the right times, including lower-cost beds; closely monitoring treatment so inmates who are eligible for parole can be ready to qualify for it; and more work with parole violators to hand out appropriate punishments rather than send all of them immediately back to prison. Public safety will remain the top goal, Reinke said. “The violent offender who can’t toe the line is back to prison.” Among the efforts to move inmates into lower-cost beds is bringing inmates back from out of state. “Every inmate returned from out of state saves $20 per day,” he said. He’s now estimating that all Idaho inmates will be returned from out-of-state prison placements by next fall.

Under questioning from lawmakers, Reinke acknowledged that there are still inmates who are eligible for parole but can’t be released because they haven’t gotten required treatment programs. He said that’s being reduced, however, “Things have gotten much, much better.”  

Lots of savings, furlough was difficult

Corrections Director Brent Reinke said Idaho’s prison system saved the state $4.5 million in the holdbacks earlier this year. “That’s a significant cut for this agency,” he said. “We’re hoping that we have no unanticipated maintenance expenses occur.” Among the various cuts, which included terminating most of the department’s temporary workers and suspending purchases of equipment, was a one-day furlough for all department employees. “The furlough was tough on staff - it hit at Thanksgiving,” Reinke told lawmakers. “Many staff asked that if there were further furloughs, they be spread over two or three pay periods, so they could continue to make their mortgage payments and pay their bills.”

Concerns over possible Orofino prison privatization

If Idaho were to privatize its state prison at Orofino, it’d go from 37 percent privately operated beds to 43 percent, state Corrections Director Brent Reinke told JFAC. The department has sent out a “request for information” to see if such a move could save money, he said. “This is not a bid,” Reinke said. “We’re doing research to see if there might be any cost savings.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she’s not the only one who’s been hearing from people in Moscow concerned about the impact on jobs and the community if the state were to privatize the Orofino state prison, a major local employer. Reinke said he just met with the Orofino mayor, and everything will be examined. Ringo asked, “On the request for information, do you take into account the costs to the community which may not show up in the corrections budget?” Reinke said, “We will do the best we can.”

One inmate slept through prison riot

Lawmakers learned new details this morning about the prison riot on Jan. 2nd in which inmates wrecked a new temporary housing unit that had been set up to allow out-of-state inmates to be brought back to Idaho. There were 199 inmates in the unit at the time. Four were injured. The officer who was in the control room at the time used a shovel to break a window and get away from the rioting prisoners, prison officials told JFAC this morning during their budget hearing. Once the inmates entered the control room, they burned the videotape of the disturbance. “At the end of the event, we had one inmate missing,” state Corrections Director Brent Reinke told the joint budget committee. After a search of the unit, he was found: “He was sound asleep on his bunk.” The inmate had put a pillow and blanket over his head and ignored the fuss.

The temporary unit will reopen in March, Reinke said, with “a different type of inmate.”

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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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