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Fri., Feb. 27, 2009, 1:58 p.m.

‘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.

Idaho lawmakers hit stimulus doldrums
Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — If there's one thing the stimulus package isn't stimulating in the Idaho Legislature, it's committee hearings.

House lawmakers didn't hold a single hearing on a bill Friday, outside of discussion among budget writers about the effects of the $787 billion federal stimulus package on Idaho's budget. The halls of the Capitol Annex, the Legislature's temporary home until next year, were nearly deserted by noon.

In the Senate, there was just one morning State Affairs Committee hearing.

Lawmakers agree that the lingering uncertainty over state tax revenue — new numbers are due out next week, and they aren't expected to be rosy — coupled with confusion over how the federal stimulus money will plug state budget holes has led to stagnation in a session that already was in the grips of a bill drought not seen since the economic downturn of the mid-1980s.

"This is really unusual," said Mike Nugent, a 31-year state veteran and head of the branch of Legislative Services that writes up bills.

"The stimulus package has created a pause in the budget process, until we figure out the best way to approach it," said Jeff Youtz, who after 32 years at the state heads up Legislative Services. Youtz said he's rarely, if ever, seen a February day in the Statehouse when the House didn't at least consider a couple of bills.

Through the session's seventh week, only 608 new pieces of legislation have been drafted, below the average of 787 since 2004 and just two-thirds of the 931 bills introduced in 2006. Only 330 bills have actually been introduced, between 73 and 181 fewer than in each of the last five years.

Lawmakers continue to collect their $16,116 annual salary, plus expenses for housing and travel during the session. After the House assembled for 10 minutes Friday, long enough for a prayer, its members adjourned. The Senate voted on three bills and amended three others.

A cowboy hat-clad Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, was headed for the exits before 11 a.m. He'll still be working while he takes a break at his home in northern Idaho, Harwood said, estimating he'll field five or six phone calls from constituents who want to weigh in on one of the relatively few issues before lawmakers.

"It's about normal" for a Friday, Harwood said, of his departure. "We try to get out as early as we can. But we are busy. I'm here at 6:30 every morning, all week long. Last night was the first night I've gotten out of here before 7:30. People don't realize the kind of time we put in."

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, minority leaders in the House and Senate, respectively, said lawmakers came to the 2009 session with fewer proposals — especially ones that would cost money — on the expectation that money would be tight.

It's only gotten tighter — hundreds of millions have been cut from the budget — and final tax revenue estimates for the fiscal year ending June 30 remain up in the air. Moreover, Monday's news that Micron Technology Inc., once the state's largest private employer, will cut 2,000 jobs by August has thrown already morose projections for next year into disarray.

The 1,100-page stimulus package passed last week, while a potential cash boost, has complicated things further.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee spent the week discussing its potential, but still largely unknown, effect on state spending, but Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter could take as long as 45 days to recommend how to use a portion of Idaho's $1 billion share, after receiving proposals from state agencies, then advice from an eight-person team of advisers.

"It feels like we're starting all over again, from a budgeting standpoint," Kelly said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, is still expecting an early April adjournment, despite what he concedes is a stimulus-related lull.

Early talk of a mid-session recess has been silenced, he said, due to chaos it could create for lawmakers and because the state must continue to pay a per-diem rate — out-of-towners generally get $122 per day, while locals get $49 — until legislators leave town for good.

"What ultimately will happen is, we'll push forward," Geddes said.

Others, including the lobbyists who frequent the old Ada County Courthouse in Boise where meetings are held, have also noticed the sluggish pace. Of course, some have discovered an antidote for the doldrums: Games on their personnel communication devices.

Some click away during hearings they find repetitive. Ken McClure, a lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch, played "Brickbreaker" on his Blackberry during much of the debate earlier this week over a failed proposal to raise the beer and wine tax his employer hired him to help defeat.

"It beats counting the holes in the ceiling tiles," McClure said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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Eye On Boise

News, happenings and more from the Idaho Legislature and the state capital.