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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2009

The week that was…

Click here to take a look at the third week of the Idaho Legislature in photos, now that it’s wound down and most lawmakers have hit the road back to their districts for the weekend. Tonight on Idaho Reports, which airs at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television, JFAC Co-Chairs Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell are interviewed by host Thanh Tan, and then I join BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, Idaho State Board of Education Executive Director Mike Rush, former state Rep. Margaret Henbest and Thanh to talk about the events of the week. Tune in, or click here to watch the show later online, along with the online-only “After the Show” discussion.

More than 300 pack Little fundraiser

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who spoke out on statewide TV last week about how campaign fundraising during the legislative session is frowned upon and “generally” just doesn’t happen, drew well over 300 people today to his campaign fundraiser, a lunch at the Rose Room that was sponsored by an array of lobbyists with business pending before the Legislature. Little told AP reporter John Miller this week that he was “guilty as charged” of doing just what he’d said wasn’t done, and that he just hadn’t thought about it. But he went ahead with the lunch. Campaign spokesman Jason Lehosit wouldn’t allow Eye on Boise to go in or take a photo, saying it was a “private event,” but it was clear from the doorway that the room was filled to capacity, with many standing. Lehosit said attendance was “well over 300.”

It’s final - no raises for lawmakers

The Senate has voted unanimously, 33-0, to pass HCR 6, the resolution to reject the scheduled 5 percent raises and mileage reimbursement boosts for state lawmakers this year. The resolution earlier passed the House unanimously; the Senate’s vote today was the final action, and the resolution now takes effect. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, said when the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation met in June to make its recommendation, “Our economy and the resources of the state looked considerably different than they do today.” Geddes said by foregoing the raise, lawmakers will save the state $180,000, money that can go to better use in the state’s current budget crunch. The resolution is a “sacrifice” for senators, Geddes said, but, “I think it’s the right thing for us to do.”

Lawmakers actually have already been getting the raise and the mileage reimbursement boosts since Dec. 1. But Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz said now that HCR 6 has passed, their pay and reimbursement rates will drop back to what they were before the boost. “As soon as it passes the Senate, then they go back to their old rates,” he said.

‘Been through tough years, but nothing like this…’

“We are about halfway through our hearing process, but we’ve gone through about 75 to 80 percent of the money, as far as what we’ve discussed,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee at the close of its hearings today. “The hearings stop Feb. 18th. We begin setting budgets on Feb. 23rd. We will be finished by March 13th.” Next week, he said, lawmakers anticipate getting the state’s revenue figures for January. “We anticipate working with our staff and DFM and the governor in determining a number we will budget to. That’s going to be a difficult judgment call, because it’s a moving target. Things may worsen before they get better.”

Cameron added, “The pressure is going to continue to mount. A few of us have been through some tough years, but nothing quite like this. … We’re going to all work together to get through this. … I think everybody in here recognizes the difficulties we’re going to face.”

No funds for Idaho to get its own fire simulator

Inside a live fire training simulator, which is the size of a semi-truck trailer but taller, it’s smokey, it’s slick, it’s dark and it’s ominous. It’s also a crucial training tool for firefighters. A model of a couch smokes and catches fire; so does a stove. Stairways, doorways,  and corners offer training opportunities that mimic the real conditions in a house fire.

Currently, Idaho volunteers are making use of a borrowed simulator from Wendover, Nev., which has been parked outside the Capitol Annex for the past two days as volunteer firefighters from around the state use it for training - and show state lawmakers how they do it. The state Division of Professional-Technical Education, which provides resources for the training of emergency personnel across the state, requested that Idaho get one of its own next year. “The National Fire Protection Association standard for firefighter qualification was updated in 2002 and now requires the ability to provide live-fire training and testing,” the division wrote in a budget request. “This line item would provide one-time funds for the purchase of a mobile live-fire training and testing unit.”

The cost: $708,000 in one-time funds to purchase the unit next year. It would also cost an estimated $264,700 in ongoing funds the following year for operating costs, including fuel, maintenance, supplies and instructional costs. In the current budget climate, the governor’s response isn’t surprising: He recommended zero funding for the item. Meanwhile, North Idaho volunteer firefighters are excited that the Wendover unit will be coming up to Worley in September, giving them a chance at the live-fire training.

Where there’s smoke…

Volunteer firefighters from throughout the state are out in front of the Capitol Annex today, for two days of live fire training (starting yesterday), using a fire simulator trailer borrowed from Wendover, Nev., and a chance to tell lawmakers their story. Greg Redden, executive director of the Idaho Volunteer Fire & Emergency Services Association, said there are 5,200 volunteer firefighters and emergency responders across the state, and more are needed. The number of volunteers has dropped over the past 20 years, but communities are relying on them more than ever. Tala Meagher, a volunteer firefighter from St. Maries, said, “We just had a house fire - we had to get mutual aid from Plummer and Fernwood. We didn’t have enough bodies, because we’re all-volunteer.” The only non-volunteer in her department is the chief.

Volunteer firefighters are backing two proposed pieces of legislation this year. One would allow long-serving volunteers to qualify for some limited retirement benefits through PERSI, if their departments choose to contribute toward the fund. The other would enact a $100,000 line-of-duty death benefit, comparable to those for career firefighters or police officers. The association said an average of one volunteer emergency responder every three years dies on the line of duty in Idaho.

Libraries are ‘being rediscovered’

“Library services and programs are being rediscovered,” Idaho Commission for Libraries Director Ann Joslin told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, citing “increased library use in the current economic downturn.” She said, “In fact, this is a spike in the existing 10-year growth of library use. We see library use increasing because Idahoans are finding the programs and services they need in print, in person and online, often with knock-your-socks-off service. … Idaho libraries are more relevant than ever to individuals, to communities and to our state.” Nevertheless, the governor has recommended a 10.3 percent cut in the commission’s budget next year; that’s a cut of $381,200.

Juggling cuts at Historical Society

Idaho Historical Society head Janet Gallimore told lawmakers this morning that despite the governor’s rejection of the agency’s request to hire additional staff for fundraising, the agency felt it was so “vital” that it reorganized and reshuffled its staff to allow the appointment of a development director. “Through an agency reorganization … we accomplished this enhancement internally,” she told JFAC. The Historical Society now gets 47 percent of its funds from sources other than the state general fund, she said. Though expansion of the state historical museum has been put on hold due to the economic downturn, fundraising for that project from non-state sources will continue, she said.

Also during the Historical Society budget hearing, former Idaho Lt. Gov. David Leroy, chairman of the Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, reminded lawmakers, “Thirteen days from today on Feb. 12th, the actual 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, we will rededicate our Lincoln monument. … I hope that you all can attend and be part of history.” The monument will go in at a new, higher-profile location just south of the state Capitol.

Program successful, being trimmed anyway

The numbers of students enrolling in post-secondary professional-technical education programs is up, right along with the economy going down, state PTE Administrator Ann Stephens told JFAC this morning. And, she said, “PTE programs are successful. Ninety-six percent of students who completed a PTE post-secondary program found jobs or continued their education.” Nevertheless, the governor’s recommended budget for PTE next year calls for a 6 percent cut in state general funds. A small portion of the drop comes because two programs, veterans education and oversight of proprietary schools, are being transferred to other departments, the vets program to the Division of Veterans Services and the proprietary schools oversight to the state Board of Education. But most is real budget cuts, which will mean reductions in everything from adjunct faculty to teach professional-technical classes, to curriculum development, to adult basic education outreach in rural areas.

Stephens said the division is thankful it was spared from deeper cuts, as it’s maintaining exactly enough funding to match $7.3 million in federal PTE grants that it doesn’t want to lose. “If we take one dollar more of a cut, the state will have to pay back $7.3 million dollars,” she said. Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Stephens, “As you walk through what the budget reductions mean, it’s painful, but we do know that we will survive and we’ll get through it and somehow rebound down the road.”

‘We’ve got to stay strong’

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on the school budget cuts proposed Thursday by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. Lawmakers were mostly receptive to Luna’s proposals; even local school officials said they don’t see any way to avoid some cuts. “I don’t know if I agree with all of them until I dig in and see what the ramifications are, but I know they’re necessary,” said Hazel Bauman, superintendent of the Coeur d’Alene School District. “It’s just a tough time for everybody. We’ve got to stay strong and stay united.”

‘Panic-Stricken Brainy Chickens’

Eight fifth-graders from Post Falls are taking the state Legislature by storm today, making presentations to the education committees in both houses, greeting state Supt. Tom Luna after his budget pitch, and generally livening up the Capitol Annex in their white lab coats and laboratory goggles decorated with colorful pipe-cleaner swirls. The kids are a robotics team that started as an after-school club at Ponderosa Elementary School, under the sponsorship of the North Idaho Discovery Association. A Post Falls engineering firm, LCF Enterprises, sponsors the association and the teams in an effort to enhance math and science education in North Idaho schools.

Karlicia Berry, coach for the self-named “Panic-Stricken Brainy Chickens” team, said, “It’s really growing. We grew from eight students two years ago to 500, and from one team to 53 in the last 18 months.” The robotics teams, which run from elementary to high school ages, compete in regional tournaments in events such as robot design and team problem-solving. Last year, the Chickens won top honors for their research project on how much energy was being eaten up by school computers that were left on 24/7. Their findings: The school district could save $120,000 a year by turning off its 1,600 computers nights and weekends. The kids shared their findings through a skit and a DVD.

‘Not a speech I ever wanted to make’

At a press conference after his budget hearing, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, asked how he thought his proposed public school cuts were received by lawmakers this morning, said, “I think they were as somber, I think, as I am. I didn’t enjoy putting this budget together, I didn’t enjoy writing the speech. It’s not a speech I ever wanted to make. I think that JFAC is in a position they never wanted to be in when they ran for the offices and wanted to serve the state of Idaho. But we are elected and expected to do certain things, and that includes making tough decisions. And so I was pleased with their response. I thought their questions were right on, we even came up with a couple of ideas…. I think they all realize that we’re in this together.”
 
Luna also said, “I’m not happy to be in this predicament. … I feel the weight of this responsibility I have as state superintendent today more than I have ever felt it before. The decisions we are making are going to have the potential to have a long-term effect on the children of Idaho.” Here’s his message to the parents of Idaho schoolchildren: “What I would tell parents is continue to read with your children every night, spend time doing homework with them, volunteer in your schools if you have the time. It’ll be that combined effort that will assure that even with less money and less resources, we’ll continue to keep students moving forward in their academic pursuits.”

Luna: Students only get one chance…

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told state schools Supt. Tom Luna he’s got a “nagging feeling” that Idaho’s state tax revenues still will fall further this year. “The $80 million hole may actually be a $130 million hole,” he said. “My gut tells me that things are worse. … If they are, then what? There’s only so many of these things we can do without affecting the education of our children.” Luna, who has been calling his proposed cuts a list of “bad ideas” because he’d rather not cut at all, responded, “I have not come up yet with a list of terrible ideas - just bad ideas. There is a point where if we cut education too far, that it will have a severe impact on student achievement.” Earlier, in his budget message to lawmakers, Luna said, “We must work to keep student achievement moving forward despite these challenges, because our students only get one chance at an education.”  

About that federal stimulus money…

Wayne Hammon, budget chief for Gov. Butch Otter, said the Otter Administration is closely watching the federal stimulus legislation. “We’ve been following it very closely, and there’s a lot of education money in both versions of the bill,” he said. Otter and Luna have been in close contact, Hammon said, to try to make sure proposed cuts for schools are structured in such a way that they could be reversed if sufficient stimulus money shows up from the federal government. The proposed cut in teacher salary funding equivalent to three contract days, for example, is much more easily reversed than layoffs. “If the money comes, those three days are easily reinstated,” Hammon said. “You had to build it in a way that you don’t count on the stimulus money, but you can accommodate it if it comes.”

Other states are worse off

State schools Supt. Tom Luna noted that other states are looking at far more drastic cuts in public education. Florida is looking at a 16 percent cut, he said. Oregon closed an elementary school and furloughed all the teachers, and is cutting P.E. and music classes. Arizona is looking at a 19 percent cut for the coming year. “I think we’re in a much better spot,” he said, in part because lawmakers created the public school stabilization fund, a reserve fund that was tapped this year to protect schools from the 4 percent holdbacks that hit the rest of state government.

Lawmakers question Luna on cuts

JFAC members are now asking Supt. Tom Luna questions about his proposed cuts for the public school budget. The first came from JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who wondered if Luna has worked with the House and Senate education committees on changes in state law that would be required to implement some of his cuts. He answered yes, and said most of the cuts would require legislative changes. “I’m grateful for that, because that’s the way things should be done,” Bell responded. Changes in state law require full public hearings in committees.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, commended Luna for focusing on preserving the time that teachers spend with students. In nearly 20 years as an elementary school principal, Hammond said, he concluded, “The thing that I would need more than anything else is the people that are working for me. I could live without new textbooks for a year, I could live without the computer purchases.” He said it’d also be preferable for workers to take a pay cut than have layoffs. Luna said his proposal for cuts in state funding for pay for teachers and school administrators, implemented as school districts see fit, allows for that.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I’m one that thinks we’re not out of the woods yet in this fiscal year.” She asked if Luna had looked into what would happen if Idaho needed to drain its public school stabilization fund just to get through the rest of this year; he’s proposing using $17 million from the fund next year, plus keeping at least 3 percent of the school budget on reserve in the fund. Luna said his crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s. “I think those are decisions we’ll have to look at and weigh once we have more information,” he said.

‘No easy decisions’

Supt. Tom Luna said he hopes the cuts he’s outlined won’t all be necessary. “I hope during the coming weeks we can work together to find ways to reduce the cuts I’ve laid out.” He said, “No one will agree with these ideas.” But, he said, “This is a budget that will accomplish our goal - to reduce the public school budget in 2010 without harming student achievement.” He added, “In times like these there are no easy decisions.”

Responded JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell,  “We don’t like this either.” After a 15-minute recess, Luna will take questions from lawmakers on the budget committee.

The proposed cuts

Here are Supt. Tom Luna’s proposed budget cuts for public schools:
1 - $20.8 million - Reduce discretionary funds to school districts by the amount of lottery payments and state maintenance matching funds, temporarily relieve state from match requirement for two years, and allow discretionary use of the funds.
2 - $2.5 million - Cut funding for field trips, bus driver training, repair trips and test-driving.
3 - $1.7 million - Reduce transportation funding for high-density school districts and charter schools.
4 - $3.9 million - Cut funding for administrators, through reducing administration staff allowance. Would eliminate 35 to 40 administrators, likely by attrition.
5 - $4 million - Eliminate early retirement incentive for teachers.
6 - $6.1 million - Freeze experience movement on the teacher pay grid for one year.
7 - $15 million - Reduce base salaries for teachers by equivalent of three contract days. Districts would have options on how to implement, including cuts by attrition, furloughs, pay cuts, eliminating in-service days or combining half-days into full days; student class hours wouldn’t be cut.
8 - $3.3 million - Eliminate requirement for districts to match textbook funds while reducing discretionary funding by the same amount.
9 - $3.8 million - Cut state funding for textbooks by 40 percent.
10 - $781,000 - Reduce classroom supply funding from $350 per teacher to $300.
The cuts total $62 million. He’s also proposing taking $17 million from the Public Education Stabilization Fund, for total savings of $79 million.

Luna: ‘I do not want to cut education’

“Let me make it clear - I do not want to cut education funding,” state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told JFAC this morning. “I didn’t run for this office to cut funding on public education.” Nevertheless, he said, “As superintendent, I will outline prudent and responsible reductions.” Luna said, “Last night we burned the midnight oil at the department,” and at one point, sent out for Chinese food. He displayed a fortune from a fortune cookie. It said, “You shouldn’t overspend at this moment - frugality is important.” Asked by JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, if he ate the whole cookie, Luna, after a moment, said to laughter that he saved part of it for later.

Shows how quickly it changed…

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee started things off by reviewing the budget. “The public schools request was a 5.4 percent increase, and the governor’s recommendation is a 5.3 percent decrease, so that really indicates how fast the financial situation has changed,” Headlee told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. He also noted that to his knowledge, it’s the first time Idaho’s ever considered setting a lower budget for schools than the schools received this year. He also reviewed what other states are doing; New York, for example, is looking at cuts of from 3 to 13 percent. Some states are looking at eliminating summer school, textbook purchases, shortening the school year, and using reserve funds.

Budget hearing on public schools today

This morning is the budget hearing on public schools - the single largest piece of the state budget, and the area where controversial, unprecedented cuts are proposed next year. Gov. Butch Otter, in his budget proposal, called for cutting about $75 million, 5.34 percent, but left the specific cuts up to state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. This morning, Luna will present his recommendations to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The cramped committee room is full to capacity; the meeting also is being broadcast online here; click on “one stream” under “JFAC.”

Digital conversion still up in the air

Idaho Public Television was braced for extra costs of $9,000 a month if federal authorities delayed the digital TV changeover, and no source for the funds - and then the U.S. House voted Wednesday to reject the delay. “I suspect it is not the final word,” Peter Morrill, IPTV general manager, said Wednesday afternoon. “Today’s vote certainly is an interesting turn of events.”

Morrill presented the IPTV budget request to lawmakers Wednesday morning - it anticipates a reduction in state funding - and one of the first questions was how much it would cost IPTV if the planned Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital broadcasting was delayed. Morrill said the $9,000-a-month cost assumes “nothing breaks” in the 15-year-old equipment that would keep running for an unplanned additional four months. But it also assumes the Federal Communications Commission would require analog broadcasts to continue 24 hours a day, at full power. If the FCC allowed reductions, in hours or power levels, the cost could drop, he said. “The Feb. 17 date was established by Congress in 2005,” Morrill said. “Idaho Public Television is ready, local TV stations are all ready.”

Lawmakers side with miners, Realtors on water quality rules

A rule favored by the mining industry to allow groundwater pollution to remain after mining activity has won the approval of both the House Environment Committee and the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, while a rule opposed by Realtors that would have stiffened septic system regulations in an effort to protect against fecal contamination of groundwater, lakes or streams was rejected by both panels, on divided votes. The septic rule is the one that prompted an ethics outcry, after Realtors lobbyist John Eaton withdrew a campaign contribution from a DEQ board member and legislative candidate who backed the rule in a board vote. You can click below to read an article on the committees’ action by AP reporter Sarah Wire, and click here to read Dan Popkey’s report at idahostatesman.com.

Kindergarten bill dumped in Ways & Means

Rep. Steven Thayn’s bill to pay Idaho parents for not sending their children to public kindergarten, HB 25, has been dumped unceremoniously into the House Ways & Means Committee, where it’s unlikely to get a hearing. House Speaker Lawerence Denney said he made the move for “just the same reason as the rest of ‘em - if it’s a good idea, he can get it printed in a germane committee.” Denney earlier assigned Rep. Branden Durst’s local-option tax bill and Reps. George Eskridge and Eric Anderson’s property tax value limitation bill to the same fate; today, he sent two more personal bills to the leadership committee, which rarely meets.

Interestingly, Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief says the hurdles to introduction of bills in the Idaho Legislature are pretty much unique to Idaho; in most states, any legislator can easily introduce a bill. “No other state legislature operates in quite this manner, and only Connecticut does anything at all like it,” Moncrief wrote this week in a blog post. “It means committees in Idaho are given extraordinary power.  The advantage is that the committees are able to get rid of some proposals that probably weren’t going to pass anyway.  In a legislature that averages almost 700 bill introductions but only about 80 days in session a year, that’s probably a good thing; it keeps the legislature from wasting time on legislation that is dead-on-arrival.  The downside of this system is that some issues just don’t get heard.”

Moncrief said a few years ago, he tracked the percentage of bills in the Idaho Legislature that passed. Fifty to 60 percent of regular bills passed, but only 5 to 10 percent of personal bills.

A somber and quiet hearing

Three hours into a second day of hearings, the House Health & Welfare Committee is still hearing difficult and wrenching stories about the impact on disabled kids and others when their treatment is reduced or cut off. This as the panel has before it rules to implement budget cuts that do just that, trim treatment hours for disabled children and adults and for the mentally ill. It’s a somber and quiet hearing.

Senate Dems elect new leadership

The Senate Democratic Caucus met today and elected Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, as minority leader, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, as assistant minority leader and Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, as minority caucus chair. Kelly had been serving as acting minority leader while Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, was out for treatment for brain surgery. He recently announced that he won’t be back this session; former Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson is substituting for him. “When Clint returns, we will revisit the issue,” Kelly said. “We wish Clint was here, and we want him to be our minority leader. When Clint comes back, we want to embrace him again as our minority leader.” She added, “It was not an easy decision. He’s been minority leader for 11 years.” Caucus members hope Stennett can return as soon as possible, Kelly said. “But meanwhile, we needed a team in place - that’s what the caucus decided.”

Little holding type of fundraiser he criticized

New Lt. Gov. Brad Little said last week on statewide TV that state legislators don’t typically collect campaign donations during the legislative session, a practice some lawmakers are discussing banning, as many states do. He said such fundraising is frowned upon. But now Little himself has a big campaign fundraiser scheduled this Friday, sponsored by dozens of lobbyists with issues pending before the 2009 Idaho Legislature. A former state senator, Little now holds the tie-breaking vote in the Senate where he presides as lieutenant governor.  Asked about the issue, Little told AP reporter John Miller, “Guilty as charged,” adding, “It may appear a little disingenuous, but I never even thought about it.” Click below to read Miller’s full report.

State Board office budget facing two-thirds cut

Under the reorganization plan being pushed by Gov. Butch Otter and endorsed this week by the state Board of Education, various duties the board has had will be siphoned off to an array of other agencies, freeing the board to focus on policy. Among the changes: The state Historical Society and Commission for Libraries, both of which already have their own boards, will become self-governing agencies; responsibility for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation will move to the Department of Labor; and student testing and the responsibility for the “Gear Up” federal grant will move to the state Department of Education. Two bills to implement parts of those reforms, regarding the Historical Society and the Commission for Libraries, cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning on unanimous votes; others are in the works. Overall, when the dust settles, the Office of the State Board of Education would go from an original budget this year of $5.1 million in general funds and $14 million total, to just $2.4 million in general funds next year, and $4.2 million total. That’s more than a two-thirds cut in the total-funds budget.

NIC figures its two line items are off

North Idaho College, which had its budget hearing before JFAC this morning, had been hoping for $605,100 next year to start up a much-needed dental hygienist program in partnership with a local free clinic, and $334,500 for the first year of a two-year campus technology upgrade to get its classrooms up to minimum technology standards. But Gov. Butch Otter didn’t recommend funding for either item in his proposed budget for next year; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. John Martin, vice president for community relations, told legislative budget writers, “In a normal year, we would come down here with a fancy brochure telling you” all the things NIC needs. But not this year, he said. “We are not going to insult this committee by telling you you have to do things you can’t do. We don’t have a list of must-haves.” Instead, he said the college pledges to do the best it can with what it has. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, asked him, “Does NIC have a Plan B on how to finance those critical programs?” Martin said the college is looking into grants and donors. A former member of Sen. Larry Craig’s staff who recently was appointed to his position at NIC, Martin said, “We’re also going to wade into the waters of federal appropriations once again, to see if that can be done.”

Martin was filling in for college President Priscilla Bell, who is recovering from surgery.  Overall, NIC receives about $11.5 million a year in state general funds, but the college also has two other major funding sources: $11.7 million from local property taxes and $9 million from tuition and fees. The other funding sources moderated the impact of state budget cuts, Martin said. The 4 percent holdback was, in total, about a 1.28 percent in NIC’s academic instructional programs, he said. Next year’s proposed 7 percent budget cut will equal out to a total reduction of 2.25 percent of the college’s total funds. Nevertheless, he said, the college is in the midst of trimming costs and conducting a zero-based budgeting process. “Capital equipment purchases or maintenance projects are going to be delayed or canceled,” he told lawmakers. “Reductions in personnel costs are probably going to be necessary.” Already, the college has eliminated two full-time positions that were vacant, and 14 part-time positions, he said.

Senate committee: No legislative raises

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously, with no dissent and no discussion, to endorse HCR 6, the measure that earlier unanimously passed the House to reject any raises for lawmakers this year. “This is not something that I relish doing, although I think it’s very important that we strongly consider HCR 6,” Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes told the panel, which is dominated by leadership. “We will remain at the same level that we were at for the last two years.” There had been some talk that senators wanted to preserve mileage changes recommended by a citizen committee while rejecting the proposed 5 percent pay raises, but the measure just dumps the whole package. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis made the motion to send it to the full Senate with a do-pass recommendation, and acting Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly seconded the motion.

Naturopath repeal clears committee

The Senate Health & Welfare Committee has voted unanimously to repeal Idaho’s naturopath licensing law, which has gotten bogged down in conflict between two competing groups of naturopaths who differed on suitable qualifications. The licensing law lets licensed naturopaths write prescriptions and perform minor surgery. But the fight over rules to implement it has become a battle that Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said amounted to differing attempts to change the legislation. Broadsword sponsored the repeal bill, which drew no opposition at today’s committee hearing, according to the Associated Press. Ken McClure, lobbyist for the Idaho Medical Association, said the group regretted agreeing to the licensing law in the first place. “We’ve kind of thrown up our hands at this point,” he said. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter Sarah D. Wire.

When down economy means growth

When economic times are bad, many who wouldn’t otherwise head back to school, seeking new job skills or new careers. “Enrollment is up,” North Idaho College Vice President John Martin told the Senate Education Committee this afternoon. “It’s not surprising - when the economy is bad, we’re kind of the growth industry.” He added, “We anticipate that these growth rates are going to continue in the near future.” That means there’s a crunch on classroom space, and NIC is looking at everything from bigger classes to new technology to get more students through classes. Martin noted that the Coeur d’Alene-based college, which has a workforce training center in Post Falls and outreach centers throughout the Panhandle, is marking its 75th anniversary this year. “They told ‘em in 1933, ‘This is not a good time to start a community college,’ but we endured,” he told senators. Martin is in town along with several other NIC officials and trustees, including board Chair Christie Wood and trustees Judy Meyer and Ron Vieselmeyer. Tomorrow, NIC has its budget hearing.

A new member of NIC’s delegation visiting lawmakers this year is Teresa Molitor, a lobbyist with Centra Consulting. In past years, the college has joined with the local Chamber of Commerce or city on lobbying the Legislature, but this year, it decided to bring on its own lobbyist. “We just felt that we needed to do a better job of making sure all the legislators, and not just our 15 from North Idaho, know our story,” Martin said. NIC signed a six-month contract with Centra for $12,000, payable at $2,000 a month starting Nov. 15, 2008.  Noted Rolly Jurgens, vice president for administrative services, “We’re 400 miles away. … We joke once in a while from Coeur d’Alene that we’re in a different country from Boise.”

Measure would alter personal property exemption

Small businesses whose personal property would be exempt from taxation under legislation that passed last year would be freed from having to file inventories of that property, under legislation introduced today. The Associated Press reports that the new bill from Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, would allow those small businesses to file an affidavit stating that their property is valued at less than the taxable level. This is amending a tax break for businesses that hasn’t even taken effect yet, because last year’s personal property tax exemption doesn’t take effect until state revenues improve; the measure also makes a change in the revenue trigger for when the tax break would begin to take effect. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

‘Wrangling for schools’

It’s something of a mob scene in the Capitol Annex today, as school trustees from across the state hold their “day on the hill” to talk with legislators. Larry Brown, right, chairman of the Lakeland School District board, said, “We’re wrangling for schools. … We’re just asking the legislators to have the least amount of impact on student class time.” He said at the ball games, Lego fair, science fair and similar events in his district, people have been talking about the looming budget cuts. “They’re expecting it,” he said. “But we don’t know how hard the times will be … we don’t know what the impacts will be.” Vern Newby, left, Coeur d’Alene school trustee, said his message to lawmakers is, “Give us flexibility - we need all the flexibility we can get at this point. … We need to be able to say, ‘This is important for our district - it may not be important for someone else.’”

‘We’d be shooting ourselves in the foot’

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, had this response to Rep. Cliff Bayer’s earlier question about whether it’s time to cut faculty salaries at Idaho’s state colleges and universities. “For one thing, that isn’t our place to begin with - we don’t have that responsibility,” she said. Lawmakers parcel out the salary money in a lump sum to the state Board of Education, which distributes it to the colleges. Besides, she said, “We live in a time where each state around us has a little bit more ability to pay a little better.” Because of that, she said. “We’ve lost very good people.” In recent years, lawmakers and several governors have focused instead on increasing faculty salaries at Idaho colleges and universities to avoid having top faculty lured away to other states. Said Bell, “I think there are many, many ways they’re going to have to look at the budget before they cut faculty salaries. I would think that we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.” And if anyone were to make such a move, she said, “That would be a state board directive, and I don’t think they’d want to do it.”

Bayer: Maybe cut faculty salaries?

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, just asked Mike Rush, director of the Office of the State  Board of Education, if perhaps faculty salaries were a place to cut at universities. “Do you sense any flexibility or any interest in addressing, if push comes to shove, faculty salaries … to maintain some affordability?” Bayer asked. Rush, who is making his budget presentation to JFAC, responded, “Rep. Bayer, that’s an awful question.” He said, “In my opinion, absolutely everything is on the table. I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom yet. I don’t think we can take anything off the table until we know the scope of the problem.” Other states have had furloughs, Rush noted, which is a form of cutting pay to faculty and other employees. But, he said, those states are much worse off than Idaho is at this point. “Frankly, I’ve been pretty impressed by our institutions, at their aggressive approach in cutting costs,” Rush told JFAC. “I don’t think you can argue that Idaho pays their faculty all that well - salaries are low. … It takes a long time to build up a qualified faculty base, and that expertise is the center of what makes our universities what they are.”

Charge different tuition for different fields?

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, asked Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas if perhaps he should consider charging differential tuition - higher for high-cost programs, perhaps, that also set students up to earn big incomes once they’ve completed them. “Perhaps we should look at some kind of differential tuition?” he asked Vailas, at ISU’s budget hearing this morning in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Vailas said it was a good question, but said, “We provide professional fees that are already very high.” ISU doesn’t want to force Idaho students out, he said. “We have been very sensitive to the financial challenges of our students, to make sure that we serve Idaho first, and that is a concern. .. Our tuition is already very high in these professional programs,” and Idaho could lose some students to surrounding states, he said. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, asked if he was saying Idaho’s tuition was higher for those programs than surrounding states. Vailas said in some cases, and added, “We are lower in terms of state assistance.”

Letting it pile up a bit more…

Here’s how far budget cuts are going at Boise State University, BSU President Bob Kustra told legislative budget writers this morning: “We’ve re-examined how often our wastebaskets need to be emptied - you name it and we’ve tried to figure out ways to reduce expenditures.” Among the cutbacks that budget cuts are forcing are major new degree programs that the university hoped to offer – they just won’t be offered yet, Kustra said. At the same time, with the downturn in the economy, more and more students are applying.

A good number even in bad times…

“We’re very excited about a number, and there aren’t many good numbers to get excited about these days,” BSU President Bob Kustra told legislative budget writers this morning. So far, in the third quarter of this fiscal year, he said, research grants at Boise State are “half a million dollars ahead of the third quarter of last fiscal year - and we still have two months left.” He said, “What that says is that we have a very aggressive and entrepreneurial research faculty doing everything they can. … I think it’s a sign that even in bad times some good things can happen.” JFAC is hearing from the presidents of Boise State and Idaho State University today, as it continues a week of hearings on education budgets. Most of the news isn’t so good, as budget cuts loom. “We’re delighted to be here in one sense, and not so pleased to be here in another,” Kustra told lawmakers as he began his budget pitch. “These are not easy times for any of us.”

Otter’s missing words: Ready to back local option law

Thanks to a public records request filed by Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey, we now know what the missing words from Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message were, that he had removed in his final draft. Popkey reported in the Idaho Statesman today that the missing passage from his message to lawmakers was: “I also encourage you to come together in agreement that cities and counties must have the option - with the consent of voters - to provide financially for their own community infrastructure needs. If local folks in a given jurisdiction want to impose a tax on themselves, they should have that opportunity. We must not let our own views cloud our commitment to self-determination and enabling people to be the architects of their own destiny.”

That suggests Otter is open to local-option taxation without requiring a constitutional amendment, a restrictive move backed by House Speaker Lawerence Denney and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who asked Otter to remove the passage from the speech at the last minute. Otter later said, in an interview on Idaho Public Television, that he did so because of “tender negotiations” on the issue. Popkey also reported today the reason for the long, awkward pause in the middle of Otter’s speech, in which he said he lost his place and flipped through pages before resuming: The teleprompter contained the local-option passage. Through a glitch, the 9th and final draft of the speech hadn’t been loaded into it, leaving Otter looking at his 8th draft. Read Popkey’s full story here at idahostatesman.com.

State Board: Increase WWAMI seats, look into med school

The state Board of Education met today and voted to back an increase in WWAMI medical school seats for Idaho from 20 to 40, at a rate of increase of 10 a year. WWAMI is a collaboration that allows students from  Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho to attend the University of Washington’s medical school (the acronym stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho). The board also voted to “oversee an initiative to engage all stakeholder groups (ISU, UI, BSU, LCSC, University of Washington, VA Medical Center, the hospitals, and the Idaho Medical Association) to jointly develop a collaborative and comprehensive plan for establishment of a 4-year, Idaho-based MD program.”

Times-News: A ‘legal way around’ lawmakers?

The Twin Falls Times-News reports that a fight may be brewing over the startup of the Idaho Education Network, a $50 million statewide broadband network to serve local schools. Lawmakers unanimously approved the concept last year, but haven’t yet approved funding, but state Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney has moved ahead with the plans, and is looking for a supplemental appropriation for $100,000 in state matching funds. “I frankly don’t know where the money’s going to come from,” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, told Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins. “This is not the year to start new programs.” “It’s a good plan. It should be done,” echoed JFAC Co-Chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, but “putting an additional amount of money into a budget is unrealistic.”

Here’s a passage from the Times-News story: “Undaunted, Gwartney on Friday said he has found a ‘legal way around’ the Legislature if it refuses the request. He said state law allows him to issue an executive order to enter a contract and accept bids if ‘it’s in the best interest of the state.’ ‘If I don’t get the supplemental, I will take that action,’ said Gwartney. Bell and Cameron both expressed surprise at Gwartney’s statement. Cameron said appropriations are subject to the Legislature as expressed by the Idaho Constitution. ‘He may think he’s above the Constitution but I assure you he’s not,’ Cameron said. ‘It would behoove him to carefully think things through before taking that action.’ ” You can read the full story here in the Times-News.

Wrestling with results of ITD audit

House Transportation Committee members are still weighing the findings of the big performance audit of the Idaho Transportation Department, and how to respond to them. “If we all agree that ITD needs more money, there’s no way we can put off doing that,” Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said as he pondered the audit results. But, he said, lawmakers also need to tie any increased funding to correcting flaws in Idaho’s system for maintaining roads, as identified in the audit. “We need to create this checklist,” he said. “I think there’s general agreement that we have this asset that we have to maintain.” House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “We wanted the audit. We need to take advantage of the audit to now formulate where we go forward. … It is our responsibility.”

Big crowd at HW rules hearing

There’s a near-capacity crowd at the somber hearing this afternoon in the House Health & Welfare Committee, even though the most controversial of the rule changes being considered there already has won approval from the Senate Health & Welfare Committee; rules stand unless they’re rejected by the panels in both houses. “They still need to hear our opposition to it,” said Kelly Buckland, executive director of the State Independent Living Council. Advocates for the disabled maintain some of the budget cuts the rules implement will hurt disabled Idahoans without actually saving the state money, if the cuts in treatment hours force cause patients’ conditions to regress and mean they need more expensive, longer-lasting treatment instead. “All it does is shift the cost somewhere else,” Buckland said.

A one-word change…

Here’s a sign of the times: Legislation that makes a one-word change in the law regarding annual adjustments in the homeowner’s exemption from property tax won unanimous approval in the House today. The reason for the change? As House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, explained to the House today, “Back in the heady days of 2005, the assumption was made that home values will always go up.” So the law tying the amount of the homeowner’s exemption to the Idaho Housing Index said that changes will match “the annual increase in the Idaho housing price index.” The one-word bill, HB 4, proposed by the state Tax Commission, changes the word “increase” to “change.” That way, if values go down, the exemption, too, would go down.

Stennett won’t return this session

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, announced today that he won’t be able to return before the end of the legislative session this year. Stennett, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, said it was “very disheartening to not participate this session.” Though his prognosis remains positive, his recovery is demanding all of his energy and focus, Stennett said in a statement.  Jon Thorson, former mayor of Sun Valley, is standing in for him. Senate Assistant Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, is acting minority leader.

‘Reductions will be felt university-wide’

Of the 41 undergraduate and graduate degree programs that the University of Idaho is proposing eliminating, few are popular, acting UI President Steven Daley-Laursen told JFAC this morning. “We have only 55 applications now on the table for entrance of new students,” between the 41 combined, he said. That change is part of a campus-wide reprioritization of programs that’s under way. But budget cuts overall will hit the UI hard, Daley-Laursen told lawmakers. Already, the university has cut $5 million due to the 4 percent holdbacks. For next year, Gov. Butch Otter is recommending an additional base reduction that brings those permanent cuts up to a total of 7 percent, which would make next year’s state appropriation to the UI $8.8 million below the original budget for this year.

The next cuts could include eliminating 5 percent, or 80, of the university’s faculty and staff positions, Daley-Laursen said, saying that’s something “we are prepared to consider.” All cuts would be of vacant positions; the university already has a hiring freeze. Currently there are 32 vacant faculty positions and 55 vacant staff positions. Daley-Laursen said he’s also planning a 75 percent cut in state funds for travel, a $2.3 million cut in university-wide operating expenses and a half-million-dollar cut in capital outlay.

“These funding reductions will be felt university-wide, by students, faculty and staff at all of our locations,” Daley-Laursen said. “We’ll see fewer overall programs and offerings for our students. We’ll see limits on our ability to attract and retain faculty and staff. We’ll see reduction of programs in human resources and positions in facilities. We’ll see elimination of three student computing  labs and migration of network costs to students themselves. We’ll see reduction of funding for classroom technologies, network systems and the like.”
 

Ed Board chief: Education key to recovery

Milford Terrell, president of the state Board of Education, told legislative budget writers this morning, “We all are quite well aware of the economic times in which we live. I don’t need to remind you folks here in this committee of how difficult it is to budget and appropriate funds in this climate. … But I can also tell you this: Education is SO VERY important. I see it every day. I see what it has done in my life. I see what it does in the lives of the people I hire, in the lives of the people my business serves. … I am of the opinion that government cannot do everything and should not attempt to do everything for our citizens. But one thing we MUST do is ensure that we are being good stewards of our educational system. We must recognize the critical role education plays in economic recovery. If we are to find our way to better days, education must and will play a major role.”

Into the third week…

Here’s a link to the latest episode of Idaho Reports, and also to the “after the show” online discussion in which I join Lt. Gov. Brad Little, BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, AP reporter John Miller and host Thanh Tan to discuss the goings-on of the second week of the legislative session. And here’s a link to the second week of the Legislature in pictures.  Now we’re into the third week, in which lawmakers will delve into budgets for education.

Where Buckland’s going

Kelly Buckland, executive director of the Idaho State Independent Living Council, has become a well-known presence in the Statehouse for the past 14 years, lobbying for the rights of individuals with disabilities. But this is his last legislative session - in May, he’ll start a new job as executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, and he’ll be lobbying Congress in Washington, D.C. Buckland has been president of the national council for the past four years, and vice president for four years before that, and with the council’s current executive director retiring, “a lot of the members were encouraging me to apply and recruiting me. So I decided it was a great opportunity and I would always regret it if I didn’t do it. I talked it over with the family, and we decided to go.”

Buckland will be advocating for organizations like the one he now heads from every state, and also for 600 centers for independent living nationwide. “The issues are the same,” he said. “It’s about rights of people with disabilities, and it’s about people being able to live independently in their community.” Click below to read the full announcement from the national council.
 

No ‘diversity of opinions’ in the House…

HCR 6, the measure to reject a scheduled 5 percent salary hike for state lawmakers zoomed through the House, where members suspended rules yesterday and passed it on a unanimous, 66-0 vote. But when the Senate majority caucus discussed it yesterday, according to caucus Chair Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian,  “There appears to be a diversity of opinions in the Senate on that.” It’s not that senators want to raise their own pay in the midst of a budget crunch, he said. But some want to keep a proposed mileage reimbursement boost for lawmakers from large, rural districts who have to do lots of driving. Today, the measure arrived at the Senate and was referred to the State Affairs Committee.

Dumped into Ways & Means

Already, two bills introduced this session have been assigned to the Ways & Means Committee in the House, a panel controlled by leadership that rarely meets, and hasn’t met yet. The bills, HB 2 and HB 17, are both personal bills. HB 2 was introduced by Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, to expand local-option tax authority. HB 17 was introduced by Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, to limit increases in property tax valuations to 3 percent a year, a concept the two have long pushed. House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “Well, my advice to them early on was to take them to a regular committee, and they decided that they would rather have them printed as personal bills, so I sent them to Ways & Means,” where the measures are unlikely to get a hearing. “If a bill has the backing to get printed (by a regular legislative committee), you know, it has a fair chance of success, but if you can’t get it printed in one of the germane committees, then it’s probably something that we don’t need to be wasting our time on this year,” Denney said. He added, “Each one of them, I’ve warned them before they were printed that that’s probably what would happen to them.”

There’s no Ways & Means Committee in the Senate, where measures introduced as personal bills have sometimes made it all the way through the process and become law. Today is the deadline for personal bills in the Senate; 16 were read across the desk today, and another seven already had been introduced.

An area where Idaho stands out

When Kelly Buckland, executive director of the State Independent Living Council, gave his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning, he noted a distinction for Idaho: It’s amended its child custody laws to ban discrimination against parents with disabilities. “We are, in fact, the only state in the country that has done that, so our parents with disabilities have protection where parents living in other states don’t,” Buckland told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We’re very proud of that accomplishment in Idaho, and SILC is the one that spearheaded that.” Buckland, who was making his final JFAC pitch as SILC executive director, said Idahoans with disabilities name transportation as a top issue that prevents people from living independently. Enforcement of civil rights laws comes next, and then public awareness and stigma, especially in schools and with law enforcement. People with disabilities also often don’t know what services are available, he said. The state has made important advances, however, in building codes, through adding disability as a protected class in the state’s human rights act, and in its Medicaid program for workers with disabilities.

“You all should be proud of some of the accomplishments of this legislature for people with disabilities,” Buckland told the joint budget committee. “We all have set some standards for other states to live up to.”

Because he’s a ‘tough negotiator’

Among the one-time funds that JFAC cut from the current year’s budget yesterday, saving $20 million that could help cushion against school budget cuts next year, was $100,000 from the Office of Performance Evaluations, which represents the savings on this year’s transportation audit. Lawmakers had budgeted $550,000 for the audit, but it came in at $450,000. Olympia consultant Bob Thomas, who worked on the audit, when asked why it cost less than expected, said, “Because Rakesh is a tough negotiator.” That would be Rakesh Mohan, head of the Office of Performance Evaluations.

Duncan extradited to California

Joseph Duncan, the notorious serial killer and child molester whose attack on a Coeur d’Alene family shocked the state, has been extradited to California, where he faces another possible death sentence for the 1997 kidnap and murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez. Earlier, Duncan received three death sentences in federal court in Boise for the kidnap, torture and murder of 9-year-old Dylan Groene of Coeur d’Alene, and multiple life sentences for the murders of Dylan’s mother, mother’s fiance and 13-year-old brother, and for the kidnap and molesting of his then-8-year-old sister Shasta, the only one to survive Duncan’s 2005 attack on the family. Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco reported that Duncan was taken into Riverside County custody this morning. Pacheco has scheduled a new conference for this afternoon with Diana Gonzales, Anthony’s mother.

During Duncan’s federal sentencing trial in Boise, testimony showed that Duncan admitted to Anthony’s murder in interviews with police, after he was arrested for his Idaho crimes.

Read all about it…

Here’s a link to my full story on the grilling state tax commissioners took from a Senate committee today over a lack of progress on reforms, following a whistleblower’s charges that they were cutting secret tax deals with large, multistate corporations. And here’s a link to my full story on today’s new budget cuts, which, combined with Gov. Butch Otter’s earlier holdbacks, push the mid-year cuts in this year’s state budget to more than $150 million.

Dalai Lama says China behind disinvite to Idaho Special Olympics

The Dalai Lama won’t be visiting Idaho for the kickoff of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in February - and his aides say it’s because the Chinese government pressured organizers to disinvite him. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Senators grill tax commissioners

Senators on the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee grilled state tax commissioners this afternoon for failing, five months later, to comply with any of the recommendations in a state-ordered investigation that followed a whistleblower’s report. The report, from a longtime state auditor, charged that the commissioners were cutting secret deals with large, out-of-state corporations to excuse them from paying millions in state income taxes, over the objections of state auditors. Two state investigations concluded no laws had been broken, but a veteran CPA, LaVern Gentry, who investigated the issue for Gov. Butch Otter made several recommendations for changes. Among them were more transparency, including full reports on the deals to the Legislature, and for tax commissioners to provide more support to auditors, who complained that taxpayers sometimes would refuse to even provide information they requested, instead waiting to unveil their information at appeals with the commissioners. Gov. Butch Otter in August ordered the Tax Commission to submit an annual report to the Legislature on the secret deals, starting in January of 2009 - but no report has been sent.

Committee Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow, “I guess one of the points I want to make is this isn’t going to go away. … We’ve got to do something about this. It’s been five months.” He added, “I really want to make it clear that on behalf of the people, we’re holding your feet to the fire on this.” Tax Commission attorney Ted Spangler said the report on the deals has been sitting on his desk for review, and he hasn’t gotten to it. “I will get that off my desk, Mr. Chairman,” he told Hill.

Chigbrow defended the Tax Commission’s approach to settling appeals. “The Idaho Tax Commission and their appeal process works, and I’m very pleased to announce that, despite our little differences of opinion last summer,” Chigbrow told the committee, presenting an annual report on the commission. “We have saved the state a lot of money.” He said settling disputed tax cases can mean big savings over taking them to court. “If you take it to a court, the best chance is there’s a 50-50 chance you are going to win, because there are two opinions,” he told the senators.

Asked by Hill how he saw the role of the Tax Commission, Chigbrow said, “I believe the role of the Tax Commission … is to see that the tax laws of the state of Idaho are administered in a fair and equitable way. … The role is not to go out and make sure that you shake every cent out of everybody’s pocket.”

After the hearing, Hill, a CPA himself, said he wasn’t satisfied with what he’d heard. “It should not be on the back burner, it should be on the front burner,” he said, “and from that standpoint, I’m disappointed.”

Otter ‘very happy’ with ITD’s change of heart

Gov. Butch Otter is “very happy” with the Idaho Transportation Board’s decision today to rethink its priority list for economic stimulus projects and include the Dover Bridge and Vista Interchange after all, said Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. “We’re very happy with the decisions they made this morning,” he said. “Those projects, we believe they’re focused on safety and job creation. We’re encouraged.”

Naturopath licensing on the rocks

The fight over how to do naturopath licensing in Idaho has gotten so bitter that the entire licensing law could get repealed. The AP reports that Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, has found “total disagreement” between two camps among naturopaths; click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

‘Trying to soften the blow’ of school cuts

Senate Republicans held a caucus today and spent much of it going over the budget cuts. New Senate GOP Caucus Chair Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said GOP senators talked about some way to avoid Otter’s proposed cut in public school funding next year, and, “Quite frankly, we don’t see it. I think the prevailing attitude is we don’t see a way of getting out of this without education being hit, but we are trying to figure out ways to soften the blow.” That’s the plan for the additional $20 million in one-time funds trimmed today - to use it for public schools in next year’s budget to offset some of the cuts. But Otter’s proposed cuts for education next year exceed $75 million.

Senate Democrats also caucused today - their caucus was open - and discussed legislation the caucus plans to propose, including election reforms and a measure to ban lobbyist contributions to legislators during the legislative session. Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said it’s in response to a case in which a lobbyist pulled a contribution after a candidate voted against his group on a regulatory board. Idaho’s “toothless” bribery laws don’t cover such a case, she said.

The latest budget cuts and what they mean

This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee made a new round of budget cuts, and it was clear they didn’t enjoy it. When Gov. Butch Otter imposed his 4 percent holdbacks, he also trimmed $17.4 million in one-time funds above and beyond the 4 percent. Today, JFAC added another $20.75 million in one-time funds to that, following up on Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron’s call last Friday for agencies to halt spending of any non-operating money in the current budget year that they hadn’t already spent.

Projects that had been approved for spending this year but instead got the axe included the Idaho Historical Society’s plans to expand the state historical museum, which lost its $5 million appropriation for this year; a $3 million sewer system replacement at Farragut State Park, which will be put off; $1.6 million worth of deferred maintenance at the University of Idaho that will get deferred again; $2.3 million for milfoil eradication by the state Department of Agriculture, leaving just $1 million in the budget for that; and about $1 million worth of equipment replacements, mainly vehicles and computers, at the Department of Corrections.

The new cuts are essentially the equivalent of another holdback, only this time, instead of being ordered by the governor, it’s being ordered by the Legislature. The moves today added $20.75 million to the governor’s $130.6 million in holdbacks already ordered this year.

‘First and foremost a safety issue’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, had this reaction to the Idaho Transportation Board’s vote this morning to expand its list of projects for economic stimulus funding:  “I am thankful that the ITD board reconsidered, and I am very appreciative of the governor’s support. Dover Bridge first and foremost is a safety issue, so I’m glad that this has happened.”

Meanwhile, the Bonner Bee reported this week that the Dover Bridge is getting even more national attention; it’ll be featured on a History Channel program tentatively titled “Crumble” about the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. “Lives are at stake all the time,” Dover Mayor Randy Curless told the filmmakers during a recent filming session at the bridge, the Bee reported.

Rules still could change…

Jim Coleman, the Idaho Transportation Board member from North Idaho, said one big uncertainty is that Idaho still doesn’t know what the rules will be for spending federal economic stimulus funds on highway projects. “They may say that if you’ve got X dollars going on in some area, you can’t do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion in Congress that it’s imperative that it reaches those areas that are financially strapped - they may tie it to the employment rate or the construction employment rate.” Once Idaho gets the final word, he said, “If that’s the case, then we’ll put it wherever we’re directed to put it.” But for now, there’s a list of eight shovel-ready priority projects. “I’m looking forward to getting the Dover Bridge started - it’s been a project like the Sandpoint Bypass that’s been hanging around way too long,” Coleman said.

‘Why I’m so beautiful’

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis couldn’t resist needling Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, after the news today that a package addressed to him - and apparently containing hair-care products - triggered a bomb scare yesterday that temporarily shut down the state mail room and the parking garage above it. “I guess all of you know why I’m so beautiful now,” Schroeder responded, addressing the Senate. But, he explained, the package actually was for a female House member, and he had agreed to pick it up for her and bring it to Boise, but had forgotten. So he asked his office to just send it to him at the Statehouse so he could pass it along. “In it were hair-care products for females, including a curling iron and hair-care products,” Schroeder said. “I’m very grateful that they’re watching over us that closely. I can’t take credit for having such good hair because I have good products. It was just me doing a favor for someone.”

The next senator to rise for an announcement, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, said his announcement had “nothing to do with hair care, although I’m glad my name was not on that box.” A laughing Schroeder then made a show of combing his hair when a reporter stopped by his desk to snap a picture.

Dover bridge back on stimulus list

The Idaho Transportation Board, meeting this morning in Boise, has voted 4-1 to put the Dover Bridge and the I-84 Vista Interchange back on its list of “shovel-ready” projects ready to receive federal economic stimulus funds. Two weeks ago, the board had crossed those two projects off the priority list, saying they wanted to spread the money around the state. “Things are changing on a daily basis regarding potential stimulus package,” ITD Director Pam Lowe told the board. “It appears that we may get more money than we anticipated in the special board meeting.” The new list now has eight projects on it instead of six, and totals $182 million instead of less than $100 million. When board member Jim Coleman questioned what it’ll take to get all the projects ready to go, ITD Chief Engineer Tom Cole responded, “Dover Bridge is ready to come down here right now. … We have all the resources in-house to do everything we need to get those projects on the list ready. They should be on track.”

ITD board member Lee Gagner voted against the resolution. “We know that many of the projects wouldn’t be done without this large amount of money,” he said. “I still have a concern going into so many expansion projects, when we have a need for preservation and restoration around the state.” Future federal funding for roads could fall, Gagner said, and “our roads could suffer more.”

The board’s resolution also calls for 12.6 percent of any stimulus funds to go to local road jurisdictions, and calls for any additional money beyond the identified projects and the cut for locals to go to preservation and restoration projects - with the priority going to districts that receive the least money for specific projects. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

 

Scary hair-care products?

Here’s a news item from today’s Idaho Statesman that sheds some light on yesterday’s temporary lockdown of the state parking garage just as lawmakers were trying to leave for lunch:

A package delivered to an Idaho legislator caused a bomb scare at the state office mailroom Wednesday. The mailroom, a parking garage and nearby offices were evacuated while police investigated. Police were alerted to the suspicious package at about 10:55 a.m. in the mailroom under the state parking garage. The Boise Bomb Squad was dispatched to assist Idaho State Police, according to ISP spokesman Rick Ohnsman. Ohnsman said that an X-rayed appeared to show an aerosol can with curly wires coming out of it and a circuit board. When police contacted State Sen. Gary J. Schroeder, R-Moscow, he told them he was expecting a package. He described the contents, which matched what police saw on the X-ray. Ohnsman wasn’t sure what the package contained, but he said it sounded like it could have been hair-care products.

 

 

Senators back controversial Medicaid cuts

With just one “no” vote, from Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee has approved a rule implementing cuts in Medicaid that reduce treatment hours for adults and children with disabilities. The House Health & Welfare Committee will take up the same rule on Monday, but rules stand unless the panels in both houses reject them. Advocates who oppose the cuts said they’re still holding onto a glimmer of hope.

The committees’ actions still must be formalized in omnibus concurrent resolutions that pass both houses. Katherine Hansen, government affairs chair for the Idaho Association of Development Disabilities Agencies, noted that the House committee has scheduled its hearing for a larger room at the Idaho Supreme Court, to accommodate the expected large crowd. “From this point, I think what we’re trying to do partly is to make sure that everyone recognizes there will be the opportunity to look at this next year,” Hansen said. Her agency will closely track the effect of the cuts on disabled Idahoans, and provide detailed, quarterly reports to lawmakers. “What I hear from a number of them is they don’t want to make these cuts,” she said. Kelly Buckland, executive director of the State Independent Living Council, said, “They’re saying they have to save money … but I don’t think they’ll save money, I think they’ll end up actually spending more money. It only takes a couple people to have to go into an institution to eat up all the savings from this.”

Crowd wants to ease cuts for disabled

Disabled people, their family members and advocates are urging that cuts in treatment hours imposed due to state budget holdbacks be moderated by making them temporary, rather than permanent, and by allowing exceptions where needed. Kelly Buckland, executive director of the State Independent Living Council, said, “This is all done under the guise of bad budget times - that doesn’t explain why they’re making the cuts permanent. If nothing else, we would like to make the cuts temporary,” and would like to see the services restored if, as expected, the federal economic stimulus package sends more money to states to fund Medicaid. Others said the one-size-fits-all cuts in treatment hours make little sense, and the state could save more by better tailoring services to each patient. Mike O’Bleness, president of the Development Workshop in Idaho Falls, told the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, “We do believe as a provider community that there are other ways that we could save a comparable amount of money for the states.” But Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, the panel’s vice-chairman, noted that the committee today is dealing only with whether to accept or reject the rule that implements the cuts.

Lining up to testify

Dozens of people are lined up outside a very full, and very hot, hearing room where the Senate Health & Welfare Committee is considering rules to implement cuts in treatment hours for children and adults with developmental disabilities. “It’s time to stop punishing individuals for having disabilities,” Rochelle Tierney, a mother of three from Nampa whose oldest son has autism, told the panel. Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, asked her, “Are you suggesting that this program should not take its share of the Medicaid cuts?” When she answered yes, because of the impact on families, Darrington asked, “How would you suggest we deal with the people in the other programs that would have to take double their share of cuts?” “I do not know,” the mom replied. “Now you know our dilemma,” Darrington responded.

Panel peppers Kren with questions

Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, got himself peppered with questions today when he proposed legislation in the House Resources Committee to limit so-called “super hunts” mostly to state residents, allowing only 10 percent of the permits to go to non-residents. That’s the case already for most controlled hunts, but the super hunts are a special program in which about 40 tags are raffled off each year, allowing the winners to choose from any valid open hunt in the state. Kren said about 30 percent of the winners have been out-of-staters, and that’s gotten folks in his district grumbling. “People feel that Fish & Game is working very hard to attract non-residents, that they’re getting preference over residents,” Kren said. “I think it’s important that Fish & Game works hard for the sportsmen, and understands that it’s the residents of the state who they work for.”

Kren, who said he’s entered the raffle himself “a couple of years” since it began four years ago, never checked with Fish & Game before introducing the bill. F&G information supervisor Ed Mitchell said the super hunt permits are a special deal, “a whole separate thing to raise money for our Access Yes program.” That program pays landowners for easements to allow hunters access; it’s ensured access to about half a million acres statewide so far, and the department hopes to take it up to a million acres. Last year, the super hunt raffle raised about $140,000 for the access program. “It was purposely set outside the usual rules to get participation, and raise money for the access program,” Mitchell said. All ticket-buyers in the raffle pay the same price for their raffle tickets, but the winners must also buy hunting licenses. Those cost $12.75 for an Idaho resident, $141.50 for someone from out of state.

Wood says Wood is OK

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, a doctor, said Rep. JoAn Wood, whom he accompanied to the hospital earlier, is OK. “When I left she was doing fine,” he said. “I expect her to do fine.” She had suffered from some abdominal pain, he said. “She was in enough pain that she needed to be checked out.” Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, is with Wood at the hospital.

Happenings at the annex…

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, was taken to the hospital just now, escorted by Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, a physician, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. Wood reportedly looked a bit pale; she walked to the car, on Fred Wood’s arm, and there’s no word yet on her condition. Meanwhile, lawmakers who were trying to leave the Capitol Annex for lunch found they couldn’t get their cars out of the parking garage across the street, as it was locked down and part of a street closed off. The rumor was something about a package. Police have finished looking into it and the garage has now reopened.

All ‘yes’ votes

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said he wasn’t surprised at the unanimous roll-call vote on his measure to reject legislative pay increases. In fact, two Democratic lawmakers had already announced, before the legislative session, that they would introduce such legislation. Bolz beat them to it. He had also hoped to reject pay raises for statewide elected officials, but when he requested an Attorney General’s opinion on that in December, he found out he couldn’t - the Constitution requires those pay amounts to be set before the officials take office, and not changed during their terms. As far as rejecting legislative raises, Bolz said, “I don’t think there’s any opposition to it, at least on the House side.”

‘Everybody has to hurt’

One after another, the members of the House State Affairs Committee voted “Aye,” all 18 of them, on Rep. Darrell Bolz’ proposal to reject legislative pay raises this year. Bolz’ proposal also rejects all the changes in mileage and per diem expenses that a citizen committee had recommended this year. “What we are doing is rejecting all of these,” he told the panel this morning. The committee voted not only to introduce the measure, but to send it to 2nd Reading Calendar of the full House, which means it goes directly to the floor without a further hearing on the House side. It’ll save the state about $180,000 by foregoing raises or any other compensation boosts for lawmakers. “With the economic times, how can we take and ask state employees to take a hit with salary, and yet we’ve got ourselves a salary increase?” Bolz asked. “We’re in tough times. My belief is when you get in difficult times like this, you can’t ask some people to take all the hurt. Everybody has to hurt to get through the situation.”
 

Senators criticize new rules on secret tax deals

Senators weren’t enthusiastic this afternoon about a new Tax Commission rule that would clarify when the commission can secretly settle big tax cases. It comes after a whistleblower’s report charging that the commission was cutting secret deals to excuse millions in income taxes for large out-of-state corporations prompted several state investigations. The Idaho Attorney General concluded that the Tax Commission hadn’t acted illegally, as did a review ordered by Gov. Butch Otter, but Otter directed the Tax Commission to immediately develop new rules better defining and laying out their settlement procedures. Those rules came before the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee this afternoon, as a temporary rule that’s already taken effect.

Lawmakers review such rules and decide whether to let them continue. But Ted Spangler, deputy attorney general for the Tax Commission, said the commission plans to work further next year on a permanent rule, and is proposing only a temporary rule at this point. The new temporary rule, which you can read here (click on “Temporary rules review book”), essentially just writes the commission’s current practice into more specific rules. It lets tax commissioners settle a tax case where there’s dispute about liability, when commissioners think litigation will be more costly, when the taxpayer has economic hardship or when the settlement will “promote effective tax administration.” Spangler said that last reason was added as “sort of a safety valve in the system.” Tax commissioners retain wide discretion.

Senators raised several concerns about the new rule. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said, “I still wonder if this isn’t a bit broad.” Sen. Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa, an attorney, noted that the new rule appears to allow broader authority for waiving tax penalties than the law actually allows. Spangler thanked him for pointing that out and said it’ll be looked at in the new, permanent rule. Sen. Eliot Werk, D-Boise, said he thought the new rule “could lead to the same set of misunderstandings or perceptions that we have been dealing with.”

Committee Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he’s fine with the rule, but wants more information about the process commissioners will follow for deciding who gets the settlements and who doesn’t. “These procedures, some of us would like to see more of,” Hill said. Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, told the panel that after reviewing a Legislative Services Office report on the issue, “My review of the report concludes that indeed the process can be improved.” Kelly said beyond the definitions in the rule, the tax commission needs to provide for more “transparency and internal controls.” The committee won’t vote on the rule until Thursday at the earliest.

A liquor dispensary by any other name…

The Idaho State Liquor Dispensary proposed legislation this morning to change its name to the Idaho State Liquor Division, and to change its chief’s title from “superintendent” of the dispensary to “director” of the division. “It’s strictly a name change to modernize,” Deputy Superintendent Larry Maneely told the House State Affairs Committee. “‘Dispensary’ has a very clinical sound to it. ‘Superintendent’ sounds educationally oriented, and it’s very different from that.” A few committee members joked before the meeting that they should change the name to “Bob.” But when they went over the proposed legislation, several committee members had minor questions about wording, and in the end decided to hold off on the bill and let the Liquor Dispensary - still called that for now - rework it. “I’ll sit with you and talk about those changes,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, an attorney, told Maneely. “But I think if these changes are made, there’s no problem with that bill.” Maneely said the old words - dispensary and superintendent - come from 70-year-old laws, and they’re “antiquated.”

A new president is inaugurated

A few legislators and Capitol Annex staffers gathered around a small, scratchy TV in the fifth-floor library to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration as the next president of the United States. At one point, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey pointed and said, “There’s Jim Risch!” Risch, Idaho’s newest U.S. senator, was visible on the screen not far behind the new president. “Today I say to you that the challenges we have are real, they are serious and they are many,” Obama said. “They will be met,” he said to cheers. “We have chosen hope over fear … unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” He declared “a new era of responsibility.”

One Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, is absent from the Legislature today to attend the inauguration. Even the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which has Medicaid budget hearings running all morning today, scheduled its morning break for 10 a.m. Boise time, so people could see a bit of the inaugural on TV. Fifteen minutes later, however, the committee came back into session. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, apologized. “Other places may be able to stop working but we don’t get to,” he said, and the panel delved back into the Medicaid budget.

When cuts are magnified

With the sharp holdbacks already imposed at the Department of Health & Welfare, the department may not need a $20 million supplemental appropriation for Medicaid this year after all, Medicaid administrator Leslie Clement told legislative budget writers. She said agency officials hope to work with lawmakers on that. “It looks like we may not need this request funded because of the holdbacks,” she said of the $20.6 million supplemental appropriation request. If it is needed, she said, “It would be for less.”

Overall, however, Clement warned that cutting Medicaid doesn’t pay off during tough times. “In economic downturns, the corresponding loss of federal funds magnifies the impact of state fund reductions,” she noted. “Generally, for every $3 reduction in state funds, $7 is returned to the federal government.” So cutting state funding for Medicaid means losing the federal funds, too, which has twice the impact because Idaho gets about $7 from the feds for every $3 it spends on Medicaid. Certain Medicaid programs are federal requirements, Clement told legislative budget writers. Some states offer lots of optional programs, too, but Idaho offers few. “We are the third most restrictive state in the nation relative to eligibility,” she said. Among the optional categories: The Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which now has 27,000 Idaho children enrolled. The Katie Beckett medically needy program enrolls 2,100 children. Twelve thousand adults receive community-based services.

Gov. Butch Otter’s budget recommendation for Health & Welfare is based on an estimate that the federal Medicaid match rate will be increased by 4 percent - about $40 million - as part of the federal economic stimulus package. If that doesn’t happen, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “That’s another $40 million we’ve got to find.” Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong responded, “Mr. Chairman, that’s correct.”

And from the silver lining department…

Amid the tough times at the state Department of Health & Welfare, there’s been a somewhat surprising bright spot: More parents are paying their back child support in these difficult economic times. There’s a reason, however: They’ve lost their jobs and gone on unemployment. “We can garnish unemployment and that will pay for the arrears,” Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers.

The rest of his news wasn’t so bright, as he kicked off three days of budget hearings on Health & Welfare programs. “Growing numbers of families and individuals … are coming through our doors seeking assistance,” Armstrong said. “Many of them have not been out of work before, and may not have applied for assistance.” Armstrong said with this new population of the needy, he’s confident that state aid can help them get back on their feet so they can rebound. “With your support, we can have stabilized families during this time of critical need,” he told JFAC, “and by doing that, when the economy does recover, which it will, Idaho can emerge from this even stronger than it was before.”

Bribery law called into question

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey has a fascinating story today about how a prominent lobbyist’s promise of a campaign contribution was withdrawn after the candidate cast an adverse vote on a state regulatory board - and despite complaints to the state, officials said what happened wasn’t illegal under Idaho’s current bribery laws. Some lawmakers now want to change the laws. Click here to read Dan’s full story, headlined, “Did lobbyist offer cash for regulator’s vote?”


News abounds on holiday

Lots of legislative news today - despite the fact that it’s a state holiday, sanctioned by the Legislature, and most state offices are closed. The Legislature doesn’t take holidays when it’s in session. Here’s a link to my full story on the new performance audit of the Idaho Transportation Department, and here’s a link to my story from this morning about how Idaho’s prison population is down, defying a steep multi-year growth trend and signaling, state officials say, that the state’s new coordinated approach to substance abuse treatment is paying off.

What happened to that management system

One of the sharpest criticisms of the Idaho Transportation Department in the new audit is that the department lacks a maintenance management system, a computer software system to track when, why and how certain sections of roadway are maintained. There hasn’t been one since 2005, when the previous system became obsolete with the installation of a new financial management system. But the Idaho Transportation Board was well aware of this - in fact, the board made a conscious decision in 2006 to not replace the system because of the high cost of doing so, and instead put that money into road repairs.

‘Respect for human rights and freedom’

Lt. Gov. Brad Little read a proclamation from Gov. Butch Otter, and the rich and interweaving sounds of the Common Ground Community Chorus singing “I Dream a World” followed a trumpet fanfare and Girl Scouts presentation of colors to open Idaho’s state ceremony today for Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day. “I encourage Idahoans to rededicate themselves to the principles of respect for human rights and freedom, of belief in non-violence, and of commitment to improving the state and nation through community service and volunteerism,” the proclamation read in part. With the state Capitol closed for renovation, the ceremony was held at Boise City Hall, where a large crowd easily filled much of the large city council chambers to mark the holiday. Keynote speaker Leslie Goddard noted the historic presidential inauguration coming tomorrow, touching the same note of joyous excitement that seemed to fill the crowd.

McGee: Transportation is ‘grossly underfunded’

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said the new transportation audit confirms just what Gov. Butch Otter has been saying, that Idaho’s transportation system is “grossly underfunded.” Auditor Bob Thomas summed up the overall findings of the audit like this: “The current situation facing Idaho’s highway system is untenable. … The state is falling further and further behind in its ability to maintain and preserve its highway and bridge infrastructure. … Idaho is getting further and further into a hole on this.” The audit, he said, recommends first to stabilize and then reverse the current trends, with a “preservation-first” approach to maintenance and with new “tools for the department to transform itself,” including a new $6 million maintenance management system. Idaho can find some short-term savings, but most important, he said, is the “hundreds of millions” in costs that could be avoided if Idaho’s system for maintaining its roads and bridges is improved.

‘We need to do something’

In response to the new performance audit of the Idaho Transportation Department, Clete Edmunson, transportation adviser to Gov. Butch Otter, just told lawmakers, “We really appreciate the findings in this report. … We need to do something, we need to take care of this investment … an investment the people built - it’s our job to take care of it.” Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning said  the auditors “did a superb job, I think, identifying many of the problems.” The audit, he said, “largely validates the direction the department has been headed for the past two years. … Believe me, we will be looking at it very strongly. Even though we’re in a crisis management situation at the moment with regard to funding, we’re still going to do everything we can … to improve the system.”

ITD disputes GARVEE criticism

The new audit suggests that the Idaho Transportation Department could be out $19.6 million due to the cost of “negative arbitrage” on future GARVEE bond issuances - the cost related to cash balances awaiting payment for project costs borrowed at high long-term rates, but invested at lower short-term rates. ITD disputes that. “The $19.6 million identified in the audit is a largely hypothetical figure based on deliberately conservative short-term and long-term interest rate assumptions in the financing model for planning purposes as of July 2008,” ITD wrote in a response to the audit. “There is no assurance that negative arbitrage will exist on future transactions. … The department chose to secure long-term financing for the major functions of projects in advance of awarding contracts to ensure that the specified work is funded and to avoid interest rate risk. This conservative approach … protected the state from recent uncertainty in the credit markets.”

‘Worst-first’ approach ‘inefficient’

The Idaho Transportation Department’s “worst-first” strategy for dealing with deteriorated pavement is “inefficient,” according to the new audit, and should be replaced with a “preservation-first” strategy. Instead of focusing on the roadways with the worst conditions, which then require immediate, costly reconstruction, the state could save money by focusing on an “optimization” approach that uses sophisticated technological tools to target maintenance efforts, focusing on good, fair and mediocre conditions “to keep pavements and bridges in good condition longer.” That approach would take into account both current and forecasted pavement conditions.

Audit: Guv’s plan not enough

The new audit of the Idaho Transportation Department looked at the governor’s $240 million proposal for increased funding, of which $137 million would go to ITD (much of the rest goes to local highway jurisdictions). It’s no permanent fix, the audit found. “Even with the requested $137 million revenue increase, preservation and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure will fall $55 million short through 2013,” the report predicts.

Looking for savings…

Here’s how much interest there is in finding savings at the Idaho Transportation Department through efficiencies: Among those in the audience for the unveiling of the new audit today are Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, and the entire House GOP leadership team, the chairmen of both the House and Senate transportation committees, other lawmakers, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, lobbyists, state officials and many others.

‘Funding is insufficient’

“Our audit team strongly believes that the current ITD funding is insufficient to maintain the state highway program,” auditor Mike Huddleston told lawmakers, summing up the findings of an extensive audit of Idaho’s Transportation Department that’s just being unveiled today. Furthermore, the audit found that construction costs are increasing faster than inflation; a comprehensive statewide strategy is lacking; more business and financial planning are needed; department programs are “generally reactive, lacking a long-term infrastructure management plan;” better planning and a uniform selection process are needed for capital projects; the department could better use available technology for management of complex maintenance needs; and other measures could improve project and consultant management. The auditors, Huddleston said, also analyzed the governor’s proposal for more revenue, and determined that the additional revenue “is merited and may even be understated in terms of the need in the state.”

They also found that Idaho could save by better maintaing its roads. “There literally are hundreds of millions that can be saved by maintaining your current assets in better condition,” rather than having to replace them, Huddleston said. The audit also concluded that if its recommendations are followed, the state could save up to $19.6 million in one-time savings and more than $11 million over five years, with an annual $6.6 million savings thereafter. That’s not counting “cost avoidance” through extending the life of existing roads through better maintenance.

Audit on time and under budget

The $550,000 audit of the Idaho Transportation Department that’s being released today ended up costing only $450,000, Office of Performance Evaluations chief Rakesh Mohan just told the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. “It’s a large and complex study, but we did it in a short amount of time,” he said - and under budget. “Both the department and the governor generally agreed with our recommendations.” The findings now will be presented to the joint committee; tomorrow, the House and Senate transportation committees will hold joint hearings on the audit.

‘We have saved some lives’

Former House Judiciary Chair Debbie Field, now the head of Gov. Butch Otter’s Office of Drug Policy,  presented the statewide request for substance abuse services funding to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, joined by the directors of the state departments of Health & Welfare, Corrections, courts, juvenile corrections, and the head of an interagency committee coordinating between them all. Said Field, “We have saved some lives.” The coordinated effort, a priority for lawmakers in recent years, has prompted a turnaround in the growth of Idaho’s prison inmate population, she said. “We were able to change history this year,” Field told lawmakers. “We actually entered the year with fewer inmates than we started the (previous) year with.” She said, “You really can see where we’ve made the difference together.”

For the coming year, the Office of Drug Policy requested a $475,600 budget, and the request for statewide substance abuse services, in all the agencies combined, was $9.3 million. Gov. Butch Otter has recommended, on a one-time basis, putting no general funds into the office operations budget, and instead funding it on a one-time basis from Idaho’s Millenium Fund, which comes from proceeds from a nationwide tobacco settlement. He also is calling for drawing $1.9 million from the Millenium Fund for the statewide substance abuse services request in addition to $5.2 million in general funds; that brings his total recommendation for that request to $7.1 million, $2.2 million less than the request.

Bad economy means higher court caseloads

As Idaho’s judicial branch has its budget hearing before lawmakers this morning, Idaho Supreme Court Administrator Patti Tobias told JFAC, “Caseloads are increasing during these turbulent times.” District courts in Idaho have sen an unprecedented 17 percent increase in caseload in the past year, she said. Asked by lawmakers what would help the courts, she said wryly, “If we could add more than 24 hours to the day…” The courts are prepared to revert $1.3 million, 4.3 percent of their budget, if absolutely necessary, she told lawmakers, but said, “It worries me to death.” Already, judges have agreed to work two days without pay, and all court employees are being ordered to take a two-day unpaid furlough. Meeting the full holdback means a continuation of dramatic cuts in hours and subscriptions at the state law library, canceling of key training, and delays in replacing iSTARS computers at counties across the state beyond their warranty date, among other steps.

If a permanent cut to that scale is needed, she said, an emergency surcharge may need to be added to civil and criminal court filings and technology fees may need to be increased to keep the iSTARS system up and running. “We can’t slow down justice,” Tobias said. “We can’t stop hearing certain types of cases. … We can’t say to any Idahoan, ‘You don’t deserve justice as provided by the Constitution.’”

There’s a light…

While Boise has shivered for the past week under an icy fog, the mountains just above town, invisible from below, obscured by fog, have been basking under warm sunshine, clear skies and clean, fresh air. Up at Bogus Basin ski area over the weekend, it was like a different world. As lawmakers start into their second week of coping with tough challenges, celebrate Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day today, and the nation looks ahead to a historic presidential inauguration tomorrow, it’s nice to know that there really is a light up there, even when we’re huddled down here in the dark and cold.

One week in, and already all this…

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review about Friday’s developments at the Legislature, including the call for all state agencies to stop spending money except for operating costs “until further notice.” It’s not yet clear what will be affected, but possible targets include millions for replacement Idaho State Police patrol cars, major deferred maintenance projects at the University of Idaho that could get deferred again, and $100,000 for the Tax Commission to replace cars auditors are driving that have more than 100,000 miles on them apiece. And here’s a link to watch the first episode of Idaho Public TV’s “Idaho Reports,” on which Otter talks about the session and his initial clashes with lawmakers, and I join Jim Weatherby, Dan Popkey and host Thanh Tan to discuss the first week’s developments.

For a look at the week in photos, click here.

Melinda Smyser appointed to Senate

Gov. Butch otter has appointed Melinda Smyser to Brad Little’s former Senate seat. Otter chose Smyser, a GOP activist who was the top choice of a district party committee that submitted three names to the governor, over Caldwell farmer Sid Freeman and Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, to fill the District 11 seat.  “Melinda is active, engaged and knowledgeable. She knows the issues, the people and the process. She will make a great state senator,” Otter said. “It’s been well known for a long time that if someone wants to get something done in Canyon County politics, Melinda should be involved. That kind of approach will carry her a long way in the Idaho Senate.” Smyser, a former school district trustee who holds a master’s degree in education from the College of Idaho, was named “Canyon County Republican of the Year” in 2008. She is the wife of prominent lobbyist Skip Smyser. Click below to read Otter’s full announcement.

‘The new guy’s an over-achiever’

New U.S. Sen. Jim Risch got a prominent mention in the Roll Call newspaper’s “Heard on the Hill” column this week, headed “A for Effort,” which noted, “Looks like the new guy’s an over-achiever. HOH spies have noticed Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, spending a lot of time on the chamber’s floor, apparently toiling away at his desk.” The column said Risch has been at his desk in the chambers even when there’s nothing much happening, but for “whichever senator happens to be yapping away for the C-SPAN cameras.” The explanation? “One part apple-shining and one part necessity,” the column said. Risch is “a bit of a parliamentary geek,” and enjoys learning about rules and regulations. Secondly, his office, at least for now, is in a cramped mobile unit outside the Russell Senate Office Building.

Was that why all the sirens?

Phone system glitches are nothing new in the state Senate, but the latest one has a new twist: Lawmakers are accidentally dialing 911. “Folks, it’s happening a lot,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, informed the Senate today. The problem is that lawmakers are dialing extensions that start with 1-1, but some are accustomed to first dialing “9” to make a call. “You don’t need to dial 9,” Davis noted.

Cameron: Apologies accepted

During the budget hearing this morning for the legislative branch, JFAC heard from Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz about the budget for the Legislature, including the dispute with the governor over lawmakers’ new laptop computers (for which Otter line-item vetoed funding last year, but lawmakers cut travel to allow for the purchase). Youtz said he’s worked in the legislative budget process for 32 years, working with five governors and their staff, and the way the legislative branch structured its request for continued funding for operating the legislative computer system next year was “appropriate.” “That is consistent with every agency, and that is consistent with how this budget has been put together for the last 30 years,” he told the committee. Youtz said he was troubled by the governor’s objections and renewed veto threat earlier this week. “I felt the image of the Legislature was tarnished,” he said. The governor and his budget director, Wayne Hammon, have since apologized - Gov. Otter in an interview that will air statewide tonight on the “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I do want to express appreciation and acceptance to the governor and to Mr. Hammon for their apologies. Some of them have been in private, and the governor certainly has been public. I appreciate those apologies … and appreciate their willingness to move forward and get past this issue. Hopefully we can leave it lie there.”

Lawmakers troll for more savings

Legislative budget writers grilled several state officials this morning to see if they can find more ways to cut their budgets. State Treasurer Ron Crane, state Controller Donna Jones and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said they’re already trimming back, and Crane and Ysursa noted the small size of their agencies. Ysursa said his staff is down from 31 to 30. “We have historically been a very frugal agency,” he said. His office is turning back $350,000 this year because there were no constitutional amendments or initiatives on the ballot, so it saved on printing costs. They’ll also delay printing the Idaho Blue Book, a statutory requirement, and just publish it online instead until there’s more money. That’ll save $50,000 next year. “When things turn around, and they will, we’ll do a hard copy and print out some books,” Ysursa told JFAC. “We watch our money very closely,” he said, and noted, “If cuts continue, we have nowhere to go but to people.”

Ysursa used a walker to approach the podium, and joked, “Who’s counting, but 31 days ago I had a knee replacement surgery on my right knee to balance the one on my left knee. The only thing left to do now is a lobotomy.” He noted that it’s been an “interesting week” between the legislative and executive branches, and said, “I offer you an olive branch from the executive branch - we will get through this together.”

Agencies told to halt spending

The co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee just called on all state agencies to halt spending of any one-time money or capital outlay money they have in their budgets this year “until further notice.” Said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “We look forward to working with the governor’s office until we have an opportunity to take this information and consult with them, and consult with our leadership. We would ask them not to spend any of their onetime or capital outlay money that they may have sitting in their agency budgets.”


That came just after the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee had voted unanimously to receive the report of the Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee, which is proposing a revenue estimate for the coming year that’s $101 million less than the governor’s prediction. JFAC didn’t commit to budgeting based on that new lower figure – that was left open for now.


Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, co-chair of the revenue committee, told JFAC members, “Certainly if this committee is going to err, the error should be on the side of caution.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, commented, “I don’t consider taking too big a slice out of our potential revenue to be erring on the side of caution, particularly when you look at programs that we need to move our state toward recovery and we can hurt ourselves.”


But others on JFAC spoke out for caution. “Although it is disturbing, I have to support the committee’s recommendation,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. “I am inclined to believe that the committee’s report may even be too optimistic. … I’ve talked to too many people in my district that are unemployed, out of a job, looking for a place to work.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, noted that her estimate was among the most pessimistic of those on the revenue committee. “I’ve never wanted in my life to be so wrong,” she said.

 

Lawmakers say guv ‘over-optimistic’

Idaho’s state budget challenges got tougher today, as lawmakers on a special joint committee rejected the governor’s estimate of tax revenue for next year and instead picked a figure $101 million lower. If that stands, lawmakers would have to cut another $101 million more beyond the steep budget cuts Gov. Butch Otter already is recommending for next year, or find the money elsewhere, by dipping deep into rainy-day funds or raising taxes. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the special economic outlook/revenue assessment committee, noted that the panel heard two days of dismal economic news last week from Idaho industries, agencies and economists. “Based on the testimony that the committee received … we felt that the governor’s projections are over-optimistic,” Goedde said. The committee’s decision, which will go before the Legislature’s joint budget committee for consideration Friday morning, came as hundreds of disabled people, their family members and advocates from around the state converged on the Capitol Annex to protest budget cuts in services to the disabled. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter pitching retiree benefit cut again

Gov. Butch Otter is renewing his push to trim back the health benefits Idaho now provides to state retirees, the Associated Press reports. Click below for the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Idaho violating court order after prison riot

The AP is reporting that Idaho is temporarily violating a court order on prison crowding at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, after a Jan. 2 inmate riot damaged a new temporary housing unit that had been set up in a warehouse.  It was too late to cancel plans to bring back 300 inmates from out of state, so overcrowding ensued. “We’re trying to come to an understanding with the court so we’re not in hot water,” state Corrections Director Brent Reinke said.  Click below to read the full story from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Lawmakers trim revenue estimate

The joint committee charged with determining the revenue figure on which Idaho’s state budget for next year will be set has opted for a figure $100 million below the governor’s figure - which means lawmakers will either have to cut much deeper into next year’s budget than even Otter proposed going, or they’ll have to dip much further into the state’s rainy-day funds. The Joint Legislative Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee accepted the governor’s revenue estimate for the current year, fiscal year 2009, of $2.6338 billion - which is down 9.5 percent from the previous year. But instead of accepting his estimate for the coming year, fiscal 2010, of $2.6593 billion, the committee went with a significantly lower figure, $2.5579 billion. That’s $101.4 million less.

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, the House majority caucus chair, made the motion, and it passed with only one dissenting vote, from Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise.

Faces behind the issue

A theme sounded by those at the rally today against cuts in services for the disabled, and also by lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter, is that the cuts the state is making in its budget affect real people, and that’s what makes them so difficult. Click here to read today’s story by Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey about Spencer, a 6-year-old boy with autism who the governor said, for him, put a face on the budget cuts.

Disabled rally against budget cuts

Hundreds of disabled people, family members and advocates marched to the Capitol Annex this afternoon and rallied outside to oppose cuts in state services to the disabled. “I’m just like everybody else - I want to have my own apartment, I want to work, I want to help make it better for the next generation of people with disabilities,” Mike Smith, 45, of Moscow told the crowd from his wheelchair, struggling with the words. Smith, who was born with severe cerebral palsy but works and lives on his own, has such difficulty speaking that a helper then reread his speech for him so everyone could understand it. People in the crowd held signs saying, “No Medicaid Cuts,” “Our Community Includes ME,” “Services keep me home” and “Do you enjoy living in your own home? So does my son!” One woman held a toddler bundled in pink, along with a sign saying, “I am the face of the governor’s holdbacks.”

Two legislators, Republican Rep. Janice McGeachin of Idaho Falls and Democratic Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, addressed the crowd and said they’ll work to minimize the impact of the cuts. To cheers, LeFavour said, “I want to be very clear that it is in no way acceptable to balance Idaho’s budget on the backs of people with disabilities.”

Several hours earlier, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, on which both McGeachin and LeFavour serve, had voted unanimously to make Gov. Butch Otter’s 4 percent holdbacks permanent - the very cuts that are forcing cuts in treatment hours to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. But advocates said they hope that when the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees review rules for implementing the cuts, they’ll soften the effect by making them temporary and allowing for exceptions. Katherine Hansen with the Idaho Association of Developmental Disability Agencies said in some cases, a cut in treatment hours may actually cost the state more, because of the worsening it would bring in the condition of a particular patient.

McGeachin said she addressed the rally to “acknowledge the importance of home and community based services,” saying, “I wanted them to know how important it was for them to be here and let us know how these decisions affect their lives.” She said, “I’m going to do all I can to try to minimize the impact. … Our job is to try to minimize the impact of the holdbacks on this particular population.”

At the end of the rally, Angela Lindig, chair of the State Independent Living Council, told the crowd of more than 400, “Go talk to your legislators,” and the group streamed into the Capitol Annex.

They picked up more than drunks

When Idaho law enforcement agencies put on a big push to target impaired drivers over the Thanksgiving holiday period, they actually came up with more other offenders. ITD reports that the Nov. 21-30 mobilization, funded by a federal grant, resulted in 314 DUI arrests over nine days. But it also led to 2,135 speeding tickets, 717 uninsured motorist citations and 360 seat belt violations. Click below to read the full list.

Unanimous vote to make holdbacks permanent

Some of the ‘aye’ votes sounded reluctant, but JFAC has voted unanimously to make the governor’s 4 percent holdbacks in this year’s state budget permanent. “We find ourselves in this situation,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “I guess we can only hope and pray that it doesn’t get worse before it gets better.” A single bill, which now must pass both houses, amends the budget for agencies across state government to reflect the mid-year cutback. “Our action is necessary in order to make sure that we meet the Constitution, and balance our budget as required by the Constitution,” Cameron said.

The joint budget committee also voted unanimously to trim health insurance costs by using more from health insurance reserves; that change doesn’t change benefits to employees.  “It does not affect their benefits at all, it’s only a calculation as to the cost of those benefits,” Cameron said. That change, the budget revisions, and various fund transfers all will go into one omnibus bill that makes the holdbacks permanent. It must pass both houses and receive the governor’s signature to become law.

A little more left in school fund

The Legislature’s budget committee is in the process of voting on a series of motions to make the governor’s 4 percent holdbacks permanent. So far, they’ve made one alteration - the governor wanted to  account for a 4 percent holdback in public schools, then make it up from the school stabilization fund, but he also wanted to hold back the $3.9 million in funding for the math initiative and make that up from the fund as well. Yesterday, JFAC members noted that that essentially trimmed the math initiative funds twice - it took 4 percent of them and replaced them, and then took the whole amount and replaced it, too. The result of JFAC’s motion, which passed unanimously, is that the Legislature would dip into the school stabilization fund at this point for $56.7 million rather than $60.7 million, leaving another nearly $4 million still in the fund. There’s no change in school funding this year either way, because school holdbacks are all made up. But there’s a change in the amount left in the backup fund - it’d keep $3.9 million.

“We all know the public schools are our highest priority, the education of our children,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “This helps continue those contracts and protect public schools so that they can continue through this fiscal year without being harmed. Now obviously we can’t tell what’s going to happen here the next several months.” If there are further holdbacks and further shortfalls, he said, “We may have to come back and address more out of the public school stabilization fund for this session.”

They just saved $10 million

In perhaps the easiest savings lawmakers will make in this year’s budget, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee just voted unanimously in favor of the governor’s recommendation to put off paying for fire suppression costs until after the end of the fiscal year each year, when the actual amount of the bills is known. That saves an estimated $10 million in this year’s budget, though the bills still will be paid. They’ll just be paid out of the following year’s budget each year. “That way, instead of trying to guess what the costs will be halfway through the fiscal year, the Legislature would wait … and appropriate the actual amount,” explained legislative budget analyst Ray Houston. The move is similar to one the Legislature already made several years ago for agricultural pest control deficiency warrants and hazardous materials cleanup payments; it includes a policy change to make the new approach permanent.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, moved to approve the governor’s recommendation, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously with no discussion. This is the one accounting change contained in the governor’s budget proposal that results in a major change in the numbers; other savings will be more difficult.

‘Something we shouldn’t have done’

Here’s a link to a video excerpt from the Idaho Public TV interview with Gov. Butch Otter in which he discusses the flap over legislative computer funding. In it, the governor says he opposed the purchase of new laptop computers for lawmakers because he wanted to include it in a standardized purchasing program for the state, to save money. “But this is a year later,” the governor said in the interview. “It was probably poor timing to bring it up, especially the second day of the session, and I apologize, and I will apologize to Dean and Maxine and to the entire JFAC committee and to the Legislature for the characterization that we put around them putting the money back in their budget. … Also, I think we need to move beyond that.” Otter said he has “full confidence” in his budget director, Wayne Hammon, “but it was just a poor choice of words and I’ve asked him not to use those words any more.”

Those words, of course, included “sneak” and “budget sleight of hand.” Said Otter, “I’ve asked him, both he and my chief (of staff) to go back to the Legislature and make it right, because it was something we shouldn’t have done.”

Guv apologizes to JFAC co-chairs

In an interview with Idaho Public Television’s Thanh Tan, taped this morning for Friday night’s “Idaho Reports,” Gov. Butch Otter apologized to the co-chairs of JFAC and other lawmakers for the tone of the threat he had his budget director deliver yesterday, as the governor took on the Legislature for buying new laptop computers after he’d line-item vetoed the funding. “It was a poor choice of words,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “We understand that, especially in this particular budget, there’s a lot of emotion. … At least we have the ability for two equal branches of government to question each other.” The Otter interview will air in full on “Idaho Reports” Friday at 8 p.m.

‘One might call it a sleight of hand’

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that there’s in essence a double cut in the way the holdback was calculated for public schools. That’s because in addition to the 4 percent holdback, Gov. Butch Otter also cut the $3.9 million for the math initiative. However, both are fully made up from the public education stabilization fund, so schools actually aren’t out the money. Ringo noted that 4 percent of the math initiative already was cut as part of the holdback - and then the whole thing was cut again. Said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “It’s in essence subtracting those funds twice. One might call it a sleight of hand,” and as other JFAC members urged him on with suggestions, he added, “or sneaky, or underhanded.” DFM Chief Wayne Hammon, who used the “sleight of hand” and “sneaky” phrases yesterday to lawmakers’ great dismay, was among those in the audience laughing along.

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee said the lawmakers are correct - in essence, the math initiative funds in the school budget this year are being reduced by 104 percent. Of course, the initiative is still funded - for now.

In the ‘silver lining’ department…

A few state agencies reported cost savings that helped them comply with the 4 percent mid-year budget holdback. Among them: The state treasurer expects to save $51,300 on bank fees for deposits and other transactions, because less state revenue this year meant fewer transactions. And Health & Welfare reports it can cut child care subsidy payments because more parents are out of work and thus don’t need child care.

Lots of furloughs

At lots of state agencies, employees are being asked to take time off without pay to cope with a mid-year 4 percent budget holdback. Health & Welfare has an agency-wide three-day furlough, as does the Department of Juvenile Corrections, JFAC was told this morning. The Judicial Branch wasn’t required to impose the holdbacks, but agreed to anyway. There, court employees will see a two-day unpaid furlough. In addition, judges and justice are being asked to take a two-day voluntary salary holdback - and so far, 90 percent have committed to do so. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “I think it needs to be said in plain English … They’re going to work for nothing for two days, and I think that’s commendable and needs to be acknowledged.”

Colleges, cops hit hard by holdbacks

Lawmakers on JFAC this morning are hearing presentations on how the 4 percent holdbacks have affected various state agencies. Among the news: Idaho State Police is holding seven trooper positions vacant for two months to make up $42,000 in personnel holdbacks in patrol. That’s 5 percent of its total trooper strength. The state Tax Commission has cut 63 year-round temporary employees, of which 50 are from audits and collections, plus imposed a hiring freeze and asked three-quarters of its employees to take two days off without pay. And at state colleges and universities, the cuts have hit hard. Legislative budget analyst Matt Freeman, queried by new JFAC member Sen. Jeff Siddoway about whether they’ll affect students, said, “There will probably be some program eliminations which will lead to a longer time to graduate,” plus higher student fees. “Course may be eliminated.”

JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “We did hurt them, but … this is going to give them an opportunity.” Like other pinched state agencies, she said, colleges can “refine” what they’re all about.

‘Less money to squabble about’

When Gov. Butch Otter’s office was asked for a comment late Tuesday on the spat that developed between the governor and lawmakers over replacement of lawmakers’ laptop computers, Jon Hanian, spokesman for Otter, said, “Our take is there’s gonna be these moments - hopefully fewer of these than last year, because we’ve got less money to squabble about.” Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com.


State union: ‘Not a single word’

The Idaho Association of Government Employees, which represents some state workers, is upset that Gov. Butch Otter didn’t talk about state employees in his annual State of the State message - though state worker pay has been a major theme for him in past years. “State workers may have noticed that the governor made not a single mention of state employees - not a single word of encouragement, let alone thanks, for their hard work,” the union said in a press release it just sent out. Andrew Hanhardt, union president, said, “The governor is not showing compassion to those he leads.” The union said if salary savings are needed, the state should target its highest-paid employees. Members will be talking with lawmakers on Jan. 19.

CdA Tribe: ‘We’re disappointed’

Marc Stewart, spokesman for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said the tribe is concerned about Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to drop state funding for Old Mission State Park. “The tribe is disappointed in the decision, and it’s really too bad that the budget crisis is going to affect this successful partnership between the tribe and the state co-managing the park,” Stewart said. “The tribe has begun preliminary conversations with the parks folks to find out what options are available for the future of the park.”

Siddoway gets JFAC seat

The Senate has finished its reshuffling of committee assignments now that Sen. Russ Fulcher is in leadership (majority caucus chair), and Fulcher’s former seat on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has gone to Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton. Siddoway’s former seat on the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee went to Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake. Meanwhile, Fulcher joined Senate State Affairs; new Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, who moved over from the House, is joining the Senate Resources and Health & Welfare committees along with his JFAC seat; Jorgenson is joining the Commerce & Human Resources Committee; and new Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, replaces Siddoway as vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee. Also, new Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, another former House member, replaces Fulcher as vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. There were no changes on Transportation or Judiciary & Rules.

Dems fault Otter’s priorities

Legislative Democrats are faulting Gov. Butch Otter’s priorities, saying he shouldn’t be cutting education and other essential state services while leaving hundreds of millions in state rainy-day funds. “Our tax dollars created these rainy-day funds; they’re there for a purpose,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “We’re well beyond raining - in fact we need a new ark.”

Democrats, the minority party in both the House and Senate, held a press conference this morning to respond to Otter’s State of the State and budget message. They praised some of Otter’s proposals, including his zero-based budgeting initiative, his plan to revamp the role of the state Board of Education to limit it to policy-setting, and his push for more efficiency at the Idaho Transportation Department. “In his remarks, Gov. Otter offered a glimpse into the same sort of post-partisan future we are seeing take shape in Washington, D.C., and the wisdom of meeting in the middle whenever we can,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Kate Kelly. “But we also saw many misplaced priorities, and missed opportunities, in what the governor had to say yesterday, and in the policies we’ve seen take hold so far during this budget crisis.” She asked, “Is it smart to ask Idahoans to pay more for road maintenance while cutting school resources, the best engine we have for our future economic security?”

Otter has called for spending just 35 percent of the state’s $390 million in rainy-day funds to get through both the current year and fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1. Though he proposed offsetting cuts to public schools in the current year from the rainy-day funds, he wouldn’t dip into them for schools in the new year. Instead, he’s calling for an unprecedented 5.3 percent cut in funding for public schools next year. “All we’re suggesting is that the cuts be less significant, they should not go to the bone,” said House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello.

Cataldo Mission targeted for state cut

Here’s a news item from the AP about one of the cuts contained in Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year:

State officials say budget cuts will force them to cut off funding on July 1 to the Old Mission State Park in northern Idaho, the location of the state’s oldest standing building along U.S. Interstate 90. Bob Meinen, director of Idaho Parks and Recreation, is in talks with the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, which owns the property that’s home to the 155-year-old Cataldo Mission, on an alternative to keep the park open. Meinen says his agency, whose state appropriation is due to be cut back about $9 million, is looking for ways to save money. Jennifer Wernex, a spokeswoman, says officials are trying to keep other parks open, while scaling back projects such as restroom roof repairs. Idaho last closed a state park in the early 1980s, when managers temporarily shuttered Three Island Crossing on the Oregon Trail near Glenns Ferry.

‘Probably should have overridden’

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, says Gov. Butch Otter’s line-item veto last year of funds for a legislative computer upgrade was in retaliation for a legislative trim in a DFM budget item. “The governor didn’t like it, because there’s a long history,” Cameron said, that the two branches leave each other’s budgets for such items alone. “As retribution, he vetoed the computers,” Cameron said. In addition to the actual laptops that lawmakers use, the line-item veto covered funds for staff to maintain the legislative computer system and software. “We chose to let it lie, because we could handle it with existing resources,” Cameron said, “rather than override” the veto. Lawmakers can override a governor’s veto by a two-thirds vote in each house. “Sure we could have, if leadership had wanted to,” Cameron said. “We could have, and in hindsight, we probably should have.”

He said of the renewed dispute, “It’s silly and it’s petty, and it’s the wrong way to start a budget session. There are a hundred, maybe even a thousand issues that we’re going to have to handle, and to pick a scab off a wound from last year is foolishness, in my opinion.”

‘Some of us have a more pessimistic view’

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, told Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, Wayne Hammon, that “some of us have a more pessimistic view” than the adminstration on how state revenues will fare, and said he hopes the governor will work with them. Hammon responded that the governor’s budget proposal is one the administration believes is “prudent.” “No one on my staff remembers a time where state government has actually shrunk to that magnitude,” he said.

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Hammon at the end of his presentation that the panel appreciates working with him and she looks forward to continued cooperation between the legislative and administration budget staffs. “This is a first for many of us - most of us weren’t here in the 1980s, so we’re going to have to stick together on this,” she said.

First clash between guv and JFAC

The generally friendly Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, delivered a threat from the governor to lawmakers as he was detailing the governor’s budget proposal this morning: Otter opposes a $142,000 appropriation to the Legislative Council for laptop computers for the legislative branch - something he line-item vetoed last year. “Particularly offensive to the governor is the manner in which this item was sneaked into the budget,” as a base adjustment rather than as a line item, Hammon said, dubbing the move “budget sleight-of-hand.” He said the governor’s veto threat was back on the table.

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded, “We’ve been called a lot of things but we’ve never been called sneaks before.” Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “Frankly it’s no different than any other agency who finds money within their agency,” to fund an unfunded item. “Our lease on the computers had expired. Those computers act as our ability to communicate with the public and act as our bill books, which saves us money. The veto occurred as retaliation for this committee’s unwillingness to approve a request from your office. … It wasn’t because the computers weren’t needed.” He added, “Those comments are in my opinion unwarranted.”

The revenue figures

Gov. Butch Otter’s Division of Financial Management is forecasting that state tax revenues for the current year, fiscal year 2009, will come in 9.5 percent down from the previous year. Then, from that lowered level, DFM is predicting a 1 percent growth in revenue the next year. The result is a revenue forecast for next year that’s 8.5 percent below what’s expected to come in this year - that’s the basis on which Otter built his budget. Wayne Hammon, DFM chief, told JFAC this morning that he’s often asked how accurate the forecasts are, which are made by longtime state chief economist Mike Ferguson. Hammon said on average, in all the years Ferguson’s been making the predictions, they’ve come in within just over 3 percent of the actual numbers.

Now it’s the Legislature’s turn

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message, with its historic proposal for a cut in public school funding. This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is holding its first meeting, and will examine the governor’s proposal.

Fulcher wins leadership post

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, has won former Sen. Brad Little’s leadership post as Senate majority caucus chairman, in a two-way race against Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls. “It’s always an honor when your peers choose you, so I’m very honored,” Fulcher said. “However, the attitude this year is a somber one, because of the economic situation and what’s all coming before us.”

The leadership change will force some switches in Senate committee assignments - Fulcher is on JFAC,  a seat he’ll have to give up. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes said the seat on the key budget-writing committee will be awarded in the morning. “We’re going to let people sweat overnight about that seat,” he said with a chuckle. Asked how much interest he’s gotten in it so far, he said, “There’s plenty.” The leadership change also will ripple through committee assignments, as will Little’s departure from the Senate to preside over it as the state’s new lieutenant governor. And if a House member is appointed to Little’s Senate seat, that’d mean changes in committee assignments over there, too, though that wouldn’t come until after the appointment process is completed. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the Senate will work out its committee assignments and seating changes and go on the floor by 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Luna: ‘Education will receive less money’

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said after Gov. Otter’s State of the State message, “There’s no doubt that education is going to receive less money than they got this year. No one is happy about that, but it’s the situation that we’re in.” Asked if he accepts the governor’s proposal for a 5.34 percent cut in school funding, Luna said, “We’re still in the process of reviewing it.” He’ll present a revised budget request to JFAC, Luna said. It may or may not match Otter’s figure, but, he said, “It will be a decrease.”

An impromptu debate

As Gov. Butch Otter left his State of the State speech, after talking with the media, he got into an impromptu debate with House Democratic leaders over his budget proposal. First, House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said with Idaho families struggling, “This is not a time to raise taxes in Idaho.” Otter challenged Ruchti and House Minority Leader James Rusche, D-Lewiston, saying they were “mixing apples and oranges,” and said, “Are you suggesting we take money out of transportation and put it into social services? … So where are ya going to find the money?” The three engaged in a spirited back-and-forth debate, then agreed there’s plenty of debate ahead, before Otter moved on down the crowded hallway at the BSU Special Events Center. Passing Ricardo Ochoa of Idaho Public Television, Otter said in Spanish, “Mucho trabajo, poco dinero,” or lots of work, little money.

Rusche said House Democrats are concerned about seeking a tax hike for transportation while cutting education, and favor spending the state’s rainy-day funds instead. “Is this the right time?” he asked about the transportation funding push. “We just think that the priorities are off - it looks like a lose-lose to me.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, echoed that later, back at the Capitol Annex. “It’s an odd set of priorities, in my mind, to be willing to raise taxes for roads but not for school kids,” she said.

Otter’s third State of the State

A few observations about the governor’s speech: It was a somber speech, rarely interrupted by applause  (only five times in the 45-minute speech). And the venue forced a rather unusual atmosphere at the after-speech scrum, when Otter usually is surrounded by reporters and TV cameras and bombarded with a few quick questions as he leaves. This time, he took some time to collect his thoughts, then came out and held a press conference. The questions were many and pointed. Among them: Whether his agenda puts “potholes ahead of people.” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, felt compelled to step to the podium and say that he’s for both (filling potholes, and creating jobs for people in the process). Otter also defended his proposal to tap into just 35 percent of Idaho’s rainy-day funds over the next two years, even while cutting schools. No one knows when the recession will end, he said. “I want that buffer.”

Otter: We do care

The governor closed his State of the State speech with an unscripted moment, recalling a mother of an autistic child who came to one of his Capitol for a Day meetings in despair over state cuts in her child’s treatment hours. Otter said he was most struck by her comment that the state was cutting the child’s treatment, and didn’t care. He urged lawmakers to keep that child and others like him in mind as they cut the state budget in the weeks ahead. “We may be builty of a lot of things in state government, but not caring is not one of them,” he said, prompting resounding applause.

Another way to define ‘compassion’

Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers, “I know that you share my administration’s goals of promoting responsible government, enhancing economic opportunity, and empowering Idahoans. I know that you are as devoted as I am to advancing those goals decisively - with certainty - but also with compassion.” Then he added, “And speaking of compassion, I also think it’s worth noting that the more quickly you do the people’s business the more of their money you save.” Lawmakers, who clearly got the hint - it cost more than $35,000 for each day the Legislature remains in session - strongly applauded.

Otter touts Winter Games

The upcoming Special Olympics in Idaho “will include more athletes and participating nations than the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City,” Gov. Otter just told lawmakers. “The World Winter Games will be the largest multi-day winter sporting event ever held in our state.” The event is set for Feb. 7-13.

‘Talk about going the extra mile’

While touting a program pushed by a committee of health care experts he appointed to offer affordable private-sector health insurance plans to Idahoans aged 25 to 40, the group most likely to be uninsured in Idaho, the governor said the committee’s chairman, Stephen Weeg, headed a group of experts on health care who took “those recommendations on the road and listen(ed) to what Idahoans had to say.” Then, he added, “I want to wish Chairman Weeg a full and speedy recovery from his recent successful heart surgery. Talk about going the extra mile to explore an issue!”

Guv proposes Ed Board shakeup

It won him his third round of applause - Gov. Butch Otter has just proposed a “comprehensive plan for reorganizing our education policy and governance system on the state level.” That means, he said, that the State Board of Education should no longer be involved in day-to-day operations of various education programs. “To achieve our goal, I will be proposing legislation returning the Board of Education to the policy-setting mission envisioned in the Idaho Constitution,” Otter said. “My plan also will reinforce the State Department of Education’s role as THE state agency responsible for K-12 education.” The assembled lawmakers and audience burst into applause.

Otter wants grocery tax cut to continue

“Idaho taxpayers are struggling,” the governor said. “And that means we must fulfill our commitment to keep increasing the grocery tax credit.”

Second applause line

Gov. Otter said of his transportation proposal, “Six months of listening to the Idahoans who hired us tells me that this conservative, measured and phased-in approach will work. … I can tell you that we are shirking our responsibility and ignoring the facts if we don’t step up to our duty to maintain what taxpayers already have built, to do what’s necessary to sustain and enhance our economy and quality of life.” It was then that he received his second round of applause of the speech.

That prompted Otter to depart from his prepared text and joke that he admits to a “broken heart” that House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, didn’t “break out into loud applause” when he outlined his tax plan. He continued, “The time for debate has passed. We have talked this issue to death.”

Where he’d get the money

Idaho’s governor is proposing a 2-cent per gallon increase in the state’s fuel tax each year for five years, resulting in a 10-cent increase in the tax in five years to 35 cents per gallon. The first year, that’d bring in about $17.6 million. After five years, it’d generate $88 million more a year for transportation. He’s also calling for $15 million from increased vehicle registration fees the first year, and $51 million a year after five years. A 6 percent excise tax on car rentals, eliminating the ethanol exemption from the fuel tax, and a gradual shift of fuel tax revenues that now go to the Idaho State Police back to the highway fund round out the revenue proposal, which Otter estimated will raise $174 million a year more for transportation over the next five years. He’d also proposing a study of how much sales tax is generated from auto sales, tires and auto parts. “While I’m not advocating a shift in those revenues today, it is important for us to compile the data so that we can make informed decisions down the road,” Otter said. Idaho currently spends no general tax money for transportation, relying mainly on fuel tax and vehicle registration fees along with federal funds.

Transportation plan: Three points

Gov. Otter told lawmakers that his transportation proposal “boils down to three points”: Accountability and efficiency, generating new revenue, and a task force to study inequities in Idaho’s truck registration system. “No amount of efficiency - however important - will make up for the hard fact that we have let our investment deteriorate,” the governor said. “Simply put, our transportation revenue system isn’t designed to meet our needs today.”

It’s cut less than the rest

Gov. Butch Otter noted, “The $1 billion, 425 million I’m proposing for K-12 education next year still represents almost half our total general fund budget. And the fact is that my proposed public schools budget is reduced FAR less than I’m recommending for other state agencies.” Those include a 7.5 percent cut for Health & Welfare, 10 percent for higher education, and nearly 12 percent for the departments of Water Resources and Corrections.

And here’s his big news

Here’s Otter’s big news in his State of the State and budget speech: “I’m calling for a reduction in total General Fund spending of more than 7 percent from what initially was approved for Fiscal 2009. That reflects a realistic and thorough assessment of our needs and our capabilities. And I believe it reflects the kind of frugality and common sense that most Idahoans expect and deserve.”

Furthermore, it includes a cut for public schools: 5.34 percent, an unprecedented move. Schools were exempted from Otter’s mid-year budget holdbacks earlier this year. “There is the need for public schools to be included in the difficult realities of our economy as we plan for Fiscal 2010,” the governor said. The proposal was met with silence.

Otter’s first applause line

The governor’s first line to draw applause in his State of the State speech: “It is my intent to continue an unrelenting scrutiny of state government programs that use Idahoans’ hard-earned dollars.”

Governor: ‘No doubt times are tough’

“There is no doubt that our nation is going through troubled times,” Gov. Butch Otter told state lawmakers just now as he began his State of the State message. “But I firmly believe that Idaho can provide leadership for an anxious nation - to be what Franklin referred to as the ‘laboratory of the Republic.’”

He told lawmakers, “As you all know, our means are not what they were when we last met here a year ago. … We are better off than many states. However, we as leaders must be sensitive to the fact that far too many Idahoan are out of work or under-employed. … No doubt about it - times are tough. But they have been tough in the past, and we have weathered the storm by working together with a common purpose.”

 

Joint session begins

The statewide elected officials, state Supreme Court justices and other dignitaries have been escorted in, and the joint session of the Idaho Legislature has been convened to hear Gov. Otter’s message. Please note: The time stamps on these posts is in Pacific time, but the governor will be speaking in the Mountain time zone - so each post actually will be posted an hour later than the time stamp states. Lawmakers are visiting now as their session is at ease, awaiting the governor’s arrival.

Senators file in

Senators have filed in to join the members of the House in the BSU Special Events Center, where Gov. Butch Otter will soon give his State of the State message to a joint session of the Legislature. While the state Capitol is being renovated, there’s no place in the Capitol Annex that can hold both houses, so the speech last year and this year was moved to Boise State.

The session is on

The gavels have fallen, and both the House and Senate have begun their annual sessions. A few House members had some glitches figuring out their voting equipment, and when a committee of senators returned from the House to formally report on its status, Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, said, “They’re ready to do business - but not quite organized. They’re ready to do business.” Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, had just headed a House delegation to the Senate, which had reported, “The word is that we’re organized.” New Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who’s wielding the gavel in the Senate, responded, “Well, House members, we’re delighted that you’re organized - we’re organized too, and we are ready to go - we look forward to a very fruitful session.” Next up is the governor’s State of the State speech later this afternoon.

Keough to miss first week

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, will stay home the first week of the legislative session because her husband, Mike, had a heart attack Friday night. “The good news is he’s doing very well, and we were able to get to the hospital in time,” she reported this morning. “He’s progressing and improving rapidly.” Keough expects to remain home this week; she’ll monitor the governor’s State of the State address and initial JFAC hearings via the Internet and Idaho Public TV, and is staying in close touch with her fellow District 1 representatives and Senate leadership. “The doctor has said that they expect Mike to be back at work in two weeks,” she said.

Session opens in tough times

Bleak. Dismal. Gloomy. Difficult. Really, really tough. That’s how Idaho state legislators and officials are describing the legislative session ahead, with state revenues slipping, budget cuts bringing cries of outrage from some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, and the governor’s much-vaunted but stalled effort to boost transportation funding back before lawmakers in the worst of all possible climates. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review. The 2009 session of the Idaho Legislature opens Monday; Gov. Butch Otter gives his combined State of the State and budget message to a joint session of the House and Senate at 3 p.m.; you can listen live here.

Crapo: Promising sign for Owyhee Initiative

A rare Sunday session of the U.S. Senate today brought promising news for the Owyhee Initiative, according to sponsor Sen. Mike Crapo, in the form of a strong 66-12 procedural vote on a larger bill containing the wilderness measure. The initiative is tucked into an omnibus bill containing more than 150 separate land management proposals, whose sponsors include nearly half the members of the Senate.  “This omnibus lands bill has broad support in every region of the country,” Crapo declared. New Idaho Sen. Jim Risch cast his first Senate vote in favor. Click below to read a report from Crapo’s office on what happened.

Duncan moved to Indiana

Condemned murderer Joseph Duncan has been transferred to U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Ind. that houses the federal Death Row, but Riverside County, Calif. still is working to bring the killer there to try him in another case. “There is some paperwork that we need to complete and get approved,” said Michael Jeandron, spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney’s office. “When we get it all sorted out, we’re going to go pick him up and bring him back.” Riverside County is seeking another death penalty against Duncan for the 1997 kidnap and murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Stimulus money and priorities…

Here’s a link to my full story on today’s brouhaha over Idaho’s priorities for federal stimulus money. The Dover Bridge on U.S. Highway 2 in North Idaho has width and height restrictions and a lowered speed limit because of its condition, and Popular Mechanics dubbed it one of the “10 pieces of U.S. infrastructure we must fix now,” along with the Brooklyn Bridge, O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and the Sacramento River levies. But the ITD board knocked the project off the top of a list of priorities for spending federal stimulus funds, deciding instead to spread the anticipated money to other projects around the state. That was partly because North Idaho already is getting lots of transportation funds as the long-planned Sandpoint Bypass construction is starting. The board did designate the Dover Bridge as the next project to be funded if more money arrives than expected; that’s more than they did for the reconstruction of the Vista Interchange on I-84, which was crossed off the list because the Boise area has other bond-funded projects under construction on the freeway.

‘Not the year to have a wish list’

Gov. Butch Otter and legislative leaders say looming budget cuts will color the upcoming legislative session. “This is not the year to have a wish list,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Otter told reporters at the AP’s legislative forum in Boise today that the coming cuts will be difficult, but needed. Click below to read AP reporter John Miller’s full report from the forum.

Jockeying already on for leadership seat

Sen. Brad Little has vacated his leadership position as majority caucus chairman in the state Senate, now that he’s the state’s new lieutenant governor. Already, senators are jockeying to replace him in that GOP leadership role. Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes said three names he’s heard of people who want the spot are Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell; Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake; and Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian.

The favored projects

Here are the six projects ITD recommended stimulus funding go to (not  in any particular priority order), ahead of the Dover Bridge project:
1. U.S. 93, Twin Falls, new alternate route. $51 million
2. U.S. 95, Moscow mountain, add passing lanes. $5 million
3. U.S. 95, Whitebird grade, add chain-up area. $4 million.
4. Interstate 86, Chubbuck to Pocatello, add new lanes. $25 million
5. Idaho 48, Rigby High School to Yellowstone Highway, add new lanes. $5 million
6. U.S. 20, Henrys Lake flat, add passing lanes. $4 million

ITD board passes over Dover Bridge project

Idaho’s Transportation Board - faced with a staff recommendation to make replacement of the deterioriated Dover Bridge a top priority for federal stimulus funds - instead dropped the project to No. 7 on its list in a special meeting yesterday, with only six projects likely to get funded. Board members said North Idaho already is receiving lots of transportation money with the Sandpoint Bypass project going forward and the money should be spread around the state - a decision that infuriated North Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and also aroused the ire this morning of Gov. Butch Otter.

“I’m just astounded,” Keough said. “I think it’s breathtaking that they would take the worst bridge in the state and one of the top 10 in the country (and treat it) in the manner they did. It’s a pretty important issue for my district.”

Otter, questioned about the issue this morning as he addressed reporters at an Associated Press pre-legislative session event, said, “I disagree with that philosophy. I think the money should go, No. 1, where we are having accidents, where we are killing people. The Dover Bridge has already been reduced three times in its weight capacity.”

He added, “The real tragedy of this is when we first started talking about replacing the Dover Bridge, we could’ve done it for $8 million.” The project is now estimated at $40 million.

Craig dropping further appeals

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig now says he’s dropping his attempt to appeal his conviction in an airport bathroom sex sting in Minnesota, according to the Associated Press. Here’s the AP news item:

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A lawyer for former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig says they won’t ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to void Craig’s conviction in an airport bathroom sex sting. Minneapolis attorney Tom Kelly says he concluded that the state Supreme Court would not accept a petition for further review of the case, so it would be a futile exercise. He says that means the legal wrangling in the case is over. Thursday was the 30-day deadline for Craig to ask the high court to review a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that went against him.
The Idaho Republican was arrested in 2007 by an undercover police officer who was conducting a sting operation against men cruising for gay sex at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The senator quietly pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and paid a fine, but changed his mind after word of his arrest became public. He insisted he was innocent and that he was not gay. He did not seek re-election.

Broder writes about Minnick

Washington Post columnist David Broder has an interesting column today focusing on new Idaho Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick. “Every new member has his own story. Walt Minnick’s is more unusual than most,” Broder writes. “For one thing, he is only the second Democrat to hold his House seat in the last 42 years, and the first in 14 years to come to Washington from the famously Republican state of Idaho. For another, he is, at 66, much older than most of the other freshmen, but ran and finished the Boston Marathon last year. Finally, he is the only former Nixon White House staff member to win election to this Congress.” You can read Broder’s column here. It also includes an interesting description of how Cecil Andrus helped push Minnick into becoming a Democrat, when Minnick was thinking of challenging GOP Sen. Larry Craig as an independent in 1996.

Gloomy economic news for lawmakers

Here’s an example of the gloomy economic news that the Legislature’s joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee is receiving as it holds two days of hearings on the state’s economic outlook: Jane Wittmeyer, vice president of Idaho affairs for the Intermountain Forest Association, said, “Our producers of lumber and wood products are operating at about 50 percent of capacity, and of that capacity, they can sell about 50 percent of what they make. One cannot do that for very long.”

In recent years, Idaho led the nation in economic growth, but Mike Ferguson, chief economist for Gov. Butch Otter, said Idaho is now actually leading the nation in the current recession. Our unemployment rate, which was third in the nation in January of 2008, was 18th in November. We’ve seen “a pretty dramatic deterioration in our employment growth over the course of the year,” he told the lawmakers on the panel. Bob Fick of the Idaho Department of Labor told the committee, “The recession has hit every part of the state.” Overall, Idaho lost 17,600 jobs from November of 2007 to November of 2008 and 19,500 fewer people were working. Manufacturing, construction and financial services jobs are disappearing, and while health care and education are growing, those jobs pay less. “Overall, Idaho’s job situation will continue to decline and the unemployment rate rise through much of 2009 before finding bottom,” Fick said.

The committee’s job is to examine the economic outlook and decide whether to accept the governor’s projections for tax revenues, or set different figures on which to base the state’s budget for next year. The hearings continue tomorrow, and the panel will make its decision on Jan. 15. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the joint committee’s co-chairman, said, “It’s bleak.”

Otter signs Pickens pledge

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has signed a pledge to join T. Boone Pickens’ campaign to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. “One of my goals as Governor is to fully utilize Idaho’s resources to increase our own state’s energy supply,” Otter said.  “Establishing energy security for this state and this country should be a top priority.  While there are some aspects of the Pickens plan I still have concerns about, I am signing this pledge to lend my voice to T. Boone Pickens and others calling for a comprehensive energy plan to end our reliance on foreign oil.”

Pickens responded, “Gov. Otter recognizes that importing nearly 70% of the oil this country uses every day not only hurts our economy, but is a threat to national security. In order to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, this country needs a plan.  I am proud to have Gov. Otter on my side as we call on President-elect Barack Obama and Congress to enact an energy plan within the first 100 days of the new administration.” Otter joins more than 1.3 million others in endorsing the plan, making him a part of the “Pickens Army.” Click below to read the full pledge.

Stennett, Malepeai to miss session kickoff

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, will send a stand-in for the start of the legislative session on Monday as he rests up from the latest phase of his brain cancer treatment before resuming his full-time legislative duties. “It is hard to know all the obstacles such an illness may place before you, but you tackle them one at a time, and continue to look forward,” Stennett said in a statement. “I am still positive about my health, and look forward to working hard again for District 25.” Stennett is recommending former Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson, who filled in for him for a week last year, as a temporary replacement. Click below for the full press release from the Senate minority office on Stennett’s announcement today. Meanwhile, Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, also is sending a stand-in due to his wife’s continuing illness. Former Idaho State University Dean Richard Sagness, who filled in for Malepeai last year, will do so again.

‘Why should we be any different?’

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on why the governor and other top state officials can’t reject their scheduled pay raises. It stretches back to a state constitutional requirement aimed at preventing partisan politicians from eliminating salaries for their political opponents, essentially undermining their election by the people. Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, requested the Attorney General’s opinion to address a series of questions about options for the Legislature and its joint budget committee in dealing with pay issues this year, and how constitutional restrictions impact that. “When economic times are tough, I was just thinking elected officials shouldn’t be held to a different standard than anyone else,” Bolz said. “If you’re asking that all these people who work for the state be held to no pay raise, why should we be any different?” Bolz said he was mainly focused on legislative pay, and was surprised to learn statewide elected officials couldn’t reject raises. “It’s kind of a unique situation, but that’s what the Constitution says,” he said.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who like Gov. Butch Otter had planned to reject his own pay increase this year but now is being told he legally can’t, said he hopes the Legislature will act this year to change the system, though a constitutional amendment also would need a vote of the people at the next election to take effect. “I think when we’re looking at the toughest economic times that we’ve seen in our lifetime, that this is not the time for politicians to be getting a pay increase,” he said, “when just about everyone else that we know is either being laid off or furloughed or at best their pay is frozen, and that’s inside government and outside government.” 

Guv can’t turn down raise, will donate it

Gov. Butch Otter’s decision to turn down a scheduled 3 percent pay raise this year has run into an unexpected roadblock: An Idaho Attorney General’s opinion has concluded that he can’t do it. In response to a request from a state legislator, the AG’s office analyzed constitutional requirements regarding pay for lawmakers and state constitutional officers. The state Constitution requires the Legislature to set the pay amounts for constitutional officers including the governor, and to do it before they take office. Their pay can’t be changed during their term. So a law passed before Otter took office, which mandates that his 2008 salary of $108,727 rise by 3 percent in 2009 to $111,989, is the law - and Otter has no power to change it.

“The governor was disappointed,” said his budget director, Wayne Hammon. “We’re bound to do it, so he’s going to take the money and then donate it to the scholarship fund.” Hammon said Otter will donate his raise to either the state’s Opportunity Scholarship fund, or to the Governor’s Cup Scholarship Fund. Both are for Idaho students attending Idaho colleges. “Secondly, he’s going to propose during this legislative session a constitutional amendment to change that law,” Hammon said.

Otter: ‘All said Brad’

Shortly after Gov. Butch Otter’s press conference announcing his appointment of Brad Little as lieutenant governor, the governor swore Little in, in a brief ceremony in the governor’s office. He’s now on the job, pending confirmation by the Senate. Otter said Little got a particularly good recommendation from perhaps an unexpected quarter, his competition. Otter said he asked every hopeful for the lieutenant governor’s post, “If not you, who?” Among all who were willing to answer that question, he said, “All said Brad.” Said Otter, “That might be the easiest legislative issue I have this year.”

Little: ‘Sure going to be a new adventure’

Brad Little, 54, Idaho’s new lieutenant governor, is a five-term state senator from Emmett. He’s a University of Idaho graduate, owner/manager of a cattle ranch and farm, has served on many boards including the Idaho Community Foundation and the Idaho Woolgrowers Association, and is a popular member of leadership in the Senate. He and wife Teresa have two sons. “This is very humbling,” Little said of his appointment to the state post. “This is really an honor for me to serve. Teresa and I are delighted, and our family.” He added, “This is sure going to be a new adventure.”  

‘Rarely trusted with anything sharp’

As a former lieutenant governor, Gov. Butch Otter today couldn’t resist a little joshing about his former job as he announced his appointee for the post, Brad Little. Otter said he made his pick from among “a terrific group of people that were willing to step forward and take that position, even after I told them, as the longest-serving lieutenant governor in the history of Idaho, I wanted to let them know that … the lieutenant governor rarely gets trusted with anything sharp or anything of value, and never the original of anything.” Amid laughter, he continued, “And even at that, there were many that did step forward and were very enthusiastic about it.”

Another term for Otter?

So why would it be that a top priority for Gov. Butch Otter in his selection of a new lieutenant governor was a candidate who would run for that office in two years? Otter said that was key. There had been some speculation that the GOP governor might pick one of the Republican hopefuls considering a run for Congress in two years against newly elected Democratic 1st District Rep. Walt Minnick. That would have given that candidate a boost in statewide name recognition before making a congressional bid. “Certainly that could have been one of the cards we could have played,” Otter told reporters in response to questions at a news conference today. But, he said, “I was looking for not just a future candidate for some higher office, but I was also looking for a great partner, and a person that I thought could handle the responsibilities that I wanted to extend to that office.”

So that means, 1) Little is running for lieutenant governor in two years, not for Congress (he confirmed this); and 2) It sure sounds like Otter is saying he’ll run for another term as governor. “I didn’t say that, Betsy,” he said. “I was very careful about not saying that.” But he has been raising money “to replenish my campaign fund,” he acknowledged. And he did say, “I fully expect, if I’m a candidate for governor in the next race, and my term will be up in two years, I fully expect and hope that Brad will run for lieutenant governor and once again I fully intend to endorse him and campaign for him. So that was obviously one of the considerations. Because there were some people that said, no, they wouldn’t run for lieutenant governor again.”

Risch applauds Little appointment

Jim Risch, who took office as a U.S. senator today, had this statement on the appointment of Brad Little to his former job, lieutenant governor of Idaho:

“I am very pleased with the selection of Brad Little as my successor to the office of Lt. Governor.  He has been a hardworking State Senator representing District 11 and has the respect of Senators on both sides of the aisle.  He has the ability to lead this state when he serves as acting Governor and I know he will be very supportive of Governor Otter as his second in command.”

Otter names Little to Idaho’s No. 2 post

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter made big political news just now with his announcement of his pick for the state’s new lieutenant governor: Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett. Little is  a rancher and Senate majority caucus chairman. “Nobody understands the issues, the personalities or the possibilities better than him, and nobody will work harder for the people of Idaho,” Otter said. Little pronounced himself “more than just delighted.” With many family members and supporters on hand watching, Little said, “I’m excited to join Gov. Otter’s team. We’ve got a lot of work to do … to get Idaho booming and boiling.”

Little said job creation will be his top priority as lieutenant governor. He’s taking over from former Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, who was sworn in today as Idaho’s newest U.S. senator, replacing the retiring Sen. Larry Craig.

Otter said he talked with about 30 possible candidates for the post, and part of Little’s appeal was that he was willing to commit to run for the position in the next election in two years. “I fully intend to endorse him and campaign for him,” Otter said.

 

Kempthorne promises smooth transition at Interior

Outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Monday that he’s already had discussions with his successor, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, and he promised a “smooth transition” at the Department of the Interior. “The president made it very clear in the cabinet meeting that we had the day after the election that this transition is going to be smooth, professional, we’re going to do everything we possibly can, because we want the next administration to be successful. If they are successful, America is successful,” Kempthorne told a large Boise audience at what he said is likely his last formal speech as interior secretary. He praised Salazar as “someone that is a good listener, he comes from the West - I believe people will like him. I think he’s a positive choice.”

Addressing the Boise City Club and the Idaho Environmental Forum, Kempthorne reflected back on a career in public service that took him from mayor of Boise to U.S. senator to twice-elected Idaho governor, and then to President George W. Bush’s cabinet. “I did not set out to become a cabinet secretary,” he said. But once he arrived there, he said, his experience in Idaho stood him well. “I had a frame of reference for every issue that we tackled at Interior, from water, public lands management, wildfires, the Endangered Species Act, just to name a few.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

W’s nickname for Kempthorne?

He’s not telling. Among the many questions Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne received from the audience at the Boise City Club/Idaho Environmental Forum today was what nickname President George W. Bush had for Kempthorne as a member of his cabinet. After much laughter, including plenty from the secretary, he seemed to hesitate a moment, and then said, “Some things stay in the Cabinet.”

Kempthorne: ‘And she said, ‘Sweetheart…’

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, former governor of Idaho, U.S. Senator and mayor of Boise, gave what he said was likely his last formal speech as interior secretary today, speaking to a large audience at a forum sponsored by the City Club of Boise and the Idaho Environmental Forum. Kempthorne had lots of reflections on his career and the issues he’s tackled. He also brought down the house with this story, which was met with loud laughter from all, including his blushing wife, Patricia:

“I took the oath of office in May of 2006. On one of those spring afternoons, Patricia and I were standing out on the balcony of that historic office, looking out at all of the monuments, which are now part of the jurisdiction. I will tell you that as a child I used to get those calendars that had the pictures of the monuments and I would just stare at them hoping some day I’d get to see ‘em. I was in my 30s before I ever got to see them, never suspecting I’d ever be responsible for their well-being. As we stood there on that balcony, I said to Patricia, ‘In your wildest dreams, did you ever think that we’d be standing here like this?’ And she said, ‘Sweetheart, you’re never in my wildest dreams.’”

Otter crafts targeted budget cuts

Under the budget Gov. Butch Otter is crafting to present to state lawmakers, Idahoans next year would face longer waits for state services, some state field offices would be open just four days a week, and about 100 state workers would face layoffs. With the economic downturn pinching state tax funds, Otter is working on plans to cut state government well beyond the 4 percent budget holdbacks he already implemented this fall. Those fall cuts would become permanent, along with an additional $120 million in permanent cuts. But unlike the fall holdbacks, Otter’s plan for cutting the state budget in the coming year doesn’t rely on across-the-board cuts. Instead, each state agency would see an additional cut ranging anywhere from zero to 6 percent, for a total of nearly 10 percent in cuts in some areas. You can read my full story here in the Spokesman-Review.

Prison riot wrecks unit

Idaho prison officials are weighing their options, after a late-night riot at the Idaho State Correctional Institution last night wrecked a newly opened temporary housing unit that was scheduled to house 300 Idaho inmates the state hoped to return from out-of-state prisons. “At 11:30 p.m. last night (Friday) a group of inmates began destroying property inside a newly opened, temporary housing unit,” the Department of Correction reported. “The inmates overturned furniture, broke a control room’s windows and started a small fire.” Four inmates suffered minor injuries; the disturbance was declared under control at 1:05 a.m. Click below to read the department’s full announcement. Last year, Idaho lawmakers were informed that the state’s prisons, which had experienced years of relative calm, are seeing more violence due to gang activity. 

Just tumbling along…

Winds have been gusting above 30 mph since mid-morning, and I just dodged a six-foot tumbleweed in the middle of Hill Road. Be careful out there…

Coach is Idaho’s highest-paid worker

Idaho’s highest-paid state employee isn’t the governor, a university president or a key scientist - it’s Boise State University head football coach Chris Petersen.    Petersen heads the list of a record 310 Idaho state employees who now out-earn Gov. Butch Otter. The list has swelled from 284 last year, in part because Otter opted to turn down his scheduled 3 percent pay raise this year and stick with last year’s salary of $108,727.

Petersen’s $806,998 salary, which comes from both state and private sources, is now more than eight times the governor’s salary. It’s risen with the success of BSU’s football program, ballooning from $400,000 two years ago - when Petersen also was the state’s highest paid employee - to $725,109 last year after the Broncos won the Fiesta Bowl. Idaho’s state salaries fall off quickly from Petersen’s, with BSU head basketball coach Greg Graham coming in second at $343,678. BSU President Bob Kustra places third at $299,416, followed by Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas, $286,650; BSU athletic director Eugene Bleymaier, $266,115; and University of Idaho academic faculty member and dean Aicha Elshabini, $230,838. Steve Shaw, a political scientist at Northwest Nazarene University, said the news recall’s Babe Ruth’s famous quote when asked why his contract gave him a salary bigger than that of the president, then Herbert Hoover. “I had a better year than he did,” Ruth retorted. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

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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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