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Eye On Boise

Archive for March 2009

Winder: ‘I think we have a chance’

Freshman Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, was the swing vote in the Senate Education Committee on HB 256, the bill to cut state reimbursements to school districts for their student busing costs. He could’ve killed the bill by supporting the substitute motion from Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, but instead voted against it; it failed, 4-5. There were audible, disappointed gasps from the audience when Winder cast his “no” vote.

“I think we have a chance of making some good, positive changes that would protect the Boise school system from the huge cut they were going to take,” Winder said later, “and I also didn’t want to see the whole process start over again.” In committee discussion, some members said they thought the entire public school budget would have to start over if the bill were killed. But this morning, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, when asked what would happen if any of the three school-cuts bills were killed in the Senate committee, said JFAC likely would just pass a trailer bill to make the adjustment, rather than start over.

Winder said that’s information he didn’t have. He opposed the bill’s permanent elimination of funding for field trips; he’s been involved in lots of projects that educate students in ways “that can’t be gained in the classroom,” and said, “I think that one is the one I’ve heard the most about from my constituents. There’s a lot of support from my school districts for the field trips.” Winder said he was OK with the bill’s other provision, to cut reimbursement for busing from 85 percent of costs to 50 percent, but give the same amount of money back to school districts through a complicated formula, with the intention of encouraging efficiencies. “My preference would’ve been to see it phased in over a period of time,” he said. “This is a fairly quick reaction to a budget problem that none of us knew was coming last summer.”

Winder said he’s hopeful Senate Education Chairman John Goedde’s proposed amendment, for an interim study committee to examine the funding formula for school busing, will pass and allow a longer look at the issue.

School busing cut sent to amending order, other cuts clear committee

The Senate Education Committee has voted 5-4 in favor of HB 262, to freeze the teacher salary grid for experience-related increases for a year, and phase out an early-retirement incentive program for teachers, to save the state a little over $8 million next year. It was the same 5-4 split by which the panel passed HB 252 a day earlier, a measure that allows school districts to suspend various state laws when they face financial emergencies. Both are sponsored by House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, to enable unprecedented cuts in Idaho’s public school budget next year. The committee backed HB 262 despite tearful testimony from some teachers about the financial situation they face, trying to live and support families on Idaho’s  starting teacher salary. Nonini told the panel, “We’re trying to spread out the cuts to education, and trying to minimize the impact on teacher salaries.”

Nonini also sponsored a third bill, HB 256, to cut $4.1 million from the reimbursements the state sends to school districts for their student busing costs. That would be a permanent change that would start next year - and $1.5 million of the hit would be on the Boise School District. Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said, “I cannot support the bill as it stands, because of the fact that it all hits one district.” He moved to send HB 256 to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments, where any senator may offer amendments. Fulcher said he wanted to remove the clause that hurts Boise, while leaving other transportation changes intact, including permanently eliminating funding for field trips. Goedde said he has his own amendment in mind, to form an interim committee to examine the transportation funding formula. Sen. Gary Schroeder moved to kill the bill, but that motion failed, 4-5. Fulcher’s motion then passed, 6-3, with Sens. Mortimer, Andreason, Fulcher, Pearce, Winder and Goedde voting in favor, and Sens. Schroeder, Sagness and Kelly voting against. That means the bill goes to the amending order.

‘We were just messin’ ’

When SB 1111 passed the House unanimously yesterday, to provide a new self-funded benefit to help permanently disabled law enforcement officers like former Coeur d’Alene police officer Mike Kralicek with their family’s health insurance costs - the bill wouldn’t help Kralicek, but it’d help others like him in the future - the vote was unanimous. But when the House voting board first lit up, it showed two red lights - from Reps. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, and Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries. “I was just playing around,” said Clark, who explained that he initially pushed the “no” button just to make the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, sweat a little. Both Clark and Harwood switched to “yes” votes, causing the lights by their names to turn green, before the voting was closed. Jorgenson, asked about the incident, said, “I think it’s typical Jim Clark - the fact is, nothing like that surprises me when it comes to Jim.” He added, “It’s too bad people can’t just vote on a bill, and not mix personality into it, and Jim’s got a lot of personality to mix.”

Harwood had an explanation similar to Clark’s. “We were just messin’,” he said with a grin. “The final vote’s what really counts, right?”

Nonini: ‘I’m not mad at all’

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked why he’s so mad at the governor, said, “I’m not mad at all.” His forceful debate in the House against amendments increasing the amount of a gas tax increase - including calling Gov. Butch Otter’s executive order mandating accountability measures at ITD “nothing more than a sales technique” and saying it was “not worth the piece of paper it was printed on” - were simply his  style of debate, he said. “I just get pretty passionate, it’s just my nature, I guess,” Nonini told Eye on Boise. He repeated his contention that the executive order is a “sales technique” and said governors can issue and cancel executive orders at will. He also said when he drove 400-plus miles up U.S. Highway 95 from Boise up to Coeur d’Alene over the weekend, looking for road problems all along the way, he found few. “I just did not see a lot of potholes, pavement crumbling away, and I specifically looked,” he said. “Traffic flowed nice. Frost heaves, chuck holes, crumbling shoulders - I didn’t see any of that.”

Nonini also said his debate had nothing to do with his disappointment over Otter’s announcement today that he’s named North Idaho hospital official Don Soltman to the state Board of Education, when Nonini had been pushing for a different candidate, Post Falls high-tech businesswoman Lorna Finman. “I’m disappointed that Lorna Finman didn’t get the appointment - I think Lorna had a deeper understanding of higher ed,” Nonini said, adding, “I asked her to seek the nomination. … You take that a little personal, but there were a lot of people interested in it.”

Guv: ‘Still hopeful’

Gov. Butch Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, was circumspect after the House’s defeat this morning of seven separate amendments to the gas tax bill, several of them designed to raise the amount closer to what Otter wants to fund roadwork. “We’re obviously mindful of the difficulties. We saw some of this earlier on,” Hanian said, referring to the House’s defeat of the governor’s 7-cent gas tax hike bill two weeks ago. “We’re still committed, and the governor is not backing away from what he said. We have an audit that we have paid for, it’s the Legislature’s own audit,” and it shows “we’ve got about a $300 million need.”

Hanian said, “We’re still hopeful that we can impress upon those lawmakers that are willing to listen that this is a problem that won’t go away. We remain engaged.” Hanian said Otter still wants to “get some level of funding to begin significantly address the problems that have been identified.”

Session contribution reporting bill introduced

The House Ways & Means Committee has voted unanimously, with no discussion, to introduce legislation from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, requiring reporting within 48 hours of campaign contributions received during a convened legislative session. Idaho now has no restrictions or special reporting requirements for such contributions. “There was a little discussion going on at the beginning of the session, so I thought we might as well plug that hole,” Luker said. “I think it’s a pretty rare event. … There was some concern expressed, so I figured I might as well take care of it.”

Ways & Means also unanimously introduced a constitutional amendment bill proposed by Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, regarding limits on municipal debt; and another measure from Wood on behalf of the Idaho Hospital Association to regulate “telepharmacy,” when hospitals that are part of multistate systems cross jurisdictional lines in their use of pharmacists.

Boat sticker bill goes to governor

The Idaho Senate has voted 34-1 in favor of legislation to require all boats launched in Idaho, motorized or not, to carry a $5, $10 or $20 sticker to help fund the fight against invasive quagga and zebra mussels. The bill, HB 213, earlier passed the House; today’s Senate vote sends it to the governor’s desk. Under the measure, owners of boats registered in Idaho would pay $10, those whose boats are registered elsewhere would pay $20, and non-motorized boats, which aren’t registered, would be charged $5 each. The only exception is for inflatables less than 10 feet long. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, has pushed for the legislation; he’s also backing legislation to allow the state to spend up to $5 million through emergency deficiency warrants next year if needed in the fight against the mussels. The tiny, fast-spreading shellfish have clogged and destroyed pipes, pumps and entire beaches and ecosystems; they haven’t turned up in Idaho yet, but have been spotted just miles to the south in Utah.

Soltman appointed to Board of Ed

Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Don Soltman, vice president at Kootenai Medical Center and a former longtime school trustee in the Lakeland School District, to the state Board of Education. Soltman fills the position formerly held by Sue Thilo of Coeur d’Alene. Click below to read Otter’s full announcement.

End result: One for eight

So after all that, with two hours of debate, the House has rejected seven of the proposed amendments to HB 135, the gas tax bill, and approved one - making relatively minor changes in wording in the bill. The successful amendment, proposed by House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, doesn’t change the amount or timing of the 2-cent gas tax increase proposed in the bill. The changes in the amendment include allowing new gas tax proceeds to be used for maintenance of new roads as well as existing roads, and allowing for the implementation of a statewide pavement management system over several years, rather than assuming it’d be in place immediately. None of the more substantive amendments passed the House.

‘Trigger’ amendment fails

With all the amendments to raise the amount of the gas tax increase in HB 135 failing, the House took up an “economic trigger” amendment proposed by Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise. He said it would delay any tax increase until Idaho’s economy improves. “At that time .. an increase would be appropriate,” Killen told the House. Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said, “This would delay any tax increase that this body might decide to pass this year to increase transportation revenues until the economy does return to better times and our constituents are better able to afford it.” Rep. JoAn Wood, opposing the amendment, said she recognizes that there’s a problem with roads. If economic times improve, she said, lawmakers could then take that into account in their votes. “It’s probably not good tax policy in my mind to obligate ourselves to a particular number that may be triggered in the future,” she said. “I think we can take the responsibility to do something about that.” Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said lawmakers shouldn’t put the issue on “autopilot.” The amendment failed.

‘Two by two’ amendment also fails

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, urged the House to reject the proposal to amend her 2-cent gas tax hike bill to make it into a phased, two-year, 4-cent hike. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, closing the debate, said lawmakers have an “obligation to maintain our infrastructure.” The $17.6 million his amendment would raise annually after two years isn’t near enough to meet a $240 million annual maintenance backlog, he said, but he called it a good first step. However, that amendment, too, failed.

‘Need to be respectful’

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, debated against the two-year, 2-cent a year gas tax hike plan, saying it doesn’t give lawmakers enough leverage to force changes at ITD. “If we give ‘em a big tax increase this year, we’re giving away our bargaining tools,” Hart said. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “This time the $17.6 million is spread out over two years instead of one, but it’s the same tax increase to our constituents. … Is now the time to give them more dollars before they get their house in order?” When Nonini repeated his earlier comment that the governor’s executive order demanding new accountability measures at ITD is “nothing more than a sales technique on the part of the governor,” Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, cautioned Nonini of the “need to be respectful.”

‘Two by two’ plan is up next

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, is now debating for his amendment, to raise the gas tax two cents next year and an additional two cents the following year. “We don’t use general funds here - the department gets what they earn, and they earn funding through fuel tax and registration fees,” he said. “The last time that they had an increase was in 1996.” Hagedorn said, “If we take away all the noise … No. 1, the department is behind. No. 2, the audit says that we need to make some changes. And no. 3, the (governor) … has already agreed that the changes are going to happen or the department won’t spend any of the new money that we are providing for them.” His measure would raise $8.8 million next year, and double that the following year.

4-cent amendment fails, too

“It reminds me of going duck hunting, when there’s a flock of ducks going over and if you don’t take aim at one of them, you wind up not getting any,” said Rep. Richard Jarvis, R-Meridian. “Words to live by, good gentleman,” responded House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, who’s presiding. Jarvis said, “This is a long-term funding problem. We need to start now.” But when the vote was taken by ayes and nays, the nays sounded very loud, and Bedke said he was in doubt. After each side was asked to stand and Bedke counted, he announced that the 4-cent amendment had failed, too.

4 cents: ‘How low can you go?’

Now the House is debating a proposal from Rep. Richard Jarvis, R-Meridian, for a four-cent gas tax increase. “What we’re dealing with now is a tax increase on a tax increase,” said Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis. Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said the House appears to be in a game of limbo, playing “how low can you go.” Rep JoAn Wood spoke against the amendment, saying her original bill for a 2-cent increase is enough. “I don’t know if 2 cents makes that much difference - to me it does,” she said, asking the House to support her original bill “if you have any intention at all of raising the gas tax.” Before a vote, however, the House has been placed at ease for five minutes.

5-cent amendment goes down

After much debate, the first amendment to change the amount of the gas tax bill - from 2 cents next year to 5 cents - has been defeated. Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, who sponsored the amendment, said it would raise $26.4 million annually for state roads, and $17.6 million for local roads, while costing the average Idaho driver about $2.50 a month. “That’s an ice cream cone if you only have a single dip,” he said. “Vote for the 5 cents so we have a meaningful bill that can do some good if it does pass.” Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, spoke out against the bill, particularly decrying the idea that people wouldn’t notice another nickel a gallon. “That’s a heck of a reason to support a tax increase, because we think we can fool our constituents and they won’t notice it,” he said. “I’m tired of throwing good money after bad. The ITD needs to get its house in order.” Nonini said he doesn’t think Idaho’s roads are that bad. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said the governor’s recent executive order ensures accountability from ITD. “I believe those new funds will be well spent,” he said. But Nonini said the order was merely a “sales technique” from the governor to get the bill passed, and “not worth the piece of paper it was printed on.”

Fourth amendment fails

The fourth amendment to HB 135 would’ve changed the distribution of funds raised by the gas tax increase back to the current split for gas taxes of 62 percent to the state, 38 percent to local highway districts. Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, sponsored this one. The original bill changed the split to 60-40, giving the locals a small boost at ITD’s expense. Wills said the governor backs the amendment. “We have to recognize what is the best option that can get us out of here,” Wills said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the best option.” Rep. JoAn Wood spoke against the amendment. “It is the new money” that would have a new split, she said. “It would not be the money that’s already in the Department of Transportation. It’s just with some consideration for the locals.” Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said, “The forgotten stepchild here seems to be local roads. … The local roads are in need too.” The amendment was defeated.

Third amendment passes

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, introduced the third amendment to HB 135, making various wording changes in the existing bill, including allowing new gas tax proceeds to be used for maintenance of new roads as well as existing roads, and allowing for the implementation of a statewide pavement management system over several years. Roberts said that could take up to two years; the bill as originally written assumed it could be in place more quickly. Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said, “These changes were all negotiated with representatives from the Idaho Transportation Department to make it workable with their system.” House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, HB 135’s sponsor, backed the amendment. It passed unanimously.

Second amendment also fails

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, also sponsored the second amendment, which would have directed funding to regional transit authorities where they exist in the state, or to roads where they don’t. “It gives us another avenue to fund our public highways,” Durst said. “We need to be innovative, guys, we need to get something that we haven’t ever done before.” The motion, however, was voted down.

Local-option amendment voted down

The local-option tax amendment to HB 135, the gas tax increase bill, has been voted down in the House. “The motion fails ,” announced House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “One down, seven to go.”

House debates local-option tax issue

Among those speaking in favor of the local-option amendment was Rep. Pat Takasugi, R-Wilder, who said, “I think it’s good for rural, it’s good for urban, and I would urge your support for the amendment.” Said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, “Some places in the state might want to put this to their local voters, and some might not want to.” Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, speaking against the amendment, said, “This amendment is hostile to the original intent of the bill. The original intent of the bill was to provide  a fund for preservation. … It really should have come before our committee as a separate bill, and not an amendment to HB 135.” Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “You create pockets of taxation whenever you go with this kind of thing.” Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “This is a forerunner to a tax increase and I don’t care who sanctions it, I oppose tax increase.” Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, sponsor of the amendment, said, “We need to not be partisan and we need to find a solution that’s good for Idaho. … We talk a lot about local control in this body, but we’re a little light on affirming it.”

‘Seems much more democratic’

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, introducing the first amendment to HB 135, said, “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for - we’re actually going to get to talk about local option on the floor of the House.” Durst said lawmakers are willing to “vote to tax our folks, and yet we’re not willing to give our folks the ability to tax themselves. … It seems to me that it’s much more democratic.” The amendment would allow local voters to approve five-year local-option taxes.

There are eight amendments

The House is taking up amendments to HB 135, the gas tax hike bill. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, announced that there are eight amendments to be considered.

Otter: ‘You cannot run a government from the Legislature’

Gov. Butch Otter ripped lawmakers this morning for their move to require 3 percent across-the-board pay cuts for state workers as part of a 5 percent cut in personnel funding, rather than just leaving how to implement the 5 percent cut up to agency directors. “The second article of the Idaho Constitution is very clear on the separation of powers,” Otter declared. “As the executive, I’m to do the managing. I totally reject the idea that was expressed by members of the Legislature that they do not trust the directors.” He added, “You cannot run a government from the Legislature - the Legislature sets the policy, I execute the policy.”

Guv: No deal yet on transportation

As the House prepares to consider amendments to HB 135, Rep. JoAn Wood’s bill to raise the gas tax just 2 cents next year, Gov. Butch Otter said he’s not reached any deal with House leadership on transportation. “I am aware that they’re trying very hard to come up with a solution to the transportation needs and our transportation problems,” he said. “It’s my hope that we’d be looking further down the road than 2 cents will get us. If it costs a dime to get out of sight, why, 2 cents wouldn’t get us at the end of my vision. So I think it’s important that they continue their efforts, and I’m pleased that they are continuing the efforts.”

The governor said, “In an effort to get the ball moving, we put together a package; $174 million was our first effort, and then that failed. I can understand the pros and cons on both sides of this, because of the nature of the economic climate that we’ve got.” But he said the 7-cent gas tax increase he proposed - and that the House killed two weeks ago - would head off greater costs later. “Whose kids are gonna have to pay for that?” he asked. “The 7 cents that I was asking for this year, for the next generation could very easily turn into 70 cents per gallon. … Deferred maintenance is really on the backs of our children and our grandchildren.”

Universities are ‘requested’ to cut pay

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted unanimously, 20-0, to add a clause “requesting” state colleges and universities to cut pay across the board by 3 percent into the higher ed budget, and to handle the remaining portion of a 5 percent cut in personnel funding through measures including salary savings, furloughs or layoffs. JFAC can’t order such a pay cut; both constitutional issues regarding the authority of the state Board of Education and legal issues involving contracts and grants that affect faculty pay prevent that.

“I’m not entirely positive we have no other options,” said Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise. “We have some stimulus funds the governor has said he desires to go to other things, roads and the like.” LeFavour said she has misgivings about ordering such pay cuts for all state employees. “I certainly wouldn’t vote for this with any great enthusiasm,” she said. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think my vote for this motion reflects the fact that I think we are making it possible for the universities to operate as they need to within the limits of that arrangement that we’ve made.”

CAT fund budget set

JFAC has voted unanimously to set a budget for the state catastrophic health care fund for next year that matches SB 1158, which reforms the program to both raise the deductible for counties from $10,000 per case to $11,000, and institute cost-saving measures. Now, they’re on to a discussion of how to handle personnel funding cuts for higher ed.

‘Rebellion in the ranks’

JFAC members gathered in an early-morning workshop today to hear from Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane on legal implications of proposing a 3 percent across-the-board pay cut for higher education. Essentially, they learned that they can’t order that, but they can request it. The state Board of Education has constitutional authority in that area, not the Legislature, and there are issues with tenured faculty and contracts. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, raised concerns that if higher ed has discretion over how to handle the 5 percent cut in personnel costs that JFAC is ordering, but other agencies are tied down to doing a 3 percent across-the-board pay cut as part of that, it wouldn’t be fair.

“Madam Chair, I know you don’t like rebellion within your ranks, but now we’ve changed the ball game,” he told  JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. Some JFAC members raised the prospect of rewriting all the budgets they’ve already passed - 15 or 16 of them - to make them “requests” as well, but that prospect didn’t go over well. “All those budgets would have to be brought back,” said Bell. Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said a trailer bill might be able to make changes in already-passed budgets. Meanwhile, JFAC is about to pass the budget this morning for the state catastrophic fund, which matches legislation now moving through to raise counties’ deductible for indigent medical cases from $10,000 to $11,000. Still, with all the budgets set so far, “We’re upside down,” Cameron said. Lawmakers likely will have to dip into budget stabilization funds.

Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said she’s been hearing from home that people think JFAC has cut the Medical Isotope Production project at ISU, a $4 million project. “We’ve never seen it,” Bell said. “It was never anything that was in a hearing before this committee.” Gov. Butch Otter had identified the project as one of three he wanted to fund from $35 million in federal stimulus money for universities, but that money instead was split with half going into university budgets for next year, and the other half for the following year. Bell said she and Cameron are meeting with the governor today. Bilyeu asked if they could ask the governor to fund the isotope project from the $44.5 million in stimulus money over which he has discretion, prompting a noisy round of similar requests. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she’d favor funding for an interpreter for the deaf cut from an earlier budget.

Third UI prez finalist withdraws

A third finalist for president of the University of Idaho, Dr. David Dooley, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Montana State, has withdrawn his name from consideration, leaving just two of the original five finalists in the running. The two: UI College of Law Dean Don Burnett, and former Colorado State University President Larry Penley. Dooley said he withdrew after “a series of cordial, candid and informative discussions” between him and the state Board of Education led to a mutual agreement “that our distinct visions for the role, scope, and future of the University of Idaho were not the right fit at this time.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Tons of debate on school-cuts bills

The Senate Education Committee spent an hour debating HB 252, the consensus bill to allow cuts in school funding when school districts declare financial emergencies, before finally approving it this afternoon by a single vote. The measure passed the House last Tuesday on a 69-0 vote. Now, the Senate committee has started into HB 256, a considerably more contentious one that passed the House 50-20 last Wednesday. This is the one to cut $4.1 million a year from state reimbursements to school districts for their student busing costs; among those signed up to testify against it are several people from the Boise School District, which would lose nearly $1.5 million in state funding under the bill.

From the historical files…

When Idaho voters enacted the Sunshine Law by voter initiative in 1974, the ballot statement in favor (there wasn’t one against) had this to say: “A serious threat to our country is the lack of confidence in our elected officials. The people’s trust in politicians need to be restored. The majority who serve in government are unselfish and honest men and women. But the unfortunate actions of some, the secrecy surrounding campaign financing, and the hidden lobbying activities by powerful interests have taken a great toll in trust at every level of government. The Sunshine Initiative is a positive measure to overcome the frustration felt by individual voters of all political persuasions. It would help bring the light of public knowledge to the public’s business.” The initiative passed with 77.6 percent of the vote.

The preamble to the law begins, “The purpose of this act is: a) To promote public confidence in government; and b) To promote openness in government and avoiding secrecy….” Today, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to add personal financial disclosure to the Sunshine Law, a move backed by Gov. Butch Otter that would end Idaho’s distinction as one of just three states without such requirements. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Nine amendments and counting…

The House will take up amendments tomorrow morning to HB 135, House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood’s bill to raise Idaho’s gas tax by just two cents next year. The word is there are now nine possible amendments pending on the bill. The bill, whatever it is amended into, replaces Gov. Butch Otter’s three-year, 7-cent gas tax hike, which was torpedoed in the House two weeks ago.

Kralicek bill unanimously passes House

SB 1111, which would help permanently disabled law enforcement officers like Mike Kralicek of Coeur d’Alene with health insurance costs for their families, has passed the House unanimously and now heads to Gov. Butch Otter. Kralicek actually isn’t covered by the bill - it’s only for those injured on or after July 1, 2009. But the Coeur d’Alene police officer, who suffered critical brain and spinal cord injuries after a fleeing, handcuffed suspect shot him in the face three days after Christmas in 2004, is a big supporter of the measure, as is his wife, Carrie, to help others who face situations like theirs in the future. The bill, SB 1111, would provide a $100,000 lump-sum payment to cover the family’s health insurance costs in such situations. It’s entirely funded by the officers themselves, through a slightly increased retirement contribution, and run through the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, at no cost to either the state or local governments.  Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, told the House, “This is a very important piece of legislation to fill a hole that’s been a need in our state for many years.”

Tax commission reform bill passes, despite whistleblower’s opposition

Legislation placing new requirements on the state Tax Commission when it reaches large secret settlements with taxpayers has passed the House unanimously, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. The bill, SB 1128, earlier passed the Senate, also on a unanimous vote. “While it may not solve all of the issues that people have with the Tax Commission, it does, I believe, give additional reassurance in some transparency and reporting requirements that will help us understand better what’s happening over there,” said Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “This is consensus legislation.”

In May, longtime state tax auditor Stan Howland sent lawmakers, the governor and the attorney general a 17-page report charging that tax commissioners routinely excuse large sums in taxes owed by large, multistate corporations, and confidentiality laws prevent anyone from finding out about it. He said the deals have become so frequent that corporations routinely protest their taxes to get their “Idaho tax break.” 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.

The bill requires all such settlements over $50,000 to have an  additional hearing at which at least two tax commissioners would be present, along with a representative of the commission’s audit staff, a deputy attorney general and a tax policy analyst. Full summaries and copies of the agreements would have to be kept by the commission, and though they’d remain exempt from disclosure to the public, they’d be open to legislative auditors. The legislation also requires the Tax Commission to adopt formal administrative rules outlining how it will conduct such settlement procedures. Howland, however, opposed the bill, saying it didn’t fix the problem. “This legislation simply codifies current Tax Commission practices, the same practices used to grant special favors to a few select taxpayers,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “You have given these Tax Commissioners full license to secretly determine who does, and who does not, have to follow the laws that you wrote.”
 

How they voted

Here’s how the House voted on HB 216a, the pharmacist conscience bill that passed 48-21: All but two of the 18 House Democrats voted against the bill; the exceptions were Reps. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, and Branden Durst, D-Boise. All but five of the 51 House Republicans present for the vote cast their votes in favor (Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, missed the vote). The five House Republicans who voted against the bill were Reps. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell; George Eskridge, R-Dover; Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls; Tom Trail, R-Moscow; and Fred Wood, R-Burley.

Pharmacist conscience bill passes House

The House has voted 48-21 in favor of HB 216a, the “pharmacist conscience” bill, after an hour-long debate. Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, who is a pharmacist, said, “This bill really makes things much more complicated for us in a world that’s already much too complicated.” Other opponents argued that the bill would hurt businesses, by forcing employers to stand by while a rogue employee denied people access to prescriptions left and right, offending customers and reducing the business’ profits. The objections could be to any medication, for any reason, though the bill was promoted by groups that oppose abortion and contraception.

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “Name me the pharmacist that would refuse to provide drugs for the elderly for dementia or for Alzheimer’s. I don’t think there are any.” He said, “This is good legislation.” Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said, “I think this is very important to have this in code and to protect our pharmacists and pharmacies.” Oddly, Idaho already permits pharmacists to refuse to dispense medication, because the state has no law requiring them to fill all prescriptions. The bill, as originally written, would have applied not only to pharmacists but to any employee of a pharmacy business, including cashiers or delivery people, but that was amended out of the bill and it now applies only to pharmacists. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Sunshine Law wins unanimous support

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously in favor of SB 1156, the Sunshine Law amendment to require Idaho’s first-ever financial disclosure of income sources and assets for elected officials and candidates. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, expressed some doubts. “I’m not convinced at this point that this is really gonna solve what we think it’s gonna solve,” he said. “This is the nose under the camel’s tent. … I hesitate to see us start fixing something that’s not broken.” He added, “I personally feel we have a hard enough time getting good, honest people to run for government, and then we start making it more onerous or more inquisitive.” Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, noted that financial disclosure requirements long have been in effect for those from Idaho running for federal office. “Certainly with regard to congressional races, it doesn’t seem to have discouraged candidates,” she said.

When it came time for a vote, the committee was unanimous - not even Pearce objected. The bill now moves to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do-pass.”

Davis: Sunshine Law a priority for Otter

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who is co-sponsoring legislation to give Idaho its first financial disclosure requirements for public office-holders and candidates, told the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning that not only was it a priority for both the minority and majority leadership in the Senate, it’s also a priority for Gov. Butch Otter. “In our majority leadership meetings with Gov. Otter, it became apparent at the beginning of the session that this was an item he, too, wanted to solve during this legislative session,” Davis said. Idaho is now one of only three states with no such requirements. Because of that desire, Otter assigned his chief legal counsel, David Hensley, to work with Davis and Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, on developing the bill. As a result, Davis said, “It has Gov. Otter’s, not only his encouragement, but also his fingerprints on some of the language.”

The bill, SB 1156, would require elected officials and candidates to disclose their sources - though not amounts - of income and major Idaho assets. “We are disclosing, with this legislation, a little more about who we are,” Davis said. Idahoans treasure their privacy, he said. But, he said, “I felt that on balance this was probably something that was in Idaho’s best interest to do.”

The week that was…

Here’s a link to a slide show of the 11th week of the Idaho legislative session in photos. It was an eventful week, with major budgets set, and major legislation debated in both chambers, both on the floor and in committee. My favorite photo of the week is this one, showing the minority and majority leadership in the House gathered at the Speaker’s desk in a rare confab, with the House at ease, as procedural moves were weighed in a fight over legislation to cut funding to schools.

All about it…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s historic public school budget-setting, in which public schools were given their first ever cut in funding from the amount they received the previous year, and here’s a link to the final figures on the school budget that JFAC set today.

Tonight on Idaho Public TV’s Idaho Reports, I’ll join Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, and host Thanh Tan to discuss the legislative developments of the week, including today’s budget-setting. Tune in and check it out; it airs at 8 p.m. today, replays on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. Mountain time, 10:30 Pacific time, and can also be viewed online here after it airs, along with the additional “After the Show” discussion.

Rush, Hedrick named to ag positions

Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick has tabbed Dick Rush to be the new Idaho director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, and Wally Hedrick to be state director of the USDA Rural Development Agency. Minnick held an open application process and had a committee chaired by former GOP House Speaker Bruce Newcomb review the applicants. “Our open application process resulted in an outstanding pool of interested, qualified Idahoans for these two positions,” Minnick said. “I am deeply appreciative of the citizen committee members who worked together to review the applicants and help me make these recommendations. I’m also appreciative of my fellow members of the Idaho delegation for their insight into Idaho’s past and future needs for these two positions.”

Minnick, as the top-ranking Democrat in Idaho, gets to make the recommendations to President Barack Obama. “I was honored to be asked by Congressman Minnick to help with selection process,” Newcomb said. “He made good choices, and our committee was honored to serve this state in helping this process move forward.” Minnick said his recommendations to the president for the new U.S. Marshal and U.S. Attorney for Idaho will be announced next week.

It’s a $109 million cut in general funds

If you look at the public school budget set this morning in general funds, it’s $109.3 million less than this year’s general-fund budget for schools. The cut is that large, in part, because Rep. Cliff Bayer successfully led a move to shift $20.5 million in general funds out of the school budget and replace it with federal stimulus money that otherwise would have been saved for schools next year. But even if you subtract that $20.5 million from the cut, schools would be getting $88.8 million less next year in state general funds than they got this year, well above the $62 million in cuts outlined earlier by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. Luna maintains that federal stimulus money helps soften the cut so that it still meets his guidelines.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, says he sees the school budget as a 3.4 percent overall cut in funding. That’s because it plugs in $40 million in stimulus money to “backfill” the state-funded budget; if that’s subtracted from the $109 million general-fund cut, it leaves about a $69 million cut to schools, or roughly 3.4 percent. That’s not counting Bayer’s fund shift, which zeroes out as far as its effect on schools next year. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who led the move to trim the base pay cut for teachers from 5 percent to 2.63 percent for next year, said, “It’s just a sad day. These decisions are very difficult, very difficult, but we’re trying to balance things across the entire budget.”

Luna gaffe: ‘What I thought I said’

At a press conference after the public school budget vote, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna misspoke, accidentally telling reporters, “No one wants to cut education more than me.” When his press secretary corrected him a moment later, Luna said, “That’s what I thought I said,” then stumbled over the words again, amid laughter, finally declaring, “I don’t want to cut public education.” You can watch the video here at Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins’ blog, “Capitol Confidential.”

Luna: ‘A very manageable number’

State Schools Superintendent Tom Luna called the public school budget set by lawmakers this morning “a very manageable number,” despite including historic cuts. “I think one of the telling things we learned this morning is that both the Democrats and the Republicans realized that education was not going to be held harmless,” Luna told Eye on Boise. “My focus was to minimize cuts to teacher pay and to minimize cuts to classroom programs.” Luna noted, “We still have over $100 million available for the next fiscal year if revenues continue to go down.” That’s because Republican lawmakers on the joint budget committee declined to tap into the state’s public education stabilization fund, which still has $114 million in it.

Luna said, “We found some balance. It took a lot of work and a lot of effort, because everyone was trying to minimize the cuts to education.”  He added, “It’s not a pleasant situation to find ourselves in. I think we did the responsible thing.”

Bottom line: 7.7 percent cut in general funds

The bottom line on the public school budget set this morning is that the 2010 appropriation for Idaho’s schools was set at $1.3092 billion in general funds, down 7.7 percent from this year’s budget of $1.4185 billion. In total funds, including federal stimulus money, some of which is earmarked into certain programs like special education, the budget reflects a tiny increase of 0.4 percent.

Final motion passes unanimously

The final JFAC motion on the public schools budget, on facilities, came from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, and passed unanimously, 19-0. Over the whole budget, the difference between the various motions was mainly over how much federal stimulus and state reserve account money to plug into the school budget to soften proposed cuts. The Democrats’ motions would have used $41 million from the stimulus and $6 million from the public education stabilization fund. The successful motions tapped $60 million from the stimulus, but $20 million of that was to offset state general funds; they took no money from the public education stabilization fund. The Dems would have imposed 3 percent base pay reductions, but avoided transportation cuts, freezing the pay grid, retirement changes or furloughs. The successful motions do the transportation cuts, freeze the pay grid, and cut base pay 5 percent for administrators and 2.63 percent for teachers and classified staff, among other cuts.

This one was unanimous…

There was only one motion for the children’s programs division, from Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. It passed unanimously, 19-0. It’s one of the smaller divisions of the five in the public schools budget as far as state funds, but it includes the increased federal funds Idaho will receive for special education programs as a result of the federal economic stimulus bill.

Bayer motion passes; includes fund shift

Rep. Cliff Bayer’s motion for operations shifts $20 million in general funds out of schools, and replaces it with stimulus money. “In my judgment, it makes very little difference,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, strongly objected to the move, saying it will take public school money and use it for something else. “I sure hope it isn’t roads,” she said. She called that the opposite of the aim of the federal stimulus money for schools - to avoid school budget cuts. Rep. Maxine Bell noted that Idaho doesn’t spend general fund money for roads. Cameron called the difference one between taking the money out of one pocket or another; the amount schools receive next year would be the same either way. Bayer’s motion passed, 15-4, on a party-line vote. Sen. Jim Hammond has left.

The budget for school operations…

Now come the motions on public school operations. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, made a budget motion that eliminates the cuts in transportation funding that passed the House this week; it hasn’t yet passed the Senate, she noted. The proposal reduces a 5 percent base pay cut for classified school employees to 3 percent. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, then made a substitute motion for the operations division. His motion includes the transportation changes, and reducing the 5 percent base pay cut for classified workers to 2.63 percent. Both motions tap stimulus money that’s coming for schools.

Another party-line vote

The GOP motion for teachers for next year passed 16-4, on a straight party-line vote.

‘Today’s a very painful day’

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “Today’s a very painful day. … The motions that are before you are difficult choices.” Both reduce teacher pay, he noted; they just do it in different ways. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, urged support for the larger cuts. “We have to recognize the climate that we’re in now,” he said. Rep Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said cutting an early retirement incentive program is unfair. “It doesn’t give proper notice to people, people have already made their plans,” she said. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “We need to make sure we have enough in our reserves to avoid any cutting in 2010, which would be devastating.”

Said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “We know that this is temporary, and we know that we will recover from this and restore these cuts. … This is an historic recession. … We’ll make it through this tough time. It’s not going to be forever.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said some first-grade teachers in Idaho already have 35 kids in their classes. “We have made our schools live so close to the bone, that when we got to today and we are making these cuts, we are in essence breaking our public school system.”

Keough motion: ‘This isn’t easy’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, has made a substitute motion on the teachers division of the public school budget, seconded by Rep. Cliff Bayer. Keough’s motion would freeze the salary grid for a year, use stimulus money to reduce a 5 percent base pay cut to 2.63 percent, and use stimulus money to eliminate the need for three furlough days. It also phases out an early retirement program over the next two years. “This isn’t easy for any of us,” said Keough, who noted she’s married to a longtime Idaho teacher.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I have one son and two daughters-in-law who are teachers, and I’m not real thrilled about cutting their salary.” Responded Rep. Maxine Bell, “Would you like to speak to my nieces and nephews?”

Now for the teachers division…

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, has made the first motion on the teachers division of the public school budget. It preserves the early retirement incentive program; offsets the equivalent of three furlough days with federal stimulus money, so the furlough days wouldn’t be necessary; cancels the freezing of the teacher salary grid for a year by dipping into the public school stabilization fund; and uses stimulus money to reduce an overall base salary cut from 5 percent to 3 percent. It also goes along with Supt. Tom Luna’s proposal to reduce a classroom supply allowance from $350 to $300 per teacher. Ringo spoke out against the freezing of the teacher salary grid. “I think that the recommendation unfairly targets just certain teachers,” she said. “It not only piles on personnel cost reductions to the basic percent pay reduction, but it also does not distribute it fairly.”


Mortimer motion passes

The Republican motion has passed on a party-line vote, 16-4, to fund school administrators next year. That’s the version that makes larger cuts from pay and staff allowance, compared to the competing motion from Democrats on JFAC.

Bigger cuts proposed for administrators

Sen. Dean Mortimer has made the second motion for the division of administrators in public schools, competing with the first motion from the Democrats. His motion has a 5 percent base pay reduction for administrators, furloughs equivalent to three contract days, and a cut in the administrative staff allowance. “We’re using a reduced amount of stimulus dollars,” Mortimer said.

Dems’ motion is up first

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, has made the first motion on public schools, seconded by Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. The school budget is divided into five divisions; the first division is for administrators. Jaquet and Ringo set a base salary reduction for administrators of 3 percent rather than 5 percent, eliminated three proposed furlough days, and eliminated a move to freeze the salary grid. The difference would be made up with federal stimulus money that’s earmarked for public schools, plus $334,300 from the public school stabilization fund. “This is what the dollars were coming for for education,” Jaquet said, “keeping the jobs.”

Schools will be first

JFAC has switched its agenda, after Sen. Jim Hammond requested it because he needs to fly out early due to a death in his family. “He felt very strongly that he wanted to vote on this particular budget,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. So public schools will be up first.

Really working the staff

As legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee prepared to address lawmakers about the public school budget, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “For those of you who don’t know, Paul was here all night. So when he gets through, he may pass out.” Headlee’s been at work for about 24 hours at this point. “Can he have the weekend off?” asked Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. Amid some laughter, Cameron responded, “If we get this budget set, he will.”

Just a little brighter…

Idaho’s budget outlook still is looking dim, but as legislative budget analyst Amy Castro began explaining the mechanics of the Medicaid budget to legislative budget writers this morning in the 5th floor library of the Capitol Annex, the sun still not up outside, suddenly things lightened - someone had flipped on the rest of the lights. Everyone visibly brightened. But just briefly.

Today’s the money day…

Today, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will set budgets including Medicaid and public schools. They make up the largest piece of Idaho’s state budget, and debate has been building all session over the prospect of Idaho’s first-ever cut in public school funding, which the joint committee could endorse this morning. For now, the committee members have gathered for their early-morning workshop in the 5th floor library of the Capitol Annex, to go over the complex motions they may consider in their 8 a.m. meeting today.

Lawmakers reluctant on day care regulation

Here’s a link to my full story on today’s nearly four-hour hearing on SB 1112a, the day care licensing bill. The bill’s fate is uncertain at this point; the House Health & Welfare Committee voted to hold it at the call of the chairwoman, with the idea of working on various amendments.

The decision: Delay the decision

The House Health & Welfare Committee has voted to delay a decision on SB 1112, the day-care licensing bill, after an hours-long hearing at which testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the bill. “Regulation by itself won’t solve these problems,” said Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett. “Regulation has a place, but if we don’t increase the role of the parents in the process, we’re not going to get to the heart of it.” Plus, he said, “There is going to be a cost factor to this.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “It is imposing what I feel is too much regulation from the state down.” But both said they saw merit in requiring criminal background checks, which Idaho doesn’t now require for small day-care operators. Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, proposed applying the bill to day-cares with seven or more unrelated children, rather than four or more. Thayn said he’d also like to propose other amendments to the bill. But a motion to send the bill to the House’s amending order died, 7-9. A motion to pass it as-is died, 4-12. The motion to hold the bill at the call of the chair then passed on a voice vote.

Child-care hearing still going…

It’s now after 5:30 p.m. in Boise, and the House Health & Welfare Committee hearing on the child-care licensing bill is still going. So far, 13 people have testified in favor of the bill, and one, former home day-care operator Kimberly Hoffman, testified against. Those in favor included day-care operators, child advocates, parents, the mayor of Eagle, a victim-witness coordinator, a representative of the Catholic Diocese of Idaho, and a spokesman for the state’s health districts. Committee members have had lots of questions for those who testified. After Jodi Giem, operator of Eagle Adventist Christian Center, praised the legislation’s safety requirements and asked, “Shouldn’t we expect that basic safety for our most prized possessions, which are our children?” Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, asked, “Is this lady for or agin’ the bill?” Giem answered, “I approve of the bill.”

Young mother shares chilling story

A young mother from Twin Falls just shared a chilling story with the House Health & Welfare Committee. She interviewed an array of day-care operators before picking the one who seemed just right for her 5-month-old daughter, for summer day-care. The woman watched between four and eight children at her home. She sounded great - but the mom, Brandi Whaley, didn’t know the woman was a convicted embezzler. When Whaley’s daughter turned up with a startling red spot in her eye, the provider had an explanation. Same for additional injuries on other days. Then the baby had such severe injuries, including a bloody hemorrhage in her eye and bruises on her back, that she had to be hospitalized, where it was determined that she’d been violently shaken.

“I believed and trusted her,” Whaley said of the provider, passing around pictures of her injured baby. “Although the day care provider was charged with felony injury to a child … she is still able to watch children if she wants to. … I would not want another family to have to go through what we did.”

Sayler: ‘A great deal of public sentiment’

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, who has pushed for basic child care licensing legislation for the past five years, told the House Health & Welfare Committee this afternoon, “I think it’s the state’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for child care. It’s the parents’ responsibility to choose the type of child care that they want.” He cited two Idaho surveys that show “a great deal of public sentiment for this legislation,” he said. Among them: A survey of 1,400 respondents by an early childhood group that found “overwhelming support” for stronger health and safety standards for Idaho day-cares, and a survey of counties conducted by the state Health & Welfare Department as part of an early childhood assessment grant. “The issue of quality child care and safe child care was one of the top three issues that came back in every one of the counties surveyed,” Sayler said.

“We have many abuses and complaints involving child care - we can fix that,” he told the committee. “The statute is 20 years old - Idaho has changed a great deal in that time. The statute has not.”

Full house at day care hearing

The crowd fills the room and is spilling out the door at the House Health & Welfare Committee today, which is holding a hearing on SB 1112, the bill to set basic, minimum standards for all Idaho day care centers, including criminal background checks. The bill earlier passed the Senate on a 30-5 vote, after dying in committee each year for the past four years. House committee Chair Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, said, “It’s nice to have so many of you with us today to participate in the legislative process.” The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, told the panel the bill is about “the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

How they voted

Every House Democrat voted against HB 262, the second controversial school funding cut bill to pass the House this week. They were joined by two House Republicans: Reps. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, and Tom Trail, R-Moscow. All other House Republicans voted in favor of the bill, except Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, who missed the 49-20 vote.

House passes $8.1 million ed cut

The House has voted 49-20 for HB 262, to cut $8.1 million from school funding next year by freezing movement on the teacher salary schedule for increased experience for a year, and phasing out an early retirement incentive. “Tough issues call for tough votes, and today is going to be another tough vote,” Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said before the vote. “We’re doing the tough things we have to do. … In tough times, things have to be taken back.” The bill now moves to the Senate.

Debate is back on in the House

Debate is going again in the House on HB 262. Reps. Branden Durst and Bill Killen, both Boise Democrats, went first, both opposing the bill. “Do you really think that cutting school funding will preserve programs and learning opportunities for our children and grandchildren?” Killen asked. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, spoke next, focusing on the state’s drop in revenues. “That trend has steepened in the last four to five months,” he said.

Liquor license reform bill passes Senate

Gov. Butch Otter’s legislation to do away with Idaho’s 62-year-old quota system for liquor licenses cleared the state Senate today on a 23-12 vote, and now heads to the House. Among the concerns raised by opponents was that the measure would weaken penalties for those who sell to underage drinkers. The current system sets population-based quotas for liquor licenses, but has allowed 235 licenses to be issued outside those quotas under special exceptions approved by the Legislature. The new system would let cities and counties issue new non-transferable licenses, while existing licenses would remain transferable. Developed by a task force over the past two years, the bill, SB 1148, also makes a series of other changes; here’s a link to it.

House recesses ‘til 1:30

The House has recessed, mid-debate on HB 262, for a lunch break until 1:30. When Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, made the motion, there were a few groans. Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke quickly seconded the motion, and it passed, so the debate will resume after lunch.

‘It’s the economy’

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, speaking in favor of HB 262, the bill to trim teacher pay and retirement incentives, told the House, “Let’s keep in mind that none of us are enjoying this process - it’s the economy. It’s not mean-spiritedness. … We’ve had a major downturn, the revenue is not available. … It is only the economy.”

Barrett: ‘Nothing is court-proof’

Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, a retired teacher, told the House she experienced a pay freeze during her teaching career and it had a major impact on her retirement. “I don’t mind sharing that my monthly retirement check, after teaching for 30 years, is $1,100,” she said. On the other side of the debate, Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, discounted concerns that HB 262 could get the state into legal trouble over changing vested retirement rights.  “The threat of litigation … appears to me to be an effort to intimidate,” she said. “That’s OK - anything we can do to get what we want. But we don’t pass anything in this Legislature that is court-proof. That’s why we have an attorney general. … We need to get on with it.”

The debate is on…

After two procedural challenges to HB 262 failed, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, drew laughter in the House when he said, “You might’ve guessed I don’t like this bill.” Rusche said the bill’s provisions were rejected when all interests came together to negotiate consensus legislation on how to handle a financial emergency in Idaho’s schools. “Why, then, is it back before us?” he asked. Freezing teacher salary schedule movement for a year will permanently affect teachers’ eventual retirements, he said, a move that Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, a lawyer, said creates legal problems. “It’s not necessary to poke teachers in the eye,” Rusche said. “This is unneeded and a divisive bill - it’s wrong for Idaho schools and the kids and families they serve.”

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor, told the House, “The purpose of this bill is to reduce the cost of the fiscal year 2010 public school appropriation. … What we’re trying to do is preserve the programs and the learning opportunities for the children.”

Second procedural challenge also fails

Now, House Democrats have moved, unsuccessfully, to send HB 262 to the House’s amending order. Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he wanted the “objectionable” parts removed. Several Democratic representatives spoke in favor of the motion; some said the bill’s fiscal note was incorrect. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I don’t think this fiscal note could be any more accurate. If this legislation were to pass, I think it will save the state $8.1 million a year.” The motion failed on an 18-51, party-line vote.

Dems try to divide school-cuts bill

House Democrats have tried a procedural maneuver, to get HB 262 sent back to committee to divide it into two separate bills. The bill would freeze teacher pay increases on the salary grid for a year, and phase out an early retirement incentive. “The Idaho Constitution states, ‘Every act shall have but one subject,’ ” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “This bill, if enacted, has got potential to end up in court. … I do not believe that we are wise to add additional exposure to the state by raising a constitutional question.” The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, spoke against the move. “Both issues deal with teacher compensation,” he said. Initially, the House’s voting machine didn’t function, so after an awkward pause, a rare full, oral roll call vote was conducted. The motion failed, 18-49, on a party-line vote.

Prior to making the motion, Rusche asked the speaker to place the House at ease, and the majority and minority leadership gathered at the speaker’s desk in a close huddle. After that, Rusche didn’t object to waiving the full reading of the bill - as he did yesterday on another school-cut bill, forcing it to be read at length.

Species conservation cut reversed

An earlier decision by JFAC to cut positions at the Office of Species Conservation was reconsidered in the joint committee this morning and reversed. Some of the backers of the original cut said they were mistaken, and apologized. “I’m thinking that the motion that passed was, at this time, too disruptive,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. The agency had received two large grants, and was authorized by the governor to hire two additional employees with the grant money. JFAC’s earlier budget for the agency cut the two employees - meaning two others there would have to be eliminated. Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, proposed the reversal.

ISP budget set

The budget set in JFAC this morning for the Idaho State Police makes up a $2.8 million revenue shortfall at ISP that wasn’t covered in the governor’s budget recommendation by shifting around dedicated funds in the department. The result is a budget for next year that cuts ISP’s general funds by 28.7 percent, but shows an increase in dedicated funds of 26.2 percent, and an increase in federal funds of 5.5 percent, mainly due to two federal grants that come under the economic stimulus legislation for specific programs. Overall, ISP ends up with exactly the same funding next year as it had last year - but if the shortfall hadn’t been made up, the agency would’ve had to cut patrol officers.

Not reflected in the budget set by the joint committee is the $3.2 million Gov. Butch Otter wants to shift into ISP from general funds, to start a phased-in move to offset money that now comes to the department from gas taxes; it’s part of his transportation initiative. “If any bills pass like that, then basically we’ve got a $6 million problem instead of the $2.8 million we’re looking at right now,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, who proposed the budget bill. It passed the joint committee unanimously.

Little good budget news for community colleges

There was no debate and no discussion on the equally bare-bones budget for community colleges that followed the university budget-setting this morning. Community colleges will take an 11 percent cut in their state general funds next year, under the budget, but see a 5.4 percent cut overall, thanks to the addition of $1.6 million in federal stimulus money. No additional items were funded in the budget over last year, not even the $102,000 that Gov. Butch Otter recommended for additional nursing faculty positions, the only one of five budget expansion requests from Idaho’s three community colleges that got his nod. Going unfunded are requests for a campus technology upgrade, more funding for dual credit math and science programs, building occupancy costs, and a new dental hygiene and assistant program at North Idaho College. NIC had hoped for $605,100 next year to start up the program in partnership with a local free clinic.

‘Bare-bones’ budget approved for universities

Legislative budget writers have approved a “bare-bones” budget for Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities that cuts 14.7 percent from their state general-fund money for next year, but gives them a 5.8 percent cut in overall funding, thanks in part to plugging in some federal stimulus money that’s specifically for restoring funding cuts at colleges and universities. It was a bipartisan budget, proposed by Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, and approved unanimously. Said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, “Our budgets haven’t been very healthy during this session.” She noted the 12 budget items that went unfunded, from a third-year law school program in Boise to nursing education expansion to biomedical research. “Unfortunately we’re not able to put the energy into those this year that we’d like to, but we certainly hope in the future we’ll do better,” Ringo said.

Bilyeu said, “I think it’s pretty amazing that we all came to agreement and have just one motion.” The single line item included in the budget for additional funding is $1.6 million for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, all from federal stimulus money. The stimulus money for universities is split in half, with half going into next year’s budget, and the other half held for the following year.

Budget cuts bring another thorny problem…

JFAC members are wrestling with another thorny issue now: It turns out it’s not so simple to apply the 3 percent across-the-board pay cut they’ve approved for all state employees to those at state colleges and universities. That’s because for colleges or universities to cut pay for tenured faculty members, the state Board of Education would have to declare a “financial exigency,” something that could then be challenged in court. In the early 1980s, the University of Idaho declared one of those, and a faculty member challenged it in court and won, winning reinstatement and back pay. Another case in the ‘80s involving BSU went the other way; the school won in court, beating back a challenge. Members of JFAC gathered in the 5th floor library of the Capitol Annex this afternoon to kick the issue around at an informal workshop, and were stymied. “No matter what we do, it’s going to be unfair to somebody,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

Mike Rush, executive director of the Board of Education, said, “Where we’ve lost the court cases is where the employee can demonstrate that the university had another option.” Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said, “At times like this I believe in spending good money on lawyers - we’re ripe for lawsuits.” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said if university employees will be exempted from the across-the-board pay cut, perhaps lawmakers should give up on it and just leave it up to state agencies as to how to   meet a 5 percent cut in personnel funding. However, that’d require redoing all the budget bills that JFAC already has set this year - each has the 3 percent pay cut written into it. At the suggestion of budget analyst Matt Freeman - who’s also a lawyer - the committee decided to request an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion. They’re still scheduled to set the budget for colleges and universities in the morning, but they’ll leave aside the pay cut issue until they have legal guidance.

Wolf attack bill to be amended

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, won unanimous support from the House Resources Committee today to amend his bill regarding liability for attacks on humans by wolves or other dangerous animals. “What the bill attempts to do is to create a criminal and a civil liability if somebody is killed or injured by a wolf or suffers economic damage,” Hart said, quickly correcting himself, “it’s any dangerous animal - I don’t even think the word ‘wolf’ is in there any more.” His measure drew nearly 20 people to the committee hearing to testify, some of whom said they’d driven for hours to get there. One showed the panel a DVD of scenes of various bloody deer carcasses, set to music. Hart told the committee, “If I as a private citizen were to somehow go to Africa and get a lion and release it in Idaho, I could be charged under this bill.”

Who voted which way

All but one of the House’s 18 Democrats voted against HB 256, the measure to cut state reimbursements to school districts for student busing costs. The lone exception: Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, voted for the bill. All but three of the House’s 52 Republicans voted in favor of the bill. The three exceptions: Reps. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, and Boise Republicans Lynn Luker and Cliff Bayer, whose local school district would lose nearly $1.5 million under the bill.

School busing cut bill passes House

The House has voted 50-20 in favor of HB 256, the measure to cut state reimbursements to school districts for student busing costs. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor, said in his closing debate, “We’ve heard that this whole piece of legislation is unnecessary - I couldn’t disagree more.” When JFAC sets the public school budget on Friday, it’ll “more than likely” cut the budget from this year’s level, a first, he said. Nonini said the bill will help spread the cuts so they don’t all come out of teachers’ pay. “We’re trying to avoid deep, deep cuts to teachers’ salaries,” he said.

Nonini told the House, “We don’t want to eliminate these field trips - this is tough stuff, people. … There are occasional times in financial times like this that we’re going to be forced to make tough votes. HB 256 is one of these times, but we have to do what’s right for the whole state.”

More debate in the House…

The debate is back on in the House. So far, a number of Democrats have spoken out against HB 256; a few Republicans have voiced doubts as well. “I just can’t vote for a bill that singles out a single school district to take the brunt,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, whose local school district stands to lose $1.5 million next year under the bill. Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “I understand we have to do something - we have to make cuts.” But he said his local school district tells him it’ll lose $200,000, and very little of that is from field trips. “We would be willing to give up field trips, but this will hurt us badly,” he said. Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, spoke in favor of the bill, saying the state should never have funded busing for field trips. “This is an opportunity we have to right something that was never intended in the first place,” she said.

Rusche: ‘We’ll use the tools we can’

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said his caucus will use the means it has to take a stand on education cuts. “We as a minority have limited procedural powers, and it’s important when we have these issues that are really of monumental impact, like the support for kids in our schools, we’ll use the tools that we can,” he said - like forcing the full reading of HB 256 just now in the House. Rusche said, “A monumental bill that starts the deconstruction of support for public education - I think spending 15 minutes hearing it is not unreasonable.” He wouldn’t say if Democrats plan more such actions.

House takes mid-debate break

In the midst of what was shaping up to be a hot debate on school funding, and already 10 minutes into the noon hour, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, stood and asked to recess the House until 1:30. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, seconded the motion, so now the House is in recess.

House Dems speak out against school busing cut

House Democrats are speaking out against HB 256, the bill to cut $4.1 million from reimbursements the state sends to school districts for busing. “I think this is an unnecessary bill, and it’s likely the first of several we’ll see that cuts money that goes to our kids’ education,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the House. Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, said she was “blind-sided” when the bill was introduced, though she’d been part of a bipartisan committee that negotiated consensus legislation that cleared the House yesterday regarding temporarily suspending various state laws to allow for financial emergencies. “HB 256 is both unnecessary and unfair to all three of the school districts that are in my legislative district,” Chavez said. Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said, “We are taking an unprecedented step to cut public education for the first time in Idaho’s history - let that sink in, folks.”

‘Make districts be efficient’

Opening debate in the House on his bill, HB 256, House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “The purpose is to make districts be as efficient as possible.” Transportation costs are “overhead,” he said. “Each dollar spent on transportation is a dollar that doesn’t make it into the classroom. … That’s where education takes place.” He said the idea is to cut the state reimbursement to school districts from 85 percent of their busing costs to 50 percent, but still give the districts the same money through state budget-setting, so they’d have an incentive to make better use of their busing money. The bill also makes a change in the reimbursement rules that’d cost the Boise school district nearly $1.5 million, and bans any state reimbursement to districts for busing for field trips, permanently. Overall, the state would save $4.1 million next year. Nonini said in a future year, lawmakers could “re-do this legislation so that when times are better we will bring back money for field trips.”

There was an objection…

When Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked unanimous consent of the House to waive further reading of HB 256, the bill to cut state reimbursement to school districts for student busing costs, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, objected. That forced the reading, out loud, of the entire bill by the chief clerk of the House, Bonnie Alexander. Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, tried to interrupt and cite a different rule to interrupt the reading, but Speaker Lawerence Denney ruled that since there was an objection, the bill must be read in full. So it’s still being read… Democrats object to the funding cut.

‘From a practical standpoint, this is a disaster’

Rep. Marge Chadderdon’s flag-manufacturing bill was sidelined to the House’s amending order today, after several representatives objected to the bill’s requirement that if any political subdivision of the state of Idaho purchases a state or U.S. flag that was manufactured outside the United States, it could refuse to pay for the flag. That’s how Chadderdon and co-sponsor Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, explained a clause saying that such purchases would be “null and void.” Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said, “I think there’s some constitutional problems with this issue - I don’t even know how you’d put that into effect. It’s got problems.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, told the House, “Nobody wants to vote against mom, apple pie and the flag,” but he said, “I also see some problems here. … I really appreciate the intent here, but from a practical standpoint, this is a disaster.” After Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, called the bill “the end-of-the-session warm fuzzy,” Clark moved to send it to the House’s amending order. His motion passed.

Guv is ‘satisfied’ with $82 million GARVEE plan

Clete Edmunson, Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation adviser, said, “The governor believes that $82 million still allows him to accomplish his goals, which is, we started these projects, we need to finish ‘em.” The $82 million GARVEE bonding plan that JFAC just approved this morning on a 14-6 vote is the full $125 million proposal, less the cost of the Vista Interchange, which has been moved to federal stimulus funding. Since bids on existing GARVEE bonded projects have been coming in low, “That allows us to use those savings as a buffer,” Edmunson said. “Also, now’s the time to buy right of way. … We can get some good deals out there.” Edmunson said Otter is “satisfied with the $82 million -we’re going to work with the Senate and the House to make sure that gets through.”

$82 mil GARVEE plan clears JFAC

Sen. Jim Hammond’s $82 million proposal has passed, 14-6.

Options on GARVEE bonds…

There are at least three ways JFAC could go this morning, as it considers GARVEE bonds, the special type of bonding that allows the state to borrow against its future federal highway allocations to fund big projects up-front, and that’s funding several big projects across the state now. Three North Idaho lawmakers who want the program to continue are backing varying proposals.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I think it’d be nuts to drop the program in the middle - let’s finish these projects.” He said his $82 million bonding proposal is “a bit pragmatic,” because he figured it’d be “impossible” to get lawmakers to sign on to the full $125 million bonding plan.  Hammond told Eye on Boise his proposal would allow important right-of-way purchases to move forward on pending projects. “Let’s keep the program moving - this is actually a better year than ever, because costs are lower,” he said.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said he developed a $50 million bonding proposal because “it covers everything.” The way he figures it, ITD has just saved $36 million because bids are coming in lower than expected for bond-funded projects. “The governor said he would settle for $85 million,” Henderson said, adding that the governor made that commitment “sometime yesterday morning.” The governor himself decided to move the Vista Interchange project out of next year’s bonding program and into the federal stimulus program, Henderson said, making it one of eight high-priority projects across the state for which he wants to spend stimulus funds. That leaves enough in the bonding program to cover the remaining projects, he said. “It’ll work,” said Henderson.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, developed a budget proposal calling for the full $125 million bonding plan. “The $125 million was the recommendation from ITD board and from the governor, and I think there are arguments for moving forward in that manner,” she said.

Big morning in JFAC today

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has big things on its plate this morning - running from the departments of Labor and Administration, through several complicated pieces of the Health & Welfare budget, to the Idaho Transportation Department and the fight over GARVEE bonding. Several lawmakers are talking about options ranging from fully funding the governor’s $125 million bonding request, to much smaller bonding proposals, to nothing.

Time frame? ‘This session’

Here’s a puzzle: The House Transportation Committee is meeting this afternoon, but nowhere on its agenda is the governor’s latest motor vehicle registration fee increase bill. The reason? “We asked them to hold off of the registration fee bill, until we know what’s happening with the gas tax bill,” said Jason Kreizenbeck, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of staff. Both originally were three-year bills, he noted, but then the gas tax bill got scuttled in the House last Thursday. Asked if he has a particular time frame in mind before one or both of the bills will re-emerge in some new form, Kreizenbeck said, “This session.”

Mussels a ‘biological wildfire’

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, told the House Agriculture Committee today that quagga and zebra mussels should be thought of as a “biological wildfire” right at Idaho’s border. He and Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, were promoting SCR 109, the resolution to allow the state agriculture director to use deficiency warrants for emergency measures to keep the invasive mussels out of Idaho.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said he’s more accustomed to the warrants being used for active emergencies, like wildfires that already are raging or floods under way. The warrants - which run up bills the state then must pay - aren’t generally used to  prevent wildfires or floods, he noted. Said Corder, “I agree that this is different.” He said, “The fire’s burning right up towards the border. … If we saw the trees burning, but we can stop it at the border … that’s exactly what we’re asking to be done.” The mussels already have been found in Utah. The committee voted unanimously in favor of the resolution, which already passed the Senate; it moves now to the full House.

Bill to allow school cuts passes House unanimously

Consensus legislation allowing unprecedented cuts in public school funding in Idaho has passed the House on a 69-0 vote. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, sponsor of HB 252, called the bill “a piece of work that a lot of people spent a lot of hard hours on.” It suspends an array of state laws - including one requiring that teachers be paid at least what they were the year before - in the case of a declared financial emergency in a school district. Such declarations could last for only one year. “By the time it possibly could be signed, some districts could be weeks if not days away from declaring a financial emergency this year,” Nonini told the House.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has called for up to $62 million in cuts in public schools next year; Gov. Butch Otter is calling for about $110 million in cuts. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduled to set the public schools budget this Friday. If, as anticipated, cuts are approved, it’d be a first for Idaho - lawmakers haven’t set a budget for public schools that was less than schools received the previous year in recorded history. Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, called the bill “the result of a collaborative effort … (on) how best to meet the educational needs of the children of Idaho.” Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said the bill was “very carefully crafted.” She said, “It does give tools to our local school districts and our local education associations, and without these tools they really couldn’t deal with these economic emergencies, especially at the local level. … They can adjust to the conditions that exist in that particular district.”

House to hold first afternoon session today

The House will come back on the floor at 1:30 today to continue today’s floor session, after getting bogged down in amendments this morning and making little progress on its 3rd Reading Calendar, which stretches for five pages. This is the first time this session that the House is continuing its session into the afternoon.

Martial law gun-rights bill passes House

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, today persuaded the House to vote 61-9 in favor of his legislation, HB 229, to declare that during a state of “extreme emergency” including martial law, invasion or insurrection, “No government authority will have the right to come and pick up our arms and ammunition.” Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, spoke against the bill, saying no one ever expects to see an invasion or a declaration by the governor of martial law, but no one expected to see planes crashing into the World Trade Center either. “We’re meddling here with one of the most fundamental and necessary powers, and I think we need to be very careful how we do that,” he told the House. Nielsen responded, “I don’t see where we’re limiting the governor at all. In fact, I think it even helps him to know that he’s got the public out there in helping him to maintain law and order.” The bill passed, and now heads to the Senate.

‘Rep. Scrooge’ OK with $600 can opener

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, took some ribbing this morning from fellow JFAC members for his far-reaching trimming in the Division of Veterans Affairs budget, which included eliminating the replacement of a van that had 125,000 miles on it. Eskridge said the division assured him they could make it last another year. He also said he only OK’d the replacement of a lawnmower “because the old one blew up.” Various other JFAC members then started calling Eskridge “Rep. Scrooge” and “Rep. Esk-scrooge.” But then it surfaced that the budget included some new kitchen equipment, including a can opener. Eskridge said he didn’t want to micro-manage the agency to the extent of checking up on the can opener - but he took ribbing again when it came out that the can opener cost $600. Apparently, it’s a big industrial model, for opening big cans.

Just pay a bit more…

When Butch Morrison, owner and operator of the Crescent ‘No Lawyers’ Bar & Grill, addressed the Senate State Affairs Committee yesterday as the president of the Idaho Licensed Beverage Association, backing the governor’s proposed reform of Idaho’s liquor license system, Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, had a comment for him about the name of his establishment. “You understand that a few of us lawyers still sneak in and enjoy your food?” Davis asked Morrison. Morrison responded, “We do, but we also have a lawyer fee - $100 to the above prices.”

Controversial ed bill clears committee

After more than a two-hour debate, the House Education Committee has voted 10-6 in favor of HB 262, legislation from the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Nonini, to freeze teacher salaries on the salary grid for a year and to phase out an early retirement incentive. Opponents said the one-year freeze  would actually be a permanent hit to teachers’ earnings, affecting not only their future earnings but their retirement. “For some teachers that are close to retirement, yes, it might affect the amount of PERSI that they’ll receive for the rest of their lives,” Nonini told the panel. But, he said, “What we do affects every state employee.” Education groups that opposed the bill contrasted it with HB 252, a consensus bill developed by a bipartisan committee, endorsed by educators and sponsored by Nonini, to allow temporary cuts in school funding. Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, said that bill covered the needed cuts, and opposed HB 262. “I think it will seriously undermine the Idaho school districts’ efforts to recruit and retain good teachers,” she said.

The bill is one of three to ease education cuts by suspending or changing state laws. In addition to HB 262 and HB 252, another measure, HB 256, also sponsored by Nonini, that cuts state reimbursement to school districts for student busing, cleared the Education Committee yesterday and is pending in the House.

Budget setting is clicking along

The joint budget committee this morning has set budgets for Vocational Rehabilitation, the Commission for the Blind, the Division of Veterans Services and the biggie, the Department of Correction. The corrections budget is based entirely on the assumption that there will be no growth in inmates in fiscal year 2010 - it assumes inmate numbers will hold at 7,333. The good news, legislative budget analyst Dick Burns told JFAC members, is that the current inmate level is 7,223. That’s as of last Friday. It’s dropped by almost 200 inmates over the last year, from 7,421 last March.

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, who worked on hold-the-line budgets for all nine divisions within Corrections, said, “This whole budget is based on zero growth. … If we start to see growth in this thing, you know what you’re going to see in January.” That would be supplemental appropriation requests to pay the additional costs. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, noted that the approach is “a little bit risky,” and asked how budget writers respond if inmate levels do rise. Joked JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, “We have an adopt-a-felon program and each of us sign up as we leave.”  Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that growth would mean corrections would spend more of their budget than anticipated by next January, when lawmakers are back in town, and budget writers would have to address that issue then.

Up next in the coming days are more big budgets - Health & Welfare,  Transportation, higher education and ISP. “By the time we get to Friday, the only thing we should have left is K-12,” Bell said. There still would be final decisions remaining on spending of some stimulus funds. But, she said, “These budgets put government in place.”

CAPP program funded

The budget set by JFAC this morning for the state’s prison system shifts various funds around to cover the $2.5 million bond payment and operational costs of the Correctional Alternative Placement Program, a new facility that’s scheduled to open in May of 2010. “The bond payment was not included in the governor’s budget recommendation,” noted Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “I’m not sure how they were going to handle that, but at least we’ve taken care of it.” Committee members complimented Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, and legislative budget analyst Dick Burns for their work on the corrections budget motions, all of which passed unanimously.

Commissioners to get pay cut, too

JFAC has taken formal action this morning to apply the 3 percent across-the-board state pay cut to state tax commissioners, industrial commissioners and public utilities commissioners. The commissioners’ pay is set by state law, but the joint budget committee unanimously adopted “notwithstanding” language, setting aside the legally set salaries to accommodate the pay cuts. It’s the same percentage cut that will apply to all state employees, except elected officials whose pay can’t be changed during their term in office.

Field trip change is permanent

Legislation that cleared the House Education Committee today would permanently end state funding for field trips and change how school districts are reimbursed for student transportation. The move is designed to save $4.2 million next year; click below to read the full story from AP reporter Sarah Wire.

Lawmaker: U.S. is a ‘confederacy’

Promoting his state sovereignty resolution on the floor of the Idaho House of Representatives today, St. Maries Rep. Dick Harwood declared that the United States is really a “confederacy.” “To be accurate, we’re a confederated republic,” the fifth-term Republican then told the House. Political scientists said Harwood’s dead wrong, and a longtime Kootenai County human rights activist said the use of the term “confederacy” is offensive. Harwood said, “If I’m wrong, then I guess I’m wrong. But my understanding of it all was that we were a confederated republic.” He said he thought President Lincoln changed things so that states couldn’t secede, but that the nation remained a confederacy. “Lots of things that have happened in the history of our country never get told in college courses,” Harwood said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Boat sticker bill clears Senate committee, 7-1

HB 213, the bill to require all boats launched in Idaho to carry an invasive species sticker to help raise money to combat quagga and zebra mussels, has cleared the Senate Resources Committee on a 7-1 vote. The bill earlier passed the House; it now heads to the full Senate. Committee Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, wondered, “Why can’t we just ban boats from another state?” And Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “If we don’t do a good job and one boat comes in, all this money, all this effort is wasted.” But Pearce cast the only “no” vote on the committee. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, the bill’s sponsor, said, “The threat … is absolutely critical - it’s very, very real.” He said if the invasive mussels get into Idaho, and they’re now just miles away in Utah, it could cost $94 million a year just to cope with their fast-multiplying presence clogging up Idaho’s waterways, beaches, pipes and irrigation systems.

The stickers would cost $10 a year for boats registered in Idaho, $20 a year for boats registered elsewhere, and $5 a year for non-motorized boats, which aren’t registered. The only exemption would be for inflatables less than 10 feet long.

Sovereignty resolution passes House, 51-17

HJM 4, a non-binding memorial sponsored by Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, to declare Idaho’s sovereignty from the federal government and ask the feds to “cease and desist” from violating that sovereignty, passed the House just now on a 51-17 vote. Harwood read from the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and told the House, “With them words, the states of this United States created the federal government.” It was meant to be an agent for the states, he said, not the other way around. Harwood decried federal actions that push states to comply under threat of losing federal funds. “They’ve moved us in a direction that we can’t afford to go … and we shoulda never went there,” he said. And he told the House that he believes the United States is not a democracy and not even just a republic, but a “confederacy,” adding, “To be accurate, we’re a confederated republic.”

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a retired high school government teacher, responded, “The Constitution clearly states that … we the people do ordain and establish this government. Our government is a government of the people and by the people and for the people - it is not a compact of states. I think that issue was further defined during the civil war … was it to be a compact of states, or was it to be a union of the people? And the answer of the north, when the south seceded, was that it was a union of the people. … I think that this memorial is probably fighting a 200-year-old battle, and I’m not quite sure how it’s going to serve us.”

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, spoke out in favor of a return to the gold standard, and said he supported the memorial because of its statements against the federal reserve system. Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, also spoke in favor of the measure. Harwood said a number of other states are considering similar memorials.

House rejects survey of historic barns

House Agriculture Chairman Tom Trail’s resolution encouraging the state Historical Society to conduct a study of the state’s historic agricultural buildings was rejected in the House on a 20-48 vote, after House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, spoke out against the measure, HCR 26, in part because of its $5,000 cost. A few minutes later, Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, asked unanimous consent to change his vote on the measure, but Roberts objected, and the vote change wasn’t allowed.

Unanimous House vote for equal pay resolution

Idaho women are paid 60 percent of what men are paid, across all industries, according to the U.S. Census, placing Idaho among the four worst states in the nation for such pay disparity. Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, drew a unanimous vote of support in the House today for a resolution, HCR 23, to “recognize the importance of women’s pay equity to the well-being of Idaho families and to recognize April 28, 2009 as equal pay day.” She told the House, “If full pay is achieved, it could cut our rate of poverty in half - that’s right, in half.” Co-sponsor Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, said equal pay day denotes that to earn the same amount Idaho men earn from working five days a week for 12 months, Idaho women would have to work seven days a week for 16 months. The resolution now moves to the Senate.

Carts could go faster

“Neighborhood electric vehicles” could putt along roads with speed limits of up to 35 mph, instead of the current 25 mph, under legislation that just passed the House on a 67-1 vote. They could also cross roads that have speed limits of up to 45 mph, instead of the current 25 mph. “The city of Pocatello has purchased two of these vehicles,” Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, told the House. The city wants to use one around its sewage treatment pond and the other for meter reading. But nearby roads have higher speed limits. Andrus said the vehicles can go up to 60 mph, but are chip-limited by their manufacturer to travel at a top speed of 35 mph. “They are titled, they are registered, they have license plates, they are insured,” he said, and called them “more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles.” Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, cast the only dissenting vote.

Liquor reform clears committee

After more than two hours of testimony for and against the bill, the Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 6-3 in favor of SB 1148, Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to reform Idaho’s liquor license system, which currently sets population-based quotas for liquor licenses but has allowed 235 licenses to be issued outside those quotas under special exceptions approved by the Legislature. Kevin Settles, owner of Bardenay, told the committee that Idaho’s current system is “a horrible way to do business.” The bill now moves to the full Senate; click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Women’s Commission planning last meeting

“It’s so disappointing” said several members of the Idaho Women’s Commission, who gathered with Director Kitty Kunz in the Capitol Annex hallway after JFAC voted 15-5 to eliminate their funding and staffing. They were talking about scheduling their final meeting, and whether they had enough money left to meet in person or should go with a conference call. “We’ll still be a commission unless they take us off the state code,” Kunz said. “But at this point, we will not be a fully functioning commission after July.” She disputed that the commission’s efforts duplicated those of other organizations or agencies. “I think we try to complement, but don’t duplicate,” she said. The commission now has 10 members. Kunz noted that the commission has only a tiny budget. “There’s not much to cut - we’ve been using grants to publish our book.” She added, “It’s a year when the budget is down, so it gives them a good excuse to go ahead and cut it.” This year, the commission received just under $30,000 in state funding.

JFAC votes to zero-fund Women’s Commission

The Idaho Women’s Commission would receive no state funding next year and its only part-time employee would be eliminated, under a budget that just won 15-5 approval from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, made the motion for zero funding. She said each of the programs that the Women’s Commission undertakes is duplicated by other private non-profit or government agencies in Idaho, with the exception of a booklet about Idaho laws and how they affect women - and Keough said she’s contacted several of those other groups and they may take on the booklet. “I have no doubt that the folks that are involved in that group do good work and have good intentions, but for me, the priority this year is for those that are needy and for K-12 education,” she said. “I simply cannot support spending money on the commission this year.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, offered a motion to cut the commission’s funding roughly by half. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, backed Keough’s motion. “I think this is the right thing to do - the original motion, I think, is just prolonging the agony at this time to make this decision,” he said. The five “no” votes came from Reps. Bilyeu, Bell, Bayer, Ringo and Jaquet; all other JFAC members voted in favor.


Zero funding for Rural Partnership

The Idaho Rural Partnership will be zero-funded next year, under a budget approved in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning for the state Department of Agriculture. Several committee members objected to the move, but supporters of the budget motion said the partnership’s executive director is leaving, and their idea was to zero-fund the program for now, but re-fund it in the future when the director is replaced.

JFAC rejects public TV matching money

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, led a move in JFAC this morning to fund $150,000 for matching money for two federal grants for Idaho Public Television to take advantage of a one-time federal opportunity to get licenses for new translators to fill the gaps in the new digital signal transmission that now threaten to leave six Idaho communities without over-the-air TV signals. The move failed, however, on a 13-7 vote. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, led the opposition. “I am a fan of public television, and it is difficult for me to make this motion, but we have made a lot of difficult decisions in the last few days,” Hammond said. “We need to be very careful with every dollar that we’ve got.”

Peter Morrill, IPTV general manager, told the joint committee that without the state matching funds, IPTV couldn’t accept the $450,000 in federal grants that it applied for in January, on which word is likely to come within six months. “We will be obligated to return the licenses to the FCC,” he said. “We will not be able to provide that service, as I understand it.” Hammond responded that he lives in a rural area and recognizes he gives up some services because of that. “Does government always have to provide those?” he asked. “We make a decision to live in a certain area, and sometimes we live with less because of that.” The six communities that stand to lose TV reception are Idaho City, Emmett, Glenns Ferry, the Portneuf Valley, the Boise Front/Harris Ranch area, and the southern Wood River Valley.

JFAC sets superintendent’s budget

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has set a budget for state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna that relies on a federal grant to fund a longitudinal data system, plus allows Luna to carry over $80,000 from this year’s budget for that purpose. Gov. Butch Otter had called for spending federal stimulus money for the student tracking system, but the project didn’t qualify for that piece of the stimulus. Luna said he’s OK with the JFAC action. “Because of our successful federal grant, we’re going to be able to keep moving forward,” he said. As for the stimulus money, “It didn’t qualify.” He added, “We’re still going to be about $2.5 million short by the time we’re done, so we’re still going to have to address that, if not now in the near future.” That could mean in a future year, he said.

The week that was…

Here’s a link to a slide show of the 10th week of the legislative session in photos, and here’s a link to this week’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television. On this week’s show, I joined House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, House Minority Leader John Rusche, Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby and host Thanh Tan to discuss the big transportation news of the week, a discussion that continued and went on to other issues during the “After the Show” discussion, also which you also can watch online here.

Guv in CdA: ‘Dover Bridges all over the state’

A day after his transportation initiative suffered a big defeat in the House, Gov. Butch Otter decried the state of Idaho’s roads and bridges, and told a Coeur d’Alene Rotary Club he’s headed back to the Legislature to “ask them once again to be responsible – let’s figure out a way.” Former Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs, a member of the audience, drew laughs when he stood up and told Otter he spent some time pushing for highway repairs about 10 years ago “with about the same success.” You can read reporter Alison Boggs’ full story here at spokesman.com.

Fetal death bill killed in House

The House has voted 32-31against HB 214, a measure from Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, to issue official state certificates of “fetal death” to women who have early miscarriages or abortions. The measure was opposed by the state’s bureau of vital statistics, which said it issues official certificates only for verified, reportable data. The bill would have made the certificates both voluntary and non-public, though they’d be issued by the state’s official bureau. Boyle said it was intended to help people cope with their grief.

Emergency funding OK’d for mussel fight

The Senate has voted 31-0 to authorize the state agriculture director to use deficiency warrants to pay for emergency measures to combat invasive quagga or zebra mussels in Idaho waterways. “The mussels right now are in northern Utah,” Senate Agriculture Chairman Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, told the Senate. “They could get here unless we take action to stop them. … We need to act to preserve our water, we need to act to preserve our fisheries. We need to act, and that’s what this resolution is all about - it allows the director of the Department of Agriculture to act.” When deficiency warrants are issued, the state has to pay the bills, even if it hasn’t previously appropriated money for them. In this case, the upper limit would be $5 million. The measure, SCR 109, which now moves to the House, declares that “a condition of extreme peril exists in and around the water bodies of the state of Idaho.”

JFAC approves 3 percent pay cut

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted 14-5 to impose a 3 percent, across-the-board pay cut on all state employees next year, as part of an overall 5 percent cut in personnel funding statewide. The joint committee had been debating between requiring 2 percent or 3 percent as the required cut. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, was among those opposing the 3 percent figure. “Why would we intentionally go to a 3 percent salary reduction when we don’t know for sure that we have to go that deep?” he asked. “We are still not competitive in terms of how we compensate our employees.” Backers of the move said they want fairness and uniformity in how cuts are handled among state agencies. “What we really want to do is to keep as many jobs as we can,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley. The requirement for the one-year pay cut, effective for fiscal year 2010, will now be written into every budget bill the joint committee passes.

Election consolidation bill killed by one vote

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 5-4 to kill HB 201, the sweeping election consolidation legislation that earlier easily passed the House, despite strong urging from Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes to pass the bill; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee, “I don’t know when I’ve had a bill of this size and this importance that has no opposition to the content of the bill. … The only sticking point is the funding.” Geddes said elections will be held regardless; it’s worth doing them right, and making sure voters know when and where to vote. “Certainly we’re not going to propose that elections not be held,” he said. “I think it is the cost of democracy. … Certainly allowing people to be better informed, better able to attend and participate in elections is a worthy cost.”

Here’s how the vote broke down:

Voting in favor: Sens. Geddes, Fulcher, Pearce and McKenzie.

Voting against: Sens. Darrington, Davis, Stegner, Thorson(Stennett) and Kelly

 

‘Hindsight is always 20-20’

With the defeat today of Gov. Butch Otter’s $61.6 million gas tax hike proposal, some are looking back to last year’s $68.5 million road-funding compromise that lawmakers offered but Otter spurned. “Hindsight is always 20-20,” House Speaker Lawerence Denney told the AP today. “If he would have taken it, he would have $68 million.” Click below to read AP reporter John Miller’s analysis.

Wrestling with the cuts…

JFAC members are gathered in the 5th-floor library of the Capitol Annex to try to figure out how to fashion budget bills that implement the proposed 5 percent cut in personnel funds across the state budget. Among the options they’re kicking around: Mandating a 2 percent cut in pay for everyone, and letting agencies manage the other 3 percent through keeping positions vacant, furloughing workers, or, if necessary, layoffs. “We don’t want to lay off people - we want people to keep their jobs,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the group. Added House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, “Everybody would have to do something.” That approach couldn’t apply to public schools, Cameron cautioned, because school districts, not the state, set pay levels for school employees.

Another option: Require a certain number of days of furlough for all agencies. However, Cameron warned, “You cannot furlough probably in corrections, may not be able to do it in state police, and I don’t know how you do it with case workers in Health & Welfare. … Furloughs work well with some agencies.” The state faces some limitations because it must treat employees equally, committee members said; Gov. Butch Otter has called for applying the 5 percent cut only to the state’s general fund, but various state agencies have a mix of funding sources. “I think most people would probably rather take less money themselves than see a co-worker laid off,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle.

‘Problem is not going to go away’

Stunned backers of the governor’s gas tax bill said they hope the governor will be able to come up with some kind of plan that will clear the House. “I’ll continue to work with the governor’s office to see if there’s another proposal that would be acceptable, because the problem is not going to go away,” said Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “We’re still at a funding crisis in transportation here in Idaho.” North Idaho lawmakers split right down the middle on the governor’s gas tax bill, which went down 27-43, and only three Democrats in the House voted in favor of the bill; House Speaker Lawerence Denney had estimated he’d need nine Democratic votes to get the bill through the House because of opposition in his own party. The debate, which lasted close to two hours, included 11 representatives speaking in favor of the bill, and 10 against. Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com.

Otter: ‘I’m not giving up’

Here’s Gov. Butch Otter’s response to the failure of his gax tax increase bill in the House:

“I’m disappointed by today’s outcome, but I appreciate the constructive debate and I am not giving up. My staff and I continue to talk with legislators, as do representatives of the many stakeholders from communities throughout Idaho who support taking action now on our transportation needs. I believe all the facts are in and the case has been made.  Don’t take my word for it; the Legislature’s own audit confirms the need. There also is no doubt that one-time stimulus money is not the answer. I remain committed to finding a significant, stable and long-term solution to the funding requirements for protecting our $16 billion public investment in roads and bridges. In the meantime, it is important to note the steps the Legislature and my office are taking together to address the fundamental issue of confidence in the Idaho Transportation Department. I understand that confidence and trust are necessary, and that they go hand in hand with entrusting ITD with more taxpayer money. This process continues.”

Gas tax bill fails in the House

The governor’s legislation to increase Idaho’s gas tax has failed in the House, on a 27-43 vote.

The debate in the House lasted for close to two hours, with representatives from throughout the state speaking out for and against the bill. “I’m going to support this bill because I see a need for it, but if we end this session without also investing in our human infrastructure, I think it will be a great failure,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, calling for avoiding cuts in education funding. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, speaking in favor of the bill, said, “It is above all else a safety issue.” House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said, “The Idaho taxpayers don’t like taxes, but they really don’t like bad roads.” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said he’s heard from people in the construction business who would benefit, but the rest of his constituents don’t want their taxes raised. “It’s actually never the right time to raise taxes, but especially at this time when our constituents are struggling,” he said. Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, said, “I oppose a tax hike, not in any amount and not for any reason.”

The debate is on…

The first six representatives to speak in the debate on the gas tax bill after the opening debate were two in favor, four against. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, spoke out in favor, citing Gov. Butch Otter’s executive order promising stricter accountability measures for transportation spending. “I could not have read something more responsive to the problem than this executive order,” he told the House. Reps. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, then all spoke against the bill, followed by Rep. Max Black, who spoke in favor.

“It’s not the right time,” Rusche declared. Said Hagedorn, “I believe this is a Band-Aid and I don’t think it’s going to solve our problem.” Burgoyne said the amount the gas tax hike would raise - about $61 million by the third year - is close to the amount of cuts being talked about for public schools next year, $62 million or more. “I ask whether we are raising the right tax to fund the right things, and whether we have the right priorities,” he said. Ruchti said, “Many of us now know family members or friends or constituents who are being affected by this economy. If you want to talk about unfair, it’s losing your job after 15 years. … Is this the right time to raise taxes on Idaho families?” Black, R-Boise, said, “I don’t know that there’s a right time to raise taxes … but it’s the right time to fix our roads. … You’ll be spending the money, whether you do it in a tax, or realignment and new tires.”

‘You have another think coming’

Here’s a link to the governor’s executive order and letter to lawmakers promising new accountability measures for the Idaho Transportation Department. “If you don’t think the governor is serious about running a tighter ship at the Department of Transportation, you have another think coming,” House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the House, recommending that all members read the executive order.

House begins gas tax hike debate

The House has begun debating HB 246, the governor’s bill to increase Idaho’s gas tax by 7 cents over the next three years, to raise money for road maintenance. The tax is now 25 cents per gallon. “This is a bill that you’ve all been waiting for,” House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the House. “I don’t present this bill lightly.” Before the measure was taken up, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, asked unanimous consent to return HB 247, the governor’s earlier vehicle registration fee increase bill, to the transportation committee, “due to an error in the bill.” No one objected.

Bedke told the House, “In Idaho we have got a little problem.” There are only 29.8 people per mile of road, he said, vs. 58 in Utah and more than 60 in Oregon. That makes it challenging for Idaho to fund adequate road maintenance. “We have fewer people per mile than most every other state.”

Henderson: ‘The mathematics is obvious’

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, says he’s been promoting his idea about changing the “bands,” or groupings, for car and light truck registration fees for the past year, dropping to three groups rather than five. “I’ve submitted that idea for over a year, but nobody ever picked up on it,” he said. “By doing that, that system increases revenue by 16 percent, whatever you charge for fees.” The reason? “Right now, if you buy a new car, you pay $48 for two years.” After that, the rate drops for a two- or three-year-old car. “The new system is four years - and it’s so slight that it’s harmless … You can raise revenue by 16 percent without hurting the public.” Added Henderson, “The mathematics is obvious.”

When Gov. Butch Otter decided to adopt his idea in the governor’s new registration fee bill, “I felt good about it,” Henderson said. But he said he’s more excited about an executive order Otter issued yesterday, promising more accountability over operations and spending at ITD. The director would have to report quarterly to the ITD board, the governor, and the House and Senate transportation chairs on progress on meeting benchmarks to comply with a recent audit. “If they don’t do what they said they would do, they can’t request spending authority,” Henderson said. “It’s significant.” Asked if the executive order makes him more likely to support the governor’s transportation tax proposals, Henderson said, “You bet your life. … It’s just been difficult over the years to get the data I needed from ITD.” The proposed new process, he said, “gives the Legislature a continuing front-row seat on the programs and process of the transportation department.”

Who pays how much more

Under the governor’s new vehicle registration fee bill, after three years, owners of new cars would pay 37.5 percent more than they do now in annual registration fees, while owners of the oldest cars - those more than eight years old - would pay 75 percent more. Both increases are identical dollar amounts, $18. Owners of heavy trucks have just 5 percent fee increases in the bill, though the governor promises a task force to look into whether that should change.

House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, questioned Jason Kreizenbeck, the governor’s chief of staff, repeatedly about the truck part of the issue. He said he’d been hearing arguments that Idaho shouldn’t raise its truck registration fees because that would drive truckers to register in other states, but had recently learned that’s not the case, because under an interstate compact, interstate truckers pay registration fees proportionally based on the number of miles they travel in each state, regardless of where they’re registered. “I think your characterization is accurate,” Kreizenbeck responded.

Full hearing planned

The new vehicle registration fee bill introduced this morning will go to a full hearing in the House Transportation Committee, the Ways & Means Committee decided this morning. “The recommendation is to the Transportation Committee for full hearing,” said Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, chairman of the committee, before the unanimous vote. House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said that was the preferred choice “just to vet this one out because we’ve changed these band widths - that’s a significant enough change that it’d be appropriate to hear it.” The “bands,” or groupings by age of vehicles, drop from five in the previous bill to three, and each covers more years of vehicle ages. Owners of vehicles up to four years old, who now pay either $48 (one and two years old) or $36 (three and four years old) per year for registration, would pay $54 next year, $60 the following year, and $66 the year after.

The second band, vehicles five, six, seven and eight years old, would rise from the current $36 (for those five and six years old) or $24 (for those seven and eight years old) to $42 next year, $48 the following year, and $54 the year after.

The third band, for vehicles more than eight years old, would rise from the current $24 to $30 next year, $36 the year after, and $42 by the third year.

A whole new bill

The House Ways & Means Committee has voted unanimously to introduce an entirely new bill on raising car and truck registration fees, proposed this morning by the governor’s office. “This is another attempt at vehicle registration legislation - it’s another approach,” Jason Kreizenbeck, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of staff, told the committee this morning. It’s a concept developed by Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, he said. “It’s one that the governor endorses and we would like to have considered.”

Like the earlier bill - which was pulled back after a math error was discovered - the new bill would raise heavy truck registration fees by 5 percent, and the governor says he’d convene a task force to study how truck fees should change further. For cars and light trucks, the new bill would change the grouping by age so there are just three groups, rather than five, and older vehicles would see slightly higher increases than in the last bill, but overall, the increases would be lower. By the third year, at full implementation, the bill would raise $31.6 million from increased fees, down from about $33.4 million in the previous bill. The top rate, for the newest cars, would go up to $66 rather than $84. For the oldest cars, it’d go to $42 rather than $36. House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said he thought the bill’s overall smaller increases would increase “the level of comfort of people as far as their votes to get through the floor of the House - I think that plays a role.”

Former supt weighs in on school funding

Former state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard says she’s “pretty much kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open” since leaving office in 2006 after two terms. But in a guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman today, she offered her ideas on how the state should help school districts cope with the funding drop that’s accompanying the current economic downturn, which include cutting strings on funding, a moratorium on new charter schools, and trimming back state budget directions to essentials, leaving districts to decide whether they do more. Click here to read the article.

Uncertainty on eve of transportation vote

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com about how, on the eve of a big do-or-die vote on Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation tax package, the governor’s office discovered a $10 million math error in its main bill and a citizens group released a damaging report raising questions about both the need for and fairness of the proposals. Lawmakers are divided on the governor’s proposals, which are a tough sell because they raise taxes and fees during an economic downturn. “I’m against them both,” declared state Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. “It’s the wrong timing - how do you square the stimulus money with raising taxes at this time?” State Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said he’s undecided. “This is a tough time, but I recognize the condition our roads are in,” he said. Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said, “We feel like we’ve spent a lot of time getting to this point. … We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to convince enough lawmakers that we’ll be able to do something substantive.”

Ways & Means to meet in the morning

The House Ways & Means Committee will hold its first meeting of the session in the morning, to introduce another new version of the governor’s key transportation bill, to raise car and truck registration fees. The leadership-dominated committee, which rarely meets, has a proposal from Jason Kreizenbeck, the governor’s chief of staff, regarding vehicle registration fees as the lone item on its agenda. Asked which room the panel will meet in, Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, laughed - because he didn’t know. But it’s there on the notice - Room 228.

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said the math error in the governor’s bill means other changes are needed too, to adjust percentages the bill sends to various dedicated funds. Because of that, the full House is now scheduled to vote only on the governor’s other bill, the gas tax increase bill, in the morning; the new version of the registration fee bill likely will be up another day, Roberts said. “The gas tax really hasn’t changed at all - that proposal’s still intact, it’s simple,” Roberts said.

CdA Lake Management Plan wins funding

The Coeur d’Alene Lake Management Plan will be funded one way or another, Idaho state lawmakers declared today. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted unanimously in favor of a budget for the state Department of Environmental Quality for next year that includes an either-or: Either the state will spend $332,500 from its water pollution control account to start implementing the lake plan, or a federal grant will cover the full amount. Overall, the budget for DEQ next year would see a 20.4 percent drop in state general funds, but a 12.4 percent boost in total funding, thanks to the federal stimulus. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

‘It was a math error’

The governor’s office says there was a math error at the Idaho Transportation Department in calculating the revenue raised by his new vehicle registration fee proposal, and it actually will raise $10 million less than originally thought. Instead of $43.7 million after three years, “The actual figure is closer to $33.4 million after three years,” said Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter. “So it’s about a $10 million difference.” That means the combination of the registration fee hike bill and the new gas tax increase bill brings in $95 million more for road work after three years, rather than $105.3 million, Hanian said. “It was a math error that was discovered last night. It’s unfortunate - they just miscalculated.” He said, “We’re getting that corrected and fixed, with the real figure.”

No vote today on election consolidation

There was lots of testimony this morning on the big election consolidation bill, HB 201, but the Senate State Affairs Committee ran out of time and had to end its meeting before finishing the hearing, so there was no vote today. The committee next meets on Friday. The measure earlier passed the House; it’d make sweeping reforms in Idaho’s election system, to move all elections to four dates and have counties run them all, with standardized polling places.

CAT fund reforms introduced

A rare meeting of the Senate Finance Committee - the Senate half of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee - was held today to consider introducing legislation from Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, regarding the state’s catastrophic fund. The fund, which picks up costs for medically indigent patients after counties have paid the first $10,000, is running a big budget deficit, and Gov. Butch Otter based his budget for next year on raising the deductible for counties up to $15,000. “However, in looking at it, we know that that shift would cause … property taxes to be raised,” Cameron told the committee, which he chairs. He’s been working for weeks with counties, CAT fund officials, providers and others to develop his proposal, which raises the deductible to $11,000 and also institutes a series of reforms and cost-savings in the catastrophic fund program.

The committee unanimously voted to introduce Cameron’s bill, and members praised his work on the issue. It’ll now go to the Senate Health & Welfare Committee for a full hearing.   

Substance abuse treatment funds trimmed

Hoping to avoid a $2.1 million cut in funding for statewide substance abuse treatment, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, this morning proposed filling the gap by dipping into the $45 million in discretionary federal stimulus funds that Gov. Butch Otter wants to direct into road and water projects. LeFavour said lawmakers are counting on Idaho’s prison population and juvenile corrections caseloads not growing next year to make the budgets they’re setting work, and she questioned how that could happen “if we cut substance abuse treatment.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, backed LeFavour’s motion, saying, “We know that the investment would be one that would pay off, not only in terms of human needs but from a practical point of view, saving great expense in the long term. I think where we have resources sometimes it’s just smart to use them.”

The motion got only three votes, however, as committee members were reluctant to take on the governor over the stimulus money. The smaller budget for substance abuse treatment then passed, 18-2.

‘The fund that hurts us the least’

Funding to operate the state Office of Drug Policy would come from the Millenium Fund, which holds the proceeds from a tobacco settlement, under a budget set this morning in JFAC. Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, tried to take the money from the general fund instead, but other budget writers said there just isn’t the money. “At this point, it appears to be the fund that will hurt us the least,” said House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. The plan passed the committee on a 15-5 vote.

JFAC votes to restore tax auditors

Legislative budget writers have set a budget for the state Department of Revenue and Taxation that restores funding for 31 of the 47 temporary tax auditors who were laid off as a result of this year’s budget holdbacks. “When you take a look at this, when we get into a downturn like this, one of the things you don’t want to do is cut off the hand that feeds you,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. “That’s why we’re putting this back in.” The restored auditors are expected to bring in $7.5 million in state revenue through their work in collecting taxes due, far offsetting the $425,000 cost of reinstating them. That doesn’t bring an overall boost to the budget, however, because the governor’s budget recommendation didn’t show the loss in funds due to eliminating the auditors; the change just brings the budget back in line. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved it on a unanimous vote.

Sovereignty resolution wins support

A non-binding memorial declaring Idaho’s sovereignty from the federal government cleared the House State Affairs Committee this morning, at the urging of Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries. Harwood said the federal government shouldn’t pressure states to do this or that or face losing federal funding. “What this bill is about is sovereignty, that we have a right to govern ourselves in them areas,” Harwood told the committee. “All this bill really does is reinstates what the Constitution says about the 10th Amendment, and asks the federal government to cease and desist in this kind of action and to be good neighbors.” Testifying in favor of the resolution was Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, who told the panel, “I know that everybody here believes in state sovereignty. We talk the talk, we don’t always walk the walk.” She said, “If you believe in this you need to support this, and if you don’t support it, I’m going to assume you don’t believe in it.” Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, who like Barrett is a co-sponsor of the measure, said, “Almost every year we get a piece of legislation or some information that says if we don’t get this, they’re gonna withhold our money. And you know, we paid that money in.”

Citizen Lori Shoemaker told the committee, “Centralized government is dangerous - that’s against the American way.” Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, said, “I have never in my life received so many emails as I have on this one. … Not a single one was anti. Therefore I would move that HJM 4 be sent to the floor with a do-pass recommendation.” A handful of supporters in the audience burst into applause at the vote of approval.

Pharmacist conscience bill heads for amendment

Rep. Tom Loertscher’s bill to give pharmacists or “any person” the right to refuse to fill a prescription for a patient on the basis of conscience is headed for the House’s amending order, to revise the bill so it applies only to pharmacists - not to cashiers, stores, or others. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, proposed the amendments. “It’s simply a matter of burden of proof,” he said. “I don’t think it will change in any way the current practices, because people do have that right.” Emotional testimony on the bill stretched for two days before it was approved for amendment on a 14-4 vote. The testimony included pharmacists and other experts who said Idaho pharmacists already have the right to refuse to fill a prescription; Idaho has no law requiring them to fill all prescriptions. Among those who testified was pharmacist Gloria Hansen, who said, “I do know that we need to act according to our conscience. .. I lean on the rock which is the lord God.”

Budget cuts hit parks department

Legislative budget writers have set a budget for the state Parks Department that’s a 57.9 percent cut from their current year general-fund level, and 18.8 percent overall. “They’ve limped along - it’s sad,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. The vote in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee was unanimous. Parks Director Bob Meinen said after the vote that it’s too early to say whether the budget will force closure of any state parks; his department has been looking into whether it can keep Old Mission State Park at Cataldo open. “We’ve got to evaluate where we are and take a look at the big picture,” Meinen said. “Under the circumstances, I think the committee has done the best job they can with the resources they have.” He said, “If we can, our intent is to keep everything open. That’s my hope.”
 

McGee: Guv should be able to oust ITD head

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, has unveiled legislation to give the governor authority to fire the state transportation director, who now reports to the Idaho Transportation Board. The clash between McGee and ITD Director Pam Lowe that the bill symbolizes comes just as the governor is making his big push to get lawmakers to sign onto his transportation funding proposal; a House vote looms on Thursday. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Chadderdon: Buy only U.S.-made flags

Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, persuaded the House State Affairs Committee to introduce legislation today to require that whenever any Idaho state agency, college or university, or local government agency in Idaho purchases a U.S. flag or an Idaho state flag, it must be one manufactured in the United States. She estimated that any cost to the state from the bill would be “negligible.” Her bill states that if a non-U.S. made flag is purchased with state or local government funds in Idaho, that purchase would be “null, void and of no force and effect.” “They’d have to ship ‘em back,” she said merrily. Chadderdon said, “When you think about the places the flag is - like on the moon, or Mt. Everest, don’t you hope it’s made in America?” She said, “I think it’s America’s greatest symbol. it was a fun piece of legislation to work on - very patriotic legislation.”

NIC building renovation wins funding

A major renovation of Seiter Hall at North Idaho College won support from the Legislature’s joint budget committee this morning, which made it one of just three specific projects to be funded in the state’s capital budget for next year. The capital budget proposal cleared the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on a 19-1 vote; it still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become final, but budget bills rarely are changed after they’re set by the joint committee. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “Times are tight, but I think these are important projects. The money is in the permanent building fund, it’s not in the general fund - it’s not money that can be used for education or anything else.” The 1974 building on the Coeur d’Alene community college campus was a state-of-the-art science lab building when it opened, but it’s now sadly out of date. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Transportation vote set for Thursday

Both parties in the House left the floor and went into caucus this morning, for a discussion of the governor’s latest transportation proposals. The Republicans, who met behind closed doors, emerged saying there’s no telling what the outcome will be. “It’ll be Thursday,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who said he and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, will carry the governor’s two bills on the House floor. “His plan needs to be fairly presented on the floor,” Roberts said. “This is a tough vote. … There will be people on both sides of the issue in every district of the state.” He added, “I don’t think there’s a person residing in the state of Idaho that doesn’t understand that these economic times are tough for the people.”

In the open House Democratic caucus, some of those economic concerns are hitting close to home. House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said his brother’s been laid off, as has another representative’s husband. “Is this a good time to raise taxes on Idaho families? I think the answer is no,” he said.

No vote today on pharmacist conscience bill

The House State Affairs Committee has continued its hearing on the pharmacist conscience bill until tomorrow; numerous people remain to testify.

Budget scuffle prompts ‘pre-emptive veto’

Here’s a news item from AP: “Budget writers relented to demands by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s budget chief and refrained from using a fraction of Idaho’s federal stimulus windfall to pay for family medicine residencies. At a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, some lawmakers favored using $318,000 from $45 million in stimulus money that Otter has already earmarked for water and roads projects to pay for additional family medicine residencies in Boise and Pocatello. Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, strenuously objected. Rep. Maxine Bell, budget panel co-chair, got the impression Hammon was issuing a pre-emptive “veto message.” Lawmakers instead opted to take the money out of the state’s general fund, which has been hit by revenue shortfalls. Bell’s take on the altercation: “We chose to take the high road.” “

Lots of interest in pharmacist conscience bill

There’s a packed hearing and 15 people signed up to testify on Rep. Tom Loertscher’s bill to allow Idaho pharmacists, or “any person,” to refuse to provide a prescription to a patient on the basis of the person’s conscience. Under questioning from House State Affairs Committee members, Loertscher said his bill could cover cashiers or other workers as well as pharmacists, and objections could be to anything, from dispensing contraceptives to any medication. “There are an abundance of pharmacists, and certainly not all of them will object,” Loertscher said.

Samuel Hoagland, a pharmacist and attorney who has taught pharmacy law at Idaho State University for the past 10 years, told the committee, “This law is unnecessary - it is unnecessary because pharmacists have always had the right to refuse to fill any prescription that they want. Pharmacists have already had a right to refuse, and we don’t see that this bill does anything other than presume to give us a right that we already have.” Idaho has no law requiring pharmacists to dispense all prescriptions, he said. Testimony is continuing.

‘Fetal death’ bill clears committee by one vote

Rep. Judy Boyle’s bill to require the state to issue an official “certificate of fetal death” at the request of a woman who has an early miscarriage or abortion brought an hour of emotional testimony this morning, including  “grave concern” expressed by the head of Idaho’s bureau of vital statistics. Such official documents are used as evidence in court and proof of identity, and the bill’s requirements that the bureau accept unverified, unreported information and issue a non-public but official certificate would make official security paper more widely available for use in fraud, James Aydelotte told the House State Affairs Committee. “We should not be in the business of keepsake documents, no matter how heart-wrenching the event,” he told the panel. Anti-abortion activists and a couple who had suffered an early miscarriage offered extensive and sometimes tearful testimony in favor of the bill. “Bring recognition to our child so that we will no longer have to grieve alone,” Randy Jackson told the committee.  Said activist David Ripley, “Part of that healing that goes on is claiming that baby.”

Boyle, R-Midvale, told the committee, “This bill is not about abortion, I want to make that perfectly clear. My intent was to help mothers and families with their grieving process.” The committee then voted down a motion to kill the bill by one vote, 8-9, and then passed the bill and sent it to the full House by the reverse vote, 9-8.

‘A good gesture by committee’

The governor’s chief of staff called the votes this morning to introduce and send to the full House the governor’s new three-year transportation funding proposals “a good gesture on behalf of the committee and the body to allow the issue to go to a vote before the whole House.” Said Jason Kreizenbeck, “This is an issue the governor’s been talking about the whole time he’s been in office. We’ve had several hours of hearings. I think people are well-versed in it and ready to discuss it.”

Between the two new bills - three-year phased increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees - the  bill to eliminate the ethanol exemption and Otter’s hope to shift Idaho State Police funding off the gas tax and onto the general fund, freeing up millions more for road work, the governor’s revised plan would raise an additional $130 million a year by the third year. “We’ve attempted to find a compromise between where we were and where the Legislature was,” said Kreizenbeck. Otter originally proposed a five-year, $174 million increase in transportation funding.

Registration fee hike headed to House

A compromise registration fee proposal, outlined by Jason Kreizenbeck, Gov. Otter’s chief of staff, would raise $18 million from increased fees in fiscal year 2010, $39 million in 2011, and $43.7 million in 2012. The measure also includes a 5 percent hike in truck registration fees, as the governor proposed earlier, and a task force to study how to revise truck registration fees in the future. Together with the gas tax bill, the two measures would raise a total of about $105 million more a year for road work by the end of the third year. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, moved to introduce the bill and send it to the full House without recommendation. Rep. Raul Labrador said, “We have not compromised yet. … This is a revised plan from the governor’s office, and I think it deserves a full hearing on the full floor. I think we need to vote it up or down.” Rep. Marv Hagedorn said, “Because we’re not going to have full hearings on these bills in committee, I think it’s imperative that Idaho citizens contact their legislators” and say how they feel about the proposals. The motion again passed on a voice vote with just one audible dissent.

Fuel tax bill heads to floor

A voice vote, with just one audible dissent, has sent the governor’s compromise fuel tax bill to the full House for a vote. “I think the goal here is to get the bill to the floor so the representatives of the state of Idaho can weigh in on the governor’s revised plan that he is making to the Legislature,” said Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “That’s what this process is about. … There’ll be a day in court for the governor’s transportation plan.”

Gas tax compromise bill

“We have been designated by the speaker as a special committee for the purpose of listening to these bills and possibly printing the bills,” House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood told the House Transportation Committee this morning, and Jason Kreizenbeck, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of staff, then presented a proposed bill to raise Idaho’s gas tax by three cents next year, and two cents in each of the following years, for a total of 7 cents. Each penny would raise $8.8 million in revenue for road work. House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, then immediately moved to send the bill to the full House without further hearings, and without recommendation. “Having previously held public hearings on this topic, these are some relatively minor changes in rates,” he said. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, objected that “we’re short-circuiting” the legislative process, which she said should allow a chance to consider other proposals.

When rules go by the wayside…

Here’s how you know the end of the session is near: The House Transportation Committee is gathering for a special meeting, with no agenda notice on the Internet, at an unaccustomed time, to introduce last-minute bills for a compromise deal with the governor on transportation funding. Committee Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said she didn’t know if the bills would have hearings or go directly to the full House. “It depends what the committee wants to do,” she said.
 

Fish & Game fee hike clears committee, heads for amendment

Here’s a news item from AP: “A Senate Committee has approved a bill to raise hunting and fishing fees, but the legislation may face some challenges getting a quick, clean trip through the House and Senate. The bill approved by the Senate Resources Committee Monday would raise the Department of Fish and Game’s budget by 15 percent by increasing fees on tags and licenses. Only some licenses would be affected, including a $2 increase for deer tags. In-state anglers would pay an additional $3.75. Sen. Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert, says the bill is likely to be amended several times in both the Senate and House, which could stall quick passage. Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Schroeder, a Moscow Republican, says he wants a provision requiring the agency to continue studies on how wolves are affecting Idaho elk herds.” The motion to send the bill, SB 1141, to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendment passed on an 8-1 vote, with just Cameron dissenting.

Anti-alien bill dies without a hearing

North Idaho Sen. Mike Jorgenson proposed far-reaching legislation to punish Idaho employers who hire illegal immigrants this morning, but just hours after the bill had been introduced, it died without a hearing. Jorgenson said this afternoon that the Senate State Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, had informed him the bill wouldn’t be scheduled for a hearing in the committee, which means it’s dead. “I’m sorry that he’s caved in to Idaho dairymen and agricultural interests,” Jorgenson said heavily. “They’re taking a pretty strong position that they need their illegal immigrants.” Brent Olmstead, lobbyist for the Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Milk Producers of Idaho, said, “We do have a philosophical difference. He feels employers should be punished - we feel they shouldn’t.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Child car-seat bill squeaks through Senate

Here’s a news item from AP: “The Idaho Senate is making another run at closing loopholes allowing kids to ride unrestrained in automobiles. The chamber voted 19-15 to require kids to be restrained at all times when riding in a car. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, a Sagle Republican and longtime proponent of stricter laws governing child safety restraints, said unrestrained kids become “a loose cannonball in a car.” Idaho now allows kids being breastfed or otherwise cared for to be removed from restraints in a moving car. And if all seatbelts are in use, they can also go without. Idaho could qualify for enough federal money to buy about 7,000 child safety seats for low income families, if the loopholes are closed. But two years ago, a similar measure stalled in the House, after leaders refused it a hearing.”

They can take their jackets off…

If things start to look a little more casual in the Idaho House from this point on, here’s why: Today, Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, asked for unanimous consent to “Suspend Rule 70 for the rest of the session.” That House rule is the one regarding “Session Decorum,” which states, “(1) Smoking and the consumption of food and beverage will not be allowed in the Representative Chamber or gallery while the House is in Session. (2) Persons in the Chamber shall wear proper attire to maintain decorum of the House.” Usually, when the rule is suspended as the session inches into the warmth of spring, it’s to allow overheated lawmakers to remove their jackets and perhaps sip a cold soda while they’re on the floor. Usually, though, the rule is suspended with the exception of smoking.

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, took quick action to modify Smith’s request, saying he’d modify it to add: “except smoking and spitting.” Amid laughter in the two-tiered House chamber, Raybould explained, “Those of us who might be a little bit liable from something from above, I would hope that would be suspended.” There was no objection, so the speaker announced that Rule 70 has been suspended “except for smoking and spitting” for the remainder of this year’s legislative session.

Boat sticker bill passes House

The House has voted 63-5 in favor of HB 213, the bill to combat quagga and zebra mussels by imposing a fee on all boats launched in Idaho, motorized and non-motorized alike. The cost for the annual sticker would be $10 for boats registered in Idaho, $20 for those registered elsewhere, and $5 for non-motorized boats, which aren’t registered. The only exclusion would be for inflatables less than 10 feet long. Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, gave the only opposing debate, saying, “I know I’m gonna be the skunk in the garden this morning.” Clark objected to the bill’s emergency clause, the fact that the money would go into a fund subject to appropriation rather than a dedicated fund, and the idea of leaving details to rule-making. He noted that the bill itself just collects the fee; it doesn’t set up wash stations at boat ramps or even mention the invasive mussels. “Why not do this at the ports of entry before they come in here?” Clark asked. “This is like washing your hands after you eat.” Several backers of the bill, however, countered that some Idaho lakes cross state lines and no ports of entry are available to intercept boats there.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, sponsor of the bill, said if the mussels get into Idaho waterways, it’ll cost the state more than $94 million a year to cope with the mess. Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, the House agriculture chairman, said the preventive action is warranted for the insidious mussels. “Other invasive species, once they get here you have a chance to fight them, but once the quagga mussel gets here you’ve already lost the fight,” Trail told the House. House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said boats are what carry the mussels into the waterways. “This is a user fee based on those people that come to the state of Idaho and also those people that use the bodies of water,” he said. “I think it’s an appropriate piece of legislation.” The five “no” votes came from Reps. Clark, Kren, Jaquet, Moyle, and Smith(24). The bill now moves to the Senate.

Disclosure law proposed in Senate

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, introduced legislation this morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee to end Idaho’s distinction as one of just four states in the nation with no financial disclosure requirements for its state legislators. “There was one area where Idaho was falling substantially behind other states, and it was in the area of financial disclosure, the pre-disclosure of potential for conflicts of interest,” Davis said. “As I looked at what other states were doing, it didn’t seem to  me that the bar was unreasonably high.” Davis said he looked at other states’ disclosure laws, and asked himself if he’d have a problem complying with them. “I would have no problem,” he concluded.

The bill would require legislative or statewide candidates or office holders to disclose their employers, their sources of gross income over $10,000; their real estate owned in Idaho other than personal residence; and their other financial interests in Idaho valued at $5,000 or more. Actual values or income amounts wouldn’t have to be reported. Kelly told the State Affairs Committee, “It’s a great first step,” which prompted Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, to demand, “What do you mean by ‘first step’ - do you mean this is the camel’s nose under the tent? … What’s the second step?” Kelly responded, “That will be for future legislators.” The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill.
 

Jorgenson proposes illegal alien bill

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, brought legislation to the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning to penalize Idaho employers who hire people who aren’t legal U.S. residents. Jorgenson read his oath of office as a legislator to the committee, and said that’s why he’s bringing the bill. “What this bill is about is enforcing employers to hire legal citizens only,” Jorgenson told the panel, adding that some will say that’s not a state issue. “Yes, the states do have the right to enforce or pass this type of legislation,” he said, shuffling through a large stack of papers. “Indeed, states do have the right to enforce employers to hire legal citizens, and they have the right to do that through licensing.” His bill proposes to suspend or revoke business licenses for violations, and also take a series of other steps to make life in Idaho more difficult for illegal aliens.

Jorgenson said, “Folks, there’s a big reason why we need to do it.” He said Idaho prisons now house 487 foreign nationals, and of those, “425 are from Mexico. That’s costing the state of Idaho in the neighborhood of $10 million a year,” he said, “…as soon as they get out we send ‘em back to Mexico.” Senators on the committee asked Jorgenson to address what his bill does, rather than issues regarding  Idaho’s corrections system. Committee members, including Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, also raised several technical and legal concerns about the bill, and said they hope those questions can be answered after the bill is introduced.

“This is a knock-off of an Arizona bill,” Jorgenson said, adding that several other western states are considering such legislation. “This is happening because of the spread of illegal workers, and you know, where there is strict enforcement they don’t go, and where there isn’t strict enforcement, they come.” He said Arizona has seen everything from less rush-hour traffic to fewer limited-English students in school, as they dropped out after the bill passed. The committee agreed to introduce the bill, though several members said they still have questions about it how it would work.

The week that was…

Here’s a link to a slide show of the 9th week of Idaho’s 2009 legislative session in photos, and you can click here to watch this week’s “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public TV, on which I joined the co-chairs of JFAC, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome; Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon; BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby; and host Thanh Tan to discuss the week’s events. If you didn’t tune in on Friday night or Sunday morning, you can watch the show online, along with the “After the Show” continued discussion.

Otter defends his stimulus spending plan

Gov. Butch Otter has sent out guest opinion to Idaho media defending his proposal for use of federal stimulus money, saying he wants to “separate fact from fiction” and that he isn’t “callously choosing roads over children and transportation over education.” Click below to read the full op-ed piece.

Idahoans speak out on hunting, fishing fees

There’s a full house for the second day of hearings today on the proposed Fish & Game fee increase in the Senate Resources Committee. People are testifying both for and against the increase; the panel isn’t expected to vote on the bill before next week.

Schools could lose 3.4 percent instead of 6.3 percent

Here’s a link to my full story on the JFAC action today setting a budget target. It’s still up in the air as to some of the implications, but the new target, plus spending more of the stimulus money, could enable lawmakers to set a budget for next year that cuts public schools by 3.4 percent, rather than the governor’s recommended 6.3 percent. It also could mean a statewide personnel cutback of roughly 3 percent, rather than the 5 percent that Otter favors. However, that would mean cutting into part or all of the $45 million in stimulus money that Otter wanted to direct into a $15 million boost in the state’s drinking and clean water loan funds and $30 million in additional road projects. Instead, that money would be used to help balance the state budget, including items the governor proposed funding, and to offset the proposed personnel cuts.

What with all the what-ifs today, some committee members were reluctant to vote without more information, but then some got restive. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “We have had reason after reason to put that off. We need to get done and get out of here, and the first thing we need to do is set that revenue number.” And they did.

JFAC sets revenue target

Half an hour after the Senate was supposed to be on the floor, JFAC has just voted 19-1 to endorse a budget target for 2010 of $2,507,900,000 - a figure nearly $50 million below previous estimates. That will mean more cuts; a scenario laid out for the committee by staff showed that figure could be reached in part by cutting schools more than the $62 million suggested by the state superintendent, but less than the $109 million suggested by the governor. It could mean roughly the equivalent of a 3 percent statewide personnel cut rather than 5 percent. The scenario didn’t envision spending the $45 million in discretionary stimulus funds that the governor has targeted for transportation projects and water loans; instead, that money would be plugged in to help balance the state budget, including items the governor proposed funding, and to offset the personnel cuts.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he applauds the governor for wanting to create jobs with that money through construction projects, but said he was surprised the governor wanted to spend the entire $45 million that way. “Those jobs are important, but we also need the existing jobs that we have,” Cameron said. The spending target lawmakers set today largely differs from the governor’s in how it would make use of federal stimulus funds; Otter said yesterday he wanted to bank half of the money that’s coming for public schools against future economic downturns. The Legislature’s new budget target is $42.3 million below the governor’s latest adjusted revenue target for fiscal year 2010, and about $50 million below the figure JFAC set a month ago, before the stimulus bill passed. The sole “no” vote came from Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, who earlier said she wasn’t ready to vote. “I feel so uneasy being asked to make a decision like that today with all this information being thrown at me,” McGeachin said.

 

Deep in the numbers…

Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith is briefing JFAC members on all the numbers, in preparation for the committee setting budget target numbers for both the current and the 2010 fiscal years. The background is complex as can be, and every theoretical change - whether or not the state will conform to the $14 million in income tax changes in the federal stimulus bill, whether or not the grocery tax credit will continue to rise, changes in state tax revenues, etc - affects the bottom line. This morning, the committee will reach a decision on the budget target, and then every budget decision it makes for next year, in the coming weeks, must fit within that.

It’s the 61st legislative day…

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on the legislative reaction yesterday to Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to boost roads but cut schools; and here’s a link to my full story on the Senate’s 30-5 passage yesterday of the day care licensing bill. This morning, the House is in session early, but has gotten bogged down in a long debate over a bill regarding dyed motor fuel; and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet at 9 to set new spending targets for both the 2009 and 2010 budget years. That’s the key number on which all budgeting decisions then will be based; the joint committee is scheduled to start setting budgets next week, nearly a month behind schedule.

LeFavour’s defense of the North End

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, offered a chance to defend her district after it was dissed by state budget director Wayne Hammon (he told her, “The future of Idaho is not contained in the North End”), had this to say: “The Statehouse is in my district - we’re all standing in the district. It’s full of small business owners and people who work hard of all incomes, people who’ve lived all over the state. I’m from Custer County. … I think the issue here is safety for people, it’s kids on bikes who don’t have a bus to ride because he seems to be dead-determined, him and the governor, not to do a thing for public transportation.” LeFavour also called Hammon’s dig about her district “a little bit of a juvenile pot-shot, frankly.”

This photo shows the historic Hyde Park commercial district in the North End, famous for the annual Hyde Park Street Fair - which in recent years has become so large it’s actually moved out of the small commercial strip and into nearby Camel’s Back Park. I have to admit some personal experience here - when my husband and I were first married 22 years ago, our first home was in the North End, a tiny but “charming Northender” badly in need of fix-up on which, of course, we did all the work ourselves, just like most of our neighbors. It’s become more trendy since then, but still has an old Boise feel; back then, our next-door neighbor had lived there since her early childhood when her home was new-built, and she was over 90 years old.

Compromise reached on ed legislation

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, says a bipartisan group has reached a compromise on legislation to suspend various state laws temporarily to allow cuts in Idaho’s public schools next year. Nonini, who first proposed the controversial HB 117 - a bill that would have put every teacher in the state on one-year contracts, along with other sweeping and permanent changes - said, “117 needed to get out there originally to get the conversation started, and it did. We reached final agreement this morning.” The new bill, likely to be introduced Monday, will be co-sponsored by Nonini, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; House Speaker Lawerence Denney; Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes; the Idaho Education Association; the Idaho School Boards Association; and the Idaho Association of School Administrators, Nonini said.

“I think everyone understands the dire situation we’re in financially,” Nonini said. “Everyone just poured a ton of heart, soul, hours, blood and tears into it.” He thanked Reps. Rich Wills, Mack Shirley, Donna Pence, and Liz Chavez, who comprised the bipartisan committee, along with the representatives of the education groups for their work. The new bill will focus on temporary, one-year changes for financial emergencies, and won’t interfere with teacher contract rights.

Wills, who chaired the group, has a long background in conflict resolution as a state trooper and POST instructor, and in his own consulting business. He’s an expert in “de-escalation tactics” and a “verbal judo” instructor, he said, along with other techniques designed to “redirect aggression and anger.” Said Wills, “It is perfect for this building.”

Day care licensing bill passes Senate 30-5

The day-care licensing bill, SB 1112a, has passed the Senate on a strong 30-5 vote. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, gave an impassioned 40-minute opening debate, in which he said, “It’s not our policy to interfere in family  business, but it is our policy to be providing safe businesses that families will use.” Idaho currently requires no criminal background checks, no smoke detectors, no minimum staffing requirements, or anything else for small day-care operators; it licenses only those with 13 or more unrelated children. Idaho ranks last in the nation for its oversight of child care. Corder said Idaho licenses an array of other occupations, from mortgage lenders to grooms for racehorses. “Today we have no less an obligation to protect our children,” he told the Senate.

Only two opponents of the bill spoke up. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “We’re sending the wrong message here to the parents of the state of Idaho. … I think we’re sending the message, ‘Parents, we’re going to guarantee you a safe place to put your child.’ You know, I think that’s wrong. I think the parents are in charge and I think they should make those inspections. …. The reality is our parents are responsible, and somehow we have raised children for thousands of years without this bill.”

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said, “To me, this adds to the list of extremely well-intentioned bills … that add government intrusion in an area where it doesn’t belong.” The other three “no” votes came from Sens. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian; Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls; and Melinda Smyser, R-Parma. All other senators voted in favor; the bill now moves to the House side.

Dems: ‘Doesn’t make sense to us’

Legislative Democrats were waiting outside Gov. Butch Otter’s stimulus press conference to give their response. While they gave the governor high marks for deciding to take the stimulus money, and had some praise for the process he followed, they objected to the magnitude of cuts in education he endorsed, while essentially banking millions in stimulus money and state reserve funds to hedge against additional future economic downturns. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, offered this analogy: “If you have a sick family member and money in the bank, to say, ‘Well, don’t take care of the sick family member, let’s save the money in case they get sicker’ - that just doesn’t make sense to us.”

‘I didn’t see it putting people to work’

Gov. Butch Otter said Reps. Moyle and Bedke came over and pitched to him their idea of using $45 million of federal stimulus for corporate tax cuts - all the discretionary money the governor had to divide. “Listen, they’ve got a lot of different ideas over there,” Otter said. “I didn’t see it putting jobs on the street, I didn’t see it putting people to work.” He said he discussed the idea with “the business community” and they didn’t think it was the right way to go now, either.

Otter: ‘We’re going to wait’

“I accepted the money reluctantly and cautiously,” Gov. Butch Otter just said of the federal stimulus money. “We’ve had a backlog in infrastructure, obviously highway infrastructure.” But there’s also a backlog of communities needing help with drinking water systems, he said. So when it came to the $45 million he could divide at his discretion, he put it into road work and water system loans through a state revolving fund. Otter also said he’s holding off on committing the stimulus money for eight big road projects, to see if lawmakers pass his GARVEE bonding proposal. “We’ve got about 90 days in order to make those project commitments,” he said. “We’re going to wait for the results of the Legislature.”

Hammon disses North End

Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget director, was answering a question from Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, about transportation priorities when he went a step further and added this dig: “The future of Idaho is not contained in the North End.” The North End of Boise is LeFavour’s district, District 19, which stands out politically for electing Democrats, and features older homes, small parks, the historic Hyde Park commercial district, an annual neighborhood festival, lots of young families and older folks, and easy access to bike trails and other foothills recreation. It’s also close enough to downtown Boise for residents to easily commute by bicycle. LeFavour told Hammon, “It really is a question of priorities … this emphasis on cars and roads,” with no allowance for transit, bike lanes or the like. “We can’t keep going down this path. We need to prepare for the future and to me, this is not doing that,” she said. Hammon responded with his dig about the North End. “There are people all over the state … that need help,” he said, “that do not have the option of riding their bike to work.”

‘We’ll find middle ground’

After hearing the governor’s proposals for spending stimulus money and adjusting Idaho’s state budget - largely by boosting road spending and cutting everything else - Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I applaud the governor in his desire to protect the infrastructure of the state - that’s important. But the infrastructure of the state is not just roads - it’s corrections, it’s state police, it’s education. We can’t afford to let that infrastructure slide. We only get a chance once to educate a child in the first grade or to teach ‘em to read. If we fail in that infrastructure, it’ll be much more painful … than in roads.”

Cameron said, “My preference isn’t to hit education that hard, but the committee will have to decide where it goes.” He predicted, “We’ll find middle ground,” and said, “We have all the pieces on the table. It’s our job to put this puzzle together.”

‘Soften the blow’

Idaho school districts will receive sharply increased funding from the federal government for special education through the IDEA program under the federal stimulus - offsetting some of the districts’ own local funds they’ve been putting into the federally required programs. Under questioning from Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, the governor’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, said, “It will relieve pressure in the local district so they can … soften the blow of the reduction in state funds.” However, he said, the governor is urging districts not to commit that money to ongoing needs, like salaries, out of fear that the federal boost may not last beyond two years. The Obama Administration has said it wants this to be the new permanent funding level for IDEA, but Otter told Eye on Boise on Tuesday, “I don’t believe it.” He added, “I’d be happy. And we’re not burning any bridges, so in two years if we figure that out, great, take that other 20 percent that they haven’t been giving us, then we can convert that to improving classroom teachers by paying ‘em more.” But for now, he said, he’s skeptical.

No GARVEE, no Dover Bridge

Gov. Otter’s budget director made it clear to JFAC this morning that the governor’s plan to fund eight major road projects around the state with federal stimulus money - including the Dover Bridge and the Vista Interchange - is dependent on the Legislature also approving additional GARVEE bonding to continue bond-funded projects already under way in high-priority highway corridors. “The governor has come to these conclusions on the assumption that the Legislature extends bonding authority,” Hammond told lawmakers. If not, he said, the governor would move stimulus money into the projects that otherwise would be funded with bonds.

Guv: Roads are ‘an immediate need’

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, asked Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget director, “You want to increase taxes for roads, spend stimulus for roads, borrow for roads and cut education. … I’m truly trying to understand … (why the governor would want) to have education suffer that much.” Hammond responded, “That’s a very good question. … Nobody likes cutting budgets. The governor  believes that fixing our infrastructure is an immediate need, that we must do something.” Schools are being protected from cuts in the current year, Hammon said; they’ll experience cuts next year like all other state agencies.

Guv’s plan would cut teacher pay 6.5 percent

Gov. Butch Otter’s plan for spending stimulus money calls for still cutting 5 percent from statewide personnel costs for all agencies funded by the state general fund, his budget director, Wayne Hammon, just told lawmakers - and, in response to a question from Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, he said that does apply to public schools. “Yes, it does include public schools - that would be in addition to the list submitted to you by the superintendent,” Hammon said. State schools Supt. Tom Luna’s proposed $62 million in cuts for schools next year already includes the equivalent of a 1.5 percent pay cut for teachers and other educators - eliminating funding equal to three contract days of pay. The governor’s proposal would add the 5 percent cut in personnel cuts on top of that, something both Luna and lawmakers have been trying to avoid.

Keough responded, “There will be challenges from employee morale standpoint, to deal with as managers. I’m certain that the governor has has thought those through, and we’ll have to wrestle with that. It’s a very surprising recommendation to me.” Said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, “It seems to me we’re asking for a double dip there.”

‘No need to reinvent the wheel’

“The governor’s first priority is to protect jobs,” Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning as he began presenting the governor’s recommendations for spending $1.24 billion in federal economic stimulus money. “People think there’s a $1 billion bucket of money hidden somewhere behind Sen. Cameron’s chair or something,” he told the committee. “You all know that’s not the case. There are literally hundreds of tiny buckets of money … that are dedicated to specific activities and specific projects that have to be appropriated.”

When the governor and his stimulus committee sorted through more than a thousand proposals from local governments, charities and businesses across the state for a slice of the stimulus pie, “The committee and the governor came to the understanding that the fastest way to put the most Idahoans back to work in good-paying jobs is through programs we already have, and that there was no need to reinvent the wheel or start picking and choosing across the state,” Hammon said. That’s why, instead funding any of those requests, Otter is recommending putting the $45 million in discretionary funds into water and road projects.

How he’d spend the $45 million

The federal economic stimulus funds coming to Idaho include $44.8 million that are up to the discretion of the governor, to be used for anything from education to public safety to “other government services.” Here’s Otter’s recommendation for the money, which many had been eyeing: He’d send $5 million to the state’s drinking water revolving fund, $10 million to its clean water revolving fund, and spend $29.9 million on “pressing needs within the state’s transportation system.” The governor’s stimulus plan says, “Using these limited resources in this manner will result in immediate job creation in almost every region of the state.”

Otter endorses cuts to public schools

Gov. Butch Otter is endorsing the first-ever cuts in public schools funding in Idaho, saying the $1.24 billion in federal economic stimulus funds he’s decided to accept aren’t enough to stave off the cuts. Otter, who released his recommendations for taking the stimulus money late today, also called for sticking to plans lawmakers endorsed earlier – before the federal stimulus bill passed – to cut 5 percent across the board from personnel costs statewide.“The governor recommends keeping this necessary cost-cutting measure in place in all agency budgets drawing from the general fund,” his stimulus plan said.

Asked on Tuesday about the prospect of cutting schools when the state stands to receive a big boost from the stimulus, Otter told Eye on Boise, “Yeah, sure it bothers me, but I understand why. Because these are all ongoing needs and they can’t all be satisfied by this one-time plug of money.” Otter said he liked the idea of keeping reserve funds intact, despite making the cuts to schools. “It’s still good to have that rainy-day fund – it’s still good to have that equalizer between what-if and what-if-not,” he said. “And I’m still convinced that this thing isn’t going to be over with in just one or two years.”

Otter issues his stimulus recommendations

Gov. Butch Otter has released his recommendations for spending $1.24 billion in federal economic stimulus funds, including: $408,770,000 for health and welfare programs; $260,468,980 for public schools; $36,078,300 for higher education; $159,978,000 for unemployment benefits and workforce development; $61,894,000 for environmental quality projects; $200,334,100 for transportation; $15,268,000 for public housing, low-income housing and homelessness prevention; and $97,270,700 for other state government programs.

“I want to thank the members of my Executive Stimulus Committee who assessed this complicated  federal law and what opportunities it presents for our state – as well as all the associated costs and what strings are attached,” Otter said. “They did a great job of providing me with insightful and meaningful analysis. These decisions are difficult, and I took them very seriously. We don’t get any do-overs here, so I’m grateful to the folks on the committee and the Division of Financial Management staff for making this process manageable.” You can see Otter’s full recommendations here. Otter said his budget director, Wayne Hammon, will present the recommendations to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in the morning.

House rejects local vehicle-fee bill

After intense debate, the House has voted 31-39 on HB 155a, Rep. Raul Labrador’s local vehicle-registration fee bill, killing the bill. “We have different needs around the state, and sometimes we need some local authority to take care of those needs,” Labrador told the House. The bill had earlier been amended to require a two-thirds local vote to approve the fees, which would have to be for specific road or bridge projects, rather than a simple majority. Among those speaking in favor of the bill was Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who said, “I think we need to give the counties something right away to help deal with these transportation issues.” But Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said, “What we have here now, of course, is just another back-door approach of how we should get local-option taxing.” Clark said he’s against local-option tax legislation that doesn’t include a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, asked what happens if projects cost more than anticipated. Labrador said officials would have to go back to voters for approval of any increase, but Wood said, “So in effect the voters are stuck with the bill.” Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said he’s a supporter of local control, but he opposed the bill. “We all know that transportation is a major subject of the session, and I really think that until this Legislature decides a source of revenues – and certainly automobile registration is going to be one of the factors – I suggest that this bill may be just a little before its time. And for that reason, I reluctantly am going to vote no.” Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, called the bill “a viable transportation solution” and said if the House can’t agree on it, it probably can’t agree on any transportation issues this year.

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, warned, “Those of you that don’t like this bill, I hope that you’re all prepared to vote for a tax increase on regular registration. Because if we don’t give some of these locals a tool … then all of us are going to have to pay for those projects.”

Idaho law: Sell the first guy all the Wii’s

Did you know that it was illegal – a misdemeanor – for any Idaho retailer to limit the quantity of a particular item to be sold to a customer, to any number lower than the entire number the retailer has? I sure didn’t. Apparently, no one in Idaho retail did, either, judging by all the “limit three at this price” and “one per customer” sales we routinely see. Turns out, Idaho’s “Unfair Sales Act” makes that strictly illegal. “This law was imposed in the ‘60s and hasn’t been enforced for the last two decades,” freshman Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, told the Senate this morning. The Idaho Retailers Association noticed the law last year when there was a rice shortage, and proposed SB 1126 to repeal it. Today, the bill passed the Senate unanimously, 35-0; it now moves to the House.

 

Liquor license bill introduced

Here’s a news item from AP: “A push to reform Idaho’s liquor license system that now doles out permits based on population-based quotas has won a Senate hearing, but some lawmakers fear time may be running out for such a complicated — and controversial — bill. The measure, supported by Idaho Licensed Beverage Association leaders and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, would let cities and counties issue unlimited new licenses, but only to businesses with restaurant or hotels. Owners of some 1,000 existing licenses would receive special treatment to preserve their value, like 10 percent discounts, cheaper relicensing and transferability almost anywhere in Idaho. Sen. Bart Davis, an Idaho Falls Republican, said Wednesday it’s growing late for a bill that will require much debate. What’s more, changes to the existing system could face court challenges.”

The bill was up for introduction this morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee; it’s something Otter has long wanted to accomplish. Last week, he told the Idaho Press Club that locals should make decisions about liquor licenses. “Why they should have to come to me in Boise to get a liquor license in Ketchum always escaped me,” the governor said.

JFAC starts spending stimulus money

Lawmakers have taken their first formal action to spend federal stimulus money, as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted unanimously this morning to cut this year’s budget for public schools by $85.1 million, but immediately fill in the hole with an equal amount of federal stimulus money. “We’re taking advantage of the … stimulus dollars to make sure that we’re holding public schools harmless in 2009,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. Of course, lawmakers had previously planned to fill that hole with money from the state’s $114 million public education stabilization fund, a reserve fund specifically for schools. Now, that fund will stay intact for use later.

The move was one of a series JFAC approved this morning, which also included a boost to this year’s Medicaid budget thanks to the increase in federal funding for Medicaid this year included in the stimulus bill. That change will prevent the Health & Welfare Department from having to carry over $16 million in expenses from this year into next year and will cover $4 million in other anticipated cost increases, but won’t head off the cuts in Medicaid services that lawmakers already have decided to make this year, cutting the Medicaid budget by 6 percent. Overall, the change means Medicaid will kick back $52 million to the state’s general fund this year, money that then can go elsewhere in the state budget.

A corporate tax cut - now?

Two House GOP leaders have hatched a plan to use $45 million from the federal economic stimulus to cut corporate tax rates, and floated the idea to IACI, Idaho Statesman political columnist Dan Popkey reports today. You can read his full report here. The plan, from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, might not fit with the rules for federal stimulus funds, and it got a decidedly cool reception from the co-chairs of the Legislature’s joint budget committee. House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Popkey, “How can you do that in this climate - give a corporate tax break while you’re trimming education and state employees?” Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron called it “foolishness,” saying, “We would be laying off people from decent-paying jobs, furloughing people, reducing salaries. We’d love to recruit jobs, but our approach is to save the jobs people currently have.”

A couple of other downsides to the plan: It’s up to the governor how to apportion the chunk of federal stimulus money the two have in mind, and he hasn’t signed on; and the last time Idaho granted permanent tax cuts with one-time money (in that case, a state budget surplus), it played havoc with the state budget for years, including forcing the first-ever permanent, mid-year holdback in education funding in 2002.

Quagga mussel bill heads to full House

After a long, packed hearing, the House Environment Committee voted overwhelmingly to approve Rep. Eric Anderson’s quagga mussel bill, which requires every boat owner in the state - motorized or not - to purchase a sticker to help fund boat-washing efforts to keep the invasive shellfish out of Idaho waterways. There was just one “no” vote on HB 213 in the committee, from Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa; the measure now heads to the full House for debate. Among those endorsing the bill were the Idaho Conservation League and the Western Whitewater Association; among those opposing it were the Idaho Whitewater Association and Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, which contended the cost would unfairly fall on owners of kayaks and rafts that haven’t been proven to be a means of transporting the invasive species. “We believe that there’s a less intrusive way to get after this issue than imposing a tax on our industry, especially at this difficult time,” Grant Simonds, executive director of the Outfitters and Guides Association, told the committee. But Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I think the urgency dictates that we need to do something, and we need to get started.”

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, the bill’s sponsor, said after the vote, “I thought I did everything I could do - I’ve talked to every person alive, I think, in every group.” Anderson has even spent thousands of his own money to buy literature and paperweights with the tiny mussels encased in plastic to help him make his case to his fellow lawmakers that urgent action is needed against the invasive mussels. “This is something that I think really has to happen, or we’re going to miss the window,” he said.

Child car-seat bill wins support

The Senate Transportation Committee has voted unanimously in favor of SB 1089, to eliminate Idaho’s current exemption from child car-seat requirements when a parent decides to take the baby out for feeding or to change a diaper while on the road. That exception - which only two or three states still have - disqualifies Idaho from receiving between $100,000 and $250,000 in federal highway safety funds each year, enough to buy about 3,000 child car seats each year for needy Idaho families. Montana has gotten $1.7 million in funding under the program in the past 10 years, Mary Hunter of the Idaho Transportation Department told the committee. Because of its law, she said, “Idaho got zero.”

Eagle firefighter Rob Shoplock told the committee, “A child becomes a projectile when it’s out of a car seat - those children don’t have a choice.” When first responders come to a car accident scene, Shoplock, a father of two, said, often their biggest dread is that a child is involved. “I hope we have the opportunity to come here and protect the children, pass this law and get the funding we need,” he told the senators.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, is sponsoring the bill for the third time. The first time, it passed both the Senate committee and the full Senate unanimously, but never got a hearing in the House Transportation Committee. Last year, Broadsword brought the bill directly to that committee, where it was introduced but then never scheduled for a hearing. Broadsword said car crashes are the leading cause of death in children, and 45 percent of children injured in car crashes suffer their injuries because  they’re unrestrained. She said members of the House Transportation Committee have told her this year that they “really want to see this done,” and she’s hoping that this year, that panel will grant the bill a hearing.

Senate adopts wolf resolution

There was no debate and it was by a unanimous vote that the Idaho Senate this morning adopted HJM 1, a non-binding memorial to the president and Congress urging the de-listing of the wolf in Idaho. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, acknowledged that some might not think the measure’s still timely, since the Obama Administration on Friday announced it’d go ahead with the de-listing. But, he said, “It’s not in the federal register yet.” And, Pearce said, “I think this document that we have before us will also be good evidence in court. … We’ve already been warned that we’re going to go to court. So here is the directive.” If the de-listing decision is challenged in court, he told the Senate, “It’ll be the first time we’ve gone to court on this issue with the Justice Department on our side.”

Otter: ‘I’m feeling good about it’

After applauding a group of young Irish dancers and declaring “Irish-American Heritage Month in Idaho” this morning, Gov. Butch Otter reflected a bit on his first meeting yesterday with his executive stimulus committee, which includes three former governors and five former state budget directors. “I’m feeling good about it, from the aspect that we now understand the limitations and the rules, if you will, the rules and the regulations,” he told Eye on Boise. “My gosh, we had 35 years of institutional memory setting there. They all had holdbacks and they all had small recessions, John Evans had one of the biggest in ‘81-‘83. Anyway, it was great.”

Otter said the kind of guidance he wanted was “the institutional memory and direction and discipline that each and every one of ‘em brought. They’d say, ‘Boy, don’t do this because I remember when we had to do that. Be careful of getting any of this money into the ongoing needs.’ … I got a lot of that. There were some great questions from all three former governors.” Otter met with his committee for two and a half hours yesterday, he said. Asked what comes next, he said, “I meet with them again tomorrow and show ‘em my draft, we look at my draft, if we have a fairly good understanding and acceptance of the draft I hopefully will be submitting that to the Legislature three days ahead of my own pre-set schedule, and quite a few days ahead of the federal government’s schedule.” That’d put Otter’s presentation of his revised budget proposal to lawmakers on Monday.

Another year in the annex?

What a prospect! Lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, reporters, citizens, state workers and more who’ve tried crowding into the cramped, stuffy, hot hearing rooms of the Capitol Annex for hearings, who’ve jostled in its hallways, who’ve peered around its oddly placed posts to see who’s speaking – all have been counting on next year’s legislative session moving back to its usual quarters, the gracious state Capitol – and this time a renovated, updated Capitol with new, spacious hearing rooms and modern conveniences. But now comes word that the capitol renovation is 28 days behind schedule. Though that may not sound like a lot, the schedule is extremely tight – the project is supposed to be finished by Nov. 13, to allow move-in to begin before the 2010 legislative session starts next January. Click below to read AP reporter John Miller’s full report.

Anti-drinking bill for DUI offenders killed

The House Judiciary Committee has voted 6-5 to kill a measure from its chairman, Rep. Jim Clark, to ban repeat drunken drivers from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. “I like this bill, and I like the direction it’s going,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, “but there are still some unanswered questions.” Luker said lawmakers should “work on it for another year.” Clark, R-Hayden Lake, opened his presentation to the committee in part by saying, “Keep in mind, this is the first time around - so you’ll probably see me again and again again. … It should get better and better and then someday it could be ready.”

Kevin Krieg, a Post Falls carpenter who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in a GOP primary in 1998, said he brought the issue to Clark’s attention after becoming increasingly concerned about repeat drunk drivers. “All we ever do is address the driving part,” he said. “It’s the drinking part that causes drunk driving.” Clark offered a series of amendments to the bill, and several committee members said they wanted to try amending it and see if the concept could work, but the move fell short by one vote.  Clark said afterward, “I thought it was a good debate. … I don’t like losing, but I did get a lot out of it.”

‘Next thing you’ll be wanting the capital back’

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, proudly informed the Senate today that Lewiston has won the state boys’ basketball tournament for the first time since 1948. Lt. Gov. Brad Little responded, “Next thing, you’ll be wanting the capital back,” to which Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said he thought that might not be a bad idea. Lewiston was Idaho’s first territorial capital, established in 1863. But 1865, the capital was moved to Boise, a move so unpopular up north that the state seal reportedly was stolen away under dark of night and carted down south. In 1889, according to the Idaho Blue Book, “As a conciliatory move to keep north Idaho from seceding, the Territorial Legislature located the University of Idaho at Moscow.”

Pre-set utility rate bill clears Senate

The Senate has voted 31-2 in favor of SB 1123, legislation that allows utilities to seek binding advance rate-making decisions from the PUC to cover costs of new power generation or transmission facilities. “This provides a little bit of certainty in this marketplace which is very uncertain,” said Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, the bill’s sponsor. Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, spoke out against the bill. “It switches the risk from the utility onto the ratepayers … by locking the rate in before the project even begins construction,” she said. “It’s a guarantee of cost recovery, whether or not the project ever provides useful service to the ratepayers.” But the only other senator to join her in opposing the bill was Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise. The measure now heads to the House side.

Tax Commission reform bill passes Senate

SB 1128, the bill to place new requirements on the state Tax Commission when it settles large tax cases  in secret deals, has passed the Senate on a unanimous, 33-0 vote. The bill, which requires an additional review before such settlements can be approved for more than $50,000; additional documentation including a summary that notes tax auditors’ recommendations, which would be open to legislative auditors though not to the public; and an annual report on the secret deals to the governor and Legislature, comes in response to allegations in a whistleblower’s report that charged the commission was illegally excusing millions in corporate taxes through the secret deals. The whistleblower, longtime state tax auditor Stan Howland, opposed the bill, however, and testified against it in committee, saying it didn’t go far enough to address the practice. An Attorney General’s review concluded the deals weren’t illegal.

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told the Senate the bill was designed “to improve the process that they go through, so that the people of the state have confidence in the Tax Commission and the process that is followed.” Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Hill, said, “Some will say that the provisions of the bill don’t go far enough. Others will say that the provisions go too far. … Perhaps we’ve struck the right balance.” She noted that under the bill, the Tax Commission is required to adopt specific administrative rules governing the settlement process, and the Legislature reviews all such rules. She called the bill “a good move in the right direction.” It now moves to the House.

Stimulus to restore immunizations in Idaho

Idaho’s Health & Welfare Department was planning to cut $2.7 million from its immunization program for low-income children in fiscal year 2010, Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers this morning, but the federal stimulus will send Idaho $2.9 million for that program, making the cut unnecessary. “This allows us to continue at the same level as we have before,” Armstrong said. “It gives us another year to come up with an elegant solution for this ongoing,” on which he’s starting talks with insurers, he said. Said Armstrong, “It’s good public policy, because we were not really pleased with having to pull back on immunizations in Idaho.” Former Gov. Phil Batt made increasing immunization rates among Idaho children a top priority, a push that continued under Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and significantly raised Idaho’s immunization rates for most age groups.

UI losing top equine cloning researcher

The University of Idaho is losing one of its top researchers, a veterinary science professor who helped bring renown to the state by being part of a team that gave the world its first equine clone. S-R higher ed reporter Kevin Graman reports that some university critics, including some prominent Idaho veterinarians, are unhappy about the imminent departure of associate professor Dirk Vanderwall, who is taking a position at the University of Pennsylvania. “The University of Idaho frankly screwed this up beyond repair,” said Bruce Lancaster, of Idaho Falls, former president of the Idaho Veterinary Medical Association and former chairman of the advisory board for the university’s Northwest Equine Reproduction Laboratory. In 2003, the birth of a mule named Idaho Gem brought international attention to UI and its equine researchers Vanderwall and Gordon Woods, who left UI for Colorado State University in Fort Collins at the end of 2007. You can read Graman’s full story here in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

The week that was…

The 8th week of this year’s legislative session was an eventful one, though the process of setting the state budget remained at a standstill as the state sorted through the impact of the federal economic stimulus legislation. Here’s a look at the week in photos, and here’s a link to this week’s Idaho Reports program on Idaho Public TV, on which I joined BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, Idaho’s  chief economist Mike Ferguson, Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, and host Thanh Tan to discuss the week’s developments, from day care licensing legislation to unemployment and transportation funding. Within the first two minutes of the show, you’ll see and hear Gov. Butch Otter’s wolf howl, as he reacted to the news of the de-listing of wolves in Idaho. In addition to this week’s program, you can watch the “After the Show” discussion on the same site, which ranged from quagga mussels to the economy.

Otter: I’ll take stimulus money

Despite national reports that Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was among a few governors who would reject federal stimulus money, Otter said Friday that he’ll take most – if not all – of the cash. “I’m gonna hold my nose, and I’m gonna take it,” he told the Idaho Press Club. The transportation money, in particular, carries strings that require the state to accept all or none of it, Otter said. “If you reject one dollar of that, they take it all – so you’ve got to reject all of it or none of it.” The remainder of Idaho’s roughly $1 billion in stimulus funds is mostly for either education or health and human services, and Otter said he’ll rely on guidance from state schools Superintendent Tom Luna and state Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong on those funds. Luna is calling for accepting “every penny” of the education funds, and Armstrong built his Medicaid budget around the anticipated federal help.

“I’ve never said that I wouldn’t take any of the stimulus package,” Otter said. “It’d been my druthers that they didn’t do it in the first place, and didn’t do it the way they did it. You know, if you’d put it all into jobs creation or jobs retention, to me that would have been much more acceptable.” But with the money on its way, Otter said he’s ready to take it, providing it doesn’t obligate the state to replace the federal funds when they end by raising state taxes. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Senate-killed bill could be reworked

The Idaho Senate voted 17-18 on Thursday on SB 1119, the measure proposed by Avista Corp. to allow utilities to establish programs to help struggling low-income customers and cover the cost in their rates, killing the bill. Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “Idaho utilities want you to pay the other guy’s bills,” and called the measure “redistribution of wealth.” Sponsor Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said utilities already adjust their rates to cover costs for unpaid bills; the new measure would allow them to reach out to struggling customers before they get to that point. Avista runs a similar program in Washington and Oregon, but Idaho’s law banning discrimination in utility rates prevents the firm from offering that type of assistance program in Idaho. Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said the bill could breed dependence. “There should be ramifications of not paying our bills,” he said.

Neil Colwell, lobbyist for Avista, said Friday, “We are investigating the possibility of bringing another bill that addresses some of the issues raised during the debate.”

Guv plays GARVEE against stimulus

The Associated Press is reporting that Gov. Butch Otter has told lawmakers if they don’t back $125 million in GARVEE bonds for six ongoing Connecting Idaho projects in fiscal year 2010, he’ll redirect millions from transportation-related federal stimulus dollars to Connecting Idaho, instead.

“That’s after some legislators expressed reluctance about approving more bonds, because past proceeds haven’t been spent on projects yet and they fear giving Idaho Transportation Department managers too much at once,” AP reporter John  Miller reports. “If Otter follows through, 10 Idaho projects slated for $202 million in federal stimulus funding might go empty handed. Rep. George Eskridge, a backer of a new Dover Bridge in northern Idaho that could get some $40 million from the stimulus, is skeptical about more bonding. But Otter’s threat can’t be taken lightly, Eskridge said. ‘The governor’s got a lot of leverage there, at least for those of us who have got those 10 projects.’ “

Otter: Rush isn’t right

When he addressed the Idaho Press Club this morning, Gov. Butch Otter was questioned by Idaho Statesman political columnist Dan Popkey about whether he agreed with radio host Rush Limbaugh recent controversial statement that he hopes President Obama fails. “No,” Otter responded, adding that he hadn’t heard Limbaugh’s speech. “My answer to that’s no, I don’t share that. Spending billions of dollars and getting nothing from it - I think it’d deepen and lengthen and maybe even go into a depression if we failed. So for my part, I’m gonna do all I can to get as many people working … getting ‘em jobs on building bridges and roads and water systems for rural Idaho. … I think we can create a lot of jobs. A person gets a job, that whole family suddenly gains a lot of confidence. … I believe that’s the kind of hope everybody had for the stimulus package when it was first mentioned.”

Wolf hunt in works for fall…

This morning in the Senate, Senate Resources Committee Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, announced the federal decision to de-list wolves in the state. He got a rare round of applause. An hour later, Idaho Fish & Game Director Cal Groen, who attended a Resources Committee meeting where a memorial backing de-listing was approved, told Eye on Boise the state is gearing up for a wolf-hunting season. “It’ll be this fall if we can get it,” he said. “They’re spreading out more, getting in trouble.” Groen said the delisting will allow Idaho to manage wolves like any other species. “It’s going to be good for wolves, it’s going to be good for elk, it’s going to be good for our rural communities, because they’re getting into a lot of places where they shouldn’t be right now, and causing a lot of unneeded conflicts,” he said.

The governor, all four members of Idaho’s congressional delegation, and Idaho’s attorney general all issued statements today applauding the de-listing decision. Gov. Butch Otter, asked by a reporter if he still wants a wolf-hunting permit - he’s been saying for two years that he’d like to bid on the first permit to hunt for a wolf - answered, “Absolutely!”

Barrett: ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over’

Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, presented her non-binding memorial, HJM 1, to the Senate Resources Committee today urging delisting of the wolf in Idaho - though it already happened, just this morning. “This wolf dilemma is very personal to me,” Barrett told the committee. “I would like to close up the loose ends and put the Senate on board in support for this little HJM.” Of today’s federal action, she said, “We’ve been down this road before and I always say, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Committee Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said, “If we stop now, then the Senate hasn’t approved this memorial and it’s just the House, and it looks like incomplete support.” The Fish & Game Commission sent spokeswoman Sharon Kiefer to testify in favor of the measure, and it won the committee’s approval unanimously, and now moves on to the full Senate.

Why Kempthorne isn’t on stimulus panel…

For those of us who’ve been wondering why, when Gov. Butch Otter tapped three former governors for his stimulus committee, he didn’t ask former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne - whose full-time gig as the nation’s Interior Secretary recently ended - Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins supplies the answer today on his Capitol Confidential blog here. Otter told Hopkins he wasn’t sure where Kempthorne is these days. “I didn’t not invite him – I just didn’t know where to get in touch with him,” he said.

Story behind the green ball…

If you’ve been wondering why Gov. Butch Otter appears to have a bright-green racquetball velcro-strapped onto the outside of his sling, here’s why: It’s actually a squishy exercise ball that aids in his recovery from shoulder surgery. Otter said he squeezes the ball with his hand on the injured side about 500 times a day, as part of his therapy. Asked, during his annual address to the Idaho Press Club, if he had any good news, Otter quickly responded, “I get rid of this sling in a week.”

New revenue figures match pessimistic legislative forecast

Here’s a news item from AP: “Idaho’s chief economist predicted state tax revenue will decline in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the first time he says the figure has dropped two straight years. Mike Ferguson, who does economic forecasts for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, expects revenue to drop 12 percent to $2.56 billion in the year ending June 30, with a 0.4 percent drop to $2.55 billion for the next 12 months. In December, Ferguson forecast revenue would dip 9.5 percent this year, before rising 1 percent in 2010. With a prolonged recession Ferguson’s studies show will set a record for the post-World War II period, he said, “We’re clearly now in ‘hunker down’ mode.” Ferguson’s data came as Idaho released unemployment figures that rose to 6.8 percent in January, from 6.6 percent in December. Some 51,000 Idaho residents are out of work.”

The news brought a somber reaction in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, though Ferguson’s new figures, according to Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, are actually right in line with the pessimistic revenue numbers set earlier by the Joint Legislative Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee and formally adopted by JFAC. “Mike’s new numbers are right in line with what they already did,” Hammon said. Last year, lawmakers adopted lower numbers than the governor’s revenue forecast on which to base their budget, out of caution.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the joint budget committee that the co-chairs hope to have an outline by Monday on how they’ll proceed, and by Thursday or Friday of next week, start setting some budgets. “We will have to re-do the 2009 holdback bill,” Cameron said. “We’ll need to set a revenue number Tuesday or Wednesday next week. We’ll need to determine what level of salary or personnel cost reductions” will be built into budgets. Earlier, JFAC unanimously voted for a statewide 5 percent cut, but that was before the federal economic stimulus bill passed. Cameron advised legislative budget writers as they head into the weekend, “Try and get some rest. We’re going to be running pretty hard over the next couple of weeks.”

Wolves are getting de-listed

“The Interior Department will announce the de-listing of wolves in Idaho and Montana within thre hour - Wyoming is not included,” Gov. Butch Otter just told the Idaho Press Club. Asked by reporters for his  reaction, Otter leaned his head back and howled like a wolf. “I’m grateful for the secretary’s confidence in Idaho’s management plan and I have every confidence that Cal Groen and our Fish & Game Department will justify his confidence by a well-structured management plan which will yield a sustainable population of Canadian grey wolves in Idaho,” Otter said. “This is pretty powerful medicine for us. … This is great news.”

Election consolidation bill passes House

The far-reaching election consolidation bill, HB 201, has passed the House on a 52-17 vote. “The greatest issue … is the greater voter turnout we will get,” Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, told the House. But opponents said the measure will cost school districts money at a time they can’t afford it. The bill takes effect in 2011. “We’ve been told … 2011 is the edge of a cliff,” said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene. Increased turnout, he said, is “a laudable and worthy goal,” but Sayler said, “I fear the other effect - making it more difficult for our already strapped school districts to provide the funding that they need.” The bill requires all elections to be on two dates in May and November, but school districts could hold bond and levy votes in March and August if they pay the full cost. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, the bill’s lead sponsor, said, “I can only say one thing - it’s their choice how much it costs them. They can run the bonds or the levies on the May or November dates, and it doesn’t cost them a dime.” The bill now moves to the Senate.

‘There’s people stimulus won’t help’

Why was the request of a disabled woman from Shoshone for $34,000 to pay off credit card debt among the $4.7 billion in stimulus funding requests that Gov. Butch Otter received? Asked if she really expected to get anything, Melody Russell told the Assoicated Press, “To be honest, no. … But I can always wish and hope,” said Russell, whose debt is from the family’s crushing medical bills. “I mainly wanted the governor to know that there’s people here who that stimulus is not going to help at all. My 10-year-old was telling me the other day, her clothes were getting a little small.” Click here to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller, plus see some of the North Idaho projects on the lists of requests, from school renovations to new libraries and fire stations. Click below to read Melody Russell’s heartfelt letter to the governor requesting the funds.

‘Trying to reach common ground’

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, is praising the work of a bipartisan group of legislators that’s been meeting for three weeks to craft consensus legislation on how to temporarily suspend various state laws to allow cuts in Idaho’s budget for public schools. Nonini’s first proposal on that prompted an outcry, in part because it proposed permanently eliminating Idaho teachers’ continuing contract rights. Nonini said he’s sat in on the group’s meetings, which are being chaired by Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry. They’ve gone on for hours, several times a week for the past three weeks. “Everyone’s willing to spend the time it takes to try to reach some common ground,” Nonini said. “We’re hoping they can complete their work early next week.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney echoed the praise for the group, which includes Wills, Reps. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg; Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston; and Donna Pence, D-Gooding. “When things kinda fell down, we asked Rich to kind of head up a group,” Denney said. “I think certainly it’s bringing all the people to the table and giving ‘em a say.” Nonini said the Idaho Education Association, Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Association of School Administrators also have been represented at the group’s meetings. “They’re integral parts of it,” Nonini said.

They want how much for what??

It’s all online now - Gov. Butch Otter has posted on the Internet a list of all proposals submitted to his Division of Financial Management for consideration for federal stimulus funding. You can see the list here. The governor encourages anyone who submitted a request to check the list and make sure it’s accurately represented. He also said a separate state Web site will be set up “in the near future” to allow citizens to track “the allocation and use of all stimulus funding.” Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said it appears that some applicants decided to “shoot the moon.”

A quick peek at the list of requests reveals a $225 million request from Agua Caliente LLC for geothermal well drilling at various Idaho locations; $260 million to expand the Ada County landfill; $2.2 million to build a new Boys and Girls Club in Kuna; $48.2 million for a new Canyon County Jail; $14.8 million for renovation of Canfield Middle School in Coeur d’Alene; $630 million for wind farms for Idaho Wind Energy LLC; $100 million for a project at Micron; Lynn Dickerson wants $1.9 million for a private business start-up; Melody Russell (no known relation to me) wants $34,000 to pay off credit cards; and the Girl Scouts of the Silver Sage Council asked for $321,527 to “offset lower receipts,” presumably from this year’s recession-impacted cookie sales.

Hart withdraws expungement bill

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has withdrawn his bill to allow people to ask a judge to expunge all their criminal records if they’re not convicted, including records of trials and arrests. Hart said he was encouraged by the defeat last week of HB 71, a measure from the Idaho Attorney General’s office to clarify that when a defendant has completed terms of probation and is discharged, that doesn’t mean the defendant’s criminal records are expunged. Hart argued against the bill, which died by one vote, 33-34, on the House floor last Thursday. “I think it kinda ripens up the issue,” Hart said, to the point that he’s now looking into a broader bill than the one he proposed earlier, HB 183. “That is really the low-hanging fruit,” Hart said. “I think we need an expungement policy in this state that’s broader.” He plans to meet with other legislators and law enforcement representatives to talk about a possible proposal for next year’s legislative session.

Hart said, “Once you’ve gotten into the machinery of the corrections department or the courts, that stays with you your whole life. … This comes up and you’ve got to explain it every time.” He said he’s troubled by the nation’s high incarceration rate, which a Kings College London study showed is the highest in the world. “I just think it’s bad public policy,” Hart said.

Internet harassment bill dead

Freshman Rep. Steve Hartgen’s controversial Internet harassment bill is dead for the session; it was on the House Judiciary Committee’s agenda this afternoon, but was withdrawn at the sponsor’s request. “I got a lot of very positive comments on the concept, but there were questions about how do we implement this,” Hartgen said. He said he got “squished” between two forces - attorneys on the Judiciary Committee who had concerns about the underlying telephone harassment statute that Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, sought to amend, and prosecuting attorneys who like that statute and want to continue to use it without it getting “watered down.” Hartgen said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, “showed me a graceful, delightful exit … I’ll hold it this year.” Next year, he may try a new tack, with an Internet harassment bill that’s separate from the telephone harassment law.

Guv: Still time for transportation tax hike

Gov. Butch Otter says there’s still time for lawmakers to pass a transportation tax increase this year, and he’s holding out hope that around $150 million of his proposed increases will be approved by the Legislature, the AP reports. So far, two of the six bills in Otter’s transportation package have been killed. Otter told the Associated Press today that the bulk of his plan to raise another $174 million a year for transportation by 2014 still could pass. Otter still has proposals pending to raise the gas tax two cents a year over the next five years and to hike car and truck registration fees. He said the state transportation system is “anemic on revenue” and it would be irresponsible not to raise funding.

Lobbyist on guv’s stimulus committee was paid to kill guv’s rental car tax bill

Here’s a news item from AP: “A lobbyist recently named to a panel that will help the governor decide how to use Idaho‘s share of federal stimulus money just got paid to kill one of the governor’s own highway construction funding bills. Mike Brassey, a contract lobbyist for the Idaho Rental Car Association, told the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday that Otter’s plan to add a 6 percent surcharge to rental cars in Idaho “wasn’t good tax policy.” The committee voted 11-3 to kill the proposal.” Click below for the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Luna to Otter: ‘Take every penny’

GOP state schools Supt. Tom Luna says he was among those who opposed passage of the huge federal stimulus package, but, “I’m also very pragmatic when it comes to the stimulus dollars. … The fact is, this is a bill and the money’s coming,” he told lawmakers today. “I’m presenting to you a plan on how we would use those dollars responsibly. … The recommendation I made to the governor was that I was there to show them reasons why they should take every penny of this. … I think we’ve presented to them a responsible way we can use all of these dollars.”

The ‘Thelma and Louise scenario’

Defending his proposal to cut $62 million from schools next year rather than dip into the state’s $114 million public education stabilization fund, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told lawmakers this morning, “Let me give you the Thelma and Louise scenario – this is when you’re heading for a cliff, you stomp on the gas rather than pause and make adjustments.”

If Idaho were to spend all its education reserves and federal stimulus funds to avoid cuts in schools this year and next year, “In order to keep 2011 equal to 2010, we are heading towards a $150 million dollar cliff with nowhere to go,” Luna said, “and I think that’s very irresponsible. I cannot imagine a budget scenario where we would try to find $150 million to cut in one fiscal year. I do not recommend it, and I think this demonstrates how irresponsible it would be for education and for the students in education if we tried to craft a budget where we used everything at our disposal so that we do not cut education at all – and then it leaves us with nowhere to go 6 months from now when we build the 2011 budget.”

Luna’s proposal calls for $62 million in cuts in schools next year, and his scenario still shows a need to add $35 million in general funds to balance the school budget the following year, just to keep it from dropping. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he’s even more pessimistic. “Thank you for your confidence in the future actions of this committee – I don’t share that confidence,” Wood said. “I think you’re looking through rose-colored glasses, even with only cutting the $62 million.”

The ‘stem the bleeding’ package

Mike Rush, director of the Office of the State Board of Education, says rather than “stimulus package,” he likes to refer to the federal bill as “the stem-the-bleeding package.” He told JFAC this morning, “We think it will act much like a Band-Aid does – in other words, stop the bleeding and protect the wound” so healing can occur. Higher education in Idaho will receive $35.4 million the need to raise tuition, and to modernize, renovate or repair facilities. “We are proposing that 62 percent of that be spent in the year 2010, 38 percent in 2011,” Rush said. “We are proposing using the greatest percentage of the funding the first year, because that’s where the fixes are the hardest to come by.”

The state board is proposing to distribute the money to colleges and universities based on the budget cuts they’ve suffered, Rush said. “That puts just over $30 million at the colleges and universities, $3.2 million at community colleges and $1.5 million at the technical colleges.” In addition to that pot of money, Idaho will receive a half-million dollars in additional work-study funds by April 1, and another $42 million in increased Pell grants for needy students.

Rush said, “It is critically important not to waste a good crisis.” Budget cuts force cuts in whatever can be cut quickly, he said. But the stimulus money will ease the state’s higher ed system through while it thinks more carefully and strategically about how best to make cuts for the long term, he said. “We cannot afford to make hasty decisions that cut our capacity at the very time that people are coming into the system and need training.”  JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell told Rush, “We would like very much to be able to put this in your budget sometime before May Day, I think.” Rush responded, “Me and you both.”

Lots of requests for stimulus money…

Gov. Butch Otter will release the first – long – list of stimulus funding requests he’s received this afternoon at 4. Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said today’s list will be just the request from non-governmental organizations; those from government agencies will follow on Tuesday. “We’ve gotten requests from charities, cities, counties – we’ve received thousands and thousands of pages. It’s voluminous,” he said. The initial list to be released will include the entity applying, the project name, a brief description, and a dollar figure. “Once we get the requests, the executive stimulus committee will get to work.” Hanian said. Their recommendations will be complete and to the governor by March 19.

Guv’s rental car tax bill dies

Here’s a news item from AP: “Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s plan to add a 6 percent tax on rental cars died Wednesday, after the industry argued new costs would hurt agencies already being buffeted by the worst economy in decades. The House Transportation Committee ditched the plan to raise $2 million more to fix roads on an 11-3 vote, after listening to rental car outfits tell them roads shouldn’t be fixed on their backs. Rhett Fornoff, who runs Enterprise rental agencies in Idaho and Utah, told the panel “The time for our industry to be picked on is not now.” It’s the second time one of Otter’s proposals — part of a package to boost highway revenue by $174 million annually by 2014 — has been rebuffed by the House panel. It also was skeptical of a plan to raise fees on personalized and specialized license plates. Jason Kreizenbeck, Otter’s chief of staff, says that proposal is still being reworked, while the proposal to tax rental cars won’t re-emerge.”

‘That’s a breakthrough’

Today marked the first time - in five straight years of trying - that the day care licensing bill has made it out of committee and to the full chamber in either house. “That’s a breakthough of sorts,” said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene. The 8-1 vote to send the bill, SB 1112, to the full Senate for amendments was a strong one, with just Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, voting no. Even Sen. Denton Darrington voted in favor of moving the bill to the Senate’s 14th Order. “Sen. Darrington has, I think, appreciated that the current statute needs changing,” Sayler said after the vote. “I think he was aware of public opinion and the changing nature of Idaho, and that there was a lot of public support for this legislation even though he didn’t support it.”

Looking ahead, Sayler said, “It’s going to be a real struggle still in the House - we can’t take it for granted.” He and co-sponsor Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, are working with other senators on three amendments, including one suggested during the hearing by Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell. “I think with these three amendments we have now, we have a good bill and should have a lot of support,” Sayler said. Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com.

Day care licensing bill clears Senate committee

Minimum licensing standards for small day care centers in Idaho survived a Senate committee hearing Wednesday and headed for debate in the full Senate. The sponsors are offering several minor amendments; one restores a word inadvertently left out from the National Rifle Association’s suggested wording about gun storage at home day cares. When the bill is opened up for amendments in the full Senate, any senator may offer changes. The vote was 8-1, with backers saying it’s time to enact the long-debated bill, but others saying parents, not the state, should worry about day care.
    
Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said, “We’ve got to stop taking responsibility away from the parents to decide if that place is clean - they go there every day.” Lodge, however, voted in favor of sending the bill to the full Senate for amendments. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, co-sponsor of the bill, told the committee, “Parents would still make the choice … that’s their right and responsibility.” But he said the state should provide some basic resources to families, including “the assurance that there are some consistent safety standards in place.” The bill is headed to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments.

‘Parents would still make the choice’

As the hearing on SB 1112, the day care licensing law, gets under way this afternoon in the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, the room is full and everyone’s paying close attention. It’s the fifth year in a row such a measure has been proposed. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, read off a list of things Idaho now doesn’t require for day cares that have 12 or fewer children: Criminal background checks, first aid and CPR training, a functioning telephone on the premises, smoke alarms, fencing around water hazards, and basic ratios of the number of adults to children. The ratios, Corder said, are based on  “a simple premise - if there is an emergency, how many children can that adult get out of the building?”  Idaho went with four, but Corder said the national standard is three.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, co-sponsor of the bill, told the committee, “Parents would still make the choice … that’s their right and responsibility.” But he said the state should provide some basic resources to families, including “the assurance that there are some consistent safety standards in place.” The bill requires licensing and sets minimum safety standards for day cares that care for four or more  children unrelated to the operator. Sayler noted that in Coeur d’Alene, which has its own city day care licensing law, “As they’ve stepped up enforcement, people have moved out of the city into the county where this is no regulation.”

Luna releases stimulus proposal

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has released his recommendation to Gov. Butch Otter for spending federal stimulus money on education; you can read it here. Luna’s conclusion is that Idaho still must cut education next year. Here’s the lead-in to his executive summary:

“The State of Idaho will receive an estimated $351,473,200 for public education through the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Of that funding, approximately
$166,175,700 will be used to stabilize the K-12 public schools budget in fiscal years 2009, 2010
and 2011. Since the state estimates budget shortfalls of more than $200 million over the three
fiscal years, it is clear that the Idaho Legislature will still need to make reductions to the FY2010
public schools budget. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has proposed 10 ideas for
how the Idaho Legislature can reduce the public schools budget by $62 million in FY2010 while
maintaining student-teacher contact hours and those programs that have the most immediate
impact on student achievement.”

‘Doing the right thing: Priceless’

There was quite the interesting exchange in the Senate today between Sens. Brent Hill and Dean Cameron - the Senate’s tax and finance chairmen, respectively - over the twice-amended HB 64, the IRS conformity bill for 2008. It earlier passed the House overwhelmingly, then the Senate amended it to take out a clause that would cost the state $2 million, to match up Idaho’s state income tax code to a one-year change Congress imposed last year to grant a tax deduction to non-itemizers to offset part of their property taxes. Then, the Senate amended that back in, and today, the re-amended bill - now identical to what the House earlier passed - passed the Senate, 24-10.

“I’m ashamed to bring this bill to you today, not because it’s a bad bill, but because it’s today - 42 days before over a million Idahoans have to file their tax returns,” Hill, a CPA, told the Senate. He said he awoke at 3:30 this morning “feeling guilty” … “This body allowed it to be jerked around and in and out of the 14th order. … I apologize to you as well as my fellow citizens of this state.” Hill said people who already filed their Idaho income tax returns for 2008 may have to amend them, and tax preparers have “piles of files in their offices, waiting for us to act today. … It’s time to quit delaying and start delivering, to replace indecision with decisiveness,” he declared.

Cameron countered, “I, too, woke up at 3:30 in the morning, but for a lot of different reasons - namely our budget crisis.” The budget committee chairman said he’s been awake in the wee hours for weeks, trying to figure out the way out of Idaho’s budget crunch. “I understand the benefits of conformity,” he said. “What I also understand is that we’re making significant reductions in every state agency, including public education - we will make significant reductions in every state agency including public education in 2010, and then, in 2011, if there’s not enough money, we’ll be faced with raising taxes.”  He warned, “We may be giving away money here that we may regret down the road.”

Hill responded that in his view, failing to conform Idaho’s tax code to the federal break constituted increasing taxes. “Cost to the state: $2 million,” he said. “Savings to the taxpayers: $2 million. Doing the right thing: Priceless.” Four Democrats and six Republicans joined the dissenters, but the re-amended bill passed.

‘We’re at extreme risk in Idaho’

The threat to Idaho from invasive zebra and quagga mussels is so great, according to Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, that Idaho needs to enact emergency legislation right away to make every boat owner in the state purchase a sticker that’d help fund wash stations to keep the tiny and insidious shellfish out of Idaho’s waterways. Anderson won unanimous support from the House State Affairs Committee this morning to introduce his bill; next step is a full public hearing. “It’d be a $100 misdemeanor to not have that (sticker) on your vessel,” he told the panel. “However, the intent of this is not to fine, the intent of this is to educate.”

Several million dollars that Idaho had allocated for fighting aquatic invasive species got wiped out in this year’s budget cuts, so Anderson says funding is needed right away. Vessels registered in Idaho would pay $10; those registered out of state but launching here would pay $20; and non-motorized vessels, which don’t register, would pay $5 apiece. The only exclusion is for inflatables less than 10 feet long; commercial outfitters with large non-motorized fleets would get a bulk discount.

Anderson showed the committee a paperweight with a cluster of the invasive zebra mussels encased in plastic, and another sealed exhibit showing a cutaway of a water pipe filled with the tiny, sticky shellfish. The mussels, which can clog pipes, destroy pumps, take over beaches and drive out all other species - they smell, too, Anderson said - have now turned up in Utah just 180 miles away from Idaho.
“We have one opportunity, in my mind, to prevent the introduction,” Anderson told the committee. “Boats are the means of transmission, that’s how they get here.”

The state of Maine already has initiated a boat sticker program, Anderson said, that could serve as a model for Idaho. “These things out-compete every other species in the water column - they would be gone,” Anderson said. “We’re at extreme risk in Idaho.”

Pharmacy ‘conscience’ bill introduced

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher this morning asked his committee to introduce his bill to excuse pharmacists and pharmacies from any liability if they refuse to fill a prescription based on their conscience. Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Boise, noted that the bill covers any medication. If a small-town resident is turned away from the town’s only pharmacy for a needed medication, she asked, “Where would they go?” Loertscher said the bill allows the pharmacy or pharmacist to refer the patient elsewhere. The bill was introduced, but two committee members voted against the move. “It’s my understanding that the Idaho Pharmacy Association is not in support of this,” said Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise. “We need to make certain that people get the medications they need.” The committee’s vote clears the way for a full hearing on the bill.

Not what it sounded like…

Rep. Judy Boyle’s bill this morning - listed on the House State Affairs Committee agenda as being about “early termination of pregnancy” - turned out not to be about abortion after all. Instead, Boyle asked the committee to introduce a measure allowing mothers who miscarry before 20 weeks of gestation to obtain a “certificate of early fetal death” from the state’s vital statistics department. “If a mom loses a baby before 20 weeks, there is no piece of paper,” she said. “This is completely voluntary. Because it’s not a reportable death, it is not part of the public records act. It’s a very private thing for her.” The optional certificate would cost $13, the same as other official certificates, she said. The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, with no discussion.

Projects are ‘ready to go’

Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe is briefing JFAC this morning on the ITD board’s stimulus recommendations, adopted in a special meeting yesterday. “The board directed staff in January to get eight projects ready to go, and we’ve been doing that,” she said. With Idaho’s focus on “shovel-ready” projects as targets for the stimulus money, she said, the state will be “in outstanding position” to obligate all its stimulus funds right away - making it eligible to pick up additional money when other states don’t act quickly enough to qualify. “We’re going to be in good position to get some more money, potentially,” Lowe told lawmakers. She said, “The projects are in every district, so you’ll be stimulating all of Idaho’s economy. … If it weren’t for the stimulus money, we would have no other way to build some of these large, desperately needed projects.”

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on the board’s plan for the money. The list is topped by replacement of the notoriously deteriorating Dover Bridge in North Idaho. This morning, Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, asked Lowe about rumors the bid advertisement for that project might get moved up to April. Lowe, whose estimate is early May, said, “We are pushing - the moment we’re ready.” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who’s heard complaints in the budget committee for years about the bridge, said, “I for one will be so happy when the Dover Bridge is finally taken care of.”

Why the prices dropped

When ITD first came up with the list of eight major highway projects around the state to recommend for stimulus funding, it added up to $182 million - the total amount Idaho’s going to receive, including money for local highway district projects. But now the prices on the major state projects have dropped enough to fit it all in. Here’s why: The initial plans for one of the projects, the Twin Falls Alternate Route on US 93, didn’t account for $15.9 million in federal “high-priority” funds that already were available for that project. Plus, prices for all the others dropped a little bit thanks to the poor economy - bids are coming in lower, and certain key materials, from steel to fuel, have plummeted. “Prices have come down significantly,” said Pete Hartman of the Federal Highway Administration.

Tom Cole, chief engineer for ITD, said, “We’re getting some good bids right now. That’s a good thing and a bad thing with the economy.” Plus, he said, ITD has more details about the projects now, and its numbers are more precise than earlier estimates. Transportation Board member Jim Coleman said, “We can get all the projects that are really high priority for the state - especially the Dover Bridge. It’s finally gonna get done. That’s kind of exciting.” Oddly, board member Monte McClure, of the Treasure Valley, launched a last-minute push to remove the Vista Interchange from the package, saying it could be funded with GARVEE bonds and the $40 million-plus for that project could go to something else. But when other board members said it was too late to make such changes, a day before the department’s proposals to the governor are due, he backed off, and the plan passed with a unanimous vote.

ITD board approves stimulus projects

The list is now final: The Idaho Transportation Board has approved $28 million in local highway projects to be targeted with federal economic stimulus funds, and $149.9 million in state highway projects, including the Dover Bridge, the Vista Interchange, and six other projects around the state. Plus, as directed by the stimulus bill, $5.9 million would go to an enhancement project, “hardscaping” at the 10-Mile Interchange. That adds up to $183.9 million - about $2 million more than the stimulus actually will send to Idaho for such road projects. That may mean that not all of the local projects get funded, or that the first ones in get the money; some of those still are being defined. The board also has approved $18.4 million in public transit projects. All of these recommendations still must go to Gov. Butch Otter, and then he’ll make his proposals to the Legislature, which will set budgets - which Otter then signs into law.

The eight major state highway projects, which earlier had been estimated to cost $182 million on their own, now come in at $149.9 million. They are: Dover Bridge replacement, $36.8 million; US 95 Moscow Mountain Passing Lane in Latah County, $3.9 million; White Bird Grade to Chain-Up Area on US 95, $5.2 million; Vista Avenue interchange, $43.4 million; US 93 Twin Falls Alternate Route, $40.4 million; I-86 Chubbuck Interchange to Pocatello Creek Interchange, $11.3 million; US 20 Henry’s Lake Flat Passing Lanes, $3.5 million; and SH 48 Rigby High School to Yellowstone Highway, $5.4 million.

‘Use it or lose it’

The Idaho Transportation Board has just begun a special meeting to decide what to recommend as far as applying for stimulus funds for transportation in Idaho, now that the final information is available as to what will qualify. Dave Amick, manager of ITD’s office of transportation investments, just told the board, “There’s a huge amount of information to go over,” and as far as the rules, ” ‘Use it or lose it’ is just about as simple as we could explain it.”

The board has before it a detailed staff recommendation that calls for requesting the governor to apply for $155.9 million in state highway system projects - including all eight projects the board identified earlier, including the Dover Bridge and the Vista Interchange, but with some slightly lower dollar amounts - and $18.4 million worth of public transit projects.  In addition, the recommendation covers $28 million in local highway system projects.

HB 64 amended again

The Senate had earlier amended HB 64, the IRS conformity bill for 2008, to take out a clause that would cost the state $2 million, to match up Idaho’s state income tax code to a one-year change Congress imposed last year to grant a tax deduction to non-itemizers for property taxes paid. That sparked an outcry, and objections from Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who maintained those who’d benefit from the state’s conforming are mostly homeowners who are young, old, or poor, and need the break. The deduction is for up to $1,000 on a joint return or $500 for an individual to offset property taxes paid. The federal economic stimulus bill extended the change into 2009 as well. Just now, the Senate, in its amending order, has voted to amend the bill again - this time to put the clause back in. It was a divided voice vote, but the new amendment passed.

UI tuition amendment passes Senate 32-2

For more than a century, the University of Idaho hasn’t been able to charge “tuition” to its students - but like other Idaho institutions of higher learning, it’s increasingly charged “fees” instead. In 2005, the Legislature cleared other state universities to charge tuition - fees that students pay specifically to cover the cost of instruction. But the U of I was left out of that, because of restrictions that date back to territorial law. Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said it’s time to end that obsolete distinction.

“In this budgetary climate, the University of Idaho cannot manage their budget in the most efficient manner, because they are restricted from using any fees for instructional purposes, unlike all the other institutions,” Stegner told the Senate. He’s co-sponsoring SJR 101, a constitutional amendment, with Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, to allow tuition at UI. “It is not anticipated that this would increase tuition charged at the University of Idaho,” Stegner noted. The university still would have to seek state Board of Education approval for fee increases, just as it does now. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said he strongly opposed the change in 2005, because he objects to placing “more of the burden for the cost of an education onto the students’ shoulders.” But at this point, he said, the issue is a simple one of equity between UI and the other colleges and universities.

The Senate voted 32-2 in favor of SJR 101, which now moves to the House. The two no’s came from Sens. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, and Melinda Smyser, R-Parma. Constitutional amendments need two-thirds approval in each house of the Legislature, plus a majority vote of the people at the next election, to take effect.

Why he voted ‘no’

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, had a unique reason for opposing the election consolidation bill in the House State Affairs Committee this morning: He doesn’t want more people to vote. “Having run in two school board trustee elections,” he said, “I don’t want somebody voting for me in that election - you have groups of people who are senior citizens who are disinterested in the schools process, who would vote for my opponent,” if the opponent said schools spend too much money. “I want people voting for me who have an interest in that subject that we’re voting for.” Said Andrus, “I kinda like the way the system is now.” He was outvoted.  

Election consolidation bill clears committee

HB 201 has passed the House State Affairs Committee on a 14-4 vote, and now moves to the full House. Here’s the vote:

Voting in favor: Reps. Loertscher, Anderson, Stevenson, Black, Bilbao, Labrador, Luker, Crane, Mathews, Kren, Palmer, Simpson, M. Shepherd, and King.
Voting against: Reps. Andrus, Smith, Pasley-Stuart, and Higgins.

Schools: Dates OK, funding not

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said school boards have agreed to the four consolidated election dates in HB 201, but they’re concerned that the funding in the bill isn’t adequate. If school boards opted to hold bond or levy elections on the optional March or August dates, they’d have to pay the cost, though the county clerk would run the elections. Echeverria told lawmakers that school districts expect those costs to be higher than their current costs for running elections, to the tune of $2 million. “We are fine with the dates in the bill - our only concern is the funding,” she said. At a time when schools are facing unprecedented budget cuts, Echeverria said her association opposes the bill unless its implementation is delayed for two more years, and it includes a provision for all election costs to be covered by the state.

Phil Homer of the Idaho Association of School Administrators said his organization has same position. “We’re going to take some pretty deep cuts in education,” he said.

Ysursa: ‘Call me a turnout guy’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told lawmakers, “Public policy needs to be set by the most participation - call me a turnout guy. … I think this bill will accomplish it.” Ysursa was testifying to the House State Affairs Committee in favor of HB 201, the election consolidation bill. “I’ve been working on consolidation since the ‘80s,” Ysursa said. “I think it’s a good-government bill. I know the fiscal dilemma that we’re in. … The ‘stealth election’ is what we don’t want.”

‘Intent is to increase voter turnout’

Major election consolidation legislation is up before the House State Affairs Committee this morning, and the crowd, mostly in support, includes Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who long has advocated the move. The 98-page bill, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, would consolidate all of Idaho’s elections to two dates in November and May, plus two additional dates that school districts could use for bond or levy votes in March and August. Counties would take over running all the elections, where currently various jurisdictions or districts run their own, and polling places would be standardized. The cost: About $3.1 million. “We’re not here to tell you that it’s going to be cheap to do what we’re trying to do,” Lake told the committee. But, he said, “It will cost less per vote than what we’re currently paying.”

Tim Hurst, chief deputy secretary of state, said, “The intent of this legislation is to increase voter turnout, and we’re hoping that it will do that.”

Harwood: ‘They oughta back off’

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, wants Idaho to declare its sovereignty from the federal government. He persuaded the House State Affairs Committee, on a 13-4 vote, to introduce his resolution this morning, though some members objected to his contention that it could save the state millions of dollars. “One of the things the states did, they created the federal government as an agent for theirselves,” Harwood told the committee, and quoted George Washington. “We have 31 states that have done this … declared their sovereignty,” he said. He cited the federal No Child Left Behind Act, EPA regulation of air quality, and endangered species rules as examples of the federal government impeding the state’s sovereignty, and objected to the feds telling the state “you gotta do this or else. We think they oughta back off and let the states govern themselves a little bit.”

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, objected that the bill was “over-reactionary” and said, “It alarms me that we are taking a step to the far right at a time that we need to be working together.” The idea that Idaho could save millions by being free of the federal government “is very inaccurate - that’s not the case at all,” she said. Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, noted that Idaho receives federal funds for everything from Medicaid to highways. “We need to work with the federal government rather than stick a pencil in their eye,” she said. But Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “We don’t stand up for ourselves, who will? Our rights, our constitutional rights, are being trampled right before our eyes.” Rep. Erik Simpson said, “I personally don’t see any harm in sending a message to the federal government that the state of Idaho respects the Constitution.” Harwood said he looks forward to the committee’s full hearing on his measure.

Another day of transportation hearings

The House Transportation Committee took two and a half hours of testimony this afternoon on three different bills to raise vehicle registration fees in Idaho to fund road work - one, a phased-in five-year plan from Gov. Butch Otter, and the other two both single-year proposals, one from House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood and the other from Rep. Leon Smith. An array of lobbyists, including those representing the trucking industry, loggers, cities and counties, chambers of commerce and more, spoke out in favor of the governor’s bill. The American Automobile Association said trucks aren’t paying their fare share to maintain Idaho’s roads. In the end, there were no votes; none were planned. Instead, some kind of compromise legislation is in the works, though no one knows yet exactly where that’s heading.

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, a committee member, said the recent extensive audit of the Idaho Transportation Department showed that Idaho really needs to spend more to maintain its roads. “No one’s disputing the findings of the audit, so we have to assume there’s a gap” in funding, he said. “It’s our responsibility to maintain that road system and we need to do it.”

Smaller FG fee bill to be heard

The Senate Resources Committee agreed today to hear a Fish & Game fee hike proposal that’s been whittled down from an earlier one; the bill will be presented to a privileged committee for introduction, then return to the Resources Committee for a hearing. The new bill would raise about $5.1 million a year more in license, tag and permit fees next year; it’d take effect April 15, so it’d also raise about $1.27 million in the final quarter of fiscal year 2009. Idaho’s Fish and Game fees haven’t gone up since July of 2005.

If approved, 71 percent of the new fees would go to balancing the budget for existing services, and 29 percent to “program enhancements desired by sportsmen,” according to the bill’s statement of purpose. Under the bill, the current $31.75 combination license for residents wouldn’t go up at all, but non-resident combo licenses would rise from $198 to $238.25. Various other tags and permits also would rise; a resident moose tag, for instance, would go up from $165 to $194, while a non-resident moose tag would rise from $1,750 to $2,100.

‘School of hard knocks’

Here’s a link to reporter Jared Hopkins’ story over the weekend in the Times-News, on the education levels of Idaho’s lawmakers. The story begins, “Ask a good portion of the Idaho Legislature about their alma mater, and they’ll give you a stock answer that could resemble a school fight song. ‘I went to the school of hard knocks,’ said Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, one of Idaho’s legislators without a college diploma. She isn’t alone. Nearly 20 percent of Idaho lawmakers don’t hold four-year college degrees.”

Stimulus promises jobs for Silver Valley

Thanks to the federal economic stimulus bill, there’ll be 70 new seasonal jobs in North Idaho’s Silver Valley this summer and next as part of the Bunker Hill cleanup. “It’s doubling the effort for two years,” said Toni Hardesty, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality. The Bunker Hill cleanup funding is one of five pots of money Hardesty has identified in the stimulus bill that will benefit Idaho if the state DEQ applies for funds. She’s submitted proposals to Gov. Butch Otter, and briefed legislative budget writers on the prospect this morning.

In every case, the money meets criteria that Otter’s laid out: It wouldn’t require Idaho to commit to state funding in future years; it wouldn’t require the hiring on of full-time Idaho state employees; and  it wouldn’t require the state to start new programs. Said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, “It puts people to work doing things that need to be done.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

First bill in Guv’s transportation package passes House unanimously

The House hast voted 69-0 in favor of HB 96, the bill to eliminate Idaho’s ethanol exemption. It’s the first of Gov. Butch Otter’s bills to raise money for road maintenance in Idaho to reach a vote in the full House or Senate. “Here’s the day you’ve all been waiting for - this is the first bill to come through from the governor’s office and Transportation on increasing money for ITD,” Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the House. “This is a little one, but it’s the first of a few we might see here in the body. … Eliminating this exemption would restore funds lost to the highway distribution account.” Even ethanol producers support it, Nonini said; so much ethanol is being blended now that the exemption’s no longer needed. “It’s the first start in trying to get some extra … (funds) to ITD,” Nonini said. There was no debate on the bill before its unanimous passage. The governor’s office estimated the state will save between $4 million and $12 million a year by eliminating the exemption. HB 96 now moves to the Senate.

The bottom line…

Here’s the bottom line from Sen. Brent Hill’s report on the impact of tax changes in the stimulus bill on Idaho’s state tax revenues: If the state conforms with most of the provisions, it would lose $14.1 million in state income tax revenue in fiscal year 2010, but it would actually gain $820,000 in 2011. That’s partly because of the multi-year impact of last year’s change in bonus depreciation, which initially cost the state $38 million, but all will be made back up over the coming years, and partly because, at least at this point, many of the stimulus’ tax breaks are for just one year - though they could get extended.

Hill identified eight tax provisions in the stimulus bill with potential impact on Idaho, and recommended that the state conform its tax code to comply with seven of them. The one exception: A change in carry-back of net operating losses for small businesses. Idaho hasn’t conformed with such changes in the past, and it’s common for there to be different time frames, he said. As for the rest, Hill strongly recommended conforming, and making that decision now. Absent that, taxpayers wouldn’t know in advance how their 2009 financial transactions would be taxed, making financial planning impossible, he said. Plus, he said many of the provisions in the stimulus bill are meant to be incentives to get the economy moving - and if Idaho doesn’t go along with them, they won’t have that effect.

Click below to see a list of the eight changes.

When timing is everything

The tax breaks in the federal stimulus bill include a new deduction for sales taxes on vehicle purchases, up to $49,500 of their cost. It phases out for higher-income taxpayers, Sen. Brent Hill explained to legislative budget writers this morning, and there’s a specific date-of-purchase range that’s covered: It’s only for new cars, light trucks, RVs and motorcycles purchased from Feb. 17, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2009. “I purchased a new car, with my wife, on Feb. 12th,” Hill confided to the committee, missing the window. That particular tax break, by the way, will cost Idaho $1.68 million in state income tax revenue if the state conforms its tax code to the IRS changes.

‘Not at the head of their class’

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, is explaining to lawmakers this morning how the tax changes in the federal stimulus bill affect Idaho’s state tax revenues. In his lead-in, he read a long and entirely incomprehensible passage from the law to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. At the end, there was laughter, and Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “You had me at ‘whereas.’ ” Said Hill, “The people who wrote this were not at the top of their class.” He then proceeded to a bit of “Income Tax 101” before sharing details of the changes.

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About this blog

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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