Archive for March 24, 2009
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.