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Eye On Boise

Archive for May 2009

Candidate files for bankruptcy

An early announced candidate for governor of Idaho on the GOP ticket has filed for bankruptcy for his development business, according to the Associated Press, and is trying to sell properties in Wyoming to cover his debts. According to the AP report, which originated with the Rexburg Standard-Journal, Rammell owes $747,585. Rammell told the newspaper his finances are so dire, he could eventually lose his family home in Rexburg. “Which begs the question: Who in their right mind would run to be the governor of Idaho when their financial situation is in such distress?” he said. “My answer is that I only know of one guy that would do it — it’s me.” Rammell also said if he loses this race, he’ll stop running for office. Click below to read the full report from AP.

Winder: ‘Any director at ITD is in a tough situation’

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who chaired the Idaho Transportation Board for 11 years, said, “I think any director at ITD is in a tough situation, because there are certain members in the Legislature that don’t really give a lot of credibility to ITD. And so I think they use the director as kind of the person that’s accountable, and I think they’ve whipped up on the last two or three that have been around there … they become a target for dissatisfaction or disagreement between the Legislature and the department.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, agreed. “I personally work with the director fine,” she said. “But I do understand that there are others that have been frustrated with the director - my sense is that the controversy surrounding transportation funding in Idaho is really the issue. And unfortunately, as the leader of the agency, she’s in the spotlight.” Added Keough, “It’s a very tumultuous time at ITD, and quite frankly, I’m not sure anybody could do it. Anybody in that position is going to have a hard time right now because of the shortfall in money and the demands on the system. It’s a very big agency. It’s a huge task for even (a person with) the best skills to take on.”

Winder said he’s been hearing rumors about a change in directors ever since the legislative session; he also heard plenty of grousing about past ITD directors. “I’ve heard the same rumors, but never from anybody at ITD,” he said.  “There are a lot of kind of undercurrents, behind-the-scenes things going on. Some of them are valid, some of them are political, and some are just ways to try not to address the funding for ITD.”

Manning: ‘Department is running pretty well’

Idaho Transportation Board Director Darrell Manning declined to say what the board addressed in its closed session on personnel issues this morning, as rumors spread around the state that ITD Director Pam Lowe might be leaving the department. “I don’t want to discuss anything like that at this point,” Manning said. “If we ever made a decision on something that dire, we would certainly announce it.”

Lowe has been under fire from lawmakers this year as they and the governor squabbled over his transportation funding initiative. The Senate transportation chairman and members of House leadership introduced a bill to let the director serve at the pleasure of the governor, rather than the transportation board. “The board was opposed to doing that,” Manning said. “The transportation board is sort of unique, in the extent of the powers granted to the board.” Those powers, from letting contracts to maintaining highways and setting standards, need to go along with responsibility over the department’s operations, he said. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, who introduced the bill, didn’t hold a hearing on it, saying he was merely sending a message. Manning said, “I think the department itself is running pretty well, a lot of good people that are doing their jobs. I think the fact that we have moved so quickly on the stimulus package when we finally got the approval is a good indication of that.”

School districts declare financial emergencies

At least a dozen Idaho school districts have declared financial emergencies under a new state law, and more are considering the move as they face their first-ever cut in state funding for schools next year. “There’s no money, so what can you do?” asked Ryan Kerby, superintendent of the New Plymouth School District in southwestern Idaho. In Bonner County, West Bonner Schools Superintendent Mike McGuire said he’s already cut a quarter-million dollars from next year’s budget, and it still hasn’t made up the shortfall. “We aren’t going to have a high school assistant principal next year in a high school of 400-plus students - that wasn’t a luxury,” he said. “We’ve made, I think, some pretty serious reductions throughout the district. We just don’t have anyplace else to look.”

The new financial emergency law lets a school district reopen teacher contracts, to negotiate possible adjustments in pay, hours or contract length. It allows temporary suspension of a state law that requires teachers to be paid at least what they were the previous year. West Bonner and Boundary County school districts already have made the declarations; Coeur d’Alene and Rathdrum schools are seriously considering it. Tom Taggart, business manager for the Lakeland School District in Rathdrum, said, “There’s a lot of potential risks with moving ahead with it, but it’s one of the few tools we have.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Who Lowe is

Pam Lowe, director of the Idaho Transportation Department, is a professional engineer who was ITD’s first female district engineer when she was named to that post in 2000. She first joined ITD in 1993 as a construction associate; became planning services manager in 1995 and regional engineer in 1997. She was named administrator of the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2004, then deputy director of ITD in 2006, and was named ITD director on Jan. 16, 2007.

She’s also worked for the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and in the private sector. She is a registered professional engineer in Idaho, Oregon and Arizona. Gov. Butch Otter affectionately calls her “Pammy.”

Lowe took over as director from interim director Dwight Bower, who first headed the department from 1993 to 2003 and then was replaced by David Ekern. Ekern lasted just three years, leaving Aug. 18, 2006 amid controversy over a report about sagging morale at the department as it moved in new directions including into a major bond-financed highway construction program. The board, under then-Gov. Jim Risch, appointed Bower to take over in the interim before Lowe was named to the post. Ekern subsequently became head of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Special ITD board meeting, no action

The Idaho Transportation Board held a special meeting this morning for a closed-door executive session on “personnel issues,” but when they emerged, they took no action. “The board had an executive session on personnel,” said spokesman Jeff Stratten. “I do not sit in on those meetings.”

State Transportation Director Pam Lowe did not attend the executive session, Stratten said. The only other thing on the board’s agenda was “old/new business.” “None was brought up, and they adjourned,” Stratten said. The closed-door meeting lasted about 40 minutes.

The department has been in the political crosshairs all year as Gov. Butch Otter unsuccessfully pushed his transportation funding initiative in this year’s legislative session. At one point during the session, Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, introduced legislation to allow the governor to fire the transportation director, rather than leaving that decision to the board, but that legislation didn’t pass.

Idaho only state exempt from new roadless directive

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called a one-year halt today to any road construction or timber removal on national forests under the roadless area conservation rule without his personal approval - but the new directive exempts Idaho. That’s because Idaho already has a plan for roadless forests, though it’s being challenged in court. “What they’re saying is, ‘Well, Idaho has their plan and we’re accepting their plan, but everybody else, we’re going to do this one-year deal,’” said Brad Hoaglun, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jim Risch. “Idaho is the only state.” Hoaglun said Colorado has been working on a roadless plan, but unlike Idaho, didn’t get it all the way through the federal rules process. Risch made the roadless plan a priority when he served briefly as governor of Idaho in 2006.

Vilsack said in a press release, “This interim directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama’s commitment is developed.” The directive applies to all inventories roadless areas in national forests and grasslands - except those in Idaho. It lasts for a year, but could then be renewed for another year. Click below to read the full statement from Risch and Sen. Mike Crapo applauding the treatment of Idaho in the move.

Nez Perce Tribe: Bighorn collaborative killed by legislation

The Nez Perce Tribe today notified Gov. Butch Otter that, in light of new bighorn sheep legislation sponsored this year by sheep producer Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, and signed into law by Otter, the tribe can no longer participate in the governor’s Idaho Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Collaborative. Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the tribal executive committee, said, “The Nez Perce Tribe is disappointed the state has suspended the collaborative process in favor of a legislated solution. We appreciated Governor Otter’s efforts to convene the Idaho Collaborative, but we are frustrated that Senator Siddoway’s legislation has undermined the Governor’s effort by legislating a political fix instead of allowing the collaborative process an opportunity to work.” He added, “Legislating wildlife management has never resulted in lasting solutions.”

Brooklyn Baptiste, vice chairman for the tribe, said, “I assume that Senator Siddoway did not see the value of collaborating with the Nez Perce Tribe or with Governor Otter to aid him in developing his legislation. As I understand it, Mr. Siddoway pushed this legislation through because he was concerned about the effects of introduced bighorn sheep in Hells Canyon on domestic sheep producers. However, his legislation doesn’t just target Hells Canyon. It protects all domestic sheep grazing at the expense of bighorn sheep in close proximity to their operations, including the Salmon River population, the last remnant native population in Idaho.”

Otter vetoed an earlier version of Siddoway’s legislation, but then accepted a modified version. He signed SB 1232a into law on May 7.

Tuthill will open own engineering firm

Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Dave Tuthill, asked why he made the decision to retire at the end of June, said, “It’s a good time for the agency and a good time for me, too. … I’ve been eligible for full retirement since last year. I did not want to retire and leave the agency holding the bag and pass on difficulties to my successor. We are blessed with a wonderful water year. The big issues have been determined. We’ve addressed the budget shortfalls, we have a strong plan to address those. It’s a good time for somebody new to come on board.”

Once he leaves the department, where he’s had a 33-year career, Tuthill said he plans to open a small engineering consulting firm. “I’ll be working for myself,” he said.”My plan is to start a one-person shop. I do not plan to work on the controversial issues that are before me now; that would be clearly inappropriate. But I do plan to work in water in Idaho and continue living in Boise.” Tuthill, 57, said he’s healthy and looking forward to a long private-sector career after his IDWR retirement. “I’ve enjoyed my career with water resources; I have greatly enjoyed the job of director,” he said. “Some moments have been difficult, but we’ve survived those.” He said he was pleased to see those moments become “few and far between” in recent months. “We have many, many issues that are out there to be addressed for small engineering firms,” he said. “That’s where I plan to work.”

More worked for less

The highest-paying sectors of jobs in Idaho in 2008 - management of companies, mining, and utilities - employed just 6 percent of the state’s workers, while the lowest-paying sectors - accommodation/food services, and arts/entertainment/recreation, employed 10 percent. This according to the Idaho Department of Labor, which calculated that the average annual wage for all industries in Idaho was $33,889. For the top sector, the managers of companies, it was $75,205. At the bottom, those who worked in accommodations and food services averaged $12,545 a year. The fourth-highest-paying sector was durable manufacturing, which employed 30,222 at an average wage of $57,103; that was 4.6 percent of the work force. Third-lowest paying was agriculture, which employed 129,009 at an average wage of $21,717; that’s 20 percent of the state’s workers.

Tuthill to retire from Water Resources

Idaho Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill will retire on June 30, after 33 years with the department, to “pursue a career in the private sector,” according to an IDWR news release. Tuthill served as manager of the department’s western regional office, adjudication bureau chief and water management administrator before being named director in 2007. “The 33 years that I have spent working for the Idaho Department of Water Resources have constituted a wonderful career full of challenge and reward,” Tuthill said. “I have admired my leaders throughout my career including Gov. Otter. Working in the service of the citizens of the state of Idaho, particularly the water users throughout this beautiful state, and with the talented and dedicated IDWR staff, has been gratifying and truly an honor.”

Why he didn’t veto it

After House Education Chairman Bob Nonini declared on the floor of the House that Gov. Butch Otter’s executive order for new accountability measures at the Idaho Transportation Department was “not worth the piece of paper it was printed on,” there was much speculation that Otter would veto a bill that Nonini insisted on at the end of the legislative session. But last week, Otter signed the measure into law.

Quietly, the governor signed two education bills, HB 303a and HB 374, which both promote funding “virtual education,” or online classes, within existing school funding, and give school districts some temporary flexibility from “use it or lose it” funding rules for teacher pay during the state’s budget crisis. Nonini’s controversial HB 374 reversed an amendment that the Senate had made to HB 303, which sought to put a two-year limit on the sections expanding virtual education.

Asked why he didn’t go the veto route, Otter said his clash with Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, over transportation wasn’t related to the education bill. “I’m not into these games of executing a difference of opinion on a bill that is not part of the issue,” the governor declared.

The last post-Memorial Day Idaho election…

Post-Memorial Day holiday checklist: Get the kids back to school, recover from the long weekend, pack up the gear – and go vote? Idaho has held its primary election on the fourth Tuesday in May since 1980, which means that 45 percent of the time, it falls on the day after Memorial Day. This is the last time that’ll happen: Sweeping legislation that passed this year will move future primaries to the third, rather than fourth, Tuesday in May. It doesn’t take effect until 2011, but this year is the last that Idaho will hold elections the day after Memorial Day. That’s because next year there are five Mondays in May – Memorial Day falls on the last Monday, while the Idaho primary election will fall on the fourth Tuesday, putting the two a week apart next year. This year, however, there are still a few districts trying to draw voters to the polls the day after the holiday. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter, GOP legislative leaders: ‘We gave the old car a tune-up’

Gov. Butch Otter and GOP legislative leaders Bob Geddes, president pro-tem of the state Senate, and Lawerence Denney, speaker of the House, have issued a joint op-ed piece contending that this year’s legislative session “made real progress for Idaho.” Wrote the leaders, “By any measure, the 2009 Idaho Legislature was too long and too expensive.  However, by no means was it the partisan waste of time that Democrats want you to believe.  To draw an analogy to a typical Idaho family, we didn’t buy a new car or remodel our kitchen, but we gave the old car a tune-up and reinforced the foundation of our home.” Click below to read the full opinion, and click here to read the op-ed piece from Democratic legislative leaders Kate Kelly, Senate minority leader, and John Rusche, House minority leader, to which it’s apparently reacting.

That’s the sticker…

Swung by the Idaho parks & rec office and purchased my invasive species sticker, which I then plastered onto my sailboard. Now we’ll see if it sticks. They were plenty busy, but it was a breeze picking up the $5 sticker (for non-motorized craft; Idaho-registered boats are $10, those registered elsewhere are $20). There was no wait. Phones were ringing off the hook, and parks workers were advising folks that if they order their stickers on the Internet and keep their receipts, they can show those to the cops over the holiday weekend and they won’t get a ticket, even if they haven’t gotten their stickers yet. Here’s a link to the full info about Idaho’s new boat-sticker program to raise money to fight invasive species, including keeping fast-spreading quagga and zebra mussels out of the state.

Teens can learn about space, aviation

Idaho teens ages 14 to 18 have until May 30 to apply to attend the Aviation Career Exploration (ACE) Academy, run by the Idaho Transportation Department’s Division of Aeronautics. During the four-day academy, which runs from June 29 to July 2, the teens will get a varied exposure to the world of space and aviation, from hearing from representatives of regional and national aeronautical schools and experts to tours of the Boise airport, Mountain Home Air Force Base and Warhawk Air Museum, and experiencing a flight under the guidance of a veteran pilot. The academy costs $75; for more information click here or call 334-8775.

Idaho has the best … drivers?

According to a new national survey by GMAC Insurance, Idaho drivers are tied (with Wisconsin) for best in the nation in their driving knowledge - performance on the written test for a driver’s license. This isn’t new drivers; it’s existing ones. The annual survey polled 5,183 licensed drivers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, asking them 20 questions taken from state driver exams. Idaho drivers’ average score was 80.6 percent; just 5.7 percent of Idaho respondents failed, scoring under 70 percent. Nationally, 20.1 percent of licensed drivers failed the test. Plus, GMAC found that scores are declining; it’s the fifth year of the survey. “We’ve seen the results ebb and flow, and this year, scores are down,” said GMAC executive Wade Bontrager. “Each and every one of us need to continually be brushing up on safe driving practices.”

Among the points befuddling the most respondents: Yellow lights and safe following distances. The worst-scoring drivers this year were New York’s, who took over last place by edging last year’s worst-ranked state, New Jersey. Montana and Utah scored well, ranking third and seventh; Wyoming and Oregon tied for eighth; and Washington tied with Oklahoma for 17th place. Last year’s top-ranked state, Kansas, fell to fourth place this year.

Idaho-bound boats will have to pull over…

Starting in about a month, anyone pulling a boat into Idaho will have to pull over at a port of entry for inspection and possible decontamination, in an effort to keep invasive quagga and zebra mussels out of the state. Top state officials approved emergency measures today including nearly a dozen such inspection stations around the state, with one to be at Huetter on I-90 between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. The $1.8 million in emergency measures also will include a statewide billboard campaign, education and outreach, signs on highways and boat ramps, and monitoring and enforcement. But most of the money will be spent on inspection and decontamination, to stop the fast-spreading, thumbnail-sized shellfish from turning Idaho’s lakes, reservoirs and beaches into shell-encrusted wastelands. That’s been the fate of numerous sites around the Great Lakes in Michigan, and the mussels in the past year have been spotted as far west as Utah and Nevada.

“We’re trying to get some of this put together as soon as we can, before we get too far into the boating season,” Lloyd Knight, administrator of the plant industries division at the state Department of Agriculture, told the state Board of Examiners today. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Board of Examiners, said the emergency measures are warranted. “The estimate right now is about $92 million bucks if we do nothing and just allow this very aggressive species to come in,” he said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Decision delayed on river dispute

What often is a routine transaction for the state Land Board - turning over title to newly uncovered land along a river to the adjacent landowner when the river’s channel moves - turned into a big controversy when the state was looking at a parcel of often-flooded riverfront land adjacent to a Washington developer’s property along the Snake River north of Buhl. Numerous residents of the area who duck-hunt along the river have protested the move, though it would have required a 25-foot-wide permanent public access easement along the river. The landowner, Daniel Miller, told the Land Board today that the 2.26 acres is wetland and he won’t be developing it anyway; he suggested anyone accessing it now may be going through his orchard, which is posted with “no trespassing” signs. Neighbors retorted that they access the area only from their own property and public lands along the river.

“I am not comfortable making a decision on this matter today,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “I need to go take a look at this site,” and get more information, he said. “Bring your waders, because you’ll need ‘em,” advised Philip Smith Jr., a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Buhl who was among those testifying against the land transfer. Said Wasden, “I will bring my waders.” The Land Board voted unanimously to delay a decision until no later than Aug. 1.

Possible buyer for Tamarack?

The failed Tamarack Resort near Cascade could have a buyer in the offing, Tamarack chief Jean-Pierre Boespflug told the state Land Board today. “We do have a very difficult situation,” Boespflug told the board. The ski and golf resort boosted employment in Valley County by 32 percent from 2003 to 2007, but now many of those new workers are unemployed and considering leaving. “That process is still at a point where it is reversible,” Boespflug said. But he said Tamarack is approaching “the last 45 to 60 days where something can be done.” He said, “The solution is to find a buyer, and a buyer with the expertise and the cash to be able to deal with a property like this,” adding, “Me and my partner, we are wiped out … we want to see a community thrive.”

The ski resort is largely on leased state land, which is why the Land Board is among the major “stakeholders” in what happens to the resort.  Boespflug said he and other key parties were “locked up in a tower in L.A. with a … mediator” last week, and he’s anticipating an offer from a buyer. “This is just the beginning of the tunnel here,” he said. “As you can imagine, this offer is going to be at pennies on the dollar.” He mentioned the possibility of a “short sale” and Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. “But also there is going to be a process with all of the stakeholders - this buyer is going to want to talk to everybody,” including the state. “You are going to be contacted,” he told the Land Board, which is chaired by the governor and includes Idaho’s top state elected officials.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told Boespflug, “I wish you the best of luck. All the way through this, Jean-Pierre, you’ve been a good partner with us. You had quite a vision, I know it went sour. … We all want this to succeed somewhere down the line.” He noted, however, “We have to protect our interests, obviously.”

Boespflug said when inquiries come in from the buyer, they’ll have to be answered quickly. The money to employ the last remaining Tamarack employees is “about to run out,” he said. “What I can tell you is that we are out of money, either the owner or Credit Suisse. … That money is going to have to come from the new buyers.” He called it “a very high-stakes thing … in the next 45 days.”

Gov. Butch Otter, who referred to the potential buyer as a “white knight,” said, “You’re asking us to be prepared when this pennies-on-the-dollar offer comes forward, if it comes forward, to be prepared … to share in the pain.” He said he’d like to know “how much pain we’re talking about.” Boespflug said the state endowment isn’t owed any money; its next payment for the lease isn’t due until January. He said he’s restricted by a confidentiality agreement from discussing the terms of the possible buyout.

After the Land Board meeting, Otter said he’s hopeful. The state’s endowment only made about $900 a year off the land in question before the ski resort came in, he said; that then jumped up to a quarter-million dollars a year. That’s not counting boosts in tax revenues from the development and employment there. “My counsel to the board would be, I think … we ought to be prepared to share in some of that pain,” the governor said. “I think it’s a reasonable process for us to go through that, and say,  what can we take in terms of a reduced amount in order to financially help them restructure, and still fulfill our obligation under the Constitution?” The Land Board is charged by the state Constitution to manage state endowment funds for the maximum long-term return to the beneficiaries, who include the state’s public schools.

Otter signs election consolidation, education bills

Gov. Butch Otter late yesterday signed three bills into law: HB 372a, the major legislation to consolidate Idaho’s elections to just four dates, for all levels of government; and two education bills, HB 303a and HB 374, which both promote funding “virtual education,” or online classes, within existing school funding, and give school districts some temporary flexibility from “use it or lose it” funding rules for teacher pay during the state’s budget crisis. The controversial HB 374, an end-of-session bill authored by House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, reversed an amendment that the Senate had made to HB 303, which sought to put a two-year limit on the sections expanding virtual education.

Gov, pro-tem grudgingly agree to payment

Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho state Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, led the opposition in a rare meeting of the Constitutional Defense Council this morning to paying court-ordered attorney fees in a case that the state mostly lost, but partly won; the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a small piece of a state law restricting payroll deductions for union political activities. The council, which also includes the state’s attorney general and the speaker of the Idaho House, ultimately voted unanimously to make the $75,000 payment, which had been negotiated down from $131,000; but also to seek more funding from the Legislature next year to bring the much-depleted fund, now with less than $300,000 after this payment, back up to $1 million.

Geddes said he was concerned that the payment was “outside the scope” of what the council originally was set up for - to oversee a million-dollar fund, created in 1995, to defend the state’s sovereignty on constitutional grounds. “It’s for fighting the federal government, defending the 10th Amendment,” Geddes said. “There have been other issues. We’ve expended money on (court cases involving) everything from nuclear waste to bear baiting. We can’t allow allow the fund to be the new water pollution control account.” That’s a state account that traditionally has been tapped for many purposes.

Said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, “I, too, am concerned about depleting the constitutional defense fund.” Said Otter, “As I recall, it was for defense of the constitution, and here we’re talking about a statute.” The Voluntary Contributions Act, which the Legislature passed in 2003, banned union payroll deductions for political activity, at any employer. It was challenged by the Pocatello Education Association and others, and most of the law was overturned in federal district court on constitutional grounds, including violation of the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The law was ruled invalid as it related to private employers, but upheld for state employees. Federal courts said the state couldn’t impose the limit on local government employees as well, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling, allowing the restriction to apply to local governments.

Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which was issued on Feb. 24th. In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “Because it is clear to me that the restriction was intended to make it more difficult for unions to finance political speech, I would hold it unconstitutional in all its applications.” Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito joined in the majority opinion. Two other justices concurred in part.

All Idaho state parks to stay open this summer

Idaho’s state Department of Parks and Recreation has announced that all state parks will stay open through the summer season, despite budget cuts. “At a time when budgets are tight, our agency understands that families will want to turn to their state parks for affordable outdoor experiences,” said state parks Director Robert Meinen. “For that reason, IDPR is going to do everything it can to ensure that Idaho’s state parks are open and accessible to visitors this year.” Seasonal staff will be trimmed for park maintenance and operations, however. “The reductions to staff will mean re-evaluating maintenance and facility cleaning schedules in every state park,” Meinen said. “That in mind, we’re going to keep our parks open and continue to provide safe, clean recreational experiences.”

Meinen caused a flurry of concern during the legislative session when he speculated that some parks might have to close - including possibly Old Mission State Park at Cataldo. Idaho has 30 state parks and recreational trailways statewide. To reserve campsites, cabins or yurts for overnights at state parks, go to www.parksandrecreation.idaho.gov or call 1-888-9-CAMPID.

Otter’s hard line softens over time

When Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was a legislator back in the ’70s, he was precisely the sort of outspoken, no-new-taxes, shrink-government conservative as those in the House who stymied his transportation initiative this year. Now he can’t understand why the young lawmakers don’t get his point in pushing for a gas tax increase – that transportation is a proper role of government, and it’s pay now or pay more later. “I believe we have made the case so the need cannot be denied,” Otter said. “If I weren’t absolutely convinced that we needed the money … I wouldn’t be asking.”

Not that he would’ve gotten the point back then. He ran for governor in 1978 calling for returning the state to budget levels of 1964. Otter, clearly, has evolved. “Over the stretch of three decades, a few things change,” said Idaho political historian Randy Stapilus. “For one thing, Butch is not in a position now to declaim an ideology or a stance and leave it at that – he actually has to govern.” You can read my full story here in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Idaho launches seat belt enforcement push

Starting on Monday, more than 50 Idaho law enforcement agencies will launch a 14-day crackdown on seat belt usage, a push that will extend through the Memorial Day weekend. According to the Idaho Transportation Department, 105 Idahoans who weren’t wearing their seat belts were killed last year in crashes on the state’s roads. Idaho law requires restraints - seat belts for adults, child safety seats for young children - for all drivers and passengers in vehicles. Fines for violating Idaho’s safety restraint laws range from $10 to $69.

“Wearing your seat belt costs nothing and yet it’s the single most effective traffic safety device ever invented,” said Mary Hunter, ITD highway safety manager.  “Failing to wear a seat belt puts you at risk for serious injury or death. Two-thirds of motor vehicle occupants killed in Idaho traffic crashes last year were unbelted.  According to seat belt effectiveness studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), half of these victims could be alive today had they simply buckled up.”

High court: Anonymous tip not enough

An anonymous tip about a fight, of which no evidence was found, didn’t provide reasonable suspicion for two Coeur d’Alene police officers to block in and arrest a man for drunken driving while he was parked in the parking lot of an apartment complex, the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled. The case involves an incident on the Fourth of July in 2005, at 1:30 in the morning; defendant Christopher Willoughby successfully got a magistrate court to suppress all evidence from the two officers’ contact with him that night. The state appealed to district court, then to the state Court of Appeals, and then to the Idaho Supreme Court; it lost at every point. The state argued that the officers could legally detain Willoughby as either a suspect or a witness to the reported fight, though they found no evidence of any fight. “An anonymous tip alone cannot supply the requisite basis for reasonable suspicion,” said the unanimous opinion, written by Justice Joel Horton. You can read the full opinion here.

Census: Idaho’s largest minority growing quickly

Idaho’s Hispanic population has continued to increase at three times the rate of non-Hispanics, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Overall, 10.2 percent of Idahoans are Hispanic, but the census found that in nine of Idaho’s 44 counties, all in southern Idaho, the figure was greater than 20 percent. The population of tiny Clark County is 40.4 percent Hispanic; Minidoka County, 30.2 percent; and Jerome County, 27.3 percent.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s median age increased by a month to 34 years and five months, while the median age for Hispanic residents dropped more than three months to 23 years and eight months. “The trend toward youth in the rapidly growing Hispanic population suggests the economic and political influence of the state’s largest minority could grow substantially as Hispanic families become more and more established,” reported Bob Fick of the Idaho Department of Labor, who analyzed the population figures.

Crane: ‘Intent to run for re-election’

Here is state Treasurer Ron Crane’s official statement about his political intentions:

“After much thought and careful consideration I have determined I will not be a candidate for U.S. Representative from the 1st Congressional district for Idaho. I am extremely grateful and humbled by the outpouring of support from across the district and from Washington, D.C.  My wife and I have decided that now is not the time for a move to Congress. It is my intent to run for re-election to the office of State Treasurer in 2010.  This is a position I enjoy very much and I love serving the people of Idaho.”

Crane, a Republican, is in his third four-year term as state treasurer.

Volunteer firefighter convicted of arson

A former volunteer firefighter from Parma is headed to federal prison for six years, for six felony counts of setting fires on public land. Clyde Dewayne Holmes Jr., 23, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill to 72 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, plus more than $155,000 in restitution. A jury found Holmes guilty of arson in January; it’s the first federal jury trial, conviction and sentencing of an arsonist on BLM land in Idaho.

The six different fires he set, in July and August of 2007, all were ignited shortly after he got off work; during his trial, physical evidence including tire and boot prints, cell phone records and eyewitness accounts tied him to the fires, which burned 1,200 acres of public and private lands in Payette and Canyon counties. Holmes himself reported two of the blazes, though he didn’t identify himself when he called them in. “This case is especially reprehensible because it involved a deliberate action by a person who was trained and trusted to protect our public lands and our citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Tom Moss.

More Idahoans trying to quit smoking

Soaring numbers of Idaho smokers are trying to kick the habit, the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare reports, to the point that they’ve used up the rest of the year’s worth of funding for a free nicotine replacement therapy program. Since last July, Project Filter has offered Idaho smokers who want to quit a free four-week supply of nicotine patches, gum and lozenges to help them stop smoking. There were 517 requests for that in January, but after the federal tobacco tax jumped, the number was up to 1,400 in March and 4,000 in April.That’s it now for the fiscal year; funding for nicotine replacement therapy won’t be available again until July 1, when the new budget year starts. Health & Welfare is encouraging smokers to quit now anyway; other resources remain available to help them. Click below to read their full news release.

Rammell: ‘We just covered up the words’

Rex Rammell has had to change the colorful graphics on his giant, decorated “Conservative Express” RV twice in the last month and a half. First, he changed, “Time for a new kind of Senator” to “Time for a new kind of Congressman,” when the former independent candidate for U.S. Senate decided to take on U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson next year in the GOP primary. “We just covered up the words, so it didn’t cost very much,” Rammell said. Then, the graphics had to be readjusted again - now “Congressman” has been replaced with “Governor.”

Rammell announced today that he’ll run for governor as a Republican, challenging Gov. Butch Otter in the GOP primary if Otter decides to seek another term. “I watched what Butch had done,” Rammell said. “He reminded me of a guy that’s not going to run for re-election. Usually, if you want to be re-elected, you don’t go cause a bunch of trouble.” Added Rammell, “I could be totally wrong.” He said his observation of politicians shows that “these guys, when they’re up for re-election, they’re pretty careful, every one of ‘em. And he totally isn’t at all.”

Rammell said if he ends up running against the incumbent governor in the primary, “My position would be that Butch had done a lot of damage to himself by picking a fight with the Legislature, and he would be vulnerable to defeat by a Democrat in 2010.” Otter hasn’t yet said if he’ll seek another term when his first term ends next year; nor have any other candidates announced for the race, from any party.

‘Criticism a little misguided’

Musing on some of the things some lawmakers said about him this year, Gov. Butch Otter said this week, “In the heat of battle there’s some passion that sometimes is released. I’d like an opportunity to set down and let ‘em know where I thought, perhaps, their criticism of my efforts was maybe a little misguided. I think the best way to overcome or change the criticism that was the most harsh is to make sure the transportation executive order is fully executed, to the limit.”

That harsh criticism would be House Education Chairman Bob Nonini’s floor debate against a gas tax increase, in which he derided Otter’s executive order for new accountability measures at ITD as “not worth the piece of paper it was printed on.”

Rammell to switch races, Crane’s not running for Congress

Rex Rammell, a former elk rancher and veterinarian who ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent in 2008, garnering 5.4 percent of the vote, announced a couple of weeks ago that he’d challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in the Republican primary next year, but now he’s withdrawing from that race and entering a different one. Rammell says he’s pulling out of the 2nd District congressional race “in order to run for governor or the U.S. Senate in 2010.” He’s scheduled an announcement for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer Ron Crane told the Idaho Press-Tribune he’s decided against running for the 1st District congressional seat in 2010. Crane’s interest in that run had prompted House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, to mull a run for Crane’s post. Already in the GOP race for the 1st District seat,  now held by Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick, is Vaughn Ward, a Marine and former aide to Sen. Dirk Kempthorne. Former 1st District GOP Congressman Bill Sali, whom Minnick defeated last year, hasn’t decided on whether to make another run.

New Idaho specialty plates include ‘Gold Star’

Idaho already had more than 70 options for special license plates, from breast cancer awareness to snow skier to Pearl Harbor survivor. Now it’s got four more, as Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill into law today creating a “Gold Star Family” license plate for families who’ve lost a member in combat. “I’m not going to pick on any one of ‘em, but if there was ever an appropriate specialty license plate, this is it,” Otter said after he signed the bill. He said since he’s been governor, he’s spoken at 18 or 19 funerals of Idaho troops. “Most all were lost in either Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said.

An array of veterans, their families, and representatives of veterans’ organizations turned out for Monday’s bill-signing, but they’re not the only ones celebrating a new special license plate. This year’s Idaho Legislature also approved three others: One for Idaho Freemasons, or Shriners; one backing education for youngsters about earth science and lapidary, which refers to the art of cutting gem stones; and one to recognize commercial innovation. Meanwhile, legislation to sharply limit new specialty plate programs passed the Senate, but died in the House without a vote. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The (final) week that was…

Here’s a link to the final, 17th week of this year’s legislative session in photos as a slide show. And you can click below to read the various limericks and haiku in which I chronicled events of the final, tumultuous week.

The session that was…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the final day of Idaho’s legislative session today - the 117th day - and here’s a link to my sidebar on the snafu in which Rep. Frank Henderson’s Garwood-to-Sagle bill got killed in the House - twice - and why he’s still happy.

Tonight on “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public TV, I join a large panel of politicians and pundits to discuss the just-concluded session; the show airs at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public TV, and re-airs both Saturday and Sunday; check your local listings or see the IPTV website here, where you can also watch the show online after it airs. Tune in and check it out.

Otter: ‘The people of Idaho need good roads’

Otter’s message as lawmakers leave town: “If an admittedly stop-gap measure can provide a level of certainty and predictability, this is it. Our work is just beginning, but this will enable us to meet our most immediate needs … while planning how best to pay for the maintenance, repair and improvement projects that our $16 billion highway system so badly needs.” He added, “This was never about any particular way of generating the revenue we need to fulfill this proper role of government. This was about acknowledging the challenge and making a commitment now to meeting it. That’s been achieved.”

In a news release, Otter said, “I’m pleased that this agreement focuses on the need for continuing sources of revenue to meet our responsibilities, to help ensure the safety of our people and the vitality of our economy. This plan reflects the understanding that the people of Idaho need good roads, and that it is state government’s job to respond efficiently and effectively to that need.”

‘I’m a user-pay guy’

“I’m a user-pay guy, and the people that buy gasoline use the roads,” Gov. Butch Otter said, explaining why he wanted a gas tax hike to fix roads. But he said more than that, he wants revenue to fix the roads, and he wants certainty that the fixes will happen. He said, “I would like to see another source of dedicated funding,” other than the state’s general fund.

Otter: ‘We do have a short term solution’

Opening his press conference at the close of the legislative session, Gov. Butch Otter said he wanted to “run over” some of what happened, then stopped himself, amid laughter, saying perhaps that wasn’t the best phrase. “I’ve already signed 313 pieces of legislation,” he said. Six more became law without his signature; he vetoed 36, “only three were for cause,” and more await action on his desk. “So we have had a lot of accomplishments and a lot of work,” Otter said. “Obviously the fact that we finished 117 days as of today … No other session in the history of the state was confronted with the problems and the surprises that the first session of the 60th Legislature was confronted with this year.” So, he said, “My congratulations to the legislative leadership, my congratulations to the House and the Senate for the work that’s been completed. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do in the next seven months.” On transportation, he said, “I believe we’re in agreement that we do have a short-term solution only.” Two state task forces will have to come up with the longer-term answers, he said.

House has adjourned sine die

When Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, moved to adjourn the House for the session - sine die - Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, responded, “Mr. Speaker, I can’t tell you how happy I am to second that motion.” Unlike most days, when Speaker Lawerence Denney called for “nays” from anyone opposed to the motion, not a soul spoke up. Amid laughter, Denney banged the gavel and the House adjourned sine die.

House won’t consider combo bill

“This is kind of tough for me,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the House just now. When SB 1147, the bill to allow design-build contracts at ITD, arrived at the House, it’d been amended in the Senate. “To kind of clarify one of the errors that they made, they decided to kind of tack two bills together,” Moyle told the House. “And they don’t fit together, there’s two subjects there. … It’s upsetting to me. I offer my apologies to the gentleman from District 5, but we can’t proceed with the bill the way it’s written, they’re separate subjects. It’s foul play.” That means Rep. Frank Henderson’s proposal to eliminate a two-mile gap of two-lane road at the south end of the Garwood-to-Sagle highway project also dies; that’s what the Senate amended into the bill.

Senate has adjourned sine die

The Idaho Senate has adjourned sine die, Latin for “without a day,” meaning they’ve ended their work for the legislative session. Lt. Gov. Brad Little banged a rubber mallet on a foot-long wooden handle that serves as his Senate gavel, to close the session. “Very, very hard decisions had to be made,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate shortly before the gavel fell. “This body has demonstrated year in and year out a desire to do what is in the long-term interest of this state, and for that I am grateful.” His comments were followed by various thank-you’s, including to legislative staffers and budget analysts. “Of the years that I have been here, they’ve never been put through the wringer … quite like they were this year,” Davis said. Senate President Pro-tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, noted, “In just 244 days, give or take a day or two, we’ll be back in session.” He said, “Senators, it’s time for us to go home.”

Senate passes final bill of session

The Senate has passed its final bill, SB 1245, the appropriation for the agricultural research and cooperative extension service. Now, with some final comments, the Senate is preparing to adjourn.

Senate passes combo bill on design-build, Garwood-Sagle

The Senate has voted 27-3 in favor of SB 1147, the bill from Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, to allow ITD to have design-build contracts. The bill also now includes the original thrust of HB 286, the measure from Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, to pinpoint the starting point of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on Highway 95 in North Idaho; that bill died today after the House refused to concur with an unrelated Senate amendment that had been attached, regarding a stretch of road in eastern Idaho. The Senate now has just one bill left to pass, an agency budget bill, before it can adjourn sine die, for the session.

Senate revives Garwood-to-Sagle issue

The Senate has just agreed to amend SB 1147, the design-build bill for ITD - adding into it the sections from HB 286 about the Garwood-to-Sagle project on Highway 95 in North Idaho. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate, “These amendments should look very familiar to you.” He added, “I would remind you also that nothing gets approved for funding in the GARVEE program without the approval of the ITD board.”

Amended ethanol bill clears House

The House has voted unanimously, 58-0, on final passage of HB 338, the ethanol bill as amended in the Senate. “We’re still waiting on one appropriation bill from the Senate to come over,” said Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, the House majority caucus chairman. The House then went at ease, likely for an hour or an hour and a half, according to Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star.

House gives final approval to HB 303a

HB 303a, a controversial education funding bill that spawned a following “trailer” bill, has won final approval in the House as amended in the Senate. The vote was 57-2.

House won’t concur

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, asked the House to not concur in the Senate amendments to his bill, HB 286, and the House unanimously agreed. Henderson said lawmakers long ago signed onto policies stating that they wouldn’t pick highway projects, they’d leave that role to the Idaho Transportation Board. “The goal of these policies and procedures was to limit, to the extent possible, the political tug of war as to where and when improvements were made,” Henderson told the House. “These are the guidelines we have followed during my five years in the House. … I believe these policies have served us well.”

Henderson said he fully recognized that his move could prevent enactment of his original bill, which sought to eliminate a 2-mile gap of two-lane road at the south end of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project in North Idaho. “I feel that sustaining highway funding and procedures we have followed for years is much more important than the technical corrections 286 would have provided,” he told the House.

Henderson said he had no objection to the first amendment the Senate attached to his bill, and ITD testified in favor of it. Like his original bill, it merely pinpointed the end of the Garwood-to-Sagle project, this time at its north end. The second, however, which added a new reference to a 26-mile stretch of road in eastern Idaho that’s not currently in the GARVEE bond-funded construction program, was different. “It is my judgment that the 26 miles of roadway contained in the amendment … would represent an entirely new and very large GARVEE project.,” Henderson said. That, he said, needs approval from the state transportation board.

House girding for possible non-concur…

The House has been waiting around all morning for the Senate to send it the last few bills. Now, the House is preparing to go on the floor. First up: “Probably not concur to the Senate amendments in HB 286,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, sponsor of the bill, said he’ll speak his piece on the issue when the House goes into session. Then the House is likely to take up HB 303a, an education funding bill the Senate passed this morning, concurrence in the amended ethanol bill, and whatever else is left. “We need three appropriation bills and we’re going home,” Roberts said. The Senate, so far this morning, has passed two of those three.

Fund shift for roads clears Senate

Senators have reluctantly approved HB 376, to shift the ISP and state parks off the highway fund a year from now, as of July 1, 2010. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, dubbed it “pretty much a shell game” and said it offers “an illusion of having a solution.” Said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “This isn’t ideal, but it is far from an illusion.” He said, “This will force us to look at that situation, knowing that at a minimum, the state general fund will have to fill that hole next year for both state police and parks and rec.” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said he’s been getting emails from constituents, “saying please do not take funds from parks and rec,” and he wanted assurance that the bill doesn’t do that. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said it doesn’t. Parks won’t be affected in the coming year, she said, and for the next year, “The Legislature is charged and has clearly expressed an intent that we will find replacement money.”

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “It’s kind of like the song, you don’t always get what you want, and this is a good example of that.” McGee said he favored more funding for road maintenance, but short of that, “what HB 376 does, it allows us to take that first step, it is a piece of that first step of properly maintaining our roads and bridges here in Idaho.” Keough said the bill isn’t her ideal transportation funding measure, either. State transportation officials have cut back on snow plowing in North Idaho due to the maintenance funding crunch, she said - something she sees directly as a regular commuter from Sandpoint to Coeur d’Alene. “I drive … in six inches of slush, because ITD doesn’t have maintenance money to plow on a regular basis,” she told the Senate. “This isn’t about me, it’s about the traveling public taking their life in their hands to get to work, to get to school.” Said Keough, “I don’t like what we’re doing here … but this is what we have here today.” It includes “our promise that we will backfill, some way, somehow, those pots of money,” she said. It passed, 24-7.

Amended highway bill clears Senate

HB 286a, Rep. Frank Henderson’s bill to pinpoint the southern end of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on Highway 95 in North Idaho, came up for a vote in the Senate as amended - with two Senate additions. One also pinpoints the northern end of the same project. The other adds a 26-mile stretch of road in eastern Idaho near the Idaho National Laboratory to the list of GARVEE bond-funded projects that includes the North Idaho corridor. There wouldn’t be any funding for that stretch, but sponsor Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the move would bring attention, and possible future federal funding, to safety hazards on that road. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, spoke against the move, and Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said he agreed with Werk. “We are way out of bounds on process,” Fulcher told the Senate. “By passing this, we’ll just be negating that process.”

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, called the bill crucial, because it would eliminate a two-mile gap of two-lane highway at the south end of the proposed new four-lane Garwood-to-Sagle freeway, between there and the existing four-lane highway. “Essentially without this addition, all of the work, all of the expense would be for naught,” Jorgenson said, because  with the gap, Highway 95 still “becomes a virtual bottleneck and an extreme risk. The purpose of the expansion was to provide safety.” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said the project isn’t in his district. “But doggone it, it’s a real critical piece of highway,” with serious safety problems, he said. “From my perspective, it’s the right thing to do.” The bill passed, 24-7. It now goes back to the House for possible concurrence in the Senate amendments.

Senate passes HB 374

After much debate, the Senate has passed HB 374, House Education Chairman Bob Nonini’s virtual education bill, on a 23-9 vote. Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, charged that the bill was part of a deal with the House, and if the Senate didn’t go along with it, the House would kill the Senate-amended HB 303a, depriving schools of flexibility with some of their funds during the coming year’s budget crunch. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate there was “no negative quid pro quo,” and senators were free to vote their conscience.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, debated against the bill, which removes a “sunset” clause or expiration from the earlier bill, HB 303a, to make the virtual education funding piece in that bill expire in two years. “The sunset was a good idea when it went in place, I see no value to the system to remove it at this time,” Stegner said, saying it would prompt an evaluation of the program. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said she feared the bill would encourage cash-strapped school districts to let teachers go and just “park some of those kids in front of a computer.” The bill encourages school districts to offer online classes, and lets them use funding that otherwise would go to hire teachers. “This is not intended to hurt teachers,” Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told the Senate. “This is intended to provide one more tool for our educators to use in teaching our children, and a two-year sunset just does not need to be there.”

Tempers flare in Senate

Tempers flared in the Senate just now, as Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, was gaveled down mid-debate on HB 374, the virtual education bill. Sagness, speaking against the bill, addressed its Senate sponsor, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, and said, “You said on the floor, good senator…” at which Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis rose to object, and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes cut Sagness off with a sharp rap of his gavel. “You do not lecture,” Davis admonished Sagness. “You’re way out of line.” He told Sagness the Senate would take a three- to five-minute break so Sagness could “compose” himself, to which Sagness responded, “I’m perfectly composed. You’ve never seen me out of composure. If you saw me out of composure, you’d know it.” The Senate is now in recess.

Guv’s task force approved, 30-1

Next, the Senate took up HCR 34, the resolution to endorse a gubernatorial task force to explore long-term transportation funding issues. “Senators, this is part of the going-home transportation package and I would urge your aye vote,” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate. Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, said, “We’re just pushing down the road what we should be doing today.” But he compared it to the process that eventually led to agreement on the Comprehensive Aquifer Management Program this year.  “Hopefully out of this we could get some resolution, and I’m just hopeful it could be as successful as the CAMP process was for the ESPA,” the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, Coiner said. Said McGee, “I’m optimistic and I hope, … I’m confident it can be successful, that we can work together as a task force and come up with some long-term solutions to some of the transportation funding issues that we have in the state of Idaho.” The vote was 30-1, with the sole “no” vote coming from Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise.

Senate unanimous for funding task force

The Senate this morning dived right into business, taking up HCR 32, the House-passed measure to create a task force to find a new dedicated funding source for the Idaho State Police and the Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation. “I think this body understands this is not the ideal way to fund transportation, but it is the way before us and the way to get this session concluded,” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the Senate. “In my opinion, funding for the state police is critical to the public health and safety of our citiezens, and it’s critical that it be a dedicated ongoing source of funds so that it’s not subject to the whims and the economic winds of the day. … Now we’ll be forced to try to come up with another source of funds.” The measure passed the Senate unanimously, 31-0.

House committee hears bill early

The House Transportation Committee is holding a hearing this morning on a bill that actually hasn’t yet passed the Senate. SB 1147a, from Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, would allow the Idaho Transportation Department to enter into design-build contracts, something that’s been permitted for other public works projects in the state since 1987. The department could do that only after a negotiated rule-making process. The idea is that the House committee will already have heard the bill, allowing it to go right to the House’s second reading calendar once the Senate passes the measure. The bill is now on the Senate’s third reading calendar.

Senate adjourns until 9 a.m. Friday

At nearly 7:30 p.m., the Senate suspended its rules and took up HB 338, the ethanol exemption bill, and passed it on a unanimous, 33-0 vote. “This is part of the package that we’ve all now discussed and talked about over and over and over again,” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate. “Essentially, by removing this exemption we are freeing up $16.4 million for roads and bridges in the state of Idaho.” Then, after a long day of starts and stops, the Senate adjourned until 9 a.m. on Friday.

Three transportation bills clear Senate committee

The Senate Transportation Committee has approved HB 32, for a task force to identify alternative funding sources for the Idaho State Police and the Parks & Rec Department; HCR 34, to approve a gubernatorial task force to look into overall transportation funding in Idaho; and HB 376, to shift ISP and Parks & Rec funding off the gas tax in a year. The panel’s two Democrats, Sens. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, and Elliot Werk, D-Boise, voted against HB 376; the other two votes were unanimous.

Werk told Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who was presenting 376, “I would commend the good representative for his creativity. … It seems to me reorganizing deck chairs on the Titanic. … I am very concerned with the transfers we’re doing.” Werk said the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has looked without success for an alternative funding source to allow ISP to be moved off the highway fund. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said he hoped the gubernatorial task force would include transit when it looks at Idaho’s future transportation needs. “I think we need to look at that and plan,” he said. “I think it’s an important part of the future in Idaho, even if it’s in small scale.”

House adjourns ‘til Friday

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, just announced, “We will try to finish up in the morning. Our intention is to come back on the floor at 10 o’clock.” With that, the House adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow, despite some loudly protesting members who wanted to keep pushing on into the night tonight. It’s now well past 6:30 p.m. Boise time.

Senate Transportation to meet

The Senate has recessed for a Transportation Committee meeting, and plans to come back on the floor as soon as it ends, in roughly half an hour. The committee has three bills on its agenda, all part of the end-of-session transportation funding deal. Meanwhile, the House amended a bill and is now at ease.

Senate passes HB 303a, HB 275

The Senate has passed HB 303a on a 26-7 vote, and then took up HB 275, a House-passed bill that’s long been hanging on the Senate calendar. The bill changes the distribution of state lottery proceeds for the next five years, holding the two regular recipients - schools, and the state’s permanent building fund - to the amount they received in 2008, and giving the excess to the state’s bond levy equalization fund. That program, enacted in response to a lawsuit over Idaho’s school funding system, matches a portion of school district costs for school bonds; the program’s cost increases each year as it phases in and covers more bond issues. If lottery profits grow sufficiently, 3/8 would go to the building fund, 3/8 to schools, and 1/4 to the bond levy equalization fund for the next five years. After that, from Sept. 31, 2014 on, the distribution would revert back to the current split, half to schools, half to the permanent building fund. The idea is that after that date, cigarette tax funds now going to pay for the state Capitol renovation would become available as a possible funding source. The bill passed the Senate on a 27-6 vote.

Davis: Not likely to finish tonight

As the Senate went back into session, Majority Leader Bart Davis told the Senate he doesn’t think they’ll be able to adjourn for the session tonight. “I wish that we were there,” Davis said. “I think that we’re going to fall a little short.” The Senate is now debating HB 303a, the bill that includes both online education, flexibility for school districts to use some of their building maintenance money for other purposes during the state’s economic crunch, and giving school districts temporary relief from “use it or lose it” funding provisions for a small portion of the funding they get from the state to hire teachers.

Senate Ed passes Nonini ed bill

There was some heated debate and a divided, 6-3 vote, but the Senate Education Committee has approved HB 374, Rep. Bob Nonini’s latest education funding bill. The measure restores language about virtual education that the Senate amended out of a previous education funding bill, HB 303. “If we’re going to try to move traditional settings to virtual classes, we’re going to need to move this legislation,” Nonini told the committee. Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, criticized the move, and said, “It doesn’t wash.” Nonini said, “It is confusing, for sure. We had quite the issue on the House floor today. … It was very hard to follow.” But Nonini said that was just because the new bill is essentially a trailer bill, or amendment that trails after the original bill, to an already-amended HB 303.

Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said, “Part of education for kids is interaction with other children, and I hope we don’t get into a position where we think education is sitting a kid in front of a computer.” Said Sagness, “I think virtual education is a very good tool … I have no problem with that, I think it can be extremely useful. But to jump into it without having policy safeguards concerns me.” When Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, questioned provisions in the bill she said were unclear, Nonini told her, “I can assure you, Sen. Kelly, I’m not trying to sneak anything in here.” Nonini said the measure is designed to encourage and allow traditional schools in Idaho to offer online classes, and allow them to do so within their existing funding. Some Idaho school districts, including Bonneville County, already have expressed interest in doing that, he said. There, the district hopes to offer online classes to kids who currently are home-schooled.

JFAC approves transportation appropriations

JFAC is now meeting to take up two topics: Authorizing spending authority to match the new transportation bills, and a shift in school funding for fiscal year 2009 to match a newly received directive regarding the use of federal stimulus funds. The shifting about leaves the exact same dollar amounts going to schools. “We’re still even,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. Both moves passed on unanimous, 19-0 votes.

On the transportation bills, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, expressed doubt that legislation regarding selling special truck-trailer license plates really would raise $5 million. Bell said, “They can’t spend it if they don’t get it - it’s spending authority only.”

Ah, the careful wordsmithing…

The House Ways & Means Committee has met again, and approved a new version of the resolution to create a “gubernatorial task force to consider both traditional and nontraditional sources of revenue for the maintenance and preservation of highways and bridges.” Democrats on the panel proposed a change, to specifically add in that the panel would look into “local option authority,” but majority Republicans opposed the change. “This resolution has had a lot of input from the governor’s staff and the Senate - I think we would be jeopardizing it,” said Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, if the committee started “wordsmithing” it. Responded Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, “I’d just point out that we just took some wording out of this ‘carefully wordsmithed document.’ ” Amid laughter, Moyle said, “That’s why we don’t want to mess with that.”

The new version leaves out any mention of a $240 million shortfall for road maintenance, saying only, “A recent legislative audit found that current funding for transportation cannot keep pace with the growth in costs to meet Idaho’s basic transportation needs of preserving and restoring Idaho’s highways and bridges.”

Senate approves Davis amendment

The Senate, after a rather long delay, has voted in favor of two amendments to HB 286: One from Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, to add language clarifying the north end of the GARVEE-bond funded Garwood-to-Sagle project (the bill originally specified the south end of the project, eliminating what otherwise would have been a two-mile gap of two-lane road between four-lane stretches); and one from Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, to add in a 26-mile stretch of U.S. 20 in eastern Idaho near the Idaho National Laboratory. Davis told the Senate, “It’s a difficult stretch of road. … It’s to emphasize the safety need that exists in this corridor.” Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, spoke against the amendment. “That stretch of road … probably needs work, but so do hundreds of stretches of road in our state,” he said.

Three bills pass House, Senate bogs down

The House has passed all three of the bills on its suspension calendar. HB 211, the higher education residency bill, passed unanimously, 60-0. SB 1130, Sen. Tim Corder’s truck trip-permit bill, passed on a 57-3 vote. And HB 376, the new version of the fund shift for ISP and state parks a year from now, passed, after substantial debate, on a 46-18 vote. Meanwhile, the Senate bogged down in its amending order, as Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, sought to attach an amendment to HB 286, a bill from Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, to redefine the southern terminus of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project in North Idaho, with Davis’ amendment dealing with a stretch of road near the Idaho National Laboratory and Ashton in eastern Idaho.

Both houses back in session…

Both houses have gone back into session. So many lawmakers were milling around in the foyer that when the bell rang unexpectedly, signaling the need for House members to be at their seats for a roll call, groans could be heard. The House has a suspension calendar with three bills on it: HB 211, on higher education residency, for which the Senate Education Committee is waiting; SB 1130, on truck trip permits; and HB 376, the new version of the fund shift bill for ISP and state parks.

Ways & Means meets, passes one corrected bill

The House Ways & Means Committee just met, down on the second floor of the annex in room 240 to avoid conflicting with a scheduled JFAC meeting that actually isn’t happening yet. All that Ways & Means was ready to pass out at this point was one corrected bill: The new version of the measure to shift funding for ISP and the state parks department off the highway distribution fund in a year. The main correction to the bill was changing a date; the original accidentally said the change would occur on July 1, 2011, but the correct date is July 1, 2010. “We’re doing it in the 2011 budget, but July 1 of 2010” is the first day of that budget year, noted Chairman Rich Wills, R-Mountain Home. One other change in the bill adds a new paragraph stressing the intent to find new dedicated funds for ISP:

“The Idaho State Police provide a critical service to the citizens and motorists of the state of Idaho by providing for the public’s health, welfare and safety. In light of the vital service the agency provides, the legislature acknowledges that providing an ongoing and dedicated source of funds for the agency is necessary to safeguard the Idaho state police from the impacts of future economic downturns.” The other bill that had been sent back to Ways & Means, on a task force, still remains to be re-introduced; for now, the committee has recessed.

‘All we know is what we tell each other’

As lawmakers stand around waiting for something to happen - a new, corrected version of a bill, a delayed committee meeting, etc. - Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, recalled a favorite line from former state lawmaker Dane Watkins: “All we know is what we tell each other.” Today’s JFAC meeting is now “tentatively” scheduled for 3 p.m. Ways & Means was supposed to meet half an hour ago, but hasn’t yet. The Senate Education Committee has scheduled at 2:45 p.m. meeting on two bills, HB 374 on funding for virtual education, and HB 211, on higher education residency requirements.

House Transportation clears truck permit bill

The House Transportation Committee has passed SB 1130, a bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, to cap the number of temporary trip permits for truckers at three per vehicle per calendar year. Corder explained to the committee that some truckers abuse the self-issued permits by continually running them, rather than actually registering the truck; the bill is estimated to save the state about $1 million a year for road work. The House committee was unanimous, and the bill now moves to the full House; it’s one small piece of the session-ending transportation funding deal.

‘A strange way to do business’

After close to half an hour of dithering on the House floor, with various members gathering at the speaker’s desk, going back to their seats, staffers being consulted, etc., etc., the House went back into session and Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, explained, “What we’re trying to do here, as I mentioned, we’re trying to correct an amendment, or get an amendment out of HB 303. The problem lies in the fact that the Senate has not sent us 303, we can’t get copies of the engrossed bills, because that doesn’t happen until they pass.” As a result, Nonini said, “the numbering … is hard to follow. But after visiting with legislative services, they said … we can go ahead and run this bill.” Then, Nonini said, the House can concur in the Senate amendments after the Senate passes 303. “We therefore would be in order.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I just feel uncomfortable with this process. … It may be legal … but I think it’s a really strange way to do business, and it doesn’t make us look good.” Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, responded that the new bill, HB 374, has no effect unless the one it alters also passes. Without that, he said, “they just become words.” The bill, which deals with funding for “virtual” or online education, then passed the House on a 49-15, largely party-line vote.

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, then asked that HB 375, another new bill from this morning, be returned to the Ways & Means Committee to correct an error, and announced that Ways & Means will meet at 2 p.m. Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, announced that the Transportation Committee will meet immediately upon recess to consider a piece of legislation. The House then recessed until 2:30.

The last-minute lawmaking limerick…

With the House at ease over legal flaws Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, identified in HB 374, the new education bill from Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and other new bills showing holes with a bit of poking, here’s a late-session thought:

When last-minute versions of law
Are rushed out half-cooked or still raw
Is it any wonder
There might be a blunder
And looking close turns up a flaw?

House trips up on second task force measure

“This is one of the issues we’ve been wrestling with since Day 1 of this session, transportation funding,” Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, told the House. “I think we all realize that, at some point in time, we’re going to have to look at long-term funding for transportation in Idaho. We’ve answered the question for this session about gas tax … we’ve looked at rental car taxes, we’ve looked at a number of issues. … I think that this body understands and we recognize that if we don’t take care of and maintain the roads in the state of Idaho, we’ll have a looming problem ahead of us.”

Roberts is the sponsor of HCR 33, the measure to create a new governor’s task force to look into modernizing transportation funding in Idaho. The 15-member task force will include 10 legislators, and would make recommendations to next year’s Legislature. Roberts told the House, “I believe it is a step forward,” and will help answer questions about “how much money is needed and why it’s needed. I think those are some of the questions we continue to have.” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, objected that the wording in the resolution mentions the earlier transportation audit and that it showed the $240 million shortfall estimate falls short. The resolution says, “WHEREAS, a recent legislative audit determined that a proposed revenue enhancement of $240 million a year is merited and may even be understated.” Said Labrador, “I just want assurances that if I vote for this resolution, I am not … agreeing to the $240 million number.” He said he wants to make sure the task force looks at funding shifts or “other ways to be efficient and not add an additional burden to our taxpayers.”

Roberts then said, “After consideration here … the good gentleman raises an issue.” He asked unanimous consent to return the measure to the Ways & Means Committee for a a re-do; no one objected.

House passes first ‘task force’ resolution

The House has begun suspending rules and taking up the new bills passed out of the Ways & Means Committee this morning. First up was HCR 32, to create a task force to study funding for the Idaho State Police and state parks. It passed, 56-6, with no debate.

It actually is a record-breaker, at least calendar-wise…

The Senate has voted unanimously to pass SB 1246, a bill necessitated solely by how long Idaho’s legislative session has run this year. “This bill, as long as I’ve been in the Senate, has only had to be brought one other time,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate. That was in 2003. The problem: The state Constitution says law can’t take effect until 60 days from the end of the session, unless they have emergency clauses. Most bills without emergency clauses take effect July 1. But, Davis said, “That means the session has to end on May the 2nd - we’re past May the 2nd.” So SB 1246 “basically goes in and amends every bill and every title … so they can still go into effect on July 1st … unless they provide for an alternative date.” The bill passed unanimously and now goes to the House.

Incidentally, though this year’s session hasn’t busted the record for the longest-ever legislative session, which was set in 2003 at 118 days, it has set a new record for how far it’s going on into the spring. That’s because of a quirk of the calendar that saw this year’s session start a bit later. The 2003 session ended on May 3. Today, on the 116th day of this year’s session, it’s May 7.

DMV fee bill passes Senate

The Senate has voted 28-5 in favor of HB 334, the bill to raise DMV administrative fees, for things like title certificates and driver’s licenses, by $13.1 million a year. Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said he was unhappy that the fees “will be imposed for the most part on Idahoans and not spread to visitors,” unlike gas taxes. But Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “Any time that we offer services in government, the cost of that service should be paid for by the user of that service. That’s all this measure does. Unfortunately, what we were doing in the past was subsidizing that service with funds that were intended for roads - so my gas tax that I pay now is going to fund all of these services.”

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “We haven’t raised some of these fees since the 80s, since the 90s. … This bill will help put money on roads and bridges in the state of Idaho.” Jorgenson voted in favor of the bill; the five “no” votes all came from Senate Democrats, though Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, voted “yes.” The bill, which is part of the session-ending transportation funding deal, previously passed the House and now goes to the governor. The Senate also voted 26-7 this morning to pass HB 226, the House-passed bill to offer logo license plates for truck trailers as a possible money-raiser.

Two ‘task forces’ would start work as session ends…

Two new task forces are created by the new bills introduced in Ways & Means this morning. The first, the governor’s task force on modernizing transportation funding in Idaho, would have 15 members, including five from the House and five from the Senate. Its findings would go to next year’s Legislature. The second is a task force to “identify alternative dedicated funding sources for the Idaho State Police and for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation on an ongoing basis to offset those funds shifted away from the Idaho State Police and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to fund transportation.” It would include three House members appointed by the speaker, and three Senate members appointed by the Senate president pro-tem, plus the two co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The task force would report its findings to the Legislature by Feb. 1, 2010, and then disband.

The second task force is also cited in the bill that would shift parks and ISP funding off the gas tax in fiscal year 2011, which includes a “legislative intent” section stating, “The Legislature declares that every effort will be made to find appropriate alternative sources of moneys on an ongoing basis.”

Transportation bills all to 2nd reading

The three new transportation bills all were introduced in Ways & Means and sent to the 2nd Reading calendar in the House. Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, expressed concern about setting up a situation where ISP and parks funding would have to rely on a draw from the general fund. Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said, “I do have a concern with placing more of a burden on our general fund. … I’m going to be very interested in the task force process to find dedicated funds for the parks and rec department and the state police.” Said Wills, “I guess it’s one of those times that you have to trust what the task force is going to do,” adding that he is counting “without a shadow of a doubt” on dedicated funding being identified.

Ways & Means introduces ed bill

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the House Ways & Means Committee just now, “I think we can all agree with this, that education is going the way of virtuals.” HB 303, which sought to fund virtual, or online education, just like funding for children who are present in class in public schools, was amended in the Senate with the addition of a two-year expiration on the move. Nonini presented legislation this morning to do away with that expiration. He said schools don’t want to move into virtual education if they’ll be cut off in the short term. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said House members have visited with the Senate about the issue. “We’ve visited with them and they know this is coming,” he said. “They’re having some of the same calls and the same concerns from their superintendents.” HB 303, which is pending in the Senate, has been amended twice and can’t be amended again, he said.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, asked about a study of virtual education, and Nonini said he, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna have signed a letter asking the Northwest Regional Educational Lab to study the issue. “So we hope we will have some data … moving forward with these virtual charter schools,” Nonini said. The Ways & Means Committee then voted to send the new bill to the House’s 2nd Reading calendar.

Ways & Means to consider four new bills

The House Ways & Means Committee has posted an agenda for a meeting this morning, to consider four new bills:
* One regarding a governor’s task force on transportation funding, to be presented by House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly
* One on a task force to study ISP and Parks & Rec funding, also from Roberts
* One on funding transfers for ISP and Parks & Rec, also from Roberts
* And one to remove (or counteract?) the sunset clause regarding funding “virtual education” that senators added to HB 303, this from House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene
The agenda says the committee will meet at 9, but that was over an hour ago (Boise time). The House is scheduled to go on the floor momentarily.

On legislative Day 116…

When all of the deals have been paid
And promises all start to fade
The roads may be rough
The school budgets tough
But that’s how our laws here are made.

No privatization for Orofino prison

The Idaho Department of Correction has decided against pursuing privatization of the state prison at Orofino, a controversial move opposed by the local community, where the state prison is among the major employers. “The department identified several key services provided at the Orofino prison that would need to remain under state operation reducing potential cost savings of private operation,” the department reported in a news release. “The governor thanked the department for its due diligence in looking at the option, but agreed it should not be pursued at this point.  He challenged the department to continue looking for cost saving measures throughout the system.” Click below to read the full release.

‘It’s been a productive day’

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, declined to comment on the transportation funding deal this afternoon, but said, “I can tell you that it’s been a very productive day. It’s been a busy day. … We feel like we’ve been able to make some progress.” He added, “We’re hopeful that we’re close and we can adjourn this session.” Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com.

Bedke: ‘Seems to be OK conceptually’

The Senate reconvened, amended HB 338, the ethanol bill, as planned, and adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow. The House also has adjourned until the same time. Meanwhile, the House minority and majority caucuses have concluded, and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “There are still some significant details to work out here, but everybody seems to be OK conceptually, including the House of Representatives.”

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee likely will meet later tomorrow, said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, just to approve spending authority to go along with the new revenue-raising transportation bills - the ethanol bill, DMV fees, truck trailers and truck trip permits. HB 369, which sought to pay for restoring field-trip bus funding for schools by dipping into the textbook fund for $4 million, has been sent back to JFAC, and won’t advance, Cameron said, because that money can simply come from the public education stabilization fund. The field trips still will be funded.

Former hostage bill released

The House Education Committee has met and passed out HB 211, a bill that adjusts legislation that passed last year to standardize residency rules for higher education. The change, which isn’t controversial, accommodates Idahoans who go elsewhere for their undergraduate education, then return to their home states for law school or other higher education, and was sought by the state Board of Education and the University of Idaho. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a co-sponsor, said the measure, introduced on March 4, got caught up in the politics of the session and held hostage in the House, apparently because of her high-profile Senate co-sponsor - Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. It also was co-sponsored by Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg.

‘Optimistic we’ll be done tomorrow’

Legislation to raise $13.1 million a year more from DMV fees also has cleared the Senate Transportation Committee and is on its way to the full Senate, as part of a tentative end-of-session transportation funding deal. Meanwhile, House Republicans are headed into a closed-door caucus at 4 p.m. to discuss the deal, while House Democrats will hold an open caucus at the same time. Said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, “I’m optimistic that we’ll be done tomorrow.”

Senate committee endorses trailer-plate bill

HB 226, the bill from Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, to attempt to make Idaho a truck trailer logo license-plate Mecca, passed the House unanimously on March 20, but has languished ever since. Now it’s being heard in the Senate Transportation Committee, as one small piece of a possible session-ending transportation funding deal. “This is not a tool that will guarantee us funding,” Hagedorn told the Senate committee. But it could raise lots of money with sufficient work and marketing, he said. Senators had a series of questions about the bill and how it would work. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, who owns a trucking company, said he’d support the bill but he saw plenty of flaws. The proposed truck plate program, he said, would cost a company “a significant amount of money that makes no fiscal sense at all.” Added Corder, “I can’t imagine a trucking company doing that.” The bill cleared the committee on a 6-3 vote.


Senate Transportation clears ethanol bill

The Senate Transportation Committee has voted unanimously to add an amendment to HB 338, the bill eliminating the ethanol exemption from fuel tax, to direct the distribution of the funds to ITD for road maintenance. “We decided this about an hour ago,” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the committee, joining House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, in explaining the plan to the committee. Roberts presented the bill and said he was amenable to the amendment.

A tentative deal on transportation funding…

A tentative agreement has emerged on transportation funding, and the Senate Transportation Committee will meet momentarily. There are three bills on its agenda: HB 226, Rep. Marv Hagedorn’s bill regarding truck license plates; HB 334, the DMV fee bill; and HB 338, the ethanol bill. The plan is to pass those bills this year, plus Sen. Tim Corder’s bill to cap temporary truck registration permits, which raises about $1 million a year; plus shift funding for both ISP and the state Department of Parks and Recreation off the highway distribution fund a year later, in fiscal year 2011. A task force, appointed by the House and Senate, would be required to come up with a funding plan for that $20 million shift before the start of next year’s legislative session; otherwise, the shift would come from the state’s general fund. “The House is visiting with their caucus, and I think it’s a solution that the Senate can buy off on also,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “We’re nervous about the potential impact on the general fund, and we’re nervous aout pushing off some difficult decisions. At the same time, we’re all frustrated and cantankerous. This will allow us to get out of here, and maybe think more clearly about a permanent solution for state police.”

One other provision of the tentative deal: The new money from all the bills and shifts, roughly $50 million, would be directed to GARVEE bond interest payments, freeing up the same amount in transportation maintenance money to be spent by ITD. That means the money wouldn’t go through the usual formula that would otherwise divert more than a third of it to local highway districts, cities and counties.

Denney: ‘He’s mediating between us’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, had this to say about the House GOP leadership’s meeting with the governor this morning: “We’re still talking, and that’s good.” Denney said, “I think we will caucus - I’ve told people to be back around 2.”

Of the ongoing talks on transportation funding, Denney said, “I think we’ve eliminated some of those ideas, and we’re still actively negotiating on what’s going to get us out of here.” The governor, he said, is “at the center of it. At this point, it’s not really the governor that’s keeping us here, it’s the Senate. I think he’s mediating between us.” Denney said opposition from House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood wouldn’t stop a compromise on transportation funding. “She may not be willing to do anything, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the feeling of the caucus,” he said.

‘There’s been some give and take’

The Senate has convened, just briefly, and then the majority went back into a closed-door caucus meeting. Senate GOP leaders said when they arrived at Gov. Butch Otter’s office, the House GOP leaders already had left. They met separately with the governor for about an hour, for what Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, called, “more discussion about some of the ideas that have been floated around for the last 48 hours or so.” McGee said, “I’m optimistic that we’re going to get something done.” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the focus was on “how do we repair the flat that developed this morning and advance the issue forward. There’s been some give and take.” Now, he said, he wants to update his caucus, “then we’ll check back with the governor … and hopefully move closer to wrapping up this session.” Davis told the Senate, “Once we’ve finished our caucus, it is our intent to go back on the floor and make some decisions.”

Amended ed bills signed into law

Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 256 and HB 262 into law. The bills, as amended in the Senate, make changes in the formula for reimbursing school districts for student busing costs, and freeze teachers’ movement on the salary grid for experience for one year. The House accepted the Senate amendments, which removed clauses to eliminate an early teacher retirement incentive program and to permanently end funding for busing for school field trips.

Ah, negotiations…

If lawmakers do as they should
And it’s all for the public good
Then some middle ground
Must be there to be found
Unless you ask Rep. JoAn Wood.

‘It could really move fast’

Senate Republicans emerged from their closed-door caucus, and their leadership, plus the Senate finance and transportation committee chairmen, headed straight over to meet with Gov. Butch Otter, who’s already been meeting with House GOP leaders. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said the governor’s office called to request the meeting. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, warned her caucus, “We’re really in a holding pattern. It could really move fast once the dam breaks. We’re just waiting.”

‘In the mix’

Here’s a news item from AP: “Lawmakers and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter are discussing ways to end the impasse keeping the 2009 Legislature in Boise. In the mix: A plan to levy new fees for traffic infractions and registrations, to wean roughly $16 million in annual funding for the Idaho State Police from the Highway Distribution Account. That’s been an Otter priority since 2008 and is now being floated as an alternative to boosting Idaho’s gas tax, which the House has rejected. Some House Republicans, however, contend bills they’ve passed to repeal a tax exemption on ethanol and raise Division of Motor Vehicles fees by $13.1 million are enough for a recession year. Rep. JoAn Wood, House Transportation Committee chair, said her constituents want no more.”

Both houses convene, recess

The House has convened and recessed indefinitely, as the entire House GOP leadership team headed off to meet with Gov. Butch Otter again. The Senate convened, did some formal business, and then recessed until 2 p.m. for caucuses for both parties. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate, “There are a lot of irons in the fire. Things are, fluid is perhaps an understatement.” Davis said this morning’s Senate majority caucus will be “for purposes of giving you a brief update on what we do know,” and he’s expecting another caucus this afternoon after the Senate re-convenes at 2 p.m. In the open Senate Democratic Caucus, some of the talk is about school districts that already are taking steps to declare financial emergencies. Said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, “It’s really too bad if we can make a deal and take money out of the general fund, that it’s not being used for education.”

With the House opposed to a gas tax increase, there’s talk of alternatives for more funding for roads, including Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed shift of Idaho State Police funding off the gas tax and onto the general fund. But that still would require a source of funds for ISP, whether it’s fines, fees, or shifts. The governor’s proposal would have been phased in, with $3.2 million shifting to the general fund next year; the full amount is nearly $18 million.

 

And on the 115th day…

In honor of the legislative session’s 115th day, I humbly offer this legislative haiku:

What price leadership?
Endless waves of strident words
Hurry up and wait.

‘It’s better than not’

House and Senate GOP leaders emerged from their meeting with the governor just now looking somewhat encouraged, but reporting nothing more than vague “progress.” House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “We discussed several things - nothing ready for prime time yet, though. … We will be talking to our caucuses.” The House GOP already had scheduled a caucus for tomorrow. Asked when he thought Idaho’s legislative session might end, Denney said, “It won’t be today - maybe tomorrow.” Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said, “Well, my personal opinion is not this week.” And Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, asked what came out of the meeting, said, “Nothing came out, but we’re communicating, trying to explore common areas of interest. It’s better than not communicating.”

Denney kills Sunshine Law expansion

Idaho’s speaker of the House has decided to unilaterally kill legislation to expand Idaho’s Sunshine Law, which would have ended the state’s distinction as one of  just three states with no personal financial disclosure requirements for elected officials or candidates. “The Senate and the governor worked on it, but the House wasn’t included,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale. “I think it’s an issue that’s not ripe on the House side yet.” The bill, SB 1156, passed the Idaho Senate unanimously on April 2. The next day, Denney ordered it held at his desk rather than assigning it to any House committee for a hearing; it’s there still, and Denney says that’s where it’ll stay. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Sunshine and showers…

That gun in your car is OK
And don’t mind the cut in your pay
We don’t have much money
But springtime is sunny
And lawmaking’s still under way.

Off to meet with Guv…

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the House, “We’re going to go and, with the Senate, meet with the governor for a few minutes today.” Then, he moved to adjourn the House until 11 a.m. tomorrow, warning that tomorrow may be one of those fast-changing days. “Be prepared for a caucus … and be prepared to hurry up and wait,” Moyle told the House. The House then adjourned.

House concurs on election consolidation

The House has concurred in the Senate’s minor amendments to the election consolidation bill, HB 372a, and given the bill final passage on a 48-16 vote. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, urged passage of the move that lawmakers have debated for many years.

Senate Transportation to meet today, but only on one bill

The Senate has adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow. The Senate Transportation Committee will meet at 1:30, but Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said there’s just one bill on the committee’s agenda, HB 286, from Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, to adjust the description of the southern boundary of the Garwood-to-Sagle highway project on Highway 95 in North Idaho. “We don’t want it to get mixed up and left behind in all this last-minute stuff,” McGee said. “It’s relatively non-controversial.” McGee’s committee still has two other, higher-profile bills awaiting hearings - the House-passed bills to remove the ethanol exemption and raise DMV fees. “That’s part of the bigger picture,” McGee said, when asked when those two bills would come up for hearings. “It will happen at some point.”

It’s stuffy in here…

The annex is humid and hot
Political battles are fought
The carpenters chant
The long-winded rant
The rest of us simply are caught.

Senate passes election consolidation bill

The Senate has voted 27-8 in favor of HB 372a, the election consolidation bill, and sent the bill to the governor’s desk. Backers said it’ll lead to more public participation in elections, though opponents raised concerns about costs and impacts on schools. The bill, backed by Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, is among the most significant legislation to pass this year. If Gov. Butch Otter signs it into law, though it wouldn’t take effect right away, it would eventually mean major changes for Idahoans in how they participate in their government at all levels at the polls.

Senate debates election consolidation

The Senate is debating HB 372a, the sweeping, 98-page election consolidation bill. “There are 1,245 taxing districts in the state of Idaho, and with few exceptions, they can hold an election any time, any place,” Senate sponsor Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told the Senate. “We have 400 elections each year in the state of Idaho. … Too often, Idahoans miss elections on issues that they really care about, because the election date is unpredictable or maybe even obscure. A lot of people want to vote, I believe, who don’t make it to the polls.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said the measure - which consolidates nearly all of Idaho’s elections to two dates, the fall general election date and the May primary election date - poses the possibility that voters could be confronted with as many as 15 ballots to vote on in a single election. “We could be waiting days for election results, and I don’t think that would be a particularly good outcome,” Werk told the Senate. Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, said the system is working as it is, and the changes could hurt school funding. “What we’re doing here is additionally penalizing our schools,” he said.

The new bill, unlike an earlier version that passed the House but died in a Senate committee, commits the state to funding the full $4.1 million cost of the change from its general fund, starting in 2011. School districts would be able to use two additional dates for bond and levy elections, in March and August. County clerks would run all elections, and all would use standardized polling places. Hill said one other change in the bill is moving the May primary from the fourth Tuesday to the third, thus avoiding conflict with the Memorial Day holiday weekend, a frequent source of complaints over the years.

Senate pauses for minority caucus

The Senate is preparing to take up the election consolidation bill, HB 372a, but took a break to allow a minority caucus first. In their open caucus, Senate Democrats raised concerns about the 98-page bill.

For those paying the bills…

It seems that it never will end
And few on the House side will bend
Though vetoes rain down
And Butch wears a frown
Still $30K a day we will spend…

‘A difference of opinion in our caucus’

There was an odd moment yesterday after the House GOP leadership press conference. Numerous members of the press stood gathered around Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who was calling for reconvening JFAC and reopening budgets to cut them further, based on the April state revenue numbers. A few feet away, I stood interviewing Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who said quietly, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Moyle’s comments followed sharp retorts from Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, to the governor’s analysis of the April revenues, which Gov. Butch Otter had dubbed better than expected. That’s because they were down $31.5 million from the official forecast, but there’d been fears they could be down by as much as $125 million, which has happened in the past - April is by far the state’s biggest revenue month, due to income tax payments. It was Gov. Butch Otter’s chief economist, Mike Ferguson, who said the state “dodged a bullet” with the April numbers - a comment Roberts specifically belittled at the press conference.

Denney said gently that there’s a “difference of opinion in our caucus.” He said, “The omnibus bill that we passed gives the governor, I think, enough flexibility to get us through this fiscal year. … As the governor said, the numbers are not as bad as what he anticipated.” SB 1227, the omnibus budget bill, allows Otter to dip into various reserve funds to balance the budget if the anticipated $50 million ending balance doesn’t materialize at the end of the current fiscal year. “I think we’ve already made provisions - I think we’re going to be all right,” Denney said.

Toil and trouble…

With all due apologies, here’s an ode to the 114th day:

A product more precious than oil

Eludes them for all of their toil

To fix up the roads

They’d compromise loads

But all that they’re left with is Moyle.

Headed into Day 114…

Here’s a link to my full story on today’s developments at the Idaho Legislature. Tomorrow will be Day 114 of the state’s second-longest session ever.

Guv: ‘We’ll be here ‘til it’s resolved’

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, said the governor stands ready to meet with lawmakers to resolve the impasse over transportation funding. “We’ve cleared the governor’s schedule, he’s got nothing on it,” Hanian said. “From his perspective, we keep giving ground here. … We’re at $75 million now. They didn’t want to implement it during this economic downturn - we said OK to that. They wanted this interim committee - we said OK to that. … We feel like we’ve been very reasonable in what our reaction to every one of their demands has been. We kept backing it down. The governor has been very responsive. … He has listened to their views, and we have agreed to a lot of ‘em. The only thing he has asked in return is, you’ve got to give us certainty, so ITD can begin addressing this (road maintenance) backlog that’s gonna kill us.” Said Hanian, “We’re still here working, and we’ll be here until it’s resolved.”

Though House GOP leaders haven’t met with the governor since Wednesday, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “We are talking to the governor - maybe not face to face, but there are communications going on.”

‘Don’t see that progress was made’

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said Senate leaders met with the governor today at noon, but didn’t meet with House leaders. “I don’t see that there was progress made,” he said heavily, as the 113th day of this year’s legislative session drew near a close. “The Senate did quite a bit of work today, we passed a slug of bills. … They can all go to the governor for his consideration, and possible veto, though I hope not.” Davis said the current impasse is one “that the House needs to resolve with the governor. I have confidence the governor is willing to negotiate.” He noted that Gov. Butch Otter has dropped his demand from $240 million a year more for road maintenance all the way down to about $80 million or $75 million. “Bless his heart, it’s like he’s negotiating with himself,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to negotiate when the other side isn’t willing to meet and work toward a solution.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said House GOP leaders haven’t met with the governor, but Moyle said he’s been in touch with Otter’s chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, and they may still meet today. “We’re expecting a call,” he said.

Rusche: ‘You have to bend a little’

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, had this response to the House GOP leaders’ press conference today: “I think it’s disappointing that the impasse is making such dysfunctional government. Who would’ve thought, with the governor and supermajorities (all of the same party), it’s leading to such an impasse?” Rusche said his party controls only 25 percent of the House and 20 percent of the Senate. “The way out of it … you have to bend a little,” he said. “We continue to offer suggestions. … I know that if we were to bring forward a Democratic proposal, it’d immediately be attacked by both sides. It’s just really sad.” He added, “I’d hoped that the long weekend would’ve let people cool off - I don’t know that it has.”

House GOP: ‘Simply not the time’

After a closed-door caucus, House GOP leaders called a press conference to declare that they still don’t want to raise the gas tax, as Gov. Butch Otter has proposed. Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said GOP leaders are concerned about the state’s budget picture, including the latest revenue numbers. “Those numbers cause us some concern,” he said. “April’s numbers are not good news, in spite of statements to the contrary about ‘dodging a bullet.’ We didn’t dodge anything - in fact we’re still in the middle of the railroad tracks.” He said, “This is simply not the time to be talking about tax increases.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “We have basically completed our work. … We are not sure that this recession has even bottomed out yet. … We think it’s prudent to wait until we see when the economy has in fact bottomed out, before we go ahead and pass a gas tax.” Denney said the House will again attempt to unilaterally adjourn the session this week, “if that’s what it takes.”

Nonini: ‘Not going to put up with that’

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he had no intention of showing up for today’s Senate Education Committee hearing on his bill, HB 373. “The chairman knew last Wednesday night I wasn’t coming,” Nonini told Eye on Boise. “The issues have all been discussed. … There was no reason for me to be there.” When told that committee members had questions for him, Nonini said, “Just to be critical and be smart-alecks - I’m not going to go over there and put up with that. I’m not going to put up with that crap.” With the bill dead, he said, “So I guess the school districts aren’t going to get any relief from the maintenance match or use-it-or-lose it.” Those measures, however, are in another bill still pending in the Senate, HB 303a. Asked Nonini, “Where is it? It’s been over there for three weeks.”

Senate panel kills House-only bills

The Senate Finance Committee has voted unanimously to kill 14 budget bills that were written by the House Appropriations Committee, then passed by the House, without going through the usual joint budget committee process. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, cited two laws and several formal rules of the joint committee that the process violated. “I felt they were outside the statute,” he said. “As imperfect as the joint committee might be, it’s still one of the best systems in the nation.” In Idaho, budget bills are written by the joint committee, which is half House members, half senators, and then they go to both houses for approval. Other states use other systems; in Washington, for example, each house writes its own budget, and then a conference committee hashes out the final deal behind closed doors.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said he thinks Idaho’s joint budget committee system needs to be honored. “It’s an efficient and effective process for developing budgets and approving budgets,” Hammond said. If the House-only appropriation bills were to stand, he said, “I think it’d be a disservice to all the citizens of Idaho.”

Double deja vu in the House

The House went into session and passed eight appropriation bills - all bills they were passing for the third time. The first time, they got vetoed by the governor. The second time, the bills had been cobbled together by the House Appropriations Committee without its Senate half, to make up the usual Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The third time, today, they were the new JFAC versions of the budget bills. The House then adjourned, and both parties headed into caucus. House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “I think we’re going to finish our business and go home again. At some point, we can’t pass the gas tax and that’s just pure and simple, and as long as that’s part of what has to happen for us to go home, we may be here for a long time.” For now, though, the House has adjourned until 1:30 p.m. tomorrow.

Senate Ed kills HB 373

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Nonini, was a no-show, and the Senate Education Committee has killed his bill, HB 373. “I find it deplorable in many ways that Rep. Nonini would bring this forward, considering the circumstances that exist here,” said Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Poctello. “It’s a waste of our time and the taxpayers’ money.” The only difference between that bill and bills that either have already passed both houses, or are pending in the Senate, is that HB  373 again seeks to phase out an early retirement incentive program for teachers - which the Senate already has specifically rejected and the House concurred with that - and there’s no “sunset,” or expiration, for a move into funding more “virtual” or online education in public schools.

Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, said, “I’m still not convinced that eliminating the early retirement program is going to save $2 million this year. The program, when it was set up, showed a savings of $8 million to $10 million a year, and I haven’t seen any data that disputes that.” Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, decried “a process that seems to have us addressing bill after bill … that are duplicative.”

Jason Hancock of the state Department of Education presented the bill in Nonin’s stead. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, asked, “A way back, the Senate amended HB 256 and 262,” the House concurred in those amendments and voted in favor of the bills. “Now it appears that they’re trying to cherry-pick what they wanted, vs. what we wanted.” Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said Hancock couldn’t really address that. “The sponsor of the bill is not with us today,” Goedde said. “Why isn’t the sponsor here?” Kelly asked. “That’s a good question, Sen. Kelly,” Goedde responded. Only two committee members, Sens. Russ Fulcher and Monty Pearce, voted against the motion to hold the bill in committee, which passed on a voice vote; neither asked to be recorded as voting no.

70 gather for ‘Tea Party 2’

About 70 people have gathered in front of the steps of the Capitol Annex to protest against taxes, in what organizers dubbed “Tea Party II.” The Rev. Bryan Fischer, in a press release, said, “The purpose of Tea Party II is to give ordinary Idaho taxpayers the opportunity to voice their opposition to an increase in their tax burden during a recession.” Among those gathered was one man with a sign saying “FBO,” which he explained stood for “Forget about Butch Otter.” The event was billed as a follow-up to the April 15 “Tea Party” rallies in Boise and elsewhere against taxes, with the twist that this time, they’d be  urging the House to stand up to Gov. Otter against a gas tax hike. “Participants are urged to bring the same signs and the same energy they brought to the April 15 rally,” Fischer wrote in his release. The April 15 rally, held at Capitol Park, attracted hundreds.

‘Hopefully we can make progress today’

The Senate has adjourned for the day, after amending two bills, and passing and sending to the governor 18 appropriation bills that had already passed the House. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said leadership will be meeting with the governor shortly. “Hopefully we can make progress today, and this afternoon, we certainly hope our friends in the body across the rotunda are willing to sit down with us, and hopefully resolve the impasse that currently exists,” he told the Senate. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a 2 p.m. meeting, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee will hold its final meeting at 3:30 in Room 145 of the Capitol Annex, and the House GOP leadership has scheduled a press conference for 3 p.m.

Senate Ed to meet today

The Senate Education Committee has scheduled a meeting today at 1 p.m. to take up HB 373, a House-passed bill to phase out early teacher retirement incentives and make other education funding changes. The committee will meet in Room 204 of the Capitol Annex; Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the House Education Committee chairman and sponsor of HB 373, is scheduled to present the bill.

Senate amends election reform bill

The Senate has amended HB 372, the election consolidation bill, to make a series of changes identified during a Senate State Affairs Committee meeting on Friday. Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the bill’s Senate sponsor, praised the amendments, which weren’t controversial. “I think it’s a great piece of legislation that we get to debate hopefully later today,” he told the Senate.

House members filtering back to Boise

House members are filtering in slowly this morning after their four-day weekend; House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said it may be “1-ish” before the House convenes today. Bedke said, “We’ll go on the floor, and we’ll see if there have been any bills transmitted from the Senate.” If not, the House may recess until later in the afternoon. By the end of the day, he said, “I suspect that we will adjourn regularly, then repeat the process tomorrow.” That’s in direct contradiction to an op-ed piece from the House GOP leadership that apparently was sent out to some news outlets on Friday, and was published on Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert’s blog (click below to read it in full), in which the leaders wrote, “It’s doubtful that we will do much more than convene and adjourn sine die again. We fully agree that this is a poor way of spending $30,000 of taxpayer money. But until the Senate concurs, House members have no choice but to return every three days.”

Bedke said this morning, “We need to be ready. We want to bring this to closure. That’s going to take the cooperation of the Senate, and we need to stand ready.” Bedke and other House GOP leaders also were concerned this morning about the state’s latest revenue figures. Preliminary numbers for April - the state’s biggest revenue month by far - show state tax revenues coming in $31.5 million below projections, at $388.7 million, rather than the official projection of $420.2 million. There had been speculation, however, that the April revenues might be off by as much as $125 million, prompting Gov. Butch Otter on Friday to proclaim that they were better than expected, and state Chief Economist Mike Ferguson to say, “We dodged a bullet.” Bedke and other House GOP leaders stressed that the figure still is below the projection for the month - so House leaders are still worried about the prospect of raising gas taxes in a time of economic pain. “You can put whatever spin you want to,” Bedke said.

Senate ‘continuing to work’

The Senate is assembled and ready to go this morning, but is awaiting the amendments to HB 372, the new election consolidation bill, before starting. Amending that bill is among the items on senators’ agenda for their morning session today. “We’re continuing to try and work,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. Asked if he’d heard anything from his counterparts across the Capitol Annex, Davis said, “Not a word.” The House is tentatively scheduled to go back into session around noon today, after unsuccessfully attempting last Wednesday night to unilaterally adjourn the legislative session. The state Constitution doesn’t allow them to do that on their own; since the Senate hasn’t also adjourned the session, the House must be back in session today.

The week that was…

Here is a link to the 16th week of Idaho’s 2009 legislative session as a slide show, from angry standoff, to an attemped unilateral adjournment by the House midweek, and back to angry standoff. Because the Senate didn’t follow suit and adjourn sine die - for the session - the Idaho Constitution forces the House to come back and reconvene on Monday. Plus, House members continued to receive their session per diem pay during their four-day weekend, as technically, the session still was going.

Tune in and watch…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” show on Idaho Public TV, I join House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; House Minority Caucus Chairman Bill Killen, D-Boise; Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston; BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby; and host Thanh Tan to discuss the events of the week in the Legislature. During the show, Bedke dismisses the idea of a “trigger” for a gas tax hike, whether it’s economic or calendar-related, saying, “We have a trigger mechanism already - it’s called the legislative process.” He also says that House GOP leaders want “no gas tax increase this year.”

On the “After the Show” discussion, asked about the House’s unilateral attempt this week to adjourn the session without a transportation deal, Bedke said, “I think what would be insulting to the taxpayer is to continue to go through the motions … when there is a clear impasse. … We do not have the votes to move this legislation through this year.” Tune in and watch at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public TV, or after the broadcast, you can watch both the show and the “After the Show” segment online here.

‘We sat down, we reasoned together’

Also among the bills that Gov. Butch Otter signed into law today was SB 1227, the omnibus budget bill, which includes a series of final budget decisions including the final word on state employee pay for next year. “I particularly am proud to be able to sign 1227 today and pleased, because as many of you know … we’d had a disagreement on how much we were going to have to cut the pay of state employees and exactly how we were going to execute those cuts,” Otter said. “We sat down, we reasoned together, it took some effort, but we came up with what I think is a reasonable and forward-looking compromise in 1227.”

Rather than an across-the-board pay cut, as lawmakers originally had proposed, the bill calls for a 5 percent cut in statewide funding for personnel, with agency heads having full discretion as to how to implement the cut, whether it’s through furloughs, layoffs, or other measures. The measure also allows Otter, at his discretion, to dip into the state’s rainy-day funds to reduce the cut to 3 percent. That means individual agencies can appeal to the governor for help if they can’t achieve the full 5 percent cut.

Otter: ‘Legislature must act this year’

A frustrated Gov. Butch Otter said today that he doesn’t know what he could have done differently to persuade lawmakers to pass his transportation plan. “We started two years ago,” he said. “I’ve exhausted myself. … We’ve tried just everything we possibly can.” He still maintains strongly that the Legislature must act this year to increase funding for road maintenance. This afternoon, he issued an op-ed piece to that effect; click below to read the full article.

Otter’s counter-offer: Interim committee, plus delayed tax

Gov. Butch Otter said he still wants a gas tax increase, but he’s also willing to accept the interim committee to study transportation funding that House GOP leaders have proposed. He said his “counter offer” to House leaders is a delayed, 3-cent per gallon increase on July 1, 2011 and another 3-cent hike on July 1, 2012, which combined with the already-offered ethanol and DMV fees bill, would bring the package up to $75 million in new revenue. “I have seen well-intended and well-meaning people work on interim committees,” Otter said, but often, “there was no result, and there was nothing to go forward. I believe having the 3-and-3 delayed implementation bill this day, then, would motivate that interim committee to attend to its work and to be as creative and come up with the real solution.” If the committee finds a better solution than the delayed gas tax, Otter said he’d consider it, but he wants the tax approved now for planning purposes for transportation work. “We will continue to work, we will continue to try to go forward on the transportation funding, because it is so very important,” Otter said. “We need certainty, and we need the $75 million in revenue.”

If lawmakers accept the offer, the governor said, the legislative session could end by the end of the day Monday.

 

April revenues ‘better than expected’

Gov. Butch Otter just told reporters, “I am pleased to report to you that the state’s tax revenues, although short of our official forecast, are much better than we had expected.” Otter said sales taxes, for example, were expected to be down 9 percent for the month, but are down less than half that. Income taxes are “lower than we would like,” he said, but, “The job market appears to be much more stable.”

Otter signs ITD budget bill

Gov. Otter also is signing HB 311 today, the Idaho Transportation Department budget. “I appreciate the Legislature’s action yesterday” in passing the bill, he said. “We got these bills this morning. … We can begin these shovel-ready projects within 30 days.”

Guv signs public school budget bills

Gov. Butch Otter is signing the five bills that make up Idaho’s public school budget, “which provide very crucial resources to public schools,” he said. Otter said he’s received calls from several rural school districts anxious to get the budgets in place so they can proceed with planning for the next school year.

‘An unusual year for everyone’

The Senate has wrapped up its business for the morning, with many senators headed to Allyn Dingel’s funeral at 10 a.m. Among this morning’s announcements were the appointments of three more substitute senators for next week, including Sen. Joyce Broadsword’s husband, John, and Sen. Lee Heinrich’s wife, Brenda. Broadsword, R-Sagle, said both she and Heinrich serve on the Western Legislative Forestry Task Force, which meets annually in Washington, D.C. to address state forestry issues with federal officials; Broadsword said this is the first time she’s had to make the trip during Idaho’s legislative session. “We usually plan it late enough that we’re sure it will be done,” she said. “But this is an unusual year for everyone.”

Guv to ‘act on legislation’ at noon

Gov. Butch Otter has invited the media to see him “act on legislation” at noon. The last two times he issued such invitations, it was to watch him use his big, red VETO stamp.

New election bill to be amended

HB 372, the new election consolidation bill, is going to the Senate’s amending order. Senate State Affairs Committee members expressed support for the bill, but said a few items still need correcting, including changing the number of months required between school bond elections from five to two. “We have the time to do it quickly and get it back to our friends in the body across the rotunda,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. Added Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, “I think it’s a doable plan, Mr. Chairman.”

The measure, like the earlier HB 201, moves all of Idaho’s elections to two standard dates - the November general election and the May primary date - plus sets two additional dates, in March and August, for school bond or levy elections. Unlike the earlier bill, the new one shifts all the costs for elections, which now all would be run by county clerks and use standardized polling places, to the state. A $4.1 million state appropriation would cover the costs. The earlier bill shifted money from sales tax distributions counties already receive, and also required school districts to pick up the costs if they used the two alternate dates; that caused school districts to oppose the earlier bill.

Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said she was “torn” on the bill, and her main concern was school funding. “The majority of the Legislature changed the system for funding schools dramatically in 2006 to take the funding off the property tax and put it onto the general fund,” she said. “The problems associated with that unstable source of funding are coming home this session when we have made unprecedented cuts to school budgets.” Limiting bond and levy elections, which now can be held on any date, is “limiting another source of revenue for public schools,” Kelly said, saying if such a change is to be made, the two-thirds supermajority required to pass school bonds should be changed. That would require a constitutional amendment. Further, Kelly said, even though the state’s general fund would pick up the cost of the elections under the new bill, “I think a good argument can be made that school districts will pay, because it’s one more thing competing for general funds. Without raising revenues, I don’t know how you continue to make that shift and do all the things you need to do.”

Kelly cast the only vote “no” vote. Supporters of the bill said it will increase voter awareness and voter turnout in Idaho.

An eye for detail…

When Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, began presenting the new version of the 98-page election consolidation bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning, committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, stopped him with a question: “Are we missing a y in county?” Hill looked closely, and said sure enough - a y was missing. “Thank you very much,” Hill told McKenzie. “Ninety-eight pages and you found that - very impressive.” The typographical error will be corrected.

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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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