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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2010

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the seventh week of Idaho’s legislative session in pictures, as a slide show. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the picture frame, and the captions will appear as the slide show plays. Tonight, on Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports,” we’ll talk about the fight over a 1 percent COLA for state retirees, a rash of proposed new public records exemptions, urban renewal, the state budget and more. Guests joining host Thanh Tan include Reps. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, and James Ruchti, D-Pocatello; and Sens. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, and Elliot Werk, D-Boise. I join commentators including Jim Weatherby, Dan Popkey and Ben Botkin on the program, which airs tonight at 8, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here. The show also is broadcast on the radio at 3 p.m. on Saturday on KISU-FM, and 10 a.m. Sunday on KBSX 91.5 FM.

Gearing up for school funding fight…

As Idaho lawmakers gear up for their biggest budget decision of the year on Monday - cuts to public schools - teachers are bracing for pay cuts, Democrats are fixing for a fight and some conservatives on the Legislature’s joint budget committee are looking at cutting even more. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and see a breakout of the budget blueprint for schools here developed by a group headed by JFAC’s co-chairs.

Dems expect ‘a strong split’ on school funding

House Democrats went behind closed doors for an hour-long caucus today, and afterward, Caucus Chair Bill Killen, D-Boise, reported that the upcoming school budget vote on Monday dominated the discussion. “I guess I’d call it the ‘low-ball budget,’ and there’s a possibility that an even lower budget may come forward, is what we’re hearing from some of the JFAC members,” Killen said. “Right now, we have a strong feeling that neither one of those budgets can pass without our support on JFAC. Even though we don’t have a lot of votes, we think there’ll be a strong split.”

Killen said his caucus was divided over whether it was better to support the “low-ball” plan outlined to JFAC by the joint committee’s co-chairs after extensive meetings with education stakeholders, or to hold out for more for schools. Killen said he’s in the hold-out camp, favoring “a more realistic revenue forecast,” which could be accomplished, he said, by adding tax auditors to bring in more already-owed state tax revenue, deferring a grocery tax credit increase and deferring the effective date for election consolidation. “We can do better,” he said.

HW ‘furlough Fridays’ expand to full days

The state Department of Health & Welfare has announced that its already-planned “furlough Friday” half-day office closures will be expanded to full-day closures, due to additional budget reductions announced last week. The closures will begin next week and continue through June 11; click here to read the details.

‘Conscience’ bill passes, 21-13

SB 1353, the “conscience” bill, has passed the Senate on a 21-13 vote, but only after strong objections to the bill were expressed by many senators. “I probably could support this legislation had the authors not included the ‘end-of-life’ portion,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said, “I guess I can envision myself making the decision to refuse nourishment, and quite frankly, I don’t think that any health care professional should be able to override my decision.” Said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, “It’s troubling to me that end-of-life and stem cell provisions ended up in this section of code, which is Title 18, Chapter 6, Abortions and Contraception. … It is not in my mind just an extension of existing law, it’s poorly written, mixes issues, ignores rural areas … (and) invites costly lawsuits to the taxpayer.”

BSU looks to alternative financing for dorms

Boise State needs more dorms, and with the state of the state budget, it’s not looking there. Instead, BSU has come to lawmakers for authorization to do a public-private lease-back deal. Here’s a report from the AP on the bill, HB 596:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Boise State University wants a private company to finance and build a $50 million, 900-bed dormitory because officials say they’re turning away hundreds of students annually due to limited housing. BSU leaders went to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee Friday to ask for changes in Idaho’s tax laws to allow such deals. The panel approved the plan, so it’s now up for a House vote. Currently, Idaho’s largest public university has just 2,400 on-campus beds. Kevin Satterlee, BSU’s lawyer, says that’s not enough to accommodate the freshman class alone. A tight budget means BSU won’t be getting an state money for the project, so it wants to have a Texas-based firm build the dormitory. BSU would own the dorm and lease it to the company, which would run it as a business to recoup its investment.

New version of streetcar bill emerges

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House lawmaker has made several changes to his bill aimed at stopping Boise from charging property owners for a new streetcar without asking them first. Rep. Raul Labrador, an Eagle Republican, introduced a similar measure earlier, but city officials from across Idaho objected to several provisions. Labrador’s new bill, introduced Friday in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, requires projects financed with $500,000 in bonds to win support of two-thirds of a district property owners. That’s up from $250,000, which some Idaho city leaders said was too low. And instead of a vote on a project, his new bill foresees owners of property inside a proposed “local improvement district” signing a petition, instead. Boise, which wants a $60 million streetcar project, argues existing Idaho laws protect property owners while still allowing for economic development.

Senate debates ‘conscience’ bill

The Senate is debating SB 1353, the health care provider “conscience” bill regarding abortion, emergency contraception and end-of-life care, specifically permitting any licensed health care provider to refuse to provide a treatment or medication on “conscience” grounds. “The intent of this legislation is not to restrict or limit in any way health care services to women or men in Idaho,” lead sponsor Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, told the Senate. Winder said current Idaho law permits doctors or hospital workers to refuse to participate in an abortion if it violates their conscience. “I found it strange … that it did not include all licensed health care professionals,” Winder said. He called his bill “an attempt to correct what we perceived to be an oversight.”

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, spoke emotionally against the bill, noting that her husband, Sen. Clint Stennett, for whom she’s substituting, is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and her father just passed away. “I understand completely what end of life care is on a personal level, and it is a family matter,” she said. The bill could let a pharmacist or other health care provider override a family’s or a patient’s decisions on treatment, she said. “Also emergency contraception is not an abortion pill, and in cases of rape or health issues to women, I would hope that we’d be sensitive to trauma and to needs.”

Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said the bill has “some real unintended consequences that we need to talk about today,” particularly regarding its impact on end-of-life care. “What this bill does is infringes on those families’ access to information as they go about those very difficult, very important decisions,” she said. Kelly, a lawyer, said it also raises legal questions that likely will lead to litigation, including its impact on employers.

Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, spoke in favor of the bill. “It will do no harm. It will protect people’s freedom of conscience,” she said, “and I urge support for this bill.”

House GOP leaders defend move to block COLA for state retirees

The House Republican leadership has sent out a guest opinion to Idaho media defending its push to try to block a 1 percent COLA for state retirees, a move that failed in the Senate. “Our biggest concern is the health of the Public Employees Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) fund,” write House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale; House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star; House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; and House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “It is not as good as some people might lead you to believe.” Click below to read their full op-ed piece.

‘Like cutting off fingers…’

While praising the JFAC co-chairs for bringing in education stakeholders to work on the public school budget, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I’m sure that those stakeholders you invited in were very happy to have the opportunity to have their input considered. Should this be necessary in the future, I would hope that maybe we could consider a member of the minority party included in that process as well.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, commented that by setting a number and then inviting education groups to give input on how to fit within it, “It’s kind of like bringing someone in and telling them you’re going to cut off their fingers, and you’re kindly asking them for input into how, but nonetheless you’re going to cut their fingers off, and they have no choice about that.” She said, “I just want to express some sadness about that situation.”

After the JFAC meeting, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “In hindsight, I probably should’ve invited a member of the minority.” He was concerned about having too many legislators at the two lengthy meetings with stakeholders, he said, which took place on Monday and Wednesday evenings and went into the night. “It really wasn’t about us legislators,” Cameron said.

Preparing for Monday’s big vote on school funding…

In anticipation of the budget-setting for public schools on Monday, JFAC members have been given a breakout of the blueprint that a group of JFAC members and education stakeholders have arrived at after hours of meetings. The handout includes several items that Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said are the result of a “unanimous agreement” among stakeholders, including state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, and the Idaho School Boards Association. Among them: funds for the Idaho Reading Initiative, the Math Initiative, and ISAT remediation were combined and the overall amount reduced by 10 percent. Funding for the Idaho Digital Learning Academy next year is set at $5 million. Various other line items, from classroom supply funding to gifted and talented education, are shifted into the discretionary funds column for school districts, allowing them to decide where to spend the funds. Overall transportation funds are reduced by 10 percent, with that amount being moved into the discretionary funds column for school district.

Results of all the moves on salaries would be a base salary reduction for teachers and classified staff of 4 percent, a base salary reduction for administrators of 6.5 percent, and a freezing of the salary grid to save $10.13 million next year.

Cameron said the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees also participated in the group meetings. If any of the education stakeholder groups objected to a move, it was taken off the table, he said. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “I was there - there were no votes. There were nods and groans and gnashing of teeth, but there were no votes.” Said Cameron, “We also made it clear that that did not prevent any of you from making a motion higher or lower.” He added, “Everybody in my opinion gave. … All parties contributed to the overall process.”

Budgets don’t include 4-year phaseouts…

This morning, while setting budgets for several smaller agencies for next year, JFAC got to the first of the seven agencies for which Gov. Butch Otter had proposed phasing out all state funding over the next four years, in this case, the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. The joint committee set a budget for the commission that shows an 11.2 percent cut in general funds, a 25 percent cut in staffing (one of four positions), and an overall 4.4 percent cut in total funding. The cuts were of the same type that are being applied to all state agencies in the budget-setting process, trimming benefit costs by tapping reserves, and imposing a permanent holdback of $9,800, about 9 percent of the commission’s original 2010 general-fund budget.

The governor’s proposal for another $24,600 cut to begin the four-year phase-out wasn’t included in the budget bill. “We are not the policy committee to do the phase-outs,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “You’ll see the standard trending in all the budgets, but you will not see the phase-out.”

The seven agencies for which Otter proposed four-year funding phase-outs in his budget proposal this year were, in addition to the Hispanic Commission: Idaho Public Television, the Idaho Human Rights Commission, the Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Council, and the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. He’s since said the proposals were merely a “wake-up call” to get the agencies to find more cost savings.

‘Being creative about funding’

The budget set this morning for the Idaho Historical Society shows an 11.7 percent cut in state general funds, but just a 0.1 percent cut in overall funding. The reason: “They’ve started doing their own fundraising, and they’re really doing a good job,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. The society has increased its membership by 25 percent and obtained foundation grants, she said. “They are being pretty creative about their funding.” JFAC voted unanimously in favor of the budget.

Unanimous votes on agency budget cuts…

Unanimous votes have set the budgets so far this morning for the Department of Fish & Game, the Office of Species Conservation, and the Soil Conservation Commission. Fish & Game, which gets no state general funds, saw an overall 2 percent budget increase; the agency is saving $200,000 by consolidating 53 part-time positions into 39 full-time positions. “You actually wind up with a savings,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. That also allowed the agency to eliminate a request to replace eight vehicles. The Office of Species Conservation, under the proposed budget, would grow by four positions, but they’re limited-service, federally-funded positions that are being transferred from the Soil Conservation Commission budget. Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said the move “reduces a layer of state government,” because the money came through Species Conservation, then went to Soil Conservation for those positions.

The Soil Conservation budget reflects a 44.3 percent budget reduction and seven fewer positions; that includes the four being transferred, plus three more that now are vacant, “so it won’t mean laying any people off,” Brackett said. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “The budget is, I think, about as good as we could do.” Said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, “These are people who are used to doing more with less.”

Deficiency warrants for anti-mussel program safe for now

Several JFAC members huddled after their meeting yesterday, and now the move to cut off deficiency warrants as a means to fund the invasive species program in the coming year is off the table. “We did come to a meeting of the minds,” said Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, who had proposed the move. He said lawmakers still feel “that this probably isn’t the best way to fund that group, but we can go forth for another year while they get together funding from private sources.”

Last month, JFAC approved $280,100 in deficiency warrants for 2009 spending on the invasive species program, including check stations to look for quagga and zebra mussels entering the state on boats. So far in fiscal year 2010, the Department of Agriculture has drawn on $258,700 in deficiency warrants, which allow the program to tap directly into the general fund. However, those bills don’t have to be paid until the next legislative session, and by then, Ag hopes to offset a substantial part of them with revenues from invasive sticker sales for boats.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who opposed Patrick’s move, said, “They recognized that we are in an emergency situation,” where boats are coming to Idaho from states that already have the fast-reproducing invasive mussels. Keough said “we need one more year” to determine whether the sticker fees will be able to fund the program.

Guv makes unprecedented visit to GOP caucus

Gov. Butch Otter made an unprecedented visit to the state Capitol’s fourth floor today to huddle behind closed doors with the House GOP caucus over the recent House-Senate clash over a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for state retirees; House Republicans pushed through a measure to block the COLA, only to see Senate leaders let it die. Otter then told the Idaho Press Club yesterday that sticking with the 1 percent COLA was “smart.” Click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

When partings are sweetened…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the bill introduced today to ban purchases of additional retirement service for state employees to get them to retire early - a practice that resulted in $125,000 in such state expenditures in 2009, including $72,781 for a single employee. State law strictly bans severance payments to state employees who leave their jobs voluntarily, but the retirement boosts weren’t considered severance because the payments went to the employees’ accounts at the state retirement system, not directly to the employees.

Idaho enacted its severance-pay ban in 1993 after a political scandal involving then-U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, who paid more than $38,000 in city-funded severance bonuses to two top aides who worked for him when he was mayor of Boise, when they left city employment to take higher-paid positions on his Senate staff. The move caused such a fuss that the office of the new senator, on his first day in Washington, D.C., was besieged with outraged calls from Idaho, particularly as he had campaigned on a reform platform and decried congressional perks and “midnight pay raises.”

The aides eventually paid the money back to the city, and the city revoked the severance policy that had authorized the payments. In that year’s legislative session, the state severance pay ban passed both houses overwhelmingly and was signed into law by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus.

AG’s opinion: No constitutional problem with CdA Tribe bill, HB 500

A new informal Idaho Attorney General’s opinion, issued today in response to a request from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, says there are no constitutional problems with HB 500, the cooperative law enforcement legislation proposed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “It’s perfectly clear,” Clark said. “I think the A.G.’s analysis is right on the mark - all the constitutional issues just go away. Now let’s talk about real issues, let’s try to get some public safety for people who are non-Indians living on Indian reservations.”

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane found no conflicts between the bill and the Idaho Constitution on accountability for law enforcement officers, the authority of sheriffs, the granting of privileges or the right of suffrage. Clark said opponents of the bill, including Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, had raised those constitutional concerns. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and read the A.G’s opinion here.

The budget blueprint…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the budget blueprint that the JFAC co-chairs laid out for the joint committee and the public today, and here’s a link to the numbers - the five pages of figures that legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith presented to the committee to help explain the blueprint, which shows how next year’s budget could be balanced with the much lower anticipated tax revenue. The result: Schools would see an unprecedented 8.5 percent cut in state funding; higher education funding would drop 14 percent; and Medicaid would drop 3.5 percent, for a 25.9 percent drop in state Medicaid funding since last year.

The plan, which is extremely complicated, calls for shifting reserve funds and tapping dedicated funds as well as deep cuts in all areas. The final word comes when the joint committee votes on each agency’s budget; this morning, it already set the budget for the state Department of Agriculture. Monday, public schools are up.
 

Committee backs review of exemptions

The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee was unanimous this afternoon, agreeing to send the full Senate SB 1381, the bill from Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, to require the Legislature to review all sales tax exemptions at least every five years, and put a five-year expiration date on any new exemptions enacted after July 1, 2010. Winder said the bill is based on “the philosophy that these exemptions just don’t stay there forever, they are reviewed and they are looked at.”

Other members of the committee praised Winder’s move, but expressed some doubt as to whether the much-tried tactic will work. “I appreciate you doing that,” Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, told Winder. “I did it twice my first two years.” Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said he’ll support the bill despite his doubts about how to get such a thing accomplished. “This might actually shine some light on some exemptions and continue to foster a discussion in this state about what tax policy in this state should be and what changes should occur,” Stegner said.

There already are two other such bills pending; SB 1277, co-sponsored by seven Senate Democrats,  would make all state tax exemptions, credits and deductions expire on Jan. 1, 2012, unless specifically extended by state law and would require all new exemptions to expire in five years; while HB 396, from Reps. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, would set up a commission to review all existing sales tax exemptions at least every eight years for equity, fairness and more. Currently, Idaho’s sales tax exemptions total more than the sales tax takes in.

New ‘Friends of Parks’ group forms

A new private non-profit group called “Friends of Idaho Parks & Recreation” has formed to fight budget cuts to parks, work to increase volunteerism in state parks and generate long-term funding. The group’s formation was announced at today’s Parks Board meeting, at which the board discussed a plan to keep all 30 state parks open, but with reduced services due to deep budget cuts. Click below to read the full announcement from the new group.

Texting-while-driving ban wins panel’s unanimous support

There wasn’t time in the hour-and-a-half committee hearing to get to everyone who wanted to testify, but the Senate Transportation Committee has voted unanimously to send SB 1352, the bill to ban texting while driving, to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments. Sponsor John McGee, R-Caldwell, has amendments drafted that he said are part of a consensus that brought support to the bill from groups including law enforcement, the telephone industry and more. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said she came into the hearing thinking the bill wasn’t needed because Idaho already has a law against inattentive driving, but the hearing convinced her the amended bill - which adds a section banning texting while driving to the existing inattentive driving law - was appropriate and deserved her support.

Bill would raise adults’ seatbelt fines

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Adults caught in a car without their seatbelts on in Idaho could see their costs rise five-fold. Rep. Rich Wills, a Glenns Ferry Republican, introduced a bill Thursday to add court costs of $41.50 to the existing $10 fine levied on adults who don’t buckle up. Juveniles caught without seatbelts already pay $51.50, including the court costs. Wills says it’s only fair for adults to pay the same as those under 18, who have traditionally had to pay more for educational purposes: Lawmakers thought it would help teach them proper safety habits. Of $750,000 in new revenue, Wills would direct nearly $500,000 to the Idaho Catastrophic Health Care Fund. It covers medical care for indigent residents but runs perpetual deficits. The rest would go to courts and a highway safety fund.

Texting-while-driving ban draws support

High school students are among those testifying this afternoon in favor of SB 1352, legislation to ban texting while driving, and all testimony so far is in favor. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, lead sponsor of the bill, thanked Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, for first proposing such a ban last year; Bock is among a bipartisan group of co-sponsors of the bill, who also include House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby. The hearing is in the Capitol Auditorium, the Statehouse’s largest hearing room.

McGee said he’s drafted some amendments to meet concerns raised by law enforcement, the telephone industry and others, and with those amendments, all are in support of the bill. Bock called it “a collaborative, bipartisan effort that we need to see more of.” Sen John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, presented a petition from sixth-graders in Post Falls in favor of the bill. Idaho Sheriffs Association lobbyist Mike Kane testified that his group supports the bill with the proposed amendments. McGee called texting while driving “an alarming form of distracted driving” and said he thinks the bill, with the amendments, is “a piece of legislation that I think is fair, that I think is thoughtful, and that I consider to be the Idaho way to proceed on this issue.”

Vassar confirmed to ITD board

Jan Vassar has been unanimously confirmed by the Idaho Senate for a full six-year term on the Idaho Transportation Board, after earlier being appointed to serve for just six weeks to complete the term of the late Bruce Sweeney. Vassar, former Lewiston city manager, administrative services director and city clerk, won praise from senators. “She’s very professional, she’s very knowledgable, and she’s going to make an outstanding addition to our board,” said Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a former board chairman, said, “I am very proud that she is going to be the first female appointee to the board. She is highly qualified and will do an excellent job, and it’s nice to break that ceiling.”

Prior to Vassar’s appointment, the board was sued for wrongful termination of its first-ever female transportation director, with sex discrimination among the charges in former Director Pam Lowe’s lawsuit. The case is pending.

When not seeing a crime is a crime…

The Idaho Senate just heard that there’s only one place in state law where it’s a crime for a prosecutor or a law enforcement officer not to go after a crime that they know about - when they don’t “diligently prosecute and investigate any act of gambling.” That could mean any act - including football pools, friendly wagers by college presidents on the outcome of a game, or even a bet between a current and former governor. Senators didn’t talk about that one, but yesterday on BSU Radio, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus bet current Idaho Gov. Butch Otter $100 that state chief economist Mike Ferguson is closer in his estimate of state tax revenue for next year than the lower figure chosen by lawmakers and Otter, and Otter told the Idaho Press Club, “I’ll take that bet and I hope he’s right - I hope he is right, I pray that he is right.”

“We have elected prosecutors in Idaho, and they make decisions every day about whether or not to pursue a particular defendant or whether or not to pursue a particular act,” Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, told the Senate. “And I think we can support that rather than exposing them to be subject to a crime for failing to prosecute.” Kelly, an attorney, said the history of the no-discretion gambling prosecution law shows it originated in Idaho’s territorial days, and there’s no legislative history as to why it was enacted. “We can only speculate,” she said. “At this point in time I think it’s a good idea to remove it from the code, and I hope you agree with me.” All but one senator - Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton - agreed, and the bill, HB 422, passed 34-1. It earlier passed the House 69-1 with just Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, objecting;  it now goes to the governor’s desk.

Bill delayed for ‘posturing’

The Senate has agreed unanimously to put off its debate on HB 391a, the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” for a day. “With the consent of the sponsor and other individuals,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis told the Senate, a delay is sought “as everybody gathers some additional information and does their appropriate posturing.” The bill is the measure that seeks to ban Idaho from complying with any federal health care reform legislation that requires individuals or businesses to purchase health insurance, and requires the state Attorney General to go to court to fight any such requirement. It’s prompted much debate and passed the House on a straight party-line vote.

Retirement boosts and ‘the smell test’…

Here’s a link to my full story from November on the payment of more than $125,000 in retirement boosts in six months to three employees at three different state agencies in exchange for their earlier-than-planned retirements; at the time, the move prompted comments from top lawmakers that it “doesn’t quite pass the smell test.” The reason: Idaho state law bans severance payments, though the state maintains the moves didn’t violate the severance ban because the payments went to the employees’ accounts at the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, not to the employees themselves.

Here’s a link to a roundup of the laws involved, and here’s a link to the history of the no-severance law, which has its roots in a 1993 political scandal that opened then-U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne’s term in office. Today, the House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce legislation to ban the retirement boosts.

Target budget would mean 8.5 percent cut in state funding next year for schools

JFAC is now going over the entire plan that its co-chairs, staff and others have been working on for weeks to make the fiscal year 2011 budget balance and all its pieces fit together, from shifts of reserve funds, to tapping benefit reserves to fund state employee benefits, to making deep cuts in all programs, including Medicaid and public schools. Each agency’s budget still has to be set, and committee members could make motions that don’t match the target plan. Senate Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said an agreement has been reached with all education stakeholders, including state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, on which line items to fund in the public schools budget to fit it into a target of $1.214 billion for next year. “Now obviously that doesn’t stop any of you from making a motion that’s either higher or lower than that 1.214 billion, but at this point we do have agreement as to how that money would be allocated into all the programs, how much is in salary-based support … etc.,” Cameron said. Overall, the target would mean a cut in state general funds for public schools next year of 8.5 percent.

Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith, who presented multiple handouts to the committee on the plan, cautioned that it’s “not a finished product,” and said, “The environment that we’re in right now we have never experienced before.” Cameron called it “a very somber budget.” To make it balance, funding was removed for Medicaid pricing increases that are not mandated by the federal government. Cameron said, “This is simply a blueprint so that you can see how we could balance the budget.” The final decisions, he noted, are still to be made.

Bill would ban retirement boosts for departing state employees

The House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously to introduce legislation to ban purchases of additional retirement service for state employees to get them to retire early - a practice that resulted in $125,000 in such state expenditures in 2009, including $72,781 for a single employee. The state Division of Human Resources paid the amount to PERSI to buy extra service for its former director, Judie Wright, in exchange for her agreeing to retire eight months earlier than she’d planned; the head of the Division of Financial Management, Wayne Hammon, then took over as acting human resources director as well.

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, noted that two other state employees, one at the state Tax Commission for $13,000, and one at the state Department of Education for $42,142, received similar PERSI service purchases as they left state employment. “This is an outrage to Idaho taxpayers and to Idaho state employees who did not receive that same privilege,” Pasley-Stuart told the committee. “Many of you know state employees who were laid off who did not receive any consideration at all. Idaho already has a very strong severance pay policy, and that is we don’t pay severance pay. … However, the purchase of services has not been considered a part of the severance pay. This would prevent the purchase of services.”

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, co-sponsor of the bill, told the panel, “Mr. Chairman and fellow representatives, is this really the message that we want to deliver to the people of Idaho? Over $125,000 was paid out of the general fund in 2009. Here we are in 2010 poring over every budget, looking in all the nooks and crannies and under the rocks for money to run our state. These payouts … would pay for three teachers, tax collectors, parks workers or other services that are much more important to the people of Idaho than paying money to three people so they can retire early.”

The bill was introduced by State Affairs because it’s a privileged committee, with the recommendation that it go to the Commerce & Human Resources Committee for a hearing.

Mussel program nearly trimmed

JFAC this morning came very close to passing a new restriction on the state Department of Agriculture to stop it from issuing unlimited deficiency warrants to fund the invasive species program, which is seeking to avoid the introduction of quagga and zebra mussels into Idaho lakes and waterways. The program is supposed to be funded by fees from stickers on boats, but so far, hundreds of thousands of dollars in deficiency warrants have been tapped as well. After several JFAC members, including Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, urged strongly against the move, it was halted for now, and will be taken up again tomorrow.

Vote-switch prompts talk about conflicts

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark says the state’s conflict of interest laws need strengthening, citing yesterday’s vote-change that killed a tobacco bill, by a senator whose husband is a tobacco lobbyist. The senator, Melinda Smyser, said her vote had nothing to do with her husband’s work. “I have my own life,” she told the Associated Press. “I would never do anything to jeopardize how I represent my constituents.” In more than three dozen other states, legislators who could be personally or financially affected by a bill are required to recuse themselves from voting on it. But President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes says that short-changes the citizens the lawmaker represents. “Even if I personally have a conflict, my district still expects I vote on the issue,” he told the AP; click below to read a full report from AP reporter Simmi Aujla, and read Roark’s statement here.

Canyon emissions bill killed, 6-5

After a long hearing this afternoon, the House Environment Committee has voted 6-5 to kill HB 591, a proposal from Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, that opponents said would “gut” the legislation passed two years ago to address the Treasure Valley’s air quality. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said lawmakers “all worked very hard” on the air quality legislation two years ago, which is about to result in vehicle emission tests being required in Canyon County - a move Kren tried to head off. “It was very deliberative - that process worked,” Anderson said. “I am willing to take a little time here and see that process through. This would gut what we did with our hard work two years ago.” Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, spoke out in favor of the bill, saying, “It seems to me that we’re after the wrong target here. This adds a significant inconvenience to residents of Canyon County. … I think this is a reasonable bill.”

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said, “This just seems like a dead horse that we have beaten mercilessly.” After several more comments from committee members, Anderson said, “If we have too much more debate on this, air quality is going to improve because I’m going to quit breathing.” Amid laughter, Anderson said he’s found the Idaho DEQ to be more responsive than the federal EPA; earlier today, Gov. Butch Otter said the EPA would take over regulating the program if Idaho doesn’t hold up its end. “This doesn’t create any solution - this piece of legislation just guts what we did,” Anderson said. “There is no problem-solving here.” In the vote, Reps. Anderson, Cronin, Eskridge, E. Smith, Jaquet, and Raybould voted in favor of Anderson’s substitute motion to hold the bill in committee; the five “no” votes were from Reps. Takasugi, Hartgen, Simpson, Harwood and Kren. Click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Report: Parole delays costing Idaho millions

Idaho spent $7 million to house offenders in prison from Jan. 1, 2007 to Sept. 14, 2009 who actually could have been out on parole, according to a new report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, which found that delays - some linked to delays in getting inmates into programs that help them qualify for parole - are on the rise. In 2004, almost 40 percent of prisoners were released within two days of their tentative parole date, the report found; in 2008, that percentage had dropped to 17 percent. “Delays within the parole process not only have implications for the efficient administratino of justice, but also have a direct impact on state taxpayers by housing offenders in expensive prison beds longer than necessary,” the report found.

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee is reviewing the report this afternoon; it was released during the panel’s meeting. The full report can be seen online here.

House gives 2/3 vote to airport debt measure

HJR 5, the second constitutional amendment regarding governmental indebtedness, has passed the House on a 57-12 vote, well above the two-thirds mark needed. This measure deals with indebtedness of public airports; it now moves to the Senate. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds votes in each house of the Legislature plus a majority vote of the people at the next general election to take effect. The first to move through the House dealt with hospital district debt; one still awaiting a House vote involves debt for municipal power systems.

House approves college fund

The House has voted unanimously, 69-0, in favor HB 544, the measure from House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to set up a “higher education stabilization fund” to ease state colleges and universities through future economic downturns. There’s not much to go in the fund for now, but the idea is that in times of surplus, the state would put money in. Supporters say it’s too bad such a fund wasn’t set up years ago; the bill now moves to the Senate.

Guv opposes Canyon air quality bill

Here are some more highlights of Gov. Butch Otter’s talk this morning to the Idaho Press Club:

AIR QUALITY: The governor said he opposes Rep. Steve Kren’s legislation - which is up for a committee hearing this afternoon - to gut air quality legislation requiring vehicle emissions testing in Canyon County. “Doing nothing has some terrible consequences,” Otter said. “The EPA takes it over.”

TAX CREDIT: Otter said he hopes to have legislation for an expanded tax credit for donations to Idaho Public Television and other small agencies for which he’d earlier proposed phasing out state funding “ready to go very soon, perhaps, maybe, by the end of this week.” He said, “I’m hoping that I can encourage an increased volunteer contribution to Idaho Public Television and their mission.”

RE-ELECTION: Otter said his re-election announcement will be “in the near future,” but declined to say when. Asked what he’s waiting for, Otter said, “Peace.” Amid some laughter, he said, “I didn’t want to get the race involved in all of the noise and all of the activity that’s going on at the Legislature, and so I wanted it to kind of mellow out. I was hopeful that at least we would have a target and have a direction before I took the opportunity to announce. And I think we’re getting there, however cumbersome it is - I think we’re getting there.”

Otter to press: ‘I got it off my chest’

Gov. Butch Otter said he was prompted to write his recent guest opinion slamming press coverage of his budget proposals because “I would like to see some compassion, maybe that’s the word I’m looking for,” he said. “This is a tough, tough position to be in, and it’s not fun, and I’ve got to pick and I’ve got to choose. And when you make those choices you’ve got to live with them. They’re not fun.” Otter said if his term as governor hadn’t coincided with such a precipitous economic downturn, he’d be looking at things like boosting transportation spending, possibly lowering the sales tax while boosting the gas tax, moving more quickly to take taxes off groceries, and building up a hundred-million-dollar scholarship fund for Idaho students.  

Asked if he’d read the op-ed piece before it went out - or whether that was left to his communications director, Mark Warbis, Otter said, “Oh no, I read it before. I’ll guarantee you that. We Otterized that over and over again. In fact he was much more brutal than I was.” Otter also thanked the Idaho Statesman for printing the piece. “Anyway, I got it off my chest and I thank you for printing it,” he said.

Guv wants flexibility on $71M fund

Gov. Butch Otter says the $71.3 million in Millenium Fund money that’s now being squirreled away as a hedge against future drops in the federal match for Medicaid is something he’d like the flexibility to spend starting in June, if it’s not needed for Medicaid. “We don’t anticipate getting the decision until June, so I’m hoping that the Legislature, when they address that $71 million for FMAP, will say, if we don’t need to spend it that they’ll then give me the flexibility of putting it into education, putting it into higher ed, putting it into corrections, or putting it someplace else in Health & Welfare,” Otter told the Idaho Press Club this morning. It could go, he said, into “areas where we’ve had to cut.” The governor said, “That’s the kind of flexibility that they gave me last time.” If the economy is starting to show signs of recovery by June, he said, he’d like to be able to spend that money.

Otter: Sticking with retiree COLA was ‘smart’

Gov. Butch Otter says he supports the 1 percent COLA for state retirees, which the House tried to block before its move was halted by the Senate yesterday. “Let me say that Don Drum and Jody Olson and that entire board I think are very responsible and do a terrific job,” Otter told the Idaho Press Club. “We’re really in very good shape.” He said he understands why House members had concerns, given the economy, but he disagreed. “In this case I think it was smart that we went ahead with the 1 percent,” Otter said.

Otter: Caution warranted on budget

Gov. Butch Otter is giving his annual talk to the Idaho Press Club this morning, and his first focus has been on the budget. “Obviously it’s been difficult, obviously with the moving target that we’ve had on the budget numbers, it’s been an uncertain process at best,” he said. “The news is so mixed and I think the uncertainty is so great, that the Legislature and myself have agreed that caution should be the operation of the day, of the session.” He added, “It’s a lot easier to give money back than it is to take money away.”

The urban renewal bills…

Urban renewal agencies in Idaho could face sweeping changes under the seven bills now being reviewed by a legislative subcomittee, reports Ben Botkin of the Twin Falls Times-News; his article today takes a look at the potential changes, many of which are aimed at boosting public involvement and fixing the perception that urban renewal agencies lack accountability. You can read Botkin’s full report here.

Budget stifles fossil plan

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The State Historical Society has abandoned a plan to transfer oversight of discoveries of woolly mammoths and other ancient creatures on state land to an Idaho State University museum, at least for now. The historical agency expects an increase in federally-funded energy projects could result in more of Idaho’s paleontological treasures — spiral-toothed sharks, ancient short-faced bears and ground sloths, among them — being found. As a result, officials wanted shift authority to issue permits for such digs to experts at the Museum of Natural History at ISU. ISU raised concerns such a program could cost $150,000 — money that’s unavailable amid a budget crisis. Historical Society director Janet Gallimore now plans to investigate proper procedures in the event of a discovery. Idaho’s last big find was 1994, when remains of up to seven mammoths and an ancient bison were unearthed near Grangeville.

Bill targets child immunization rate so low it lags third-world countries

With Idaho’s child immunization rate among the worst in the nation, lawmakers are revamping the state’s immunization reminder system to try to cover more people.  The Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted unanimously this afternoon in favor of SB 1335 - a measure sponsored by the committee’s chairwoman and several other lawmakers - to automatically enroll Idaho children in the reminder system unless their parents opt out. Currently, Idaho’s one of just five states where parents have to actively opt in to the reminder and tracking system.

“This is something that will help so many parents,” said Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. Idaho’s immunization rates are so low that its rate for measles is lower than that of Indonesia, Pakistan or Croatia, and its rate for polio is below that of Botswana, Latvia and Sri Lanka, according to the Idaho Division of Health. Overall, just 57.6 percent of Idaho children have the recommended immunizations, according to the 2007-08 National Immunization Survey. Washington was at 73.7 percent, and the national average is 77.2 percent. Still, Lodge faced opposition from the Idaho Freedom Foundation to her bill. Lobbyist Eric Makrush told the committee his group is concerned about “protection of parental rights,” and said, “We think the opt-in program is actually working pretty well.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Harwood withdraws road-kill bill

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, has asked the House Resources Committee to let him withdraw his road-kill bill, HB 562, and the committee agreed unanimously. “My intention with this bill was just to make it real simple, if you see a dead furbearer out on the road you could just pick it up,” Harwood told the committee. “I’ve had some emails that said I’m a terrible guy because I’m trying to pick up little furry animals and use them, and I got a lot from the conservation officers as well.” Last week, the Idaho Fish & Game Commission voted unanimously to oppose the bill, out of concern over how it would affect enforcement efforts when people have an animal carcass and claim they found it on the road.

Harwood said he heard proposals to change the bill that “would just reverse everything I was trying to do, pick up a little furbearer,” so he decided to just drop it.

Invasive species sticker fee hike bill survives House committee, heads to full House

The House Resources Committee debated killing HB 533, the bill to raise non-motorized boat invasive species stickers from $5 to $7, after hearing from advocates for non-motorized boaters that they’re bearing too much of the cost of the invasive species program, and they’d be glad to work with the state to come up with a better plan. The $2 fee hike is intended to provide a vendor fee; it wouldn’t increase funding for efforts against the invasive quagga and zebra mussel. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said the whole program’s been rushed. “I am very uncomfortable that we don’t have a good business plan for a species that has the potential to do a tremendous amount of damage on our waterways,” Hagedorn said.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “Boating season’s coming up and I’m thinking of Lake Coeur d’Alene.” It gets more out-of-state boats than any other lake in the state, he said. “Maybe the plan isn’t perfect, but we need to push ahead with the progress that’s been made, and I think this legislation attempts to do that.” Hagedorn’s motion to kill the bill failed, 5-11, and the panel then voted to approve the fee-hike bill and send it to the full House.

AARP lauds Senate move on retiree COLA

The AARP of Idaho has released a statement lauding the state Senate for killing HCR 42, the measure to block a scheduled 1 percent cost-of-living increase next month for state retirees. “Without this COLA, state retirees living on the brink would see tougher times ahead,” said Jim Wordelman, state director. He said a new AARP survey has found that Idaho seniors are struggling; click below to read the AARP’s full statement.

Resources panel backs hunter secrecy bill

The House Resources Committee has agreed to send HB 531 to the House’s amending order with committee amendments attached, to clear up a wording problem in the bill. The measure, from Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, would make all hunting licenses and tags secret, plus add criminal sanctions for any harassment of hunters. The names of those getting hunting licenses and tags long have been public record in Idaho. Several media representatives spoke against the bill, saying it was too broad and would close down records that reporters, hunters and fishermen long have legitimately used, for everything from checking whether a candidate for the Fish & Game Commission had a hunting license to verifying that the subject of an outdoor feature about a trophy catch caught the fish legally. Jeremy Pisca, lobbyist for the Idaho Allied Daily Newspapers, said the bill was akin to going after a “gnat with a sledgehammer.” “My plea to you is to please don’t close down the public’s ability to access its government,” he told the committee.

The Idaho Farm Bureau and the Idaho Cattle Association testified in favor of the bill. Boyle said it would prevent wolf hunters from being harassed. “It’s my belief that one of the reasons for government is to protect its citizens, and I feel that’s what this bill will do,” she said. The motion from Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, to send the bill to the amending order passed on a voice vote, with three committee members objecting.

Full disclosure here: I’m the president of the Idaho Press Club, an association of working reporters around the state, which was among the media groups objecting to the bill. Press Club volunteer lobbyist Sydney Sallabanks, of Gallatin Public Affairs, told the committee, “Reporters in Idaho use these records all the time.” My newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, also is a member of the Idaho Allied Dailies, the group Pisca represents.

Easing fire code for rural homes wins overwhelming Senate support

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Senate voted overwhelmingly to let rural Idaho residents build homes that don’t conform to some fire safety rules. Under the measure that passed 33-1, single-family homes built on five-acre parcels outside cities would be exempted from International Fire Code water supply and access rules, unless a county adopts the code. Sen. Steve Bair, a Blackfoot Republican, says rural Idahoans were struggling to conform to access and water supply rules because they added cost to homes. The measure now goes to the House. A year ago, fire chiefs fought off a broader push to dump the International Fire Code as Idaho’s minimum fire safety standard. This latest bill was a compromise, though some Idaho Fire Chiefs Association members still have concerns the changes will make it more difficult to protect out-of-the-way homes.

Hospital debt amendment easily clears House

There was a long debate, but in the end, HJR 4, a constitutional amendment to allow indebtedness for hospital districts without voter approval, easily gained the two-thirds vote it needed to pass the House today. The measure passed 65-5, with just four Republicans and one Democrat opposing it. It’s the first of three constitutional amendments in the wake of an Idaho Supreme Court decision that limited such indebtedness; the others are for airports and city-owned electric utilities. To take effect, constitutional amendments need two-thirds votes in each house of the Legislature plus majority approval of the people at the next general election. All three measures say no tax revenue could be tapped to pay off such indebtedness.

Subcommittee studies seven urban renewal reform bills

Here’s a news item from The Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Urban renewal reform was on the agenda for a subcommittee of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee today, with self-styled watchdogs reiterating their concerns that these economic-development agencies in cities like Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls aim to expand their power. Seven bills were up for discussion Tuesday, including one to require districts be created by a vote; another pushing for elected urban renewal boards; and a bill pushed by districts themselves as “the first comprehensive reforms” of the 1965 urban renewal law. Dan Gookin, an urban renewal critic from Coeur d’Alene, opposes the comprehensive bill because it’s akin to “the fox guarding the hen house.” Bobbi Rollins, Post Falls Urban Renewal Agency chairwoman, instead wants lawmakers to kill the other six measures, on grounds they are “micromanaging at the state level.” Testimony continues Wednesday; of the seven pending bills, four are sponsored by Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol.

Lake: That’s why Legislature has two houses

When asked about it by reporters just now, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, initially said he was too upset to comment about the Senate’s move to kill HCR 42, the measure he helped push through the House to block a scheduled 1 percent COLA for state retirees. “I seriously don’t think that the Senate has discussed the information we had presented to us,” Loertscher said. “I’m a little surprised, I guess.”

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “The Senate, they do what they do - that’s their prerogative. That’s why we have two separate bodies. I hope they understand that it will take a year and three months of additional contributions to PERSI to make up the $50 million that they’re taking out of the fund.” That figure is the “net present value” of a 1 percent COLA - the estimated amount it would cost between now and the end of time.

Senate Republicans met in closed caucus yesterday for about 45 minutes, with the PERSI COLA issue the main topic discussed. Among the items the caucus reviewed was a Jan. 4 letter from PERSI notifying lawmakers of the recommendation for the COLA; and a Jan. 29 letter to House and Senate leaders providing additional information. Senators emerged from their caucus saying no decisions had been made; later that same day, the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee scheduled a hearing for today, which then was canceled this morning.

Last year, the PERSI letters noted, the cost of living went up 5.4 percent, but PERSI opted to give retirees just a 1 percent COLA. This year, the cost of living actually went down 1.48 percent, but PERSI didn’t want to cut benefits, and opted for the 1 percent increase. “Although the COLA has a long-term cost to the PERSI fund, it has no immediate effect on the cost to the employers or employees,” the letter stated. A contribution rate increase of 1.5 percent already is scheduled for fiscal year 2012; that increase is needed with or without the COLA, PERSI officials said.

Senate, House part ways on PERSI COLA

The abrupt cancellation of this afternoon’s scheduled hearing on HCR 42, the House-passed - and House GOP leadership-backed - hurry-up measure to block a cost of living increase for state retirees could create tensions between the House and Senate, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner acknowledged. “We’re very aware that this may raise tensions between the two bodies,” he said. “That’s certainly not our intent. We’re going to work diligently to be sure that this does not escalate.” HCR 42 passed the House on a 48-19 vote, with just two Republicans opposing it, and one Democrat voting in favor in a failed attempt to force reconsideration after the vote.

That move followed a turnaround in the House State Affairs Committee a day earlier. That committee had voted 13-5 to kill the bill; a day later, without notice, it took it back up and passed the measure on a party-line vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposing the move.

HCR 42 could only have taken effect if it passed both houses by tomorrow, the 45th day of the legislative session. If it had, it would have been the first time ever that the Legislature overturned a recommendation from the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho board for a cost-of-living increase for state retirees. PERSI officials told the House State Affairs Committee last week - before the first vote that killed the bill - that they studied the issue for five months before deciding to grant a 1 percent COLA this year, and that their recommendation hasn’t changed.

House Republicans said an actuarial report they received from a citizen activist convinced them the fund actually was in trouble; last week, however, PERSI was named one of the best-performing state retirement systems in the nation in a national report from the Pew Center on the States. Stegner said, “Generally, we’re very proud of PERSI as being one of the recognized strongest public retirement systems in the nation. … The Legislature wants to be sure that continues well into the future.”

PERSI COLA hearing canceled, Senate kills HCR 42

The hearing set for 1:30 on HCR 42, the measure to block a scheduled 1 percent COLA for state retirees, has been canceled - which means the bill is now dead. Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, chairman of the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee, said, “It seemed like the thing to do - this was the best way to handle it.” He added, “I have a lot of faith in the (PERSI) board. They’ve always done a good job. We’re just following their recommendation.”

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said, “The leadership supports the chairman’s decision, and the committee is, I think, going to be supportive of that action. This is going to be an issue we’re not going to give any further time to in the Senate this legislative year.” Andreason, who himself was a longtime state employee and is the former legislative budget director, said he’s received “a very large number of emails and telephone calls,” and all were against HCR 42. State and local government retirees gathered in a news conference on the Statehouse steps yesterday to protest the bill and call for its defeat.

Home-loan modifications top consumer complaints

The top consumer complaint in Idaho in 2009, according to Attorney General Lawrence Wasden: Mortgage modification fraud. “We received reports of outrageous fraud,” Wasden said at a news conference this morning. “Some of these operators took advantage of desperate homeowners by charging hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in upfront fees, while taking no action to modify the mortgage.” Wasden said his Consumer Protection Division has pursued several enforcement actions against deceptive loan modification companies, investigated hundreds of complaints and filed lawsuits. He encouraged Idahoans who are in trouble with their mortgages to talk to their lenders right away. “Things don’t get better with time in a foreclosure situation,” Wasden said.

Here is the rest of Wasden’s top-10 list of types of consumer complaints in 2009:
2. Cable/satellite television
3. Motor vehicles
4. Mortgage lenders/loans
5. Internet
6. Banking services other than loans
7. Collection agencies
8. Landlord/tenant
9. Construction/remodel
10. Educational institution or programs

Consumer complaints to the Attorney General’s office were up 11 percent in 2009, Wasden said. The consumer protection division brought in $44 million for Idaho consumers and the state, while spending just $833,000 on operations, he said.

House panel backs Moyle voter ID bill

The House State Affairs Committee has approved HB 496, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle’s bill to require people to show a valid photo ID or sign an affidavit before they’re allowed to vote. Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, offered a substitute motion to send the bill to the amending order and change penalties for violations from a felony to a misdemeanor with a $500 maximum fine, but Moyle spoke out against that move. “If you think it’s OK for 500 bucks to throw out a fraudulent vote, I have a problem with that,” he declared. “Voting is one of the most sacred things that we have in this country. … If you think your vote is only worth 500 bucks, then go ahead and go there.” King said other voting offenses, such as attempting to vote twice, are misdemeanors, not felonies. “I think our jails are full of a lot of people,” she said. “So what’s the value of a vote? I think it’s worth a lot, I really do. I’m not trying to demean it. … I just don’t think we need to send people to prison and I would rather see a fine.”

King’s motion failed, however, and the original motion, to send HB 496 as-is to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass,” passed on a voice vote.

Capital budget has few projects this year

The Permanent Building Fund budget, the state’s capital budget, usually is the focus of much attention as various construction projects vie for state funding; not this year. JFAC this morning set a budget that’s identical to the governor’s recommendation. It calls for $19.9 million for needed alterations and repairs to state buildings in the coming year, and four projects: $600,000 for a metal structure for a maintenance shop at an Orofino prison; $1.3 million for a high voltage power distribution system for the Department of Juvenile Corrections facility at St. Anthony; $612,000 to demolish condemned structures at State Hospital South; and $500,000 to start the process of renovating the Capitol Annex, where lawmakers held their legislative session for the past two years while the state Capitol was renovated; the full job will cost $6 million, while the first step will hook the building up to geothermal heat. That’s it.

First general fund budget: A big cut…

JFAC has set the first general-fund agency budget for next year, for the Idaho judicial branch. It reflects an 8.3 percent cut in state general funds for next year, and a 7.5 percent cut overall, but a large chunk of that is expected to be made up by a $25 emergency surcharge on all convictions - from felonies to infractions - for the next three years. That’ll raise about $5.1 million a year. That legislation still is working its way through the Legislature and hasn’t yet reached the full House, so the budget set today doesn’t reflect it; if it passes, a trailer bill would amend the budget.

Vote-switch kills tobacco bill

An Idaho senator whose husband is a tobacco-company lobbyist snuffed out a bill Monday to ban the industry’s latest product, the Associated Press reports. Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, changed her vote after members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee initially voted 5-4 for a bill that would bar dissolvable tobacco lozenges, strips and sticks now being tested by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Another company is already selling such lozenges here.

Smyser’s switch killed the measure. Boise Democrat Elliot Werk, the measure’s sponsor, compared dissolvable tobacco to candy, saying the attractively packaged products could get teens hooked on nicotine. Utah is considering a similar ban; click below to read the full report from AP reporter Simmi Aujla.

Prolific Rep. Hart has introduced a dozen bills so far this year, including sales tax measure

At a time when Idaho legislators have been loath to propose tax increases, Athol Rep. Phil Hart has introduced legislation to bump Idaho’s sales tax from the current 6 percent up to 8.25 percent. The tradeoff: He’d also like to eliminate the income tax on all earned income. “I think when you tax something, you get less of it,” said the third-term Republican. “We are heavily taxing jobs, and we have less jobs.” That’s just one of a dozen bills Hart has proposed so far this year, his busiest legislative session yet. Most have something to do with constitutional rights or privacy; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

F&G Commission opposes Harwood roadkill bill

The Idaho Fish & Game Commission has voted unanimously to oppose legislation from Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, to allow Idahoans with hunting or trapping licenses to salvage road-killed carcasses - something that’s now strictly illegal. “There was concern just because of the potential enforcement problems,” said Mike Keckler, Fish & Game spokesman. “If someone were to say, ‘Where did you find this animal, how come it doesn’t have a tag? And they were able to say, ‘Well, I found it on the side of the road’ … that poses a bit of a problem.”

Harwood said he proposed the bill after a constituent said a valuable bobcat pelt went to waste after the animal was hit by a car near his home, and the state should’ve let him salvage it. Road-killed animals are considered state property in Idaho.

The bill, HB 562, is up for a hearing tomorrow afternoon in the House Resources & Conservation Committee. It was among 10 pieces of legislation that the Fish & Game Commission reviewed last Thursday; the commission voted to oppose just two. The other is SB 1333, which would allow cities or counties to permit the capture, neutering and release of feral cats. The commission would prefer that any feral cats that are caught “be dealt with humanely, and not released,” Keckler said, because they “tend to cause trouble for wildlife.”

House passes bill to allow more DNA testing to prove prisoner innocence

Here’s a news item from The Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho House members voted to eliminate a one-year limitation for inmates to file a petition for DNA or fingerprint testing. After clearing the chamber on Monday on a unanimous vote, Rep. Phil Hart’s measure now goes to the Senate. Hart, an Athol Republican, says Idaho should expand prisoners’ access to DNA tests because they’ve proved key in exonerating some 240 people across the United States over the past 20 years. In addition to appealing to representatives’ sense of justice, Hart also pulled at their pursestrings amid the dreariest economy in decades: Every person cleared of a crime and released from prison will save taxpayers more than $20,000 annually. Hart expects a maximum of two such petitions annually, so even if taxpayers have to chip in for tests, it won’t cost more than $1,000 a year.

Retirees: ‘The funds we have worked all our lives for’

About 30 state and local government retirees gathered on the Statehouse steps in a biting wind today to protest HCR 42, the measure to block a scheduled 1 percent cost-of-living increase for state retirees that’s scheduled to take effect next month. Longtime state employee Dale Tankersley, who retired 15 years ago after 38 years of service to the state, declared, “I think it’s wrong and it’s irresponsible, and it’s not doing the right thing for public employees.” Don Brennan, a retiree who started his career as a teacher in Pocatello, said, “In 2009 the Legislature saw fit to discontinue our health benefits. … This year, more tampering with the PERSI account,” which he said will “minimize the funds we have worked all our lives for.”

The press conference was sponsored by the Idaho Public Employees Association, the Idaho Education Association and the AARP of Idaho, all of which are opposing the legislation. Donna Yule of the IPEA said, “We think the Legislature should show confidence in our PERSI board, not try to second-guess them. … The PERSI fund is not underperforming. It’s just simply not true.” HCR 42 comes up for a full public hearing tomorrow at 1:30 in the west wing auditorium of the state Capitol. House GOP leaders who pushed the bill said they’re worried that the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho fund isn’t performing adequately, so they’re proposing to override the board’s recommendation on a COLA for the first time ever, though the fund remains highly ranked compared to other states’ retirement funds. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, lead sponsor of the bill, said he also was prompted to act by “equity” concerns, because current state employees are facing furloughs and other cuts.

PERSI COLA bill to get hearing tomorrow

Here’s a news item from The Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Senate plans to debate a plan to block Idaho government retirees from getting a 1 percent pension increase in March. Sen. John Andreason, the Commerce and Human Resources Committee chairman, plans to take up the measure Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. The resolution, which has already passed the House, must clear both chambers by Wednesday to take effect. Majority Republicans in the House argued against expanding payments to retirees, on concern the pension fund should be protected because there’s no guarantee the economy — and investment returns — will improve. Democrats argued GOP lawmakers are shortchanging retirees and ignoring professional fund managers who said in December the increase was prudent. Andreason will hold the hearing in the Legislature’s auditorium, on expectation retirees will attend in force to oppose the resolution.

Education ‘mastery’ bill passes House, 61-7

The House has voted 61-7 in favor of HB 493, legislation from Reps. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Branden Durst, D-Boise, to set up a pilot project in which school students could challenge classes by passing end-of-course tests, and those who graduate a year or more early as a result would be eligible for special scholarships. “What this does is it incentivizes learning,” Thayn told the House. “It’s not going to require any extra funds, because the state spends about $4,500 a year per student, and these funds would simply come from that money that we would have allocated.” Some lawmakers who are retired teachers raised concerns about the move. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said his experience is that an end-of-course exam isn’t that thorough. “There are things it doesn’t measure,” he said. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think we are encouraging too much of a surface understanding rather than an in-depth understanding.”

Backers, though, said the bill would encourage more Idaho students to go to college, an area in which Idaho has lagged far behind most states. “Those are the innovators, those are the leaders of our state and we need to encourage them to continue to move through the system,” Durst said. The bill now moves to the Senate.

It’s a younger place today…

The average age in the state Capitol seems to have fallen precipitously today, as a result of a number of factors: Several school groups are visiting, including a large group of fifth-graders; and a large contingent of midwives and home-birth advocates, babies in tow, are here from around the state for the Rep. Pete Nielsen’s introduction this morning of legislation to ease midwife licensing. The bill, however, was rejected in the House State Affairs Committee.

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press about the midwifery vote:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers refused to reconsider Idaho’s 7-month-old midwife licensing law, deciding it was premature to consider unwinding something that took effect less than a year ago. Rep. Pete Nielsen, who voted for mandatory licensing in 2009 when it passed the House 67-0, told the House State Affairs Committee Monday that he now believes requiring midwives to be licensed could infringe on religious rights and raise cost of expectant mothers’ care. But a razor-thin, 9-8 majority agreed with Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, a Boise Democrat who said the law should be allowed run its course before addressing whether changes are necessary. The 2009 licensing law came after hours of hearings over two years on a sensitive issue: Balancing bringing a child into the world according to a woman’s wishes and making sure it’s done safely.

House votes 49-18 for mountain biking plate

HB 486, creating a new special license plate to benefit mountain biking trails, has passed the House on a 49-18 vote. “This bill is purely revenue-generating for the state,” said Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, the bill’s lead sponsor. Each special plate sold will initially send $22 to the state highway fund and $15 to the state Department of Parks and Recreation for trail work; in subsequent years, renewals will send $13 to the highway fund and $12 to parks. “This bill has the support of trail user groups from all parts of the state,” Cronin told the House. “This is a bill that can generate revenue when we are definitely looking under every rock, as well as serve the dual purpose of marking one of Idaho’s unparalleled recreational opportunities.” The bill now moves to the Senate side.

‘Conscience’ bill clears committee, 6-3

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 6-3 to pass SB 1353, the “conscience” bill, and send it to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.” “This legislation prohibits nothing, it does allow professionals to opt out of something they don’t want to do,” said Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, who made the motion to approve the bill. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the long hearing on the bill pointed up some potential legal problems, especially concerning the impact of the measure on Idaho employers. “We may be creating greater challenges to employers, and that’s an area that I think we may as a Legislature have to look at adjusting as time goes by,” Davis said.  But he said he’d support the bill, and noted that business groups didn’t turn out to testify against it.

Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said, “We should answer those questions before we take the bold step of putting something into the code and exposing ourselves and our employers to what could be substantial litigation on an issue.” She added that she saw the bill as “a very ill-timed move” because of the cost to the state of defending it in court, when Idaho is “facing unprecedented budget crisis.” Those voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Fulcher, Davis, McKague, Pearce, Darrington and Geddes. Those voting against were Sens. Kelly, Stegner and Stennett.

‘Conscience’ bill prompts much debate

The hearing on SB 1353, the abortion and emergency contraception “conscience” bill, has been stretching on for nearly two hours already this morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee. So far, among the many testifying on the bill have been the Catholic diocese of Idaho, in favor of the bill; the Idaho Women’s Network, against it; Right to Life of Idaho, in favor; and the ACLU of Idaho, against. Here, anti-abortion activist David Ripley, lobbyist for “Idaho Chooses Life,” answers questions about the bill from members of the Senate committee. Christ Troupis, attorney for the group, also answered numerous questions about the bill. Troupis noted that the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association is opposing the bill, saying it may interfere with patient malpractice lawsuits.  Troupis said he disagrees with that. The bill would allow any licensed health care provider to refuse to provide any treatment related to abortion, emergency contraception or end-of-life care if it violates their conscience, without losing their job.

Among the questions from the committee members were how that affects a business. Troupis said the business could fire the employee if the conscience exemption places the business at a competitive disadvantage.

Endowment board budget approved - with extra $22M transfer for schools

Among the budgets approved this morning by JFAC were the budget for the Endowment Fund Investment Board for next year - including the transfer of an extra $22 million from the public school earnings reserve fund. There was no discussion, and the vote was unanimous. But earlier in the morning, at a workshop meeting before the JFAC meeting, the sponsor of the budget, Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, said, “This is somewhat a troubling budget to me, the fact that the Land Board allowed $22 million to come out of the earnings reserve. It’s putting the whole fund at risk.”

The Idaho Land Board, which oversees the state’s school endowment, decided only after extensive debate - and on a 3-2 vote - to allocate that extra money for schools next year, at the request of state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. Luna had actually asked for more than twice as much, $52.8 million, to help ease big budget cuts that are looming for public schools next year. JFAC will set the public school budget a week from Monday.

Even the first agency budgets, with no general funds, aren’t turning out to be easy

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has started setting agency budgets for 2011 this morning,  starting with agencies that get no general funds, just dedicated or federal funds. Already, the committee has gotten hung up on a proposal from Sen Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, to restore $191,500 in personnel cuts to the Department of Finance that were cut this year. It’s all dedicated funds that come from fees, and Mortimer and Jaquet argued it’s needed to adequately regulate banks and financial institutions. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, offered a substitute motion to cut the money anyway, noting that unspent fee money at the department gets “swept” into the general fund at the end of the year, so the move could eventually cost money to the general fund.

Eskridge’s motion failed on a close, 9-11 vote; the original motion from Mortimer and Jaquet then passed, 13-7. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, said she could make the same arguments that Mortimer and Jaquet made for any of the budgets that are coming; Jaquet said restoring the cuts will ease furloughs for department employees, which cut into their regulatory work. Said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the other JFAC co-chair, “This is the first day of our first budget-setting, and we have to maintain some level of control. … We’ve got some tough decisions coming down the road.” On the other hand, he noted, adequate regulation of banks could save the general fund long-term by preventing banks from failing. Cameron ended up opposing Eskridge’s substitute motion, casting the tie-breaking vote.

Moyle: Dems and GOP working together on jobs legislation

There’s a new bill on the agenda for the Rev & Tax Committee this morning, for possible introduction, addressing a tax credit for permanent new employees who will be paid at least $35,000 a year and get health benefits - and it’s co-sponsored by House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Moyle said the measure expands an existing small employer jobs tax credit that he authored in the past, and he and Rusche are working together on the proposal. Rusche will present it to the committee. “You’ll see us work together on most of that stuff - we always have,” Moyle said. “John’s a pretty good guy. We’re working on a couple more.”

He added that the governor’s office also is aware of efforts to look at jobs legislation. Earlier, House  and Senate Democrats proposed a six-bill package of legislation on the issue that they dubbed “I-Jobs.” Said Moyle, “The Democrats and the Republicans including the governor are working together on some of these solutions.”

Otter slams press coverage

Gov. Butch Otter, in a guest opinion distributed to Idaho media today, blasts unnamed “newspaper columnists” for allegedly twisting facts in reporting on his budget proposals this year. “There was a time when most newspaper columnists at least paid lip service to the good intentions of public officials,” Otter writers. “They might be misguided, shortsighted or simply stupid, the writers would suggest, but at least they meant well. Social niceties were observed; there was a higher level of mutual respect and civility. That just isn’t the case anymore.” You can read his full op-ed piece here.

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the sixth week of Idaho’s legislative session in pictures, as a slide show. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the picture frame, and the captions will appear as the slide show plays. Tonight, on Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports,” we’ll talk about the state budget, the governor’s change of message on agency phase-outs, tax breaks, education reform and the PERSI COLA issue. Guests joining host Thanh Tan include Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell; Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise; and Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, who is pictured here, left, with Big Bird and IPTV General Manager Peter Morrill, right. I join commentators including Jim Weatherby, Kevin Richert and Brian Murphy on the program, which airs tonight at 8, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here. The show also is broadcast on the radio at 3 p.m. on Saturday on KISU-FM, and 10 a.m. Sunday on KBSX 91.5 FM.

AARP speaks out against PERSI bill

The Idaho AARP is speaking out vehemently against HCR 42, the bill that passed the House today to block a scheduled 1 percent cost of living increase for state retirees next month. “This legislation says the state of Idaho does not value its retirees – that’s a bad message for both retirees and state employees,” said Jim Wordelman, state director. He released figures showing how many state retirees there are in each Idaho county, and estimated millions in losses to local economies if those retirees don’t get their COLA. “The loss of a COLA will mean more Idaho retirees are forced to struggle in their golden years,” Wordelman said. “We’re calling on Idaho senators to take a stand and do what’s right for people who gave so much to the state.”

The bill zoomed over to the Senate today, where it’s been assigned to the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee; the House suspended its rules to pass the bill today though it just came out of committee yesterday. It’s on a fast track because to take effect, it must pass both houses by next Wednesday; you can see the AARP’s full statement here.

Bill gives lawmakers more say in redistricting

Here’s a news item from The Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Republican lawmaker is making another run at revamping how Idaho draws up election boundaries every 10 years. Rep. Tom Loertscher’s bill, introduced in the House State Affairs Committee Friday, would let the Legislature intervene in nasty reapportionment fights, if the Idaho Supreme Court is unable to quickly resolve disputes over redistricting plans. A citizen commission was created by constitutional amendment in 1994, to take politics out of creating new boundaries supposedly based on the latest U.S. Census count. But court challenges lingered even with the 2001 reapportionment, when southeastern Idaho lawmakers like Loertscher believed they were disadvantaged. Loertscher must drive through Wyoming to get from one part of District 31 to another. Democrats Friday objected to his bill, saying it was just another attempt to put the Legislature back in charge.

Senate sends HCR 42 to Commerce & Human Resources Committee

HCR 42 arrived in the Senate, and the Senate went at ease and milled around for a long period of time. Senators were in various huddles, and it wasn’t clear what was happening. Then, just now, the Senate reconvened, and the Senate read HCR 42 across the desk, the formal first step when a bill arrives from the House. Then, Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, announced, “HCR No. 42 will be referred to the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.”

In the House, the bill came through the State Affairs Committee, rather than Commerce & Human Resources, the committee that normally deals with state employee issues - and that might be considered more sympathetic to state employees. That’s even more true in the Senate.

Dems’ delaying move on HCR 42 fails

It turns out that Democrats won’t be able to bring HCR 42 back for reconsideration in the House, because the speaker ruled that under House Rule 40, though serving notice to reconsider normally would mean reconsideration could be taken up the next legislative day, if it’s after the 35th day of the legislative session any motion to reconsider has to come up the same day as the bill’s original consideration. “I was hoping we could get a different interpretation, but that was not to happen,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “We were hoping to be able to get some information from the PERSI board that perhaps may have changed the opinion of some people.” Rusche said he won’t challenge Speaker Lawerence Denney’s interpretation of the rule. “I didn’t read it that way at first, but I could see how he could, and that’s his job to make the interpretation.”

That means that House Democrats’ attempt to delay the bill through a parliamentary maneuver has failed, and it’s on its way to the Senate. The bill has to pass both houses by next Wednesday to take effect and block a scheduled 1 percent cost of living increase for state retirees next month.

HCR 42 passes House, but could be reconsidered

The House has voted 48-19 in favor of HCR 42, the bill to block a 1 percent cost of living increase for state retirees next month. It wasn’t a straight party-line vote. Two Republicans, Reps. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, and Tom Trail, R-Moscow, voted against the bill, joining Democrats; and one Democrat, Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, voted in favor of it, joining Republicans. Then, right after the vote, she rose, and said, “Having voted on the prevailing side, I wish to give notice of reconsideration for HCR 42.” Speaker Lawerence Denney responded, “So noted.” That means, under rules, Boe can bring the bill back up for a re-vote, though the House would then have to vote to reconsider.

Hot and heavy debate in House on retiree COLA

The debate is hot and heavy in the House on HCR 42, the measure to block a scheduled 1 percent cost of living increase for state retirees next month. So far, Democrats are debating against the measure, and Republicans in favor of it. “The issue here is whose money is this,” said Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise. “Is this the general fund’s money? … This isn’t the taxpayers’ money. This is the money of the retirees and the people that are working as our state employees, this is their money, and if the person that they keep in charge of managing their money thinks that this is a wise investment, then they should have the right to get the increase that those experts expect them to.”

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said, “People have argued that the PERSI board has all of the wisdom in the world. … We’ve heard for the last 30 years that there’s all kinds of financial wizards on Wall Street. … We know what that did, and all of the brainpower on Wall Street, look where that got us in the last two years.”

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, argued that the 1 percent COLA will mean a much higher increase in PERSI contribution rates in 2012, though PERSI says a 1.5 percent increase will be needed with or without the COLA. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “It seems inconsistent policy to give state employees a COLA while we are requiring active employees to take furloughs and possible negative CEC.” Lake said he disagrees with the PERSI board that earnings will bounce back from the current downturn and thus the COLA is prudent. “If you believe that, you probably also believe that the economy is going to improve in the next year or so,” Lake told the House. “It’s not, I think, going to happen, and I think we take a huge risk to make that assumption.”

House suspends rules, takes up PERSI COLA

The full House has suspended its rules and is now considering HCR 42, the bill to block a scheduled 1 percent cost-of-living increase for state retirees. The bill just emerged from the State Affairs Committee yesterday on a party-line vote, after being killed overwhelmingly in the same committee a day earlier.

Guv applauds JFAC decisions

Gov. Butch Otter has issued a statement applauding JFAC for its decisions on balancing the current year’s state budget and protecting public schools from any mid-year cut this year. “The JFAC plan is an appropriate response to the latest economic news,” Otter said in the statement. “After consulting with locally elected school officials, I fully support the 18-month approach to budgeting for public schools in order to leave them without harm in the current budget year. I’m hopeful that it will provide more flexibility for schools in meeting their own budget needs.”

Otter added, “JFAC members and co-chairs deserve our thanks for taking on this heavy lifting in such a responsible and constructive way.” Click below to read his full statement.

‘The budget for 2010 is balanced’

Cathy Holland-Smith, legislative budget director, told JFAC her staff is distributing its first general fund budget update, showing the impact of budget decisions the joint committee just has made. “It does reflect very, very difficult choices, but at this point the budget for 2010 is balanced,” Holland-Smith said. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, thanked the JFAC staff for all their work. “Albeit tenuously, it is balanced,” Cameron said, “and now we can move forward for 2011.”

Cameron told Eye on Boise, “It’s very difficult, I think, for agencies to take a 7 percent reduction this late in the year. The only silver lining is that the agencies have been anticipating it and have been preparing for additional reductions. For some - Corrections and Health & Welfare - it’s extremely difficult, but we don’t really have any other alternative.”

JFAC finds $25M in cost-savings for next year’s budget

JFAC has just finished working through a series of decisions on items that affect every agency budget for the fiscal year 2011, which will then be included as each agency’s budget is set. Among the items: A plan worked up by the JFAC co-chairs that goes beyond the governor’s proposal of  drawing on health insurance reserves for a money-saving “premium holiday” for the state next year, to do the same for the employees themselves. The plan includes two days of premium holiday both for the employer and the employee; funding comes out of insurance reserves, and the result is a savings to the state general fund of $14.7 million plus an unknown savings to every individual state employee. The plan also calls for not funding premium increases next year, which would either mean negotiating premiums that don’t increase or drawing on reserves; that move saves next year’s state budget $9.7 million. Between the two moves, the state saves nearly $25 million in next year’s budget. After discussion, the plan was approved by unanimous consent.

Fourth motion also unanimous

The fourth motion, to transfer $33.3 million from the budget stabilization fund to the general fund, also passed unanimously, this time on a 19-0 vote.

Third motion also unanimous, first transfer from reserves

The third motion, to make the first of two transfers from reserve funds to balance this year’s budget - $20 million from the Economic Recovery Reserve Fund - has passed unanimously, 18-0. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, stepped out and missed the vote.

Second motion passes unanimously

The second motion in JFAC this morning, from Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, has passed on a unanimous, 19-0 vote. “This motion restores the money to public schools that was taken in the previous motion,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “It is totally restored, $86 million.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “Public schools will be held whole for the remainder of 2010. That did result in our taking some $30 million-plus in stimulus funds from 2011 for the public schools, so that’s a fairly significant detail that we will have to deal with in the 2011 budget.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said she’s concerned that the moves “create something of a shell game,” allowing some to argue that when money that’s been cut is restored, it’s an increase. “That gives me pause,” she said. But all committee members present supported the motion, which puts $140.6 million back into the budget through various shifts, including the $86.2 million for public schools.

First motion passes on party-line vote

The first motion has passed JFAC on a party-line vote, 15-4, to cut $188.75 million out of the current year’s budget. The committee’s four Democrats voted no. “The bottom line is so much lower than the governor’s proposal,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. “It does give me some heartburn about what’s going to happen in (fiscal) 2011.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, is absent today due to the death of her aunt last night, to whom she was very close; that’s why the committee votes don’t total the full 20. “I wish she were here,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; Keough is his vice-chair. “She’s a good right-hand woman.”

 

The magnitude of the cuts…

As JFAC prepares for momentous decisions this morning - how to balance the current year’s budget with $69 million less than the state thought it had as of the governor’s State of the State address in January - the scale of the cuts is starting to become clear. The plan put together by JFAC members would slash $188.75 million in state general funds out of the budget - a 7.1 percent permanent reduction on all agencies including public schools - and then backfill some of that plus cover some supplemental appropriations with $140.6 million in one-time shifts of dedicated, federal and general funds. That includes $86.6 million in reserve and stimulus funds for public schools to fully offset the mid-year cut. However, schools then would be missing that amount - and likely more - the following year from their general fund budget. 

To make it all work, the plan shifts $20 million from the economic recovery reserve fund and $33.5 million from the budget stabilization fund into the general fund. That would leave the state with $97.9 million in three reserve funds - budget stabilization, public education stabilization and economic recovery reserve fund - at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, instead of the $131.4 million anticipated in the governor’s recommendation. The end result is a total general-fund budget for this year of $2.28 billion, down from $2.5 billion. For colleges and universities, for example, that would mean a total general-fund cut this year of more than $28 million, from the original budget set for this year; that includes $10 million for a livestock center that’s being put on hold. For corrections, it’s a $10.5 million cut, but $8.3 million gets restored. 

Bill exempts rural homes from fire code

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Senate panel sided with backers of giving people more freedom to build rural homes where and how they please, even if they don’t conform to fire safety rules. Under the measure, SB 1325, passed Thursday in the Senate Commerce Committee, single-family homes built on five-acre parcels outside of cities would be exempted from International Fire Code water supply and access rules, unless a county adopts the code. Fire chiefs in 2009 fought off a push to eliminate the International Fire Code as Idaho’s minimum fire safety standard. Meridian Fire Chief Ron Anderson, an Idaho Fire Chiefs Association member, says he’s still concerned these changes will make it tougher for emergency crews to protect rural homes, but says Sen. Steven Bair’s latest measure affects only a limited number of them. The bill now goes to the full Senate.

Retiree: ‘Leave our money alone!’

Vern Bisterfeldt, who worked as a Boise city police officer for 28 years, then served as an Ada County commissioner, and now serves on the Boise City Council, is speaking out against the move by the House State Affairs Committee today to block a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment for PERSI. Bisterfeldt is a PERSI retiree, and he said, “I’m so mad I could just spit.” Bisterfeldt said the COLA would mean “30 bucks for me a month. What’s that going to do for the state? And it’s not their money to start with.”

Bisterfeldt said he has a message for lawmakers: “Leave our money alone! You know, we worked hard and paid into that for a lot of years, it’s still being paid into, and it will recover. It’s always been healthy, and just because they’re looking for ways to cut the budgets in the present-day state budget, for God’s sake leave us alone.” Bisterfeldt said blocking retirees’ cost of living increase won’t save the state budget a dime. “What I can’t figure out,” he said, “is why?”

School trustees plead for flexibility in cuts

There are 200 school board members from all over the state in town today for an Idaho School Boards Association meeting, and that’s why the Legislature’s largest hearing room, the west wing auditorium, is full for the Senate Education Committee meeting this afternoon, where ISBA President Wayne Freedman gave a presentation. As budget cuts come, Freedman told the lawmakers, “We ask that they have as little impact on the students in the classroom as possible.”

This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unveiled its plan to protect public schools from any further budget cuts this year, pushing off the big cuts to fiscal year 2011. The joint committee will vote on that plan tomorrow morning; it forces cuts of about 7.1 percent on nearly everything else in state government this year, with only some small exceptions. Freedman told the Education Committee that cuts next year are more manageable than cuts in the current year, even if they’re bigger. “Any holdbacks are going to … affect school districts more this year  than they would be if we rolled them into next year.” He said school districts need maximum flexibility to plan for the cuts, and noted, “It’s going to affect every district differently.”

Beck: ‘I’m not that weird,’ actuarial report came from Hoffman

Former state Sen. Rod Beck just contacted Eye on Boise to say he didn’t just find the fiscal year 2009 PERSI actuarial report on the Internet while cruising Web sites; he got it in an email from Wayne Hoffman, who obtained it through a request to PERSI. “I just was not digging through actuarial reports - I’m not that weird,” Beck said. “The only person I sent it to was those that asked me, and it was Tom Loertscher and Lynn Luker. … Tom told me that he sent it to other members of the committee itself.”

Republicans on the House State Affairs Committee cited the report today as a reason for suddenly, and without notice, overturning yesterday’s 13-5 vote to kill HCR 42, which seeks to block a scheduled 1 percent cost-of-living increase next month for state retirees; instead, today, in a straight party-line vote, the committee sent the measure to the full House with a recommendation that it pass.

Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, published an “Idaho Pork Report” at the start of the legislative session that decried PERSI retirement benefits as unduly generous. In an article headed, “Work for the state, retire like a king,” Hoffman wrote, “The question for policy makers is whether taxpayers should be forced to continue to subsidize such a generous employee benefits package at the expense of taxpayers.”

Long-lost doorknob returns…

Sen. Joe Stegner found a box on his desk today, and in it was one of the original missing antique heavy brass doorknobs from the state Capitol, with the state seal and the saying “Esto Perpetua” deeply engraved into its surface, along with a note. Stegner has been leading lots of tours of the renovated state Capitol, and he often mentions that many of the original doorknobs have disappeared for souvenirs - possibly for former legislators - over the past 90 years. The note said a tour participant knew someone who had one, and talked that person into returning it to the state. “I intend to get it on a door,” Stegner said.

Who’s affected by PERSI fight?

The legislative dust-up over a scheduled 1 percent cost of living adjustment that state retirees are scheduled to receive in March affects 33,000 retirees from 728 employers, the largest of which is the state; the employers also include local units of government across the state, from cities and counties to highway and cemetery districts. Whether or not the COLA is granted to the retirees, it won’t make any difference in the next scheduled rate increase for PERSI contributions of 1.5 percent, which is scheduled for fiscal year 2012. The reason? The COLA is so small that it’s hardly more than a rounding error in the actuarial calculations of the fund’s assets and liabilities.

Overall, between now and the end of time, the “net present value” of the 1 percent COLA is $50 million. The net present value of PERSI’s future benefits - what it will cost to pay all benefits over time - is estimated at $12 billion. “That’s the net present value of future benefits forever,” Jody Olson, president of the PERSI board for the past two decades, told the House State Affairs Committee yesterday. In 2008, the PERSI board opted to give retirees just a 1 percent COLA, though it could have granted up to 5.4 percent. “We allowed it to slide by 4.4 percent because we saw these disastrous markets coming,” Olson told the committee. “This year, we thought … (we could) give that 1 percent COLA.”

Harwood proposes ‘Firearm Freedom Act’

Idaho would declare that any gun or ammunition manufactured in the state doesn’t have to be registered and is exempt from all federal laws and regulations, under legislation introduced at the request of Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, this morning. “This is a state sovereignty issue,” Harwood told the House State Affairs Committee. “What it’s trying to do is create a court challenge in the federal courts to Commerce Clause powers, is what it basically does … saying we as a state need to be able to control our own commerce within our state.”

Harwood said Montana and Tennessee already have passed similar laws and they’re being challenged in court. “If they could get 25 states, which looks like, if they could all pass their bill, the Supreme Court would take a look at this commerce power again,” he said. The committee agreed on a voice vote, with a couple of objections, to introduce the bill. “I think this is, from my review of it … a piece of legislation that certainly deserves a full hearing,” said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake.

PERSI: ‘They’re the plan sponsor’

Don Drum, director of the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, said of a legislative committee’s surprise reconsideration and passage today of previously-killed legislation to block a 1 percent COLA for state retirees next month, “They’re the plan sponsor, and they can make decisions. … Granted it’s the first time ever that they chose not to accept (the PERSI board’s decision on a COLA), but that’s within the law … they can do that.”

As for concern over an actuarial report showing a $3 billion unfunded liability at PERSI, Drum said that report was for the fiscal year that ended July 1, 2009. “In 2007, we were 105 percent funded and we had $600 million in surplus,” Drum said. “So that’s where we were at July 1, 2007. This market drop is what has caused us to go from that positive number to a negative number. … PERSI’s been in worse shape historically than we are today, and in fact, this is how things swing.”

Since the end of the fiscal year covered by that report, the PERSI fund has actually gained about $500 million - just in the past seven months - though it still has an unfunded liability of more than $2 billion. “So that number ebbs and flows with the market significantly,” Drum said. “If you’re someone who engages in the market and understands the ebbs and flows of the market, it would not be a surprise, and I guess you would probably look at how much we’ve bounced back since June 30 and you would be optimistic in thinking that it’s not going to be a problem for us.”

He added, “We are recognized nationally as being a very solid fund and a very well-managed and run fund. I think we take a lot of pride in the fact that we get that kind of recognition.”

New report from Pew Center on the States: PERSI fund a ‘top performer’ among states

The Pew Center on the States released a national report yesterday entitled “The Trillion-Dollar Gap: Underfunded State Retirement Systems and the Road to Reform.” What it found: Many state pension plans are in big trouble, but not Idaho’s. Instead, Idaho was one of nine states named a “solid performer.” The report said, “Idaho is a top performer when it comes to managing its long-term pension liability, but needs to improve how it handles the bill coming due for retiree health care and other benefits.” As far as unfunded liabilities in the PERSI fund, which House GOP lawmakers bemoaned today, the report said, “The state has consistently met or surpassed its actuarily required contribution levels each year since 1997, and it has funded 93 percent of its total pension obligation - well above the 80 percent benchmark that the U.S. Government Accountability Office says is preferred by experts.” You can see the full report here.

Dems leaders blast PERSI switch

House minority leaders are blasting the GOP majority for its move today to suddenly, and without notice, reconsider already-killed legislation blocking a 1 percent COLA for state retirees - which was scheduled to take effect in March. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the actuarial report that Republican committee members said changed their minds is “easy to misinterpret,” and if they were concerned about the report they were sent by a citizen activist, they should’ve consulted PERSI officials about it. House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said, “It’s another example of the majority party ignoring what the state’s experts have to say about an issue that is very important to the people of Idaho. … Now they’re ignoring the recommendations of the individuals charged fiduciarily with managing the state’s retirement fund.”

Rusche said reconsidering the measure without allowing any public input, notice or comment from PERSI was “egregious.”

Legislative dining room to open to the public, but only for breakfast

The legislative dining room will now open to the public every day from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., though it will remain open only to legislators and invited guests  from 11:30 to 2 p.m. House Assistant Majority Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, just announced the change on the floor of the House. “There’s certainly excess capacity there,” Bedke told Eye on Boise. “This whole thing was a work in progress, this policy, and you may see it be modified again.”

Since the newly renovated capitol reopened, there’s been no place in the building for anyone other than lawmakers to get a soda or a snack, including school groups and members of the public visiting the building. The dining room, which serves both the House and Senate, originally was envisioned as a public dining room, but instead was closed. Since the legislative session started, there’s been concern that it’s not seeing enough business to keep it running.

Loertscher: ‘Just felt like it probably shouldn’t go on the agenda’

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he decided not to put reconsideration of HCR 42, on state retirees’ cost-of-living increases, on the agenda for today’s committee meeting because he didn’t want to have to take public testimony, including comments from PERSI officials. “I just felt like it probably shouldn’t go on the agenda,” Loertscher told reporters after the meeting. “I just didn’t think we wanted to open it up again. … We had a lot of public input yesterday.”

Loertscher said, “Time is of the essence here.” The Legislature can’t block the scheduled 1 percent COLA for state retirees - scheduled to take place in March - unless both houses approve it by the 45th day of the legislative session, which falls next Wednesday. “This just finally occurred to us a week ago, basically,” Loertscher said. “It was thought prudent by leadership and others here that we needed to take action on this.”

Loertscher said the new actuarial report he relied on was brought to his attention after yesterday’s committee meeting by former state lawmaker and GOP activist Rod Beck, who said he found it on the Internet. Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls, said he was “livid” when he saw the report. Loertscher said he was horrified to discover that PERSI has a $3 billion unfunded liability, and compared it to General Motors. Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, said, “This unfunded liability is a serious thing … unless the economy turns around. … There is a time line on this. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until next week. … I feel bad that we didn’t know about this three months ago.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “When I voted yesterday I made it clear that I didn’t think it was an appropriate policy to dock the retirees just because the current employees were being docked too. I made it clear that this was an actuarial issue, and with this information, which is significant, it’s enough for me to change my vote.”

Straight party-line vote to block retiree COLA

The House State Affairs Committee has now voted along party lines - with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed - to send HCR 42 to the full House with a recommendation that it “do-pass.” The measure would block the scheduled 1 percent COLA for state retirees this spring; it reverses the same committee’s decision yesterday on a 13-5 vote to kill the bill.

Dems: ‘This is a complete ambush’

Democrats on the committee strenuously objected to reconsidering HCR 42, the measure to block a 1 percent COLA for state retirees, today - after it was rejected on a 13-5 vote after a full hearing yesterday. “This is a complete ambush today,” said Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise. “I believe this is a very partisan move and I’m very distressed that such a thing is happening. We were sent here to work on issues, not play politics. We heard tremendous testimony yesterday. And yet obviously they were not contacted. I don’t see the PERSI board here, I don’t see Mr. Drum here. We received no notice. Some of us in this room have been acting in good faith and in fair dealing, and today we had the rug pulled out from under us and I very much object. This may be legal but I think it’s highly unethical.”

Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he has a new actuarial report showing that the state retirement system isn’t performing well after all. “The number of retirees … are going up, the revenue to the fund is not keeping up with the benefits, and yet here was are talking about giving a cost of living increase,” Loertscher said. “It is part of the equation that will cause contributions to go up.” He said, “The performance of the fund has not kept pace with the demands on the fund.” Rep. Erik Simpson said, “We should have got this information provided to us yesterday.”

House State Affairs reconsidering blocking 1 percent COLA for state retirees

The House State Affairs Committee has voted on straight party lines - with all Democrats objecting - to reconsider yesterday’s 13-5 vote to kill a resolution from Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, to block a scheduled 1 percent COLA for state retirees. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, made the motion to reconsider, saying there’s new information. Committee Chair Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, then made a motion to send the measure, HCR 42, to the House floor with a recommendation that it “do-pass.” The committee is debating now.

Hart immigration bill killed

The House State Affairs Committee has killed HB 497, Rep. Phil Hart’s immigration bill. A motion to amend it instead and remove much of the bill - the section to suspend employers’ licenses for violations - failed on a 6-11 vote, and then a motion to just kill the bill passed on a voice vote. Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, who made the successful motion, said, “The problem is the federal government allowing an adequate work force to come here.”

Farmers, retailers, IACI, ICAN oppose Rep. Hart’s immigration legislation

Brent Olmstead, lobbyist for the Milk Producers of Idaho, said an array of groups oppose HB 497, Rep. Phil Hart’s immigration bill, and they include the Food Producers of Idaho, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Retailers Association, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, and more. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, noted that it’s just one of three bills on the topic pending in this year’s Legislature; he asked Olmstead which bill his coalition, the Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform, is backing. “We will likely as a coalition not support any of them,” Olmstead responded. “This is a federal issue.”

An Idaho Community Action Network board member, Alicia Clements, also spoke out against the bill, saying “only Congress can deliver” a solution to the immigration issue, and that Hart’s bill would simply impose more costs on the state. “It’s going to cost us a lot of money that we need for schools and other programs, and … it’s not going to work,” she told the committee.

Hart: ‘The U.S. is a magnet for these people’

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, is presenting his immigration legislation to the House State Affairs Committee this morning, seeking to penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants by suspending their business licenses. The measure, HB 497, also includes misdemeanor penalties for using false identification to secure employment; and misdemeanor and felony penalties for falsifying records for someone else for employment.  “It’s not the intent of this legislation to preclude foreign workers from coming here if they were to come here legally,” Hart told the committee. He said he wants to eliminate any incentive for undocumented immigrants to come to Idaho to seek work. “The United States is a magnet for those people, and they’re coming across the border in droves,” Hart said.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, asked Hart why he chose suspending business licenses as his penalty for employers, rather than misdemeanor penalties. “I’m not aware of any licenses that you’re supposed to have to grow fruit or that kind of thing,” Luker said, adding that he wondered how local prosecutors could keep track of all possible licenses that could be affected. Hart said states are pre-empted from imposing criminal penalties on employers by federal law, and can only act on licenses. “We can only do what Congress has given us the freedom to do,” Hart said. Other committee members wondered about the impact on Idaho farmers. “What happens to the farm?” asked Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs. “And in the case of a dairy, what happens to the cows - does the Humane Society come in and milk the cows? We’re dealing with reality.”

Airport debt measure clears House panel

HJR 5, a constitutional amendment to allow indebtedness for public airports and air navigation facilities, cleared the House State Affairs Committee this morning with just one “no” vote, after military officials confirmed that it’d be helpful to Idaho’s bid to land an F-35 training base at Gowen Field. The amendment is one of three pending this session, in response to the Frazier decision by the Idaho Supreme Court that limited public indebtedness without a vote for “ordinary and necessary” government expenses. HJR 5 specifies that the debt must be repayable solely from airport revenues, and not from taxes; it declares airport projects, acquisitions and facilities to be “public purposes.” The measure now moves to the full House. To take effect, a constitutional amendment needs two-thirds passage in each house of the Legislature, plus a majority vote of the people at the next general election.

JFAC hears from germane committee chairs

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is hearing today from legislative committee chairmen on their recommendations on budgets. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, went first, telling JFAC his committee is working to quickly pass the surcharge on convictions that courts are seeking to make up a big budget shortfall next year. It still would leave courts with as much as a $1.4 million shortfall, Clark said, but he said, “They can absorb that.” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Clark, who is retiring after this year, “You are truly going to be missed because we never know what you’re going to do next, and it keeps us on our toes.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Denton Darrington, R-Declo, told the committee that public safety is the No. 1 charge for government, more important even than education. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said school districts, teachers, administrators, school boards and more “have all been asking for flexibility in these tough economic times.” He urged JFAC to preserve the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. “We get the fact that budgets are going to be cut, but let’s do our best not to eliminate good programs,” he said. Nonini said he doesn’t want to see school administrators get raises “in these tough times that we’re in.”

School funding plan taking shape…

JFAC members gathered this morning in a workshop meeting to begin going over the figures and steps they’ll have to take tomorrow to cut $69 million out of the current year’s state budget. A proposal worked up by the JFAC co-chairs, other JFAC members, education stakeholders and others calls for transferring $33.5 million more out of the budget stabilization fund, pulling forward $33 million in federal stimulus money for education that otherwise was supposed to be spent next year, and making an array of other shifts and cuts to accomplish the job, leaving all state agencies facing a 7.1 percent permanent cut in their budgets for this year, but with the school budget backfilled on a one-time basis so that schools would face no cut this year. They’d take the full cut next year, however.

“It nets out very close to what the governor had recommended - it’s only a matter of management for the schools so that they have time to prepare,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron. He said that’s what all the stakeholders - the associations of teachers, school superintendents, school boards and more - told lawmakers they wanted.

Certain other areas that can’t take the full cut, including state prisons, would also get one-time money to partially reduce the cutback. By the end of the fiscal year, Idaho would have $30.8 million left in its budget stabilization fund, $17.6 million in its public education stabilization fund and $49.5 million in its economic recovery reserve fund. By the end of fiscal year 2011, however, nearly all reserves would be spent, except for the remaining PSEF fund and the Millenium Fund, which still is being held as a reserve against possible cuts in federal Medicaid funding.

The plan means some major supplemental budget requests couldn’t be funded this year - including $1 million for fast-growing College of Western Idaho, and $14.2 million for Health & Welfare, mostly for Medicaid. That’ll mean some bills will have to be shifted into the next fiscal year. It does, however, call for paying $14 million in bills for the state’s Catastrophic Health Care Fund - which otherwise would have to go unpaid for six months.

JFAC to make 2010 budget calls Friday

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Friday will “re-balance” the fiscal year 2010 budget - the state budget for the current year - by imposing cuts, transferring money from reserve funds, and more, dealing with every agency in state government. “We’ll make the additional reductions that we need, plug the holes that need to be plugged,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “There’ll be an omnibus recission motion, and then an omnibus restoration motion that restores some dollars to some agencies. Of course, the biggest one, the biggest beneficiary in that shift is public schools.” JFAC members have been working on a plan to spare K-12 public schools from any further budget cuts in the current year - that plan will be debated at Friday morning’s meeting.

As things gear up toward Friday, both the House and Senate Republicans held closed-door caucuses today and talked about the budget, though the meetings were relatively brief, with the Senate GOP caucusing for about 40 minutes, and the House GOP for just 10 minues. “We’re trying to get everybody in the mindset of what the budget reductions actually mean in the form of policy, what it’s going to take and what it means to different programs,” said House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly.

On Monday, JFAC will begin setting budgets for next year, with dedicated-fund agencies going first. The budget for public schools is scheduled to be set a week from Monday.

Controversial adoption reform bill killed

What rights should an unmarried biological father have, when the unmarried birth mother wants to put a baby up for adoption? No rights? All rights? Rights sufficient to hold up or stop an adoption, even if he’s really just trying to make his ex-lover’s life miserable? And what about the father’s family, the baby’s biological grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins?

There were tears and sobs, there were lawyers, there were sharp questions and more as the House Judiciary Committee wrestled with those issues this afternoon, before unanimously rejecting legislation drafted by Coeur d’Alene attorney Anne Solomon on behalf of a North Idaho family that unwillingly lost all contact with their son’s out-of-wedlock baby boy, who was adopted in Utah before the family could do anything to stop it. Kerrin Tenneson told the panel, “My son continually let her know that he did not want to give the baby up for adoption.” After a fight, her son was awarded custody in court, but it was too late - a Utah family already had adopted the little boy, and wouldn’t return him. “We really would’ve been a good family for this little baby boy,” Tenneson said.

Solomon’s 12-page bill would have required 30 days notice to the biological father and termination of his parental rights before an adoption could take place, along with other changes including new requirements for birth mothers to identify the father and refrain from deceiving him about the pregnancy or their plans. Solomon said current law - adopted through a series of adoption law reforms a decade ago - protects the mother’s privacy to the point that she can hide the whole thing from the father. “What we’re asking here is that the biological father be given notice of the decision to adopt,” she told the committee.

But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, a lawyer who served on the task force that drafted the reform laws 10 years ago, said, “If there are good fathers out there, they should know they have a baby.” The reforms sought to make adoption easier, he said, by removing a “legal mess” that mothers otherwise could avoid by having an abortion. Adoption attorney Lyman Belnap said of Solomon’s bill, “It shifts all the burden of letting me know to anyone but me. I don’t have to do anything ‘til somebody lets me know, even though my recreational sex has left somebody pregnant and I know that I had the sex.” He added, “I’m as angry as anyone else about what happened to this family that prompted this movement.”

Lori Schroath broke down in tears as she told the committee that if the bill had been in effect when she adopted her 2-1/2-year-old son, “I probably wouldn’t have gotten him.” The birth mother was a minor, but the birth father wasn’t - and if he’d registered as the putative father, he’d have been arrested, she said. Cameron Gilliland of the state Department of Health and Welfare’s Family and Community Services division said the department opposed the bill because it threatened to delay adoptions, possibly putting the state in violation of federal guidelines.

Labrador, who moved to kill the bill, said, “I think Ms. Solomon and in particular the Tenneson family brought up some issues that need to be discussed … but there are some problems with this bill that need to be addressed.” Solomon said she’ll work with the state bar, Health and Welfare and others to craft a better version for next year.

It’s ‘Buy Idaho’ day in the Statehouse…

It’s “Buy Idaho” day in the Idaho state Capitol, when the entire Statehouse is turned into a giant trade show highlighting Idaho products. In the Rotunda on the first, second, third and fourth floors, merchants are handing out free samples, showcasing their products, taking orders and more. There’s even a booth giving massages.

Sen. Crapo addresses lawmakers

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo is now addressing the state Senate; he’ll then address the House. “This is the first time I’ve been back since the remodeling, and it looks great,” he said. “It looks fantastic.” Crapo said his “first report on Washington, D.C. is it’s got 30 inches of snow and it’s shut down.” His next report: He’s concerned about federal spending. “We’ve seen an explosion of spending in Washington, D.C.,” Crapo told lawmakers. “You cannot sustain the kind of growth that we have in the federal budget when we have the kind of debt that we have.”

He added, “Frankly, I don’t see the appetite in Congress to control spending - there’s a lot of rhetoric.” He does see, he said, an “ominous … potential for increased taxes.” He decried the “reach of the federal government into the economy” as “mind-numbing.” However, Crapo said, “I believe there will be a meaningful effort for us to try to find bipartisanship and common ground to try to address some of these problems.” Among positive developments he cited: He said he thinks cap-and-trade legislation won’t pass, but other energy legislation could, to move toward a “diversified energy portfolio.” He touted more openness to nuclear power, and said renewables and conservation also offer promise. “These kinds of approaches to an energy policy are starting to develop broad-based support,” the senator said, calling that “probably the best jobs bill that we could ever implement.”

“I personally will be working hard to try to find those areas where we can build common ground and we can move forward in strengthening this great nation,” Crapo said.

Senate panel passes ‘Health Freedom Act’

The Senate State Affairs Committee, after a nearly two-hour hearing in which committee members raised serious legal concerns about the bill, nevertheless voted 6-3 this morning in favor of the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” a measure that bans the enforcement of any federal requirement for individuals or businesses to purchase health insurance and requires the state Attorney General to go to court to fight any such requirements. Click below to read more.

House committee rejects move to block COLA for state retirees

The House State Affairs Committee has voted 13-5 to kill legislation proposed by Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, to block a scheduled 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees on “equity” grounds, because active state employees are facing furloughs and other cuts. “It seems inconsistent,” Lake told the committee. His proposal would have been the first time state lawmakers had ever rejected a proposal from the PERSI board on state retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments. PERSI officials told the committee that last year, they opted to give retirees just a 1 percent COLA instead of 5.4 percent because of concerns about market conditions, but this year they were comfortable with the 1 percent proposal. Though Lake argued that things have changed since the PERSI board made that decision in December, Jody Olson, chairman of the PERSI board for the past 20 years, said the board hasn’t changed its position. “We’ve studied this matter for five months, and we believe our recommendation is appropriate. However, we fully appreciate that you’re the plan sponsor. … But our recommendation is the same.”

The Legislature could act to overrule the board, but committee members overwhelmingly refused to. Those voting against HCR 42 were Reps. Eric Anderson, Max Black, Carlos Bilbao, Raul Labrador, Lynn Luker, Russ Mathews, Steve Kren, Erik Simpson, Mary Lou Shepherd, Elaine Smith, Anne Pasley-Stuart, Phylis King, and Elfreda Higgins. Those favoring the bill were Reps. Tom Loertscher, Bert Stevenson, Ken Andrus, Brent Crane and Joe Palmer.

The difference a month makes?

One odd thing about the new criticism of Idaho Public Television’s manager, Peter Morrill, by the governor’s budget chief, Wayne Hammon, is that just a month ago Hammon heaped praise on Morrill as a creative, frugal manager. Now, Hammon is saying the governor’s proposal to phase out IPTV’s state funding over the next four years was a “wake-up call” in response to the agency’s recalcitrance on budget-cutting (see item below); but on Jan. 12, Hammon told JFAC he has “the greatest deal of respect for public television and for its director, Peter Morrill,” who he said has “been able to turn pennies into dollars.”

Hammon: Plan to eliminate IPTV funding was meant as ‘wake-up call’

Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, Wayne Hammon, said Tuesday that the governor’s plan to eliminate all state funding for Idaho Public Television over the next four years was a “wake-up call for them to get on board” with budget cuts. Until now, Otter’s aides have said cutting Idaho Public Television’s funding was largely based on his view that taxpayer-funded public TV was outside the scope of government, the Associated Press reported. That position has prompted an outcry from public TV supporters, who say the statewide network provides quality educational programming over its 42 translators to virtually all of Idaho. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Debate over tax breaks intensifies

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how the debate over tax breaks intensified in Idaho today, with a Senate committee’s decision to kill a popular tax break for homeless shelters that had unanimously passed the House, and a congressman’s call for a bipartisan commission to re-examine the state’s sales tax structure and budget needs.

Senate panel kills tax break for homeless shelters; had passed House unanimously

Legislation that had unanimously passed the House to grant a temporary, two-year sales tax exemption to non-profit homeless shelters in Idaho has been killed - unanimously - in the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee. Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, sponsor of HB 435, said after the vote, “I think they’re allowing their philosophy to cloud their judgment on people’s needs.” Committee members said they just couldn’t support continuing to pass individual sales tax exemptions, and that they can’t say that one charity is more deserving of a tax break than another. “I appreciate the good work of these and other groups that want to reach out and provide that very necessary help,” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. “The problem is that this conflicts with some very fundamental challenges in my opinion that Idaho has, and that basically is a lack of a clear policy direction on how we hand out the favors of state government - this is the power of government to tax or not tax.”
 
The unanimous vote came after only favorable testimony was offered on the bill at the committee’s hearing. The Rev. Bill Roscoe, executive director of the Boise Rescue Mission, told the committee his non-profit homeless shelters in the Treasure Valley would save $10,000 under the bill. Five non-profit homeless shelters around the state, including one in Bonner County, would have qualified for the temporary tax break. Roscoe said his organization has helped hundreds of homeless men in the past two years to move into independent or semi-independent living situations and become productive citizens. “These are men who … were wandering our streets,” he said. Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told Roscoe, “We want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing - it is a tremendous service to the citizens of Idaho.”

New bill would require review of all sales tax exemptions, expirations for new ones

The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee has agreed unanimously to support introduction of legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, to require the Legislature to review all sales tax exemptions at least every five years, and put a five-year expiration date on any new exemptions enacted after July 1, 2010. “Bring ‘em out in the light of day and see what they are,” Winder told the panel, which referred the measure to a privileged committee for introduction, since the deadline for non-privileged committee bill introductions has passed.

Sen. Eliot Werk, D-Boise, noted that there are bills already pending along these lines, including SB 1277, a bill he’s co-sponsoring with six other Senate Democrats, which would make all state tax exemptions, credits and deductions expire on Jan. 1, 2012, unless specifically extended by state law; and would require all new exemptions to expire in five years. Another is HB 396, from Reps. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, to set up a commission to review all existing sales tax exemptions at least every eight years for equity, fairness and more.

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said he’s been involved in some efforts to review exemptions, but said, “There is, in my opinion, a significant barrier to try to do that in that manner, because you have a tremendous amount of pressure from the people that enjoy the exemption, and no offsetting opinion particularly from the rest of the state. So it gives the impression that there’s just tremendous, wide support across the state for the exemption, when in fact you’re listening to a pretty small group of folks.” Stegner said, “Historically, the pressure has been so difficult, so great that we have not done a very good job of being able to analyze these.” Existing exemptions and exclusions from Idaho’s sales tax, combined, exceed the amount the tax collects.

Land Board wraps up marathon meeting

Today’s Idaho Land Board meeting turned into a packed, nearly five-hour marathon that ran through the lunch hour and ‘til nearly 2 in the afternoon. “They didn’t know that it was going to go that long,” noted board secretary Susan Terry; the meeting had been scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to noon. By the end, an exhausted Land Board had passed three motions unanimously: One to ask the state Department of Lands to come back in one year with a plan for eventually disposing of its state-owned cabin sites; one to go back to 10-year leases for cabins sites instead of the current 35 years; and one to ask a Land Board subcommittee to come back to the board next month with proposals on market rates for leases and premium rents, which are charged when state-owned cabin sites - with privately owned cabins on them - change hands. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey covered the whole meeting; here’s a link to his coverage.

Geddes, Bedke: ‘We’re close to halfway through the session’

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke just finished a newsy and informative talk to the Idaho Press Club, including a Q-and-A exchange with reporters on everything from texting while driving to tax increases. “We’re probably getting close to halfway through the session,” Geddes told the group. Said Bedke, “I think there’s going to be some sticker shock … when those revenue numbers are translated into budgets.” People will realize, he said, that “none of their sacred cows are exempt.”

In the question-and-answer session, Geddes revealed that he was rear-ended by a driver who was texting. Yet, he’s still got reservations about texting-while-driving legislation, though he thinks he’ll likely support it. “I’m getting a large amount of emails saying, ‘Don’t take away another freedom,’” Geddes said, noting, “It’s already illegal to drive while distracted.” Both he and Bedke said they support the concept, however, of banning texting while driving, because it’s so dangerous.

Asked if lawmakers will release prisoners due to the budget crisis, Bedke said, “I don’t anticipate that,” and Geddes said, “I hope not.” Asked if they’re likely to raise taxes next year - after resisting the move this year - Bedke said, “I don’t see it ever being easy to raise taxes in Idaho. Certainly given the current makeup of the Idaho House and its revenue and tax committee, I don’t see a lot changing. That’s not to say that there won’t be tax proposals that come out this year, that’s not to say that there won’t be some next year. It will all depend on the idea and the situation.”

Bedke said of ideas like those proposed by citizens on the governor’s “Efficiency” Web site, including taxing plastic grocery bags and legalizing and taxing marijuana, “Stuff like that just never seems to get critical mass in the Legislature.” He said, “When we raise the taxes, if we raise the taxes, it will be in an across the board, predictable, fairer way, and course that’ll be in the eye of the beholder.” As far as next year’s budget, he said, “Everything is on the table,” including the possibility of delaying the next scheduled boost in the state’s grocery tax credit.

Geddes said, “I heard it from House leadership that there was no idea that they would not consider in the House committees to raise revenue, and that offer was even made to the minority, that if you think there’s a way for us to raise revenue this year in a way that can be acceptable to the Legislature and to the governor, bring your idea forward. They’ve committed to print the bills and hold the hearings. … So far some of those ideas have not yet made it into the form of legislation.”

Risch: ‘People are starting to come to their senses’

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch hoisted a tall stack of paper onto the podium in the state Senate as he wrapped up his address to lawmakers this morning. “This is the original health care bill - it’s about 3,000 pages,” he told the Senate. “There’s no person in America, no person in America that knows what would happen if this bill passed.”  Risch bemoaned the level of spending by the federal government, and said,”No nation has ever survived, and no economy has ever survived, where the national debt hit 90 percent of the GDP. We will hit 90 percent … within the next few years.” He said that doesn’t necessarily mean America will collapse; “I happen to believe in American exceptionalism,” he said. “But can we survive that? I don’t know. … The national debt is skyrocketing. It is a very serious matter.”

After his talk, he said his main message to lawmakers about the nation’s capital is “first of all, there’s nobody in charge, and that’s probably pretty obvious to most everyone. They just move from crisis to crisis, and there’s no grand scheme like there is here.” Risch, a longtime state senator, said Idaho determines its available revenue, then budgets to that. “There you just go in and start spending money - it’s breathtaking to see the way they spend money back there. It’s disheartening to say the least. But the good thing is people are starting to come to their senses.”

Sen. Risch: ‘Good to be home’

Sen. Jim Risch has been escorted into the Senate chamber to address lawmakers. “Well, gosh, it’s good to be home,” he told them. Risch is the former Senate president pro-tem, former majority leader, as lieutenant governor served as president of the Senate. He praised the capitol restoration, saying, “It’s not overdone - it is certainly a restoration and a remodel.” Risch also quipped, “Having sat there, I know what you’re interested in, and that’s for me to get out of here and you to get back to work.”

Minnick calls for commission on sales tax structure

Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick, in his speech to the Senate today, suggested that lawmakers set up a “bipartisan commission of experts, appointed by the governor and Legislature, who would be tasked with offering ideas for closing next year’s budget deficit by taking a fresh look at both spending and our state’s sales tax structure.” He said, “Unlike the Congress, where we recoil at the idea of giving such groups real authority, you could specify that you will give the commission’s recommendations a straight-up yes or no vote in the next legislature.” Idaho could lead the nation and “try some of the ideas that Congress is only just talking about,” Minnick said.

He also offered advice to both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature: “To the majority running this legislature, I say to you exactly the same thing I do to the Democratic leaders in Congress: Reach across the aisle and bring your colleagues to the table. Good ideas come from both Republicans and Democrats. The loyal opposition may have different views and occasionally a different approach, but their constituents have the same needs as yours.” And to Democrats, he said, “Become part of the process, recognize that compromises have to be made in these tough times, and be constructive in your public comments. The Idaho Legislature can show the rest of the nation the way, not through partisan bickering or headline-grabbing bills, but through the kind of quiet, colleague-to-colleague hard work that can effect real change for a community, a legislature and a state.”

Asked afterward if he thought the Idaho Legislature - which is 75 percent GOP - was receptive to his message of bipartisanship, Minnick said, “I hope so - that’s the only way you get things done in the national legislature or this one. It leads to a better mix of ideas and more middle-of-the-road solutions, all of which are in the public interest.”

Minnick decries partisanship in D.C.

Congressman Walt Minnick was escorted into the Senate chamber, and is now addressing the Senate. “Washington is not at all like Idaho - after all, we in Idaho do know how to handle snow,” he said to chuckles. He added that Idaho knows how to handle a lot of things better than Washington, D.C. The problem, he said, is that both parties’ leadership in the nation’s capital is extremely partisan, “So partisan that blaming the other side has become more important than solving problems.” Minnick, a conservative “blue-dog” Democrat, said, “Partisan battles have left our nation in a perilous place.”

Lawmakers to hear from congressman, senators

Both Congressman Walt Minnick and Sen. Jim Risch are scheduled to address both the Senate and House today; tomorrow, Sen. Mike Crapo is scheduled.

Full house for today’s Land Board meeting

Every seat is filled, and people are standing around the back and sides of the room and spilling out the door at the state Land Board meeting this morning, where the state’s top five elected officials are taking on what’s always been a thorny issue for them: How to deal with state-owned cabin sites, on which people have built and owned their own family cabins, sometimes for generations. Yet, the state-owned land underneath is endowment land, which the Land Board is required to manage for the maximum long-term return to the endowment beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public schools. Today, the board will consider sharp rent increases for the ground, and possible moves toward changing the whole way the deals are structured, even to the point of exchanging or selling the cabin sites, which ring Payette and Priest Lakes. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey has a full look at the issue facing the board here.

Bill would lift charter school cap for schools for ‘underserved’ students

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho lawmaker wants to change the state law limiting the number of new charter schools to six each year, making exceptions for petitions targeted at underserved students. Sen. John Goedde’s bill was introduced Monday and would lift limits for charter schools focused on low-income, minority, at-risk and immigrant student populations, along with kids who have disabilities or are gifted and talented. The Coeur d’Alene Republican says he will hold onto the bill until the federal government offers more assurance that Idaho’s current charter laws will not hurt its chances at winning $75 million or more in competitive federal grants.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna told lawmakers earlier this month that the state cap on charter schools, which previously appeared to hurt Idaho’s odds in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” contest, appeared to pass muster under final guidelines released late last year. Goedde says he wants further confirmation from the federal government.

Resolution seeks ‘emergency’ reduction in wolves in the state

Lawmakers would declare an emergency and urge the governor to do the same and order the state’s wolf population reduced, under a concurrent resolution introduced today in the House Resources Committee at the urging of Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries. “This bill is about legislators being able to show their support, should the governor so wish to have an executive order to have wolves removed,” Harwood told the committee. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene disagreed, and said the resolution appears to move Idaho toward a position like that of Wyoming, which hasn’t been given authority to manage its wolf population because of its refusal to enact acceptable wolf management plans.

“I think we all know how big this issue has been in our state the last 10 or 12 years, and the struggle we went through as a state to get to the position to where we can manage wolves,” Sayler said. “To me, this is a move back toward a Wyoming position. … This is a step back to more court cases.” Sayler moved to kill the bill, but was outvoted along party lines, with only the panel’s Democrats voting in support. The committee then voted, again along party lines, to introduce a corrected version of the resolution. Among the last-minute changes: The resolution now says that it encourages the governor to declare a state of emergency and require the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to use “any legal means” to reduce wolf numbers, instead of just “use any means.”

The committee also voted to introduce a measure from Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, to make “human consumptive use” of certain game species a top priority for Fish & Game’s management of wildlife, even though Hart, tied up in another committee, didn’t show up to present the bill. Rep. Dell Raybould questioned whether a precedent was being set that the way to get a bill introduced was to not show up. Chairman Bert Stevenson said he was concerned about that, but since the committee wanted to proceed and today is the last day for bill introductions, he allowed it.

Road-kill bill introduced

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, says a constituent of his in North Idaho complained that when he found a bobcat dead in the road near his place, Idaho Fish & Game threatened him with arrest if he picked it up. “He wrote me, said you’re letting a $200 hide lay there on the road,” Harwood said. So Harwood today proposed legislation to allow people with trapping or hunting licenses to salvage “furbearers” whenever they find them, in season or out of season. The purpose: “To allow road-kill animals to be harvested for the purpose of obtaining the hide.” Under current law, it’s illegal for anyone to pick up wildlife hit by vehicles; protected wildlife that has died of natural or accidental causes is considered the property of the state.

“Most of the time, the Transportation Department comes out and they throw ‘em away,” Harwood said. “Sometimes Fish & Game comes out.” When Fish & Game recovers a road-killed carcass, on occasion usable meat is donated to the poor, Harwood said. Sometimes, road-killed carcasses are among the items sold at Fish & Game’s annual auction of confiscated or found furs and hides, an event known as  “The Fur Sale.”

Harwood said he’s heard some resistance from Fish & Game officials to his idea, because “they’re a little worried about people running it over to get the hide. But,” he said. “I hit a dog once and it cost me $2,000 just to fix my car, so I don’t think that’ll be that much of a problem.” The House Resources Committee agreed unanimously to introduce the bill, but several members said they had questions about its wording, which doesn’t actually mention “road kill” in the text of the bill, only in the Statement of Purpose. Harwood said Legislative Services bill-drafters told him the word “salvage” covered that. “I’m sure we all have a lot of questions about this,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, but he moved to introduce the bill and the motion carried.

Cities pan LID bill

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Officials from Idaho cities criticized a bill in the Legislature meant to force the Boise City Council to ask downtown property owners for permission before charging them to help pay for a planned streetcar. Pocatello Chief Financial Officer David Swindell told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee Monday the measure, HB 489, would add roadblocks to needed projects like sewer and water system improvements. Some Boise City Council members behind the 2.3-mile streetcar line are considering creating a “local improvement district,” where property owners along the route would cover a share of the $60 million project. Under current Idaho law, such districts don’t always require a vote of property owners. But the bill from Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Moyle would change that by requiring projects financed with bonds worth more than $250,000 to first win support of two-thirds of district property owners.

Groups criticize immigration bills

Several groups joined today to speak out against three pending bills that seek to penalize Idaho employers who hire illegal immigrants, saying the bills will be costly, will hurt businesses and won’t help the nation with its immigration issues. “What the nation wants and what Idahoans want is a comprehensive solution,” Leo Morales of the Idaho Community Action Network said. He released results of a poll in the 1st Congressional District that found that among 500 likely voters polled, 88 percent would support comprehensive immigration reform that “secures the border, cracks down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and requires illegal immigrants to register for legal immigration status, pay back taxes, and learn English in order to be eligible for U.S. citizenship.”
    
Attorney Maria Andrade said the three pending Idaho bills look solely at penalizing employers. “During this time of a down economy, we think it’s unwise for the state to be creating more layers of red tape for businesses and the state,” she said. Christine Tiddens of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise said the measures would have “numerous negative intended and unintended consequences,” and would “create chaos and fear in the community, instigate more immigration raids, lead to even more racial profiling in the state, impact the economic security of local farmers, ranchers and dairymen, and cause undocumented immigrants to either seek work outside of Idaho or face the risk of committing a felony.”

The bills are backed by prominent GOP lawmakers. One is sponsored by Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, and Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, and focuses on penalizing the use of false documents. Another, from Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, proposes an array of penalties for employers along with mandatory use of the “e-Verify” system and other provisions, including banning driver’s license tests in languages other than English. The third, from Reps. Phil Hart, R-Athol, and Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, focuses on penalizing employers who knowingly employ illegal workers.

House, Senate memorialize former members

Today is the day that the House and Senate memorialize former representatives and senators who have passed away in the past year. The House gallery is full, where popular former seven-term Rep. Reed Hansen is among those being memorialized; he died on the last day of last year’s session. Also being memorialized today in the House are Bruce Sweeney, who served in both the House and Senate; Wayne Meyer, a five-term representative from Rathdrum; Carol Pietsch of Sandpoint, who served one term; Rich Orme, who served two terms; former three-term Rep. S. Lynn Loosli, Charles F. Cook of St. Maries, and John Wilkins Batt Jr. of Canyon County. In the Senate, Sweeney is the sole honoree. A Democrat from Lewiston whose legislative service spanned two decades and who most recently served on the Idaho Transportation Board, Sweeney died of cancer in August.

State retirees would lose COLA, under resolution introduced today

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, proposed a resolution this morning to block state retirees from receiving a scheduled 1 percent cost of living increase. The House State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce the bill, but balked at a proposal to send it straight to the full House without a hearing. “I would urge the committee to slow down,” said Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise. “This does not come out of the general fund. … This deserves a full hearing - we are talking about the retirement of the employees of Idaho. This is serious stuff, if you’re going to freeze their retirement when the funds are there.” Her substitute motion easily carried, to introduce the bill but bring it back for a full hearing. Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he hopes to schedule the hearing as soon as Wednesday.

Lake said his reason for proposing the move was that current state employees are facing furloughs and pay cuts. “It’s strictly an equity issue,” he said. “Why in the world should retired people be getting a raise, when the people paying the bills, active employees, are going to be paying the bill?” However, PERSI officials said active state employees likely will see little change either way as a result of the retirement COLA. Lake said his bill would override the PERSI board’s decision to grant a 1 percent COLA to retirees in the coming year. Instead, he said, “They will just be kept equal.” To take effect, it must pass both houses of the Legislature by Feb. 24th, the 45th day of the legislative session - thus the rush.

House Ed backs Thayn-Durst ed bill

After a hearing lasting nearly two hours, the House Education Committee has voted overwhelmingly in favor of HB 493, the bill from Reps. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Branden Durst, D-Boise, to launch a pilot project to give kids incentives to move through school more quickly and scholarships if they graduate at least a year early. There was just one “no” vote, from Rep. Marcus Gibbs, R-Grace. After the vote, Durst said the numerous questions from the committee show people are taking the idea seriously. “It’s a huge change - we know that,” Durst said. “But we’re excited to get it on the floor.” The bill now heads to the full House.

Liquor sampling bill killed on tie vote

Rep. Jim Clark’s proposal to allow liquor sampling at Idaho distilleries, just like wine-tasting now is allowed, was defeated on a tied vote this morning in the House State Affairs Committee. “HB 393 is a small-business jobs bill,” Clark told the committee, noting that there are distilleries in Idaho Falls, Rigby, Caldwell, Boise, Eagle, and Coeur d’Alene, with another proposed for Kootenai County. “The big emphasis here should be jobs - this is a jobs bill,” Clark declared. He said a businessman in Kootenai County approached him about the bill for a gin distillery he hopes to open. But committee members had concerns about the higher alcohol content in distilled spirits compared to wine. “You could really, technically have 3 ounces of alcohol in less than an hour,” said Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise. “I’m just concerned about driving away under the influence, so I’m going to have to vote no on this one.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, asked Clark if there are any studies on “how many people drive an automobile to these booze boutiques.” Clark said no, but that most people likely do; he stressed, however, that the same drunk driving laws apply regardless of the bill. Clark also told the committee that people likely wouldn’t swallow most of the alcohol they sample; he said at both wine and spirits tastings, “you taste it, you get the sense of it on the lips, then you spit it out.” But Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, asked, “How are you going to stop ‘em from swallowing it if it’s in their mouth?” “I’m not trying to stop anybody from doing anything,” Clark responded.

Committee Vice-Chair Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said most people wouldn’t swallow the samples they taste of gin, because after four or five, “you can’t taste anything.” But the committee deadlocked 8-8 on a motion to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass,” killing the bill. Clark, outside the hearing room, said, “Economic development, jobs bill - I guess they didn’t want that.”

Panel hears education reform plan

Reps. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Branden Durst, D-Boise, are presenting HB 493 this morning, their bill that’s up for a full hearing to create a “mastery” program that would, among other things, provide scholarships for students who graduate from high school early, along with other incentives for students to progress more quickly. The idea is to rethink the whole way students move through the educational system, the two told the House Education Committee, with an eye to making the experience better for students and also saving the state money. The bill proposes a pilot project to try the concept out.

“My sons as well as quite a few other students could be doing community college work when they’re 16 and 17 years old,” Thayn told the committee. “So the idea of allowing challenge or competency exams starting in elementary school came to mind, so we could allow students to move through quicker.” Durst called the plan “a big idea in education policy in the state of Idaho.” Thayn said if the plan worked, by eight or 10 years down the road, “We could save $80 or $100 million dollars while still improving the quality of education.”

Bill would give colleges own reserve fund

Idaho’s state colleges and universities would get their own budget stabilization fund, under legislation introduced unanimously this morning in the House Education Committee. “It’s such a good idea,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who proposed the bill and is co-sponsoring it with Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, and the governor’s office. “Would that we had done this years ago.”

Initially, the bill would set up three funds: One to hold interest on student fees and tuition for those institutions that don’t already retain that interest (only the University of Idaho now retains it, the state general fund otherwise takes it); and two “bucket” funds to hold money for distribution, one for the four-year colleges and universities, the other for the three community colleges and Eastern Idaho Technical College. Bedke estimated that the interest fund, which would start July 1, would give colleges and universities an additional $114,000 next year. “It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a start,” he said. There’s no money yet to put into the other two funds. “Monies would be put in this in a time of surplus or in a time of abundance,” Bedke told the committee.

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, commended Bedke for his work on the bill and said the committee will try to get it through its hearing and out to the full House quickly. Nonini said, like Bedke, he wishes “we would’ve done it years ago, but no time like the present.” Asked the reaction he’s gotten from colleges, Bedke said, “Everyone thinks this is a good idea, and they all wish we’d’ve set it up before, too, so that there’d be some money in it.”

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the fifth week of Idaho’s legislative session in pictures, as a slide show. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the picture frame, and the captions will appear as the slide show plays. Tonight, on Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports,” we’ll talk about the state budget, jobs, school funding, and more as we review the week’s events. I’ll join host Thanh Tan, several state lawmakers and other commentators on the program. It airs tonight at 8, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here. The show also is broadcast on the radio at 3 p.m. on Saturday on KISU-FM, and 10 a.m. Sunday on KBSX 91.5 FM.

Special license plates win support

The House Transportation Committee has approved the proposed new mountain biking special license plate, which will help raise funds to maintain and expand public trails open to mountain biking around the state. “Idaho has more trails than any other state in the lower 48,” said Leo Hennessey, supervisor of the non-motorized trails program for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. But he and other supporters said mountain bike trails need continuing maintenance to stay usable. Steve Stuebner, author of “Mountain Biking in Idaho,” told the committee that Idaho is just becoming known for its mountain biking, and the buzz about the new special plate is helping with that. “I can tell you from personal experience, Idaho has world-class trails in every corner of the state - every corner,” he said.

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, the bill’s sponsor, noted that then-President George W. Bush went mountain biking in Idaho with then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne during his 2005 visit to the state. The committee voted near-unanimously to send the bill, HB 486, to the full House, with just Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who said he supports mountain bike trails but opposes all new special license plates, objecting.

The same committee today also voted to introduce another proposal from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, for a special wilderness license plate, with proceeds to go to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Foundation for stewardship projects in Idaho wilderness areas.

Cuts lie ahead…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the revenue decision in JFAC today, which set a budget target that will force deep cuts in the state budget, including another $69 million to be cut yet this year.

Football resolutions pass

The House has unanimously passed resolutions commending the Boise State football team and the University of Idaho football team on their bowl wins this year, amid much merriment, including some House members yelling out “Go Vandals!” instead of “aye” in the voice vote on the UI measure. The two measures, HCR 36 and HCR 37, now move to the Senate.

Hammon: ‘Serious decisions’ lie ahead on cuts

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, said his boss is supportive of JFAC’s decision this morning to adopt the Legislature’s revenue committee recommendations as the basis for setting the state budget, both for this year and next year, though those figures fall $69 million below the governor’s proposed budget numbers for this year and $59 million below what he proposed for next year. “We don’t plan to submit a formal revision, but the governor’s office will work with JFAC members as they work to set the budget to this new, lower number,” Hammon said. “I am confident that he will be pleased and supportive of it.” He added, “The number that we based our budget on is now three months old, and unfortunately tax receipts have not kept in line with his forecast.”

Asked how this year’s budget could be cut another $69 million, Hammon said, “There are places to do it. The big fear is that we’re way past cutting fat.” These cuts, he said, citizens will feel. “They are serious decisions at this point. … The governor’s already notified agencies to be prepared for that.”
 

JFAC adopts revenue committee figure for 2011, will mean more cuts

JFAC has now voted along party lines to adopt the revenue figure for fiscal year 2011 proposed by the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee, $2.29 billion. That’s $59 million under what Gov. Otter has proposed spending next year in the budget he submitted to lawmakers; the fiscal year 2010 figure the joint committee adopted just before this is $69 million below the governor’s budget number. That means millions more in cuts will have to be made both this year and next.

“We’re faced with volatility that’s unprecedented,” said Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, arguing for the unsuccessful substitute motion, said, “We do have an expert economist. … He sees no reason to change his forecast. … We all know what’s needed to move Idaho’s economy ahead - jobs and consumer confidence, and our actions today will set the tone.” She submitted a “contingency plan” to the joint committee calling for raising additional revenue by hiring more tax auditors to collect uncollected taxes, tapping reserves and more.

But Sen. Dean Mortimer said, “We are in tough times. … I think it’s going to take every bit of our savings as well as maybe more to get us out of fy 2010, and I hope … that that is not the case, but I believe that it is the case.” Said Rep. George Eskridge, “We need to be fiscally responsible. We have people out there that are depending on us doing the right thing with the state budget, doing it realistically,” rather than setting a higher budget and then having to make cuts later if the tax revenues don’t show up. “It’s only realistic and it’s only prudent,” Eskridge said. Said Sen. Shawn Keough, “We are off the charts in terms of history.” She said, “Our government is funded by the Idaho taxpayers, and we can’t extract from them what they do not have.”

Bayer said the debate was not the place to talk about raising more revenue, and as for reserves and contingencies, he said, “those are all but gone.” He said, “I do believe that realism is what’s at play here, and the hard work of the committee, and the fact that we are trying to move forward in the most cautious, constructive way and the most responsible way in the budget process.” Said Sen. Jeff Siddoway, “We’re in more trouble today than we were a year ago or two years ago or three years ago. … We’re not out of this mess by a long shot, and we’ve got to deal with what we’ve got.”

Two motions for fy 2011…

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, has now moved to set the 2011 revenue figure at the number picked by the joint revenue committee - $2.29 billion. Sen. Shawn Keough seconded the motion. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, made a substitute motion to adopt the governor’s revised forecast of $2.43 billion, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, seconded the motion.

JFAC chooses lower number for 2010

The Democrats’ substitute motion failed on a party-line vote, 4-16, though Sen. Dean Cameron first mistakenly voted yes, then changed his vote amid some chuckling. Then, the motion for the lower revenue figure set by the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee passed, also on a party-line vote, 16-4.

Speaking for the unsuccessful substitute motion, Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said, “This motion is following the governor’s economist at DFM, and I think his modeling is very, very effective. … Our economy is turning around.” By making more cuts, she said, “We actually may be contributing to a downward spiral in our economy.” Said Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, “The people of Idaho need us to sustain jobs, not shed them. … I think our economy depends on us.”

But Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “We are dependent on the good people of Idaho paying their taxes, and that depends that they have something to pay their taxes with. … There are many places in Idaho where the unemployment rate is 20 percent and above. In my district, as I look around, I see many, many people out of work. … They are running out of unemployment benefits. The notion that somehow they’re going to spend more between now and June 30th or anything this year is a notion that I don’t think is very realistic, and one that I cannot support.”

Said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “We can politicize this all we want - that’s not going to help us. … I was so hopeful that Mr. Ferguson’s numbers were right in January. They weren’t. … In reality what this committee does is not based on pessimism or optimism, it’s based on risk - how much risk are you wiling to put on state agencies? … How much risk are you willing to put towards public schools if the economy doesn’t hit at what Mr. Ferguson projected?” He said, “We are constitutionally bound to balance the budget.”

Debating the revenue number

JFAC is getting ready to adopt revenue figures on which to base budget-setting for both the remainder of this year and next year. First up: They’re looking at two motions, one for the governor’s revised forecast for fiscal year 2010 showing a drop in revenues of 4.7 percent, and one reflecting the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committe’s recommendation, which reflects a drop of 7.5 percent. “Any other motion could be made for any other number that the committee believes is appropriate,” legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told the committee.

The first motion: Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, moved the economic outlook committee’s figure. Sen. Shawn Keough seconded the motion. The second motion, a substitute motion from Sen. Diane Bilyeu, is for the governor’s revised forecast. Sen. Nicole LeFavour seconded the motion.

JFAC members question $75K retirement boost for former DHR director

When Wayne Hammon, acting head of the Division of Human Resources as well as the governor’s budget chief, concluded his presentation of the DHR budget to JFAC, a couple of committee members had questions about the division’s decision to deposit $75,000 into the retirement account of former Director Judie Wright this past year in exchange for her retiring eight months earlier than planned, boosting her retirement benefits.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked about severance payments. “DHR has not paid any severance,” Hammon responded, noting that severance payments from the state are illegal. “The employee who left did not receive any money from DHR,” he said. When Jaquet asked where the money came from, Hammon said, “The employee received no money.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked if some arrangement was made through PERSI. “DHR did purchase time at PERSI for the employee … as authorized by statute,” Hammon responded. “The money was given from the DHR budget to PERSI - no money was given to the employee.”

Abortion ‘conscience’ bill introduced

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted this morning, with one objection, to introduce a new version of “conscience” legislation from Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, that would permit any licensed health-care provider to refuse to provide a treatment, service or medication related to abortion, emergency contraception, stem cell research or end-of-life care if it violates his or her conscience. Winder earlier introduced a personal bill, SB 1270, to do the same thing; the new version, he said, includes changes in response to concerns from the Idaho Hospital Association and the Idaho Medical Association. “I think they felt it protected the hospitals and protected the patients’ rights in a better way than the first draft was,” Winder said.

“It’s not really anti-abortion, there’s nothing in it that has anything to do with restricting any rights to an abortion or contraception,” Winder said. A health professional, from a pharmacist to a nurse, would have to have given written “advanced written notification” to his or her employer of objections to a particular procedure, treatment or drug, in order to exercise the conscience right; without that notice, the provider would have to provide the treatment. If it’s a “life-threatening situation” and no other provider is available, the provider would have to provide the treatment until another provider is available.

Winder said he brought the bill in response to a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision a year ago that said if states want to protect providers in such situations, they need to have legislation on the books allowing for that. He said he’s also concerned that national health-care reform legislation might try to force the issue. “We all know that the national administration is pro-choice in their leanings,” Winder said. Idaho law already contains a “conscience” provision that protects doctors and hospitals that refuse to perform abortions. The “end of life care” provision is new; Winder acknowledged that it could affect the provision of pain medications for dying patients to which a provider objects. Idaho already outlaws euthanasia, and assisted suicide is illegal under Idaho case law.

Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, cast the only “no” vote against introducing the new bill.

Idaho private prison has Norovirus outbreak

Idaho’s privately operated prison south of Boise, the Idaho Correctional Center, has confirmed that inmates there have contracted the Norovirus, after a flurry of stomach flu was reported there. The facility has been washed down with bleach and inmates are on lockdown; click below to read the full press release from Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the prison.

Bill would make hunting licenses secret

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers may exempt information on hunting and fishing licenses from public disclosure, saying they want to shield people who have bagged a wolf from unwanted attention. Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican from Midvale, says a friend who contacted her after shooting a wolf on Sept. 2 says it took just hours before the New York Times called. And Rep. JoAn Wood from Rigby, added another Idaho resident told her he’d been singled out by wolf advocates as a villain in the highly charged debate over how to best manage the predator. Their measure was introduced Thursday in the House Resources Committee. One wolf advocate, Rick Hobson of Boise, published the names of those who had shot a wolf this season on the Internet in January. He told The Associated Press Thursday he was trying to stimulate public debate on an important issue, not target hunters for harassment.

Allred: Otter ‘reckless’ to cut schools

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred is continuing his criticism of Gov. Butch Otter for “irrational pessimism,” saying, “When Otter says we have no choice but to cut education, he’s just factually wrong.” Said Allred, a former Harvard professor and former head of The Common Interest citizen lobby group, “My hope is that the Legislature’s budget writers don’t follow Gov. Otter’s reckless lead. We don’t need to be mortgaging our kids’ future by cutting education.” Click below to read Allred’s full statement; an Otter campaign spokeswoman, Brenda Maynard Walters, didn’t respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

Bills aim for bike safety

Here’s a news item from the AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho legislator wants to make roads safer for bicyclists. Boise Democrat Sen. Elliot Werk introduced four bills Thursday that would penalize rash bicyclists and drivers with a $75 fine. The Senate Transportation Committee voted to introduce all the bills and will likely hold full discussions on them. The bills penalize drivers who harass bikers or who drive within three feet of a person on a bicycle. They also punish bicyclists who hold up cars behind them or who speed through crosswalks. One bill bans bikes without stopping brakes. Werk, who often bikes to work himself, says the bills were prompted by three bicyclist deaths in Boise last year and another in Twin Falls.

House Resources introduces bill State Affairs rejected

A fee increase for invasive species stickers for boats that was rejected by the House State Affairs Committee last month got a warmer reception today from the House Resources Committee, which voted to introduce the bill. Though Dave Ricks of the state Parks Department said the fees are slightly different this time, the bill shows they’re identical, raising the $5 fee for non-motorized boats to $7 and the $20 fee for out-of-state motorized boats to $22. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, moved to kill the new bill, saying, “There’s a lot of people like me that have a whole lot of questions about what am I paying for, what am I supposed to do … I’m very hesitant to add any more funding to this, and ask folks to take more money out of their pocket for a program that we don’t have our arms around.” But he was outvoted. The additional money would be a vendor fee for vendors around the state who sell the stickers. State parks officials said it would get more vendors to offer the stickers, thereby making them more readily available to the public.

Boyle: Charge picnickers, bird-watchers

State Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, says she was stunned to learn that only 23 percent of people who use the Boise River Wildlife Management Area have hunting or fishing licenses, so she’s proposing legislation to require people who enter that and other areas that would be designated by Idaho Fish & Game to purchase $10 “conservation licenses” - $20 for non-Idaho residents. “I thought everyone that went on wildlife management areas or anywhere were hunters or fishermen,” Boyle told the House Resources Committee this afternoon. “If you do not hold a current hunting, trapping, and fishing license from Fish & Game and you want to go onto their lands, you would need to buy a conservation license.” People who didn’t comply could be cited.

Boyle said the move would raise money for Fish & Game, which could use it for maintenance, weed control, and non-game wildlife. “A lot of the time folks go out there and picnic and leave all their garbage to be picked up,” Boyle said. “They bring weeds … and the seeds sprout. … It’s only fair that anybody that uses it should pay.” Some committee members weren’t so sure. “If I have a hunting license, then I get to hunt, and I may have something to show for my license,” said Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis. “But I’m not sure if I’m ready to buy a license to rubberneck. And just to step on a property and watch a bird fly off shouldn’t be that expensive.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, spoke out against the bill, saying, “All taxpayers to some degree pay for fish and wildlife lands - they pay because those lands are taken out of production.” But Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, an avid bird watcher, spoke in support. He said the move could help Fish & Game fund responsibilities it’s been given that don’t pertain to hunting or fishing. “I’m willing to pay a small fee,” he said. Boyle’s bill would charge $10 for in-state residents or $20 for out-of-staters, adults only. Children wouldn’t be charged, she said. The committee voted to introduce the bill, but three members asked to be recorded as voting no: Barrett, Eskridge, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

Big dairies want counties blocked from regulating

Livestock groups that lost a recent Idaho Supreme Court decision asked lawmakers today to come to their defense by scaling back local authority over large dairies with thousands of cows and tons of manure, the AP reports. Idaho Dairyman’s Association lobbyist Ken McClure told the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee that Idaho should limit counties to matters involving the location of dairies and forbid them from passing stricter air and water quality standards than those already on Idaho’s books; click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Texting-while-driving bill introduced

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho legislature is considering making texting while driving a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in prison or a $300 fine. Caldwell Republican Sen. John McGee told the Senate Transportation Committee Thursday that state law needs to punish texting while driving because it is as dangerous as driving while drunk. The committee agreed unanimously to introduce the bill for a possible full hearing. University of Utah researchers published a study last year that said texting while driving increases crash risk eight times. Virginia Tech researchers found a 23 times greater collision risk. Police officers can currently go after texting drivers on inattentive driving charges. McGee’s measure would clarify that texting while driving is inattentive driving and should be punished as such.

JFAC to set budget targets

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will set budget targets for both the current year and for the next fiscal year tomorrow morning, after it holds brief budget hearings on four agencies and a discussion of state employee health insurance. The budget target debate and vote is tentatively scheduled for 9:45 to 10:30 a.m., though the committee often runs early or late compared to its schedule; you can see the committee’s full agenda here and listen live here.

The budget target chosen by the joint committee will determine just how deeply lawmakers will have to cut into both the current year’s state budget and next year’s. Click below to read AP reporter John Miller’s full story on how the governor’s now supporting deeper cuts than he proposed in the budget he submitted to lawmakers in January.

Senate Republicans caucus on budget

Senate Republicans emerged from an hour-long caucus this morning and went straight to the floor, after a discussion they said focused on the state budget. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said the discussion covered not only the budget target that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee plans to set tomorrow morning, but the budget challenges facing all state agencies.

That’s the original…

At the end of the Historical Society’s budget hearing this morning, Director Janet Gallimore had a couple of staffers unveil something in a case, under a black drape, that had been rolled out to the center of the JFAC hearing room. It was the original Idaho Constitution, signed by 62 members of Idaho’s Constitutional Convention on Aug. 6, 1889. “Our agency is honored to preserve and promote the heritage of our great state,” she said.

Liquor chief on privatization: ‘Why would the state give up $45 million?’

Idaho made a record $45 million in liquor profits this year, state Liquor Division Director Dyke Nally reported to lawmakers this morning. “It’s the people’s business - the people of the state of Idaho own this business, and the moneys go back to the people from the profits,” he said. When JFAC Vice-Chair Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, asked why Washington state is looking into privatizing its liquor system as a money-making move, Nally said he doesn’t think it’ll happen. “Every seven years in one of the 18 control states, somebody brings up privatization,” he said. “In Washington, they’re just rattling cages and talking about it. No state has ever privatized, by the way, since 1933.” The reason: “When they get to the end, they say, ‘This is a pretty good business for the state - why give this up?’”

Nally said Alberta, Canada privatized its liquor sales. “The minute they privatized, they had three times as many stores, the product costs more, not less, because there’s another markup. … The product becomes much more available, people aren’t trained as well like the state stores are, the hours are longer because you’re marketing the product. … Our mission is to promote temperance first and foremost, and then sell the product. … We’re not open in the middle of the night. … And I would doubt if Washington will get very far - no one ever has, once they really debate this.”

He added, “Why would the state give up $45 million? A quick fix would be to sell it and get a big windfall, and then what do you do?” Under the control system, he said, that money comes in to the state every year.

Public indebtedness bills introduced

Three constitutional amendments regarding public indebtedness were introduced unanimously in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning. All three are co-sponsored by Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. One deals with hospital districts, one with airport authorities, and one with municipal power systems. To become law, a constitutional amendment needs both two-thirds passage in each house of the Legislature, and a majority vote of the people at the next general election.

New version of invasive species bill introduced, removes ‘container’

A new version of amendments to the Invasive Species Act was introduced in the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee this morning, with the words “a container” removed from the definition of a “conveyance,” for which Idahoans could be penalized for not stopping for inspection. “That was the only change we made, so that Sen. Schroeder’s cooler wouldn’t be included,” said Lloyd Knight, head of plant industries for the state Department of Agriculture. When the bill gets its full hearing, he said, “We’ll be ready to talk about the program. They want to hear more detail.”

The bill expands law enforcement authority to detain and impound vehicles infested with invasive species, and cite and detain drivers who don’t stop at inspection stations.

When the bill was first proposed, Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said it was so broadly written that it could toss someone in jail for a year and fine them thousands of dollars for not pulling over for inspection when they had a cooler in the back of their pickup truck. Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the broadly written bill raised possible constitutional issues. Knight said Ag doesn’t usually dabble in law enforcement; “They just need some assurances that we’re not trying to get out in an arena where we’re not prepared to be.”

Lawmakers question ITD head Ness

Several of the questions from lawmakers for new ITD chief Brian Ness focused on doing work in-house vs. contracting. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, asked which way is cheaper for paving projects. Ness said if the state uses its own workers for paving, it can’t use federal funds without spending five times as much. “So probably the best use of our forces isn’t to be paving roads, but to be doing the maintenance and operating work, whether it be snowplowing, replacing signs, replacing guard rail when it gets hit … and that kind of thing,” he said. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, asked Ness if he could use state funds without commingling them with federal funds, to avoid the requirement to pay higher prevailing wages on construction projects. Ness said only about 19 percent of state funds are used for construction, and most of that goes to matching federal funds. “It almost becomes an issue where the money you would need to do construction, you need five times as much in state funds just because of the match requirements,” he said.

Henderson also questioned why the department hired consultants to handle right-of-way purchases for GARVEE-bond funded highway projects. “With stimulus and GARVEE, we doubled our construction program overnight, and it didn’t make sense to really staff up the department for those spikes in the program, because then you’re bringing people on board, you’re training them … for a small part of the program that may last a two, three, four-year time period. So it made sense to staff those spikes with consultants and have them do that work,” Ness said.

One thing none of the JFAC members asked about: The recent revelation that ITD spent tens of thousands of dollars in federal funds on three groundbreaking or ribbon-cutting ceremonies for big highway projects in the Treasure Valley, after the governor’s office told the department the affairs should be the governor’s “signature events.” During his presentation, Ness repeatedly promised to review all expenditures and make sure the department is a good steward of its public funds.

ITD: Bridges aging, new management system in

Revenues from the state’s Highway Account, which largely comes from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, are running $1.8 million below forecast through January, ITD Director Brian Ness told JFAC. Of 1,777 bridges in the state system, 540, or 30 percent, are older than 50 years, which is their design life; half will be older than 50 years by 2016. Fatalities on the state’s highways have been dropping each year since 2005. A contract for a new management system that a state management audit said was needed was awarded in December of 2009, and is now being configured.

ITD is requesting just $26 million for GARVEE bonding next year, for projects on State Highway 16 in the Treasure Valley and on U.S. Highway 95 in the Chilco area. Ness said those projects would be delayed if the bonds aren’t issued. Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, asked why ITD isn’t proposing more. “One of the things that was uncomfortable for me with past GARVEE bonding was that we actually locked in really high prices for paving and construction costs. … Wouldn’t it be wiser to increase the bonding funding and try to get more done while prices are cheaper?”

The answer, from ITD official Dave Tolman, was that the $26 million reflects the work ITD can get done next year, “what we think we can actually get accomplished.”

ITD: ‘We need to improve’

Darrell Manning, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, told JFAC this morning that the transportation department is working to implement the performance audit the Legislature conducted last year and the governor’s executive order that followed it. “We’ll try our best to be good stewards of any appropriation that you make to us,” Manning told lawmakers. “We need to improve, and hopefully through Director Ness’ leadership we will.” New director Brian Ness, who’s been on the job just a month, now is presenting his budget. “Good things are happening in our department,” he told lawmakers. “We will be accountable for our actions. … I will review every expense to make sure decisions are appropriate.” Ness said, “We cannot ask the Idaho taxpayer” to pay more for transportation until “they are convinced that we are good stewards.”

A fight over the Constitution and school funding…

After a long and fierce debate, Idaho’s top five elected officials voted 3-2 on Wednesday to give public schools an extra $22 million from state reserves next year — less than half the amount the state schools superintendent had sought. Superintendent Tom Luna, who paused dramatically before casting the deciding vote, said afterward, “I wasn’t going to walk out of here with nothing. … With the kind of cuts we’re looking at, any money that we find is going to be beneficial.” The failure to secure the entire request, however, “is going to mean even deeper cuts in salaries, in the math initiative, in transportation, in all those programs,” he said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Luna: ‘I wasn’t going to walk out with nothing’

“I’m concerned that we did leave some money on the table, but I had my day in court and it was well-vetted,” state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said after the Land Board’s 3-2 vote to give schools $22 million extra from the state school endowment reserve fund next year, well short of the $52.8 million Luna sought. The move “is going to mean even deeper cuts in salaries, in the math initiative, in transportation, in all those programs,” he said. But, he said, “The Land Board acted. … It was obvious to me the number wasn’t going to go up. … I wasn’t going to walk out of here with nothing.” He added, “With the kind of cuts we’re looking at, any money that we find is going to be beneficial.”

Land Board approves $22 million transfer to schools

The Land Board has voted 3-2 to approve a $22 million distribution to public schools next year, which Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said will leave two years worth of reserves. “This is a one-time request of funding,” Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, “and therefore I think we have the information necessary. We have the authority and the legal right to do this, and I think that’s clear as trustees that’s not only the right but the responsibility that we have.” State Controller Donna Jones said she’s “simply heard no compelling information that justifies that we take this distribution” without going to the experts for more analysis. But she and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden were outvoted. Voting in favor of the move were Luna, Gov. Butch Otter and Ysursa.

More motions…

Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna tried a substitute motion after Ysursa’s, to transfer $42.3 million to schools, but that, like his first $52.8 million motion, died for lack of a second. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden then offered a substitute motion to defer any action and direct the Endowment Fund Investment Board and Department of Lands to provide a written analysis of the effects of such a distribution on the board’s current investment strategy. State Controller Donna Jones seconded the motion.

“Each one of us is committed to do everything legally possible to minimize the impact (of budget cuts) … on our schoolchildren,” Wasden said in a statement. Board members, he said, must determine if the action is consistent with their legal duties. “We must answer the legal question, is this course of action prudent? If the answer is yes, we may proceed,” Wasden said, and if not, they can’t. Asked how long such an analysis would take, Larry Johnson, investment manager for the endowment fund, said, “We would probably be talking about a matter of months rather than a matter of days or weeks” to do the type of analysis outlined by Attorney General Wasden.


First motion fails…

Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna moved to give schools the $52.8 million, but his motion died for lack of a second. Now Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is proposing a $22 million transfer. Gov. Butch Otter has seconded the motion.

Former Land Board members speak for, against

Marilyn Howard, former state superintendent of schools, just told the Land Board, “If I were on the board today, I’d vote no.” The endowment, she said, is a “sacred trust.” “You’ve established a course - I think you should stay the course,” she told the Land Board. “You have a responsibility to today’s schoolchildren, but I think you’re meeting that resonsibility.” She said the board also has a responsibility to future Idaho schoolchildren. Howard said, “The reality is the Legislature has a responsibility to provide for our system of thorough education,” and if the Land Board steps in, she said, “you’re removing the Legislature’s responsibility to do its job. … It’s their job, and I think they should let ‘em do it.”

Former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy, by contrast, told the board he didn’t think the board would be abrogating its fiduciary duty if it acted to protect the very beneficiaries of the trust, the public schools. “I think doing so in your sound discretion ought to be something that you seriously consider,” he said.

Timber earnings are ‘volatile’

After a short break, the Land Board is now hearing from state Lands Director George Bacon about state timber sale earnings. Gov. Butch Otter just announced that timing-wise, though several more people remain to present, the board needs to have a motion on the table by 5 minutes to 4. It’s now 20 ‘til, Boise time. (As opposed to the time stamps on this blog, which are in Pacific time.) “All indicators show a flat market,” Bacon said, and earnings appear to be tracking below rather pessimistic forecasts. “Timber remains a fairly volatile asset type,” he said. “Our timber revenue has fallen sharply since 2007.”

Bacon noted that the current projections, which forecast $12.8 million in timber revenue, are based on actual contracts and prices bid on public school endowment lands now, but aren’t a “worst-case scenario.” That would be that everyone goes out of business and no one pays anything on the existing timber contracts. At that, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, “Governor, if we’re going to use a meteor-hit-the-earth scenario, then maybe we ought to argue that we don’t need any reserve.” Amid laughter, Otter asked Luna, “Is that a motion?” Luna said he keeps hearing worse and worse scenarios laid out to justify rejecting his school funding proposal, but the board should consider realistic projections that might justify approving it.

Ysursa: ‘None of us wear the robe’

Quizzed by Land Board members about his concerns over Supt. Luna’s proposal, endowment fund manager Larry Johnson said, “I don’t think that this would be catastrophic.” He said, “I think if I can be guaranteed that this is a one-time and one-time only process, then the impact would not be huge.” But asked by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden if he thought the board would be “abrogating” its “fiduciary duty” if it went along, Johnson said, “I fear it would.” Gov. Butch Otter then asked Wasden if he thought so - he nodded. At that, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who also is an attorney, suggested the board might also have abrogated that duty by spending more of its earnings on current beneficiaries than future ones in recent years. “None of us wear the robe,” Ysursa said, noting that only a court could determine that. Johnson said, “The investment board doesn’t claim to have all wisdom on this matter.”

Endowment official: Luna’s numbers are accurate

Larry Johnson, manager for the Endowment Fund Investment Board, went over the figures on Luna’s proposal, and said they’d leave the public school earnings reserve fund with one year’s reserve, rather than three years’, as Luna says. “He was using our numbers, so we agree with his numbers,” Johnson said. But, he said, “Allowing special payments is a significant change,” that he said requires the same analysis as the state’s current investment and distribution policies.

Johnson said the first priority for the endowment is “make sure we can pay the current beneficiaries,” second is to “make sure we can fill the reserves,” and third priority is to grow the permanent fund. “This is accomplished by transferring excess reserves to the permanent fund,” he said, something Idaho’s not been a in a position to do of late. “We need a balance. … The needs of current and future beneficiaries are balanced.” He noted that before the public school earnings reserve fund was set up a decade ago, earnings from state timber sales went into the permanent endowment fund, rather than directly to the beneficiaries, such as schools. Now they go to the earnings reserve fund.

Johnson said current policies call for an overall 50-50 split of gains between current and future beneficiaries of the endowment trust, but in recent years, current beneficiaries have gotten nearly three-quarters. That’s partly because distributions have been “cushioned” by the earnings reserve fund, so they could continue even when investment earnings were down. At the same time the state set up the earnings reserve fund, it opened the permanent endowment fund up to riskier investments in the stock market; both moves came as part of a constitutional amendment for various endowment reforms approved by voters.

Luna: ‘This board has the authority’

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden asked Supt. Luna if he considers his proposal a deviation from the recommendations of the Endowment Fund Investment Board. Luna responded that everything is different in this budget crunch, from how families are handling their budgets to moves being made by government. Wasden then asked if Luna’s plan was approved by the endowment board. “I think you know the answer to that - the answer is no,” Luna responded. “This decision rests with the (Land) Board. … This board already had the authority to make a larger distribution if we so chose.”

Otter: ‘We’re faced with a constitutional dilemma’

“We’re faced with a constitutional dilemma, maybe,” Gov. Butch Otter said. The constitution “directs this board … toward maintaining the long-term financial best interest of the beneficiaries, all the beneficiaries. … I believe that’s one of the reasons the fund was created, so that we had the stability in the cash.” He noted that the payouts from the public school earnings reserve fund in past years have helped balance the state budget, which also is a constitutional requirement. A larger payout now, in response to a budget crisis, he said, “puts our constitutional mandate in question maybe a year or two years down the road.” Luna responded that he thinks, based on even pessimistic estimates, there’s enough money to do both with his proposal, and not endanger either constitutional requirement.

Ysursa: We have obligation to both present and future

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said the public school earnings reserve fund isn’t a rainy-day account, it’s a “shock absorber” to protect the state’s ability to make payouts to schools each year. He noted that Luna talked about how much more kids need to know today, but said he wonders how much they’ll need to know in 35 years. “What I’m getting at is our role as trustees for the present and the future,” he said. “We have an obligation to both.”

Luna: Without $$, schools will ‘not just suffer next year, will suffer in the long term’

Supt. Tom Luna said his funding proposal for schools “will not completely offset cuts to public education. Instead,” he said, it will make them “manageable.” The $52.8 million, he said, is equivalent to 1,000 teaching jobs or 10 days of school. Without it, he said, “Our schools will not just suffer next year, they will suffer in the long term.” He reminded other Land Board members of their own difficult budget situations in their agencies. “We as trustees have the opportunity to throw public schools a lifeline,” Luna said.

Luna told his fellow board members, “This is not about me, this is not about you, and it’s definitely not about politics - it’s about Idaho’s kids and their future.”

Luna: Move is ‘prudent and responsible’

Idaho’s public school shortfall was $135 million when he addressed JFAC, Supt. Tom Luna told his fellow Land Board members, but now it’s grown to as much as $160 million. “Under the principles of trust law we as trustees can and often should consider what is happening with other income sources to the beneficiaries in order to determine how much to distribute,” he said. “The question we face now is can we, as Land Board members, minimize the impact to schools. The question is not can we, the question is will we - and I believe we must.” He called his proposal to tap reserves for $52.8 million for schools next year “prudent and responsible.”

Land Board meeting starts…

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has laryngitis, so a deputy was allowed to sit with him to help him communicate. “The attorney general as you know is a lawyer and has lost his voice,” Gov. Butch Otter declared to laughter, prompting Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to quip, “Which one’s Edgar Bergen, which one’s Charlie McCarthy?” Otter said a two-hour time has been set for the meeting, but at least five people have indicated they have testimony to offer; among them is former state schools Supt. Marilyn Howard, who’s in the audience.

The meeting has now begun with comments from Supt. Tom Luna, who’s highlighting gains Idaho’s made in student achievement, with investments in programs including reading and math initiatives. “These are amazing results,” Luna said. “Our students have made significant gains in the last two years.”

Full house for Land Board today…

There’s a full house this afternoon for the Land Board meeting, at which the state’s top five elected officials - the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the state controller, and the state superintendent of schools - will vote on a proposal to tap into reserves from the school endowment to avoid deeper cuts to public schools next year. Board members are just now arriving in the room.

‘Trying to neck this thing down’

The House Majority Caucus just wrapped up a 35-minute closed-door meeting, and topics covered include the question of a cost-of-living adjustment for PERSI; the Land Board’s upcoming vote on education funding this afternoon; the budgeting timetable for the session; and the need to submit bills by Monday’s deadline for bill introductions in non-privileged committees. “We talked about we are serious about deadlines for introduction,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “We’re trying to neck this thing down and get out of here.” Senate Republicans have scheduled a caucus meeting for tomorrow at 10:30 a.m.

New tax checkoff bill for parties introduced

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two Democrats contend the House and Senate went too far when members voted overwhelmingly to dump a provision that’s allowed Idaho residents since 1976 to chip in a buck of their taxes to their favorite political party. Reps. Phylis King and Elfreda Higgins want people to still be able to use their state tax forms to make a voluntary party contribution, as long as it’s not going to take money from public services. Their bill would let taxpayers give up to $50 in their own money to parties. A measure to eliminate the existing $1 voluntary check-off for parties that came out of Idaho’s general fund has cleared both the House and Senate and awaits Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s signature. Though the House State Affairs Committee agreed Wednesday to consider King’s and Higgins’ new bill, GOP lawmakers on the panel said they were leaning toward taking the Idaho Tax Commission out of any role in funding partisan politics.

Lawmakers congratulate courts on surcharge idea

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, told state courts Administrative Director Patti Tobias, “My congratulations on bringing forth the concept of a surcharge to provide additional revenue for a  critical function of the state.” He asked if the judiciary had any more ideas along those lines. Tobias responded that for now, the surcharge to preserve court services is the judicial branch’s top priority. The bill “will be introduced tomorrow, hopefully, in the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee,” she said. In the back row of the audience, that committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, nodded affirmatively.

Tobias told JFAC, “Today we have come with some solutions - solutions we believe are necessary for delivering justice.” The surcharge on offenders, she said, is “literally to keep the courthouse doors open to all Idahoans … to provide basic fairness, public safety and the timely delivery of justice for all Idaho communities as well as all Idahoans.” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Tobias, “You’ve been tremendous partners in this economic downturn. … I know judges have been on the bench on days they were not paid.” Overall, Tobias got a positive reception for the courts surcharge proposal. It would impose a $25 surcharge on all infractions and crimes committed.

Idaho Courts propose emergency surcharge on offenders to cope with budget cuts

Idaho’s court system has undergone deep budget cuts, court Administrative Director Patti Tobias told JFAC today, including a hiring freeze that has prevented the filling of any position for the past 15 months. All services have been affected, from court-ordered drug testing to court computer replacements to the startup of three “much-needed” DUI and drug courts, which has been delayed. Now, the hiring freeze is being extended to judges, Tobias said, and at lease one judicial vacancy looms. “We can’t delay criminal cases,” she said. “Justice is our core mission, and justice can’t wait.”

So the courts are proposing a way out: An emergency surcharge to be paid by those found to have committed crimes or infractions. “The proposed surcharge legislation will shift a greater share of the budget from the general fund to dedicated funds,” Tobias told lawmakers. She estimated that it would shift $5.1 million in costs away from the state general fund each year for the next three years, making up most of the looming court cutbacks. “One hundred percent of the courts budget is based upon the Constitution and statutory requirements,” Tobias said.

Budget: State saves $15K if Otter re-elected

Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget chief, presented the budgets for the governor’s office and the Division of Financial Management to JFAC today. “The office of the governor is a lean operation,” he told lawmakers. But, he said, “The vast majority of the costs within the office of the governor are related to staff.” That means layoffs or furloughs when there are budget cuts, he said. All employees in the office are taking furloughs, he said, and pay for interns has been eliminated. He pointed to one required line in the budget for next year: $15,000 for transition costs at election. If the incumbent governor is re-elected, there’s no transition cost and that money reverts to the state.

Henderson: Raise boat sticker fees?

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said Idaho certainly shouldn’t back away from its anti-invasive species efforts, but he asked state Ag Director Celia Gould if her department has considered increasing fees for boat stickers and other programs to allow the efforts to “continue at full speed in these economic times.” Gould said this is when she’s glad she’s no longer a lawmaker; she’s the former chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “This is the point in time where I get to say we leave the policy to you folks, and just like to implement,” she said. “But obviously, if it’s the Legislature’s desire that we bring a bill for you consideration to increase those fees to meet the cost of the program, we would be glad to do that. The one thing I can assure you is that program will be run as efficiently as we possibly can manage, so that we’re not frittering away those folks’ hard-earned dedicated dollars. … Ultimately we’ll take your lead on that one.”

When Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, questioned the use of deficiency warrants to draw general funds for the anti-quagga and zebra mussel programs, Gould said that likely will have to continue. “I do not believe we can maintain that program just on the sticker fee,” she said. “We don’t want to lead you down the path that we can maintain our current operations and get where we want to be with just the boat fee.” The deficiency warrants were authorized by the Legislature; they’re used only when the Agriculture Director declares an emergency, which she did.

Gould: Arizona sold its state Capitol, by comparison we’re doing great

Celia Gould, state agriculture director, began her budget presentation to JFAC this morning by noting the newly restored state Capitol. Recently, she said, she spoke with the Arizona ag director; “They had just sold their state capitol building,” she said. “I’m proud to say I think in the years to come that Idaho is going to come out on the strong side of that.” The reason, she said: Prudent budgeting and spending, unlike what some other states have done.

Arizona made $735 million by selling more than a dozen state buildings, including the state Capitol and both legislative chambers, through a lease-back arrangement. That means the state gets cash now, but will now have to pay rent for using what always have been public buildings; eventually the state would regain ownership, under the bipartisan plan that news reports have described as “desperate.”

Gould lauded the hard work of Ag Department employees, who she said she sees on the job both early and late, and “We don’t see names on overtime sheets.” The workers are dedicated to doing their jobs, she said. To meet budget holdbacks, the department has cut staff, held positions vacant and imposed unpaid furloughs on all employees, Gould told JFAC. Those cuts, while necessary to make the holdbacks, she said, are “not sustainable.”

She noted that Ag has an ongoing general-fund enhancement request for next year, which Gov. Butch Otter has recommended funding, for $900,000 for efforts to continue to prevent and fight infestations of milfoil and other aquatic invasive species in Idaho lakes. The state has invested $10 million in eradicating milfoil with some success, Gould said, but if it stops now, all those treatments might have to be repeated at even larger scale in the future. The budget request, she said, “will ensure that we can keep a prevention and treatment presence in these lakes.” They include Henry’s Lake - where prevention efforts have succeeded at avoiding any infestation - Cocolalla and Lake Pend Oreille.

Another day of news…

Here are links to my full story from today’s Spokesman-Review on the introduction yesterday of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s state-tribal law enforcement bill; my full story on the passage of the “Idaho Health Freedom Act” on a party-line vote in the Idaho House; and my brief here on the latest news on state revenues. Today’s big news will include a showdown at the state Land Board at 2 this afternoon on state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s proposal to drain $50 million-plus out of the state’s school endowment reserves to avoid deeper budget cuts to schools next year; Luna faces deep concerns from his fellow Land Board members about the long-term impact, but it’s a balancing act for the five elected officials who serve on the board - all of whom are up for re-election this year.

Ferguson: Forecast is still good

Gov. Butch Otter’s chief economist, Mike Ferguson, says there’s nothing in the January revenue figures that would persuade him to adjust his forecast for state revenue for the current year or next year - as he did both last year and the year before. “You have to look behind the numbers,” Ferguson said. January’s state tax revenues came in $12.8 million short of the estimate, which, combined with the $12.6 million shortfall in December revenues, puts the state $25.3 million behind for this point in the year. However, Ferguson said nearly all of that came in lower early individual income tax payments - something that previously was encouraged by federal tax laws, but now has become less advantageous to taxpayers. As a result, such collections in December and January have been dropping off for the past few years, though state forecasts, which are based on overall history, don’t reflect that change. That means those payments still will come in by April, when they’re due. Sales tax revenues for January actually were $6.5 million above projections. Meanwhile, corporate income taxes fell $6.4 million short.

“What happened in January … I admit it looks bad,” Ferguson said in a briefing to House Democrats, which the minority caucus requested and which it decided to open to the public and press, though its caucus meetings now are closed as a rule. But, he said, “I’m not seeing things that suggest we’re in trouble relative to the forecast that was produced in early December. … It looks like things are worse, but I’m basically saying there’s some misleading information in it, if you just take it on its face.”

Of the total $25.3 million shortfall between December and January combined, $23.6 was in individual income tax, he noted, and of that, $19.8 million was in filing payments. “So virtually the entire problem … is due to filing collections,” Ferguson said. If that’s merely due to “this change in the timing of how individual income taxes are paid,” he said, “it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm.”

The real signal on the state’s financial prospects, he said, will come in April, the biggest month for income tax collections. A contingency plan would be “more than prudent” in case of an April surprise, Ferguson said, but at this point, “Things appear to have stabilized.”

Chief Allan: ‘We’re not all the same color, but we all want the same thing: Public safety’

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, was sitting in the audience as the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously today to introduce legislation proposed by the tribe regarding cooperation with tribal law enforcement agencies. “I know there has been a lot of misinformation out there, and now we have a chance to really separate the facts from the fiction,” Allan said. “I think … at the end of the day, they’ll do the right thing.”

The legislation encourages Idaho tribes and county sheriffs to negotiate and reach cooperative agreements for law enforcement within reservations; if an agreement isn’t reached after six months of negotiations, tribal police officers could begin enforcing state laws on the reservation if they meet certain requirements, including being state-certified, sending all cases to state courts, and that the tribe carry liability insurance and waive its sovereign immunity so it can be sued in cases of officer wrongdoing. Opponents have bombarded lawmakers with messages saying the move would subject non-tribal members to tribal courts and remove sheriffs’ authority. The measure doesn’t require cross-deputization, and it also provides that tribal police agencies bear all their own costs, and don’t collect a share of fines from their arrests of non-tribal members for state offenses. “We had opposition, but they were just misinformed, because they were flooded with so much misinformation,” Allan said. “But now the real work starts. … We’re not all the same color, but we all want the same thing: Public safety. … That’s been our policy from Day 1.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe had cross-deputization agreements with both Kootenai and Benewah counties, but the Benewah County sheriff revoked that county’s agreement in 2007. Now, the tribe contends criminals are going free because its officers on the Benewah County portion of its reservation are stopping drunken drivers and being called to crime scenes, but can’t make arrests of non-tribal members, and sheriff’s officers aren’t showing up to make the arrests for them.

House Judiciary introduces CdA Tribe bill

The House Judiciary Committee has voted unanimously to introduce legislation proposed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe regarding cooperative agreements between tribal police and local sheriffs. “I’m in the dark here on how all this works, and I would like to know more about that,” said Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, “and I think a discussion of this issue would enlighten a whole lot of us in this arena. Doesn’t mean I’d vote for this bill in the final analysis, but you’ve enlightened my curiosity.” The next step for the bill, which was presented to the committee by the tribe’s lobbyist, Bill Roden, is a full committee hearing.

AARP: ‘A vote against the people of Idaho’

The Idaho AARP has released a strongly worded statement condemning today’s House vote in favor of HB 391, the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” headed, “Idaho House moves state closer to health care disaster.” In its statement, the group said the bill could cost Idaho millions in federal health care funding and thousands of jobs, and called it “irresponsible.” “A vote for this bill is a vote against the people of Idaho,” Jim Wordelman, state director for AARP in Idaho, said in the release; click below to read it in full.

David Irwin, communications director for AARP Idaho, said after the vote, “It is very unfortunate to us with this issue that it has to fall right along party lines. … Our lawmakers continue to politicize this issue.” Irwin also disputed Rep. Jim Clark’s contention that AARP is the “largest insurance company in the country,” which Irwin dubbed “inaccurate.” AARP doesn’t underwrite insurance, but does sell insurance products to its members. “The money we get from our products and services we use solely to fund our nonprofit advocacy and community outreach efforts,” he said. “AARP is kind of the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval, so when we sell insurance, we do it the right way and we try to do it in such a way that changes the marketplace so it becomes more responsive to the needs of the consumers.”

Speaker: ‘Tempers are getting shorter’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said after today’s stormy House debate on health care reform, “I’ve been expecting something to come up. There’s a lot of stress, and tempers are getting shorter. … I hope that that’s the hardest one that we have to do.” Denney said he doesn’t plan any further action against Rep. Lenore Barrett; he upheld the objection to her debate on the floor, though he didn’t actively gavel her. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I think that sometimes in the heat of debate people say things they haven’t absolutely thought through, and I think it was handled appropriately by the body and the speaker.” He added, “I would bet that this isn’t the last time this session that strong feelings will be expressed.”

Bill passes, 52-18

HB 391, the Idaho Health Freedom Act, has passed the House on a 52-18 vote - a straight party-line vote, with all Republicans voting in favor, and all Democrats voting against. Shortly before the vote, Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, began her debate for the bill by saying, “You either believe in the Constitution of the United States or you don’t. You either believe in the oath of office that you took or you don’t.” At that, Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, objected. “That’s over the line,” he said.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney agreed. “Good lady, if you would stick to the bill and not involve personalities or opinions we would appreciate it,” he said. Barrett responded, “I do not take back anything that I have said,” so Ruchti said, “Mr. Speaker, then I continue to object.” Barrett asked what she was supposed to do. “I think all you need to do is acknowledge that a ‘no’ vote is not necessarily dereliction of their oath of office, because that is casting a sense that they are not as patriotic or perhaps do not believe in the Constitution. That can be your opinion, but we certainly don’t need that to be a…” Barrett said, “All right, Mr. Speaker, I will try to take another tack if that’s acceptable.” Ruchti responded, “Thank you, Mr. Speaker.” Barrett then said, “We don’t know what federal government is going to do with  health care. … It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

House debates ‘Health Freedom’ bill

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, spoke against HB 391. “This bill fails to look at unintended and possibly long-term consequences,” she said, and would require the state to spend thousands to go to court to fight health care reform requirements. “How can we justify that, when we’re cutting parks, schools and other services for our citizens?” she asked.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the House, “This bill is premature - there is no national health reform bill, and based on the last several weeks I don’t know that there is going to be one. If enacted, it is fraught with the opportunity for extensive litigation, and will take monies from the general fund.” Rusche, a physician, said many places in Idaho law require purchase of health insurance, including child support and foster care laws. He cited growing health care costs, and said they’re the biggest barrier to free access to health care. “I don’t believe this bill addresses that at all,” he said.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said the bill’s estimate of $100,000 for litigation is a maximum cost, and the state likely would spend less. “I don’t think it would have the impact that people are claiming,” he said. “It would be a terrible mistake for the state of Idaho to wait until a bill is passed for us to do something about this in the state.” He added, “There’s nothing in this legislation that says that the majority of the individuals in this body are against health care reform. … What we don’t want is federal reform, we don’t want federal concepts intruding on the rights and liberties of individuals here in Idaho.”

Luker: ‘Extreme deviation from constitution’

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, co-sponsor of the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” told the House, “As Idahoans we are a freedom-loving people and this particular bill deals with that freedom. This bill is very narrowly drafted, it deals with one issue and that is mandatory health care coverage. It doesn’t have anything to do with various other solutions that we do need to look at in resolving our health care crisis if you will, but it does address the concern of many that the federal government would come in and say you will buy insurance, and if you don’t you will be taxed, you will be penalized, you will be fined. That is an extreme deviation from our constitutional principles.”

Luker is speaking second, after Rep. Jim Clark opened the debate. During his comments, Clark derided the AARP, saying, “They’re an insurance company,” and calling the group “the largest insurance company in the country.”

Clark: ‘Not saying ‘no’ to health care reform’

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, told the House, “The Idaho Health Freedom Act is not saying ‘no’ to health care reform. In fact … it’s the first step to saying yes,” because it sets the state up to do health care reform only on its own terms, Clark said. “It will help shield Idaho from a federal individual mandate.” He added, “We’re not alone in this battle - there are 36 states nationally” looking at some type of legislation along these lines.

Clark said he recognizes that federal law is the law of the land. “This is a legal battle that has been fought before and won before,” he said. “States may provide stronger protection of individual freedoms than the federal Constitution allows.”

House backs F-35 base

HJM 10, a non-binding memorial supporting the basing of F-35 Strike Fighter planes in Idaho, has won unanimous support in the House. Next up: The Idaho Health Freedom Act.

AARP to legislators: We’re watching this vote

The Idaho AARP has sent a letter to legislators notifying them that the senior citizens’ group will be watching the expected vote today on HB 391, the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” which the AARP opposes. The bill seeks to set the state up for a lawsuit over federal health care reform, by banning enforcement of any requirements for Idahoans to purchase health insurance. “AARP has grave concerns about this legislation and the short and long-term effects it will have on our state’s health care system,” the letter says. “As record numbers of Idaho families, retirees and businesses continue to struggle with health care costs, they look to their state and federal lawmakers for solutions and relief.  The Health Freedom Act provides no solutions or needed relief; rather, it creates more roadblocks to addressing Idaho’s worsening health care woes.” The organization says it will be notifying its members of how their local lawmakers vote on the bill; click below to read the full letter. The bill has been moved up on the House calendar and is up next.

How to control colonies of feral cats…

Here’s an oddity: Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, says experts say neutering and releasing feral cats is actually a better way to get rid of colonies of feral cats than killing individual cats from the colonies, because they reproduce so quickly and the colonies persist. When colony members are neutered and released, the colonies eventually go away. But current Idaho law suggests those who capture, neuter and release feral cats may be running afoul of animal abandonment laws. So at the request of the Idaho Humane Society and other animal shelters around the state, Kelly introduced legislation today to allow local communities to permit and regulate the practice if they choose.

“This is a problem for a lot of communities,” Kelly told the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee this morning. Most of Idaho’s animal shelters won’t even accept cats; the Boise shelter took in 8,000 cats last year, she said. The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, allowing for a full hearing later.

Moyle pushes voter ID bill

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, persuaded a unanimous House State Affairs Committee this morning to introduce his bill to require voters to present photo ID’s before they can vote. Here’s a report from the Associated Press:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho voters could have to present photo identification before casting their ballots, if a bill introduced in the House State Affairs Committee becomes law. The measure introduced Tuesday is similar to a plan broached a year ago, but House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, the sponsor, says it includes additions favored by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and county clerks. There are lingering hurdles, however. For instance, Moyle says no compromise was reached on how to handle absentee or mail-in voters who don’t show up at the polls. He says there could be a second bill. Under this measure, voters would have to present a valid photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport. Those who no longer have valid licenses or other photo identification, such as elderly people, would merely have to sign an affidavit saying they are who they say they are, Moyle said.

Third immigration bill introduced

Here’s a news item from the AP: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The third bill of the 2010 session to take on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers emerged in the Idaho Legislature. This measure, introduced by Reps. Raul Labrador and Phil Hart on Tuesday in the House State Affairs Committee, includes provisions to suspend a business’s license for up to a year. Unlike a bill introduced earlier by Sen. Mike Jorgenson, however, their measure wouldn’t require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check if an employee is legal. But using the system would be an absolute defense against prosecution, should an employee be found without appropriate documentation. Currently, such employment violations are under federal jurisdiction. But Hart says the state should intervene, because U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents aren’t doing their jobs as well as they should be.

A ‘workable plan’ for Human Rights Commission

Pam Parks, director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, and Roger Madsen, director of the state Department of Labor, say they’re gearing up for a July 1 merger, if lawmakers approve. Gov. Butch Otter already has endorsed the plan, Madsen said, and legislation is in the works. Parks said, “Roger immediately said yes, we should explore this,” launching “a really positive, wonderful discussion about how we’d be able to save the commission.”

Madsen said his department has committed $144,000 next fiscal year, double that amount the following year, three times the amount the third year out and four times the fourth year, to make up for the four-year phase-out of state general funds to the commission that Otter called for, starting in fiscal year 2011. The commission’s current state funding is about $1.5 million. Labor will take the money from penalty and interest funds paid by employers and claimants, and from a special administration account that comes from interest earnings on the unemployment reserve fund. Those funds had been scheduled to pay for several building upgrades at the Labor Department next year, including $800,000 to replace inefficient single-pane windows and another $800,000 to repair leaking geothermal pipes and install a heat exchanger. “We’ll push it down the road,” Deputy Director John McAllister said of the building maintenance.

Parks said, “It is a workable plan.” She noted that Madsen said he was “humbled” to provide a home for the Human Rights Commission; she said, “We’re humbled that they offered help.”

The impact of unemployment…

“In the nearly 34 years I have worked with or for the Idaho Department of Labor, the past year has been the most challenging for Idaho’s economy, its 50,000 businesses, its three-quarters of a million workers and for our agency,” state Labor Director Roger Madsen told JFAC this morning. Just three years ago, in 2007, Idaho’s unemployment rate was at a record low of 2.8 percent. Today, it’s 9.1 percent, not that far off the all-time high of 9.4 percent in 1983. In two years, Idaho lost 8.8 percent of all of its jobs, Madsen said - most of them in the last 18 months. Construction employment has dropped 35 percent since the recession started; high-tech manufacturing, 31 percent; and retail is off 8 percent.

However, Madsen said, “In the last several months, we have seen signs of improvement.” He said modest job growth is projected through mid-2011, though it still likely will be late 2013 or early 2014 before the number of Idaho jobs rises back to the pre-recession level of 670,000.

Unemployment benefits were paid to more than 116,000 Idahoans last year, Madsen said, a record $403 million in regular state benefits plus another $240 million in federal supplemental benefits. “This huge amount has increased the economic pressure on our employers, who pay the bill. But it’s money spent on house payments and rent, food and clothes, utilities and other essentials - money that generally goes to businesses in the communities throughout Idaho where these workers and their families live,” he said.  Madsen called unemployment benefits “one of the best tools the state has during a recession,” and said the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that without unemployment benefits, recessions would be 15 percent longer and deeper.

Madsen: Human Rights Commission would remain independent

Roger Madsen, head of the Idaho Department of Labor, said Labor has had a challenging year, but he’s honored to provide a new home for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to move into the department as the state cuts back its funding. Madsen said he won’t interfere with the operations of the commission. “I’m not going to tell the Human Rights Commission my opinion on different issues, even if they ask,” Madsen told JFAC this morning under questioning from committee members. “I’m going to make sure they’re efficient, independent and effective, and that they take care of the state’s issues.”

Madsen said the current downturn has brought “the most severe loss of jobs in Idaho since World War II,” and the state now has fewer workers on the job than it had in January of 2005. As a result, the state’s unemployment fund had to borrow millions from the federal government to continue paying unemployment benefits.

Senate panel rejects broad invasive species bill

The Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee this morning refused to introduce invasive species amendments proposed by the state Department of Agriculture after senators noted that the bill, as written, would authorize pulling over any vehicle for simply having a container - say, a cooler in the back of a pickup - and potentially sending the driver to jail for up to a year, fining him up to $3,000, and hitting him with a civil penalty of up to $10,000. That wasn’t the intent, Administrator of Plant Industries Lloyd Knight told the committee. The amendments were designed to allow citations of people who blow past boat inspection stations on the freeway - as roughly 80 percent of boaters did when they passed the Huetter inspection station on I-90 just west of Coeur d’Alene last year without stopping, Knight said. Highway patrollers pulled over a handful, and were only able to cite them for failure to obey a traffic sign - the sign that said all boats had to stop for inspection for invasive species, such as quagga and zebra mussels.

The legislation Knight proposed would make failure to stop for inspection a misdemeanor for anyone “towing, carrying or transporting any conveyance,” with “conveyance” broadly defined to include a vehicle, a boat, a trailer, a container and more. It also would allow the Department of Agriculture to impound infested conveyances; and allow law enforcement officers to stop, search, detain and impound conveyances. Knight said the Department of Ag made the bill broad so it could apply to any future invasive species, such as, perhaps, one carried on firewood, or one carried in containers of fish. Rules for each inspection program would be more specific, he said.

But Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, brought up the cooler-in-a-pickup example - and said it’d fit the language in the bill. “If I’m driving down the road and I have a cooler in the back of my truck and I don’t stop, if you want to, you can throw me in jail and fine me a couple thousand dollars,” he said. “This appears to give the Department of Agriculture the ability to get involved in mischief if they choose to do so. … You’re telling me to trust you.”

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he rarely votes against printing a bill, but he’d do so in this case. “I think we may even be hinging on some constitutional issues,” he said. The roll-call vote on a motion to introduce the bill failed, 3-5, even after committee Chairman Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said a full committee hearing on the bill would include information on the high costs of invasive species infestations, showing why “that might require us to take some extraordinary measures.” Knight said afterward that he’ll work on narrowing the bill and bring back a new version. “We’ll work with them,” Knight said. “I think we can get to a definition that will work for them.”

Hammon: ‘They’re double-funding this’

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, told the Senate Education Committee, “There is no cut to IDLA in the governor’s budget. … We continue to have the $5 million going forward.” That’s the budget that was set for IDLA for this year, before its enrollment surged from 11,100 to 14,000 students. Hammon said the administration views the current funding system for IDLA as “double funding,” because school districts receive state funding to educate students, and then the state also funds IDLA for some of those same students. “The problem isn’t that IDLA is doing a poor job, they’re doing a great job,” Hammon told the committee. “They’re a model for the nation. However, they’re double-funding this activity over and over again.”

Wayne Rusch, Glenns Ferry School District superintendent, said, “You can call it double funding, but this is how it will affect the program: We will reduce our graduation rate, we will eliminate the advanced math courses that we’re currently offering, and we will go back to offering a basic education.” The state now spends only $10,000 to provide 30 classes and 154 credits through IDLA for Glenns Ferry students, Rusch said. “I just can’t offer the courses for that.” Donna Hutchison, CEO of IDLA, said under the governor’s budget proposal, “Classes would be capped, students would be possibly turned away.” Fees might also be raised.

Districts ‘needing to turn to online learning more,’ IDLA tells lawmakers

The Idaho Digital Learning Academy was established by the state in 2002 to offer online courses to Idaho school districts as a supplement to their district offerings, IDLA CEO Donna Hutchison told the Senate Education Committee this afternoon. Hutchison, who also presented to the House Education Committee this morning, said IDLA offers more than 160 courses to students in grades 7 through 12, and enrollments have been growing fast, from 700 students in 2003 to about 14,000 now, with more still signing up for this spring. Hutchison said IDLA anticipated only about 11,100 enrollments this year due to cutbacks, but has seen the opposite effect. “What we’re hearing from schools, based on the cutbacks that they’re experiencing at the local level, they’re needing to turn to online learning more,” Hutchison said. Last year, 98 percent of Idaho’s school districts participated in IDLA.

IDLA is one of the agencies for which Gov. Butch Otter has proposed phasing out all state funding over the next four years, but for next year, his budget proposes funding equal to this year’s budgeted level. However, that doesn’t account for the program’s growing enrollment. Wayne Rusch, superintendent of the Glenns Ferry School District, told lawmakers that his district has high poverty rates and has lost 30 percent of its enrollment in the last 10 years. Yet, students are being offered a full array of courses, including advanced math and science and foreign language. “If we didn’t have IDLA, we couldn’t offer what we’re offering. We would have to cut back on our math, our science and those courses, and our students wouldn’t have those opportunities,” Rusch said. Among the classes his district now offers to students only through IDLA: Trigonometry, calculus, Spanish, psychology and zoology. Benjamin Merrill, principal at Notus Junior-Senior High, said his students are using IDLA for remedial courses, for graduation requirements, and for advanced classes.

Bill would remove terms like ‘lunatic,’ ‘idiot’ and ‘retarded’ from state laws

After Idaho hosted the Special Olympics World Winter Games last year, Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said he was startled when reading through an Idaho statute to see outmoded terminology like “mentally retarded,” “mentally deficient” and even “lunatic” and “idiot.” Bock said, “I think it made all of us a little more sensitive with respect to some of the language we use with regard to people with intellectual disabilities.” So he asked the Legislative Services Office to do a search of state law, and found lots of such wording. Then, a half-dozen meetings followed with state Health & Welfare officials, the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, the courts, the state Department of Insurance and more. In the end, Bock came up with an 82-page bill to update the wording in an array of sections of Idaho state law, from the probate code (“a decedent, an infant, lunatic or insolvent, may have…”) to the death penalty (“imposition of death penalty upon mentally retarded person prohibited”).

A section about “Contracts of Idiots” became “Contracts of Persons Without Understanding.” A clause about vocational education programs that said “handicapped students” switched to “students with disabilities.” When Bock presented the bill today to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, asked if it would penalize people who use the outdated terms. Bock said no; “that’s not in the bill,” he said. “It’s not about requiring people to speak in a certain way. It’s about the language in the statute.”

Bock said the Special Olympics, which drew international attention to Idaho and drew hundreds of Idahoans as volunteers, opened his eyes about language referring to people with disabilities. “We shouldn’t be labeling them in a way that’s disrespectful,” he said. Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, noted that the long bill also, in one instance, changes the term “Afro-American” to “African-American.” Bock said that was simply a matter of updating a term that’s no longer in use. The bill also, in several instances, changes the word “handicapped” to “impaired,” and removes the term “the mentally retarded” in favor of “people with intellectual disabilities.” In all cases, Bock, a lawyer, said, “The goal was absolutely no change in the substance of the law.” The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill.

Bill would end reporting requirement for minor boating accidents

The Idaho Sheriff’s Association says it’s currently illegal for a boat operator to fail to report an accident, for a full county investigation, if the damage comes to $500 or more - and that’s too low. “We are proposing $1,500, to be the same as cars,” Sheriff’s Association lobbyist Mike Kane told the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. “It’s a great imposition to the boating public to have to go through what is in the current law for very minor accidents, and also a waste of county resources,” when all that’s happened is “two Chris-Crafts kinda nudge each other.” The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, with Sen. Patti-Anne Lodge, R-Huston, noting that it could save counties some money.

Egg farms poised for exodus to Idaho?

The AP reports that Idaho is among several states watching to see if a California animal cruelty law drives big egg farms there to look at leaving the state - and possibly move here. As a result of a 2008 voter initiative, California law will ban cramped cages for laying hens by 2015; click below to read the full report from AP reporter John Miller. 

Senate votes to eliminate tax checkoff for political parties

The Senate has voted unanimously to pass HB 379, the bill that’s already passed the House to eliminate a checkoff on state income tax returns that now lets voters donate $1 of their taxes to the political party of their choice. The bill now moves to the governor’s desk.

Gambling ‘discretion’ bill wins 69-1 vote

There was just one “no” vote - from Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby - as the House voted just now to pass HB 422, the bill from Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, to eliminate what he called an “archaic law” that now requires law enforcement officers and prosecutors who know about any type of gambling - including office pools and the like - to prosecute them or face misdemeanor charges themselves. “Fortunately, this archaic law is being ignored by our law enforcement officers,” Burgoyne told the House. “They are today using their discretion. What this would do today is make that discretion lawful.” No one spoke up against the move, and the bill passed the House on a 69-1 vote; it now moves to the Senate.

Tax break for non-profit homeless shelters passes House unanimously

The House has voted unanimously, 70-0, in favor of HB 435, the measure from Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, to grant a temporary, two-year sales tax exemption to Idaho’s non-profit homeless shelters. “We’re here today because our economy has tanked, people are losing their jobs and they’re losing their homes. They need help,” Durst told the House. “It’s a sign that we’re being proactive in addressing the budget crisis that we have this year. … It will reduce the budget needs for the Department of Health & Welfare and Corrections.” Operators of homeless shelters told an earlier legislative committee hearing that the temporary exemption will save them hundreds of dollars in sales taxes on toilet paper, oatmeal and the like, allowing them to house more people for more nights.

There was no debate before the unanimous vote. After the vote, a victorious Durst shared fist-bumps with GOP Reps. Marv Hagedorn and Raul Labrador. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Trib story: ‘Future uncertain for Simplot house’

As Idaho mulls what to do with the Simplot house, the state’s official - but unoccupied - governor’s residence in Boise, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence had an interesting look today at the house and the issue. “There’s hardly a piece of real estate that showcases Idaho better,” Lt. Gov. Brad Little told Spence. “It overlooks Boise, the foothills, horse pastures, farmland. But we have to address the maintenance costs. It’s probably the highest (water) consumptive real estate in the state. If Jack were alive today, he’d say ‘Make ‘er pay, boys.’ He was never reluctant to adapt to change.” Click below to read Spence’s full report from today’s Tribune.

‘A very troubling area…’

JFAC members quizzed Idaho Department of Administration officials so long about the Idaho Education Network this morning that they ran over time, and almost had to skip the Capitol Commission’s budget hearing. Among the questions was this one from Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert: “What role did IEN or the agency, Mr. Gwartney or the Department of Administration, play in the recommendations to reduce the Idaho Digital Learning Academy and Idaho Public Television? That’s a rumor that’s out there that I’d like you to follow up on,” Cameron said, indicating that Admin officials could get back to him later. “The second half of that rumor is that the governor asked IEN to deliver his State of the State message to four schools, and IEN was unable to do so, but Public Television then did so. Can you get back to us with those answers?” At that, Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “Thank you, and we would all appreciate that information. … We’re running way past, but this is a very troubling area of the budget.”

Human Rights Commission unanimously endorses merger with Labor Dept.

The Idaho Human Rights Commission has unanimously endorsed the plan to merge the commission into the state Department of Labor, a move that was proposed after Gov. Butch Otter proposed phasing out all the commission’s state funding over the next four years. Legislation still must pass to make the change. Labor gets no state general funds, operating instead mostly on federal funds and employment taxes. Pamela Parks, commission director, called the move “a win-win for the state, and the right thing to do. We recognize that both our agencies share a common mission to provide Idaho with a strong work force and a commitment to ensure that those workers are protected from discrimination in the workplace.” Click below to read the commission’s full announcement.

JFAC mourns Osgood

When JFAC heard the budget request for the state’s Permanent Building Fund this morning, a long-familiar participant was missing. Tim Mason of the state Division of Public Works told the joint committee that Larry Osgood passed away nine days ago. Osgood, a mechanical engineer, was state public works director under several governors, starting with Cecil Andrus, until his retirement in 2005. Since retiring, Osgood served in several capacities for the city of Caldwell, including public works director; he used a wheelchair due to injuries from a car accident before he started his state service. “He enjoyed very much working with JFAC,” Mason told the committee members. “When I go back this morning, I’ll be missing getting a phone call from him critiquing my presentation.”

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “I’m truly sorry to hear that. We loved having him with us. He’d roll in in his wheelchair, and did a fine job for the state those many years.” Osgood’s obituary in the Idaho Press-Tribune said, “Larry lived his life believing that life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath.”

Thayn-Durst bill: Scholarships for early grads

Reps. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Branden Durst, D-Boise, have introduced legislation that Durst touts as “innovation in education,” to set up a pilot project for 21 school districts and three charter schools to offer a special scholarship to students who graduate from high school at least a year early. Those who do would be eligible to receive 35 percent of their school district’s average daily attendance rate as a scholarship. The school district also would receive 35 percent, while the remaining 30 percent would be “remitted back to the general fund.” The two lawmakers estimated that at $4,593.51 in average state funding per student to school districts for a year, the state could save hundreds of thousands if the participating students graduate at least a year early.

The House Education Committee agreed unanimously, without discussion, this morning to introduce the bill.

Two new tax breaks introduced

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning introduced two new tax break bills. The first, from Reps. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, and Mike Moyle, R-Star, expands an existing law created two years ago to let counties give property tax breaks to new businesses in certain cases. Bayer said it’s never been used; the bill expands it to the full state, rather than just rural zones; removes a requirement for annual approvals from the county; and lets personal property be counted along with real property to get up to the minimum $3 million investment to qualify for the break. Counties could decide how much of the new business’ property taxes to forgive and for how long, up to five years, as in the current law.

The second bill, from Moyle and Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, would allow out-of-state owners of large aircraft that have major repairs done in Idaho to seek a rebate of sales taxes paid on parts; if they did, they’d have to pay the sales tax in their home state. A Boise firm, Western Aircraft, sought the move, but Moyle and Rusche said it’d apply to others as well, including a firm in Coeur d’Alene. Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, questioned whether the bill was “special legislation for one organization,” but Moyle assured him it wasn’t. As with the first bill, Rev & Tax voted unanimously to introduce the measure. Rusche said it’s a potential growth business for Idaho.

Rev & Tax also introduced a bill from Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, to require a two-thirds vote of the affected people if a local improvement district is created by a City Council to bond for more than $250,000. Labrador said a similar bill passed the House three years ago but died in the Senate; it lacked the $250,000 minimum figure.

Lawmakers question Gwartney

One of the money-saving consolidation proposals that state Administration chief Mike Gwartney outlined drew several questions from JFAC members. Gwartney said there’s no need to send a building inspector from the state Division of Building Safety to inspect a building, when his department has people on staff with the same skill sets. “For example, we’re building a building in Idaho Falls, there’s no use for Kelly to send an inspector out there when we have a competent person on site,” he said. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked how anyone can be allowed to inspect their own construction work, regardless of their “skill set.” Gwartney said he wouldn’t make the move for state-constructed buildings, just those built by the private sector. Keough then asked what statutory authority the department has for conducting building inspections in place of the Building Safety inspectors; Gwartney said he’ll get back to her on that.

There also have been lots of questions from lawmakers about the bidding process for the Idaho Education Network, on which the state currently is facing a lawsuit; JFAC still is due for a full presentation this morning on the IEN. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I guess I have to give the agency kudos for imagination and for ideas, but candidly, have a lack of confidence in the ability to deliver services that have been promised based on past experience.” He said he’s particularly concerned about the effect of the IT consolidation move on functions at the state Department of Insurance and Department of Finance, which are regulating struggling financial institutions.

IT consolidation targets ‘low-hanging fruit’

Greg Zickau, chief technology officer for the state Department of Administration, said the department is proposing to transfer nine information technology positions to Admin from other agencies as part of an IT consolidation that would save an estimated $229,000 a year. Overall, the move would cut four state employees, positions that either could be moved elsewhere or eliminated. The transfer would be the first step toward a consolidated approach to information technology, Zickau told JFAC, targeting seven agencies identified as “low-hanging fruit.” The seven agencies have 10 to 15 IT workers, Zickau said, and spend $2 million to $2.5 million a year on technology. “We looked at what it would take to assume that additional workload into our office,” he said.

Consolidation moves like this one won’t work unless they’re supported by both the legislative and executive branches, Zickau told lawmakers. “It would require unflinching leadership from you and from others,” he said. “It’s going to allow us to provide better service with less cost. … This is a small initial step, but the change to the agencies that are affected is certainly substantial.”

Gwartney: ‘Eliminating duplication’

State Department of Administrator head Mike Gwartney told lawmakers this morning that he’s hoping to save the state millions through various consolidation efforts. “When I moved into this job we had 74 individual email plans,” Gwartney told JFAC. “We’ve now taken that down to where about half the agencies are under one plan. Over this next year, we’ll complete the rest.” Consolidation of telephone systems has gone through “baby steps” so far but already is saving $100,000 a year, Gwartney said, though still, “the governor has to dial 12 numbers to get to my office.” The Department of Administration is now providing bookkeeping and human resources for 25 state agencies that have requested it, he said.

He’s estimating that future information technology consolidation could save the state $20 million a year. By consolidating the BSU postal service with that of the department, the state is saving $300,000 a year, Gwartney said. And he’s looking “strongly” into centralizing fleet management, which he estimated could save the state $4.5 million a year. Various rule changes now pending in the Legislature could save the state $160,000 a year, he said. A consolidation of copy center functions has saved $127,000 a year, Gwartney said. “We’ve worked hard on elimination of duplication.”

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the fourth week of Idaho’s legislative session in pictures, as a slide show. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the picture frame, and the captions will appear as the slide show plays. Tonight, on Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports,” we talk about the state budget, pricey highway groundbreaking ceremonies, the “tax gap,” and more as we review the week’s events. I’ll join host Thanh Tan, her guests Sen. Dean Cameron and Reps. Maxine Bell and Wendy Jaquet, and other commentators including Jim Weatherby, Cynthia Sewell and Bill Spence on the program. It airs tonight at 8, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here. The show also is broadcast on the radio at 3 p.m. on Saturday on KISU-FM, and 10 a.m. Sunday on KBSX 91.5 FM.

Allred faults Otter for ‘irrational pessimism’

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred slammed GOP Gov. Butch Otter today for what he called his “irrational pessimism and recklessness,” saying that in two weeks of travel around the state, he’s heard concerns from people across the political spectrum over Otter’s proposed budget cuts to schools, Idaho Public Television and state parks. You can read Allred’s full release here; I’m awaiting a response from the Otter campaign, but as of 7:30 p.m. Boise time, still haven’t heard back.

Further budget cuts would mean releasing prisoners

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on Idaho’s prison budget situation: Lawmakers were warned today that the only way to cut more deeply into the state prison budget than Gov. Butch Otter already has proposed is to begin releasing prisoners. Budget cuts have hit the state’s prison system hard enough that even guards in already-understaffed prisons are now taking 28 unpaid furlough hours a year.

Merrill to lawmakers: ‘We will have 30 parks again’

Nancy Merrill, Idaho state parks director, told the House Resources Committee today, “We are in a transition period and we have much to do.” She noted that the new business plan the department has worked up - aimed at working toward weaning the department from state funding - is going through revisions. “We realize that there are some changes that need to be made,” she said. And she told lawmakers that work is under way in response to the state Parks Board’s decision this week to reverse its September decision to close Dworshak State Park and turn it over to non-state management. “The staff is reviewing that and trying to figure out where we’re going to find the funding,” Merrill told lawmakers. “We look forward to managing that park again, with our partners and whatever we can do. So we will have 30 parks again.”

When Merrill and Gov. Butch Otter recently announced the plan to wean parks off state funding, only 29 state parks were envisioned, because Dworshak was off the list. Merrill’s presentation to the House Resources Committee today is a long-scheduled overview of the department, but it reflects the recent dramatic changes in the outlook for the state’s parks department. At the start of the legislative session, Otter proposed eliminating the state parks department, selling its headquarters and merging park management duties into the state Department of Lands. He later abandoned that idea.

Merrill told the committee, “Our mission is to improve the quality of life in Idaho.” That includes a strong commitment to keeping parks open, she said. “We are looking for alternative ways and we are looking for ways to stretch the dollars as we try to do more with less,” she said. That will mean some changes. “We may not be able to open every unit that we have in every park,” Merrill said. “We may have a shortened season, we may have less people at our parks as far as our management, we may have more volunteers, we may have more people from the community helping.” Already, she said, the motorcycle club Brother Speed has volunteered to mow the lawn at one park near Twin Falls. “Our users love our parks,” Merrill said. “We can do this.”

Jorgenson criticizes ‘inflammatory and patently untrue claims’

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, chairman of the Idaho Indian Affairs Council, has put out a guest opinion on the flap over proposed legislation from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe regarding cross-deputization, after a three-year dispute between the tribe and the Benewah County Sheriff. “The purpose of this guest opinion is not to discuss the merits of the proposed legislation,” Jorgenson writes. “It is to address the inflammatory and patently untrue claims of its opponents now circulating.  Statements by groups such as the Idaho Eagle Forum and the North Idaho Citizens Alliance,  generally considered a radical Anti-Indian activist group, do a substantial injustice to Idaho Indian Tribes and are stoking unwarranted fears in local citizens.”

Jorgenson said claims that the still-to-be-introduced legislation would remove sheriffs’ authority or subject non-tribal members to tribal courts are false, and he bemoaned anti-Indian rhetoric he’s seen about the issue on the Internet. “The individuals who are making these false claims do great damage to reputation of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which has successfully integrated itself as a positive part of the fabric and well-being of our entire community,” Jorgenson writes; you can read his full commentary here.    

Ringo back on the job

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, is back at work in the Legislature, after missing two days for surgery for peripheral artery disease in her legs. The procedure was a follow-up to more major surgery she had in October for the disease, which if left untreated would have left her unable to walk more than a block without resting. “It wasn’t elective, because I actually asked the surgeons if I could wait until the session was over - they said no,” Ringo said. “It definitely wasn’t a choice.” While Ringo was gone, Moscow economist Judith Brown filled in as her substitute.

The condition is unrelated to the thyroid cancer that Ringo was diagnosed with a year ago; she had her thyroid removed in December of 2008, well before the start of that year’s legislative session, and has been fine since. “I haven’t had any recurrence,” she said. Ringo said she chose to have the major vascular procedure in October, and then required three follow-up procedures; this week’s was the final one. “I’m finished now and glad I did it,” she said, and she’s not suffering any pain. “I’m ready to go.”

Prisons: Spending less now…

Questions from JFAC members for state Corrections Director Brent Reinke included whether it’d be helpful if Idaho set up some kind of early-release mechanism for prisoners now. Reinke said the department has been evaluating “what good time might look like in Idaho,” referring to time off for good behavior - something Idaho hasn’t had in decades. “I think it would be a challenge getting it adopted,” he said. Reinke said the measures the state’s already taking - problem-solving courts, developing alternatives to incarceration, treatment programs, and a “violation matrix” - offer better hope of results. “We have really seen a significant reduction,” he said. “We’re a thousand inmates below where we thought we’d be in 2008.” This year, Idaho is spending $21 million less on its prisons than 2008 forecasts showed would be needed by now, Reinke noted.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked about the costs of Idaho’s death penalty, and the inmates now housed on Death Row. “That population doesn’t cost us any more than any other population,” Reinke responded; the department spends about $57.44 a day to house an inmate. “The problem for us is the appeals process.” An actual execution would carry some costs, he noted. “But is it costly for us on a day-to-day basis? It’s not. … The true expense is with the attorneys and the process outside of our prisons.”

The department has a privately-built, privately-run Correctional Alternative Placement Program facility scheduled to open in June, which will have 432 beds and offer a residential substance abuse treatment programs of 90, 120 and 270 days. Reinke estimates the treatment programs will save the state $8 million by 2013 in reduced regular prison stays. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked if the state could save money by delaying the opening. Reinke said the department is counting on the new facility; a temporary facility housing 200 inmates in a former warehouse - in which there was a riot last January - closes in June and becomes a warehouse again. The department also has closed 150 of its costliest beds at existing state prisons this year because of the funding crunch. “The CAPP facility is about meeting those bed needs with our growth rate currently at 4 percent,” Reinke responded. Without it, he said, the state likely would have to start sending inmates out of state again before the end of fiscal year 2011.

He told reporters after the budget hearing, “The governor has made it very clear in his recommendation that he wants to support CAPP.” Private contracts, including the CAPP facility, are the only increases in the governor’s proposed prison budget for next year, Reinke said. “We’re continuing our furloughs into 2011,” he said. “The difference in CAPP is that it’s going to help bring our population down. It’s well worth the investment.”

Idaho has only one correctional officer for every 50 adult inmates, Reinke noted. Every corrections employee - including him - is taking unpaid furloughs due to budget cuts. Correctional officers are taking 28 unpaid furlough hours for the year.

Want to save $5M in prisons? Would need to release 250 inmates…

If Idaho had to cut another $5 million from its state prisons budget, state Corrections Director Brent Reinke told JFAC this morning, it’d have to release about 250 inmates. Legally, the department can’t do that on its own, he noted; it’d take direction from the state Legislature. Already, due to budget cuts, the department has imposed 80,000 unpaid furlough hors on employees, is holding open 49 positions, has cut another 44, and has eliminated paid overtime. “I think it’s my duty to remind you, these kinds of cuts are not sustainable as we look into the future,” Reinke warned. “We walk a fine line between efficient and ineffective government. … We simply cannot continue to do more with less, we must do less if more budget cuts are required.”

However, he said the system can function with the governor’s proposed budget, which includes a $2 million transfer from the budget stabilization fund for critical personnel costs. “The governor understands very clearly the challenges we face,” Reinke said. “We can make cuts required in the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal as proposed. It’s not going to be easy, but we can do it without jeopardizing our staff, the public and our inmates.” Yet, he said, inmate population is beginning to grow again after a couple of years’ drop, and a recent performance evaluation of the department suggested the prisons are understaffed as is. “We walk a very fine line,” Reinke said. “Are we at risk? Every day. But we’ve been that way for quite a while.” The governor’s budget calls for a 4.4 percent increase in state funding for prisons next year, after an 8.8 percent cut last year. That still leaves the department trying to house and supervise more offenders with less money than in 2008.

Conflict between sheriff, tribe prompts bill

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com about the buzz at the Legislature today over whether criminals are going free in Benewah County because the local sheriff won’t work with the local tribal police. The problem: Without a cross-deputization agreement, tribal police officers can’t arrest non-tribal members, even if they catch them in the act of committing a crime. Instead, they must call on a county deputy or state trooper to make the arrest. Roughly 10,000 people live on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, but only 1,400 are tribal members. In the Kootenai County portion of the reservation, a cross-deputization agreement is in place; there was a longstanding one in Benewah County until Benewah Sheriff Bob Kirts revoked it in 2007.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is proposing legislation - which hasn’t yet been introduced - to give tribes a six-month window to give a county notice that they want to enter into a cooperative law enforcement agreement. If an agreement isn’t reached within six months, tribal police could begin enforcing state law against non-tribal members on the reservation, as long as they’re certified by Idaho’s state police academy, the tribe carries insurance, and the tribe waives sovereign immunity to permits lawsuits over officer wrongdoing. “The idea was if we can’t work out an agreement with Benewah County, perhaps the best solution is to change the law in order to give citizens a recourse if a sheriff just won’t agree to cooperate,” said Coeur d’Alene Tribe spokesman Marc Stewart.

Benewah Sheriff Kirts: ‘It’s a law thing, it’s not human relations’

Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts is dismissing an open letter to lawmakers from the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations about law-enforcement problems in Benewah County, signed by task force vice president Christie Wood, saying, “My only comment is she’s ill-informed or she’s just plain lying or stupid.” He said, “I’m not really concerned about it - I represent the people of Benewah County, this is what they want so that’s what we’re going to do.” Wood is a Coeur d’Alene police sergeant, department spokeswoman, a former Coeur d’Alene school trustee and current chair of the North Idaho College board of trustees.

Kirts, who’s been Benewah sheriff for five years, is a former state trooper and also served as Benewah sheriff from 1980 to 1988, at which time the county did have cross-deputization with the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police. “That was canceled because they started to violate people’s rights by citing non-tribal members into tribal courts and that type of thing,” Kirts said. “I think it was terminated in ‘07; at that time I left them the rights to arrest DUIs or handle emergencies, and they chose not to do that at all, all they do is complain about not being able to do anything.” He added, “It’s a law thing, it’s not human relations. I don’t know what … Christie’s talking about.”

Human rights group: Legislation needed to protect safety in Benewah County

The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, the North Idaho human rights group, has sent an open letter to Idaho state legislators urging support for legislation backed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe on cross-deputization for law enforcement in Benewah County. The legislation hasn’t yet been introduced, but has prompted lots of talk both in North Idaho and around the Statehouse. “This legislation is necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens living both on and off of the Reservation in Benewah County,” task force first vice-president Christie Wood writes in the letter. You can click below to read the full letter.

Senate confirms McDermott after debate

The Idaho Senate voted 24-10 today to confirm Fish & Game Commissioner Tony McDermott, who represents the North Idaho Panhandle, for another term, but only after an extended debate in which Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, tried to frame the vote as a referendum on wolves. Siddoway criticized the Fish & Game Commission for setting a harvest target of 220 wolves in the current wolf hunting season, rather than a figure double that number. “We have an opportunity here to send the whole Department of Fish & Game a real message,” Siddoway said. “This is not about personality, this is about responsibility. … My objection has nothing to do with me being a rancher. It has everything to do with the responsibility a Fish & Game commissioner has … for the benefit of the hunters and fishermen of this state.” Siddoway said he’s not swayed by any argument that a lower wolf kill will appease a federal judge in a pending court case over wolf management, as Idaho’s in court over the issue anyway. “That’s how these groups make their money, that’s how they keep this federal thumb on the state of Idaho,” Siddoway declared to the Senate.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said McDermott “has worked tirelessly to support the sportsmen in Idaho,” and said, “He answers the phone no matter what time of day or night I or my constituents call to ask him a question. … He is a good man and he deserves our support.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who sponsored the confirmation in the Senate, said, “I think those who know me well can count me pretty solidly in the senator’s camp in terms of the wolf being here in the first place. … But they’re here now, and we have to deal with them.” Keough noted that only 146 wolves have been shot even with the 220 limit, and said that’s the number that would have been killed even if the commission had set the limit at 500, because of the “nature of the critter.” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, noted that when the Fish & Game Commission saw that it wasn’t going to hit its wolf harvest targets, it extended the wolf-hunting season. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “We have got to send a message that we’ve had enough, and this is one place we can do it.”

McDermott, a semi-retired real estate broker, Vietnam veteran with 28 years in the military, and former professor of military science at the University of Montana, lives in Sagle. He’s a life member of the NRA and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and has served on the commission for four years; he’s now has been confirmed to serve another four-year term.

New grazing rules end long dispute

A long and contentious dispute over how Idaho leases state endowment lands to ranchers for grazing - or to others for other uses - came to an end yesterday afternoon, when the House and Senate Resources committees approved new grazing lease rules, which take effect immediately. Click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Cockfighting could become a felony

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho lawmakers could make running a cockfighting operation a felony, two years after passing a similar law against dogfighting. A bill targeting this blood sport was introduced Thursday in the Senate. Anybody found guilty would face up to five years in prison and $50,000 in fines, if it passes. Idaho is among 11 states where cockfighting remains a misdemeanor, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Cockfighting rings, while rare, have been discovered in Idaho, including in a 2008 raid on a dairy farm near Wendell where authorities seized 20 fighting cocks after an anonymous tip.

Sen. Tim Corder, a Mountain Home Republican, worked with the Humane Society and livestock groups on this bill, which also boosts punishment for animal cruelty and torture, while leaving those crimes a misdemeanor. Normal animal husbandry or slaughter practices still would be protected.

‘Health Freedom Act’ amended

HB 391, the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” has been amended by unanimous vote of the House. Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said the problem is that the bill, as written, would outlaw a requirement imposed by the state Board of Education through state regulations, and approved by lawmakers back in 2002: Requiring all state college students to have health insurance. That move was part of a series of money-saving reforms the state made to its Medicaid program. Clark said it wasn’t his intent to reverse that requirement. “This amendment makes a distinction between the federal and the state government,” Clark told the House. “This solves the problem.”

HB 391 seeks to set the state up for a lawsuit against federal health care reform legislation by banning the enforcement of any requirement for people to purchase health insurance, and requiring the state Attorney General to fight such requirements in court. The amended bill now can be considered by the full House, when it comes back up on the calendar.

Lawmakers debate role of corporations

Rep. Brian Cronin and Sen. Kate Kelly, both Boise Democrats, brought a non-binding memorial to Congress to the House State Affairs Committee this morning calling on Congress to take action in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting unlimited independent campaign expenditures by unions and corporations, including foreign ones. “An artificial entity, a corporation, has now been afforded the rights of a person,” Cronin told the committee. “The consequences of this ruling … are worrisome to say the least.” He said, “We could see an increase in independent expenditure advertising where there’s no candidate who has to take the responsibility for dirty campaigning. … We need to ask ourselves, is the problem with our political system that corporations do not have a strong enough voice?”

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, struck back, telling Cronin he’s read Cronin’s campaign finance report and he raised money from individuals, unions and corporations. “In your opinion, who is the owner of these evil corporations or their evil money?” Crane asked Cronin, to which Cronin responded that he didn’t think he’d used the word “evil.” Crane pointed to a line in the memorial that quoted a 1907 U.S. Senate report on the “evils of the use of (corporate) money in connection with political elections.” Crane said, “Individuals own corporations … such as our company, which is a small employer. … I think that you’re going to limit the voice of those individuals in the political process.”

In the end, a motion to introduce the memorial failed on a near-party-line vote, with only Democrats supporting it, and then a motion to kill it passed, also on a near-party-line vote, with only Republicans backing it plus Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard. But Cronin said several committee members sent him clear signals that if he changed some of the wording in the measure - adding a reference to unions, and deleting the 1907 quote about the “evils” of corporate money - he’d have more success. He said he plans to do that and bring it back.

‘We can get so much more for the money’

State Appellate Public Defender Molly Huskey told JFAC  today that her office faces having to spend $140,000 for contract attorneys at $125 per hour for pending cases and hearings. “I would submit to this committee that there is a more efficient way to spend this money,” Huskey said. Her proposal - and Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation - is to transfer the $140,000 from the operating budget to personnel, add an attorney and refund a vacant position. That’ll give the office far more legal firepower than the $140,000 otherwise would have bought. “We can operate so much more efficiently and get so much more for the money that we’re spending,” Huskely told lawmakers. “We can get more work done in-house and decrease our price to the state.”

All the attorneys in the agency already are taking one furlough day a month, Huskey said, including herself; that’s causing some problems with Idaho Supreme Court hearing schedules. “Allowing us to have the flexibility to at least have some more attorneys in-house and not spending so much on our contract attorneys would allow us to at least keep ahead of the tidal wave,” Huskey said. The proposal wouldn’t increase the agency’s budget; there would be no additional cost.

ISP: ‘We’re all experiencing tough times’

Idaho State Police Director Col. Jerry Russell told JFAC today that the ISP could be catching far more drunk drivers and others if it just did more patrols. From August of 2008 through December of 2009, funding through GARVEE highway construction bond funds allowed extra patrols at the site of large bond-funded highway construction projects, and resulted in 5,318 citations. ISP used funding from the “Project Choice” program in recent years to increase officers’ pay, and JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said that “stopped the bleeding” by turning around a situation in which the state was training young officers, getting them on the job, and then losing them to higher-paying police departments. Russell said, “We’re all of us experiencing tough times, difficult times, and those monies I think are being wisely used to provide safety.”

Overall, ISP has 178 patrol officer positions, of which 143 troopers and 21 sergeants are on the roads. The remainder include two troopers on active duty, and 19 positions that are vacant. Another five positions are being held vacant in investigations, due to budget cuts. In the ISP’s management services division, there’s been one layoff, two positions eliminated and 304 furlough hours imposed.

One jobs bill introduced, one pulled back for improvements

Two bills from Idaho Democrat’s “I-Jobs” package were up before the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning, but House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, pulled the first one, the “Small Business Jobs Development Act,” which sought to offer a new tax credit for businesses adding permanent employees. “There’s been a lot of input on ways to make it better,” Rusche said; he plans to make improvements and bring it back. The second bill, the “Small Business Venture Capital Investment and Jobs Act,” won support for introduction from the committee with just one “no” vote, from Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis. The Democrats also have introduced three Senate bills as part of their jobs package; those were filed as personal bills.

If Boise gets F-35s, would ‘guarantee an Air Guard presence for next 40 years’

Idaho’s military division is having its budget hearing before JFAC, and Brigadier General Gary Sayler said the possible assignment of three F-35 Strike Fighter squadrons to Boise as their training base would effectively double the size of the Idaho Air National Guard “and guarantee an Air Guard presence in Boise for the next 40 years.” The air guard’s payroll would double. “Right now there’s really no way for us to calculate the economic impact, but we think it would be significant for southern Idaho,” Sayler said. If Boise is selected for the F-35s, they could start arriving in 2013.

Sayler also had a piece of news for lawmakers about the scheduled September 2010 deployment overseas of the 116th Heavy Brigade Combat Team: Though, like the last huge deployment of the 116th BCT to Iraq, this one will involve large numbers of soldiers from all over the state, Sayler said he’s been informed that this deployment, unlike the last one, “will not exceed 12 months in total duration.” The team also is scheduled to receive full modernized digital equipment, he said.

Wasden: If we’re serious about cost-savings and efficiency…

If Idaho really wants to save money in the Attorney General’s office, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told lawmakers, it needs to look at further consolidation of legal services - a controversial move. “My office is stretched incredibly thin,” Wasden said. “If the state is truly serious about cost-saving and efficiency, then it’s time to take a look at further consolidation of legal services.” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, asked for some examples. Wasden said he can think of three “off the top of my head”: Risk management, university counsel, and Health & Welfare child support attorneys.

Risk management mostly uses outside counsel, and Wasden said he doesn’t know the full cost but estimates it at $1.2 million a year. His office could take that on by adding five attorneys and two support staff at a cost of about $600,000, for roughly $600,000 in savings. Another move - one Wasden acknowledged would be highly controversial - would be to look at bringing university attorneys under his office. University counsel now have an average salary of $144,000, Wasden said. A third is child-support attorneys at Health & Welfare, now mostly handled by outside counsel; “much of that is paid for by federal dollars, but there’s a shifting of dollars that could occur,” Wasden said. “That’s all controversial, but that’s three areas off the top of my head.”

JFAC members had questions about two controversial pending lawsuits, the wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe, and the Syringa lawsuit challenging a bid award by the state Department of Administration. “Lack of resources forced my office to refer the case to outside counsel,” Wasden said of the Syringa case - at a negotiated, reduced rate of $250 per hour. The Lowe case also is being handled by outside counsel, AG’s office officials said, through the Office of Risk Management and the Department of Transportation.

Wasden: Further cuts will ‘place state’s legal position in peril,’ cost more than they save

“We all must face the reality of the current budget situation,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told legislative budget writers this morning. Holdbacks on the attorney general’s budget so far have cut $2.8 million, he said. “My office is operating on a razor-thin margin. … By March 31 we will have 21 vacant positions … a 10 percent reduction.” In addition, furloughs are being imposed equal to shutting down the office for three weeks, and overall pay is being cut 5.6 percent. “Further holdbacks will cost the state more dollars than any savings that you make through holdbacks, place the state’s legal position in peril and limit my office’s ability to fulfill its constitutional requirement of representing Idaho’s legal interests,” Wasden said. “My office cannot simply refuse to defend the state in a lawsuit, nor can I refuse to provide the state with legal advice.”

When Idaho is sued, he noted, the state can use the Attorney General’s office lawyers at a rate of $57 per hour, hire outside counsel for $125 to $200 per hour, or “confess error and pay damages” that can amount to millions of dollars. “In every scenario, the state pays for legal services,” Wasden said. He noted, “As the economy weakened, the legal needs of the state have increased.” The attorney general said he’s withdrawn all request for more staffing for next year, but is “seriously concerned” about the impact of any further cuts.

When they’re ‘shocked, shocked!’ that gambling is going on…

Idaho law currently makes it a misdemeanor for law enforcement officers or prosecutors who know about unlawful gambling to fail to prosecute it, and “the way gambling is defined in the code, it covers your mother-in-law’s football pool,” Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, told the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon. Law enforcement and prosecutors generally have more discretion than that, said Burgoyne, a lawyer, so he proposed legislation to eliminate the clause. His bill, HB 422, won unanimous support from the committee this afternoon, and now heads to the full House.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said he had some experience with the law when he was a deputy prosecutor in Valley County, and he researched its history. “It came into existence when there was widespread illegal gambling in the state of Idaho that was being routinely ignored by law enforcement,” Killen said. “It probably was appropriate at the time it was passed - I don’t think it’s the case any longer. … I want them to use reason, I want them to exercise judgment.”

Panhandle Health to rethink sewer rule

The Panhandle Health District has decided to start work on revisions to its rule limiting expansion of North Idaho cabins on old, non-compliant sewer systems, but the move won’t help a Pullman resident who built a big new home on Lake Coeur d’Alene and now can’t occupy it. Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, who introduced legislation to eliminate the expansion limit - a move the health district said would undermine its authority to keep sewage out of North Idaho lakes and waterways - pulled his bill off a Senate committee agenda this week in favor of negotiations. “I’ll wait and see, see if they resolve it,” Schroeder said. “Obviously we expect them to protect the health and waterways, but there should be some flexibility to work through it.”

The Panhandle Health District’s board met late last week and decided to stick with its rule for now, which limits such expansions to 10 percent. But it also decided to launch a year-long, negotiated rule-making process to add some flexibility to the rule for owners of very small cabins who essentially were prohibited from expanding at all. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, applauded the move, and said it addresses a concern she’s heard from her constituents in North Idaho about the limit. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

And it’s pie day…

Today is the annual “Pie Day” at the state Capitol, when the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators fills the fourth-floor rotunda with displays manned by home-schooled students, showcasing their studies and projects, and hands out a wide and tasty array of homemade pie to lawmakers and other Capitol staff and visitors.

Parks board backtracks on Dworshak closure

Here’s a news item from the AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Parks and Recreation Board unanimously voted to reconsider its decision to close Dworshak State Park in northcentral Idaho. The board said Wednesday it was reversing course and no longer considers closing state parks a viable option. The Idaho Statesman reported that’s a big change from 2009, a year in which the board voted to close Dworshak along the Clearwater River and consider shuttering at least two other parks. Board Chairman Steve Klatt said at the meeting in Boise that the panel will be doing everything to keep parks open. Wednesday’s vote means the department’s business plan, presented to the Joint Finance-Appropriations budget writing committee only Monday, will have to be redone because it does not include Dworshak Park operating costs or staff. The board directed its employees, 25 of whom are slated to be cut from headquarters staff in the coming year, to return quickly with a new plan to keep Dworshak and other parks open.

Study: More Idahoans going hungry than ever before

More Idahoans are going hungry now than ever before, according to a new, once-every-four-years study released today by the Idaho Food Bank and “Feeding America,” a national group. The numbers are up sharply - 142,200 Idahoans received emergency food last year, a 59 percent increase from 2006. “One of the messages we’re sending to the Legislature is to increase the dialogue about the partnership between the non-profit charitable sector and the public system,” said Karen Vauk, president and CEO of the Idaho Food Bank. “Neither of us can really do it on our own. … We couldn’t meet the need, there’s no way.”

The Food Bank released the report in a hearing room at the state Capitol today. Among its findings: Only 36 percent of households receiving food from emergency food banks are on food stamps; many said they had to choose between paying for food, heat, rent, or medical care; and Idaho currently has the second-fastest growing food stamp case load in the nation.

Session’s first new tax exemption comes from a Dem - for non-profit homeless shelters

Even as Democrats in both houses have pressed this year for re-examining and possibly repealing some of Idaho’s existing tax exemptions, the first new sales tax exemption to clear the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning came from a Democrat - Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise. Durst’s bill, HB 435, would grant a temporary, two-year sales tax exemption to non-profit homeless shelters in Idaho. Its estimated fiscal impact on the state is $15,000 a year; Will Rainford, vice president of the Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter in Boise said his shelter would save about $600 on purchases of “toilet paper, paper towels, oatmeal and whatnot,” enough to cover another 120 bed-nights at the shelter for homeless Idahoans. Christine Tiddens, a legislative intern for Catholic Charities of Idaho, told the Rev & Tax Committee, “Fewer homeless families will be turned away each night.”

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said at town hall meetings in his district, he’s hearing lots of complaints about existing tax exemptions. “Maybe what we should do is move this one into a subcommittee,” he said. “We could get overrun with exemptions that now have sunsets on them.” Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, however, said, “We deal with sunsets all the time. … That’s not really the issue. If this is a legitimate need in your mind, you need to vote for it. Let’s go ahead and deal with this.”

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said people who’ve spoken to him about concerns over tax exemptions would support this one, because it’s short-term and it’s got a clear justification - the economy is causing a sharp increase in homeless people showing up at Idaho shelters. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, moved to send the bill to a subcommittee, but his motion failed on a 3-14 vote, with just Clark and Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, joining Roberts. The bill then won a unanimous voice vote to send it to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, noted that a panel of lawmakers that came up with standards for tax exemptions two years ago recommended expirations on them, and this bill “seems to comport.” Durst said Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, has promised him a hearing on the measure. Durst said, “I think there needs to be a real bright line between what the Democrats are talking about and what this is seeking to do.” Democrats, he said, want to re-examine tax breaks that are “going to private, for-profit interests that are benefiting from taxpayer dollars,” when they should be able to “take care of themselves.” He said, “Contrast that with this legislation which is seeking to take care of the homeless.” Durst contended the state will actually save money because people served by non-profit homeless shelters will be less likely to seek state benefits or land in jail. The bill now moves to the full House.

Claims roll in for North Idaho adjudication

There have been about 4,000 claims filed so far in the North Idaho water adjudication from water-rights claimants in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River basin, interim Idaho Water Resources Director Gary Spackman told JFAC this morning. He said he estimates 13,000 claims will be filed as part of that basin-wide adjudication. Filing fees from those claims will cover the cost of a position to deal with the North Idaho adjudication, Spackman said.

Meanwhile, Spackman reported that budget cuts have cost the department roughly 40 positions. There were six positions cut last year, another six will be cut under current holdback recommendations, there are 15 vacancies and 21 temporary workers have been laid off.

Solution to ‘tax gap’: More staffing

Royce Chigbrow, chairman of the state Tax Commission, asked how he plans to address the “tax gap” of uncollected taxes, said, “Our plan is to work with the Legislature and to work with the governor’s office, because we truly feel that our solution is to have staffing adequate to ensure that compliance takes place, and to be able to follow up on all of the leads that we do have, rather than only being able to follow up on a fraction of the leads.”

Tax audit staff has shared in budget cuts

Questioned on how the state Tax Commission has coped with budget cuts and holdbacks, Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow said the Tax Commission has eliminated 10 positions, held open about 30 vacancies, and is imposing 20,000 unpaid furlough hours on remaining employees. “Were any of the holdbacks taken from audit staff?” asked Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “Yes,” Chigbrow responded. “The audit staff shared in furloughs right along, and basically if there were vacancies in audit staff, they were not replaced unless they were … essential.”

Idaho’s ‘tax gap’ growing, $250M uncollected

Idaho is losing $250 million a year in taxes due that simply haven’t been paid, state Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow told JFAC this morning. “The tax gap is important, because it does impose an unfair burden on those who pay on time and accurately, it erodes public confidence in the voluntary tax system, and it reduces revenues needed for the state to provide services,” Chigbrow said. That includes about $30 million of uncollected taxes on Internet sales that are owed under current law, but not paid.

Chigbrow said steps taken in the past year to address the tax gap are helping. JFAC approved $425,000 this year for temporary audit staff; the Tax Commission hired 31 temporary employees, who so far have collected $3.8 million, he said. Plus, the governor allocated $1.5 million from the budget stabilization fund on a one-time basis to pay for temporary employees, with the hope of collecting $10 million. So far, they’ve collected $5.87 million, Chigbrow said, and are on track to bring in “probably close to $12 million in tax revenue” by the end of the fiscal year.

At the same time, the tax gap is growing, he warned. There’s been a 20 percent increase in “no-pay and partial pay returns,” a 13 percent increase in taxpayers going on payment plans, and a 31 percent increase in bankruptcy. There’s also been “a significant decrease in quarterly estimated payments, … an increase in suspicious filings and an increase in non-filings. These are things that are increasing the need to follow up on the tax gap.”

State pressing ahead on Farragut shooting range despite neighbors’ lawsuit

Idaho Fish and Game officials say they’re moving ahead with plans to reopen a public shooting range at Farragut State Park this spring, despite a so-far successful lawsuit from nearby neighbors that shut down the range in 2007. Since it was shut down by court order, the state’s spent $367,500 on upgrading the old military shooting range, and it still plans to spend another $200,000. The state Legislature also passed a new law - unanimously - in 2008 banning nuisance lawsuits over public shooting ranges, and setting new noise standards, including a requirement for soundproofing at new homes or businesses built near existing ranges. “They just keep wasting our money,” declared Harvey Richman, a retired attorney who lives across the street from the park. He said the neighbors aren’t anti-gun; “we just don’t want to get shot.”

It’s a dispute that taps a nerve in Idaho, where there’s overwhelming support for gun rights as well as for private property rights. “I grew up in North Idaho and hearing gunfire is not an unusual occurrence,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who co-sponsored the 2008 legislation. “That’s been a shooting range for close to 65 years now. They knew it was there when they moved in - I’m sorry, it’s like moving in next to a pig farm and then complaining it stinks. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Waiver of asset test for food stamps OK’d

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho will continue to let people with more than $2,000 in assets receive food stamps, at least through May. The Legislature’s House Health and Welfare Committee reaffirmed the waiver Tuesday allowing a family of three with stocks, bonds or other assets worth more than $2,000 to continue receiving federally funded food stamps. Starting last May, the state’s Department of Health and Welfare temporarily waived the asset test because it wanted to help the newly unemployed who needed food stamps but had too many assets to qualify. Spokesman Tom Shanahan says his agency has seen a steady increase in food stamp applications since September 2007. There are about 179,000 people receiving benefits now in Idaho. Shanahan told the Associated Press waiving the test means people who are trying to use their savings to pay rent or make mortgage payments can still pay for food. Those who qualify receive an average of about $130 worth of food stamps a month.

Legislation aimed at illegal aliens could actually hamper legal refugees

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, aimed at punishing Idaho employers who hire illegal immigrants, could end up hurting refugees who come to the state legally, refugee advocates say, by preventing them from getting driver’s licenses so they can work. Jorgenson’s bill would ban the use of interpreters or offering the driver’s license written test in any language other than English; he now says he’d consider dropping that provision. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

‘Media Day’ showcases ‘creative economy’

There’s lots of high-tech film equipment up on the fourth floor rotunda today at “Media Day ‘10,” which is showcasing media innovation and technology. Exhibits cover everything from university film programs to a screenwriters’ group to other aspects of the “creative economy.” As part of the event, a special screening is planned at the Egyptian Theater tonight at 7 of “After the Storm,” an award-winning documentary from the Priddy Brothers described as “a celebration of perseverance and rebirth through the arts.” The screening costs $10, or $5 for students; the exhibits in the Capitol are free for viewing from 8 to 4 today.

No funding boost to state from ASARCO settlement

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, asked DEQ Director Toni Hardesty whether the recent ASARCO court settlement will “in any way relieve the state of Idaho’s taxpayers.” Hardesty’s response: “Unfortunately no.” Under the mining firm ASARCO’s bankruptcy settlement, Hardesty explained, Idaho will receive two sums: $1.9 million for the Triumph Mine, and $11.7 million to Idaho and the EPA for the institutional controls program in the Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund cleanup. Both those funds are restricted to being used on those projects, and are “very targeted for ongoing costs that ASARCO would have had to pay for, and in fact now has passed that responsibility on to us … in the bankruptcy settlement,” Hardesty said.

How budget cuts have hit DEQ…

The impacts of budget cuts on the state Department of Environmental Quality have included layoffs, furloughs, holding positions vacant, and cutting back or eliminating programs, Director Toni Hardesty told JFAC this morning. “It is just not possible to absorb these cuts without some level of reduction in services,” Hardesty said. An example: The Beneficial Use Reconnaissance Program was cut off for one year, and now will be cut off for a second year, creating a gap in water quality monitoring data that helps Idaho meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. “Although regrettable, we believed it would have a manageable impact” to suspend the program for two years, Hardesty said. “However … we will need to figure out an alternative solution if revenue doesn’t increase.” She said a “three-year gap in this critical water quality data” would be too much.

Hardesty noted that the DEQ budget, taken as a whole, appears to have had some increases over the past 10 years, but those are simply the result of shifting funds, including a legislative shift of department funding from the dedicated water pollution control account to general funds in 2001. Another boost reflects the federal funds that have flowed through DEQ for the Coeur d’Alene Basin cleanup, and federal stimulus dollars that have passed through DEQ to provide grants and loans to communities for drinking water improvements and diesel retrofits to improve air quality. “The general fund appropriation the governor is recommending and that I’m requesting today will actually be the smallest general fund appropriation the agency has had in a decade,” Hardesty said.

Fish & Game looks to tap non-hunting wildlife viewers

Idaho Fish & Game Director Cal Groen says over the last 10 years, 70 percent of Idaho residents have hunted or fished, generating millions for the state’s economy. Fish and Game is evolving, though, he said, with more people now viewing wildlife without hunting than those purchasing licenses. Groen told legislative budget writers he’s exploring how to “tap those wildlife users,” through some type of conservation license or other measure.

Fish & Game’s biggest accomplishment in the past year, Groen said, was, “We became the first state in the lower 48 to open a regulated wolf hunt.” There were 25,744 Idahoans who purchased wolf tags, and 684 non-residents, generating $400,000 in tag fees. The hunt, he said, “went extremely well,” with “extremely high compliance” with rules and regulations. Groen said a study of elk mortality in the Lolo Zone show that 2 percent was from hunters taking elk, and 47 percent from wolves. “That concerns us, because we are trying to get a balance of populations that we can actively manage,” he said.

He also noted the addition of more family fishing waters, which have proven popular; and the department’s involvement in the “Be Outside” initiative, an effort “to reconnect our children to the outdoors.” Resident hunting licenses were up 8.6 percent last year, and fishing up 14 percent, but non-resident revenue was down 3.8 percent, despite a hefty non-resident fee increase approved by lawmakers last year. Surveys of nonresident hunters who didn’t return to Idaho showed their top reason was wolves, second was what they saw as unfair non-resident prices, and third was the economy. Groen said Fish & Game is studying its fee structure now, and looking to come back to lawmakers next year with a proposal to restructure it.

‘A pretty bare-bones budget’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is proposing a possible savings in his budget from the $370,000 that the state expects to spend next fall on voter notification for the general election. Ysursa said Idaho has a new law requiring a pamphlet to go to voters on constitutional amendments, something it hasn’t done before; those also are published in legal ads. He’s drafted legislation to lift that requirement, which would save $130,000. “Every little bit helps,” Ysursa said. Typically the state would send a pamphlet to voters about any initiatives on the ballot, but at this point, none appear close to qualifying for the November ballot, he said.  “That’s where I am on this pretty bare-bones budget,” Ysursa told lawmakers. “We’re looking, like you are, for every dime.” A voter pamphlet on constitutional amendments, he said, is “something we’ve never done, and it’s a nice thing to do when the money is good, but it’s something I think we can replace with good Web access and things like that, which we do have.”

Ysursa said his office has five vacancies, including three crucial senior staffers who have retired, but he’s not filling the positions at this point to save money. Next year’s budget won’t cover filling them either, he said. “My budget doesn’t amount to a rounding error” in the overall state budget, Ysursa said, “but it’s very important to us.”

Asked by Sen. Jeff Siddoway about possible costs related to a pending federal lawsuit by the Idaho Republican Party seeking to close primary elections, Ysursa said the next hearing scheduled in the case is in August or September. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen,” he said, but if the federal court declares Idaho’s primary election system unconstitutional, it’d likely defer to the Legislature to craft a new system. Costs would depend on how that’s done, Ysursa said. “Different bills come with different price tags - it would be hard for me to speculate what that would be until we see it.”

‘A good man and a fair man’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa noted this morning that he’s coming before JFAC for his budget hearing today on the day of the funeral for Atwell Parry, the former senator and JFAC co-chair from Melba who died on Friday. “He was a good man and a fair man, and I know that you continue his tradition,” Ysursa told JFAC. Parry’s funeral begins at 11 at the Nampa South LDS Stake Center, 7809 Deer Flat Road in Nampa, with interment following at Melba Cemetery. That’s why the Senate isn’t scheduled to go on the floor today until 2:30 in the afternoon.

Tamarack saga will ‘play out in next few weeks,’ state lands chief says

When George Bacon, director of the state Department of Lands, made his budget presentation to lawmakers today, he was asked about the failed Tamarack Resort, which recently missed a $250,000 lease payment to the state for the state lands on which its ski runs lie. “They have, for the first time, missed their payment - it was for $250,000,” Bacon said. “That would put them into breach of lease and we could take … several different courses of action to try to rectify the breach. We don’t anticipate they’re going to be able to pay that money even if we send additional billings. So then we try to find someone else to run the ski resort, or we could latch onto a bond that has been posted to reclaim the site, and we could do everything in between from starting all over to trying to find someone to run it in its current condition.” There’s a complicating factor, however, Bacon said: That Tamarack is in federal bankruptcy court and in state court on receivership. “Our attorneys have advised us … we don’t have to do anything right now,” Bacon said. “This is all going to play out in the next few weeks.”

Who’s supporting whom in 1st CD…

Click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller on the latest campaign finance reports in the 1st Congressional District race; they show that U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick has outraised his GOP rivals combined, and offer a look at who’s supporting which candidate.

The plan for self-supporting parks…

Here’s a link to my full story on the parks budget presented today by state Parks Director Nancy Merrill, which calls for a $5 million cut in state funding next year.  She says Idaho’s park system can move toward self-sufficiency by following a new “business plan” she’s developed for all the state’s parks, which she plans to place before the state Parks Board for approval tomorrow.

Among the ideas: Charging school groups that tour the Cataldo Mission; hiking most parks’ fees by 15 to 25 percent; raising moorage fees at Heyburn State Park by 30 percent this year; reopening a shooting range at Farragut State Park and converting a day-use area to overnight camping; aggressively marketing all parks to increase visitation; and closing two parks, Three Island Crossing near Glenns Ferry and Land of the Yankee Fork State Park in central Idaho, for the winter months to save money. “There are some real outside-the-box ideas,” Merrill said. You can see the full proposed business plan here.

Graffiti bill held for two weeks

When it came time for the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon to take up HB 420, the bill from Rep. Carlos Bilbao to make graffiti a felony, committee Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said, “Theyre going to have to have some amendments and they can’t get that done quick enough, so we’re going to hold it.” The committee agreed unanimously to hold the bill for two weeks.

Delegation on Idahoans arrested in Haiti: ‘We hope for their return ASAP’

Idaho’s four-member congressional delegation has issued the following statement regarding the arrest of several Idahoans in Haiti on possible child abduction charges; the Idahoans, members of Baptist churches in Meridian and Twin Falls, were attempting to take children from Haiti to the Dominican Republic as part of a church mission:

“Our offices are often asked to intervene to help Idahoans and, while it is not customary to discuss any details because of constituent privacy, family members and church leadership have allowed us to comment on the situation. We are in steady contact with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. offices in Port-au-Prince regarding the holding of the 10 Americans, many of them from Idaho.  We are working with the State Department to monitor the safety of these Idahoans and to make sure they have adequate food, water, medical care and proper housing.  We hope for their return to the United States as quickly as possible.”

Event encourages kids to play outside

Eddie Trout, from “Partners for Clean Water,” visits the state Capitol today as part of a “Be Outside” celebration by the Idaho Children and Nature Network. There are displays, kids, a storyteller and more in the fourth floor rotunda as part of the event, and the Kiwanis Boys Choir will sing the “Be Outside” theme song at noon on the Capitol steps and at 1 in the fourth-floor rotunda. The reason for all this: To fight “nature deficit disorder” and get kids to play outside again. Gov. Butch Otter has issued a proclamation, a concurrent resolution is pending in the Senate and the state’s congressional delegation has sent a letter in support of the effort.

Schroeder pulls Panhandle bill from agenda

Sen. Gary Schroeder’s resolution to overturn a Panhandle Health District rule on behalf of a Pullman, Wash. resident whose new Lake Coeur d’Alene cabin doesn’t meet sewage requirements had been up for a hearing this afternoon in the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, but now it’s off the agenda. “They had to pull it - they’re in negotiations,” said committee secretary Joy Dombrowski. “It was going to be on first thing.” Schroeder said last week he was sending a message to the health district with his measure, SCR 114, which would have removed limits on expansion of North Idaho homes that are on old, non-compliant septic systems. The Panhandle Health District said removal of the limits would have undermined its ability to keep sewage out of North Idaho lakes and waterways.

‘Health Freedom Act’ needs amendment

HB 391, the “Idaho Health Freedom Act,” has just been moved to general orders for amendment by unanimous consent of the House. Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said the problem is that the bill, as written, would outlaw a requirement lawmakers enacted into state regulations back in 2002: Requring all state college students to have health insurance. HB 391 seeks to set the state up for a lawsuit against federal health care reform legislation by banning the enforcement of any requirement for people to purchase health insurance. Clark said he’s drafted an amendment to clarify that HB 391 doesn’t overturn the student requirement, “so that’ll clear that obstacle,” he said.

The bill had been up for third reading today, which meant it was time for a full House debate and vote. Now, that’s been put off; instead, the bill will come up later in the week when the House goes to its amending order. At that order, any lawmaker can offer an amendment to the measure.

Would more logging really mean more money?

The state Department of Lands is proposing to increase its timber harvest on state endowment lands by 35 million board-feet a year, from 212 million board-feet a year to 247. Income to the state endowment would rise by 20.2 percent, Director George Bacon told JFAC. Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, asked whether the increase in logging really would mean more income, with timber prices down. “Would it truly be an increase in revenues?” Patrick asked, noting “supply and demand,” and adding, “Certainly there’s not a lot of building going on.” Bacon responded that timber prices are down significantly. However, he said, “This activity should hit the street at the same time our prices are going up.” Plus, he said, the department also is looking at “what do our forests need to be healthy. A lot of the things we need to do, we need to do regardless.”

Ferrell: Don’t take all state $$ away from parks

Yvonne Ferrell, who headed Idaho’s state parks system for 15 years and served as deputy director of Washington’s state parks system for a decade before that, attended the parks budget hearing today and said she supports current Director Nancy Merrill’s plan for parks. However, Ferrell said she thinks it’s the wrong move to take away all state general funds from the state park system. “The small percentage of the general fund that does go into park operations I think is really vital, because it allows, instead of concentrating totally on making money, you’re able to conserve the natural resource and sustain the environment.” Ferrell said she has “never seen” a state parks system that was self-sustaining financially. “They tried it back on the east coast, and they only opened up for the summer because that’s when the people were there,” she said. “I feel as a taxpayer now and as a former director that our state should contribute to the health of these sites.” Otherwise, she said, priorities can become skewed toward “those things that produce a fee.”

How to make parks sustainable?

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked how Parks Director Nancy Merrill expects to make Idaho’s parks system self-sustaining, when “there are no states that have really been able to create an environment of sustainability.” Merrill said it’s all in her new business plan for the state parks. “There are some real outside-the-box ideas in general, as well as individual parks ideas,” she said. “We have a plan of sustainability that would include our seasonal people as well as our volunteers - we have a really strong volunteer group and it is growing. So that sustainability, we will have to reach out to our communities as we look for alternative management, whether it is using volunteers, some of our seasonals, and other ways of raising more revenue.” One option she’s exploring, she said, is a “one-stop shop” for licensing, from fishing and hunting licenses to boat and trailer registration. “We think there are some opportunities,” she said.

Idaho’s RV registration fee

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, asked state Parks Director Nancy Merrill how much the RV registration fund brings in each year. The answer: $3.8 million to $3.9 million. The idea is to tap about half of that fund each year for the next two to five years to help run parks that serve RV users, parks officials said. Idaho motorhome and RV trailer owners are required to purchase an RV sticker, which costs $8.50 for the first $1,000 of market value, and $5 for each additional $1,000 or portion thereof. An example: The owner of a $100,000 RV pays $503.50, while the owner of an $8,000 trailer pays $43.50.

Merrill: ‘Rec is big business for Idaho’

Idaho’s state parks department took a 17 percent cut in general funds in fiscal year 2009, and a 56 percent cut with the fy 2010 holdbacks, state Parks Director Nancy Merrill told JFAC. Now, she said, “We have proposed that we begin the process of weaning ourselves from the general fund. … This will not be easy, and it will be painful, but our board and our staff have agreed that it can be done.” Part of the move involves tapping $2 million a year for up to five years from RV registration funds that otherwise would have gone to grants for capital projects to serve RV users, Merrill said. Parks will use the money to operate parks that directly serve RV users; a citizen advisory committee for the RV account has unanimously approved the move.

“Recreation is big business for Idaho, and local economies are the benefactors,” Merrill told lawmakers. A state Commerce Department study found that state parks visitors contributed $40 million to the economy of rural Idaho, “in addition to sales taxes collected,” Merrill said. But, she said, “A state park’s value is more than just economic.” It’s “a quality of life,” she said.

Budget cuts forced the parks department to look for “alternative management” of some parks, Merrill said. “We are very close today to an agreement with the county commissioners” for operation of now-closed Dworshak State Park, Merrill said. She said she’s also exploring alternative management arrangements for Thousand Springs and Yankee Fork.

Lawmakers hear reduced parks budget pitch

Nancy Merrill, state parks director, has begun her first budget presentation to JFAC. Her department’s budget request has changed significantly from the one first submitted; now, as a result of a deal announced last week by Merrill and Gov. Butch Otter, it calls for cutting $5.171 million in state general funds out of the Department of Parks and Recreation, a reduction of $8 million in overall funding. The original parks budget request called for a $1.2 million increase in state general funds to parks. Under the revised request, about $1.15 million of that general-fund cut would come from a realignment of the agency’s management services, and another $3.5 million from realigning the agency’s park operations.

Minnick raised more than GOP rivals combined in 1st CD race

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press about the campaign finance reports filed over the weekend in the 1st District congressional race:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick outraised Republican rivals in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District during the final three months of 2009. According to the Federal Election Commission, Minnick, a first-term House member who represents northern and western Idaho, pulled in about $274,000, luring money from congressional colleagues, political action committees and individuals. Republican Vaughn Ward, a former campaign aide to presidential candidate John McCain, raked in $100,000, including more than $40,000 in checks cashed during the period’s four final days from out-of-state backers and GOP-linked PACs. Meanwhile, state Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican from Eagle vying against Ward in May’s primary, brought in $33,000 in contributions and added a personal $50,000 loan. Minnick has $816,000 cash on hand after raising nearly $1.3 million total this election cycle. Ward has $207,000 and Labrador has just over $82,000.

JFAC introduces bill to delay parks/ISP fund shift; they’d keep gas tax another year

This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has started out by hearing a report from the joint legislative task force that was tasked, over the summer, with coming up with a new funding source for parks and the Idaho State Police to replace a slice of gas taxes that now go to those agencies. The task force punted, deciding instead to recommend another year’s delay before making any such move. “We have identified several potential sources of revenues,” the task force’s co-chairs wrote to legislative leaders in a report. “It would be our hope to collaborate with the Governor’s task force at the appropriate time.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who along with Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chaired the task force (and the two also co-chair JFAC), said the task force went through “an exhaustive review.”

“What we found was, parks and rec still belonged where they were, and the decision that had been made in order to get us out of the previous session maybe had been made a little too much in haste,” Cameron said. “And that part of the train maybe needed to be backed up.” He and Bell, along with Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said the task force determined tha