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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2010

Former Sen. Atwell Parry dies at 84

Former Idaho state Sen. Atwell Parry, R-Melba, passed away today after suffering injuries a one-vehicle accident on Jan. 14 that left him in critical condition. Parry, former co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, was released from St. Alphonsus Hospital on Jan. 27 to go home with hospice care. Parry, a retired grocery store owner, served two decades in the Idaho Senate. The Idaho Press-Tribune reported that Parry died today at his son’s home in Caldwell, as a result of injuries suffered in the Jan. 14 car accident; click below to read his full obituary.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, who served with Parry in the Idaho Senate, released this statement: “I am saddened to hear of former Senator Atwell Parry’s passing.  Having served with him many years in the State Senate, I saw firsthand how skillfully he guided the budget committee through difficult financial times as a co-chair.  He was a down-to-earth guy who enjoyed serving people.  ‘At’ will be greatly missed.  Vicki and I send our condolences to his wife, Elaine, and their family in the loss of a wonderful husband and father.”

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the third 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,” school funding will be among the topics as the events of the week are reviewed. I’ll join host Thanh Tan, other commentators including Jim Weatherby and Kevin Richert, Reps. Mike Moyle and Liz Chavez, and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna 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.

Commissioner: Idaho’s image in jeopardy if state loses Human Rights Commission

Idaho Human Rights Commissioner Joe B. McNeal came up for a confirmation hearing this morning before a Senate committee, and he told the senators, “As you all know, 40-plus years ago the state of Idaho passed a law making it clear that Idahoans would not tolerate discrimination. Enforcement of that law has always been the most important work of the Idaho Human Rights Commission.” McNeal, a decorated Air Force veteran, Mountain Home city councilman, and prominent citizen who’s served on state boards and as an acting senator and representative, took questions from members of the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “I read your bio and it’s very impressive what you’ve done, I congratulate you on being an outstanding citizen of the state of Idaho. You’ve served for a while on the Human Rights Commission. Do we have a real problem here? … Do we have a lot of cases coming before the commission?” McNeal responded, “There are a lot of cases that come before the commission. We do have problems as all states do. I think the professional staff that we have at the commission that I’ve dealt with so far, they do an outstanding job in doing these investigations. Of course, they could use more money and they could use more help, but yes, we do have a problem in our state, and they do a good job of doing the investigations and getting it before the commissioners for the adjudication.”

Asked about the proposed elimination of state funding for the commission, McNeal said that would “devastate” the commission, but noted that another avenue is now being pursued to place the commission under the state Department of Labor. “I think that the image of our great state is at jeopardy if we was to lose the Idaho Human Rights Commission,” McNeal said.

Immigration bills to be heard together

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, said his plan is to hold a hearing, likely in mid-February, on three immigration bills: the new one introduced today from Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake; another already introduced by Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, to make it a misdemeanor for an employer to knowingly hire someone based on false immigration documents; and a third in the works from two House members. “What I was going to do is wait to see what, if anything, comes out of the House, and then have a day or two or however long a time when the committee looks at all three of them together,” McKenzie said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Jorgenson unveils immigration bill

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, this morning introduced sweeping legislation aimed at punishing Idaho employers who knowingly employ undocumented immigrants, along with other measures including denying recognition of out-of-state driver’s licenses to those without legal immigration status. “The key language is ‘knowingly hire,’” Jorgenson said. He’s proposed versions of such legislation repeatedly without success, but said this year he worked with University of Missori-Kansas City law professor Kris Kobach to draft Idaho-specific legislation. Jorgenson said if his bill gets a full hearing, Kobach will come to Idaho to testify at Jorgenson’s personal expense.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, looking through the 16-page bill, asked Jorgenson, “If this type of conduct is already unlawful under (federal law) is it necessary for Idaho to even have this statute?” Jorgenson responded that if the federal government isn’t adequately enforcing immigration laws, a state has “every right to use whatever means it has available to protect itself.” Under his bill, employers who knowingly employ undocumented aliens would face fines, jail time, and license suspensions. Idaho cities that declare themselves “sanctuary cities” to protect illegal immigrants would be ineligible for state funds. Also, no state or local public benefit could be provided to anyone who’s undocumented; lawmakers already passed legislation along those lines several years ago.

Another measure, SB 1271, already has been introduced by Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, to make it a misdemeanor for an employer to knowingly hire someone based on false immigration documents. Jorgenson said he considers that measure a “companion bill” to his legislation. “That bill addresses none of the issues that I addressed. I certainly would support that bill as well,” he told Eye on Boise.

Senate panel passes bill to end tax return checkoff that funds parties

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously to approve HB 379, the measure from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, to eliminate a tax return checkoff that allows taxpayers to donate $1 of their taxes to the political party of their choice; the bill, which already has passed the House, now moves to the full Senate. Senators had plenty of questions for Luker, however, including whether a “trailer bill” will follow to reinstate the checkoff but make the donation come from the taxpayer’s refund, rather than from the state general fund. “I do know that there has been discussion,” Luker responded. “I think there’s probably one in the works. We haven’t seen it yet, but we know … it’s out there.” Senators noted that when the checkoff first was approved by the Legislature in 1976, it had strong support in both houses. Said Luker, “My opinion is it seems to me that state government shouldn’t be involved in collecting money for parties, that they are adequately able to do that for themselves.”

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told Luker, “Thank you for plugging one more hole in the state revenues that are leaking through the dam. … Those funds will be well-spent somewhere else.”

Land board members mull proposal…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on state schools Supt. Tom Luna’s proposal for education funding unveiled to lawmakers today. Tapping into the state’s public school endowment earnings reserve fund for more than $50 million, as Luna proposes, would require a vote of the state Land Board, of which Luna is a member. The other members - the governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state controller - all indicated today that they need more information before deciding. Luna gave them a heads-up about his proposal last night.

“It’s balancing the near term with the long term, that’s the question,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “I have not made up my mind on it; I’m still looking at the pros and cons. But I do understand his position - he’s looking under every rock he can to find money for schools, and that’s his role as superintendent.” Click below to read comments from the board’s three other members.

‘Health Freedom’ bill prompts party-line vote

Here’s a news item from the AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Hours after President Barack Obama renewed his call for Congress to overhaul health care in his State of the Union speech, a state House committee passed a bill meant to scuttle that effort in Idaho if it requires residents buy health insurance. Rep. Jim Clark, a Hayden Lake Republican, said Thursday his “Health Freedom Act” would give Idaho a solid foundation to sue the federal government over any health insurance mandates he says would be unconstitutional. The GOP-dominated House State Affairs Committee voted 13-5 for the bill, which is similar to measures being considered in other states. It was a straight party-line vote, with all Democrats voting no and all Republicans voting yes. It now goes to the full House.

The issue has divided Democrats and Republicans across the nation, and Idaho is no different. Jonathan Parker, the state Republican Party director, told the House panel his central committee voted unanimously to back such a measure. Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, a Boise Democrat, complained Parker’s presence turned the hearing into a partisan battle that she resented.

Another $3 mil in savings… kind of

The co-chairs of JFAC questioned state Schools Supt. Tom Luna today about the latest numbers on student enrollment, which affect state funding. Luna’s finance expert, Tim Hill, told JFAC that the number of support units, which is roughly a classroom’s worth of kids, was anticipated at 201 for next year, but newer estimates put it in the 165 to 175 range. A difference of 35 fewer classroom units would mean a savings of roughly $3.2 million. “Hey, in this budget we’re looking for every dime we can find,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “That’s very helpful.”

However, Hill said that savings already is rolled in to the numbers that Luna presented to JFAC this morning.

Moscow senator goes after Panhandle Health

An Idaho lawmaker upset that regulators refuse to bend the rules for a Worley-area cabin owner with an inadequate septic system is proposing legislation that threatens to undermine the Panhandle Health District’s ability to keep sewage out of North Idaho lakes and streams. “I’m just getting their attention up there,” said state Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow. He added that even if SCR 114 were to be approved, the health district could re-establish its own regulatory authority by writing “another rule tomorrow.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Measure would limit sessions to 90 days

Here’s a news item from the AP: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Legislature is considering limiting the length of sessions to just 90 calendar days to save money, conserve the time of government workers and encourage a more diverse legislature. The House State Affairs Committee voted Thursday to consider putting a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot. There’s currently no limit on Idaho sessions. Boise Democrat Grant Burgoyne said lawmakers should at least discuss imposing deadlines in light of the 2009 session, which ran for 117 days. That was the second-longest session in Idaho’s history. Burgoyne said long sessions burn up taxpayers’ money and distract government agency employees from their other responsibilities. He also said a session with an open end discourages people with full-time jobs from running for office. Burgoyne says that at least 39 states including Wyoming limit their sessions.

Lawmakers excited about Luna plan

State lawmakers are excited about state schools Supt. Tom Luna’s proposal to tap the state’s school endowment earnings reserve fund for more than $50 million to help balance the school budget. “I give him credit for coming up with it,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “Those are the kind of ideas we need in order to balance this budget.” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, a former school principal, said, “I thought it was a great plan. … We don’t need three years of reserves, we need one year of reserves. I quite frankly am delighted.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I would of course love to have that to help alleviate the shortage in our education funding. … I’m going to wait eagerly to see what occurs.”

Luna says he’ll ask Land Board in February

In response to a question from Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, state schools Supt. Tom Luna said the public school earnings reserve fund he wants to tap to avoid deeper school budget cuts was set up specifically to ensure payments to schools. “Remember that 10 years ago, this reserve fund didn’t exist and those moneys would have gone directly to schools,” Luna said, “so this $90 million wouldn’t exist.” Luna said he wants to take two-thirds of the money, still leaving a year’s worth of payments in reserve. When Bair asked his timeline for asking the Land Board to approve the move, Luna said he’ll bring it up at their February meeting. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said lawmakers would have to have approval by then in order to set the school budget.

$25M fund not tapped in Luna plan

Idaho has had $25 million sitting in a fund since 2006 to help school districts that absolutely can’t pass school construction bonds and have met a series of qualifications. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked why that fund wasn’t tapped to avoid further school cuts next year in schools Supt. Tom Luna’s plan. Jason Hancock, deputy chief of staff for Luna, said, “You’re correct, there is that $25 million fund there,” and said it was established by lawmakers as “part of the state’s response to losing the schools lawsuit.” The fund was designed to provide a “fail-safe,” he said, “that no student in the state of Idaho needed to fear that they would be going to school in an unsafe building.”

The state has now received its first application to use the fund, from the Plummer-Worley School District, which wants to tap it for an $11.3 million project. Hancock said that application’s been approved, but now the district’s voters must be asked once again to pass a school bond, a vote they’ll take in February. If that fails to pass, then the money would come from the fund. Jaquet said she’s been hearing that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe may help with the project, so the fund might not be needed for it. “I just think this is some money sitting in a pot that we should think about trying to access in these bad times,” she said.

JFAC members question Luna about his plan

Lawmakers are now asking questions of state schools Supt. Tom Luna about his far-reaching proposal for budget savings of $135 million in the overall, all-funds public school budget next year, through a combination of new cuts and draining several other funds. Among the questions: If he’s talked with other state Land Board members about tapping the endowment earnings reserve. Luna said he’s discussed it.

Luna said he’s hopeful his $25.2 million in targeted cuts and the $58.3 million from draining other funds would be enough, but if that combined $83.5 million in savings isn’t enough, he’d recommend the additional across-the-board cuts in specific line items for the additional savings. If that were an across-the-board cut of 3.74 percent, it’d save the additional $51 million to match the total savings to the governor’s recommended school budget for next year.

Luna’s plan for next year’s school budget…

Here’s Luna’s proposal: Take $3.3 million from the state Department of Education’s driver training account, $2.2 million from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Account, and $52.8 million from the public school earnings reserve fund of the state endowment, for a total of $58.3 million in one-time boosts to the school budget. Then, cut $25.2 million through six specific cuts in the budget: $6.1 million from freezing experience movement on the teacher salary grid for a second year; $2 million from eliminating an early retirement incentive program; $1.4 million from cutting funding for transportation for field trips; $1.6 million from reducing classroom supplies funding from $300 per teacher per year to $200; $5 million from eliminating the 99 percent average daily attendance protection for school districts; and $9.1 million from technology and textbooks, giving districts the flexibility to spend remaining funds on either. He’s also proposing a 3.74 percent across-the-board cut in a long series of budget line items - everything from state-paid salaries and benefits to transportation, the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, the Idaho Reading Initiative, gifted and talented education, and more. That would save another $51 million.

Total reductions in the school budget: $135 million. “What we’re asking teachers and administrators and all adults is to sacrifice a little bit more for a little while more … for our children,” Luna said.

Luna wants more endowment $$ for schools

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna wants to tap $52.8 million from the public schools earning reserve fund of the state endowment fund to avoid deeper budget cuts to schools. “Simply put this is a one-time drawdown of an excess reserve fund,” he said, “… to offset the reductions of the public schools budget.” The reserve fund would still have a year’s worth of payments in it, he said.

Luna said he also wants to drain two other funds and make a series of cuts. Otherwise, he said, schools will have to cut more than $130 million next year. “I will not sugar-coat this. We must be honest with Idaho’s parents and patrons,” he said. “These cuts will be painful and, done wrong, will do significant damage to student achievement,” he said.

Luna: ‘We cannot hunker down and wait’

Idaho’s reading initiative is another area of success, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told lawmakers. The number of students reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has risen from 66 percent to 76 percent. “We are now seen as a national leader” in school improvement, Luna said.

Schools face a significant funding shortfall, Luna said. “We know we have to continue to move forward. … We cannot hunker down and wait for better times. We cannot tell a 3rd grader who is struggling today in math that you have to wait until the economy improves to get the assistance you need.”

Luna: ‘If we want students to be problem-solvers, they must be good in math’

Among the successes state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is touting is the use of a Web-based math program called Apangea that students can use for remediation and math practice, as part of his math initiative. “As of today, 35,000 students have received assistance through the Web-based … tool Apangea Math,” Luna told lawmakers. “In the first year students go 40,000 hours doing math in school and at home. Now, in the second year, that number has doubled to nearly 80,000 hours. That’s 80,000, hours the kids are spending in solving complex math problems. … They’re doing it because they enjoy it and they know they’re good at it.” He shared the story of a youngster who talked about how he’d learned problem-solving from math - and how he’d applied that to his own behavior on the school bus. “If we want students to be … problem-solvers, then they must be good in math,” Luna said.

Luna: ‘Fact is our students are doing better’

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna opened his budget pitch by telling lawmakers that 10 years ago, under Gov. Phil Batt, Idaho began an “educational journey” toward a new, standards-based system of education, rather than an inputs-based system. The idea, he said, was to determine what every student should learn each year, measure how they were doing against those standards, and provide the help needed to improve performance where it fell short. “We are now reaping the benefits of this 10-year process, but the choices we make today will determine … if this progress will continue,” Luna said.

“These investments in students are paying off,” he said. “In fact, these results are impressive and undeniable. Idaho teachers now have additional tools and resources they have been asking for for years, and it’s making a difference for Idaho students. … The fact is our students are doing better.”

Full house for schools hearing

There’s a full house for the public school budget hearing in JFAC this morning. The meeting also is being streamed live on the Internet and shown in a large auditorium in the Capitol’s underground wing for public viewing.

School budget hearings open

To start off the budget hearing this morning on Idaho’s K-12 school budget, legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee is presenting information on how other states are coping with education funding. “Likely more than 70 percent of the states have taken some actions to reduce their education budgets, both K-12 and higher education,” Headlee told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Furloughs, cuts in funding for textbooks and school supplies, and tuition and fee hikes are among the measures other states have taken, he said. As Idaho faces its budget crunch, Headlee said, “Most states are in the same or similar situation.” Gov. Butch Otter is proposing a reduction of 1.2 percent in state general funds for schools next year, and 7.7 percent in overall funding. It would result in a 6.5 percent decrease in discretionary funds per support unit to school districts.

Lawmakers leery of removing IPTV funding

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the reaction from lawmakers today to the governor’s plan to phase out state funding for Idaho Public Television over the next four years. “I just don’t see this committee doing that,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair. “We’re not going to fund based on what we think is going to happen the next year or the year after that. … They’re going to be subject to the same level of reduction as everyone else.” IPTV had its budget hearing before JFAC today.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the panel’s other co-chair, said, “It’s my personal feeling that they’re part of the education system.” Without any state funding, she said, the system couldn’t serve all of Idaho’s rural areas. Bell said she hopes the IPTV folks get together with Gov. Butch Otter and talk about “business plans,” as state Parks Director Nancy Merrill did, prompting Otter to drop his “conceptual” proposal to eliminate the state Parks Department. “I have a little ray of hope that they’re working with the governor’s office to try and find a business plan that may be more to his liking,” she said.

Senate bill goes after state Parks Board

The Senate Resources Committee has voted unanimously to introduce legislation from Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, to make the state Board of Parks and Recreation advisory, and let the governor appoint the state parks director. The board now hires the director. Schroeder, the committee’s chairman, said he’s introducing the bill in hopes it won’t need to progress further. “We came close to losing a department that’s very dear to the hearts of Idahoans,” Schroeder said. “In my opinion there are management problems.” Schroeder said he wants Parks Director Nancy Merrill to be able to make the changes at the Parks Department that she and Gov. Butch Otter have proposed, without interference from the parks board. “I’m not going to allow that board to cut her off at the knees,” he declared.

Schroeder said, “We have an agency that said last year everything would be all right. In the interim, before the Legislature could even meet, they started closing down parks … such as Dworshak, near my district. … And then we discovered that they have financial reserves over there. .. It’s questionable when you’re closing down parks, whether you need that.” Schroeder said the bill is intended to send “a very strong message,” and said, “I want to ensure that she’s allowed to implement the plan.”

Lawmakers say constituents are telling them to support Idaho Public TV, not cut funds

Lawmakers say they’ve been deluged with calls and emails asking them not to cut out state funding for Idaho Public Television. “There’s a lot of support out there, but we have to weigh it against the other needs and wants of the state,” said Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson. Said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, “Nobody wants us to eliminate funding for public television.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said her constituents have been asking her “not to cut it - to find someplace else to cut.” Said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “The only emails I’m getting from my constituents are in support of public TV.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think we’ve all gotten hundreds of messages to support public TV.” Said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “It’s pretty hard to go home and tell someone that your grandbaby isn’t going to be able to watch Sesame Street any more - maybe if you move to Boise. I don’t think the committee will have the stomach to do that.”

Dems unveil jobs plan

House and Senate Democrats held a press conference today to unveil a six-bill jobs package that includes fast-tracking renewable energy projects; setting up a new “jobs council” under the governor’s office; providing state help to expanding small businesses; offering a tax credit for venture capital investments; and creating a new tax credits for small businesses that add new, high-paying jobs.

“All are aimed at getting people to work again,” said Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, the House minority caucus chairman. “People with jobs can pay more in taxes than people without jobs.” The package includes three Senate bills, which were introduced last week before Friday’s personal bill deadline; and three House bills, for which Killen said he’s received assurances from committee chairmen that the measures will receive print hearings in the House.

Why they can’t just put on commercials…

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, asked IPTV head Peter Morrill, “Could you just do regular commercial advertisements like any other television station?” Morrill noted that IPTV raises more private money than many of its peer networks. But, he said, “Idaho Public Television is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to be a noncommercial, educational entity. We are precluded by federal law to air commercials.” IPTV is also precluded by federal law from getting paid to offer its signal to cable and satellite providers, and must offer it for free; and is precluded from selling its airtime. In addition, the state owns its assets, “so our ability to get into the commercial television business, what we would call competing with private industry, there probably are significant limitations there because of those issues.”

Morrill said he’s not identified “any Statue of Liberty play from Roger Madsen and the Department of Labor to potentially assist us with this challenge and potentially replacing that kind of money.”

Sen. Brackett asks if he can go on TV

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, asked IPTV General Manager Peter Morrill if he’d be allowed to come on IPTV to advocate for or against funding. “We really haven’t produced any TV programs about the funding issue for Idaho Public Television,” Morrill responded. “If we were to produce such a program, I would imagine you could be invited to be on the program.” Brackett then criticized Idaho Public Television for allowing legislators to come on its shows and express opinions, including about funding IPTV. “I think your programming can and does stand on its own merits,” Brackett said. “But when individual legislators come on to advocate, I wonder if that gives them a political advantage.” Responded JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, “Thank you, senator, I think that was a comment” rather than a question for Morrill.

‘Would have to focus on more populated part of state’

The governor’s proposed budget for Idaho Public TV for next year is just $1.1 million in state general funds, down from $1.66 million this year. That’s a reduction of $550,700, “or minus 33 percent,” IPTV General Manager Peter Morrill told lawmakers. The governor proposes a four-year phaseout of all general funds.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I’ve been getting a lot of input from a lot of sources on the proposed cuts. My question would be, if this cut goes through, the loss of general funds … what’s the impact on districts like mine that’s for the most part rural?” Morrill responded that the state funding, about 25 percent of IPTV’s budget, goes to “the maintenance of that statewide delivery system.” That’s the toughest kind of funding to replace, Morrill said, because it’s easier to raise money for a specific TV show than for equipment to extend service to far-flung, sparsely populated areas. As a result, he said, IPTV would need to move from a public-service model to a more market-driven model. “We would have to focus on really our service to the more populated part of the state,” Morrill said.

Morrill: Idaho Public Television only medium that serves whole state

Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television, told legislative budget writers, “There is no statewide newspaper, there is no statewide radio system, there is no statewide commercial television.” There is just Idaho Public Television, when it comes to a statewide medium that links the whole state. “We’re the only locally owned and operated television network left,” he noted. IPTV also is the only provider of statewide emergency alerts. The public TV network is under the magnifying glass this year because Gov. Butch Otter has proposed phasing out all its state funding over the next four years. Most of IPTV’s funding already comes from private donors and federal grants, but the state money pays for the network of translators and transmitters that carries the signals throughout the state, including far-flung rural areas.

CSI: ‘We’ve cut to the bare bones’

The College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls supported formation of the College of Western Idaho in the Treasure Valley, CSI President Jerry Beck told lawmakers, but it did cost CSI money - it’s no longer billing Ada and County counties for tuition for students who hail from there. CSI can’t give up part of its budget to boost the new school, he said. “We can’t share what we’ve got,” Beck told JFAC. “We’re dependent on every nickel right this moment, and we’ve cut to the bare bones.”

Enrollment growth at new community college ‘astounding,’ sets record

Bert Glandon, president of the College of Western Idaho, says the new Treasure Valley community college set a record nationally when it opened with 1,208 students. Most community colleges start up with no more than 200 students enrolling, he said. “We jumped to 3,600 in the first six months. Right now, today, unofficially, we’re looking at 4,837.3.” Amid laughter, he said, “It is the kind of thing that’s just become exhilarating, to see the kind of involvement from the local community.”

Glandon said, “It … is very clear that this was a community college that was long overdue.” The response, he said, has been “astounding.” As it starts up, Glandon noted, CWI is essentially borrowing the accreditation of the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, a level of cooperation between sister institutions that he said was refreshing and new to him. Plus, he said the transfer of the technical college functions from Boise State University to the new community college was “one of the smoothest I’ve ever seen between two institutions.”

“No community college has ever started up and had the kind of growth that we’ve had here,” Glandon told JFAC. “So we are conservatively projecting for this fall 6,000 students, and 6,600 for spring. … That is very conservative.”

Slicing the budget pie…

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked North Idaho College President Priscilla Bell about her support for a proposed $1.047 million additional allocation to College of Western Idaho next year for its enrollment growth. “I want to gauge your level of support - are you willing to support that workload adjustment if it means a lower appropriation to your college?” Cameron asked her. Bell responded that NIC supported the formation of CWI, and still does. “We were also assured that the funding for CWI would not come from the existing pie for CSI and NIC,” she said. Cameron replied, “We have worked very hard to make sure that is not the case, but I only have so many dollars in the pie.” Bell then said, “I submit to you that the state can make no better investment than investing in community colleges. … We are the workhorses of the higher education system. … I submit that investing in our three colleges is the best money that you can invest.”

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said it was “beautifully said,” and told her, “We truly do believe that there will be better days.”

NIC: ‘The economy goes down, our enrollment goes up’

North Idaho College President Priscilla Bell told legislative budget writers this morning that her college has no wish list for funding, recognizing the tight state budget. Students will, however, feel the impact of holdbacks and budget reductions, she said, as they come at a time of sharply increasing enrollment. “Community college enrollments are counter-cyclical,” Bell said. “The economy goes down, and our enrollment goes up.” For next year, Gov. Butch Otter is proposing a 4 percent cut in state funding for community colleges, and that’s after pumping an additional $1 million into the new College of Western Idaho to cover huge, unanticipated enrollment jumps, a move Bell said NIC supports.

In the short term, NIC is getting more tuition revenue than anticipated with the increased enrollment, and can handle holdbacks with “some position eliminations and deferred maintenance and that sort of thing, but over the long term, NIC students are going to feel the impact in a number of areas,” she said. One is the increased use of adjuncts and part-time faculty to serve the growing numbers of students, and those part-timers are becoming harder to find, particularly in areas like nursing and sciences. And since student advising is generally handled by full-time faculty, that poses difficulties as well. Community college students particularly need advising if they’re planning to transfer to a four-year college, Bell noted. She said for now, some staff and adjunct faculty are being trained in student advising. Building maintenance also is suffering. “We’ll have to catch up in the future, and it’s going to cost more,” Bell said. “Fixing problems in an emergency is always more costly than doing maintenance.”

She also highlighted various successes at NIC, including a 61 percent increase in the college’s online classes since 2005, which offer “the hallmark of community college - access,” Bell said. NIC also has seen a 91 percent increase since 2005 in dual enrollment, in which high school students take college courses. It’s now had students actually earn their associate degree a week before they get their high school diploma. “It’s pretty cool, because their parents are really pleased,” Bell said.

JFAC accepts revenue report, not numbers

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has received the report and recommendation from the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee, and voted unanimously to accept the report - which doesn’t mean it’s accepting that panel’s numbers for the state budget. “The process this morning is for us to accept the report,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “That does not mean that we’re adopting the report or adopting any number at this stage.” He then moved to accept the report, and the motion passed unanimously. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said the volatility of the current economy “makes this very hard to predict.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “It is a concern, because it would mean severe cuts to programs that may not be necessary. … If we send the wrong messages to the people of Idaho, if we frankly make errors in the way that we budget and the way that we manage this year, that could be very dire. … It think it’s really a good thing that we have the opportunity to take the numbers as they come and adjust as needed.”

The revenue panel recommended numbers $69 million below the governor’s budget figures for the current year, and $59 lower for next year. If those figures were used to set the state budget, millions in additional cuts would be needed beyond what Gov. Butch Otter already has proposed.

Report: Idaho should replace its worst prisons

Idaho should start planning now to replace the state’s most outdated, inefficient, hard-to-staff and expensive-to-run prisons, a new report from the Legislature Office of Performance Evaluations found today, a move that would yield big long-term savings and set the state up to better manage the growing inmate numbers of the future. The problem: No money. Click below to read more from AP reporter Rebecca Boone; you can see the full performance evaluation here.

Ward launches 18-stop tour of state

GOP congressional candidate Vaughn Ward was enthusiastically endorsed by former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, former state Board of Education President Milford Terrell and Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak at a Statehouse press conference on Tuesday as he kicked off an 18-stop, four-day official announcement tour around the 1st Congressional District. On Tuesday, Ward, a decorated Iraq war veteran, and Kempthorne will make four North Idaho appearances starting at Chic and Chop in Bonners Ferry at 7:30 a.m.  Ward will continue Thursday to St. Maries, Moscow, Lewiston and Grangeville, and will wrap up the tour Friday with numerous stops including a final one in Caldwell.
    
Ward faces state Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, in the GOP primary for a chance to take on Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick.     Ward has been traveling the district and campaigning since last spring, and has raised more than $400,000 for his campaign. He said he’s making his official announcement now because after 10 months of meeting with Idahoans and 600 events around the district, he’s convinced his campaign is a go. “I look at Idaho and I see our state being haggled over by politicians who are unaccountable to the people and are more concerned about self-preservation,” Ward said. “It is time to usher in a new era of leaders.” Ward was an aide on then-U.S. Sen. Kempthorne’s staff before he joined the Marines and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate committee wants explanation before acting on part-time worker benefits rule

At the rules hearing earlier today on part-time state employee health benefits, the Senate Commerce Committee refused to pass on the rule change until the Department of Administration explains why it made the change without seeking legislative approval. “I wasn’t as troubled by the actual determination as I was the process the director used to make that determination,” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. “They promised that they would come back.” Here’s the report from the Associated Press:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho senators questioned the Department of Administration’s “unilateral” decision last year to hike health insurance costs for part-time state employees without first asking the Legislature for permission. The Commerce and Human Resources Committee Tuesday unanimously demanded Department of Administration staff explain the move. Sen. Joe Stegner, a Lewiston Republican, says he’s not outright against agency director Mike Gwartney’s new policy, but said “The unilateral action of the director to do that I find troubling.” Teresa Luna, Gwartney’s top aide, says Idaho law gives her agency authority to make the change for about 2,500 part-time workers without legislative approval, but she’ll return to the committee with an explanation. Under the changes, a state employee on the clock for 25 hours weekly pays $385.03 monthly for insurance coverage for a spouse and kids, while somebody working more than 36 hours pays just $103 for the same policy. Luna said 80 state part-timers have dropped coverage since the increases started in November. Making part-time workers pay more will save Idaho about $5 million annually.

Kempthorne re-emerges on Idaho political scene, touts Ward for Congress

Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne emerged back on the Idaho political scene today, endorsing 1st District congressional candidate Vaughn Ward, introducing Ward at a Statehouse press conference officially announcing his candidacy, and traveling with Ward around the state for two days of Ward’s planned four-day, 18-stop announcement tour. “Eighteen years ago when I was a candidate running for the U.S. Senate, I asked Sen. Jim McClure if he would be my chair,” Kempthorne explained. “He, at the time, had recently left public office. He said, ‘Now that I’m a citizen, I can do this.’ I have never forgotten that. Now that I’m a citizen, I can do this.”

Kempthorne said he’s known Ward since he graduated from Boise State University, and went to work on Kempthorne’s Senate campaign 18 years ago. Ward went on to work on Kempthorne’s Senate staff, then joined the Marines and served in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the Bronze Star for his service in Fallujah. “I gave him the oath of office when he became a second lieutenant,” Kempthorne said. “We’ve spent so much time together over the last 18 years. … He has such a passion for service.”  

Kempthorne will travel to North Idaho with Ward tonight for several stops tomorrow. He told a cheering crowd in the Capitol rotunda this afternoon, “I saw greatness in that Marine.” He lauded Ward as “a son of Idaho, an American hero, a man who I believe we will elect the congressman from the 1st District.”

It was Kempthorne’s first public political act since he left office as the nation’s Secretary of the Interior under President George W. Bush. He’s also served as governor, U.S. senator and mayor of Boise. Now, he said, he’s serving on corporate boards and advisory boards, and doing business consulting both nationally and internationally on energy, national resources and systems integration, based in both Boise and Washington, D.C.

Seventy-five to 80 part-time state workers have dropped insurance since premium hike

Seventy-five to 80 part-time state employees have dropped health insurance since November, when the state sharply increased the costs for part-timers, state Department of Administration official Teresa Luna just told the Senate Commerce Committee. The panel is questioning her about a series of rule changes, including the one that increased premiums for family coverage from $103 a month to either $244 or $385 for part-timers, depending on how many hours they work. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, asked Luna, “Have you calculated the possible increasing cost to the county indigent fund” to cover those workers once they’re uninsured. Luna responded, “No, we did not do those calculations.” She said the state is saving $2.7 million this year and an estimated $5 million next year by raising the premiums for part-timers. Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, asked, “Where are the savings actually coming from? … I think you just told us it would come from the … part-time workers. Is that correct?” Luna said that’s right. “Yes, those are the savings to the state, and being incurred by the part-timers.”

Jorgenson: Idaho should take first step toward capturing taxes on Internet sales

Idaho is losing an estimated $35 million a year in sales taxes on Internet sales, says Hayden Lake Sen. Mike Jorgenson, and the state ought to join 23 other states in the Streamlined Sales Tax Compact as a first step toward doing something about it. “Beyond that, there’s nothing else we can do,” Jorgenson said. “It’s really up to Congress to do something - we can’t do anything independently, except for joining the compact.”

Idaho already has a law requiring residents to pay sales tax on their Internet and catalogue purchases. They’re supposed to report them on their income tax returns and pay up, but few do, and it’s near-impossible to enforce. The interstate compact is a joint effort among states to conform definitions and so forth in their sales tax codes to allow eventual taxing of Internet sales if Congress acts. Jorgenson has a bill to join the compact up for introduction this afternoon in the Senate Local Government & Tax Committee. But he said the plan is to introduce the bill there, but then hold it, in favor of a House version to be introduced in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. “We have reliable information that the House would be more comfortable to start it there,” Jorgenson said. Measures that raise tax revenue must start in the House, though Jorgenson said this bill wouldn’t raise tax revenue. “They’re marking their territory,” he said. “I don’t care where it starts. … If it were to get out of the House, I would certainly carry it over here.” Similar legislation has died before on the House floor.

Idaho was actually one of the original states involved in working on the compact, but lawmakers have never endorsed formally signing on.

House passes bill to end tax checkoff for political parties, vote is 64-1

The House has voted 64-1 in favor of HB 379, Rep. Lynn Luker’s bill to eliminate the tax return checkoff that lets taxpayers send $1 of their taxes to the political party of their choice. “Unlike any other checkoff, this particular checkoff comes out of general funds,” Luker, R-Boise, told the House. “It’s a relatively small amount, but it’s still an amount that we need to retain. I guess you could look at it, it would keep another teacher on staff somewhere in the state, so we need to find money everywhere we can right now.” This past year, the checkoff brought in $34,320, with Democrats collecting slightly more than Republicans.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the House, “I’m really torn by this bill. There are so few opportunities for individuals … to have impact in the political process. Nonetheless … this is money that comes out of the general fund. I would hope that if we have another opportunity to preserve and protect the ability of Idaho citizens to participate in the political process without affecting the general fund, that we seize that opportunity.” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, already has announced she plans to introduce such a bill, allowing taxpayers to donate from their refunds, and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, has said he’d give King’s bill a print hearing. In the House vote on Luker’s bill, Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, cast the only dissenting vote. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Medical residency programs ‘a smokin’ deal’ for the state, lawmakers told

Legislative budget writers heard today about the medical residency programs in Idaho, which train medical residents in psychiatry and family medicine here though the state lacks a medical school. That’s considered key because doctors tend to settle and practice where they finished training. The psychiatry residency, started in 2007, trains medical school graduates for four years, but the first two years are in Seattle. So far, two have completed the program, and both have decided to stay and practice psychiatry in Idaho. “Idaho spends about a dime on the dollar for our program,” said Dr. Jeralyn Jones, program director, “so it’s a smokin’ deal.” Hospitals and the V.A. Medical Center pay for 90 percent of the cost; there are now nine residents in the program.

In family medicine, two programs, one an independent nonprofit in Boise and the other based at Idaho State University, offer three-year residencies in family medicine for med school graduates, aimed at persuading the young doctors to establish practices in rural and small-town Idaho. With 56 percent choosing to stay and practice in the state, the programs rank 8th in the nation for retention. The 35-year-old Family Medicine Residency of Idaho program gets 50 percent of its funding from patient fees, 25 percent from participating hospitals, 8 percent from grants and 7 percent from the state. The ISU program gets 14 percent of its funding from the state. Dr. Ted Epperly, head of the Family Medicine Residency, said the residents spend time each of the three years working in rural hospitals with local doctors, “so that they understand what it’s like to be a family doctor in a small town, and that is part of the magic of helping them understand and fall in love with those communities.”

Idaho ranks 50th in the nation for its number of psychiatrists, with only five per 100,000 people; and 49th in the nation for the number of physicians per population. “We are 33 percent undermanned in terms of family doctors in the state of Idaho, so we have continued work to do,” Epperly said. Idaho also has the second-oldest physicians, meaning retirements threaten to worsen the numbers further. The  residency programs aren’t asking for any increase in state funds, but a $300,000-plus donation from Blue Cross will help the family medicine residency cover growth costs.

Vailas: Record enrollment at ISU

Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas told lawmakers ISU has a record enrollment this year by headcount, which includes all students, full and part-time, professional-technical and academic, graduate and undergraduate. That figure at ISU this year is 15,553, and includes students from across the nation and from 63 foreign countries. “Even in these challenging times, we are providing necessary access because there is high demand of our Idaho citizens,” he said.

How funding compares for each university…

BSU President Bob Kustra displayed a pie chart to legislative budget writers showing the amount of state general funds per student that each Idaho four-year college or university receives. The amounts: $8,946 at the University of Idaho; $7,324 at Idaho State University; $5,459 at Lewis-Clark State College; and $5,066 at Boise State. BSU’s fall full-time academic enrollment is the largest of the group, at 14,537 last year. UI’s was 10,368; ISU’s, 8,985; and LCSC’s, 2,467.

Lawmakers question university reserves

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, House Appropriations vice-chairman, questioned BSU President Bob Kustra about the university’s unrestricted net assets, just as he questioned University of Idaho President Duane Nellis about that a day earlier. “How much of that money could be used today to help us with this very difficult financial situation?” Bolz asked. Kustra noted that much is a debt service reserve - essentially the bond payments BSU must pay for new buildings, much of which is coming from a facility fee BSU imposed on students several years ago to allow buildings to be constructed to serve the growing student population. He noted that bond rating firms want to see reserves. “You’re saying find a way to get those reserves down, they’re saying find a way to get those reserves up,” Kustra said. “That’s how they’re evaluating our financial capabilities into the future.”

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “It’s not as if we’re wanting you to spend those reserves, except in times of difficulty such as we have now.” It’s difficult for lawmakers, he said, to hear how falling state appropriations are impacting class offerings and tuition “at the same time we see reserves growing - that’s a little bit contradictory. Obviously in good times you, like us, should be setting money aside in reserves.” But now, he said, “We would appreciate an open dialogue with you and other university presidents” on the topic.

Stacy Pearson, BSU’s vice president for finance and administration, noted that accounting rules classify as unrestricted net assets anything that’s not a legal reserve held by an external entity. But of BSU’s $91.6 million in unrestricted net assets as of June 30, 2009, $20.5 million was the debt service reserve; $30 million was departmental fund balances, a figure that’s decreasing as the university spends reserves to meet operating needs; and $36 million was capital projects. Just $4.58 million was unreserved funds. BSU has since dipped into its reserves to cover the 6 percent holdback ordered in September.

‘Tuition playing larger and larger role’ at BSU

Boise State was able to cover the 6 percent holdback it took this fall from its reserves, BSU President Bob Kustra told lawmakers this morning, but he said, “Of great concern is a permanent base reduction for 2011.” He noted that 10 years ago, the state general fund covered about 76 percent of BSU’s cost of education, while tuition covered 24 percent; today, the state pays for 57 percent, and tuition covers 43 percent. “So you can see tuition playing a larger and larger role,” he said. For out-of-state students, tuition covers the full cost of education, but not for Idaho residents. “Obviously the budget is tough these days, and we realize that,” he said. Kustra said he’s concerned that America is “losing ground every day” in competing with the rest of the world on higher education. “These are not easy challenges to deal with,” he said. “What really concerns those of us in public higher education is that we not lose this momentum.”

BSU Prez Kustra: We don’t call them tricks

BSU President Bob Kustra opened his presentation to JFAC this morning with a video of the faked punt that the Broncos used to dramatically win the Fiesta Bowl this year. “There are some who call those trick plays,” Kustra said. “We don’t call trick plays that are well-executed tricks.” He said the success on the field is symptomatic of Boise State’s strategy for building success in many areas of the university, including using “athletics to build strong academic programs.” Among innovations he highlighted: BSU’s first intersession during the winter break this year, a three-week session that served 333 students who earned 880 credit hours at a time when the university’s buildings normally would have stood vacant. The program was “self-sustaining” - tuition revenues covered all its expenses.

“We have some great ideas on how we can do things more efficiently,” Kustra said. An example is a new mail services agreement with the state, in which the state Department of Administration will take over the campus mail service, saving about $250,000 a year starting next year. Evening and weekend classes have been shifted around to save on energy costs. A million dollars has been cut from personnel and operating in the university’s advancement office. “We’ve definitely done some very serious cost-cutting,” Kustra said. A multi-year fundraising campaign is “on track,” he said.

Falling funding for higher ed…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the University of Idaho’s budget situation. The U of I and LCSC kicked off a full week of education budget hearings in JFAC, which continue tomorrow with BSU, ISU and health education programs. For next year, the governor’s budget proposes $35.1 million less in funding for Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities combined, a 14 percent drop from this year’s budget, which itself was set at $32 million below the previous year’s budget, an 11 percent drop.

Proposed law would make graffiti a felony

Here’s a news item from the AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho police say the growing menace of graffiti merits felony punishment. They’re pushing a bill to create stiff fines of up to $5,000 and 5 years in prison for recalcitrant taggers whose art work can cause thousands in damage to private buildings, freeway overpasses, even traffic signs. Rep. Carlos Bilbao, a Republican from Emmett, said after an initial hearing Monday in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee that a misdemeanor graffiti law enacted in 1987 is no longer enough to keep spray paint-wielding outlaws bent on winning recognition in the shadowy world of underground artists in check. Police say a youngster who vandalizes property with a single can of paint would likely still face misdemeanor charges. But repeat offenders — and those who cause more than $1,000 in damage — could face the stiffer penalties called for by Bilbao’s measure.

Child-injury bill introduced; would double maximum sentence to 20 years

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, persuaded the Senate Judiciary Committee today to introduce legislation prompted by the case of a 3-year-old St. Maries child whose severe abuse cost her both feet, a finger and a kidney, but whose abuser got just 10 years in prison, the maximum sentence for felony injury to a child. “This is a little change that could be very big,” Broadsword told the committee, of her measure to double the maximum penalty from 10 years in prison to 20. The Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association is supporting the bill, she said, and the Benewah County prosecutor who handled the case involving little Kyra Wine will testify when the bill has its full hearing.

Broadsword said, “In this case, 20 years is not too many for what he did.” She said the local prosecutor told her he couldn’t charge Charles W. Smith with anything but felony injury to a child because he never admitted what he’d done to cause the child’s injuries. “He never said a word,” Broadsword said. Authorities were puzzled by the extent of the youngster’s injuries, which included a patch of dead flesh on her scalp that will never grow hair again. She was found almost comatose in a bedroom, malnourished and dehydrated, her body covered in scabs. Smith was her mother’s boyfriend who babysat her and her 5-year-old sister. The child’s mother, Christina Haynes, also was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison for the abuse.

Minnick: No earmarks in 2010

Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick has announced that he’ll refrain from seeking any earmarks in Congress in 2010, just as he did in 2009. He’s the only one in Idaho’s four-member congressional delegation who refrains from the earmark process, which lawmakers use to send federal money to specific projects, often in their districts or for specific constituents. “The unambiguous lesson of November 2008 and of last week’s election is that the American people want Congress to spend less money, and want us to approach major issues in an independent way,” Minnick said in a statement. “One significant step I can take to show I am serious about heeding those lessons is to refuse earmarks.”

Minnick’s no-earmark stance has won him the praise of the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth - the same group that bankrolled the first campaign of former GOP Rep. Bill Sali, whom Minnick defeated last year. Minnick is one of three Democrats and 37 Republicans in Congress who refuse to participate in earmarks; Sen. John McCain is the biggest name on the list. The first-term Idaho Democrat said he’s been able to obtain money for his district without earmarks either through the normal appropriation process, or by helping folks from the district apply for federal grants and other programs.

Fighting hunger with lunch…

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, talks with members of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force at “Idaho Hunger Awareness Day” in the fourth-floor Statehouse rotunda today; fifteen hunger relief and nutrition groups from around the state are presenting displays and information about fighting hunger. They’re also giving away Idaho potatoes with toppings, Idaho apples, and Dawson-Taylor coffee to anyone who comes to view the displays, with the slogan, “Do your part to end hunger - come have lunch at the Statehouse.” Vivian Parrish, of the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger, said the groups hope to raise “awareness of the many different groups that are working against hunger in Idaho - they’re seeing a huge increase, especially in the emergency food networks.”

As for the food handouts, “It tends to draw the decision-makers up to where we are, because we’re in what’s called the attic,” Parrish said with a smile. The fourth-floor rotunda area, where exhibits are held, is a little less off the beaten path now that committee hearing rooms are located in the basement, rather than on the fourth floor. Parrish said lots of legislators have come through the displays today. “We’re very appreciative of their interest,” she said.  There were just a handful of lawmakers at the displays over the noon hour; that’s because Monsanto Corp. was hosting a luncheon for all legislators two blocks away at the Crystal Ballroom.

Sixteen percent of Idaho children live in poverty, Parrish said, and the figure’s much higher in some counties. However, she said, Idaho’s making progress: It’s now ranked the 29th-hungriest state by the USDA, she said, though “a few years ago we were much higher.” She said there’s more collaboration now among the different groups working against hunger in the state - as shown by the joint display today.

UI mulls ‘scaled’ furlough

To cope with additional budget cuts that loom this year, University of Idaho President Duane Nellis says the university is “looking seriously at the possibility of a furlough,” and is examining a scaled approach, in which lower-paid workers would see less furlough, but higher-paid employees would get as many of six days of unpaid furlough between now and the end of the fiscal year June 30. Looking ahead to next year, Nellis said, “We’re concerned about where we’re at, as far as the amount of dollars we’ve already cut in the university.” He said he’s optimistic about where the UI will be in two or three years, and his strategies include increasing enrollment, growing research funding, raising more private money, and expanding summer school and online offerings to help enhance the university’s financial position. “But these things take time to develop,” Nellis said. “The key is protecting what we have. I’m very concerned about taking further cuts from what we already have.”

Dean: Farmers support schools through taxes

John Hammel, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho, said deep cuts loom in extension funding. Responding to a question from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, however, he bristled at a contention in a recent Lewiston Tribune editorial that the ag community should step up with user fees to keep extension centers running. “I want to point out that agriculture through the land base supports the tax base for school districts throughout the state,” Hammel told Ringo, and added that farmers also pay sales taxes. Plus, he said, “producers assess themselves,” to help pay for items including extension research. “They do, in fact, besides paying taxes to support the service, they do in fact step up and pay for research they support,” Hammel said. “That is not to say that we should not look at our funding. … We need to do that.”

Property taxes that farmers pay in Idaho are reduced substantially by the agricultural exemption from property tax, and purchase of combines and other equipment used by farmers is exempt from the sales tax under the production exemption. Asked about that after his presentation, Hammel noted that homeowners also get an exemption for part of their home value from property taxes. As for farmers, he said, “There are exemptions, but they also provide a base level of support for the local districts. … The thing about ag statewide, it’s providing jobs in the rural areas, it’s providing dollars for education.”

Nellis: ‘How slim a margin we have’

Legislative budget writers were very keen this morning to ask about the University of Idaho’s net asset balances, which reports show at $38 million to $40 million. “How much of that unrestricted assets could be used in economic difficulties like we’re in now, in order to keep the University of Idaho tracking at the same level?” asked Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. UI President Duane Nellis responded, “We’ve looked at that very, very carefully. Many of those dollars are either matches on grants that have been committed, or startup packages,” such as commitments made to new professors who come on board to purchase equipment for their research. “When we took the 6 percent reduction the governor ordered earlier this year, we used part of that as a way to bridge - it was one-time money - instead of taking a furlough,” Nellis said, “although we’re at the edge now where we think the next round of holdbacks will trigger a furlough.”

The university’s executive director of budget and planning then told JFAC that unobligated funds available to the UI at the end of fiscal year 2009 were $2.6 million, and that money was tapped in the fall term for the holdbacks. Nellis said with the size of the infrastructure at the UI, “that’s how slim a margin we have at a major university” to cover such things as disasters, snowstorms, roof leaks and the like. “I worry about that, and taking more of that given how limited our funds are,” he said. Cameron responded, “We worry about those same things. … We’ll look forward to spending our reserves together.”

Nellis: Higher ed ‘even more important’ to Idaho in tough economic times

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis said the U of I has seen $22 million in budget cuts just in the past two years, and that doesn’t count additional ones lawmakers are now mulling, or the elimination of $10 million for a dairy research center project. “These budget reductions do have an impact on our academic programs and on the state,” Nellis told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. So far, the UI has discontinued 45 programs - eliminated 35 degree programs, and restructured 10 others. It’s also established four new ones in targeted areas, he said. There have been hiring and travel freezes, and UI has cut 77 positions and deferred maintenance and equipment purchases. “I’ve been on record as stressing higher education’s impact to the state’s economy,” Nellis told JFAC. “HIgher education is even more important to Idaho when the state is facing these very significant economic difficulties.”

An economic impact study showed that last year, the U of I contributed nearly $1 billion to the state’s economy, Nellis said. “That’s almost 2 percent of the state’s economy.” He said, “The University of Idaho must innovate in these challenging economic times. … We’re doing just that. Our focus is on what we do best, making people successful, our students as they prepare for their lives as citizens and our staff and faculty as they share and advance knowledge that our students, state and world needs.” One focus for the university is increasing research, he said, with submitted research proposals for out-of-state funds so far this year up 31 percent, or $44 million, from this time last year. He also touted the accomplishments of the UI College of Law, and said the U of I is working toward offering law degrees in Boise. Nellis said enrollment at UI is on the rise, and of entering freshmen at UI, the average GPA this year was 3.38, and 82 students had 4.0’s. More than a third were the first in their families to go to college.

Rep. Clark announces upcoming retirement

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, has announced that he’ll retire after this year, after serving 14 years in the state House of Representatives. Clark, who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he feels he’s accomplished his goals.

Seven years ago, in 2003, Clark hinted he wouldn’t seek re-election and would retire then, after he successfully, after a five-year fight, pushed through a law to allow port and sherry to be sold in Idaho grocery stores rather than just at state liquor stores. When word spread that if Clark could get the bill enacted, he wouldn’t run for re-election, some lawmakers who differed with Clark on other issues joked that the promise got them to vote for the bill. “To be honest, I’ve accomplished just about everything that I wanted to accomplish,” Clark said after then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed the bill into law. But, he said, “Lots of things can happen in a year.” That year, he decided to run for re-election after all, rather than retire. This time, though, Clark said he really does plan to retire. He’s having an active session, and already has introduced several bills, including one that attempts to ban enforcement of national health care reform in Idaho.

LCSC will ‘try hard not to shift the burden to students’ with state budget cuts, prez says

Dene Thomas, president of Lewis-Clark State College, told lawmakers, “Our goal is to train and educate productive citizens,” and said, “We are an engine for economic development in north-central Idaho.” Furthermore, she said, “We are the most affordable four-year college or university in Idaho.” The average high school GPA of LCSC students, she said, is 2.95. “We are very proud of the fact that we take average and below-average students and get above-average performance.” She noted high rates of exam success for graduates in nursing, radiology tech programs, social work and teaching. The college has some unique features, she noted, including offering instruction in the Nez Perce language. “We are the only institution in the world to offer it,” she said, and LCSC will continue to do so in spite of budget cuts.

Those cuts so far have brought fewer course offerings, such as offering a class once a year instead of both semesters; cutbacks in operating expenses; and cutting and holding open positions. The college has absorbed occupancy costs for its new Sacajawea Hall, as the state allocated no money for that. Thomas said her plan for coping with looming budget cuts next year includes increasing class sizes, reducing athletic scholarships - though the school is nationally ranked in every sport - and deferring maintenance spending. No area will be exempt from scrutiny for personnel savings, she said, and low-demand programs will be eliminated. However, she said, affordability for students will remain a top priority “to the best of our ability,” and LCSC will “try hard not to shift the burden to students.”

Agidius: ‘Citizens of Idaho come out ahead’ with higher pay for university prez’s

Many of lawmakers’ questions to State Board of Education President Paul Agidius focused on concern over rising costs for students to attend college in Idaho. But Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked him, “Earlier this year the board approved what I would consider significant salary increases for our university presidents. … I’m sure they’re worth every dime and more than that … but it seems to fly in the face of our current economic conditions.” Cameron asked Agidius to help him understand how to explain the salary increases to his constituents. “We do want to have the best qualified individuals we can have” in order to have a “quality institution,” Agidius responded. Idaho competes nationally for its college presidents, he said. “We had to make a decision, what kind of individuals do we want to have head our institutions here in Idaho. … That was our decision, that the citizens of Idaho would come out ahead.”

State Ed Board: Cuts hurt

Paul Agidius, president of the State Board of Education, is kicking off a week of education budget hearings by addressing JFAC on behalf of the board. His pitch: Cuts hurt, more will hurt more, and education can help lead the state out of the recession. “It is not my job to come here and beg for money,” Agidius told legislative budget writers. “It is, however, my job to advocate for education … to help you find solutions that ensure that our agencies, colleges and board office are making absolutely best use of those precious dollars and getting the highest return possible.”

So far, higher ed in Idaho has used “aggressive revisions to operating budgets … some elimination of positions and strategic use of reserve” to cope with budget cuts, Agidius said. “However, as additional cuts and holdbacks are ordered, mandated cuts and furloughs may become necessary.” That’s why the board is looking to give college presidents more flexibility to order such moves, he said. Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, asked Agidius whether other states are furloughing tenured profesors; he responded that he doesn’t know yet what other states are doing. “We have not passed this yet,” he noted. The board will vote on the idea on Feb. 18, he said.

The hidden costs of budget cuts…

Idaho is discovering the hidden costs of budget cuts, as major cutbacks in the state budget threaten to cost more than they’ll save. One example: The $1.6 million the state would save by cutting off funding for Idaho Public Television may be less than the amount IPTV has to repay the federal government for portions of $4 million in grants. The grants paid for equipment to convert the statewide TV network to digital signals; if the equipment isn’t used for its intended purpose for 10 years, repayments are due. Another: Gov. Butch Otter’s initial proposal to eliminate the state Department of Parks and Recreation and sell its headquarters building sought to save $10 million, but could’ve cost the state the landmark Harriman State Park, likely worth $50 million. That’s because the Harriman family’s gift of the park to the state was contingent on Idaho setting up a professional parks department. On Friday, Otter dropped the plan in favor of a more modest proposal to cut costs at state parks and lay off 25 people.

You can read my Sunday story here at spokesman.com, and my sidebar here about how the proposed four-year phaseout of state funding for IPTV would mean steep first-year cuts. “We would actually look at implementing many of these changes on the front end, because of the factor of having to go through and pay back federal grants,” said IPTV General Manager Peter Morrill.

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the second 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. Also, on Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports” show this week, I joined lawmakers, reporters, commentators and host Thanh Tan to discuss the events of the session’s second week. The show aired Friday night, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here.

Human Rights Commission finds lifeline; eliminating state parks agency off the table

Here’s a link to my full story on the Human Rights Commission’s announcement that it may move to the state Department of Labor as its state funds are cut - Labor receives no state general funds - and here’s a link to my full story on Gov. Butch Otter’s announcement today that he and state Parks Director Nancy Merrill have a plan to cut $4.5 million from the state parks department next year, but not to eliminate it.

House, Senate GOP members caucus

Both the House and Senate Republicans held closed-door caucuses today to talk numbers. The House GOP caucus, which lasted about half an hour, focused on the new revenue recommendation from the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee, according to Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, along with housekeeping issues. Representatives discussed the new, lower revenue figure and what it means. “It’s a situation that’s changing, so all the assumptions that everybody made with the governor’s projection are old,” Bedke said.

Senate Republicans caucused behind closed doors for an hour, and heard a presentation from Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill about the impact of the 2006 legislation that lowered property taxes and raised sales taxes. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, said he asked Hill to research the issue, in part because of comments from the Senate’s minority caucus. “There’s positives and negatives about what we did,” Geddes said. “Yes, education would’ve perhaps had some additional money” between then and now, he said, “but now they would be struggling just like everything else is.” Senators also discussed the revenue committee’s recommendation. “It’s starting to sink in how deep the hole is,” Geddes said.

Keough: ‘We shouldn’t shy away’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, says she thinks lawmakers should consider cutting their own health benefits just as the state has cut health coverage for other part-time state employees. “We ought to have that discussion - I don’t think we should shy away from it,” Keough said. She was responding to a column by Dan Popkey in the Idaho Statesman today, which called lawmakers “tone-deaf” on the issue. It noted that all but 18 lawmakers take the coverage that’s the same as that for full-time state employees, though Idaho has a part-time citizen legislature. Keough said she’s one of the 18; she gets her health coverage through her employer.

“I am not rich or retired, I spend on average 20 hours a week off session on legislative responsibilities but am available 24/7 including but not limited to the grocery store, the gas station, romantic dinners with my husband, 4 am in the morning when farmers and loggers start their days. Plus I work a full time job and have 2 kids,” she said in a note to Popkey and other reporters. “During session I work a minimum of 12 hours a day and after that meet with constituents who may be in town with one group or another. All that being said, I was and remain willing to take the same cuts we are asking of our state employees and Idahoans.”

Weilmunster: ‘Not worried any more’

Don Weilmunster, president of the Idaho Parks Foundation, sat off to the side as Gov. Butch Otter and Parks Director Nancy Merrill announced their new plan for state parks - which won’t include eliminating the state parks department. Weilmunster said he’s relieved. The foundation was formed to handle the Harriman State Park donation to the state in the 1960s; “I was in on the negotiations with Averell and the Harrimans,” Weilmunster said. “One of the things before this became a park, they just didn’t want to turn it over to the state of Idaho - we didn’t have a tool to handle it.” The parks foundation held the park for four years, before it was turned over to the newly formed state Parks Department, Weilmunster said. “Naturally I would be very concerned if we made some changes there, because it could jeopardize that gift.”

Weilmunster said he called Otter yesterday, and heard right back from him. Now, he said, he’s pleased with the new direction. “I’ve known Butch for many years,” said Weilmunster, who once owned the land where the parks headquarters building nows stands. The foundation still has an office there. “The governor is concerned, he does his homework, and I’m not worried about that any more.”

Merrill: ‘We will have the same parks and we will be open’

“We will have the same parks and we will be open. Our service levels may drop a bit,” state Parks Director Nancy Merrill said. The plan just announced by Merrill and Gov. Butch Otter calls for taking $2 million from RV registration funds, $1.4 million from cash balances at the department, and $1.1 million from personnel by cutting 25 positions. “This will be very tough, it will be hard for us to do it,” Merrill said, but she said it will be “a paradigm shift for us. We will be looking at revenues and our costs, and we will be … balancing those as a business would.” The department will stay in its current headquarters building, Merrill said, but will look at possibly selling off some of the surrounding 15 acres. “Our visitorship this year is up 16 percent,” she said. She expressed optimism that increased park use will continue to bring more money into the system, so existing RV programs wouldn’t be hurt by the fund shift.

Fees will remain affordable, Merrill said, though there may be increases. A carload of people likely still will be able to access Idaho state parks from sunrise to sunset for $5. She said the department will make more use of volunteers and seasonal workers. “We have an incredible resource of volunteers that we have not fully used,” she said. “We will use those folks.”

Otter and Merrill: Won’t eliminate parks dept, but will find $4.5M in savings next year

Gov. Butch Otter and state Parks Director Nancy Merrill have announced a plan to save $4.5 million at the state parks department next year - but not to eliminate it. “We will remain the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, by changing our management philosophy and operating more like a business,” Merrill said. “The emphasis as we move forward will be balancing expenditures with revenues.”  Said Otter, “The whole idea that we were going to eliminate the parks department was dead wrong.” He said his proposal to eliminate most of its state funding and merge it into the Department of Lands was just “conceptual.”

“The end game was how do we minimize the impact,” Otter said. The new plan calls for trimming some functions, agency-wide efficiencies, partnering with other agencies, and using money from the state’s RV registration fund to help offset operations at state parks with a direct relationship to RV use, like Farragut, Ponderosa and Bruneau. “Our goal is to keep our parks open and protect programs and access,” Merrill said. The plan calls for 25 positions to be cut at the Parks Department.

Vets turn out to support Veterans Services Division

David Brasuell, head of the state Division of Veterans Services, has plenty of fans at his budget presentation to lawmakers today - the room is packed with veterans. “We recognize your daunting task of setting a budget in these difficult times,” Brasuell told lawmakers. Veterans Services got $1.53 million in state general funds this year; the governor’s recommendation for next year is $1.35 million.

‘The only voice this population has’

The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs was established in 1987 by the Legislature “as an independent entity of state government,” Margie Gonzales, executive director, told JFAC at the commission’s budget hearing this morning. The commission’s core functions are to advise the governor,  Legislature and state agencies of the “nature, priorities and problems of Hispanic people,” and to serve as a liaison between the community and government to improve the quality of life of Idaho’s Hispanics, who are the state’s largest minority. Its priority areas are health care, education, housing and economic issues, and the commission also is involved in substance abuse prevention efforts. She noted that 9.9 percent of Idahoans are Hispanic, and the population is growing much faster than the state population as a whole.

Budget holdbacks on the commission this year mean furloughs for its three remaining employees, she said. “Further reduction in personnel will significantly hinder our ability to provide services to our constituency and impact our mission.” The proposed four-year phaseout of the commission’s state funding would seriously impact its ability to carry on, she said; the commission “plans to explore other means of funding.” This year, the commission got $106,800 in state funding out of a total budget of $304,800; for next year, Otter’s proposal is $68,200 in state funds. She said, “We are the only voice that this population has at the state level.”

Independent Living Council cites successes

Former State Sen. Robbie Barrutia, interim director of the State Independent Living Council, is now presenting the budget for that council, which, like the Human Rights Commission, has been proposed by Gov. Butch Otter for a four-year phase-out of state funding. “Idaho is one of a few states that has taken a lead in the independent living movement,” Barrutia told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The council, created pursuant to federal law, is required if the state is to receive federal financial assistance under Title 7 of the federal Rehabilitation Act. Among the council’s accomplishments in advocating for people with disabilities, she said, are helping disabled parents avoid discrimination in child custody cases; working with building codes; improving voter accessibility efforts; establishing accessible parking; and successfully pushing to make disability a protected class within the Idaho Human Rights Act.

She described one child custody case in which the mother was in prison for meth, and the father was slightly disabled - and custody was awarded to the mother in prison, so her family was to raise the child. “It was argued before the Idaho Supreme Court. It was reversed,” Barrutia said. “We take full credit.”

The State Independent Living Council this year received $113,800 in state general funds, out of a total budget of $1.4 million (including a one-time federal grant); next year, Otter is proposing state funding of $74,600, for a total budget of $810,100.

Labor: ‘We can fit it in’

Chief Deputy Director of the Idaho Department of Labor John McAllister says the Department of Labor has been eyeing two funds, one that comes from penalty and interest payments from employment law violators and can be tapped by the state Board of Examiners, and another created by the Legislature in 1991 that contains interest earnings on reserves and can be used to run the Department of Labor, as possible funding sources for a reorganized Idaho Human Rights Commission. “We’ve looked through all our spending priorities and tried to rearrange things,” McAllister told JFAC under questioning from lawmakers. “We think we can handle it for the next four years. We do financial forecasts and we can fit it in by delaying some projects are canceling some projects. Those are the two funding sources.”

Pam Parks, Human Rights director, said there’s precedent in other states, including Texas and New Mexico, for having the Human Rights Commission under the Department of Labor. “It’s not without precedent.

Human Rights chief: ‘This is not a time we can back off’

Pam Parks, director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission told legislative budget writers that when Idaho passed the Idaho Human Rights Act, which the commission enforces, “Idaho made a clear and strong declaration that we will not tolerate discrimination.” She noted that the state’s reputation has suffered from the activities of racists. “Recently we are seeing a resurgence of ugly acts in our beautiful state,” she said. “This is not a time that we can back off our resolve.” If Idaho had no human rights commission, she said, the federal government would be responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the state.

The commission mediates discrimination claims in the state, often finding solutions before the cases end up in court; in other cases, the commission files court cases to enforce the law. Parks described a case of severe workplace racial discrimination; a case in which a teen girl was sexually harassed by her boss; and a case in which a person in a wheelchair was denied a job because employer said there was no space for the wheelchair - in that case, the commission helped the business find ways that the wheelchair could be accommodated. “Our budget has always been very lean,” Parks told lawmakers. “We have learned how to do a lot more with less as we have seen our workload double in the past 20 years, while the staff has not.”

She noted “some very difficult budget challenges,” and said, “We must play a part, our part in this demanding effort.” She said talks are under way with the state Department of Labor about reorganizing the Human Rights Commission under that department, a path some other states have followed. “We are unable to accept private donors and grants because of the conflict of interest … with that kind of funding,” she said. Parks told lawmakers that though the commission is a small part of the state’s budget, “It is a critical investment.”

Hearing on agencies facing funds phase-out…

There’s a packed house at JFAC this morning, where budget hearings are scheduled for three agencies for which Gov. Butch Otter has proposed phasing out all state general funds over the next four years. Under questioning just now, Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget director, said, “The governor does not propose eliminating any of these agencies.” Instead, he said, he’s asked them to “identify other sources to replace their general fund. … Some of these agencies have taken that seriously.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “When the governor proposes no sound alternative for funding, that is in effect elimination.”

‘No place else to turn’

This morning, JFAC wrapped up three days of hearings on Health & Welfare budgets, with more troubling news about soaring caseloads, crimped funds and Idahoans being pushed onto public assistance by the economic downturn. Russ Barron, administrator of the Welfare Division, said, “The number of individuals needing help has sharply increased over the past two years. … Every day we see hundreds of Idahoans walking into a welfare office for the first time in their life, because they have no place else to turn.”

A particularly startling figure: The number of Idahoans receiving food stamps has grown by 106 percent in the past two years. One in eight people nationwide are on food stamps, and one in four children. “It’s no secret that our caseloads have been climbing every month to record high levels,” Barron told lawmakers. “We are seeing people needing our services who have never needed it before - these people are our neighbors, friends and relatives. Many of these people have held good jobs for 15, 17 years, and now find themselves suddenly out of work.”

About a third of Idahoans receiving food stamps over the past two years are first-timers on the program, he said. The crush has meant that welfare offices sometimes have to shut down their phones by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, Barron said, “because we have so many calls in queue that it takes until 6 or 7 in the evening to get through all the callbacks. Some of our staff work 9- to 10-hour days on a regular basis, because there are so many people needing our help.”

For the highly-qualified spouse…

Here’s a news item from the AP:  The State Board of Education wants to undo a law forbidding spouses of Idaho university presidents from being hired at the schools. Mark Browning, an Ed Board spokesman, told the House Education Committee Thursday university presidents often come with a highly qualified spouse. But it’s hard for them to find jobs comparable to those they left behind, especially under the existing ban. This restriction has affected Laura Vailas, wife of Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas and a former associate dean at the University of Houston. Dumping this prohibition, Browning said, would be a recruitment tool. But some lawmakers including Rep. Bob Nonini, a Coeur d’Alene Republican, said such a change could put Idaho schools at risk of nepotism charges. The House panel voted to hold a full hearing on the bill.

Ward adds three more stops to 14-stop tour

Congressional candidate Vaughn Ward said today he’s adding three more stops to his planned 14-stop “official announcement tour” next week, in McCall, Fruitland and Weiser, making it a 17-stop tour. Ward and state Rep. Raul Labrador are vying for the GOP nomination in the 1st Congressional District, for a chance to take on Rep. Walt Minnick, a first-term Democrat.

Guv plans parks announcement

Gov. Butch Otter has scheduled a press conference for Friday at 11 a.m. with Nancy Merrill, director of the state Department of Parks & Recreation, for “an important announcement about Parks and Recreation management.” Otter’s budget proposal for next year included a “conceptual” proposal to eliminate the department, cut dozens of positions, eliminate most state funding and merge it into the Department of Lands. Otter said, however, that he’d be open to other options. After he floated his proposal, attention focused on the conditions by which Idaho acquired landmark Harriman State Park - that it establish a professional parks department to manage it and other Idaho parks. That’s how Idaho got its parks department in 1965. Ending that could mean losing Harriman.

CAT fund health bills soaring…

Lawmakers are struggling with runaway costs in the state’s Catastrophic Health Care Fund, thanks to the plunging economy that’s thrown more Idahoans on the mercy of their county indigent programs when they have a health crisis. Counties pay up to $11,000 per case, and then the state picks up the rest, but costs have been ballooning. (Those who get the benefits also get liens slapped on their homes and all assets to try to recover the costs.) Last year, legislation was enacted to reform the program, raise the counties’ deductible from $10,000 to $11,000, and bring in claims review and utilization management to try to bring the costs under control. But caseloads have continued to skyrocket, driving up costs even as those new savings programs are in the process of being implemented. “Our numbers continue to change, and I’m almost fearful our numbers are somewhat optimistic still,” Roger Christensen, CAT fund board chairman, told JFAC today.

In fiscal year 2011, Christensen expects costs for cases to hit $35.4 million, but with the savings, he’s proposing a budget of $30 million. He’s also requested a supplemental appropriation of $8 million, but Gov. Butch Otter has recommended just $4 million; however, so many Idahoans are asking for help that even the $8 million now appears not to be enough. By law, the state has to pay the bills for eligible people, Christensen said - if it doesn’t have the money, its only option is to roll the debt into the next year.

Former state GOP Chairman Blake Hall has been the one giving the CAT fund report to JFAC for years, as his Idaho Falls law firm had the management contract for the program. Last year, Hall was paid $213,000 to run the program in fiscal year 2009. But Christensen said “Times and conditions have changed.” The board has voted not to renew Hall’s contract, though it’s continuing now on a month-to-month basis until a new contract is in place in February. That contract, which still is being finalized, calls for the board itself to run the program, with the Idaho Association of Counties providing interim management and the Idaho Attorney General providing legal services. Estimated costs for next year: $125,000 to $130,000.

Chief justice: ‘State of judiciary is excellent’

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Eismann is giving his annual “State of the Judiciary” message to lawmakers today, first in the full House, then in the full Senate. In the House, he said, “In a word, the state of the Idaho judiciary is excellent.” The justice recounted how Idaho’s court system has grown from a system of disconnected and individualized courts in which some judges weren’t even trained in the law, into a “modern, streamlined judicial system,” thanks to legislative enactments. He noted two national awards received by Idaho’s judiciary in 2009, including an award for justice system innovation that recognized, among other items, the establishment of court assistance offices to help Idahoans understand how to resolve their legal disputes. Those offices now annually receive 50,000 requests for assistance. The state also received high recognition for its drug courts.

“In my experience, Idaho is unique in that all three branches of government have worked together effectively to address difficult issues,” Eismann told lawmakers. “National surveys indicate that the public expects this level of cooperation to solve societal problems. … We will work with you to devise solutions that will maintain that excellence in these tough economic times.”

Panel votes 16-1 to end party checkoff

The House State Affairs Committee has voted 16-1 in favor of HB 379, the proposal from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, to do away with the tax form check-off through which Idaho taxpayers can donate $1 to the political party of their choice, without paying any more in taxes. Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, who opposed the bill when it was introduced, said, “I think I need to eat some crow here.” She said she’s realized her error and now supports the bill - but added that she has another one drafted to add a new, voluntary checkoff for parties that taxpayers would pay for from their own funds, rather than the state’s. Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he’ll give King’s bill a print hearing.

Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, said she voted to introduce the bill simply because she considers that “the polite and cordial thing to do” when another committee member proposes a bill, but said that after looking into it, she strongly supports it. “We have to look for every possible dollar to go into our general fund in this economy,” Shepherd said. “It may be a small amount, it may be a large amount, but even small amounts add up.”

The checkoff doesn’t raise much - only about $34,000 last year between all parties. Until 2006, Republicans got more money from the checkoff, but since then, Democrats have had the edge. Eric Makrush of the Idaho Freedom Foundation testified in favor of the bill, saying his organization wants to “educate regarding any policy matters that are an affront to the free market and the proper role of government.” He said, “We need to make sure that these monies are diverted to state agencies as appropriate. From our end, this is a good public policy to make this change.” The bill now heads to the full House for a vote.

About the numbers…

So, just what does the revenue figure set by the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee yesterday signify? It’s a recommendation to leadership and JFAC, but JFAC isn’t bound by it. For many years, after taking testimony from economists, business leaders and more, the joint revenue committee accepted the governor’s revenue figure. Last year, however, the committee set a figure $101 million below the governor’s estimate. JFAC didn’t initially accept that number for its budget-setting, but by the end of the process, that’s about where it ended up - in an unusual move, due to the economic turmoil, the governor revised his revenue estimate downward mid-session, JFAC went with that new number but also opted to leave $50 million on the table, and the end result was a budget close to what the committee’s revenue figure envisioned.

Here’s a very interesting look at the revenue-estimate process and the role of the state’s chief economist, Mike Ferguson, by Idaho Statesman reporter Brian Murphy. Also from today’s Statesman, Dan Popkey had this look at the culture change the newly expanded Statehouse is bringing about. And from today’s Lewiston Tribune, reporter Bill Spence looked at what people are saying in the new interactive forum on the governor’s “Efficiency” Web site, and there’s a surprise: The most popular suggestion in the forum, so far, is adding a 7-cent tax on plastic shopping bags; followed by school district consolidation and requiring legislators to pay higher premiums for health insurance like other part-time state employees - not exactly the proposals the Legislature’s looking at so far this session. Click below to read his full report.

A long and wild day…

It’s been a long and wild day in the Statehouse. Here’s a link to my full story on the outcome of today’s stormy debate and votes in the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee, and here’s a link to my full story on Rep. Jim Clark’s bill to permit and regulate distilled-spirits samplings, similar to how Idaho authorizes wine-tastings. Incidentally, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says at least 36 states permit hard-liquor tastings in bars and restaurants, and 27 of those allow it in retail stores (which Clark’s bill wouldn’t permit). The council maintains that “product tastings are a traditional, responsible marketing tool.”

‘Trying to salvage what I could get’

Here’s why Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, decided to second Sen. Russ Fulcher’s motion on the state revenue estimate: “I could see where things were going, and they were going to an even more conservative number, and so I was trying to salvage what I could get,” Hammond said. When an array of business leaders addressed the joint revenue committee earlier, “I heard all the business people say we’ve bottomed out and we’re starting to grow,” Hammond said. “So I thought we were better served by taking a conservative approach, but yet still somewhat optimistic, and that’s what I was pushing for.” He added, “I really do believe that to some extent you can create your own negative self-fulfilling prophecy. By projecting no growth, that may be exactly what you get, because you frighten people out of making investments they were thinking of making in their businesses in terms of equipment, in terms of employees, in terms of expansion. You have to strike a balance there.” Hammond voted against Fulcher’s first motion, which was nearly identical to the successful motion that he later seconded.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who also opposed Fulcher’s first motion but backed his second one, said, “I wasn’t wanting to support the lower numbers - I didn’t really like any of the motions the first time around. … Looking at how the numbers were developing, I didn’t want to end up with the $2.25” billion, the significantly lower figure proposed by Rep. Ken Roberts, which, if used to set the state budget, would have forced $120 million in additional budget cuts this year, beyond what the governor’s already recommended.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who joined four Democrats in opposing the final, successful motion, said, “I don’t want to cut budgets any harder than we have to.” He said he agreed with the figure set for fiscal year 2011, but thought the figure for the current year was too low. “If we undercut our 2010 revenue, then we’re going to make cuts that aren’t needed,” he said.

New revenue estimate would force more cuts

The successful motion, made by Sen. Russ Fulcher and seconded by Sen Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, sets fy 2010 revenue at 2.280 billion - which is $69 million below the governor’s figure, and means, if the state budgets actually are set based on these figures, there’s $69 million more must be cut from this year’s budget beyond cuts already recommended - and for fy 2011, $2.290 billion, which is $59 million below the governor’s recommended budget for next year. That means more cuts even than Otter’s called for next year.

Committee passes Fulcher motion

The vote was 13-5; Sen. Russ Fulcher’s motion has passed. Voting yes were Reps. Kren, Lake, Roberts, Henderson, McGeachin, Bayer, Bedke, and Sens. Fulcher, Hill, Bair, Hammond, Geddes and Keough. Voting no were Reps. Sayler, Killen and LeFavour and Sens. Goedde and Bilyeu.

More motions…

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, has proposed a substitute motion at the average of committee members’ projections, which is below the median projection. It’s $2.3315 billion for fy 2010, and $2.3756 billion for fy 2011. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who seconded the motion, said, “To make those cuts before we know that it’s that bad seems really, really irresponsible.” Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, objected and asked to strike LeFavour’s comment. Sen. Russ Fulcher then tried to make the same motion he made earlier, which was voted down, but that was ruled out of order. So he proposed $2.28 billion for fy 2010 and $2.29 billion for fy 2011.

Roberts motion: Cut $120M more this year

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, has proposed a new motion setting revenue for both fiscal years 2010 and 2011 at $2.25 billion. That would force the Legislature to cut another $120 million from the current year’s budgets - meaning far more holdbacks than Gov. Butch Otter has proposed, plus having to spend reserves this year that he tabbed for balancing next year’s budget.

All three motions defeated

The amended substitute motion, from Sen. Hill, died on a 7-11 vote. Then, the substitute motion, from Sen. Fulcher, died on a tied 9-9 vote. Then the original motion, from Rep. Lake, died 5-13.

A quick break before the vote…

With some committee members uncertain about what was in which motion, the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee is taking a 10-minute break to make sure the figures are clearly laid out for all members before a vote.

Lawmaker: ‘Our task is a daunting one’

The joint committee on revenue is now debating the three motions. “We do not have the luxury this year of missing it like we did last year,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who said he favors Sen. Russ Fulcher’s substitute motion or perhaps one even more conservative. “I think we need more cushion … because of the no-safety-net nature of our situation as opposed to last year.” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, co-chairman of the joint committee, said he supports the amended substitute motion, the one from Sen. Brent Hill. “Our task is a daunting one,” Goedde said. “Any underestimating of revenue is going to mean we’re going to cut programs in education and in Health & Welfare, and we’ll have money in the bank maybe at the end of the year, but that’s not going to help the people that we’ve denied services. So we’ve got to find a realistic number.”

Three motions on the table for state revenue…

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, moved to propose the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee’s median projection as the recommended revenue projection for fy 2011, and accept the governor’s figure for 2010. Then, Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, proposed a much lower figure: $2.28 billion for fiscal year 2010; and $2.3 billion for fy 2011. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, seconded Fulcher’s motion. “Ultimately, I see the function of this committee and the recommendation that we make to be one that needs to exhibit some prudence when we’re handling the people’s money,” Fulcher said. “So I’ve got a little bit more conservative number that I’m going to recommend. … I guess I’ll just add that I hope that that’s wrong. But I can see the numbers, I can see what happened with December and recent months. And I just don’t want to fall prey to having to come back and do this again.”

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, then moved to set the figure at a figure $83.8 million below the governor’s recommendation for fy 2011 - which is consistent with the governor’s budget proposal. Gov. Butch Otter proposed spending $83.8 million less than his own economists say the state will bring in next year, just in case.

Open letter opposes defunding of Idaho Human Rights Commission

A long list of human rights leaders, including two former Idaho governors, three former directors of the  Idaho Human Rights Commission, and more, have sent an “open letter” to the Idaho Legislature opposing Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to phase out all state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission over the next four years. “We implore the members of the Idaho Legislature to resist any initiative to reduce the effectiveness of the Commission, to diminish its already scarce resources and to send the most unwelcome and damaging message that Idaho has ceased to place human rights at the absolute forefront of the state’s priorities,” the letter says. “We need not remind Idaho state government that it was not that many years ago that Idaho’s image and reputation was unfairly sullied by the presence in our midst of messengers of hate and ministers of discord.”

“Idahoans were united then – and must be united now – in rejecting any assault on human rights.  We came together in the past to send a powerful and righteous message that Idaho would not tolerate discrimination and would not give comfort to those who deny basic human dignity to all her citizens.” You can read the full letter here.

Short $12.6M, but ‘some actual good news’ too

December state tax revenues are down by $12.6 million from forecasts, Mike Ferguson, chief economist for Gov. Butch Otter, told the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee. You can see Ferguson’s complete handout to the committee here. Despite the bottom-line drop, “There is embedded in this some actual good news,” Ferguson told lawmakers. “The good news is that unlike recent past months, both sales tax and withholding collections have either come in on target or ahead of target.” Sales tax in December came in about $100,000 below the estimate, he said, “which is essentially on target for the month of December.” In income tax withholding collections, he said, “We were actually $800,000 ahead of expectations.” Those two pieces of the state revenue picture are the important, ongoing pieces; the December shortfall was largely due to a shortfall in filing payments and $4 million more than expected in individual income tax refunds for the month.

Median of legislators’ projections well below gov’s on state revenues

The Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee has begun its meeting in the basement auditorium of the state Capitol, and is now hearing from the state’s chief economist, Mike Ferguson. The committee’s draft report - members will vote on their final recommendation today - shows that the median projection from committee members puts state revenues for the current fiscal year at $2.3319 billion, $17.3 million below Gov. Butch Otter’s estimate; for fiscal year 2011, $2.3886 billion, $44.4 million below the governor’s number; and for fiscal year 2012, $2.4646 billion, $181.8 million below Otter’s estimate.

Weekly: Otter stashing advisers in other agency budgets

The Boise Weekly reports that Gov. Butch Otter is proposing cutting his own office’s budget by 3.8 percent for fiscal year 2011, but accounting for some of his policy advisers the same way former Gov.  Dirk Kempthorne did until 2006: By stashing them in other agency budgets. You can read the full report here from Boise Weekly news editor Nathaniel Hoffman.

House Dems, Senate GOP hold caucuses

Senate Republicans caucused for about half an hour today, and House Democrats for an hour. GOP senators had Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron give an update on state revenues and the governor’s budget recommendation. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to give the full caucus an update,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. The numbers didn’t include December figures, he said; the group ran out of time and will re-gather in closed caucus again Friday to allow time for questions. House Democrats spent most of their closed-door caucus on administrative and protocol issues regarding how they’ll run their newly closed caucus meetings, according to Caucus Chairman Bill Killen, D-Boise. “We had a big difference of opinion on virtually every topic that came up, so nothing has changed,” Killen said. The Dems also discussed national politics, the Massachusetts election results, the Platform for Prosperity and legislation in the works from individual members, Killen said.

State gearing up for future fossil finds

Idaho could find a whole lot more big fossils - wooly mammoths and the like - in coming years as big energy transmission projects spread across the fossil-rich southern and eastern portions of the state, and state officials want to gear up by shifting some duties from the state Historical Society to the Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University, which has the paleontology expertise. The plan hinges, in part, on finding funding at cash-strapped ISU. “We’re really supportive of this,” ISU lobbyist Kent Kunz told the Associated Press today. “Our museum is a great repository of paleontological resources. We just need to figure out a way to pay for it.” A House committee voted today to introduce legislation to make the shift; it’ll be debated more at a full hearing. Click below for the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Liquor sampling: ‘An economic development tool’

Idaho enacted a state law regulating and permitting wine tastings five years ago, so why not allow the same for distilled spirits? That’s what Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, proposed this morning in legislation that the House State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce on a voice vote, with just one dissenter. “I am here today because I have a constituent in North Idaho who would like to build a distillery for distilled spirits beverages, i.e. gin,” Clark told the committee. “In his business plan, he would like to add in that they can go do gin sample tastings within his operation.”

Clark noted that the wine tasting bill passed in 2004 with just one no vote in the House (it had nine no votes in the Senate), and he said it’s worked fine. “These events have been extremely, extremely successful,” Clark said. “We authorized it in 2004, and McDonald’s hasn’t started doing it, and they can’t start doing it either.” That was an apparent reference to a comment during House debate last year in which Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls, suggested Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed reforms to how liquor licenses are doled out in Idaho would result in “a little nippy in there instead of a happy toy in that Happy Meal.” The House defeated that bill.

The existing wine-tasting law allows either wineries or retail outlets to hold tastings, but Clark’s bill would permit only manufacturers of distilled spirits or licensed bars to hold tastings of hard liquor. Portion sizes would be limited to one ounce, as opposed to the 1-1/2 ounce limit in the wine-tasting law; and the frequency of tastings would be limited. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, questioned why the number of samples a patron could receive weren’t limited by the law. “I assume someone could hang around, and, ah….” he said. Clark said he’d consider such possible changes once the bill has its full hearing; today’s vote was just to introduce it. “I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but it’s a little bit different than in the wine sampling, so I guess we’re not happy with the wine sampling then we should amend that also,” he said. “But we haven’t had any problem for over five years. I don’t think there’s ever been one case of somebody being intoxicated at a sampling.”

He added, “It’s an economic development tool and it’s not going to increase the number of people who are out there drinking. They went in there to sample and/or buy product. They’ll be over 21 and all those kinds of issues.”

Revenue panel meets this afternoon

The Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee will meet at 2 p.m. today in the large auditorium in the west underground wing of the Capitol to finalize its report to the Legislature on revenue levels on which to base the state budget. The meeting originally had been scheduled for last week, but was put off amid concern over December’s state tax revenues. This afternoon, you can listen live to the meeting online, thanks to Idaho Public Television; click here and look under “Special Meeting.”

Trimming services for the vulnerable…

This morning, legislative budget writers are in the second of three days of hearings on the Department of Health & Welfare budget, with today’s focus on mental health and substance abuse services, psychiatric hospitalization, child welfare and developmental disabilities - all areas where budget cuts can have a harsh impact on vulnerable people. At the end of yesterday’s hearing, which focused on Medicaid, Sen. Shawn Keough, ,R-Sandpoint, said, “They serve the neediest population of Idahoans, and it’s clear that they’re struggling to do that in some instances and that it will remain a challenge with the economic downturn.” Keough said she’s hoping to ensure that as many resources as possible go “down to the street level” where they’re needed most.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I’m extremely concerned for providing adequate services for the vulnerable part of our population.” She spoke out yesterday about lawmakers “acting as if the only way is to make cuts,” and said, “I really think we need to look at the revenue side.” When Idahoans understand the specific impacts of cuts on the state’s ill, poor and disabled, she said, “I have a hard time thinking that they’ll be acceptable to folks.” But JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he doesn’t see tax increases as an option - and certainly not for the budget committee, whose task is to balance the state budget. Tomorrow, the joint committee will examine budget situations for welfare, public health and the medically indigent.

Among today’s discussions: Holdbacks at the two state mental hospitals are particularly difficult to accomplish, because reductions in hospital staffing can result in both public safety and accreditation problems; personnel makes up 80 percent of the hospitals’ budgets. “Any proposed reductions in personnel hit the hospitals very hard,” H&W Administrator Kathleen Allyn told lawmakers. Among savings so far: State Hospital North closed its lab, and now contracts out for lab work, laying off one medical technologist. State Hospital South laid off two non-direct care staff, is holding several more positions vacant, and will furlough non-direct care staffers.

In the state substance abuse treatment and prevention program, two state employees have been laid off. In adult mental health, five have been laid off, temporary positions eliminated, and 10 vacancies held open. In children’s mental health, there have been two layoffs and four vacancies held open.

Ward to hit 14 Idaho stops in four days for ‘official announcement tour’

Though he’s been actively campaigning since last spring, Vaughn Ward, GOP candidate for the 1st District congressional seat, has scheduled a 14-stop “Official Ward for Congress Announcement Tour” with “Special Guest Secretary Dirk Kempthorne,” starting next Tuesday in Emmett. He’ll hit Meridian, Boise, Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint, Post Falls, Wallace, St. Maries, Moscow, Lewiston, Grangeville, Wilder, Homedale and Caldwell, all by next Friday, including a Tuesday afternoon press conference with Kempthorne and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna on the Capitol steps. Ward, an Iraq war veteran and former Kempthorne aide, and state Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, are vying for a chance to challenge Democratic 1st District Rep. Walt Minnick in November.

Meth Project cites success; Guv wants another half-mil in state funds for it next year

The Idaho Meth Project released poll results today showing it’s making progress toward its top goal - convincing Idaho teens and young people that it’s dangerous to try methamphetamine even once. In the project’s latest survey, 66 percent of teens and 78 percent of young adults in Idaho said they believe there is “great risk” in using the drug just once or twice. That’s up from 55 and 68 percent in 2007, when the project began. “We consider this to be very significant progress,” said Megan Ronk, the project’s executive director. The full poll is online here.

The project is a privately funded effort, but the state has poured $1.5 million into it since it started two years ago. In the current year, the project is getting $500,000 from the state’s Millenium Fund; last year it got $1 million. Next year, Gov. Butch Otter is proposing $500,000 more for the Meth Project from the Millenium Fund. The project has sponsored graphic TV and radio commercials and billboards designed to alarm teens about the dangers of meth; a new, third wave of ads launches today. First Lady Lori Otter, a member of the project’s board and also a member of the National Meth Project Foundation board, said, “This is a saturation-level advertising campaign that is specifically designed to reach teens and young adults at the places they frequent.” The first lady joined several teen volunteers for the project to unveil the new ads today; Gov. Butch Otter watched from the audience.

Labrador raised $30K in December

State Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, who’s running in the GOP primary for the 1st District congressional seat, has announced that he raised $30,000 in December, bringing his campaign warchest to a total of $80,000. That’s because he also put in $50,000 of his own money, a move that Labrador said shows he’s serious about the race. “If I am going to ask people to contribute to my campaign – and the larger cause to change how Congress does business – then I should be willing to invest in that effort myself,” he said. He added, “Raising $30,000 in the middle of the holiday season is a tremendous accomplishment for my campaign.

Labrador entered the race Dec. 7, and is facing Vaughn Ward, who’s been actively campaigning and fundraising for months; campaign finance reports in the race are due Jan. 31. Ward announced earlier that he raised more than $100,000 in the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2009. The two are vying to take on Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick.

Clark pushes ‘Health Freedom Act’ to fight federal health care reform

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, proposed legislation this morning that he’s calling the “Idaho Health Freedom Act” to both ban the state from enforcing any requirements for Idahoans or Idaho businesses to purchase health insurance, and ban enforcement of any penalties for not doing so. The measure, which Clark is co-sponsoring with Reps. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, and Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, also would require the state Attorney General to go to court to fight such requirements. When Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, noted that Idaho already requires people to purchase auto insurance, Clark responded, “You don’t have to purchase an automobile - that’s the difference. You can walk, you can take public transportation.”

Clark said he used information from the American Legislative Exchange Council and several other states’ proposals as models to craft his bill. The House State Affairs Committee voted to introduce the measure on a voice vote, with three panel members objecting; now it will be scheduled for a full hearing. The bill’s fiscal note says it could require adding a position to the Attorney General’s office and spending about $100,000 in state funds.

Deadlocked House State Affairs Committee rejects fee hike for non-motorized boaters

After two tied votes, a deadlocked House State Affairs Committee refused this morning to introduce legislation proposed by the state Department of Parks & Recreation to increase fees for invasive species stickers for boats that just were imposed last year. The fees for non-motorized craft, including canoes and rafts, would have jumped from $5 to $7. Parks officials and Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said the hike was needed to add in a $1.50 vendor fee to pay private vendors who sell the stickers. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, was among those speaking out against the fee hike. “The biggest complaint I have received about this particular program is from non-motorized vessel owners, not the outfitters and guides - families who have a canoe or a raft,” Labrador said. “They’re not happy about paying $5, and I’m sure they’re not going to be happy about paying $7.”

The bill also would have increased the fees by $2 for out-of-state boaters and for outfitters and guides, but wouldn’t have changed the fees for owners of motorized boats. Anderson said that’s because their boat registration already includes a vendor fee. This year, for motorized boaters, the invasive species sticker - which funds programs to prevent the introduction of quagga and zebra mussels and other invasives into Idaho waterways - will be combined with boat registration into a single sticker. Officials expect that to improve compliance; last year, of 91,000 in-state registered boats, invasive species stickers were purchased for just 53,617. The state sold 17,972 stickers to owners of non-motorized boats, and 6,565 to out-of-state boaters.

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I just can’t vote in favor of raising the fees when we have a compliance problem.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, called for keeping Idahoans’ fees the same but boosting out-of-state boaters’ fees by a third. But Rep. Burt Stevenson, R-Rupert, said, “Put it on the out-of-state? We tried that with Fish & Game, and all that happened is the out-of state stopped coming.”

After motions to reject the bill and to introduce it both failed on tied 8-8 votes, State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said the bill could be proposed again, but “I think they’ve got to do some homework. There may be some changes they want to make in it, and not do the non-motorized craft - that’s probably the biggest problem.”

JFAC members wrestle with H&W cuts

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong whether he’d considered cutting department employees’ salaries and benefits. “Have you done an analysis for your department about salary reduction, and how that might save front-line services?” she asked. Armstrong said furloughs already reduce employees’ pay, but said he’d resist cutting salaries for this reason: Salaries already are 15 percent below market, and the department struggles with too-high turnover in difficult jobs like child protection. “I would resist any reduction in salary,” he said. “We’ve already reduced employee compensation 3.7 percent through the furlough process. The value of that is when the economy recovers, our wages are still only 15 percent below the market, rather than 20 percent below the market.” Salary cuts, he said, would mean “our employees will leave. … Our bench strength has been already stripped.”

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the department’s report is “quite sobering.” She said, “We’re the Legislature - we can choose to accept the consequences of this proposal, or we can say, ‘That’s not what we want to do.’” LeFavour said JFAC can’t raises taxes, but that’s the alternative to just cutting. She questioned “whether we should be asking the people who need services from the state most to bear all the burden, and our schools.”

Cameron: ‘All likelihood’ of further holdbacks

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, says “in all likelihood” the state will have to impose yet another holdback, beyond the 1.6 percent additional mid-year budget cut already proposed by Gov. Butch Otter. “That was based on numbers as of Nov. 30th,” Cameron said of the governor’s proposal. “We already know that December’s numbers have come in and they’re well below what the governor projected. That speaks to an additional holdback beyond the 1.6.” He asked Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong, “How does the department handle an additional reduction beyond the 1.6 percent, because in all likelihood that’s what you’re going to be faced with?”

Armstrong said people waiting in the department’s packed waiting rooms may not get served the same day. “If they’re in line beyond a certain point, they won’t be seen that day and they’ll have to come back,” Armstrong said. “But even with that, my gut tells me that we will probably have to look at the closure of some offices, because we have to get both the operating and the personnel costs down, which would lead to some layoffs. At some point your system can’t operate if you have too many people gone on furlough. … We simply will not be able to fill all the chairs.”

Cameron responded that he wanted to see proposals for more efficiencies. With budget cuts, he said, “If there’s a silver lining at times, it’s the overall re-evaluation of how we’re doing things.”

‘Can no longer guarantee good public policy’

Budget cuts have had severe impact at the state Department of Health & Welfare, Director Dick Armstrong told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. Much of Health & Welfare consists of programs in which the federal government provides matching money tied to state spending; in Medicaid, the largest program, a $1 cut in state funds means losing $3.75 in federal money too, for a total impact on Idahoans of $4.75. “As a result of budget reductions, the department has not leveraged $54 million of federal funds in fiscal year 2009, and an estimated $68 million in the current fiscal year,” Armstrong told legislative budget writers. “This adds up to $120 million of federal funds left on the table for Idaho.”

The cuts have come at a time of soaring caseloads, he said. Food stamp applications are up 55 percent since 2007, and the number of Idahoans on food stamps has swelled from 87,000 to 179,000. Medicaid participants are up 13 percent since 2007; child support caseloads are up 9 percent. The people being helped by Health & Welfare programs, Armstrong said, are “casualties of the economy.” He said, “Dealing with record numbers of people has not been easy. Our office lobbies remain crowded.” Most of those waiting are “people who’ve never applied for public assistance before,” he said. “Things are not slowing down.”

Armstrong said he was proud of customer services improvements the department has made in the past few years, but that’s starting to slide now. “Our productivity gains simply cannot keep pace with the rapid growth in the number of citizens eligible for services,” he said. The cuts have forced nearly all department employees to take 9.5 unpaid furlough days this year, he said, which equates to a 3.7 percent pay cut. All Health & Welfare offices will close at noon every other Friday for the rest of the fiscal year, starting this Friday. Armstrong said he’s hearing reports daily of department employees who are working after hours or on weekends or losing vacation time because of the need to help so many people. The department also eliminated 23 full-time positions. “This year,” Armstrong said, “we can no longer guarantee changes will result in good public policy as we struggle with the enormity of the deficit.”

Dems’ closure of caucuses ‘a strategic decision’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the Idaho House and Senate Democrats’ decision today to abandon open caucus meetings and instead move all their caucuses behind closed doors. “It was unanimous,” said Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise. “It was a strategic decision.” House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said, “I think our constituents will certainly weigh in on it, and if they dislike closed caucuses, they’ll have the ability to let us know - they usually do that at the polls.” Majority Republican caucuses in both houses have remained closed.

The case of the missing P.A….

Amid all the hubbub in the Capitol today, the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families had to hold its rally on the Statehouse steps - with 550 kids and parents in attendance - without any amplification, because the state-owned P.A. system it planned to use briefly disappeared after the Tea Party rally just beforehand. “It did, in our minds at least, come up missing for a few minutes,” said Teresa Luna, chief of staff for the state Department of Administration. “The group that was prior to the charter school group took it with them down into a committee hearing room, for some reason. Nobody took it maliciously. They took it into a committee hearing room thinking they might need it down there.”

Wayne Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which reserved the Capitol steps for the Tea Party rally, held a teaching session afterward in a Capitol wings committee hearing room, but Hoffman said he didn’t use the P.A. system. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “In fact, I didn’t use any amplification.” Hoffman said he briefed the group about the legislative process, encouraging members to “testify in front of committees and so forth.” He said another Tea Party follow-up was going on at the same time, a roundtable of lawmakers with former state Rep. Liz Allan-Hodge, but Luna didn’t know anything about that, or about where the P.A. system was found. It was found, however. “It took us a bit of trying to find it, and by the time we found it, the charter thing was well into its program,” Luna said. “We were kind of scrambling, because we’re not actually open today.” She coordinated with Capitol security to run down the missing P.A., which has now been recovered and moved back to its regular storage site.

The charter school group, according to lobbyist Ken Burgess, rallied for removing the cap that permits only six new charter schools in Idaho each year. The rally was part of a day-long event for charter school students and parents, in which parents went through advocacy training and students made signs for the rally and wrote notes to legislators. Burgess said more than 6,000 kids are on waiting lists to get into Idaho charter schools.

‘It’s people being peaceful’

The Capitol is filled with people - parents and children watching from every floor of the rotunda at the state’s official Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day ceremony; high school and college students, some of whom took part in rallies earlier; older folks who participated in a Tea Party rally; proud members of Idaho’s ethnic minorities; people wearing flags and more. Today saw a remarkably peaceful interaction between several very different groups.

At the “Tea Party Convergence on the Capitol,” close to 400 people gathered on the Capitol steps and heard speeches from lawmakers including congressional candidate Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, who told them, “We the people tell the government what to do - it doesn’t tell us what to do.” Attendees carried signs saying, “Fight Fascism,” “US Congress, a legalized criminal enterprise” and “Obama and Congress Toppling USA, Wake Up America.” Sprinkled among them were dissenters whose signs had slogans like “I respectfully disagree.”

Hundreds more gathered a couple of blocks south at Boise City Hall, for a loud, cheering rally in commemoration of Martin Luther King, for which sign-carrying demonstrators had marched from Boise State University. “The reason why we love this country is because we’re allowed to be the architects of our own destiny,” BSU Black Student Alliance President David Andrews told the cheering crowd. Attendees carried signs with slogans including, “Unity, Love, Acceptance,” “Expand the dream to mutual respect” and “Human Rights for Everyone.”

Inside the state Capitol, First Lady Lori Otter told a crowd thick with families, “Little guys, let’s turn to your parents and say, ‘Thanks for bringing me here today.’” The ceremony in the newly reopened and rededicated Capitol, she said, is “also an opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had, and to carry it on in the state.” Gov. Butch Otter read an official state proclamation, and there were music, speeches and human rights awards.

At one point, the marchers from BSU filed up Capitol Boulevard to the Capitol, where the remains of the Tea Party people were still milling around on the front steps and the state ceremony was in full swing inside. They flowed down a wide ramp past the others on the steps, and there was no evidence of any conflicts. “I think they’re just speaking their mind and calling it good,” said Sgt. Ted Snyder, field supervisor for the Boise Police Department, who watched from his patrol car. “It’s people being peaceful, and it’s been a good turnout for all the events.”

Dems decide to close caucuses

Idaho’s House and Senate minority caucuses have voted to close their meetings to the public, after having them open to the public for nearly a decade while GOP caucuses remained closed. “This change is effective immediately,” according to a press release from Democratic leadership. “If Coach Pete had opened his playbook to TCU before the Fiesta Bowl, the fake punt would have led to disaster, not victory,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Elliot Werk. Added House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, “To maximize our effectiveness in the legislature we must take the field with every advantage that we can muster.”

In 2003, the annual BSU Public Policy Survey, a respected statewide poll, found that 76 percent of Idahoans thought the caucuses should be open, and only 8 percent thought they should remain closed. Under pressure from media groups and others, the House Minority Caucus opened its meetings to the public in 2001, and the Senate Democratic Caucus opened up in 2002. The majority caucuses in both houses opted to remain closed, but in 2003 House Republicans adopted a new caucus policy limiting what their caucus can do in closed-door meetings, saying closed sessions will be held only to develop party political policy or to elect party leaders, promising that no legislation will be drafted in closed-door caucuses, and saying that “discussion of any public policy issue, including legislation, shall be for educational and informational purposes only.”

Caucuses are meetings of each party’s members in the House or Senate. Though the state Constitution requires all the business of the Legislature to be conducted in public, party caucus meetings traditionally have been closed. That’s aroused increasing controversy over the past decade, as the Republican caucus took in such a large majority that it nearly constituted the entire Legislature. In 2001, a major package of tax-cut legislation was crafted in extended closed-door meetings of the Senate Republican Caucus, which at that time held all but three of the seats in the Senate.

Day of demonstrations kicks off with social-justice groups issuing report on race

A day of demonstrations has begun on this Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, as an array of social-justice groups released “Facing Race, 2009 Legislative Progress Report on Racial Equity” at a rally on the east steps of the Capitol. The groups, the ACLU of Idaho, the Applied Research Center, Idaho Community Action Network, Idaho Human Rights Education Center, Idaho Women’s Network, the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho, and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, contend that state lawmakers could do more to promote equity and racial justice in their policy-making.

At the groups’ rally, a crowd of about 75, including many teens, held signs with slogans including “Opportunity for All,” “Unequal Race has *No* Place in Idaho,” and “One Voice, Multiple Colors.” Amy Herzfeld of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center told the group, “Idaho’s elected officials may not intend to perpetuate institutional discrimination,” but she said that’s been the result of the state’s decisions. The groups cited the defeat of legislation to allow school districts to offer pre-kindergarten, which they said is disproportionately unavailable to children of color; the defeat of a bill to expunge criminal records of innocent people; and the enactment of legislation last year to cut funding for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, among other pieces of legislation last year. This year, Gov. Butch Otter is proposing eliminating state funding for that commission, along with the Idaho Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and several others in a four-year phase-out.

While they rallied, a few older people holding a bright-green sign saying “No Govt Health Care” showed up, then turned back and went back around to the front of the state Capitol. They were headed for the “Tea Party Convergence on the Capitol” rally, scheduled to start at 11 a.m. with a decidedly different agenda. Also set for today are the state’s official Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights ceremony at noon in the second-floor rotunda; and the annual BSU civil rights march, which will rally at 11:30 at Boise City Hall, while the Capitol’s south steps are taken up by the Tea Party group.

Lawmakers reject ‘high-handed’ school bond fee proposed by state endowment board

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously to reject a rule proposed by the Endowment Fund Investment Board to charge school districts a fee of up to $1,000 and up to 5 basis points for guarantees the board issues for districts’ school bond issues. The board originally proposed a fee of $100 and 2 basis points, and all the testimony it got on that administrative rule over the summer was negative; before that, no such fees were charged. The board then adjusted the rule to allow fees of up to $1,000 and up to 5 basis points. Karen Echeverria, head of the Idaho School Boards Association, testified against the rule to the committee, speaking on behalf of “education stakeholders” including her organization, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the Idaho Education Association and the Idaho PTA.

Earlier, at a state Land Board meeting, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna expressed strong opposition to the rule, saying school districts need their funds more now than ever, and shouldn’t be paying such fees to another state agency. No Idaho school district has ever defaulted on a bond; the EFIB has never denied an application for a guarantee; and its investment manager, Larry Johnson, told the State Affairs Committee the guarantees are low-risk.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the change in the rules to up the fees after even the lower level drew objections “seems to me a bit high-handed.” Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, questioned whether the endowment board has the authority to charge varying fees, rather than a fixed amount, without going back through the administrative rules process. “I have a big concern about the process that was followed in this particular case - about this particular board giving itself the authority to adjust the fee in policy,” Kelly said. “I think the process was flawed.”

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said he hoped lawmakers’ rejection of the rule would prompt the board to work with the education community to develop a new rule all could support. Stegner made the motion to reject the rule; it passed unanimously. Echeverria said after the hearing that she shared Stegner’s hope. Johnson said he needs to think about how that process would work.

The results of budget cuts…

JFAC has started budget hearings for state agencies with the Legislative Services Office. It’s the first of an array of hearings that will reveal how budget cuts have translated into changes on the ground in agencies throughout state government; also up today are the state controller’s office, the endowment fund investment board, the state treasurer’s office and the lieutenant governor. Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz told the joint budget committee this morning that LSO has 66 employees, but five of those positions are vacant and will remain vacant. He noted that the Research & Legislation Division, responsible for drafting all legislation, is down in staffing. “Twenty-five years ago, in 1985, this operation … had 14 positions,” he said. “We now have 13, one less than we did a quarter-century ago.” The Budget & Policy Division also is down, at nine employees today, plus one vacancy. Twenty-five years ago, there were 11. “We’ve kept the legislative services office small by design, because we’re so seasonal,” Youtz told lawmakers. Typically staffers work lots of overtime during the legislative session, then take comp time during slower times of the year.

However, unpaid furloughs imposed as a result of budget cuts are bumping up against comp time and vacations. “All employees of Legislative Services did take five furlough days the first half of this year,” Youtz said. Also, with recent budget cuts, two seasonal proofreaders for the legislative session were eliminated. “I’m hoping that won’t have an impact on bill turnaround and errors,” he said.

Holiday or not, Legislature is in session

Today is an official state holiday - Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day - but there’s a reason all the lights are on in the state Capitol. Unlike all other state agencies, the state Legislature doesn’t take holidays - it’s in session. You’ll find the same thing next month on Presidents’ Day, which is like any other legislative day.

Another approach to exemptions…

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, has drafted legislation calling for setting up a state commission that would review all Idaho state sales tax exemptions one or more times every eight years, and report its findings and recommendations to the Legislature, including whether each one should be scrapped or kept. The commission would include legislators, a member of the state Tax Commission, and citizens, and is modeled after a similar commission in Utah; you can read a full report on the bill by reporter Ben Botkin in The Twin Falls Times-News here.

Though repeated efforts by legislative panels to review and identify unneeded exemptions have failed, Jaquet said, “They would look at it more judiciously, and they would provide a report to the governor and the Legislature when they would have some time to reason things out.” However, Jaquet said House Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake has told her her bill won’t get a print hearing unless she can get support in advance from a majority his committee. So far, Jaquet said, she’s got “seven to nine” of the 10 backers she needs, at least to back introducing the bill.

Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “You know, on the surface it seems just like a wonderful idea, but you’ve got to remember we reviewed exemptions in 2003, in 2008, and you know what happened in that interim committee. I prepared 14 pieces of legislation, we prioritized all the exemptions, and I brought 14 pieces of legislation to examine them. And essentially, the answer from the committee was, ‘No, we don’t want to look at ‘em.’” Though Jaquet’s bill would have an outside group do the review, it’d still be lawmakers who’d decide whether or not to repeal exemptions, Lake said. “I think it’s an exercise in futility, because exactly the same people that are acting on them now would be acting on them then,” he said.

Lake said with Idaho’s evolving economy, “I’ve said for years, eventually we will be taxing services. Is now the time? We may be getting there, but it won’t be this year.”

The week that was…

Here’s a link to the first 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, I’ll be among those discussing the events of the session’s first week, as will state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, host Thanh Tan and more. The show airs tonight at 8, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here.

MLK Day events include Tea Party?

Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter will present an official state proclamation Monday at the state’s Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day celebration, which will begin Monday at noon on the second floor of the Idaho State Capitol, in the rotunda. The ceremony is sponsored by the Idaho Human Rights Commission, an agency for which Otter is proposing eliminating state funding in next year’s budget.

Interestingly, that’s also the date of the “Tea Party Convergence on the Capitol,” at which, according to the Boise Tea Party Web site, “Tea Party groups from all over Idaho are coming to Boise for the opening day of the Idaho Legislature.” (The Legislature actually opened Jan. 11, this past Monday.) That group has an event scheduled for the south Capitol steps at 11 a.m.

At the same time, the Idaho Community Action Network has scheduled its “Martin Luther King Action Day” at the capitol, including an event on the east steps. And the annual Boise State University Martin Luther King Day celebration, with events beginning at BSU at 9:30 and the annual march to the Capitol beginning at 10:45, originally had been scheduled for a rally at the Capitol immediately before the official state ceremony, but now those plans have changed. “Someone from student affairs called,” said Melissa Jensen, office manager for BSU public affairs. “They are going to end at City Hall instead,” and hold their rally there.

Lawmaker: BPA, Corps drop plan to fluctuate Pend Oreille lake level this winter

An Idaho state lawmaker says the U.S. Army  Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration have decided against a plan to fluctuate Lake Pend Oreille’s level by five feet this winter, a move that would generate more power but threatened to erode shorelines, shift docks and damage habitat for waterfowl.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said he and other North Idaho lawmakers expressed concerns about the move, as did Idaho’s congressional delegation and Gov. Butch Otter. “They’ve recognized those concerns,” Eskridge said.  “I recognize the value of this operation in terms of power, but we have to be sure that the value is not at the expense of other concerns. We need to be sure that we evaluate those and that we can find that we’re doing no harm or that we can mitigate the damages in a way that’s appropriate before we implement it.” Eskridge said the lake level fluctuation plan likely will be reconsidered next fall, after more research and public input. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “If they do this right, it’ll give the public a better understanding of the pros and cons of this, and maybe even a better acceptance when we’ve learned more about it.”

State board OKs ‘Race to the Top’

The Idaho State Board of Education, in a special meeting, has voted unanimously, 7-0, to approve the state’s application for “Race to the Top” federal grant funds. State Schools Supt. Tom Luna proposed the grant application, which includes a pilot program on teacher incentive pay, funding for dual-credit opportunities and more for participating school districts. Idaho will compete with other states for the first round of grant funding, due out this spring.

Parks chief addresses lawmakers, says nothing

There was quite a bit of interest in the first speaker to address a rather obscure subcommittee of the House Resources Committee today: State Parks Director Nancy Merrill. She’s at the center of one of Gov. Butch Otter’s most controversial budget cuts for next year - his “conceptual” proposal to eliminate the state Department of Parks & Recreation, sell its headquarters buildings and merge park operations into the state Department of Lands. Otter has indicated he may keep the department if a case can be made for how it can continue to operate, but lose most of its $6.4 million in state funding.

Merrill, however, merely said how honored she was to be the first speaker to address the panel, and introduced her staff members who were handling the three administrative rule changes on the subcommittee’s agenda. Afterward, she huddled with subcommittee Chair Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, then left the room without commenting to waiting reporters, shepherded by DFM analyst Keith Reynolds, who said she was due at a meeting with the governor’s staff.

School borrowing plan raises doubts

The deal struck between Gov. Butch Otter, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes - to hit public schools with a new budget holdback but let districts that can’t come up with their share of the $27.9 million in cuts borrow from state reserves, then pay the reserves back from their 2011 state appropriations - is drawing some criticism focused on the borrowing part. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he doesn’t see how the plan can work when next year’s budget for schools is being cut, too.  “I don’t see it being there to pay back,” he said.

Plus, the source for the loans - the public education stabilization fund - already is down to a $22.9 million balance, if lawmakers follow Otter’s recommendation to shield schools from his September mid-year holdback by tapping the fund for $49.3 million. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said Wednesday that at the end of the current school year, the same fund, known by its acronym PESF, will have to be tapped for about $10 million because Idaho enrolled more school kids this year than the state estimated it would. “And then a couple other items have to come out of there, so we’re going to end up at the end of this fiscal year with about $12 million in PESF,” Luna said. “That’s not much of a cushion for reserve.”

Nonini is worried about the borrowing idea. “Where is the money they’re going to borrow from?” he asked. “It’s like a credit card - how do you pay it back?” He said, “I don’t know if it’s a wise way to budget for public education.” Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, said the plan is still active. “JFAC would have to authorize it when they do the holdbacks,” he said.

A series of tragedies…

While the world is reeling over the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti, the Idaho Legislature has been hit with several personal tragedies this week involving its members and former members. The wife of Rep. Jim Marriott, R-Blackfoot, passed away Wednesday. The grandson of Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, was killed in a car crash. And former JFAC Co-Chairman Atwell Parry, R-Melba, was seriously injured in a car crash south of Nampa yesterday morning when he lost control of his vehicle on an ice-covered road; he was taken by Life Flight to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, and last night was reported to be in critical condition.

House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said the mood among lawmakers has been “very subdued.”

House Republicans caucus over revenues

The House Majority Caucus went behind closed doors this afternoon for an hour and a half, concerned about the latest state tax revenue figures and their implications on state budgeting. “What would be nice is to have the crystal ball,” said House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “We don’t know what January is going to look like, we don’t know what April is going to look like.” House Republicans see potential new revenue shortfalls as “a very serious issue,” Roberts said. “I think we’re going to have to lower expenses even beyond what the governor has said in his State of the State address.”

The caucus was concerned about preliminary figures showing an additional $12.6 million shortfall in state tax revenues in December; the final numbers aren’t yet out. But Roberts said the main reason the closed-door caucus went so long was all the “housekeeping” issues that needed reviewing now that lawmakers are back in the newly renovated state Capitol. “Probably the thing that actually took longer than anything was just the discussion about logistics in the building, where the coffee pots are going to go … operation of the microphones - just a lot of housekeeping stuff,” he said. “I had a whole list of issues.”

ITD braces for ‘Stimulus II’

At a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees this afternoon, state transportation officials told lawmakers they’re scrambling to prepare for what they’re calling “Stimulus II,” federal legislation also known as the 2010 Jobs Bill that could potentially bring another $182 million to Idaho for shovel-ready, bid-ready transportation projects. The bill, a version of which has passed the U.S. House but not yet been considered in the Senate, includes a critical requirement: That 50 percent of the money be awarded in 90 days. “It’s going to be very, very difficult for any state” to meet that requirement, ITD chief engineer Tom Cole told the lawmakers, but ITD is gearing up. States that don’t meet that time frame would lose out to others that do. “It’s going to be tight,” Cole said.

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said if the usual bidding rules hold up the process, “If there need to be code changes that we can make and we can get agreement on, we’re prepared to do so,” if it would mean “not leaving $180 million on the table” that could go to needed road projects in Idaho. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said he could think of an unfunded freeway project on I-90 in Post Falls that would be a good candidate for the program. Other lawmakers said they, too, can think of unfunded but needed projects that could use the money.

Bill would ease state workers’ leave donations to fellow workers

State employees would be able to donate twice as much leave time to other state workers, under legislation introduced in the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee today at the request of the Otter Administration. Wayne Hammon, acting human resources director for the state, said current law caps such leave donations at 40 hours; his proposed legislation would double the cap to 80 hours. So far this year, 783 state employees have donated leave to 201 who were in need; 134 of the donors gave the maximum amount. Last year, 1,190 state workers donated leave to 364 others, and 268 gave the maximum. One longtime state worker, Carol Youtz, told the committee she favors the move, and would like it to go even further, eliminating the cap entirely. Youtz, who said she’s made leave donations, said, “I don’t think we should put a cap on people’s generosity if they want to help their co-workers.” The panel voted unanimously to introduce the bill; it’ll be scheduled for a full hearing.

Idaho gets $14M to fight bark beetles

The U.S. Forest Service will get an additional $14 million to battle bark beetles in Idaho, where the bugs have chewed through 1.3 million acres, reports S-R reporter Becky Kramer; you can read her story here at spokesman.com. The beetles leave mountainsides covered with red and dying trees. Here’s a link to a joint press release from Idaho Reps. Walt Minnick and Mike Simpson about the new funding.

C’dA Basin cleanup ahead of schedule

Cleanup of contaminated residential yards and other properties in the Coeur d’Alene Basin is so far ahead of schedule that state lawmakers today authorized speeding up spending to do even more work this year. “We’ve been very, very pleased with what the contractors in North Idaho were doing,” said state DEQ Director Toni Hardesty. The plan for this year was to replace contaminated topsoil and contain pollutants from old mining waste at 500 Silver Valley properties. That’s already done. Now, under a supplemental appropriation that won unanimous support in JFAC this morning, DEQ will move ahead with 200 more between now and June 30. The money is from the federal economic stimulus and EPA remediation funds; it was one of several non-general fund supplemental appropriations approved unanimously by JFAC today; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Why revenue meeting was canceled…

Here’s why the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee canceled its meeting that was supposed to be today, the meeting at which the panel chooses a revenue figure on which it recommends setting the state budget: They’re waiting for the latest state tax revenue numbers. “We’re hoping to maybe get some more numbers before we try to set a target,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, co-chairman of the panel. The governor’s budget office says preliminary figures show a $12.6 million shortfall in December’s revenue numbers, but that’s not final. “I think we’re concerned about the trend,” Goedde said. “We have to figure out to the best of our ability how deep the hole is for the current fiscal year, before we start looking at 2011.” The meeting hasn’t yet been rescheduled; Goedde said it’ll be “sometime in the next couple weeks.”

Panel introduces bill to end tax checkoff to fund Idaho political parties

The House State Affairs Committee has voted 13-4 to introduce legislation proposed by Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, to eliminate the current $1 checkoff on tax returns through which Idahoans can donate to political parties. The money doesn’t come out of people’s refunds, so doing the voluntary checkoff doesn’t cost individual taxpayers more. “It’s a diversion from the general fund, unlike any other checkoff,” Luker said. “Right now, I’m just trying to save some money.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, asked Luker whether he’d be OK with the checkoff if it did, like other voluntary checkoffs, come out of the taxpayer’s refund. Luker said if someone wants to bring that kind of bill, they can, but that’s not his proposal.

Taxpayers choose which party their dollar should go to; this year, 18,278 Idahoans sent their dollars to the Democratic Party, while just 13,378 chose the GOP. In fact, since the checkoff was started in 1976, Democrats have collected a total of $735,574 - edging out the Republicans, who’ve taken in $728,412, even though Republicans collected more until 2006.    “That has been trending toward the Democrats,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a Republican. However, it’s also been trending down over the years, and has never taken in as much money as parties originally thought it might. This year’s total was just $34,320.

Twelve of the committee’s Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, voted to introduce the bill; four Democrats voted against the motion. Click below to read my full story from July about this checkoff and how Democrats have been gaining the edge in it, despite being the state’s minority party.

Firefighting bill: $7.2 million

JFAC has voted to pay off its first big bill, the $7.2 million left from firefighting in the fiscal year that ended on June 30 of 2009. Last year, the Legislature changed its usual procedure for paying wildfire bills so it knows in advance what bills are coming, by issuing deficiency warrants for the fiscal year after it closes, and paying them off the following winter. That means any firefighting bills from this past summer will be on next year’s bill. “These are to pay the bills for fires that have been fought,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Senate Finance vice-chair, and the motion passed unanimously, 18-0.

It was the first of a long list of deficiency warrants and supplemental budget requests that the Legislature will work through; supplemental requests are those additional items that need funding in the current budget year, rather than next year. None of the supplementals to be considered today involve state general tax funds; instead they include things like authorizing the spending of an additional $8.2 million in federal stimulus money and other federal funds on remediation in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, because work there is getting done faster than anticipated.

Making govt look smaller?

Legislative budget writers this morning reviewed Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to trim more than 400 positions from the state payroll, most of which already are vacant. Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, presented a report showing a total reduction of 463, including 379 positions that already are vacant. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think on the face of it, it looks quite good if we’re able to pare down the number of employees in the public sector, but … there are instances where paring down the employees in the public sector has an impact on the private sector that is negative as well.” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, responded, “Remember for two budget cycles we have made reductions. … The agencies have used these vacancies to keep their doors open. … What has been done has been done - we’re just now catching up.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the other JFAC co-chair, noted that in many cases, the money for the vacant positions has been reverted back out of the agencies’ budgets, but the authorization for the position remains. “It makes government look bigger than it already is,” he said. The biggest proposed reductions in positions are at colleges and universities, down by 176; Parks & Rec, down 165; Labor, down 48; and Health & Welfare, down 43.

Luna: School cuts should ‘alarm’ Idaho parents

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna today explained why his figures on looming cuts in school budgets are different from those in the governor’s budget presentation: He’s not counting just state general funds, but all funds. Luna, who held a round-table with reporters today to talk about budgets and the “Race to the Top” grant application, noted that in addition to the $1.231 billion in state general funds going to schools this year, there’s also $64.15 million in state dedicated funds, $145.7 million in federal stimulus funds, and $269.6 million in other federal funds. That totals $1.7 billion.

The governor’s budget recommendation for schools for next year is $1.217 million in state general funds, a $14.3 million or 1.2 percent reduction. But the total-funds recommendation also includes $59.8 million in state dedicated funds; $33.07 million in federal stimulus funds; and $270.8 million in other federal funds. That totals $1.58 billion, an overall reduction of $130 million or 7.6 percent.

“A $130 million reduction - that in and of itself should alarm every mother and father (of children) in our school system,” Luna said. “If you couple that with our monies that were spent last year, we’re talking about almost $200 million that has been cut from our public school system over a two-year period of time.” Luna said $68 million was cut from the “maintenance” budget for schools during last year’s legislative session, the funding level needed to continue providing the same services, though some funds were added back in after that to cover student enrollment growth. The growth money goes only to districts that gain students, he said. Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal for next year includes $9 million for growth, but Luna said he thought more than $22 million was needed. He said if the growth funding isn’t counted, schools are looking at a $139 million overall drop next year. If the student population grows beyond projections, the state must fund the added cost from its reserve accounts.

Health Care Task Force splits 7-5 on opposing health care reform

The Legislature’s Health Care Task Force just split 7-5 in favor of a resolution by co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, opposing congressional health care reform legislation and backing Gov. Butch Otter in his fight against it. Cameron said he was “appalled” at what he said were constitutional violations in the House and Senate versions of the reform legislation, “including but not limited to violation in which the Congress itself is vacating its own powers or bestowing powers upon others that it holds.” He also said he thought it was unconstitutional to require people or businesses to buy health coverage, and that the changes would be costly to Idahoans. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I think that while there are undoubted concerns about the two bills that we know about, the House and Senate version, that we don’t know what health care reform truly looks like. … The resolution calling for a fight against a bill that doesn’t really even exist yet and hasn’t passed yet, I think is a bit premature.”

Rusche, a physician and former insurance official, said he also had some objections to wording in the resolution that he said was inaccurate. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said, “I believe that we should support the policy of our governor, which is the policy of most of us by the way, but I think we should make sure these numbers are right.”

Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, spoke emotionally. “Today when I look at this health care bill, I’m representing all those senior citizens who are so frightened out in my district and out in the state of what’s going to happen to them when they either have to pay higher taxes or lose services. We can’t afford to lose our senior citizens, no more than we can afford to lose our children. This is not the right bill for our people here and across the nation at this time. There has to be a better way of doing business so that the people who I talk to every day in my district, I can calm their fears. They’re scared.”

The task force then voted 7-5 in favor of a motion from Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, to send the bill to the full Legislature with a “do-pass” recommendation. Those voting yes were Cameron; McGee; Bilbao; Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene;  and Reps. Gary Collins, R-Nampa; Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls; and temporary Rep. Neil Anderson, who’s filling in for Rep. Jim Marriott, R-Blackfoot. Those voting no were Sens. Corder; Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston; and Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise; and Reps. Rusche and Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello.

Lawmakers raise questions about ‘Race to the Top’ grants

Members of the House and Senate education committees raised questions about state Schools Supt. Tom Luna’s application for federal “Race to the Top” grant funds at a joint hearing this morning. “I see a flaw in this process - at no point were legislators involved,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the Associated Press reported. Lawmakers also asked why some of the largest school districts in the state didn’t sign on, and they questioned the sustainability of programs developed with temporary grant money from the federal Department of Education. The Pocatello School District in eastern Idaho declined out of concern the money would require administrators to stray from their strategic plan and develop additional programs with short-term money; the Boise School District didn’t sign on for similar reasons, said Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

December shortfall shrinks to $12.6M

The early, preliminary estimate of a $13 million shortfall in December’s state tax revenues has now shrunk to $12.6 million, according to Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, Wayne Hammon. “That’s why we don’t release it, because it always changes,” he said. Yesterday, under questioning by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Hammon revealed the “incomplete preliminary” estimate that showed another shortfall in December. “It’s still likely to change,” he noted.

The biggest part of the $12.6 million shortfall was an $11.5 million drop from projected levels for individual income tax, and oddly, it was mostly in higher than expected refunds. December isn’t typically a big month for income tax refunds; the figure may reflect people who filed last spring and then amended their returns. Sales taxes, however, were very close to on-target, falling short for the month by just $100,000, Hammon said. “That’s really good,” he said, and it comes in a key month for sales tax revenues “So the bad news is we’re 12.6 million off. The good news is the two ongoing factors, sales tax and withholding, are right on target. So it validates (Mike) Ferguson’s belief that we’ve hit the bottom.”

The $12.6 million is still a preliminary estimate, not yet “scrubbed,” Hammon said. That means analysts haven’t finished going back through the numbers to see if any reflect one-time anomalies or other factors that should affect how they’re interpreted. Hammon predicted, “It’ll change, but it won’t change by a whole lot.”

Luna: Fed grant may be ‘only way we will get more money into public ed’

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees this morning that the federal “Race to the Top” grants - which are offering $4.35 billion in stimulus funds through competitive grants - may be “the only way we will get more money into public education in the next two to four years.” Does Idaho have a chance of getting the money? “We have a 100 percent chance of receiving nothing if we don’t apply,” Luna said.

So far, 63 school districts have signed on to the state’s grant application - that’s as of yesterday. The deadline is noon today. Idaho’s application includes a pilot project in incentive pay for teachers and principals. If the state gets the money, Luna said, “We will know whether pay for performance works in Idaho.” Also included are school improvement efforts; college and career readiness programs starting in middle grades; and dual credit opportunities. The first round of federal grants will be awarded in April; states that don’t get in on that can reapply in June.

State furlough hours already adding up

In the last two fiscal years, the state has laid off 295 employees, according to a report legislative budget analyst Keith Bybee just presented to JFAC. That was 149 in fiscal year 2009, and 146 so far in the current year, fy 2010. (Bybee cautioned that some of those figures could include some employees dismissed in other kinds of personnel actions.) In fy 2009, 4,536 state employees took 96,166 unpaid furlough hours - the equivalent of 12,021 unpaid days off. So far this year, 5,906 state workers have taken 136,525 furlough hours, or 17,066 unpaid days off. That’s as of now - just halfway through the fiscal year.

JFAC this morning is examining the impact of holdbacks and recissions on the state budget thus far. One issue agencies are facing: How to manage vacation and sick leave when workers already are having to take so much unpaid time off.

Senator: H&W furloughs a sign of things to come…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the new “Friday furloughs” that will close every Health & Welfare office in the state - except state hospitals - at noon every other Friday, and send employees home early without pay to save money. They start Jan. 22nd, a week from this Friday. “There are going to be a number of things like this that will have to take place with the budget situation,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, vice-chairwoman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee. “When all you’ve got left is payroll, you’ve gotta go somewhere.”

Reactions and reactions to reactions…

As reactions to Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State and budget message continue to ripple across the state, the Senate majority leadership this afternoon sent out a press release reacting to the House and Senate Democrats’ comments at a press conference this morning in which the minority sharply criticized Otter’s approach. “The statements and remarks of the opposition were contradictory, reckless and amounted to little more than nay-saying today,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian; you can read the majority leadership’s full release here.

Also today, GOP gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell held a press conference to offer his approach, releasing a paper entitled “The Rammell Plan” calling for eliminating the state’s personal and corporate income taxes, removing all state control of public schools and turning management over to local school districts, and turning over any assistance for the “poor and unfortunate” to private charities. Meanwhile, the Idaho AARP sent out its reaction piece yesterday, saying Otter’s address “held both promise and problems;” a group of nonprofits corralled by United Vision for Idaho watched the speech and sent out a press release criticizing what it called “advantage to the ‘haves’ at the expense of the ‘have nots,’” while calling on Otter and the Legislature to “open their doors and their minds to our organizations, to listen to different approaches, and to work with us for the common good.” And independent gubernatorial candidate Jana Kemp has sent out several releases in reaction to Otter’s speech; here’s her point-by-point analysis issued last night.

Candidates tout fundraising numbers

The deadline for filing campaign finance reports that cover the period through Dec. 31 hasn’t yet arrived, but two candidates already are releasing numbers. Keith Allred, Democratic candidate for governor, announced today that in the three weeks since he filed his declaration of candidacy on Dec. 10, 2009, through the close of the period Dec. 31, he raised $130,807. “I am honored and humbled by the support my campaign has received from across the political spectrum in Idaho,” Allred said in a statement. “In spite of, or maybe because of, the tough economic times, people are so excited about a new way of governing that they are eager to contribute.”

Vaughn Ward, a Republican candidate for the 1st District congressional seat, announced today that he raised “over $100,000” during the fourth quarter of 2009, with contributors during the quarter including First Lady Lori Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little. “I am very grateful that so many Idahoans have supported our campaign,” Ward said in a statement. “Idahoans from across the district are standing behind my leadership, experience, and vision to put our country back on track.”

Ward is vying against Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, in the Republican primary for a chance to take on 1st Congressional District Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick. Allred is one of an array of candidates seeking to challenge Republican Gov. Butch Otter; others include Republicans Rex Rammell, Sharon Ullman and Ron “Pete” Peterson; Democrat Lee R. Chaney Sr.; and independents Jana Kemp and “Pro-Life,” who was known as Marvin Richardson before he changed his name to the slogan. Otter hasn’t yet formally announced his candidacy, but has a campaign staff and has indicated he’ll seek re-election.

Legislative task force ‘punted’

“At the end of the day, we punted,” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Task Force to Identify Alternative Funding Sources for the Idaho State Police and Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation, told the Legislative Council. “We did not want to jump out ahead of the governor’s task force on alternative funding for transportation.” So, she said, the task force is recommending legislation to merely delay for another year a shift of millions in funding from ISP and parks to the state Transportation Department for increased road work. “That is the action that we’ll have to pursue this year, and hold them harmless for another year,” she said. The governor’s task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Brad Little, is due to report back on its findings in December of 2010.

Interim committees report back

Members of the Legislative Council are now hearing reports from each of the interim legislative committees and task forces, which have mostly modest agendas this year given the budget crisis. First up was Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, co-chairman of the Energy, Environment & Technology interim committee, joined by Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; they were followed by Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, and Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, reporting from the natural resources interim committee.

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, co-chair of the Soil Conservation Commission Interim Committee, said his panel drafted two pieces of reform legislation, but neither got much support. One would have made the existing commission a division in the state Department of Agriculture; the other would have put it under the governor’s office like the Office of Species Conservation. “This might be one of those issues that we beg leave to sit again,” Roberts told the Legislative Council. “We are still in the process of working on it. As we have found with school consolidation and we have found with highway district consolidation, they are very protective entities, they’re protective of the way they’ve done business in the past and trying to move to a different structure or a different level of accountability has been a very difficult task.”

Gov OK with H&W Friday furloughs

Gov. Butch Otter’s not surprised to see Health & Welfare order Friday furloughs for hundreds of employees, his press secretary, Jon Hanian, told Eye on Boise. “We, I think, knew that there was going to be a mix of these type of measures, and obviously we’re beginning to see that,” Hanian said. “We’re trying to get through this difficult time as best we can, while doing the least amount of damages to the services we have, and so I’m not surprised we’re starting to see this.” He added, “While it’s bad here, it’s nowhere near as bad as other states that are having to cut even deeper than we are.”

Health & Welfare orders ‘Friday furloughs’

All Idaho Health & Welfare offices except state hospitals will close at noon every other Friday for the rest of the year, and the employees will be on furlough for those half-days. Notice of the move went out to all of the department’s employees yesterday afternoon, after Gov. Butch Otter proposed an additional 1.6 percent holdback on the current year’s state budget. The “furlough Fridays,” as the employees are calling them, start on Jan. 22.

The department has nearly 3,000 employees, but 85 percent of its budget goes to benefit payments. Already, in holdbacks over the past two years, Health & Welfare has trimmed down its operating expenses to just 6 percent of its budget, said department spokesman Tom Shanahan, trimming things like travel and training until all that was left was office leases, utilities and hospital operations. That left personnel costs - 9 percent of the department’s budget - as the last possible place to cut. “There was really no place to go,” Shanahan said.

“The sad part is if you look at the record caseloads we’re seeing, it’s really difficult because we’re stretching our staff,” he said. “We’re seeing record caseloads in many areas. It’s not slowing down.”

In an article published in the department’s internal newsletter, to which all employees were alerted by e-mail yesterday afternoon, Director Dick Armstrong said, “The cold reality is we cannot continue to provide the same level of service with these personnel reductions. We are going to have to close our offices every other Friday afternoon for the remainder of the fiscal year to meet the objective.” He added, “There are details to work out, for there will have to be some exceptions to the office closure furloughs, such as at our institutions. But the majority of our workforce should begin planning now to take four hours of furlough every other Friday afternoon.”

Shanahan said the 380 workers at State Hospital North, State Hospital South and the Idaho State School & Hospital can’t take furloughs, “because we have minimum staffing criteria for those facilities.” And even with all the worker furloughs, the savings won’t be enough to meet the full mid-year holdback Health & Welfare expects  to face under the governor’s budget proposal: $1.6 million in state general funds, and additional savings will have to be found. Because state funds that Health & Welfare spends often are matched by federal money, the cut also will mean a $900,000 cut in federal funding to the department, for a total hit of $2.5 million this year.

Beyond the current year, additional cuts are likely in the next fiscal year that begins July 1, but Shanahan said the department doesn’t yet know whether they’ll translate into more furloughs. “We don’t know what for sure we’re going to do in 2011,” he said.

Democrats respond to State of the State

House and Senate Democrats gathered this morning to give their response to yesterday’s State of the State message, calling proposed cuts to education short-sighted and saying they favor using all available resources to help bring the state out of the recession. “The current budget crisis is a symptom, not a cause, of our problems,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche. “It is the result of a lack of vision and a seeming determination to drive an ideology rather than achieve results.”

Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said, “In these critical times, we should be expanding and enhancing our public schools, not dismantling them. Make no mistake: Our children and grandchildren will be hurt even more if this governor and Idaho’s Republican leadership continue their assault on neighborhood schools and higher education.” The Democrats said they’ll be proposing a package of legislation to promote jobs creation, and said they favor several steps to enhance state revenue short of tax increases: Hiring more tax auditors to collect uncollected taxes; reviewing existing tax exemptions and loopholes; collecting taxes on Internet sales; imposing user fees; rethinking the 2006 shift of school funding from property tax to state funds; and encouraging “green” energy development in the state.

The Democratic lawmakers filled one side of the new Senate minority caucus room for their press conference, while members of the press filled the other; in the corner and in the doorway were half a dozen Republican House members, listening in. Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said he attended the Dems’ event out of “a spirit of bipartisanship,” adding, “We’re interested in what they’re thinking - we need to work together. They had a couple good points. I particularly like the one about energy creation, I like that.” You can click here to read the Democrats’ full press release, or click here for their prepared remarks. And you can click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

December tax revenues less than expected, preliminary numbers suggest

Among the questions from JFAC members to the governor’s budget chief, Wayne Hammon, this morning: What are the December revenue numbers? They’re not in yet, Hammon responded, but against the advice of the state’s chief economist, he shared the preliminary figures, noting that they’ll change. They show that December fell $13 million short of the latest, revised forecast. “I would point out, one month does not a forecast make,” Hammon said. “December was not as good as we anticipated.”

In other questioning, Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked about the governor’s proposed elimination of the state parks department, the economic impact of park closures and the department’s possible merger with the Department of Lands; Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, asked about spending reserve funds (the governor would spend all but about $32 million by the end of 2011); Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, questioned cuts to higher education; and Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, questioned whether Idahoans really favor cuts to public schools, and asked if the governor understands “the degree of disrespect” to certain communities inherent in his proposal to eliminate state funding for agencies dealing with disabilities, Hispanic affairs and human rights. Hammon responded, “He’s aware of the challenges both real and perceived.”

Bell: IPTV deserves some state support

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked Wayne Hammon about the proposal to eliminate state funding for Idaho Public Television over the next four years, noting that three-quarters of IPTV’s budget already comes from other sources. “We have used general fund money to give them seed money, in order to be inventive and grow their budget,” she said, questioning how quality programming can be maintained if further cuts are made. Hammon responded that 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 said he doesn’t think IPTV gets credit for all the things it does, and perhaps it should be paid for some of those. If the network provides teleprompters for the governor’s speech, perhaps the governor should pay, he said. If it provides live broadcasts for the Legislature, perhaps the Legislature should pay.

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded, “Your visit with Rep. Ringo about public broadcasting showed that they really have a right to some general funds in what they’re doing - perhaps just a different way of reorganizing will help.”

Guv’s budget would give only CWI money for enrollment growth

Gov. Butch Otter is calling for a $1.05 million supplemental appropriation for enrollment growth at the College of Western Idaho, “and yet other higher ed facilities, we’re not addressing enrollment growth,” JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, just pointed out to the governor’s budget director, Wayne Hammon. “Help me understand your methodology there.” Hammond responded, “The governor supported the supplemental for CWI because of the tremendous growth there, nobody expected. Quite honestly, a million dollars is not enough … It’s just getting started and it’s doubled and tripled, the growth that they’ve had. … Now, all the institutions have some growth, some of them significant growth. We wish we could fund them all, but we can’t, so it just comes to a matter of we did what we could.”

Hammon: ‘Better to plan for worst’

In going over the governor’s budget proposal, Wayne Hammon, the governor’s budget chief, told JFAC that the governor thinks it’s “regrettable” that he’s proposing no pay raise for state employees. Legally required salaries for state elected officials remain in the budget. “The governor believes the state employees remain underpaid,” Hammon said. The governor’s also proposing putting on hold the University of Idaho’s Center for Livestock and Environmental Studies, saving $9.4 million in the general fund. “We just can’t afford it at this time,” Hammon said. “In future years we’ll seek to restore this funding.”

Hammon told lawmakers, “The governor agrees with legislative leadership that it’s better to plan for the worst and hope for the best, than it is to plan for the best and adjust it downward. … Overall, the entire budget recommendation reflects zero growth in general fund revenue.”

Full house for first JFAC hearing this morning

There’s a full house in JFAC this morning for the first meeting of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the panel that writes the state budget. After some preliminaries, the joint committee is now hearing from Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, about the governor’s budget proposal. This will be key lawmakers’ chance to question the governor’s staff about the proposals.

Interim committees to report today

From  2 to 4 p.m. today, all of the Legislature’s interim committees and task forces will present reports on what they’ve come up with since last year’s legislative session. The meeting will be in the JFAC room on the third floor; click here for the full agenda. Among those reporting: The energy, environment and technology committee; the natural resources committee; the soil conversation interim committee; the Indian Affairs Council; the health care task force; and the task force to identify alternative funding sources for Idaho State Police and Parks & Rec to replace a proposed fund shift to transportation; the panel instead decided to call for delaying the shift.

A budget full of cuts…

Gov. Butch Otter laid out a grim budget proposal for Idaho today, calling for cutting public education both this year and next, slashing 400 state jobs, phasing out state funding for Idaho Public TV over the next four years and more. Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com, and here’s a link to the full detail on Otter’s proposals: The text of his State of the State speech, and his full budget proposal, including documents, charts and graphs.

Among the details that can be quickly gleaned from these documents: For next year, FY 2011, Otter’s proposing a 1.2 percent cut in general-fund support for public schools; a 13.9 percent cut for colleges and universities; a 33.2 percent cut for Idaho Public Television; and an 11.2 percent boost for the Secretary of State. The reason: It’s an election year, and the figure reflects the one-time costs of holding statewide elections. The state’s prison system would see a 4.4 percent funding increase, while juvenile corrections would take a 9 percent cut. Public health districts would lose 11.1 percent of their state funding next year; Water Resources, 13.2 percent; DEQ, 9.2 percent; and the Department of Agriculture, 13.3 percent.

Allred: ‘A message of decline and retreat’

Keith Allred, former head of The Common Interest citizen group and now a Democratic candidate for governor, was in the Capitol rotunda after Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State address, and he was plenty critical. “Gov. Otter today delivered a message of decline and retreat,” Allred said. “Idahoans deserve better.” Click below to read his statement.

Guv fields questions after his speech

Gov. Butch Otter, answering questions from reporters in his office after his State of the State message, acknowledged that he’s set his proposed budget for next year at $83.4 million less than his economists expect from state tax revenues. “I just think that we’ve overguessed the last few years,” Otter said. He said he’d rather go in and replace money later with supplemental appropriations, than have to make more mid-year cuts. GOP legislative leaders said they, too, are skeptical about state tax revenues. “There’s just a real broad stripe of cautiousness,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke.

Otter also said his proposed elimination of the state Department of Parks and Recreation isn’t a sure thing; “right now … it’s conceptual,” he said. And he said he thought Idaho Public Television could survive his proposed four-year phase-out of state funding. “They really do have an opportunity to bring in outside money and to become self-sufficient,” he said.

Otter said, “To those folks who say, ‘Why are you cutting education?’ I say, Where else would you have me cut?” He said he believes dedicated teachers will still deliver good education, and local districts will do all they can.

Luna: Schools face difficult cuts

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year cuts $138 million out of public schools, on top of the $68 million that was cut this year. “That’s $200 million over two years,” Luna said. He said he’ll try to help lawmakers find ways to make the cuts without hurting student achievement, but warned, “Education is economic development, and we have to ensure that we don’t do long-term damage because it will have an impact on the economy.”

Luna said he thinks the Legislature “is going to have to immediately draft legislation which gives districts ultimate flexibility” to cope with the cuts, including an unprecedented mid-year $27.9 million cut this year. “It’s going to be very difficult,” Luna said. “I think that’s why we have avoided up to this point. If this is the only option at this point, then we have to give schools the flexibility to deal with it.”

‘Tough issues before us’

At the conclusion of Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message, in which he called for a no-growth budget for next year, House Speaker Lawerence Denney responded, “Thank you, governor. We’ll look forward to working with you to solve the tough issues that are before us.”
The no-growth budget would rely on the same revenue figure as this year - $2.349 billion - even though state economists expect more, and would set a general-fund budget for 2011 of $2.455 billion, down from this year’s original state general-fund budget of $2.5066 billion. The budget calls for no salary increases for state employees; and spending all but $32.8 million of the state’s reserve funds by the end of fiscal year 2011. The governor does, however, want to fund the scheduled increase in the grocery tax credit, which will cost the state about $15 million.

Guv to lawmakers: Make it short

“Legislative sessions have averaged 82 days over the past 20 years or so,” the governor told lawmakers. “Last year factors beyond our control pushed us about 50 percent over that average. I’m sure you share my hope today that - by sticking to our principles and core values - we can balance the scales and make this among the shortest, most congenial, most collaborative and most productive legislative sessions in our history.” Lawmakers responded with applause.

Otter speaks out against mercury dumping, health-care reform bills

“I will not allow Idaho to become the nation’s dumping ground for its elemental mercury,” Gov. Butch Otter declared in his State of the State message just now, saying he’ll continue his fight against federal moves to bring mercury to Idaho. Then he compared it to congressional health care reform legislation. “There is a similar policy-making sleight-of-hand going on with the federal administration’s efforts to foist the cost of a budget-breaking entitlement program onto our backs,” he said. “Thank you for supporting me and our entire Idaho congressional delegation in fighting against this wholesale assault on our self determination.” His comments drew sustained applause.

Some items Otter would fund…

Gov. Butch Otter called for funding to “handle the tremendous enrollment growth” at the College of Western Idaho; “fully funding our commitments to cooperative medical education programs;” continuing to invest in the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls; and to provide $1 million in Opportunity Scholarships for Idaho students. He also called for $1 million to continue implementing the Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan.

New $40M holdback would hit schools

On holdbacks, Gov. Butch Otter said, “As you know, the tiered holdback that I ordered in September gets us only part of the way to addressing the projected shortfall in our Fiscal Year 2010 revenue. I am asking you today to approve that holdback and to bring your collective wisdom and experience to bear on the remaining shortfall.” In his budget, he is proposing an additional $40 million, 1.6 percent holdback during the current budget year - one that would apply to public schools as well as all other agencies. That would mean a $27.9 million mid-year cut for schools. He also would tap $20 million from the state’s budget reserves to balance this year’s budget, making up for additional shortfalls as tax revenues have lagged.

On the new holdbacks, Otter said, “That is among the toughest recommendations I make today.” He said, “Legislative leadership and I are in agreement that public schools must participate in this new effort to respond to sharp revenue reductions by paring an additional 1.6 percent from our spending for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2010. Our proposal would look to local school districts for their specific ideas on how to best achieve the savings, including their discretionary use of local reserve accounts and - in extreme cases - advance future state funding.” He added, “This is not the course any of us would prefer to follow. It is unfortunate, but it is a temporary situation made necessary by our circumstances.”

Otter would cut 400 state jobs

“My budget eliminates more than 400 positions throughout state government - including about 375 that are now vacant, and consolidates some agency operations,” Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers. Twenty-five existing jobs at the state Department  of Parks & Recreation would be eliminated as the department is abolished and combined with the state Department of Lands; however, Otter’s budget allows for keeping the Parks Department in place if non-general funds can be identified to operate it. His budget also calls for a four-year phase-out of state general funds for Idaho Public Television and six smaller agencies, including the Human Rights Commission, the Hispanic Commission, and the Digital Learning Academy. The agencies wouldn’t be eliminated; instead, they’d operate with other funds.

Otter: ‘Sweeping changes’ that are ‘meant to be permanent’

The governor told lawmakers, “The budget recommendations I bring you today are based on the fact that it is not state government’s money. It is the people’s money. As a result, these recommendations are responsibly conservative. … They provide for a balanced budget, as our Idaho Constitution so wisely requires.” He added that his budget includes “some sweeping changes to the way we do business in state government - those changes are meant to be permanent, based on a philosophy of government that recognizes our responsibility to individual Idahoans rather than to government itself.”

Otter: Reports will call for tax incentives

The governor said he’ll “soon be submitting reports” from his business and innovation summits calling for eliminating the personal property tax; enacting tax credits for infrastructure construction investments; and creating a homebuyer tax credit like Utah’s. The reports will be submitted to the germane committees of the Legislature, Otter said.

Otter lists five priorities

Gov. Butch Otter listed five priorities, with the first being not to raise taxes. No. 2: Maintain some cash reserves. No. 3: Protect education. “As our recovery advances, one of our first priorities for new dollars should be our public schools and higher education,” he said. No. 4: Protect health and safety, “especially the neediest and most vulnerable among us.” No. 5: Avoid duplication and waste. “You will hear more about that in a few minutes,” he said.

Otter: ‘No. 1, we must not raise taxes’

“Number one, we must not raise taxes,” Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers. “It is not our place to impose an additional economic burden on the people of Idaho who already are struggling, or to put a damper on our economic recovery.” His comments drew a round of applause.

Otter: ‘We’re all in this together’

“We’re all in this together,” Otter told the assembled lawmakers, officials and onlookers. “We have the talent, the intelligence, the will and most of all the people to get through this - smarter, tougher, and better than ever, and we will.” He added, “It will require us all to look beyond the next election, and the next budget, to the next generation of Idahoans who will be reaping the harvest we sow, for good or ill.”

Otter arrives in the House chamber

Gov. Butch Otter warmly greeted lawmakers as he arrived in the chamber. Then he began by apologizing - because he said this will be his longest State of the State message. He joked that it might be longer than the session. The governor then introduced his 95-year-old mother, adding, “Mom, you don’t have to get up,” but she did.

Senators arrive in House chamber

Senators are filing in to the House chamber for the State of the State. There are greetings and camaraderie, but there’s also a solemn undertone - the governor is expected to announce sharp cuts in the state budget. Already, last week, he said he’ll impose an additional holdback on the current year’s budget in today’s speech - the speech will tell how much.

Incidentally, a note about the time stamps on this blog: While I’m blogging here in Boise in Mountain time, our servers are up in Spokane in the Pacific time zone. So the time stamp on each post shows an hour earlier than I’m actually posting.

Legislature convenes for 2010 session

The House has convened, and has made a formal presentation to an honor guard of the flag that will fly above the chamber, signifying that the Legislature is in session. In less than an hour, the full Senate, the justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and state elected officials will join the House in its chamber for the governor’s State of the State and budget address.

State responds to Pam Lowe’s lawsuit

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the state’s response to fired ITD Director Pam Lowe’s wrongful-termination lawsuit. The state filed its response over the weekend; it was filed by Newal Squyres of the Boise law firm Holland & Hart, who is the current president of the Idaho State Bar. He’s been designated by the state as a special deputy attorney general to handle Lowe’s lawsuit, which charges political pressure, sex discrimination and more in her dismissal; she was ITD’s first female director.

State: Law’s four grounds for ITD director dismissal are mere ‘examples’

The state of Idaho contends that the four grounds for dismissal of the state’s transportation director listed in state law are mere “examples,” and the state can fire its transportation director for any reason or no reason at all. “Although the statute provides examples of reasons for which the Director ‘may be removed by the board,’ including inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance, these terms are not a limitation on the board’s authority and do not alter the fact that Plaintiff served ‘at the pleasure of the board,’ ” the state argues in its response to a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in federal court by former Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe.

The law, Idaho Code 40-503, states, “The director shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.” Legal experts told The Spokesman-Review in August that Idaho’s law is contradictory, but suggests the four grounds are the only reasons a director may be fired.

Lowe has alleged she was fired, despite positive performance reviews, for resisting pressure to favor a politically well-connected contractor who was a big contributor to Gov. Butch Otter, and was discriminated against for her gender; she was the department’s first female director. Her suit notes that the board decided to pay her male replacement $22,000 a year more than it paid her. The board didn’t cite any of the four statutory reasons in dismissing Lowe, instead saying her firing would “help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature.” Click below to read more.

Here it comes…

Here’s a link to my Sunday story on the upcoming legislative session and its challenges. The Legislature convenes at noon (MT) on Monday, and the governor’s State of the State and budget address to a joint session is scheduled for 1 p.m. Mountain time, noon Pacific. Click here for live streaming from Idaho Public Television’s Legislature Live; click here for agendas and other info on the Legislature’s home page. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget, starts meeting at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

Thousands tour newly reopened Capitol

Thousands of Idahoans are streaming through their state capitol today, after a noon rededication ceremony that concluded when Gov. Butch Otter said, “I now declare the Capitol building officially open to conduct the people’s business.”

Crowds poured up the steps and through the second-floor doors, and as they passed inside, legislators greeted them, shaking hands and saying, “Welcome to your house.” The newly renovated Capitol, closed for the past two and a half years for restoration and expansion, drew exclamations and comments like, “Look at this!” Big crowds poured through the governor’s office where the governor and First Lady Lori Otter greeted guests and a guestbook soon filled with signatures; children lined up in the Secretary of State’s office to punch the official state seal onto paper for keepsakes.

Around the Statehouse, people marveled over a rediscovered, birdcage-like historic elevator on the first floor; a large, comfy auditorium in the new underground wings in which a video was showing about the renovation project; and the chance to take each other’s picture in the governor’s office, sitting in the Senate president’s seat, and around the elegant rotunda. A teenage girl hurrying up a staircase and talking on her cell phone said excitedly, “And I met the governor!” A new capitol gift shop on the “garden level” (basement) did brisk business in souvenirs ranging from Idaho State Capitol sweatshirts to keepsake wooden keys to the Capitol; musicians played in the garden level rotunda. The capitol remains open to the public for tours until 5 p.m. today.

Ready to reopen…

Idaho’s state Capitol has been renovated and shined up, but it still looks pretty much like it always has - except better. It’s cleaner and brighter, with more of the natural light it originally was designed to let in. It’s bigger, too, with the addition of spacious new underground wings with large hearing rooms to accommodate the public. Behind the scenes, it’s fully updated, and there are now things like handicap-accessible bathrooms on every floor and free Wi-Fi throughout the building.

The Capitol’s been closed to the public for two and a half years, but it’s almost ready to reopen. That process starts tonight with a reception for all the workers who worked on the renovation project and their families, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Then, tomorrow night, there’s a reception for all legislators, former legislators, state employees, and former state employees, according to state Capitol Commission member Stephen Hartgen. Then comes the grand opening to the public, starting with a 30-minute ceremony at noon Saturday on the Capitol’s south steps.

After the ceremony, the Capitol will be open to the public for tours all afternoon, with historical information, a short video and more. On Monday, the Legislature will convene and the Capitol will be back in full use again.

A newsy morning…

There’s been lots of news this morning, from Gov. Butch Otter’s announcement about coming holdbacks on schools to university presidents’ dire warnings about the impact of cuts on Idaho’s higher education. Meanwhile, the joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee continues to meet, taking testimony on the state of Idaho’s economy and how it should impact the state’s budget. You can read my full story on Otter’s announcement here at spokesman.com.

Officials: Higher ed needs its own stabilization fund

Officials from the UI and BSU say it’s time for Idaho to look into a stabilization fund for higher education, to protect colleges and universities from big budget hits from year to year. “We need to get away from this thing of higher ed essentially being the savings account that we use to balance the budget,” said Marty Peterson, special assistant to UI President Duane Nellis. Said former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, now with BSU, “There ought to be some way we can identify a revenue stream.”

Wins on field, but trouble in budgets…

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis opened his talk to the AP legislative preview this morning by congratulating BSU President Bob Kustra, who sat next to him, on BSU’s Fiesta Bowl win. “I think it’s just great for the state of Idaho,” he declared, noting that there aren’t many states that can claim two bowl game wins this year. The UI, of course, won the Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl in dramatic style. “For a state of our size to have two exciting wins, I’m just proud of Boise State and proud of the University of Idaho,” Nellis said.

That was the good news. Then, he started talking budget cuts. “We’ve already cut, just in the last year, about $20 million from our budget,” Nellis said. “Right now in places like China and India, they’re spending billions - billions - on higher education, while we’re disinvesting in higher education.” Kustra, too, spoke forcefully about the effect of cuts, warning that higher ed is becoming not a public good, but a “private good” for those who can afford it, “leaving behind legions of students who can’t.”

Moyle: Tax cut might not be ‘doable’ this year

In comments earlier this morning at the AP legislative preview, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, appeared to back off from a proposal he’s put forth to phase in big tax cuts, starting this year, by reducing Idaho’s individual and corporate income tax rates. With the revenue numbers, Moyle said, “We don’t know … if that’s going to be doable.” He added, “But it’s still something we would like to look at. … We’d like to do something to spur the economy.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “I think that that bill will be introduced and I think that there will probably be a very lively discussion about it.” Responded House Minority Leader John Rusche, “I think it’s irresponsible.”

Dems call for ‘tax fairness,’ vs. hikes

The Legislature’s minority caucuses aren’t calling for a tax increase, Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly  said. “There are many, many things we can do to improve our revenue picture without raising taxes,” she said. “We have a tax system that has been very, very poorly managed.” She mentioned looking at Internet sales, hiring more auditors for the state Tax Commission to collect unpaid taxes, rethinking the 2006 shift of school funding from the property tax to state funds, and re-examining existing tax credits, deductions and loopholes. House Minority Leader John Rusche mentioned local-option taxes. Said Kelly, “What we advocate from a revenue standpoint is tax fairness.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes responded, “Fair and equitable taxes … we’re for that, we like that approach.” But he added, “Every one of those exemptions have a huge constituency,” and said people wouldn’t want, for example, to pay sales taxes on prescription drugs. Geddes said the problem of collecting taxes on Internet sales is one that needs a national solution, and that “Idaho would be very hard-pressed to do something on its own.” Geddes said the question of “balancing the cost and the benefit” of additional tax auditors is one the Legislature always should be examining.

‘Great to have public back in the process’

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes noted that at this morning’s AP Legislative Preview, the new, spacious hearing room in the Capitol’s new underground wings was full to overflowing. “We chose the wrong hearing room,” he said, adding that now there are rooms big enough to accommodate crowds of the public. “It’s going to be a great thing for us as legislators to have the public back into the process,” he said. “It hasn’t been good for us for the last two years as we’ve worked out of the capitol annex. … This is a great hallmark for Idaho, to have a functioning capitol again.”

Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly agreed. “It’s really an icon of our democracy, and it’s so important to future generations that we made that investment,” she said. At that point, the agreement between the panel of legislative leaders from both parties ended, as Kelly criticized the idea of making cuts to education in Idaho. “That’s not the sort of leadership that we need right now,” she declared. Said House Minority Leader John Rusche, “We need to focus on wise budgeting, so that we’re not cutting to save money but we actually lose more in tax revenue.”

Otter favors holdback on schools

Schools would be hit by any additional holdbacks imposed this year, Gov. Butch Otter said just now in response to questioning from reporters at his news conference this morning. Asked if he supports a proposal GOP legislative leaders put forth in a Dec. 7 letter - to hit school districts with any additional cutbacks to be imposed now, but allow them to borrow from their state appropriations for next year if they need that to get through the cuts - the governor responded “Yes.”

Otter said, “We watch very closely what would happen if we didn’t have a safeguard for public education in growth.” He said he’s not backing off on protecting public schools from his September holdback by tapping $49 million from reserve funds, and House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Robert Geddes said they’re in agreement with that. Said Otter, “Any additional … they can borrow against future income.” He added, “We do know this - we do know that there are school districts that have reserves, and so if we have a holdback they’ll probably be able to handle any additional holdback from their reserves. But a school district that doesn’t have reserves, that’s when the mechanism that Bob and Lawerence” designed would kick in, he said.

Asked about state schools Supt. Tom Luna’s opposition to further cuts in schools, Otter said, “He’s doing his job. We we have to do our job - we have to have a balanced budget.”

Next year: ‘No-growth budget’

Gov. Butch Otter said, “On Monday we will be announcing for 2011 a no-growth budget.” He noted that even though he’s not imposed additional holdbacks on the current year’s budget since his September announcement of a 4 percent cut, state agencies have been put on notice to be ready for additional cuts of around 2 percent. “Even though there was no formal announcement, even though there was no executive order, that has been there for quite some time,” the governor said.

‘The percentage is - Monday’

Asked what percentage of holdback, or mid-year budget cut, he’s planning to propose for the state’s budget, Gov. Butch Otter said, “The percentage is Monday.” That’s the day he’ll make his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature and unveil his proposed budget for next year, along with further changes he’s proposing for the current year.

Otter: No holdback now, but will propose one when he presents his budget on Monday

Gov. Butch Otter just announced that he’s not imposing additional holdbacks now - but he will include a holdback in the executive budget he proposes to the Legislature on Monday. “It’s a necessary joint effort by myself and the Legislature,” Otter said. “We’ve worked on a few things. We don’t have total agreement. … I thought it was best to put that in the executive budget.” Click below to read the governor’s full news release.

Speaker, pro-tem urged across-the-board cuts

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Robert Geddes sent a letter to Gov. Butch Otter on Dec. 7 saying they thought an additional across-the-board holdback was needed on all state agencies including public schools, as first reported today by Dan Popkey in the Idaho Statesman. In September, Otter called for sparing schools from his mid-year 4 percent budget cut by tapping into state reserve funds for $49.3 million. The two legislative leaders proposed making loans to school districts that can’t handle additional cuts - but the districts would have to pay the money back to the state’s reserves out of their budgets for next year. Geddes told Eye on Boise that Otter chose not to impose additional budget cuts then because of the timing, with the holidays looming and the Legislature set to convene in just weeks.

Now Otter has scheduled an announcement for Thursday morning on the state budget, just days before he’ll unveil his proposed budget Monday to a joint session of the state Legislature. The governor’s unusual move comes after weeks of speculation among state lawmakers about how the state should make up a $51 million budget hole that was left over after Otter cut 4 percent - $99 million - from the state budget in September, with some calling for further cuts even before the session starts. The state also has more than $200 million in various budget reserve funds, but lawmakers are concerned they’ll need that money to balance next year’s state budget, after this year’s budget was balanced with the help of millions in one-time federal stimulus funds. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

ITD trims GARVEE bond proposal

The Idaho Transportation Board has trimmed its proposal for GARVEE bond-funded road work in the coming year from $45 million to $26 million, because of savings in the program, which has seen bids coming in much lower than expected. The bond program is funding several major highway construction projects around the state; $681 million in bonding has been approved by the Legislature to date. “The competition among contractors combined with the low interest rates makes this an ideal time to continue using GARVEE bonds to improve our roads and bridges and keep Idahoans working,” said Darrell Manning, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. The special type of bonds borrows against the state’s future federal highway allocations. Click below to read ITD’s full announcement.

‘Idaho has swung into positive territory’

Mike Ferguson, chief economist for Gov. Butch Otter, shared some of the most recent data on states’ recovery from the recession with the Legislature’s Joint Economic Outlook committee just now. Though Idaho was hit early and hard by the current recession, it appears to have hit bottom, he said. “Things do look as though they’ve turned a corner,” Ferguson said. “Now, it’ll take time … but the data is what it is, and it’s showing these positive indications. … Idaho has swung into positive territory, according to this measure. … This is that indication that we may well have seen a bottom.”

Some evidence of economic improvement has been seen already, he said, in the high-tech and energy sectors. “There are some positive signs,” Ferguson said. “I wouldn’t start popping champagne corks necessarily, but this is a really, really important development.”

Worst since the ‘40s, but signs of recovery…

In 2010, the state Department of Labor projects that 13 counties will have double-digit unemployment rates, with Clearwater County forecast the highest at 17.2 percent. In 2011, the department projects that 10 states will hit double digits, with Valley County highest at 16.9 percent. Said chief research officer Bob Uhlenkott, “The earliest department analysts expect to see year-over-year employment gains is into late summer or early fall of 2010, and a full recovery to pre-recession employment levels could be realized near the end of 2013. For those industries hit the hardest during the recession like construction, it could be after 2025 before we return to the employment levels of 2007.”

He said, “Idaho’s current recession has been the deepest we’ve felt since the 1940s, and while there are signs of economic recovery, no one has declared it officially over yet.”

First hearing opens in renovated Statehouse

The first legislative hearing in the newly renovated state capitol has opened, with the Joint Legislative Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee taking testimony on the state of Idaho’s economy, to help lawmakers decide where to set the state budget for next year. “Everyone’s rather speechless - it’s very impressive,” said committee co-chairman Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, as the hearing began in one of the spacious, dark wood-trimmed hearing rooms in the newly completed underground Statehouse wings - a big contrast to last year’s cramped meetings in the old Ada County courthouse building. Said Bayer, “It’s a challenging proposal that lies in front of us … a very formidable budget year.”

The first to speak was state Department of Labor chief research officer Bob Uhlenkott, filling in for a missing Bob Fick, who recently suffered a heart attack while visiting relatives and was unable to return to Boise in time. Uhlenkott’s news was mostly grim: The number of Idahoans working now is the lowest since February of 2002, and record numbers of unemployed people have forced both increases in unemployment taxes and cuts in benefits, which are dropping to mid-2006 levels. As of Jan. 4, Idaho had borrowed more than $108 million from the feds to continue paying unemployment benefits, and Labor expects that figure to rise to nearly $190 million by mid-2011.

“As a lagging indicator, we anticipate Idaho’s unemployment rate may continue rising slightly in the coming months, leveling off in the 8-9 percent range by the end of the second or third quarter of 2010 before beginning a slow descent and staying in the 8 percent range through mid-2011,” Uhlenkott told the lawmakers.

Groups cite government waste

Citizens Against Government Waste and the Idaho Freedom Foundation today unveiled a “2010 Idaho Pork Report,” pointing to ways the two groups said Idaho is wasting state and local taxpayer dollars and could make big savings. Among the suggestions: Cut health and pension benefits for state employees, though the state long has struggled with below-market salaries for state workers; eliminate Medicaid services that aren’t required by federal law; cut pay for the top-paid state employees; and stop funding programs ranging from support for the arts to the Commission on Hispanic Affairs to the Idaho Preferred program at the state Department of Agriculture. The report also calls for changing how Idaho teachers are paid, calling that “the porkiest plan of all” and contending that “Idaho dumps more than $756 million into teacher salaries.”

Wayne Hoffman, head of the foundation, also decried the fact that two state lawmakers who have missed all or part of two recent legislative sessions - one to care for his wife who was dying of cancer, the other for his own treatment for brain cancer - continued to receive state health coverage and pension benefits. The lawmakers both appointed substitutes to serve in their absence. Though changing that policy wouldn’t save any state money, Hoffman said it’s not “good for legislators to be gone for two legislative sessions and remain on the state payroll.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes said he welcomed such a report, though he questioned some of the proposals. “I think there are additional opportunities for us to find some savings and efficiencies in state government - the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” he said. “If they can find us examples where we can be more efficient … sign me up.”

Kemp launches independent campaign

Former GOP state Rep. Jana Kemp launched her independent campaign for governor today, addressing supporters at the Nampa Civic Center and saying she’ll run on “a platform of jobs, education, energy, fairness and responsibility.” Kemp cited a recent national poll showing most Americans don’t have faith in either party’s leaders to solve the nation’s problems. “This is the perfect time for an independent to run for governor in Idaho and the need has never been greater,” Kemp said in a statement. “We know the popularity of the Democratic Party isn’t high in Idaho and the infighting in the Republican party has created a lack of leadership and many pro-business, pro-entrepreneurial and very religious people feel the Republican Party has left them.”

Click below to read her full announcement, from her campaign Web site.

Macy’s closing downtown Boise store

It’s the last remaining department store in downtown Boise, and Macy’s, formerly The Bon Marche, is a downtown institution. But today the department store chain announced that it’s closing five stores around the country, including the downtown Boise store, as “part of the ongoing annual process to selectively prune underperforming locations while also opening new ones to fill gaps in local markets.” The chain also operates a bigger, newer store out at the Boise Towne Square mall; click below to read the company’s full news release.

Allred names campaign staff

Keith Allred, Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, has named former U.S. Attorney for Idaho Betty Richardson as his campaign manager. Richardson heads a Democratic Party candidate recruitment committee that helped persuade Allred, formerly a nonpartisan citizen activist, to become the Democratic standard-bearer. Allred also named these staffers: Shea Andersen, former editor of the Idaho Mountain Express and Boise Weekly, will be his press secretary; Democratic fundraiser Suzanne Gore will be his finance director; former Obama campaign state director Kassie Cerami will be his statewide volunteer coordinator; and Matt Compton, who managed T.J. Thompson’s successful Boise city council campaign last year, will be director of operations.

Allred previously named his campaign’s honorary co-chairs, former Gov. Cecil Andrus and former GOP Sen. Laird Noh; and his treasurer, former state Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise.

Idaho AARP: Otter wrong on health care reform

The AARP of Idaho is criticizing Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s threat to sue to stop federal health care reform legislation if it becomes law, saying it would hurt Idahoans struggling with health care costs; Otter made the threat last week in a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “To simply say ‘no’ to health care reform can only serve to make Idaho’s health care crisis worse, the cost of inaction on this issue is too high,” said Jim Wordelman, state director for the seniors group in Idaho. “We’re calling on Idaho’s elected officials to set partisan politics aside and work to make the final health care reform bill the best it can be – that’s what Idaho deserves.” AARP said 221,000 Idahoans are uninsured, though 88 percent of those uninsured Idahoans are employed. Also, about 27% of Idaho’s Medicare beneficiaries last year fell into the prescription drug coverage gap known as the “doughnut hole”, leading to high out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions; closing that hole has been a top priority for AARP in its work on national health care reform. Click below to read the full statement from AARP Idaho.

UI clears Bulgin of ‘scientific misconduct’

The University of Idaho has cleared professor and Caine Veterinary Center official Marie Bulgin of “scientific misconduct” after an inquiry into her writings and testimony denying that wild bighorn sheep contract disease from domestic sheep, despite earlier research by the center showing such a link. Bulgin is a former president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

A tale of big money gone bad…

Here’s a link to my full story on the class-action lawsuit against Credit Suisse over an alleged “predatory” lending scheme involving four failed luxury resorts, including Tamarack Resort in Idaho, the Yellowstone Club in Montana, Lake Las Vegas in Nevada and Ginn Sur Mer on Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas. Duncan King, a spokesman for Credit Suisse in New York, told Eye on Boise this morning, “We believe the suit to be without merit, and will defend ourselves vigorously.” He had no further comment.

Tamarack, near Donnelly, Idaho, was touted as the first new four-season resort developed in the U.S. in decades, with extensive skiing, golf, hiking and mountain biking trails, hotels and high-end real estate. But its financial failure left unfinished buildings, unpaid contractors and unhappy owners holding pricey slopeside homes. This year, Tamarack’s ski lifts never opened for the season.

Credit Suisse, which the lawsuit accuses of racketeering, conspiracy, fraud and more, is the second-largest bank in Switzerland.

$24B lawsuit filed against Credit Suisse

A group of property owners from four luxury resorts - including Tamarack Resort in Idaho - has filed a $24 billion class-action lawsuit against Credit Suisse, alleging that the big Swiss bank engaged in a “predatory” lending scheme designed to force all four resorts into foreclosure and acquire the pricey properties for pennies on the dollar, while raking in “enormous” fees. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boise, alleges racketeering, conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and more, and seeks billions in damages, including $150 million each for the states impacted by the failed resort projects. The resorts, in addition to Tamarack, are Lake Las Vegas in Nevada; the Yellowstone Club in Montana; and the Ginn Sur Mer resort in the Bahamas.

Seven attorneys from California, Nevada, Texas and Idaho are listed in the complaint; none are commenting on the case, but the group issued a press release accusing Credit Suisse of “naked greed,” and said the bank’s scheme artificially inflated the value of the resort properties with the intention of then foreclosing on the debt-saddled owners. Also named as a defendant is Cushman & Wakefield, the real estate services firm that appraised properties for Credit Suisse, using a “total net value” appraisal methodology. Incidentally, the “naked greed” phrase in the press release is a quote from a federal bankruptcy judge in Montana, who wrote in a May 2009 court order that the bank’s actions in the Yellowstone Club case “shocks the conscience of this court,” adding, “Credit Suisse lined its pockets on the backs of the unsecured creditors.”

You can read the full federal court complaint in the class action suit here - it’s 81 pages long - or click below to read the press release from the plaintiffs. The two named plaintiffs, L.J. Gibson and Beau Blixseth, represent a group of about 3,000 homeowners, landowners and investors in the four resorts, according to the complaint.

The Boise attorney involved in the lawsuit is former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, who has been involved in two previous national class-action lawsuits. One of those, on behalf of 19,000 hemophiliacs who contracted the AIDS virus from the nation’s blood supply decades ago, resulted in a $640 million settlement from drug companies. The other, regarding people who got hepatitus C from an immunoglobulin product, represented about 6,000 patients who each received significant settlements, including a Boise plaintiff who won a $2.34 million verdict.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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