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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 18, 2010

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.”

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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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