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Eye On Boise

Archive for April 2011

Tonight is the last ‘Idaho Reports’ of the season

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Kevin Richert and host  Greg Hahn for this year's final show, in which we discuss the school reform turmoil and referendum campaign, wolves, nullification and more; also, Greg interviews state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m., then re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific; it also can be seen online at www.idahoptv.org.

Rammell poaching trial delayed for investigation into possible jury tampering

Here's the latest Rex Rammell news, via the Idaho Falls Post Register and the Associated Press: A state judge has delayed the poaching trial of former gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell to investigate if Rammell broke another law when he handed out leaflets to potential jurors in the case as they were entering the courthouse, offering them advice it said “judges may not tell you.” Really. Click below for the full report.

Third Conoco megaload to hit road tomorrow

The third ConocoPhillips megaload is scheduled to leave Lewiston on Saturday and head across U.S. Highway 12 en route to Billings, Mont., the Idaho Transportation Department announced today. This comes as an Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaload remains parked 5 miles this side of the Montana border, awaiting better weather to travel. ConocoPhillips got approval from the state for four giant loads of refinery equipment; it's already sent two of those. Exxon is in the midst of a contested case hearing over its request for more than 200 more giant loads; the one permit it's received is for its “test validation module,” a test version of its megaloads that's been stalled on the route for the past two weeks. Click below to read ITD's full news release.
  

National experts on redistricting and state politics to converge on Boise tomorrow

An array of national experts on redistricting and state politics will speak at a free conference Saturday at the state Capitol sponsored by Boise State University. It's the second piece of a two-part series; the first, on April 16, focused on redistricting in Idaho. At this Saturday's session, speakers will include Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures; Harvard University senior research scientist Micah Altman, who focuses on the intersection of information, technology, and politics; Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, a nationally known expert in election law and redistricting; Priscilla Southwell, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Oregon; political scientist Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University and the Brookings Institution; University of Texas-Austin political scientist Jason Casellas, an expert on Latino politics and legislative politics; Peverill Squire, professor at the University of Missouri and an expert on state legislatures; and more.

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the state Capitol Auditorium. More than 100 students are enrolled in the two-session conference for credit, but it's also open to the public for free; there's more info here, and you can watch it live online here.

Steele saga unfolds in court…

Wild stuff continues to come out in the Edgar Steele murder-for-hire trial in federal court in Boise; here' s a link to today's full story from S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff, which includes testimony from Steele's wife, Cyndi, the victim of the alleged plot; she defends her husband and maintains he's innocent. There's more at Meghann's “Sirens and Gavels” blog here, including today's revelation that Steele sent more than 14,000 emails to European women through a Ukrainian online dating site.

ISP says it’s had ‘intel’ about ‘threats’ to megaloads

Idaho State Police Capt. Lonnie Richardson told a hearing officer at the Highway 12 megaloads contested-case hearing today that ISP has received “intel” about “people who may want to interfere with the loads.” He said, “There are organizations who would like to disrupt the movement of the load either by means of personnel or more severe.” Richardson declined to provide more information, saying the intelligence was “confidential information.” He said, “There have been threats,” and said, “Everybody has got a different definition of terrorism.”

Richardson said ISP has agreed to provide one to four officers per load to escort the giant loads as they move across the twisting, two-lane highway, blocking both lanes. The troopers who are escorting the megaloads aren't off-duty, he said. “The technical term is on-duty officers on overtime,” Richardson said. “If our officer is in uniform, working in a car, he's not considered off-duty.” That's despite the fact that the megaloads hauling firm is paying for the officers' overtime; it pays ISP, and ISP pays the officers. “They are on duty,” Richardson said. The service is voluntary for the officers, he said.

There are only 17 ISP trooper positions in the five-county region; two of those are currently vacant and a third officer is deployed to Iraq on military service. Earlier in the hearing, there was testimony that up to three loads could be on the highway at any one time as Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil moves its 200-plus loads over the next year and a half, but Richardson said he thought there'd only be one at a time. If there were three, he said, “we could not do four (officers) per load.”

Testimony: Traffic, trucks delayed up to an hour as first megaloads traveled

At the contested-case hearing on Highway 12 megaloads today, Janice Inghram of Grangeville, who has a photography and video business in the area with her husband, testified that as the three megaloads that already have traveled proceeded along the route so far, she experienced six traffic delays of up to an hour. Under cross-examination, she acknowledged that three of those times, she was observing the delays, rather than being delayed herself; and that she went out the nights of the loads' travel to observe them and videotape them. After traffic finally was allowed to move after an hour delay the first time that Inghram encountered a load in early February, she testified, an 18-wheeler and six logging trucks were among the other vehicles delayed.
  

Test megaload delayed again…

The “test validation module” for 200-plus Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil Highway 12 megaloads will stay where it is - in a chain-up area at milepost 169.1, about five miles west of the Montana state line on Highway 12 - until at least Monday night, ITD has announced, due to “potential inclement weather.” Weather permitting, it'll head into Montana Monday night or early Tuesday morning, the transportation department said.

Meanwhile, as the contested-case hearing on permits for the giant loads continued in Boise today, several ITD officials testified and were questioned by both sides. Attorneys for megaloads opponents quizzed them about delays and problems with the three megaloads that already have traveled on the route, while the officials maintained the projects were under control; the permits don't permit traffic to be delayed by the giant loads for more than 15 minutes, but those loads caused numerous longer delays. Also today, Highway 12 resident Vickie Garcia testified and showed a video of the confusion as a megaload traveled up the route. The hearing will continue on Friday. At issue is whether the oil company should get the go-ahead to ship its giant loads across the Idaho route from the Port of Lewiston to Montana, then up to Canada for the Alberta oil sands project.

Fire season outlook: Not bad here, not good down south…

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey joined Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson today for a tour of the National Interagency Fire Center, from which nationwide wildland firefighting operations are coordinated, and a briefing on this year's fire season. The verdict so far: It's looking grim for the southern tier of the United States, but not bad at all in the northern tier, where huge amounts of moisture promise to delay the start of the wildfire season well beyond normal.

In the Northwest, Salazar said, “We may not have as many fire threats as we have in other places.” However, Abbey cautioned, “It's one thing to make predictions in April. … A lot can change in a very short period of time.” Among the possibilities: The very moisture that's dampening fire risk now could promote so much growth in grasses and brush that come August or September, when that foliage dries out, fire risk could jump. “It's still important for individual homeowners to take responsibility for defensible space around their own homes,” Abbey said. “All of us have a responsibility.”

The nation already is seeing significant fire danger - and some major, active fires, including destructive and spreading blazes in Texas - in New Mexico, Texas, southern Colorado, Oklahoma, and southern Florida, Salazar said. Within 30 days, Abbey said, the risk will spread to Arizona, southern California and Nevada. Salazar called NIFC in Boise “the heartbeat of how we deal with fires” throughout the nation, and said Idaho's lucky to have it here. The multi-agency facility coordinates fire operations from smokejumper crews to aircraft to weather-forecasting services. “This truly is an example of how government should work,” Simpson said. “Many different agencies come together here and work in coordination.” Click below for a Department of Interior press release on the visit.

Judge rejects gag order in prison violence case

A federal judge has sided with the Associated Press and rejected Corrections Corp. of America's request for a sweeping gag order in the lawsuit over prison violence at Idaho's privately-run state prison, the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Test megaload stalls again, this time due to snow

The Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil “test module” that's demonstrating how the biggest megaloads will fare on U.S. Highway 12 won't travel tonight after all, ITD has announced, because forecasts call for snow near Lolo Pass. Weather permitting, the giant load, now stopped just short of the pass at milepost 169.1, will start up again on Thursday night. The test load stalled for two weeks after its first night of travel, after clipping a guy wire and knocking out power to two Idaho towns.

Megaloads testimony: ‘We learn the most from setbacks’

Today's testimony in the Highway 12 megaloads contested-case hearing has wrapped up, but lawyers aren't done questioning ITD motor vehicle administrator Alan Frew, who'll be back for more in the morning. Here, the lawyers huddle to go over tomorrow's schedule at the conclusion of today's testimony; in the background is the hearing officer, retired Judge Duff McKee. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Frew, in his testimony today, said, “I believe that the test validation module is serving its purpose. It hasn't completed its move throughout the state, but it's well on its way. There was a great deal learned.” That module, which is designed to match the dimensions of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's tallest, longest and widest megaloads of oil equipment, stalled for two weeks after knocking out power to two Idaho towns; it resumed travel last night, after 16 utility lines were raised and after extensive tree-trimming in the scenic river corridor. “It's unfortunate, but we seem to learn the most from setbacks,” Frew said, “I was very concerned about the setback. It was unexpected and unfortunate. But we learned a great deal from that, and in my mind, it ensures the safety of the remaining move and the remaining moves.”

Asked by megaloads opponents' attorney Laird Lucas how many more megaloads are coming as part of the Exxon project, Frew said, “In my memorandum of decision I identified 200-plus moves.” The number could grow, he said, depending on how many loads the company chooses to cut in half. “That's kind of a moving target,” he said.

Under questioning, Frew said ITD has discretion to deny an over-legal load permit on the basis of public convenience, but he's not aware of the department ever doing so.

First day of murder-for-hire trial a doozy

The first day of the Edgar Steele murder-for-hire trial in federal court today was a doozy. After opening arguments, initial witnesses included Larry Fairfax, the hit man-turned-FBI-informant, who told the court, “Mr. Steele was getting agitated, and he said if i didn't take care of the job he would find someone else to do the job, and me.” Jurors also listened to tapes of conversations between Steele and Fairfax about a plot to murder Steele's wife, Cyndi, and her mother.

In the first conversation, on June 9, Steele is heard agreeing to give Fairfax a $400 “advance” to pay for his trip to Oregon City, where Cyndi Steele was visiting her mother. Steele tells Fairfax, “I'll take it out of your … hide; you gotta get this job done.” He said a car crash could trigger an insurance policy payment. “You've got a big payday riding on this one. I've set it up that way on purpose,” Steele says; you can read more on S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff's “Sirens and Gavels” blog here.
  

IEA files suit to challenge SB 1108, the teacher-contracts bill

The Idaho Education Association filed a lawsuit in 4th District Court in Ada County today challenging the constitutionality of SB 1108, the bill to remove most collective bargaining rights from Idaho teachers, and related “trailer” bills including one adding an emergency clause to that measure. “Because the Legislature, Gov. Otter and State Superintendent Luna failed to listen to the voices of Idaho citizens and, in the case of SB 1108 and the trailer bills, overstepped their legal bounds, the IEA supports citizen efforts to place referenda on the ballot challenging the Luna laws,” said Sherri Wood, IEA president.  “Likewise, we will challenge the constitutionality of SB 1108 and the trailer bills.”

You can read the group's legal complaint here, and its news release here, and read our full story here at spokesman.com.

Frew takes stand at megaloads hearing

Alan Frew, motor vehicle administrator for the Idaho Transportation Department, has been called to testify at today's contested-case hearing on the proposed Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaloads on U.S. Highway 12. Frew is the one who signed off on the memorandum of decision to grant the permits. At the earlier contested-case hearing on the much smaller, four-megaload project proposed for the same route by ConocoPhillips, Frew is the one who testified that ITD decided to authorize barricading of turnouts along the scenic highway to prevent “nuts” from impeding the shipments.

So far, in response to questioning from ITD attorney Tim Thomas, Frew has said he believes the department has complied with all its rules and procedures in considering the ExxonMobil proposal. “The only necessary route that we could see was U.S. 12,” Frew said. He also said he doesn't think the megaloads can be further reduced from their current size, though Exxon currently is doing so for 33 loads in Lewiston so they can take a different route. “We are aware that the atom has been split, but we're not looking to do that with these loads,” Frew said. “It is impractical to reduce them further than what they already had been produced at. It takes a bunch of man hours, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of added equipment, and much, much more added cost.”

Steele trial revs up in federal court

There's pretty wild stuff coming out in federal court in Boise today at the Edgar Steele murder-for-hire trial; you can read about it at S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff's “Sirens and Gavels” blog here. In federal prosecutor Marc Haws' opening argument, he told the jury it'll hear tapes of Steele discussing the plot to kill his wife, Cyndi, with hit man-turned-FBI-informant Larry Fairfax. Asked by Fairfax if he has any second thoughts, “Mr. Steele says, 'Have you seen a second thought in me yet?'” Haws told the court. Also on the tape, he said Steele says, “I want this over with. There ain't no second thoughts.”

Steele's wife is supporting his innocence claim; the two say it's all a government set-up. A pipe bomb was found attached to the bottom of Mrs. Steele's car when she took it in for an oil change in Coeur d'Alene. The defense is now giving its opening arguments; today is the Steeles' 26th wedding anniversary.
  

Megaloads: ‘A game changer for Alberta’s oil sands developers’

Among documents shown as exhibits in the contested-case hearing on Highway 12 megaloads today is a 2009 report from Mammoet Transportation, the hauler for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, provided to the Idaho Transportation Department, on the route for a “test validation module” that's currently traveling across the route to demonstrate the feasibility of the huge oversize transports on the twisting, scenic highway.

The “Validation Module Route Study & Execution Plan,” in its preface, says, “The Snake River route will be a game changer for Alberta's oil sands developers. With access to the west coast, development schedules become more predictable and construction costs are sustainable based on global rates for materials and labor. Development of a 'high load' corridor from Lewiston, ID to Fort McMurray, AB will provide the states of Idaho and Montana an opportunity to participate in development of the oil sands. This proposed route execution strategy can provide a template for permanent route infrastructure development.” You can read the preface here.

Of power outages and tree-trimming…

Asked about the incident in which the ExxonMobil “test module” for its megaloads transport knocked out power to two Idaho towns, ITD District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff said the load immediately was pulled over at a nearby turnout and the road was closed. “We sat there for, I want to say, 40 minutes, 50 minutes, with the road blocked, until we could get confirmation that we could actually move traffic through there safely without anybody getting harmed,” Hoff said. “They had told us that the whole route was clear for this height of load. We asked them to provide a report.”

During the two-week delay that followed that incident, extensive tree-trimming also was conducted along the route, Hoff said. It was done by a tree-trimming service, Asplundh, that was a subcontractor to Imperial Oil. “The trees have been partially trimmed,” Hoff said. “What that means is Asplundh has gone through and trimmed the trees such that they would allow for the … test module to go through without damaging, breaking limbs, branches as they move through. From a couple of pictures I've seen that has left the trees looking not quite aesthetically pleasing. All along, we've been working with the Forest Service. … We've got a good relationship with them. They wanted to be assured that we would come back and trim up the trees so that they would look aesthetcially pleasing for that route.” Hoff said he doesn't know when that will happen. The first round of tree-trimming concluded April 24, he said.

Test megaload traveled 100+ miles last night

After a two-week delay, the “test module” for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's giant loads of oil equipment traveled more than 100 miles on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho last night, ITD reports, and reached a chain-up area near the Idaho-Montana border. The megaload arrived at milepost 169.1 at 4:03 a.m. today.

Unlike the first leg of the module's trip, in which the rig broke a power line and knocked out power to two Idaho towns for five hours, last night's leg was uneventful, ITD reported. The test module is scheduled to start traveling again at midnight tonight, weather permitting, and proceed into Montana.

Megaloads testimony: ‘Potential for them to possibly get stuck’

ITD District 2 Maintenance Engineer Doral Hoff is testifying at the megaloads contested-case hearing this morning, answering questions from ITD attorney Tim Thomas about the transportation plan that the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's hauler, Mammoet Transportation, submitted to ITD. “The main purpose of the transportation plan is the safety and convenience of the public,” Hoff said. “What we mean by that is, is the public not going to be delayed more than 15 minutes. And how can we do that safely.” That included questions about contingency plans, Hoff said. “The loads do take up the entire roadway, and there were a number of locations throughout the route … where there was a potential for them to possibly get stuck between the guardrail and the rock face, or if there was a mechanical breakdown.”

Test megaload to resume travel tonight

ITD reports that a “test module” for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's giant loads of oil equipment will begin traveling on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho again tonight, after stalling for two weeks. The rig was halted at milepost 61 after causing a power outage April 11 that hit residents of two Idaho towns for five hours; 16 utility lines now are being raised to allow the load to pass without causing further outages, ITD reports. Extensive tree-trimming also has been conducted in the scenic highway corridor. The test load is scheduled to leave milepost 61 at 10 tonight and travel to milepost 139.

Megaloads hearing wraps up second day

The contested case hearing on Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's plan to run 200-plus giant megaloads of oil equipment across scenic U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho has wrapped up its second day, after a full day of testimony. In the morning, ITD employee Regina Phipps was questioned about the permit process; she was followed by University of Montana economist Steve Senninger, who addressed the impact of the region's tourism economy. In the afternoon, two of ITD's bridge experts testified; they were called as witnesses by both ITD and the megaloads opponents.

Laird Lucas, attorney for the opponents, said they don't question the department's bridge engineering studies. “I think it's clear that ITD put a lot of work into assuring that the loads can cross the bridges on Highway 12 without them collapsing - I don't think anybody questions that,” he said. “What we're questioning is the long-term impacts to the highway from carrying such heavy loads and the numbers that are headed (there) today. I think those facts were established at the hearing today.” On Wednesday, ITD officials including Doral Hoff from the Lewiston region and Alan Frew, who signed the decision to permit the megaloads, are scheduled to testify.

Calendar says winter’s over, regardless of how it feels…

It may seem awfully wintry for late April, but ITD is sticking to the calendar - studded snow tires must be removed in Idaho before this Sunday, May 1. Violations can bring an infraction fine of $62. Idaho allows studded tires only from Oct. 1 through April 30 each year, and unlike Oregon and Washington, which both extended their deadlines for removing studded tires this year because of the lingering winter driving conditions, Idaho's sticking to the plan.

Utah allows studded tires only through March 31; Nevada through April 30; and Montana through May 31. Wyoming? They're legal there all year round.

Military families invited to camps, outings by ‘Operation: Military Kids’

Idaho military families are being invited to sign up for free or low-cost family summer camps, day camps and outings, through the “Operation: Military Kids” program sponsored in part by the University of Idaho. The camps are open to all branches of guard, reserve, active duty and their families, and are part of a national Department of Defense-funded grant program to states to support families of deployed members of the military; children attend free, and must be accompanied by an adult.

The camps include the North Idaho Military Family Camp at Camp Lutherhaven near Coeur d'Alene June 24-26; the Central Idaho Military Family Camp near Ketchum July 22-24; a Yellowstone Family Outing on Aug. 21 and more; the program says each is designed to be “fun, friendly, stress-reducing and memorable.” For more information, go to the program's website or call 334-2328.
  

H&W layoffs draw age discrimination lawsuit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is being sued by five former workers who say they were laid off because they were closer to retirement and had higher wages than their colleagues. The workers, all from north-central Idaho and eastern Washington, filed the age discrimination lawsuit in Lewiston, Idaho's 2nd District Court. The Lewiston Tribune reports that the workers say they were among 126 employees laid off last year amid budget cuts and office closures around the state, and that the department selected older employees for the layoffs. Juanita Hatke, Judi Lupinacci and Candace Maurer of Lewiston, Patricia Wilkinson of Kamiah and Barbara Swearingen of Clarkston, Wash. are asking for damages in an amount to be proven at trial. They are represented by Lewiston attorney Scott Chapman.

Big loads, big issues…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the news from today's megaloads hearing, including ITD's contention that it wouldn't be “practical” to require the giant loads to be cut down and run on routes other than scenic, winding U.S. Highway 12 - even though the company that's planning on sending the loads is doing just that right now for dozens of them. Today was the first day of a contested-case hearing that's expected to last at least through the week; at stake is Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's plan to run more than 200 giant loads of oil equipment from Lewiston across Highway 12 to Montana and then up to the Alberta oil sands project; the loads are so large they'll block both lanes of the two-lane highway, creating a rolling roadblock.

Megaloads hearing wraps up for the day

The megaloads contested-case hearing has wrapped up for the day, at 4:30 p.m. Boise time, and will take up again tomorrow morning at 9; ITD official Regina Phipps will continue her testimony then. The hearing is scheduled to last all week and possibly into next week.

Otter on Marek: ‘A tragic loss’

Gov. Butch Otter has issued this statement in reaction to the recovery of the body of miner Larry “Pete” Marek, who had been missing for more than a week after a cave-in at the Lucky Friday Mine in North Idaho:

“With the news of Mr. Marek’s death, we extend our prayers and empathy for the family and the community of friends and co-workers. It is a tragic loss for Idaho’s historic mining community, and a personal loss for family and friends. It also is a stark reminder of the harsh realities that generations of mining families have proudly faced as they made their lives and their livelihoods in the Silver Valley. To everyone involved – the leaders in Mullan, Shoshone County and at Hecla who coordinated rescue and recovery efforts, and the volunteers, neighbors and others who kept vigil for Mr. Marek and his family – First Lady Lori and I offer our sincere sympathy and our heartfelt condolences. We pray they know they are surrounded with love and support during the difficult days ahead.”

Megaloads hearing examines precedent…

Regina Phipps, vehicle size and weight specialist for the Idaho Transportation Department, is the next witness called at the contested case hearing on U.S. Highway 12 megaloads, which is scheduled to run all week and possibly into next week. Among the issues that have been raised so far today are the precedent that the megaloads set, and whether they'll turn the scenic byway into an industrial “high and wide” corridor. Laird Lucas, attorney for the megaload opponents, noted that in addition to the first two megaloads already run across the route by ConocoPhillips and the 200-plus that Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil wants to send - the topic of this hearing - Korean firm Harvest Energy already has contacted ITD about another 60 possible megaloads next year.

“We had a meeting with them, yes,” Phipps told Lucas. “They have not made any formal request for permits at this time.”

When lawyers for ITD objected to references to the possible Harvest Energy megaloads, they were overruled. “They know these are lined up,” Lucas told the hearing officer, retired Idaho District Judge Duff McKee. “Judge, this kind of goes to the core of our case. If ITD isn't going to evaluate what these massive shipments are going to mean for Highway12 as a wild and scenic highway, we've got a real problem, because it is a special place that deserves at least to have honest assessment of what is going to happen up there.”

Brundage to extend skiing to May 15, a record

With the wintry conditions, Brundage Mountain got 3 inches of snow this morning and has announced it'll extend its “bonus” late-season weekend openings through May 15 - and maybe even further, if conditions warrant. “We have an extremely healthy snow base, and it actually continues to get deeper,” said resort spokeswoman April Russell. “We’ve watched over ten feet of snow fall in March and April and we’ve seen very little spring melt-off this year. We continue to get fresh snow every week and conditions have been stellar for our first two Bonus Weekends.”

The McCall ski resort now has 94 inches of snow at its base and 133 inches at the summit; there's more info here. The extension of skiing to May 15 would be a record; Brundage, which is marking its 50th season this year, had its latest closing ever in 2008 on May 10th.

ITD official: ‘Doesn’t seem to me practical’ to cut down megaloads

Under questioning from Laird Lucas, attorney with Advocates for the West representing megaloads opponents, ITD official Reymundo Rodriguez said the department was advised the ExxonMobil is reducing the loads already in Lewiston so they can travel by a different route, rather than on U.S. Highway 12. “But it doesn't seem to me practical for them to reduce it when they're still ending up the same width as they were before,” Rodriguez said. “We've been told it's 2,000 to 4,000 man-hours and it costs $500,000 a module.” ITD didn't investigate those estimates, he said. “We went on their expertise, as far as I know.”

In its brief submitted for the hearing, Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil wrote, “Even though Imperial is physically able to disassemble each modular unit at substantial cost, that does not mean the units are 'reducible.' … This effort is and continues to be a substantial and costly undertaking by Imperial and it is estimated that it will cost in excess of $500,000 and significant man-hours to reduce the heights of each module unit. Thereafter, the unit will have to be reassembled when it reaches its destination.”

Megaloads hearing takes back up; thunder rumbles, rain and hail fall…

The contested case hearing for the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaloads has taken back up, with Michael Sasser, attorney for Mammoet Transportation, the trucking contractor for Imperial/Exxon, continuing the questioning of ITD official Reymundo Rodriguez. Sasser put a copy of the over-legal permit up on the screen and questioned Rodriguez about its provisions.

As the hearing got rolling, a wave of rain and hail hit loudly outside, and thunder rumbled noisily.

Megaload opponents call ITD official, who says not ‘practical’ to cut down loads

The opponents of the Highway 12 megaloads have called their next witness, but he's also an ITD witness: Reymundo Rodriguez, the ITD's motor carrier services manager. So ITD attorney Tim Thomas will conduct the direct examination, and the megaload opponents will do the cross-examination.

Rodriguez cited the rule that governs the issuance of over-legal load permits: “The primary concern of the department in the issuance of overlegal permits shall be the  safety and convenience of the general public and the preservation of the highway system.” He said that's what his office looked at in reviewing the megaload permits. “We have them traveling at night when traffic is lowest on U.S. 12,” Rodriguez testified, in response to questions from Thomas. Rodriguez said he thought the permit conditions protected the highway system and public safety and convenience “at a high level.”

In its brief submitted for the hearing, ITD argued that it can't “restrict commercial travel to protect the scenic appeal of the area, the current business environment in the area, and to insure uninterrupted sleep of individuals choosing to live in close proximity to the highway,” saying, “These types of policy considerations and additional restrictions on commercial travel are not within the bounds of discretion that can be exercised by the Department.” Only the Legislature could decide that, the department argues.

Rodriguez said the megaloads could be reduced in size, but to do so wouldn't be “practical.” Dozens are actually being cut down now to take alternate routes. In its brief, ITD wrote, “In this case, due to the significant time and costs associated with the reduction in size, it is not practical nor reasonable for the Department to require that the modules be reduced further in size.” Rodriguez said Exxon told ITD it would cost $500,000 per load to reduce the loads' size further. The hearing has now gone on a lunch break until 1:30, when Rodriguez' testimony will continue.
  

Hwy 12 lodge: ‘Largest tourism investment in Idaho County in 20 years’

Peter Grubb, co-owner and operator of the Riverdance Lodge and ROW Adventures, a whitewater rafting and fishing outfitter, is the next witness called at this morning's contested case hearing on the 200-plus proposed megaloads that Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil wants to haul across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho. Grubb said he's been a Forest Service licensed outfitter on the Lochsa River there since 1984, and purchased the Riverdance Lodge property in 2002, opening it as a resort with eight custom log cabins, each with its own hot tub, in 2005. Between 1,200 and 2,000 people a year go on his company's outfitted river trips, Grubb testified.

Grubb said, “We made the largest tourism investment in Idaho County in at least 20 years when we built that lodge. … This was certainly the biggest financial gamble, risk that my wife and I ever took.” He said people come to his lodge because “it's a beautiful place, primarily.” Asked about the importance of Highway 12 to the business, he said, “Highway 12 is the lifeblood of our entire operation.”

He said his firm and three other river outfitters use turnouts along the highway to access the river, as do fishermen, other whitewater rafters, campers, hikers and others. “There's no way around these loads when they're on the road,” Grubb said. He said he has a permit to use turnouts along the route for his river outfitting trips, but the ITD's permit terms for the megaloads would allow the giant loads to pull off and sit in turnouts for as long as 24 hours, blocking them.

Megaloads hearing opens…

The contested case hearing on the proposed 200-plus megaload shipments of oil equipment across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho has opened at the ITD headquarters this morning, with retired Judge Duff McKee, second from left, presiding as hearing examiner. The first witness is Ruth May, at right, who owns and operates the Reflections Inn, a bed-and-breakfast inn, on Highway 12 11 miles east of Kooskia. May said her inn offers “a quiet getaway on the scenic river.”

May said, “We have no way in or out except Highway 12.” Sometimes, guests have had medical emergencies and had to leave in the middle of the night, she said; the same has been true in her own family. When one young woman guest was suffering a stroke, May said she told the woman's husband to “put her in the car and drive to Orofino immediately” while she called the hospital there. “It takes 45 minutes just for an ambulance to get up there,” May said.

When one of the attorneys for ITD objected to mention of the scenic byway, saying the highway's designation as a scenic byway is irrelevant to the permit issue, McKee overruled the objection. May then testified that the wild and scenic river corridor and scenic byway designation - which she said prevents her from so much as cutting a tree or painting a building a different color without getting a permit - are key to the success of her business. Attorney Natalie Havlina then displayed a photo May took last Friday of extensive tree-trimming being done right across from May's inn; it's being done to accommodate the ExxonMobil test module. May said the trimming, which the photo shows removing all the lower branches of a tall tree, is unsightly and wouldn't have been permitted by the Forest Service had she requested to do it in the scenic corridor; you can see a photo here. May said when the ConocoPhillips megaloads went by her inn, traffic was held up for 45 minutes to an hour.

Rusche: Otter veto ‘prevented legal mayhem’

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a pediatrician, is praising GOP Gov. Butch Otter's veto of HB 298, the grandson-of-nullification bill on health care reform, saying, “Gov. Otter prevented legal mayhem - for that he is to be thanked.” He has concerns, however, about the executive order Otter signed the same day he vetoed the bill, echoing many of the bill's provisions but allowing waivers with his personal signoff; click below to read Rusche's full op-ed piece.

Idaho Reports: Redistricting will redraw Idaho’s political landscape

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Ken Miller and host  Greg Hahn to discuss the upcoming redistricting that could change the political landscape in Idaho for the next decade. Also, Greg interviews former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, former redistricting commissioner Tom Stuart and BSU political scientist and redistricting expert Gary Moncrief. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m., then re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific; it also can be seen online at www.idahoptv.org. There are also two “Web Extra” programs of the continued discussions after the show; you can see them at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.

Session’s tally: 335 of 336 bills that passed both houses became law

Here's a  link to my full story at spokesman.com on how final piece of legislation from Idaho's  tumultuous 2011 legislative session has been allowed to become law without the governor's signature, adding a one-year phaseout to a funding cut for school districts that lose enrollment from one year to the next. That makes a total 335 of the 336 bills passed this year that Otter's allowed to become law, four of them without his signature; he vetoed just one.

Dems name redistricting commissioners

Idaho Democrats have announced their three appointments for the 2011 Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan citizen committee that will draw new legislative and congressional districts lines this summer for the next decade's worth of elections. Republicans haven't yet announced their three picks. The Dems' choices: Allen Andersen of Pocatello, who was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai; Julie Kane of Lapwai, the choice of House Minority Leader John Rusche; and George Moses of Boise, selected by state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant. Click below for the Democratic Party's full announcement.

The reason: Otter didn’t like phaseout of 99% funding floor for school districts

Gov. Butch Otter's education adviser, Roger Brown, says the reason Otter decided to let HB 315 become law without his signature was that he “wasn't crazy about” its provision for a one-year phaseout of the 99 percent funding floor for school districts; the bill creates a one-year, 97 percent funding floor to ease the transition as that funding protection goes away. “If the districts were going to get all these new tools and all this ability to manage those contracts, and we have technically the ability now to follow our students in real time and more closely link the funding to the student, then there's no need for the 99 percent protection,” Brown said. But, he said, it was “important to some of the legislators who worked so hard on this.”

Otter didn't have a problem with the bill's other piece, Brown said, which removed a requirement to pay 10 percent severance payments to teachers laid off in the fall due to unexpected drops in enrollment.

Otter allows school-funding floor bill, HB 315, to become law without his signature

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has allowed HB 315, legislation from Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, regarding school funding and teacher contracts, to become law without his signature. There's no word yet on why the governor took that stance, which signals he had a problem with the bill but still opted to let it take effect. Roberts' bill, which you can read here, provides a one-year partial phase-out of the current state funding provision that protects school districts that see sharp drops in student enrollment from one year to the next from correspondingly sharp swings in their state funding; until now, those districts were eligible for 99 percent of their state funding the year before as a “floor.” Under HB 315, next year they'd be eligible for 97 percent, and after that, there'd be no more funding “floor” protection.

The bill also eliminates a provision of SB 1108, one of state schools Supt. Tom Luna's school reform bills, that would have ordered 10 percent severance payments to teachers laid off in the fall as a result of enrollment drops. SB 1108 is the same bill that eliminated the 99 percent funding floor.

So far this year, Otter has signed 332 bills into law, vetoed one, and allowed three others to become law without his signature. The earlier ones were HB 17, a measure from the Idaho Transportation Department to have Idaho comply with federal rules on reporting of medical conditions by holders of commercial drivers licenses - if Idaho didn't comply, it stood to lose a big chunk of its federal highway funds; HB 144, restoring the slice of the state's fuel tax distribution that helps fund the Idaho State Police and state parks trails programs - Otter had sought to shift those costs two years ago as part of his bid to increase highway funding; and SB 1071a, providing for the display of the POW/MIA flag; Otter said he wanted broader rules allowing for more display of the flag, something he'll propose next year.

The one bill Otter vetoed: HB 298, the final version of the “nullification” bill on national health care reform; he replaced it with an executive order with some of the same provisions; you can read that here.

Guv declares May ‘Lupus Awareness Month’

May will be “Lupus Awareness Month” in Idaho, under a proclamation signed this morning by Gov. Butch Otter, to draw attention to what Otter called “an important public health issue.” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said her 12-year-old granddaughter died of the disease in 2005, just six months after being diagnosed. “It is devastating to those who have it. It is devastating to their families,” Broadsword said. “I hope all Idahoans realize how this can impact lives, and forming groups in their area can support those who have the disease.”

As he signed the proclamation, Otter acknowledged Idaho support groups for sufferers of the deadly disease, including the Treasure Valley Lupus Now group, which can be reached at 250-8699. As part of today's events, the Lupus Foundation placed purple flamingos near the capitol to draw attention to the disease and increase public awareness as part of its “Wings for Lupus” fundraising campaign.

Broadsword said her granddaughter would have graduated from high school next month, had she lived. “The disease attacks the organs of those who have it,” she said. “Often you can't tell from the outside there is anything wrong.” There's more information about the disease here.

Federal judge steps down from prison lawsuit

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has agreed to step down from the lawsuit over conditions at a violence-ridding Idaho private prison at the request of the lockup's operator, Corrections Corp. of America, the Associated Press reports. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

State Board endorses faculty shake-up at ISU

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Faculty governance at Idaho State University is in for a shake-up under a plan endorsed by the state Board of Education. The board voted Thursday to allow the university to move forward with the election of new faculty leaders within the next two weeks. That follows the board's decision in February to dissolve Idaho State University's previous Faculty Senate, which been at loggerheads with school President Arthur Vailas and voted “no confidence” in him. Vailas faced mounting criticism and pressure from faculty to step down, but board members threw their support behind the embattled school president at the Pocatello-based campus. With the board's approval, the university is now expected to elect a temporary Faculty Senate to adopt a new constitution and bylaws within one year.

Guv cancels planned ‘Capital for a Day’ in Mullan next week

Gov. Butch Otter has issued this statement: “In light of the recent accident and continuing rescue efforts under way at the Lucky Friday mine, out of respect for the community and in consultation with the City of Mullan and Hecla Mining Co., the Governor is postponing his scheduled April 27th Capital for a Day in Mullan. We hope to reschedule it in May at a date to be determined.”

College tuition, fee hikes approved

The Idaho State Board of Education has voted to approve, as requested, proposed tuition and fee increases from the state's four-year colleges and universities: 8.4 percent at the University of Idaho; 7 percent each at ISU and LCSC; and 5 percent at Boise State University. “The institutions have a very difficult challenge,” said state board President Richard Westerberg. “Declining funding from the state of Idaho places more burden on students and their family. The proposals before us today reflected a cooperative effort between administrations, faculty, staff and students.” You can read the board's full announcement here.

Then, the state board heard from and questioned state schools Superintendent Tom Luna about his “Students Come First” reform plan, including online course requirements; some members expressed reservations about setting a rule requiring online courses before a state task force finishes studying the issue, while others supported more online courses sooner. The board asked its staff to look into the process it should follow, and said it may hold a special meeting on the matter this spring; then on Thursday, it appointed board secretary Don Soltman to work with staff on that. “Don's going to take a couple of weeks and get with staff and work with all of us on, is this possible, in terms of meeting the time requirements to have a rule before the Legislature in January and all of that,” said board spokesman Mark Browning. The board may form a task force, but it's “not yet constituted,” he said. Far from being “up and running” on developing a rule, Browning said, “We're still trying to figure out where we're running to.”

Otter on veto: ‘No one has opposed Obamacare more vehemently than me’

You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on Gov. Butch Otter's first - and only - veto of legislation this year, in which he vetoed the final version of the health care reform “nullification” bill, HB 298. Otter said Idaho can set up its own health care exchange regardless of the national law - and if it doesn't, under the law, the federal government could step in and set up Idaho's exchange as the feds see fit. Otter said he was for the idea of an exchange “before the concept was co-opted by the national government,” and declared, “No one has opposed Obamacare more vehemently than me.”

Otter’s veto message…

Here's a link to Gov. Butch Otter's veto message on HB 298, the final version of the “nullification” bill on the national health care reform law. “Even though I vetoed the bill today, I have issued an executive order … prohibiting state agencies and departments from implementing Obamacare, while allowing us to develop our own health care solutions,” Otter wrote. “That avoids the unintended consequences of this legislation and strikes an appropriate balance between achieving the spirit of HB 298 - which I support - and my desire to not capitulate to the national government.”

This is the first and only bill Otter has vetoed this year, from all the legislation passed in the 2011 Idaho legislative session.

Otter vetoes final version of nullification bill

Gov. Butch Otter has vetoed HB 298, the final version of a much-debated legislative effort to “nullify” the federal health care reform law; the bill declared that Idaho wouldn't comply with discretionary provisions of the law for one year, made various declarations, and prohibited the state from accepting federal money to implement the federal law. Here's a link to the bill. An earlier version that sought to declare the national law void passed the House despite two Idaho attorney general's opinions warning that it violated both the U.S. and Idaho constitutions and lawmakers' oath of office; after that bill died in a Senate committee, HB 298, variously described as “grandson of nullification,” “nullification-lite” and the “watered-down” version, passed both houses.

Newest state board member: Goesling, of Moscow

As the Idaho State Board of Education meets today to consider student tuition and fee increases at the state's colleges and universities, it has a new member: William H. Goesling of Moscow, a former Naval aviator and educator and retired financial consultant, has been named to the board by Gov. Butch Otter, to replace Moscow attorney Paul Agidius, whose term expired March 1. Click below to read Otter's full announcement of the appointment.

State board considering student tuition, fee hikes at colleges and universities

Here's a link to the live webcast of today's State Board of Education meeting in Moscow, at which the board is considering proposed student tuition and fee increases at Idaho's colleges and universities. Lewis-Clark State College, which is presenting now, is seeking a 7 percent increase, as is Idaho State University; BSU wants 5 percent, and the University of Idaho is looking for an 8.4 percent increase. (Note: If the webcast is playing music, they're on a break.)
  

Otter signs wolf disaster bill into law despite separation of powers concerns

Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 343, the wolf disaster emergency bill, into law despite concerns he expressed in a two-page letter about the bill. “My concerns with the legislation are not whether it is an appropriate response to the devastation that wolves have caused,” Otter wrote in an official signing letter to Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “I understand and share the frustration of Idahoans over the impact wolves have had across our state in the past 16 years. However, I am concerned that H343 is largely unnecessary, and it unintentionally infringes on the statutory authority of the governor to declare disasters.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Nevertheless, he signed it into law. Otter said in his letter that the Legislature “has agreed to work with me next session to fix the provisions that infringe on the authority vested in the governor to declare disasters,” and, he said, “portions of this bill may prove useful in the future if state management is revoked or the species is relisted under the Endangered Species Act.” Under congressional legislation authored in part by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson and signed into law by President Barack Obama last week, wolves are being removed from endangered species protection in Idaho. Otter wrote, “I have asked the IDFG to focus on resuming state management of wolves pursuant to our state management plan.” You can read Otter's letter here; and click below for his news release.

Syringa Networks appeals to Idaho Supreme Court in IEN bid lawsuit

Syringa Networks is appealing to the Idaho Supreme Court the dismissal of its lawsuit against the state of Idaho over the award of a multimillion-dollar contract for the Idaho Education Network. The firm contends that its bid would have cost the state less than the contract that was signed with Qwest Inc. and another firm; and alleging wrongdoing on the part of former Idaho Department of Administration chief Mike Gwartney. You can read Syringa's explanation of its appeal here, and its notice of appeal here.

New Tax Commish chief’s state-paid moving expenses ‘like the old riddle’

When new state Tax Commission Chairman Bob Geddes was appointed, he was in Boise serving as a ninth-term state senator; two years earlier, he'd sold his house in Soda Springs and bought a home in Meridian, but he was still renting a home in Soda Springs. Under state policies, Geddes was entitled to reimbursement for his moving expenses for the job, including one-way transport of two vehicles.

But since he was in Boise, he had to go back to Soda Springs in eastern Idaho each time he packed up and moved household items from there to Boise; as a result, the $1,861.66 in moving expenses he submitted violated the state's rules for two reasons: It included trips that weren't from the old to the new location (because they were round trips from Boise), and Geddes wanted to bill the state for another trip this spring to pick up and trailer back his antique car, a 1930 Model A Ford. The other vehicle he moved was his pickup; that's not counting his car, in which he and his wife drove to Soda Springs twice for the move and she drove back each time while he drove a rented U-Haul van one time and the pickup the other time.

Variances from the state's moving-expense policy for top workers can be approved by the state Board of Examiners; in submissions to the board, Geddes noted that he made his move affordable by packing and moving himself in a U-Haul, and said, “The timeliness of this move allowed me to save at least two months of home rental payments in Soda Springs.” The appointment came up unexpectedly in the  midst of the legislative session, he said.

“I know that this entire process seems like the old riddle of how to get a goat, fox, chicken and a rattle snake across the river in a canoe by making the least number of crossings and with nobody being eaten,” Geddes wrote. “My riddle was to go to Soda Springs, rent a moving van, move household belonging to Boise and two vehicles in the least number of trips. I believe I solved the riddle in the most cost-effective manner for the state of Idaho.” However, a subcommittee of the Board of Examiners determined that the antique car didn't qualify for a $526.20 moving expense reimbursement,  “because it is for the move of a non-household item.”

So Geddes submitted a revised request, and today, the Board of Examiners voted unanimously to approve reimbursement for the extra trip legs between Boise and Soda Springs, for a total of $436.80. That means Geddes' total state-reimbursed moving expenses came to $1,335.46, since the antique-car portion was removed. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who serves on the board, said, “There are some extenuating circumstances that justify the expenses,” including the “very short time frame” Geddes was given to switch jobs while required by his previous post to be in Boise for the legislative session. “So there is good justification for the exception from the standard policy.” Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who also serves on the board, noted the exclusion of the other $526.20. “I think we've made the frugal choice and the wise choice on these exceptions,” he said.

Priest, Payette lake cabin owners get two-year extension, but at higher rent

Though the Idaho Land Board voted in December to offer cabin owners on state land at Priest and Payette lakes new 10-year leases at a rental rate of 4 percent of the land's value per year, rather than the current 2.5 percent, that hasn't happened yet as two lawsuits are pending over the issue. So today, the Land Board voted unanimously for a two-year lease extension for the cabin sites, at the 4 percent rate; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“We need a short-term solution,” state Lands Director George Bacon told the board. All of the 10-year cabin-site leases were set to expire in December, but the state granted a one-year extension under the previous lease terms, at 2.5 percent rent. Now, it faces an April 30 deadline to provide notice of what will happen next year, in 2012. “The obvious comment is that we're in the middle of litigation, and this is a way to meet the deadlines and have this go through the next two years,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “I think we're in a corner. This is the way out of it for a while. … I think this is the best we can come up with.”

While agreeing to raise the rental rates for the land on which lessees have built their own cabins, the Land Board in December also voted to move away from the current “split ownership” arrangement, in which the state owns the land while the cabin owners own the buildings on it. That would mean, over time, either letting the cabin owners buy the land or acquire it through land exchanges; or the state buying out the improvements. The state Constitution requires state endowment land to be managed for maximum long-term returns to the endowment's beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools; that's been at issue with the rental rates charged to longtime cabin owners.

Meanwhile, the Land Board also voted today to move forward with auctions of three cabin sites at Payette Lake, including one on the lakefront. Two of the three leaseholders, including the one on the lake, have simply decided to stop paying their leases and given them up; the lake lot has a small cabin on it, while the other lot has just a shed, owned by a neighboring landowner who held the lease. The third cabin site had its lease canceled a year and a half ago for non-compliance with lease terms; all three sites will go on the auction block for bidding by prospective new lessees in August.

Lost goat wanders into E. Idaho music store

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and KIFI-TV:  AMMON, Idaho (AP) — Stop me if you've heard this one: A goat walks into a music store. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but that's exactly what happened at the Piano Gallery in the southeastern Idaho town of Ammon. KIFI-TV reports the goat followed a woman and her child into the store on Monday. Maybe it was looking for some sheeeet music. Clerk Lorri Bridges says the goat was just adorable. The staff corralled it in a bathroom until animal control arrived. The goat, dubbed Beethoven for its apparent love of music, is being held at the Idaho Falls Animal Shelter. If it isn't claimed, someone is ready to adopt it.

State endowment fund made 23.1% so far this year, making up past years’ losses

It's been a good year so far for Idaho's permanent endowment fund, with earnings on investments through March 31 at 23.1 percent, Larry Johnson, manager of investments, reported to the state Land Board this morning. That's since the start of the fiscal year on July 1. The past month saw a 0.4 percent increase, though Johnson noted there's been a small loss since then. The permanent endowment fund now stands at $1.26 billion, which is up 5.6 percent from five years ago, showing that this year's gains have made up past years' losses.

‘Fracking’ rule adopted unanimously

With no discussion or debate, the state Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, which consists of the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the state superintendent of public instruction and the state controller, has voted unanimously to adopt as-is a proposed temporary rule on “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing in gas well drilling, without any of the changes proposed by the Idaho Conservation League. Controller Donna Jones made the motion; she'd earlier tried to make the same motion before the commission had heard any of the testimony before or against the rule.

Afterward, Gov. Butch Otter shook hands with Justin Hayes of the ICL and told him, “Justin, thank you - keep an eye on it.” Hayes responded, “We'll try - we could use a little help.”

ICL: ‘You can’t clean up an aquifer once you’ve fouled it up’

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League told state officials, “What we don't want is to have a problem develop because it wasn't being closely regulated, because, as we've heard time and time again, you can't clean up an aquifer once you've fouled it up.” When it comes to something like injecting fluids deep into the ground through “fracking” as part of gas well drilling, Hayes said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Idaho's temporary rules on fracking should contain those “fences,” he said.

“The goal here is not to stop people from trying to do things. The goal is to give them certainty so they know what is an option for them to do responsibly,” Hayes said.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden then quizzed Bridge Energy officials about Hayes' proposed amendments to the rule. Kim Parsons, exploration manager for Bridge Energy, said her company wouldn't know what was allowed or not under the limits on fracking compounds Hayes proposed, and couldn't define what is “carcinogenic,” “teratogenic” or “mutagenic.” She also said, in response to a question from Wasden, that her firm plans only vertical drilling, not horizontal.

‘Even Twinkies could be carcinogenic’?

State Lands Department staffer Eric Wilson said it would be a broad restriction to ban the use of carcinogenic compounds from being injected into groundwater in “fracking” fluids. “I think even Twinkies could be carcinogenic if you eat enough of them,” Wilson said. He said “some pretty harmless compounds” generally are being used, and there's a federal prohibition against the use of diesel fuel. Idaho specifically prohibits the injection of volatile organic compounds like benzene and tolulene, he said.

Kim Parsons, exploration manager for Bridge Energy, told the state's top elected officials, who are sitting this morning as the state Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, that the company has been “very clear” on excluding dangerous substances from its fracking fluids, and “we by no means intend to inject it into our precious groundwater.” She said, “I do believe that we exhibit the highest quality of groundwater protection of any industry in the county.” The company's projects could affect Canyon, Gem, Payette and Washington counties.

ICL proposes amendments to ‘fracking’ rule

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League has proposed several amendments to the temporary rule on “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, that's pending before the state Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. They include banning the injection of carcinogenic or toxic compounds into groundwater; banning horizontal well drilling, which no one has yet proposed in Idaho; and prohibiting fracture lengths exceeding 150 feet from the well bore. He also proposed additional bonding requirements to protect nearby water right holders from impacts. “These amendments are meant to be friendly amendments, not meant to hinder the development and extraction of natural gas over the course of the next year,” Hayes said. “We are seeking some simple prohibitions that are designed to protect water quality.”

The temporary rule is a placeholder while more detailed, negotiated rules are developed. State Lands Director George Bacon said, “I think that the department has an opportunity through the permitting process, and it certainly is our intent, when proposals for hydraulic fracturing and injection of materials move forward, the rules do provide that we have to approve what they use.” He said, “We will certainly be vigilant … until we get a more formal, larger set of rules.”

Gas wells, fracking issues draw crowd

There's a full house this morning as the Idaho Land Board meets as the state Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, to hear items including a recommendation from a hearing officer with regard to a spacing order requested by Bridge Energy, and a temporary rule regarding “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing. Bridge Energy wants to drill more gas wells closer together than current rules allow; a public hearing on the request was held March 31 at the Nampa Civic Center.

George Bacon, state Lands Department director and secretary for the board, said many have raised concerns that don't relate directly to the questions before the board. Among those protesting the spacing request was Melinda Harper of Idaho Rural Water, who said the quality of drinking water for New Plymouth could be threatened, and residents haven't received sufficient information about the proposal and its impacts. However, the board, without debate, voted unanimously to approve a hearing officer's recommendation to approve the request, which would allow four wells per square mile, rather than just one per 640 acres. It's now taking up the fracking issue.

Montana judge halts megaload road prep, but says test module can go

A Montana judge has halted work on highway upgrades to allow giant megaloads of oil equipment to travel through the state from Idaho to Canada, but he will allow the “test module” that ExxonMobil currently is running across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central idaho to proceed to Lolo Hot Springs; the test rig has had an uneasy journey so far, stalling after snapping a power line and cutting off power for five hours to two Idaho towns. The judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Montana roadwork until a lawsuit challenging the giant loads' route through Montana can be heard; click below for a full report from the Missoulian and the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports that members of the Idaho Transportation Board will hold a “meet and greet” with the public from 9:35 to 10:05 this morning at Moscow City Hall in preparation for a public question-and-answer forum on megaloads in Moscow that's tentatively set for May 11.

Of politics, power and brinksmanship…

When lawmakers were considering the fate of Idaho's renewable energy sales tax rebate, a lobbyist for a major wind developer told them that without it, hundreds of millions worth of his company's projects in Idaho would be canceled. The rebate was killed by one vote in the final moments of the session, but the wind energy firm has retreated from the threat. AP reporter John Miller reports that the brinksmanship is nothing new to the Idaho Legislature, especially when millions are at stake - grocery chain Albertson's Inc. did it in 2005, threatening then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's administration it would move elsewhere without lucrative concessions. Lawmakers went along, but Albertson's was sold just months later to an out-of-state competitor. Click below for his full report.

Best, worst, or something else?

The conclusion of this year's legislative session has prompted widely differing takes on how it went, from Gov. Butch Otter giving lawmakers a grade of “A” to Senate Democrats' pronouncement that the session was the “worst in memory.” On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television, editorial writers from around the state weigh in, and Times-News editorialist Steve Crump, Post Register editorial writer Corey Taule in Idaho Falls, Jim Weatherby and I join host Greg Hahn to discuss some of the fallout. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m., then re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific; it also can be seen online at www.idahoptv.org.

In wake of school reform bills, campaigns gear up, levies sought

“Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform” began collecting signatures today on referendum petitions to overturn this year's three major school reform bills, SB 1108 on teacher contracts, SB 1110 on teacher merit pay, and SB 1184 on funding shifts for technology. Mike Lanza, a Boise father of two and chairman of the group, said, “The referendum effort is now fully under way.” The group has launched a website here. Meanwhile, the Idaho Education Association's delegate assembly voted today to endorse the referendum drive; and up in North Idaho, the West Bonner County School District joined the ranks of districts around the state planning to ask local taxpayers to approve increased property taxes in May to help cope with state funding cuts.

“If our levy doesn’t pass on May 17th, we will most likely go to a 4-day week, end all co-curricular/sports for our students, and all employees will take something in the range of a 20% pay cut,” wrote West Bonner Supt. Mike McGuire in a note to his local lawmakers. “Also, we will be forced to consider elimination of several teaching positions (probably at the secondary level) within the new legislative guidelines and force our students to take online classes.”

Also, a group called “RecallTomLuna.org” that's seeking to recall state schools Supt. Tom Luna and two state lawmakers is planning events around the state Saturday to kick off its separate petition drives.
  

Now that Obama’s signed bill, wolves could be off endangered list in 60 days

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Federal wildlife officials say they will take more than 1,300 gray wolves in the Northern Rockies off the endangered species list within 60 days. An attachment to the budget bill signed into law Friday by President Barack Obama strips protections from wolves in five Western states. It marks the first time Congress has taken a species off the endangered list. Idaho and Montana plan public wolf hunts this fall. Hunts last year were canceled after a judge ruled the predators remained at risk. Protections remain in place for wolves in Wyoming because of its shoot-on-sight law for the predators. There are no immediate plans to hunt the small wolf populations in Oregon and Washington. No packs have been established in Utah.

NEA president in Boise talk on Luna plan: ‘It’s about political payback’

The president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, spoke to the Idaho Education Association's delegate assembly today in Boise, and spoke out against the Idaho school reform bills pushed by state schools Superintendent Tom Luna. He likened the Luna legislation to moves against public employee unions in Wisconsin and other states, and said it's “not about education. What it’s about is political payback. It’s about wealthy CEOs who put themselves before country and put making money before everything else. It’s the wrong direction for America.”

You can read the IEA's full news release here.

Idaho jobless rate holds at 9.7% in March, for fourth straight month

Idaho’s jobless rate held steady at 9.7 percent in March, the fourth straight month of record high rates, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. However, there may be a glimmer of good news in the report; according to preliminary estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people at work grew faster than the number of people looking for work for the first time in four years. You can read more here.

Popkey: ‘Gov. Otter’s comeback kid’

Really interesting story from Dan Popkey in the Idaho Statesman this morning on “Gov. Otter's comeback kid,” the new 30-year-old deputy chief of the Idaho Bureau of Prisons, Josh Tewalt, who rose to the $83,200-a-year position despite three DUI arrests and no college degree. Tewalt is a rising star on Otter's team; Otter officiated at his 2009 wedding at the governor's ranch in Star, and Tewalt wins praise for his political and people skills. You can read Popkey's full story here.
  

Otter says he hopes closed primary won’t hurt turnout, but ‘this is now the law’

Gov. Butch Otter has signed into law historic changes in Idaho's election system, requiring, for the first time, that all Idahoans publicly declare their party affiliation to vote in the state's primary election. “I felt that that was a compromise effort between the House and the Senate,” Otter said of the closed-primary bill. “With the judge's ruling, there weren't very many other alternatives that we felt could meet constitutional muster.”

Otter said he's “not an advocate of closing the primary,” and said, “In fact, I think the Republican Party has done an outstanding job over the years being able to attract not only members of the Democratic Party but a majority of the independents. … But it was an agreement that was worked out with the House and the Senate and the leadership on both sides.” Otter also signed legislation to pay $100,000 to the Idaho GOP for its legal costs in suing the state to overturn the current system. You can read my full story here on the governor's assessment of this year's legislative session, which he offered in a news conference in his office today.

Asked if he thought the new system might dissuade some Idahoans from voting in the primary, Otter said, “I hope it doesn't.” He said, “I've always been concerned about folks having to register for one party or another, because, you know, I think that's their personal and their quiet decision and that should be made on their own.” He said, “It may be something, people just say, 'I don't want to have to declare what party I want to belong to.' But this is now the law, this is what the members of the Republican Party fought for, and that's now where we are.”

Senate passes spending cuts bill 81-19, both Idaho senators vote ‘no’

The U.S. Senate has voted 81-19 in favor of H.R. 1493, the spending cuts bill that passed the House earlier today, sending the bill to President Obama. Among those 19 “no” votes: Both of Idaho's senators. Lindsay Nothern, press secretary for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said, “He didn't think the cuts went far enough.” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has expressed a similar view.

The bill is identical to the one that passed the House - so it includes Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's rider lifting endangered species protections from wolves.

Idaho congressmen split on spending cuts bill

When the spending cuts bill passed the House today, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, issued a statement lauding its passage and noting that it includes his language to remove wolves from endangered species protections and defund the Department of Interior's Wild Lands initiative. “Congress has the constitutional responsibility to fund government operations, and choosing not to do so would have been a failure of leadership,” Simpson said in a statement. “It is important to recognize the sea change in public debate about spending has been taken up by Congress.  Just a year ago the conversation was about the government’s growing appetite for spending.  Today we passed a bill that cut more in spending than any other single bill in our nation’s history.  We still have a long way to go to address the deficit crisis facing our nation, but passage of H.R. 1473 is an important step in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, voted against the bill. “I have been on the record supporting the delisting of wolves and defunding of the wild lands policy,” Labrador said in a statement. “I co-sponsored separate legislation designed to achieve both of those goals. There were some other aspects of this bill I agree with, but the level of spending cuts simply wasn’t high enough to garner my support.”

Click below for a full report from the Associated Press on today's House vote.

Otter: Session ‘a very successful one’

Gov. Butch Otter declared this year's legislative session “a very successful one,” saying, “It was a successful legislative session for myself and my administration.” He said if he had to give the session a grade, “I'd give em an A, I feel comfortable with that. And that's not a social advancement either.”

Otter said his proudest achievement of the session was balancing the state budget without raising taxes; he also cited the school reform legislation, and defended his signing of emergency-clause bills for each of the school reform bills, which he did quietly this week. “If we hadn't had an emergency clause in those, obviously we would have been waiting to see, No. 1, whether or not the referendum got on the ballot, and then 18 months from now, whether or not the referendum passes to repeal those bills,” Otter said. “I believe there's sufficient promise, and that's why I worked so hard on them, I think we were very successful in making the kinds of accommodations and adjustments in the legislative package that the Legislature finally accepted. … But I see no reason to wait. They're great ideas.”

The governor also said he signed the 20-week abortion ban bill into law yesterday, also with no announcement or fanfare. “I signed it because I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I've been a right-to-life candidate … all my life.” The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks on grounds of fetal pain, except to save the life or physical health of the mother; it includes no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal deformity or the mental or psychological health of the mother. Otter said he thinks “there's enough safeguards … that it doesn't infringe, I believe, on Roe v. Wade. Obviously, I have a different analysis of that than the attorney general.”

He also said he hasn't yet signed the wolf emergency bill, and is waiting to see what happens in Congress with legislation that would remove the wolf from endangered species protection in Idaho. If that legislation passes - it's part of a major congressional budget bill - Otter said, “We would not need that wolf bill.”
  

Otter signs closed-primary law, $100K payment to GOP, and school reform ‘emergency’ bills

Gov. Butch Otter has signed major legislation into law to impose party registration in Idaho and close the state's primary elections if parties choose to exclude anyone other than those registered as party members; he quietly signed HB 351 into law yesterday. Also, the same day, Otter quietly signed SB 1202 into law, making a $100,000 payment to the Idaho Republican Party for its legal fees in its successful lawsuit against the state that overturned the state's current primary election law as unconstitutional, because it kept the GOP from closing its primary.

Also, on Monday, Otter quietly signed all three “trailer bills,” bills that trail after and amend others, to amend the three already-signed education reform bills, SB 1108 on teacher contracts, SB 1110 on teacher merit pay, and SB 1184 on technology, by adding emergency clauses. The emergency clauses ensure that even if voter referenda qualify for the ballot in a bid to overturn those laws in the November 2012 general election, they aren't blocked from taking effect between now and then.

At 10:30 this morning, Otter will give his take on the legislative session in a press conference; it will be streamed live on the Internet, and you can watch here.

Drug trafficker’s seized assets help police

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how a seven-year-old drug federal trafficking case brought good news to law enforcement agencies in Idaho on Wednesday. That's because all appeals and asset forfeiture proceedings in the case have been completed, so the Idaho State Police got a check for $456,446 and the Coeur d'Alene Police Department is getting $18,630 as its share.

Former Coeur d'Alene gold and coin dealer Robert Leon Mertens was convicted in 2004 on 11 federal charges, including selling cocaine, marijuana and heroin at locations including a Sagle flea market, and laundering the money through his Coeur d'Alene business, Northwest Coin and Jewelry.

Jobs bill praised as one of few bright spots for job creation in session

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed a tax incentive bill into law Wednesday for new hires that's winning bipartisan praise as a bright spot in addressing Idaho's biggest issue this year - job creation - but there were few others in this year's legislative session. “I don't think as long as you've got one person in the state of Idaho out of work, we're ever doing enough,” said Otter, who noted that 74,000 Idahoans are now unemployed. “We're doing what we can.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The bill, HB 297a, passed during the same legislative session in which lawmakers killed the state's major tax incentive for alternative energy development in a spat over neighbors' objections to wind turbines, and cut hundreds of public- and private-sector jobs through budget cuts in education and Medicaid. In this year's Boise State University public policy survey, Idahoans listed jobs as by far the most important issue facing the state.
  

Labrador: ‘If being fiscally responsible is extreme and crazy, then I am’

Freshman Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador appeared on CNN's “Situation Room” program just now, in a panel along with three other tea party-backed freshman Republicans, Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle of New York, Tom Graves of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona. CNN said it picked “one from each corner of the country,” and was surprised to find the four split on tomorrow's budget-cuts vote: Two plan to vote in favor, one against, and Labrador is leaning against.

Labrador agreed with the others that the freshmen have made a difference, and helped bump up the level of cuts that now is being contemplated - though they want more. “When we started the debate, the initial offer was $31 billion in cuts. Some of us spoke up and said that it needed to be more,” he told the program. “So we actually got it to $61 billion in cuts. And now we're getting $38, $39 billion in cuts. We're going to vote against these things, but I think we would have had much less.”

At the close of the interview, the four were asked, “So are you crazy, or are you really the sanest people in America?” Labrador responded, “If being fiscally responsible is extreme and crazy, then I think I am.”

Trace levels of I-131 detected in Idaho air, drinking water, rainwater and milk

Trace levels of radioactive iodine-131 have now been detected in air, drinking water, rainwater and milk in Idaho, the state DEQ, Department of Agriculture and Department of Health & Welfare report in a joint news release, but “the levels detected are far below levels of public health concern.” The I-131, from the nuclear disaster in Japan, first was detected on March 21 in an air sample in Boise. Mark Dietrich, the Idaho DEQ's emergency response program coordinator, said, “At no point have detected levels come close to levels of concern.” You can read more here.

Otter signs jobs bill; lauds bipartisan effort

Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 297a into law, his “Hire One Act” to give a tax credit to employers who make new hires. “This was a bipartisan effort, and for as much of the things that we had disagreement on, we had a lot of agreement on this,” Otter declared. Among those joining him as he signed the bill were GOP floor sponsors Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell; and Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star; Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who said, “I think it enjoyed very broad bipartisan support - the need is obvious … Hopefuly this bill can make a difference;” Chamber of Commerce representatives; and Reps. Julie Ellsworth and Mitch Toryanski, Boise Boise Republicans who were among the bill's co-sponsors, and both targets of a recall effort launched yesterday over their votes on school reform legislation; neither Ellsworth nor Toryanski spoke during the bill-signing.

McGee said when he and Otter campaigned together last fall, “Across the state of Idaho, one thing that kept coming up over and over was jobs - and this legislation directly takes on that issue and improves the situation. I think it's going to be very successful.”

Otter said, “I don't think as long as you've got one person in the state of Idaho of work we're doing enough. We're doing what we can. We're doing what we believe. We know it's going to cost the state a little over $7.5 million, but we think the result of that is going to be about a $25 million income to the state,” as those newly employed workers pay taxes.

Under the bill, for-profit Idaho employers who make new hires on or after April 15 - this Friday - would be eligible for a tax credit if the jobs include health benefits and pay at least $12 an hour in counties where employment is above 10 percent, or $15 an hour in counties where it's below 10 percent. The amount of the credit would vary from 2 to 6 percent of the new worker's gross wages, based on the employer's rating in the state unemployment insurance program; that's to ensure that employers who laid off workers during the recession and are just now hiring them back aren't rewarded as much as those who kept their workers on, and now are expanding.

The refundable tax credit expires on Jan. 1, 2014. Otter said Idaho could have done more to promote job-creation. But, he said, “What we were looking for was something that was either revenue-positive or revenue-neutral, and this is what we came up with.” He said he's confident the “Hire One Act” will come out “revenue-positive” for the state.
  

Seized assets from CdA drug trafficker boost ISP, CdA Police 7 years later

Robert Mertens is serving a 37-year term in federal prison for drug trafficking, firearms violations and money laundering - he's been behind bars since 2004 - but it's taken until now for all appeals and asset forfeiture proceedings in the case to be completed. As a result, today the Idaho State Police got a check for $456,446, and the Coeur d'Alene Police Department will get one for $18,630.

“The investigation, prosecution and conviction of Robert Mertens was a success on many levels,” said U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy J. Olson. “A drug trafficker who was harming Idahoans was removed from the community and received a lengthy prison sentence; through the financial investigation and forfeiture proceedings he was stripped of his ill-gotten gains, and through today's equitable sharing of the proceeds of the forfeiture, we are able to financially reimburse and reinvigorate our state and local law enforcement partners. I am very proud of the patience and cooperation that all of the involved agencies displayed throughout this process.”

Mertens was convicted of 11 federal counts including conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, distribution of cocaine, and possession with intent to distribute heroin; a federal jury found that from 1995 to 2003, he regularly sold drugs from his Coeur d'Alene business, Northwest Coin & Jewelry, his homes in Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, and a flea market in Sagle. Among the assets seized in the case were $1.2 million in gold and silver coins and precious metals; those were taken by armored truck to Southern California and auctioned off by federal authorities as part of the asset forfeiture process, drawing interest from collectors around the world.

For the ISP, which is facing a big budget crunch, the long-awaited payment will be enough to replace aging radios for its investigations division; the current system is more than 20 years old. “It'll be extremely helpful,” said Col. Jerry Russell, ISP director. Still awaiting funding: radio replacements for the patrol division, which would cost $2.3 million, and for which there's still no funding source. But Russell said getting the investigations radios is “certainly a good start,” and said, “It couldn't come at a better time.”

Olson and Russell joined officials from the FBI and the IRS at a ceremony today to present the money to ISP. “This is yet another shining example of the quality investigations conducted by joint efforts of local, state, and federal agencies,” Russell said. “Due to the collaboration with our local and federal partners we were able to dismantle a long-term narcotics trafficking organization and make a positive impact to the citizens of these communities.”
  

Megaload knocks out power to two Idaho towns, blocks highway for an hour

A “test module” for the planned transport of hundreds of megaloads of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil oil equipment across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho knocked out power for five hours last night to the towns of Pierce and Wieppe, and blocked traffic on the highway for an hour. Click below for a full report from the Lewiston Tribune and the Associated Press.

After the session…

Here's a link to my Sunday story on the issues and outcomes of this year's legislative session, and here's a link to my Sunday column. As for me, after a really great closing weekend of skiing at Bogus Basin (no, that's not me in this Charlie Litchfield photo; it's Joe Reitan of Boise who donned a cookie monster outfit for the final day of skiing), I'm taking a couple of days off; I'll be back Wednesday.

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Kevin Richert, John Miller and host Greg Hahn to discuss the events of the week. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m., then re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific; it also can be seen online at www.idahoptv.org. There's also a “Web Extra” of our continued discussion after the show; you can see that at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.

Click here to see a slide show of the week in pictures, as the 13th and final week of Idaho's 2011 legislative session comes to a close. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the frame as the pictures show, to see the captions.
  

Hagedorn detains intruder at gunpoint

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican lawmaker Marv Hagedorn says he detained an intoxicated intruder at gunpoint outside his Meridian home until police arrived on scene. Meridian police say they apprehended 21-year-old Nicholas Kuklish at Hagedorn's home. Police told the Idaho Statesman that Kuklish was extremely intoxicated and had used Hagedorn's hot tub, thinking he was at his own house located about a half-mile from the Hagedorn home. Hagedorn is a Navy veteran and one of the leading lawmakers who pressed this session for a bill allowing guns on college campuses. He sometimes carries a firearm at the Capitol. Hagedorn says he was awakened by his wife after 3 a.m. Friday, grabbed a semi-automatic pistol and found Kuklish outside. He told the Statesman it took at least four minutes for police to arrive. Kuklish is facing trespassing charges.

House Dems: ‘A Legislature run amok’

House Democrats called a press conference today to share their views of this year's legislative session, and Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said,  “In the exercise of absolute power the Republicans bullied, blustered and bungled their way through an extremist agenda that suggests to us that they are out of touch with average Idahoans.” He said, “For the last three months, reasonable discourse was discouraged, independent thinking was punished. Extremism was rewarded. … And Republican leadership didn't listen. They didn't listen to us, they didn't listen to dissenting voices in their own party, and they certainly didn't listen to the people of Idaho. This is a Legislature that has run amok, with no accountability to the people.” You can read the Dems' full statement here.

IBCEE didn’t endorse SB 1184, the technology and online reform bill

When Gov. Butch Otter opened his signing ceremony this morning on SB 1184, the school technology and online learning bill, he began by recalling consulting with the Idaho Business Coalition for Education Excellence, a group of business leaders, when he first became governor. “I think we will have fulfilled the vision of the IBCEE,” Otter declared. However, when asked if that group has endorsed SB 1184, Otter said, “I don't know.”

In fact, asked that same question, Christine Donnell, IBCEE executive director, said, “No, they didn't.” She said, “It came along pretty quickly after the first two of Tom Luna's reform bills went through. we had not had a meeting, we didn't feel like we had vetted the changes very well in terms of explaining it to our members and getting their feedback, so we just didn't take a position on it at all.”

The business group testified in favor of the first two reform bills in the Otter/Luna package, but not SB 1184. “IBCEE's membership just said we strongly support reform,” Donnell said. “They did not want to get into the details of it, did not want to take a positon on how many online courses, or the whole issue about the technology, class sizes, none of it. They just said they strongly supported the Students Come First plan, but just not into the details.”

Otter: Referendum a ‘responsibility and a right’

Asked about a potential referendum to overturn the school reforms he'd just signed into law, Gov. Butch Otter said today, “The people have a responsibility and they have a right and they have the power to engage in a referendum to change whatever they think is wrong.” He said, “That's covered in our Constitution - we the people that are the government.”

Referendum drive launched to overturn SB 1184

No sooner had Gov. Butch Otter signed SB 1184, the third major school-reform bill, into law, than a new group of parents and teachers calling itself “Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform” had delivered the preliminary paperwork to the Idaho Secretary of State's office for a referendum seeking to overturn the new law. “Frankly, this is very much a parent-driven effort,” said Mike Lanza, a Boise father of two who's joined Boise parent Maria Greeley to form the new group. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa received the documents and said, “We'll expedite this … the clock is ticking.” The referendum supporters now have 60 days from yesterday to gather 47,432 signatures from registered voters to overturn each of the three main school reform bills, SB 1184 on technology and online learning, SB 1110 on teacher merit-pay bonuses and SB 1108 removing most collective bargaining rights from teachers.

“We are here because thousands of emails, thousands of people attending rallies across Idaho, and the testimony of parents, school board members, school administrators and teachers did not matter to Gov. Otter and the majority of the state Legislature,” Lanza said. “Idahoans made it clear that we do not want to trade teachers for laptops and required online courses. And we do not support laws that accomplish little beyond denigrating teachers. The governor and Legislature rammed this plan through against the overwhelming opposition of the public. They passed it despite being told by administrators and teachers who will have to implement this poorly designed plan that it will be a financial and educational disaster for Idaho's public schools.”

He said, “The truth is we should not have to pursue this referendum effort. We should be able to rely on our elected representatives to respect the will of their constituents. By signing the last bill this morning, Gov. Otter sent a clear message that he, Supt. Luna and their supporters in the Legislature have chosen their political agenda over public opinion.”
  

Four online classes: ‘That’s the minimum’

State schools Supt. Tom Luna now says it was a “misquote” when the New York Times quoted him this week saying that he'll ask the state Board of Education to require four online classes for graduation, though he then repeated that. “I was very comfortable with four,” he said. “That will be the starting number. This decision is going to be made after a lot of research and a lot of discussion through the work of the state board. I am confident that we will have some number. And we have many states that are beginning to adopt graduation requirements when it comes to online credits. … I think four is a reasonable number.” Gov. Butch Otter then added, “That's the minimum. … That's going to be the minimum . And if we experience in Idaho the same things other states have experienced,” Otter said students likely will be taking “12 or 15” online classes.

Otter signs third school-reform bill

Gov. Butch Otter has signed SB 1184 into law, the third major school-reform bill, saying, “The system we had wasn't working, wasn't producing the kind of students that we needed.” The bill shifts funds from teacher salaries to technology boosts and a merit-pay program, and brings a new focus on online learning. “With the signing of this bill, the work will just begin,” Otter said. “There are those that want us to fail - we are not going to fail. We're going to push this education package, this reform, until it meets the needs of our future workforce, until it meets the needs of students today.”

State schools Supt. Tom Luna, who joined Otter at the signing along with a big group of legislative sponsors and supporters, said, “This is a great monumental day for students in Idaho, for the children in Idaho.” He said the bills will do “things that we know we should have done long ago.” The other two pieces of the plan, already quietly signed into law, remove most collective bargaining rights from teachers and set up a merit-pay bonus system.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said when he first heard from Otter in November that “we need to talk about education reform … I had no idea of the depth of reform that we were talking about. … It's landmark legislation.” House Education Vice Chair Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, filling in for House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, said, “I think every teacher will be a better teacher with the proper utilization of technology in the classroom.”

Day after: The $100,000 story, school-reform signing, referendum launch

Here's a link to my full story in today's Spokesman-Review on how lawmakers rushed a bill through in the final days of the legislative session to pay $100,000 to the Idaho Republican Party for its attorney fees in its successful lawsuit to overturn Idaho's open primary election system; that bill now awaits action by Gov. Butch Otter.

Meanwhile, Otter is scheduled to sign SB 1184, the third major school-reform bill that shifts resources from teacher salaries to technology boosts, online learning and and a teacher merit-pay plan, at 10:30 this morning, joined by state schools Supt. Tom Luna and legislative sponsors.

And a group called “Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform” has announced it'll launch a referendum drive to overturn 1184 an hour later; you can read their announcement here. Also, House Democrats will hold a press conference after the governor's bill-signing to discuss this year's legislative session.

Last day matches prickly session…

The Senate killed a hard-fought energy compromise by one vote, the House speaker booted two moderates out of their committee chairmanships, and Idaho's wild 2011 legislative session ground to a finish Thursday after 88 days - the seventh-longest session in state history, and clearly one of the prickliest. Minority Democrats branded the session the “worst in memory,” and even majority Republicans called it “difficult” and “frustrating.” House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “It was a difficult session, but I think when it's all said and done, that we did what we had to do.” You can read my full last-day story here at spokesman.com.

‘A dreadful exclamation point’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney's sudden moves to replace two committee chairmen - Reps.  Leon Smith at Transportation and Tom Trail at Agriculture -  announced quietly just as the House was adjourning, sent shock waves through the House. Denney said he made the move to enforce party discipline. Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “It's not always easy being in leadership, that's all I can say.” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I think they will lose something. Leon has huge experience in transportation, and I'm not sure that Joe does.”

Smith, a former chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, is in his seventh term in the House. Trail, a farmer and education consultant, is in his eighth term. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who represents the same district as Trail, said, “I was quite shocked by it.” She said, “This has been a dreadful session, and for me, that put a dreadful exclamation point right at the end.”

Denney pulls committee chairmanships from Trail, Smith

House Speaker Lawerence Denney has removed two of the most independent-voting committee chairmen in the House: Transportation Chairman Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, and Agriculture Chairman Tom Trail, R-Moscow, as punishment for not voting with leadership on procedural votes, including moves to call bills from committee, to send bills to the amending order, and to return bills to committee. Among those that Smith backed calling out was his own bill on online sales taxes, which Denney unilaterally killed early in the session.

“I don't ask anybody to vote a certain way on any issue, but I do expect them to support other committee chairmen and leadership on procedural issues, and there were several votes this year that they did not support us,” Denney said.

Denney replaced both chairmen with their vice chairs: Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, who is only in his second term, is the new transportation chairman, and Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, a fourth-term lawmaker, is the new agriculture chairman.

House adjourns for the year

The gavel fell, and the House adjourned for the year at 2:21 p.m. “This has been a very difficult session,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. “I do apologize for the little scarf incident yesterday. I take responsibility for that. I don't want to make any excuses, but hopefully it was a learning experience for all of us, and I hope it will never happen again.”

“I think perception is very important,” Denney said. “We have to be very careful about what we say and what we do and how it is perceived.”

After calling for the vote to adjourn, Denney said, “The ayes have it, the House stands adjourned sine die.” Members rose to applaud, and their 2011 session ended.

‘Youth challenge’ bill passes, House prepares to adjourn sine die

On a 58-10 vote, the House has approved SB 1206 to create a “Youth Challenge Program” under the Idaho National Guard in Pierce. Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, debated against the bill, saying Idaho shouldn't accept federal money for the program. “We send people to Washington and say, 'Balance the budget, cut spending,' and we turn around and say we're not going to do anything to help you,” he said. “This to me is an excellent program, but I don't think it's the time to start a whole new program.” Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “This is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later deal.” The high school dropouts who are targeted for the military-operated youth program will find it “life-changing,” he said. “This is a program that takes private dollars and matches it with available federal dollars.” The Albertson Foundation has committed to providing part of the matching funds.

Among those joining VanderWoude in opposing the bill were Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Phil Hart, R-Athol; and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton. The bill now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. It was the last vote for the House this year; the House is now preparing to adjourn sine die.

Goedde: ‘Proud of work we’ve done’

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said it's been a “difficult” legislative session for him. “I'm proud of the work that we've done in the education reform arena,” he said, “and it's a good first step. As we go to implement it, there may be some changes that need to be made, and that's part of the process. I look forward to working with educators over the interim to address those issues.”

Asked about the prospect of a voter referendum to overturn the reforms, Goedde said, “'Certainly that's the constitutional right of the voters. I think that if this is on the ballot in November of 2012, that there's a very good chance the voters of the state of Idaho will sustain the work that we've done.” He said he's already hearing stories about teachers coming up with ideas on how they'd earn bonuses under the plan - but those don't start until 2013. Next year, in 2012, teachers will receive a pay cut, under the school budget that lawmakers approved. “That's a function of revenue,” Goedde said. “Next year, if the revenue picture looks rosier, we can allocate additional funds to K-12, if that's the will of the body.”

Pro-megaload bill passes, heads to guv

HB 193a, the pro-megaloads bill designed to block lawsuits targeting big loads on Idaho roads, has cleared the House as amended in the Senate, on a 55-12 vote. “It'll help hopefully to curtail some lawsuits and save the state some money,” Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, the bill's sponsor, told the House. Earlier in the week when he asked the House to concur in the Senate amendments, Harwood said, “I feel like we sent 'em over a bear and they sent me back the rug, but I want to concur with this.” The Senate's changes to the bill altered it from a required bond from anyone suing of 5 percent of the insured value of the load, to a judge's option to require such a bond of up to 10 percent of that value. The bill now moves to the governor's desk.

Amended day-care licensing bill wins final passage in House

The day care licensing bill, HB 129a, has been approved in the House as amended in the Senate, on a 59-8 vote. “We have worked on this day care legislation for many years, and this time we got it right,” Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, told the House.

House approves public school budget, 53-17

The House has voted 53-17 in favor of SB 1206, the public schools budget, a measure that takes in the single largest piece of Idaho's state spending. Under SB 1206, Idaho schools will see a $47 million funding cut next year, on top of the unprecedented $128.5 million that was cut this year, the first year-to-year reduction in total school funding in the state's recorded history. All 13 House Democrats voted no; they were joined by GOP Reps. Mike Moyle, Leon Smith, Julie Ellsworth and Tom Trail.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I believe it's not enough money to support public education in Idaho, and I believe that we had other choices.” She said, “We haven't looked at any ways of improving our revenue flow, and we're not doing justice to the children across the state.” Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, warned that while lawmakers pat themselves on the backs for holding the line on taxes, they're pushing local voters to approve property tax increases to bail out struggling local schools. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “We're funding education based on what individuals and citizens in our state can afford right now. … We have the revenue that we have, and we have to make that work.” The vote sends the budget bill to the governor's desk.
  

Focus shifts to House for final action…

It's in the House that the remaining business of the legislative session will be done; but one thing's clear: This morning's exercise, in which a new charter school cap-lifting bill was introduced in a hastily-called Ways & Means Committee meeting, then passed on the floor 39-29 amid much debate, was all for naught; the Senate has adjourned without taking up the bill.

Here, Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, visits with Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, and Speaker Lawerence Denney during the lunch break today, with boxes piled up outside the chamber in anticipation of adjournment, which could still be several hours away. The House was in mid-debate on the public schools budget when it stopped for lunch.

Gavel falls, Senate adjourns

At 12:36 p.m., the gavel fell in the Senate, and it adjourned sine die for the legislative session.

Perhaps the oddest moment of the Senate's closing presentations - not counting the singing, which is more typical of the House - came when Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, after sharing some Capitol history, presented Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, with a “Snuggie” made out of the curtains from the former Gold Room, which he then reluctantly and partially modeled. There were also heartfelt thank-you's, speeches and acknowledgements, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill presented Education Committee Chairman John Goedde with a flag.

Here's the background on the “Snuggie:” Last year, Brackett presented Smyser and Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, with pink versions on the final day because they'd complained about the chilly chamber as the kinks were worked out of the new heating and cooling system, and while Smyser fled, McKague was photographed in hers and it appeared in the newspaper; today, Smyser got Brackett back.

How they voted…

Here's how senators voted on HB 347, the renewable energy compromise bill that was killed by one vote in the final decision of the Senate's session this year:

Voting in favor: Sens. Bair, Bock, Brackett, Cameron, Darrington, Hammond, Heider, Hill, Keough, LeFavour, Malepeai, McGee, McKague, McKenzie, Siddoway, Stennett, and Werk.

Voting against: Sens. Andreason, Bilyeu, Broadsword, Corder, Davis, Fulcher, Goedde, Lodge, Mortimer, Nuxoll, Pearce, Schmidt, Smyser, Stegner, Tippets, Toryanski, Vick and Winder.
  

Senate prepares to adjourn, House takes a lunch break mid-debate

The Senate, preparing to adjourn sine die, has sent committees to inform both the House and the governor. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, reported back, “We've spoken to the governor … He's excited that we're going home.” Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, reported back from the House, “They said they'd be ready in a couple of hours.”

The Senate is now saying its goodbyes and making some final presentations; meanwhile the House had taken a lunch break, without finishing its debate on the public school budget. The House is scheduled to return at 1:15.

Senate readies to adjourn sine die

The Senate has taken the first steps, appointing committees to inform the House and the governor, toward adjourning sine die - without a day - which means wrapping it up for the legislative session.

Senate kills energy compromise

In a surprise move, the Senate has just voted 17-18 on HB 347, the renewable energy rebate - killing the bill. It was the first piece of a two-bill compromise on energy policy. Immediately after the vote, the Senate went at ease. Then, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, asked to return HB 348, the second piece of the compromise, to committee. “The bill that we just had and this bill were two parts of a compromise, hard fought,” McKenzie told the Senate. “Without one it's very unfair to those who were involved to pass the other.”

Another narrow vote in Senate on emergency clause for school reform

The Senate has again voted narrowly, 19-16, to approve a “trailer” bill adding an emergency clause to this year's school reform legislation, this time on HB 345, which adds the clause to SB 1184, the bill that shifts funding from salaries to technology and promotes online learning. It then voted 33-2 in favor of HB 315, another “trailer” bill, this one to restore, for one year, a portion of the protection school districts that lose enrollment now have from sharp funding drops from one year to the next, while also eliminating a requirement for severance payments for teachers laid off in the fall. Both measures now go to the governor.

Meanwhile, the House is debating the public school budget, SB 1206.

House passes new charter school cap-lifting bill, 39-29

HB 353, the newly introduced bill to lift the cap on creation of new charter schools, has passed the House on a 39-29 vote; the bill was just introduced in a hastily called House Ways & Means Committee meeting an hour earlier. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, the sponsor of the bill, said, “Not one size fits all for our kids.” The bill drew much opposing debate; House leaders said they'll send it to the Senate, which may not consider it with today's pending adjournment of this year's legislative session.

Ed reform trailer bill squeaks through, 19-16

HB 336, the second “trailer” bill to this year's school reform bills, passed the Senate on a narrow 19-16 vote; that was the bill to add an emergency clause to SB 1110, the teacher merit pay bill, even though the merit pay program wouldn't begin until 2013. The next measure, HB 344, to free schools from a maintenance match requirement, passed unanimously; now the Senate is taking up HB 345, the “trailer” bill to SB 1184, the school technology funding bill.
  

House debating new charter school cap-lifting bill that just was introduced today

The House is debating HB 353, the newly introduced bill to lift the cap on creation of new charter schools. Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, asked why the bill's fiscal note showed no impact on the state's general fund, and questioned why more charter schools wouldn't cost more. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, the bill's sponsor, said, “There is no evidence as to what the growth would be.”

Senate passes first school reform trailer bill, adding emergency clause to SB 1108

The Senate has taken up the first of the “trailer” bills, or follow-up bills, to the school reform bills this year; the first one, HB 335, amends the teacher contract bill, SB 1108, making various changes and adding an emergency clause; it drew lots of questions, then passed on a 21-14 vote. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, questioned some of the details in the bill, and Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, raised concerns. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, noted that the emergency clause in the measure is contradicted by various other clauses that say portions of the bill wouldn't take effect immediately; she said it's just there to “thwart a democratic process.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, the bill's sponsor, said, “Certainly the insertion of the emergency clause does not abrogate the rights of the voters in the referendum process.” If a referendum to overturn the school reforms qualifies for the ballot, he said, “They're going to have an opportunity to vote in November 2012 whether they like what we've done or not.” He said “in the meantime … we can move forward.” Without the emergency clause, if a referendum qualified for the 2012 ballot, it would have prevented the law from taking effect until after the election.

Millenium Fund budget bill barely passes, 34-32; killing it would’ve delayed session

SB 1205, the Millennium Fund budget, just barely passed the House on a 34-32 vote, with the vote teetering back and forth several times - it settled several times at a tie - before finally reaching the two-vote margin of approval. If that budget bill had been killed, the legislative session would have been extended at least into tomorrow, and likely into next week, as JFAC would have had to convene and write a new budget bill. Opponents said they were concerned that the budget bill overrode recommendations from the special joint Millennium Fund Committee to direct funds to various anti-tobacco and preventative health projects; instead, the money was directed to the Health & Welfare budget. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “I think that we were gamed into the last day to hear this particular budget. … I'll be voting no.” The budget bill now goes to the governor's desk.

Lawmakers rush $100K payment to Idaho GOP in unusual arrangement

Idaho lawmakers rushed through a bill to pay $100,000 to the Idaho Republican Party - to which 81 percent of them belong - in the final days of this year's legislative session, to cover the party's attorney fees in its successful primary election lawsuit against the state. Though it's not uncommon for prevailing parties to get their legal fees paid in a federal civil rights case, what's very unusual is how the Idaho GOP set up its fee arrangement with its attorney - a rare “contingent fee” deal in which only the taxpayers would have to pay, not the party, regardless of the outcome.

“It was not something they had to do,” said John Strait, a law professor at Seattle University School of Law and an expert on federal court litigation. “The Republicans decided they would rather have him paid out of taxpayer money, and they set it up that way.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

New charter school cap removal bill introduced on party-line vote

The House Ways & Means Committee just voted 4-3, along party lines, to introduce a new version of Rep. Cliff Bayer's legislation to lift the cap on creation of new charter schools in Idaho, which currently is set at six. With lawmakers pushing for adjournment today, however, it's unclear whether the bill has any chance of moving through both houses. The previous version was killed in the House yesterday in an ethics dispute, after a lobbyist distributed yellow fleece scarves commemorating “National School Choice Week” to every House member shortly before the House was to vote on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, just told the Senate, “Senators, we are going home today. We are not holding any additional committee meetings. We are done.”

Second piece of energy compromise clears Senate committee on 6-3 vote

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, has moved to send the second piece of the energy compromise, HB 347, to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.” McGee said in the past hour and a half, he's heard “compelling” testimony on both sides of the issue, but said, “I think this is good for our long-term energy policy.” Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, seconded the motion, but said he wouldn't support further extensions of the renewable energy tax rebate beyond 2014. The motion passed on a 6-3 vote, and committee Chairman Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said, “I think it was a fine hearing.” He was among the three “no” votes, along with Sens. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, and Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello.

House breaks for Ways & Means meeting

The House has taken a break for a Ways & Means Committee meeting to introduce a new bill that Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said “we need to get over to the Senate.” The committee has posted an agenda showing that it'll consider a new bill from Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, on charter schools.

House Ed approves youth challenge bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislation to establish a military-based program targeted at high school dropouts in northern Idaho is headed to the state House of Representatives for debate. A House panel voted Thursday to advance the legislation, SB 1208, which directs the Idaho National Guard to establish a Youth Challenge Program in Pierce. Don Ebert chairs the Clearwater County Commission and says the move, which is expected to create 50 new jobs in northern Idaho, “is huge for us.” The House is expected to debate the bill later Thursday. It has passed the Senate. Federal dollars would cover most of the program's startup costs. The state will use private funding to cover a 25 percent share of the program's annual $4 million cost by 2013. Nationwide, the Youth Challenge Program has 33 camps in 27 states.

Senate panel still debating 2nd energy bill

The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee has been hearing testimony, asking questions and debating HB 347, the second piece of the energy compromise, for an hour now, and it's still going. Committee members have lots of questions about the bill, which extends the renewable energy sales tax rebate but adds sharp limits for wind and solar projects. A wind energy opponent from Firth who's testifying now just compared wind power generation to methamphetamine use, saying there's no way to do either responsibly.

Keough: ‘Frustrating’ session reflected Idahoans’ struggles

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, reflecting on the concluding legislative session, said, “It certainly has been a difficult session, and I think that it's reflective of the struggle that Idahoans are in, whether it's economic struggle or political struggle, that we seem to be involved in not only in Idaho but across the country. And I think I saw that expressed here as the elected representatives of the people, those frustrations and struggles and fears and concerns were all represented in the halls of the Legislature this year.” She said, “It's been a frustrating session.”

Barbieri: ‘Really enjoyed this session’

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, a freshman representative who won a four-way GOP primary last spring but then ran unopposed in November, is more upbeat than most in looking back on this year's legislative session. Barbieri, who stepped into the spotlight as the lead sponsor of legislation attempting to “nullify” the federal health care reform law, then later settled for a compromise bill, said, “It's nice to have a success. I really didn't expect to have anything more than a discussion about that.” He said that issue plus the anti-wolf bill gave him hope about pushing back against federal influence in the state. “It has shown that with the governor's lead, we can kind of assist in a unified face against … federal intrusion,” Barbieri said.

“I really enjoyed this session,” Barbieri said, adding that the feedback he's gotten from his North Idaho district “has been very, very positive.” The vice-chairman of a crisis pregnancy center in Coeur d'Alene, Barbieri also said he was cheered by the passage of legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks on grounds of fetal pain. “It's nice to see that the Legislature recognizes that the pain, anyone's pain, is important, and it's our job to protect … especially in a mom's tummy. I was delighted.” He said he thinks the bill may hold up in the U.S. Supreme Court because of Justice Anthony Kennedy's writings on fetal pain. “I do believe that life is important enough to fight the battle,” Barbieri said.

Eskridge: Session ‘tough, disappointing’

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, has been at the center of the debate over energy this session, and he said it's been a difficult session. “It's been tough, and disappointing in some respects,” said the sixth-term lawmaker. He said he has three major disappointments: How in the school reforms, “We've kind of inferred through the process that teachers are the problem with our education system,” a concept with which he disagrees; the change in Idaho's primary election system, in which, he said, “I think the Republican Party has done itself a disservice by changing the open primary - I think we've disenfranchised independent voters;” and the way the wind and renewable energy debate degenerated into personal attacks, including two he said he endured from lobbyists.

“It's disappointing when a lobbyist does that kind of thing,” Eskridge said. “You don't make personal attacks.”

First piece of energy compromise wins Senate committee support

On this likely last day of this year's legislative session, the Senate State Affairs Committee opened its meeting at 7:30 a.m. today, to take up HB 348, the first of two pieces into which the energy compromise bill has been broken. This bill lowers the maximum size of small wind and solar projects that would qualify for favorable pricing under the PURPA law from 10 megawatts to 100 kilowatts. “This means that Idaho has turned an important corner,” House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the Senate committee. “What this does is basically codify the PUC policy at this point. It says that from now on, wind and solar projects in Idaho will follow the IRP model, or they will negotiate with the utility, rather than have that chunk of power forced into the utility's portfolio at a non-negotiated rate.”

Idaho's big utilities had been objecting to having to take on wind power at favorable prices; that was why they earlier opposed the extension of the renewable energy rebate that's now scheduled to expire June 30. The compromise extends the rebate for renewables other than wind and solar through Dec. 31, 2014, but wind and solar projects get just until Oct. 31, 2011 to have their projects under contract to qualify for the rebate. That piece of the compromise is now in HB 347, which is scheduled for an 8:30 a.m. hearing in the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee this morning.

The Senate committee had little debate as it unanimously approved HB 348 this morning on a voice vote; numerous interested folks were present, but senators had just one technical question for them.

Davis: ‘A difficult session in some of worst economic times in memory’

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, speaking on the floor of the Senate tonight before it adjourned for the evening, reacted to Senate Democrats' press conference earlier today calling this year's legislative session the “worst in memory.” Davis said, “Rather than the worst session in memory, I describe it as a difficult session among some of the worst economic times in memory. Rather than asserting that ideology was put ahead of the state's best interest, I believe that a conflict or struggle of values and principles occurred, just as it has since statehood.”

Davis complimented all members of the Senate, of both parties, for struggling with tough issues this legislative session. “Individually, none are perfectly satisfied - we never are,” he said. “That is politics. That is the legislative process.” He specifically complimented the minority party “for their dignified part in the process.” His comments drew a standing ovation from both parties.

Senate passes closed-primary bill; went thru both houses in one day

The Idaho Senate has passed HB 351, the new closed-primary election bill, on a straight party-line, 28-7 vote. The bill just was introduced this morning in the House; it's rocketed through both houses in a single day and now heads to the governor's desk.

Senate passes anti-wolf bill, 27-8

Last-minute legislation to declare a disaster emergency in Idaho due to wolves has cleared the Senate on a 27-8 vote and headed to the governor's desk, after just being introduced in the House two days ago. “There's anti-wolf coalition groups all over the state that are pleading with us to do something,” declared Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, the bill's Senate sponsor. He said people in Idaho are living in fear of their children being attacked by wolves at school bus stops, and “women going to the mailbox and being held hostage by wolves surrounding them.” He told the Senate, “It's an issue of freedom.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, read from an Idaho attorney general's opinion that pointed out problems in the way the bill is set up, by creating an emergency by statute, then declaring that the governor can issue various orders, and laying out a process in which legislative concurrent resolutions direct the governor. “What we're doing here violates the separation of powers,” Werk said. “We cannot through concurrent resolution direct the … governor of the state of Idaho to then do an action.” Werk said, “We have wolf issues in Idaho, there is no doubt.” But he said, “When we look at this piece of legislation, what are we doing?”

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, said similar clauses already exist in Idaho law and haven't been challenged. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, “We know this bill isn't the best answer, but it's a stopgap answer that allows us to act and protect the citizens of Idaho. … This gives us some opportunity to protect our citizens and our wildlife and our lifestyle.”

Ethics charges fly as wind siting bill dies

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller on this morning's dramatic spiking of a wind turbine siting bill amid ethics claims and emotional testimony.

House adjourns, Bayer apologizes

The House has adjourned for the day, but first, Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, apologized to the House for the distribution earlier today, just before the House was to vote on HB 346, his last-minute bill to lift the charter school cap, of bright yellow fleece scarves with a “National School Choice Week” logo on them. That prompted objections and a vote to table the bill - a move that halts its progress unless it's withdrawn from the table by a two-thirds vote - on ethics grounds.
 
Bayer called the incident a “series of unfortunate events,” and said, “I want to be the first to admit I understand and respect the vote on the motion to table in regard to that bill. … I respect the implications of that vote.” Bayer said he gives “total benefit of the doubt to those involved regarding their intentions,” and said he's long had concerns about materials being distributed to lawmakers. “It was a misjudgment,” he said.

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, the House minority leader, said every member of the House received one of the fleecy scarves shortly before the bill was to be debated, and “it was distasteful.” He said, “Most of my caucus called me to say, 'What is this? What are they trying to do?' That's why I went forward with it.” Rusche said House rules require anything distributed to include an identification of which legislator is distributing it and what bill it affects. “There were no identifying characteristics, other than the logo we saw on the scarf,” he said.

House nixes school bus ads

The House has voted 30-39 to kill SB 1111a, the measure pushed by the Meridian School District to allow ads on school buses, a move the district estimated could bring it hundreds of thousands in much-needed revenue. Even after the bill was amended to narrow its scope and make clear that the ads would be only on the outside of the buses, not the inside, representatives said they had problems with the concept. “We want instant, unfailing recognition of that school bus for what it is,” said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “This could be considered an endorsement of a product, and I don't believe that's what government wants to do.” Several said they feared the ads would be a safety issue, though the bill's sponsor, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, disputed that.

“Certainly, times are tough,” DeMordaunt told the House. “This is an opportunity to supplement the dollars in our education system.” But the bill, which had earlier passed the Senate on a 25-9 vote, was narrowly rejected.

House debating school bus ads bill

The amended version of SB 1111a, to allow ads on school buses, is being debated now in the House. “Certainly we're not talking about wrapping the bus, we're talking about a simple ad on the bus and as a result, generating some funds,” Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told the House. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she appreciated the amendments to the bill, but still felt it would compete with local weekly newspapers for advertising business and pose a safety hazard when advertising messages are moving along the highways. “This is really not a road that we want to go down,” she said.

House passes new closed-primary bill

The House has passed the new version of the closed-primary election bill, HB 351, on a 51-16 vote. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “As I see it, this is a bill that was created behind closed doors by Republicans to address an internal squabble within the Republican Party.” No consideration was given to other options, he said, like a “top two” primary system similar to Washington's.  

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “I think we should not go on to do something that is unconstitutional.” She said, “This is what we have offered here. We have to do something, so let's support the bill.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, in his closing debate, said, “I think it's a good compromise. I might also say that 32 states have party registration and state-funded primary elections. So I think this is a determination of whether or not we are going to continue with a primary system at all.” All 13 House Democrats voted against the bill; they were joined by three Republicans, Reps. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise; Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls; and Tom Trail, R-Moscow.

Wolf emergency bill clears Senate panel

The Senate Resources Committee has voted 7-2 in favor of HB 343, the wolf emergency bill, passing it on a party-line vote despite objections from Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, that the bill has constitutional problems. The measure, which earlier passed the House, now moves to the full Senate.

House begins closed-primary debate, Senate panel to vote on wolf bill

The House has moved on to the closed-primary election bill, which is now HB 351. Meanwhile, the Senate Resources Committee got a round of applause from its audience in the Capitol auditorium for having a motion made and seconded to move HB 343, the wolf emergency bill, to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

Motion to lay on table passes

The motion to lay HB 346 on the table has passed on a 37-31 vote in the House. Here's a look at the scarf, the promotional gift that prompted the brouhaha.

Charter school cap bill stalled in ethics dispute

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, has objected to consideration of HB 346, the bill to eliminate the cap on new charter schools, because of the “offensive” distribution of gifts and promotional materials “on the very floor of the House, attempting to influence the vote of the House.” He moved that the bill be laid on the table, blocking its progress; the House is now at ease.

The promotional gift in question is a yellow fleece scarf promoting “National School Choice Week.”

Senate Ed debates school reform ‘trailer’ bills, House debates ATV safety

The Senate Education Committee is meeting and has on its agenda four “trailer” bills to the already-passed school reform bills, including three that add emergency clauses to the three reform bills. That prevents a referendum to overturn the bills, should it gain the required signatures to make the November 2012 general election ballot, from resulting in a stay on the bills between now and then. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, asked Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Supt. Tom Luna, “What would the emergency be?” Hancock responded, “The Constitution does not require the Legislature to state the emergency, just to declare it.” When LeFavour said it looked to her like the emergency was “thwarting the democratic process” of a referendum, Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, told Hancock he doesn't have to answer the question.

The first of those bills, HB 335, passed on a party-line vote.

Meanwhile, the House has been locked in a tense debate over SB 1001a, which would require a safety course for underage, unlicensed ATV riders on federal Forest Service roads. After much debate, the bill passed on a 41-27 vote.

Why did GOP ask state to pay its legal costs? Semanko won’t say

Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko has declined repeated requests from Eye on Boise this week for the reasons why the party chose to engage its attorney for the primary election lawsuit on a contingent-fee basis, and request that his costs be paid by the state of Idaho. Jonathan Parker, the party's executive director, said, “It's my understanding that it's standard operating procedure for court cases like this.” He said Semanko had nothing to say beyond that.

House votes 44-22 to pay Idaho GOP’s costs for primary election lawsuit

The House has voted 44-22 in favor of SB 1202, the bill to pay $100,000 to the Idaho Republican Party for legal fees in its recent successful lawsuit against the state to overturn Idaho's primary election system. Nine Republicans joined all 13 of the House Democrats in opposing the move. Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, the bill's House sponsor, said, “You must realize that the civil right attorney fee award act of 1976 states that the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party reasonable attorney fees.” However, that hasn't happened in this case; the state has reached a settlement with the party, reducing the claimed fee amount from $144,000 to $100,000, but the court hasn't ordered fees to be paid. Plus, the party's attorney, Christ Troupis, filed an affidavit with the court stating that he represented the party on a “contingent fee” basis - meaning that if the party lost, he'd get no fee; but if fees were ordered paid by the other party, he would be paid.

“In other words the only fee to be paid in this case, by the arrangement of the plaintiffs and their counsel, was if the state of Idaho would pay,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “I don't find that to be a very fair arrangement to the people of this state.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “As a citizen I just am really upset by this - paying the Republican Party to sue the state of Idaho to make it more difficult for citizens to vote in the primary. Just listen to what we're doing. … The plaintiffs did not have to request money from the state coffers, the Republican Party chose to. … I think that's just unconscionable.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “I would remind the body that we were here a few years ago to try and correct this. Yet we were not able to muster those votes. … Unfortunately, this is an example of the price that we all must pay.”

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said, “I am incredulous that we're even here debating this bill, and I suppose much of the Idaho public is in disbelief that we're even here considering this. … This was a problem that originated in the Idaho Republican Party, and it could've been settled by the Idaho Republican Party.”

Though no Republicans in the House spoke out against the bill in debate, nine of them voted against it, including Reps. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise; Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries; Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa; and Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. The bill now moves to the governor's desk.

Senator asks for conscience bill veto

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said she's asked Gov. Butch Otter to veto HB 187, the “narrow fix” to last year's conscience law that Idaho seniors and the AARP decried, saying it doesn't protect dying patients' end-of-life care decisions. “We'd been promised a fix,” Broadsword said. “I don't feel that this bill did that. I went so far as to ask the governor to veto it.” She said Otter responded that he hadn't yet made up his mind, but she wasn't left with much hope. “It meant enough to me and my constituents that I went and asked,” she said.

Otter so far has signed 164 bills into law, and hasn't vetoed a single one. He did allow one measure, SB 1071a on display of POW/MIA flags, to become law without his signature yesterday.

Senate Dems: Session ‘worst in memory’

Senate Democrats held a press conference just now to reflect on this year's legislative session, which they called the “worst in memoray” and said was dominated by “an off-shoot of the Republican party” that put ideology ahead of the state's best interest. “If there's one thing this session … probably did accomplish, it was to illustrate very boldly to the people of Idaho what they got out of the last election,” said Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise. “If the people of Idaho are paying any attention, maybe they'll decide that they've had enough.”

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, “I'll tell ya, any party that sponsors legislation to put guns on campus, who essentially equates the affordable health care act to Adolph Hitler, that is a party that does not deserve to be in power.” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “This current Republican Party is not the one that's represented many independents and moderate Republicans for many years. … We hope they'll join us.”

Democrats hold just seven seats in the 35-member Senate; they contended that the policies the majority pushed this year, from school reform to Medicaid cuts, will hurt Idaho's economy by eliminating both public- and private-sector jobs. LeFavour said, “This particular Legislature was so preoccupied with … battling each other on fringe issues that they didn't pay attention to the economy.” Click below to read the Senate Democrats' full statement on the session.

Wolf opponents tout wolf emergency bill

About two dozen wolf opponents are gathered on the Statehouse steps to celebrate yesterday's House passage of HB 343, declaring a disaster emergency in Idaho due to wolves, on a  64-5 vote. Anti-wolf activist Don Gillette told the group, “It's the first time in 12 years we've made any headway.” He said rural Idahoans are concerned about wolves. “We're worried about our children standing waiting for buses,” he said. “The only way you can manage Canadian wolves in Idaho is to get rid of them.” The bill is up for a Senate committee hearing this afternoon at 2.

House members head into caucus

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, just announced that the House will break until 1 p.m., and the majority party will head into a closed-door caucus now. House Minority Caucus Chairman Brian Cronin,
D-Boise, said the minority party will do the same.

Meanwhile, the Senate is going at ease for its page graduation ceremony.

Senate passes H&W budget; Vick says it has ‘too much’ for Medicaid

The Senate has voted 22-11 in favor of HB 341, the budget bill for the state Department of Health & Welfare, which includes the Medicaid program. Opponents included freshman Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who said people have been writing to him, telling him that lawmakers aren't doing enough for Medicaid. “I submit to you we can't afford to do more than we're doing,” Vick told the Senate, “and perhaps we're doing too much already.” The budget bill now heads to the governor's desk.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, decried the cuts, then told the Senate, “I guess what I would say is this is a done deal, and what I hope is next year we can do an awful lot better.” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, the bill's sponsor and the Senate's Health & Welfare vice-chairwoman, said, “It's never easy when we're dealing with programs for the indigent and those who can't take care of themselves.” Broadsword said lawmakers will be watching “to make sure that the cuts made this year don't cause permanent harm. I think we'll all look forward to better economic times.”

It’s the 87th legislative day…

The House has gone at ease for its page graduation presentation, which includes young pages spoofing the lawmakers; the Senate also will hold its page graduation today. Meanwhile, the Senate has passed HB 326, on registration reinstatements after vehicle emission violations; and taken up HB 341, the giant budget for the state Department of Health & Welfare. Before it began debating bills, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told senators that adjournment sine die tomorrow is “more than casually doable.” He said, “We should be able to finish our work up hopefully tomorrow, early afternoon.”

House Ed endorses removing charter cap

The House Education Committee has voted 13-4 to pass a last-minute bill, HB 346, to remove the cap on creation of new charter schools in Idaho, which is now set at six per year; the bill now moves to the full House. Times-News reporter Ben Botkin has a report here at his “Capitol Confidential” blog.

Wind turbine siting bill killed, 11-8

The House State Affairs Committee, after a heated debate, has voted 11-8 to kill HB 342, Rep. Tom Loertscher's bill to give veto power over wind turbines to property owners within 2 miles, and instead refer the issue to the Legislature's interim committee on energy. “This is about the little guy,” Loertscher argued; he said he can see dozens of wind turbines from his property. Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said developers and county commissioners are “salivating” over the financial benefits of wind power projects, and said, “This issue is an issue that is driven by money, and unfortunately money clouds our judgment sometimes.”

Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, said the interim committee had a subcommittee study the siting issue, it “spent a tremendous amount of time, and the conclusion of that subcommittee was that siting is a local issue.” Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, noted that HB 342 is a last-minute bill at the end of the session that went to the State Affairs committee rather than the energy committee. Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, compared wind developers to old-time railroad “robber barons.” There was much testimony for and against the bill this morning, from everyone from wind developers (opposed) to county commissioners (opposed) to a sobbing real estate agent who described how she couldn't sell a house that's near wind turbines (in favor), despite lovely staging and the smell of freshly-baked cookies.

Loertscher pushes bill to give neighbors veto power over wind turbines

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, is passionately presenting HB 342, legislation to give any residential property owner within 2 miles veto power over a wind turbine project, to the House State Affairs Committee. “I think we have to be just as concerned about the one landowner that is going to be so adversely affected that he should not only have the opportunity to comment on the project, but he has the opportunity to have it distanced from him so it won't have an impact on his property rights,” he told the committee. The bill also would forbid wind turbines from casting shadows on roads or nearby property. Counties are among those opposed to the last-minute bill.

Party-line vote introduces new primary election bill with just one minor change

A new version of SB 1198, the closed primary bill, has been introduced and sent directly to the full House, on a party-line vote in the House State Affairs Committee. The new version has just one change from the previous one, at the urging of Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa: Rather than specifying that the chairman of a political party would notify the state as to whether that party's primary will be closed or open, it now just says the party will do that. “My concern was the way the language was written and according to testimony, that essentially a party chairman could override … and actually close or open the process unilaterally,” Crane said. The new wording was negotiated with senators, he said.

The move means the original bill, SB 1198, is dead - it'll be held in committee - and the new version replaces it, but it now needs passage in both houses, as lawmakers push toward adjournment this week.

Senate passes substance abuse, mental health budget, moves to adjourn for night

The Senate passed HB 338, the budget bill for substance abuse and mental health services, and now is moving to adjourn for the night. The bill passed over strong objections from Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who said cutting such services will mean more suicides. Both houses have been on bill-passing marathons today; each killed one and passed dozens.

After much debate, House passes energy bills

House members vociferously tried to kill HB 347, the renewable energy tax credit extension, but it passed on a 40-29 vote after much debate. House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, urged representatives to kill the bill. “This industry will survive just fine without it,” he said. Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “Keep that money in the state budget - we've got a lot of use for that money in the state budget, you know that. We could use it very beneficially.” Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “I have voted against this thing so many times I've lost count. It keeps coming back with a different bathing suit but it's still the same flabby body.”

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “I'm from North Idaho and I haven't seen a lot of wind turbines up there.” But she said she thought taxpayers would pay for wind turbines many times over, between federal and state incentives. Plus, she said, “I can assure you one day we'll have to tear all these down. Please vote no.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, noted that the bill already passed the House once when it was in one piece rather than two. The money can't be spent elsewhere, he said, because the rebate is only from taxes generated by the power projects, he said; without the projects, there's no money.

Then, at the urging of House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, the House voted 67-2 to pass HB 348, the second piece of the energy compromise, with only Barrett and Sims voting no. At that point, the House adjourned for the night.

House suspends rules to take up renewable energy bills

The House has suspended its rules to take up HB 347, which contains half of HB 337, the renewable energy rebate bill that earlier passed the House; senators objected that the bill contained multiple subjects, so it was split in two in its newest version. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said the House will take up HB 348, containing the other half, as soon as it's done with HB 347. The first bill deals with the extension of the rebate; the second with PURPA contracts regarding wind and solar projects.

House overwhelmingly kills bill to limit specialty license plates

The House has voted 47-21 to kill legislation designed to limit future specialty license plates. SB 1179, co-sponsored by the House and Senate transportation chairmen, would have restricted all future specialty license plates to those benefiting government agencies or their foundations. Some House members decried the move. Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “I think if we're going to have special license plates, it should be open to everybody and we shouldn't discriminate.” Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “We're eliminating people's brilliant ideas on how they would like to gain attention for some particular thing or raise money for some particular issue. … I don't think we should be in the business of limiting people's imaginations and what they want to do to do these things.”

House Transportation Chairman Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said, “I think it's at least a way to begin getting some control on these.” But he and other backers of the bill were heavily outvoted.

Public school budget passes Senate

The Senate has voted 27-7 in favor of SB 1206, the public school budget bill, sending the measure to the House.

The public school budget…

The public school budget that's now being debated in the Senate is $1.224 billion in state general funds and $1.56 billion total, a $47 million cut from this year's level, which saw a historic $128.5 million cut from the previous year. That's a 3 percent cut. The budget calls for a 1.87 percent pay cut for teachers, administrators and classified staff in the base salaries funded by the state. Part of that comes from a $14.8 million reduction in salary funds to cover technology investments required under SB 1184, the school reform bill, and the rest from an additional $13.3 million cut designed to help balance the budget and meet the bottom line. Discretionary funding per classroom would drop by 10 percent from this year's level, which was 14.4 percent below last year's; overall, the budget is $12 million below the governor's recommendation.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said Idaho's not as bad off as Washington. “They're looking at cutting $700 million from education, both higher ed and K-12,” he said. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the cuts shouldn't have been made; the state could have raised the sales tax or the cigarette tax and avoided them, she said. “In my gut, in my soul, this budget is really painful,” she said. “It's sobering … we in the nation rank as one of the ones that spends the least per pupil on education funding for our public schools, so when we are forced to cut to this level, it can be very, very difficult for districts.” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I have to tell you that I am thrilled that we got it to this level, because when this session started the reduction for public schools was pretty breathtaking, it was pretty onerous.”

Senate takes up public school budget

The Senate has taken up one of the biggest bills of the session: SB 1206, the public schools budget. It's the single largest slice of Idaho's state budget, and includes controversial cuts, including a cut in teacher pay. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, told senators, “Sit back and relax - here we go.”

Of facts, rhymes, and megaloads…

When the Senate debated HB 193a yesterday, the bill to allow courts to require big cash bonds before a lawsuit could be filed against a megaload or other transportation project on Idaho roads, the Senate sponsor, John McGee, R-Caldwell, said in his closing debate that companies planning mega-huge hauls along U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho have spent big bucks on the road: “There's a $10 million investment made into the road in turnouts … power lines … Apparently now those turnouts are now being used by steelhead fishermen,” he told the Senate.

However, Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, said his firm - which has done all the alterations to Highway 12 for megaload transport - only planned to spend about $2.2 million in Idaho, including $600,000 to grade and re-gravel nine existing turnouts, and $1.6 million to raise or lower power lines. (The company does plan to spend $10.6 million on the direct costs of its haul, from guide vehicles to highway patrol escorts, over the year-plus the giant loads would travel, but that's not for road work). ITD reports that the work on the nine existing turnouts, which it inspected, came to $480,000; no new turnouts were created. McGee said former Sen. Skip Brandt told him about fishermen using the turnouts.

McGee, who said he got the $10 million figure “straight from the Internet” and stands by it, said, “This is not a big deal.” And perhaps it's not, but it's a bit ironic that when the same bill was debated in the House earlier, the sponsor there, Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, offered the following whoppers in his debate: He said the companies shipping megaloads will post a $250 million bond to cover damage; the bond is actually $10 million. He said the giant loads are only permitted to travel from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.; actually, it's 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. And Harwood talked about “how much the company has done for the state of Idaho - we have gained a lot. We've got a blacktop road and lots of turnouts. They've done a lot for the road.” Actually, though ExxonMobil paid to improve nine turnouts along Highway 12 by graveling and leveling them, it did not pave the route or add any new turnouts; the highway has been paved since 1962.

McGee disputed that there's any irony here. “I think the word is coincidence,” he said. So, in that spirit, here's a little rhyme I call “HB 193a”:

Fishing for whoppers?
You'll find your fill
When Idaho lawmakers
Debate this one bill.

Benefits grow,
While obstacles shrink,
History does flip-flops
And numbers just kink.

But as for a lawsuit
On a big megaload
Don't give us no facts
Just 'git down the road.

Off-track betting bill passes the Senate

An off-track betting bill has passed the Senate on a 26-9 vote; HB 191 would let racetracks at county fairgrounds that already have licenses for betting on simulcasts of races elsewhere transfer their licenses to a more suitable location, rather than the track itself. “This will not expand gaming, nor the number of locations,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the Senate sponsor of the bill. Instead, she said, it will allow the small tracks to make more money to upgrade their live racing facilities. Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, spoke in favor of the bill. “It does create jobs,” he said. “It really does have an effect on rural Idaho, and I will urge your aye vote.” There was no debate against the bill, despite the number of “no” votes; a number of lawmakers routinely vote against any legislation regarding gambling on moral grounds. The bill, which earlier passed the House, now heads to the governor.

‘Grandson of nullification’ bill wins final passage in Senate

HB 298, nicknamed the “grandson of nullification” as the latest version of legislation aimed at barring the national health care reform law from being implemented in Idaho, has passed the Senate on a 24-11 vote and headed to the governor's desk. This version targets the discretionary portions of the act, and says Idaho won't do anything to comply with those for one year; it also prevents the state from accepting federal funds to implement the act. “Nothing in this stops our state from implementing a health care exchange,” said Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, the bill's Senate sponsor. Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, objected to Pearce's repeated use of the name “Obamacare” to refer to the reform law; Pearce apologized and said he'd switch to the official acronym, PPACA, which stands for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Malepeai said, “We've got some complicated issues before us as it relates to health care. … Do we have resources to do all this? I'm not sure where we're headed down the road in terms of all that's going on at the national level, but I just want us to think about what we're doing.” He said, “We don't want to move too hastily forward and do something that we will regret later.” “I think this is a mistake financially,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, speaking in favor of the bill, said of the national health care reform bill, “It takes away our right to choose our doctor, sets up death panels … sets up a wealth of programs in the home to take our children away from us, which is the same way the Nazis did.” Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “It's really a good time to slow down and say, wait, not yet. … We don't know how deep the water is. Let's not dive in yet.” Said Pearce, “We at least need to hold it out of Idaho as long as we can.”

House passes two more ‘trailer’ bills to earlier school reform bills

The third “trailer bill” to add an emergency clause to already-passed school reform bills, HB 345, has passed the House on a 50-18 vote. This bill adds the emergency clause to SB 1184, the measure that shifts funds from teacher salaries to technology boost and a performance-pay plan. The bill now moves to the Senate. Also, the House has voted 42-26 in favor of HB 315, legislation from Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, to amend already-passed SB 1108 to partially protect school districts that have sharp enrollment drops next year, while dropping the measure's requirement to pay 10 percent severance to teachers laid off due to enrollment drops. That bill, too, moves to the Senate.
  

Wolf disaster bill passes House

The House has voted 64-5 in favor of HB 343, a measure declaring a disaster emergency in the state due to wolves. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said the measure was necessary to protect the “safety of our citizens and livestock producers.” Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “The wolves eat better than anyone else in Custer County,” and threatened to cry if the House didn't pass the bill. “They're killers,” she said.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, spoke out in favor of the measure. “Folks, there is an emergency,” he said. “If we don't take  care of this problem soon, we won't have any wildlife left to hunt or to look at - they will be gone. … I think this is a good idea for us to declare an emergency.” The bill now moves to the Senate.

‘Grandson of nullification,’ wolf emergency bills being debated…

The Senate is now taking up HB 298, the “grandson of nullification” bill against the national health care reform law, while the House is debating a new, hastily introduced measure to declare a disaster emergency over wolves.

20-week abortion ban wins final passage in the House on 54-14 vote

SB 1165, to ban abortion after 20 weeks on grounds of fetal pain, has passed the House on a 54-14 vote and now goes to the governor's desk. The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, shared several stories of people who bore their children rather than having abortions, despite difficult circumstances including illness. If they hadn't, he said at the conclusion of one of the stories, “America would not have been blessed with Beethoven.” Crane told the House that the “hand of the Almighty” was at work. “His ways are higher than our ways,” Crane said. “He has the ability to take difficult, tragic, horrific circumstances and then turn them into wonderful examples.”

The bill makes no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal abnormality or the mental or psychological health of the mother; only when the pregnancy threatens the mother's life or physical health could a post-20-week abortion be performed. An Idaho Attorney General's opinion said the bill is unconstitutional because it violates the Roe vs. Wade decision regarding state restrictions on abortions prior to the point of fetal viability; but backers said they're prepared to defend it in court. “Is not the child of that rape or incest also a victim?” asked Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton. “It didn't ask to be here. It was here under violent circumstances perhaps, but that was through no fault of its own.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the bill would force parents of non-viable infants with severe deformities who won't survive to carry the pregnancy to term, rather than letting them decide how to react to the situation on their own. “These diagnoses were made right at about 20 weeks,” said Rusche, a pediatrician who has handled three such cases. “To knowingly force someone to carry a baby to term when they know it's not going to survive I think is cruel,” he said. All 13 of the House's Democrats voted against the bill; they were joined by one Republican, Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow; while two other Republicans missed the vote.

House, Senate both back at 2

Both houses have now recessed until 2 p.m.

Senate passes ‘Hire One Act,’ 30-5

The Senate has voted 30-5 to pass HB 297, Gov. Butch Otter's “Hire One Act” to give a tax credit to employers who make new hires, with the amount varying based on their rating in the state unemployment system. “It provides an incentive to Idaho employers to hire more people,” Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate. “I think this is the kind of legislation that will kick-start our economy and get us headed in the right direction.” Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said there are a lot of good things in the bill, but he said it's more of a reward for employers who make hires than it is an incentive. “The questions is, can government buy new jobs?” He said, “When I was in business … would I have ever hired one person for a 2 percent or a 4 percent or a 6 percent bonus at the end of the tax year? Would that make good sense to me? And I have to admit it would not.”

The bill was amended in the Senate, and rather than taking effect retroactively to Jan. 1, it would take effect next year, so it wouldn't impact next year's state budget. The bill now goes back to the House for concurrence in the Senate amendments.

Senate kills bill to let state officers hire their own lawyers, rather than use AG

After much debate, the Senate has voted 24-11 to kill HB 277a, legislation that sought to permit state constitutional officers to hire their own attorneys, rather than using the Idaho Attorney General's office. Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said the measure would accommodate an officer who wants a different attorney for partisan or philosophical reasons, someone whose “view of the world” matched his or her own. But attorneys in the Senate said that's not how it works. “I think we have here a misunderstanding about what attorneys do when they practice,” said Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise. “They should give their clients … an honest appraisal of what the law is.” Coloring that with politics or ideology, he said, is “not ethical.”

Ways & Means introduces sweeping tax cut bill

The House Ways & Means Committee met just now and voted along party lines to introduce new legislation from Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, calling for big cuts in personal and corporate income taxes to be phased in over the next eight years, for a total drop in state tax revenue by 2019 of $402 million. “History tells us that the last five times this has been done nationally, the economy has soared, business has thrived,” Hagedorn told the panel. “This is the right idea to bring jobs to the state of Idaho.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said the plan was simply to introduce the bill, not to take it any further this year. He called it “no more than giving them something to work with,” as discussions continue on the concept between this year and next year. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I have real concerns” about such legislation at a time when the state's reserve funds are empty and budgets are being cut. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakely, said, “I think this is a topi that needs to be further discussed, further refined. … I don't think there's any question that it'll be the private sector that'll lead us out of this doldrum.”

The committee also voted to introduce a new renewable energy rebate bill, as part of plans to split the compromise measure that already has passed the House into two separate bills; the other piece already was introduced on the Senate side.

Emergency clause bills clear House over bipartisan opposition

Two bills to tack emergency clauses onto the already-signed school reform bills, SB 1108 on teacher contracts and SB 1110 on teacher merit pay, have passed the House and now head to the Senate. The first, HB 335, passed on a 58-10 vote with no debate. On the second, HB 336, Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, asked the sponsor, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, about the reason for the emergency clause. Nonini said it's to keep a stay from being issued to block the bill from taking effect if a referendum aimed at overturning it qualifies for the 2012 ballot, and said that would restore the “balance of power.”

Rusche said, “I think it's interesting that by restricting the public's ability to effect through referendum it restores the balance of power. We've had significant, significant adverse testimony, both sides of the Capitol, here on these education bills, and I think it's reprehensible to try and stifle the voice of the people through referendum in this way.” Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, added, “I don't think there's an emergency. If the emergency is that we're not going to let the usual referendum process take its course, then apparently any time that there is a desire to inhibit the ability of the people to overturn legislation that this body passes, there is an emergency. I don't think that's what emergency clauses are intended for. … It's inconsistent with our Constitution and statutes.”

Nonini said, “People get a chance to overturn it in 2012, but until then this legislation gets a chance to move forward.” He noted, “There's precedent for doing this,” in that a 1986 Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Right to Work law wasn't stayed in advance of a referendum vote because it contained an emergency clause. HB 336 then passed the House on a 47-22 vote, with nine Republicans joining the 13 House Democrats in opposing it, including Majority Leader Mike Moyle, State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, Health & Welfare Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, Transportation Chairman Leon Smith and Appropriations Vice-Chairman Darrell Bolz. Also voting no were GOP Reps. Rich Wills, Lynn Luker and Julie Ellsworth.

Library Internet filtering bill wins unanimous House support as amended

The House has voted unanimously to approve HB 205a, the library Internet filtering bill, as amended in the Senate; it now goes to the governor's desk. “Some amendments were put on it that made it more acceptable to the library association, who had been in opposition prior, but now are in full support,” Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, told the House. “By changing a couple of 'shalls' to 'mays' we have a law that I think is very good and puts into statute an Internet protection measure for our libraries and the protection of our youth.”

The Idaho Library Association had objected to the earlier version of the bill as an unfunded mandate that required filtering of all Internet access for adults; a group called “Citizens for Decency” that brought the bill to Shirley refused to negotiate with the library association before House passage of the bill, but senators brokered a compromise.

House halts Ringo’s move to call her bill on secret tax deals out of committee

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, made an unsuccessful move in the House this morning to call HB 37, her bill to crack down on secret tax deals and make more of the process public, out of the Rev & Tax Committee, where it's been sitting since January. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, spoke against the move, saying, “The committee had a reason for it being there, and that's where it needs to stay.” Ringo responded, “Actually the point is to let the committee process work. This bill was introduced Jan. 25, and there is nothing in our rules that gives the committee chair the power to refuse a hearing on a bill. … It's the committee process that I want to talk about, and I think it's not working.”

Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, “This is a House bill that I held in committee, and there's a good reason for it. As you recall early in the session there was a lot of controversy about what was going on in the Tax Commission, some changes were made, and I think that that issue has substantially resolved itself. Do we still have some issues regarding how we do compromise and closing agreements? Yes, we do.” But he said a committee was formed, including himself, his Senate counterpart, and GOP legislative leaders. “We will make some recommendations to the governor, and I think any changes ought to come through him,” Lake said.

The House then voted 52-15 to “excuse the committee” from bringing forth the bill, which leaves the measure there. All 13 House Democrats opposed the motion, which Moyle proposed; they were joined by two Republicans, Reps. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, and Max Black, R-Boise.

Davis: Thursday adjournment ‘a real possibility’

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis just announced to the Senate, “Our current target for adjournment sine die is Thursday, and we're going to work as hard in that direction as we possibly can.” He said, “What we can do on our side is make sure we have our legislation cleared each day. If we do that, it makes Thursday adjournment a real possibility. There are some other moving parts that could have an impact on that, but we're working hard in that direction.” The Senate cleared all the legislation on its calendar yesterday; it plans to do the same today, Davis said, and each subsequent day, which requires suspending rules to take up bills that haven't yet reached the 3rd Reading Calendar.

Given Davis' track record on such predictions, it seems likely the Legislature will adjourn Friday.

Election-change bill has big implications…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today's surprise holdup for SB 1198, the closed-primary election bill, after the House State Affairs Committee balked this morning and asked to hold the bill for a day so various questions about it can be answered. The Idaho Republican Party successfully sued to overturn the current system, in which Idahoans can choose which party's ballot to vote on during primary elections, without ever pledging loyalty to one party or another. The Idaho GOP adopted a party rule saying only registered Republicans should be able to vote in its primary, and a federal court ruled that the state law violated the party's freedom of association rights by forcing violations of the party rule.

It's now up to lawmakers to decide how to restructure Idaho's primary election laws to comply with the court decision. The plan put forth by GOP leaders, in consultation with the Republican Party, would let parties choose each election whether they're going to allow unaffiliated voters or members of other parties to vote, or just their own members; under the current Idaho GOP rules, it'd be just their own members. The issue is of particular significance in Idaho, where this year's Boise State University Public Policy Survey showed that independents are now the single largest group in the state at 37 percent, edging out Republicans, 33 percent, who hold most of the state's elective offices, and Democrats, 21 percent, who hold few offices.

House State Affairs balks at closed-primary bill, won’t vote ‘til tomorrow

In a surprise move, the House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously to hold SB 1198, the primary election bill, for one day - rather than vote on it today. “I think it is a fundamental shift in election policy, and I have some questions about this bill that I need answered before I can make a decision as to whether to advance this piece of legislation forward,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa. “So I'd like to hold it for one day and get some of those questions answered.”

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, said, “I would concur with Rep. Crane's motion. I truly don't care if primaries are open or closed, but I really care about the cost to the taxpayers on registering political parties, on using the taxpayer money for political parties to get people registered for their party.”

After the unanimous voice vote in favor of Crane's motion, committee Chairman Tom Loertscher announced that tomorrow's House State Affairs Committee meeting will have to start at 7:15 a.m., to accommodate both re-hearing this bill and another “time-consuming piece of legislation” already scheduled.

‘Some rude shocks for independent voters’

Gary Allen, attorney for a group of independent voters, said under SB 1198, “There are going to be a lot of people who sign up as unaffiliated and are going to be surprised when they show up at the voting and discover that they're only voting for their district court candidates, and nothing else is available to them. … I think there are going to be some rude shocks for independent voters. … That does not seem fair to me.”

Allen: ‘Can’t believe partisan registration more important than funding schools, medical care for needy’

Gary Allen, attorney for independent voters who are appealing the federal court decision overturning Idaho's current primary system, told the House State Affairs Committee this morning, “My clients are concerned with the requirement for mandatory registration for two reasons: First, it requires public disclosure of a voter's party preference. This is a break with 100 years of history in the state of Idaho - never before has a voter in the state of Idaho had to declare a party preference.” He said that's an “unnecessary intrusion” into his clients' privacy. “Frankly, our clients don't want to do it,” he said. “Second, there's a significant cost associated with … registration. This is also unnecessary. … I find it hard to believe that administering partisan registration is more important than funding our schools or medical care for the needy.”

Allen said there are plenty of other options for complying with the court decision without requiring party registration. Idaho could move to a “top two” primary, like Washington's. Or it could let parties that want to close their process hold conventions or caucuses at their own expense. “We encourage you to adopt an option that allows independent participation,” he said. “The Republican primary in Idaho often is the only election that counts.”

Lots of questions from reps this morning on modified-closed-primary bill

House Speaker Lawerence Denney is presenting the primary election bill, SB 1198, to the House State Affairs Committee this morning. Committee members have lots of questions. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, asked, “As I read that, that's a default to a closed primary and the chairman of the party has to affirmatively notify that that'll be an open primary, is that correct?” Denney responded, “That is correct. It was set up that way to comply with the judge's ruling that it be closed unless the party choose to open it.”

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, asked about the costs identified in the bill - $215,000 to the state general fund and an additional $160,000 to the counties. “It would probably be less after the first one,” Denney said. “The first one is for voter education and additional poll workers. Once everyone goes through the system and is registered, then they expect that to decrease. But that would be for the first one, and probably for the first couple.”

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, asked, “I'm not sure this would eliminate crossover voting, but would it curtail it somewhat?” Denney responded, “It depends on whether the party chooses to close, totally close the primary. And even if they do choose to totally close, you could go through the process where you register as a partisan, and then change your party affiliation back to unaffiliated and vote in the other primary the next time, but that would be a very cumbersome process.”

Boxes appear, end of session near…

In the hallway of the Senate chamber, empty cardboard boxes are piled up - a sure sign that the end of Idaho's 2011 legislative session is approaching. The boxes are for lawmakers and staffers to pack their things in when they leave the Statehouse at the end of the session.

Big turnout for Dems’ cig tax hearing…

There's a big turnout this afternoon at the informational hearing that House Democrats are holding on legislation to increase Idaho's cigarette tax - more than 60 people are in the room, and there are people testifying both for and against the bill. Practically the entire Democratic House caucus is sitting and taking the testimony; the Dems decided to schedule the hearing on their own after majority Republicans refused to hold a hearing on the measure.

Senate passes pro-megaloads bill to make lawsuits tougher

The Senate has voted 27-8 in favor of HB 193a, the amended version of Rep. Dick Harwood's pro-megaloads bill to require a big cash bond before anyone can sue to block one of the loads. The bill originally required a cash bond equal to 5 percent of the insured value of the load; the amended version allows a judge to require a bond of up to 10 percent of that value. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said, “Idaho has a good permitting process, but one in this case that was manipulated and in my opinion unnecessarily delayed.”

He said he thought the process of permitting megaloads already allows “plenty of public input,” and said, “By taking the 5 percent floor and turning it into a 10 percent cap … the average person can actually participate in the process much more easily.” McGee said, “The problem we have is that people's jobs were being held up by these lawsuits. … Passage of this bill sends a message that Idaho is not going to let its economy be held hostage by activist groups using lawsuits as delay tactics.”

When the bill had its Senate committee hearing, Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning testified that ITD has only ever faced one lawsuit over a load - the one over the Highway 12 megaloads, which was unsuccessful. The bill passed the Senate on a 27-8 vote; it now goes back to the House for concurrence in the amendments.

Senate approves payment to Idaho GOP for legal fees, despite concerns

The Senate has voted 25-10 to pay $100,000 to the Idaho Republican Party for its attorney fees in its successful lawsuit against Idaho's primary election law, a settlement that was reached between the state and the party, revising the amount down from close to $144,000. But several senators noted that the court hasn't ordered payment. “I have to point out, we're paying $100,000 for the Republican Party to sue the Republican Legislature, defended by the Republican secretary of state, in order to close primaries in Idaho - I just think this is so bad it's comical,” said Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, an attorney, asked Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, who also is an attorney and is the bill's Senate sponsor, “Was the plaintiff forced to ask for those attorney fees?” Toryanski responded, “I do not believe that the lawyer that represented the plaintiff would be forced to ask for anything. However, under the civil rights attorneys fees award act of 1976, that act provides for the prevailing party in a civil rights lawsuit 1983, which this is, for the prevailing party to receive attorney fees.” Bock asked, “Let's assume the plaintiff in this lawsuit had not requested attorney fees.” Would they be awarded? he asked. “We're dealing with hypotheticals,” Toryanski responded. “The request was made.”

According to an affidavit that the Republican Party's attorney, Christ Troupis, filed with the federal court, he represented the party in the case on a “contingent fee” basis. That means the party wouldn't have owed him anything in fees if it lost; he would collect only if the court ordered fees paid by the prevailing party. You can read the affidavit here.

Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, said, “Senators, without a court order I don't believe it's in the best interest of Idaho residents, and in all good conscience I cannot support that, so this senator votes no.” The bill, SB 1202, now moves to the House.

Amended day-care bill wins unanimous support in the Senate

The Senate has voted unanimously in favor of HB 129a, the day-care regulation bill. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said amendments to the bill simplified it and made sure that it addressed complaints about the existing law that have been coming in from day-care providers around the state. “We took a 15-page bill and turned it into a four-page bill,” she told the Senate. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said there's long been conflict over day-care regulations, and that the amended bill strikes an appropriate balance. “It's a compromise fix, and it resolves a number of problems,” Corder said. The amended bill now returns to the House for concurrence in the Senate amendments.

House passes Health & Welfare budget bill

The House has voted 49-20 in favor of HB 341, the Health & Welfare budget bill, after a debate that mostly featured objections to the big budget bill, which incorporates numerous smaller pieces that were debated separately in JFAC. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said cutting funding for Medicaid services for the vulnerable isn't appropriate at a time when Medicaid enrollment is rising due to the economic downturn. “Are we really all in this together, or is it right to throw some citizens out of the lifeboat?” he asked. “The House has stated that it cannot increase the tax burden in the slightest, even through fees on criminals, not by taxing tobacco, not in any way,” Rusche said. “But look who are we going to look to for funding the budget shortfall - the medically and behaviorally vulnerable Idahoans.”

House Health & Welfare Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, speaking in favor of the budget bill, said, “This is a serious budget and we are spending a serious amount of money in Medicaid. We have got to get this budget under control, we have got to get this spending under control.” The bill now moves to the Senate.

Three emergency-clause bills advance for school reforms

The House Education Committee this morning sent HB 335 and HB 336, both “trailer” bills to add emergency clauses to the already-enacted school reform laws SB 1108 and SB 1110, to the full House for votes, and introduced a third measure to add an emergency clause to SB 1184, the just-passed school reform bill to shift salary funds to technology purchases. Luci Willits, chief of staff for state schools Supt. Tom Luna, said the emergency clauses will ensure that if a referendum to reject them qualifies for the ballot, it won't stay the laws between now and the referendum vote in November of 2012. “The state department is not taking anything for granted,” Willits said. “If these laws are halted in implementation, education will be in limbo for at least 18 months.”

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Trail on medical marijuana: ‘Get dialogue, discussion started at the state level’

At the close of today's informational hearing on HB 19, the medical marijuana bill, Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, the bill's sponsor, said, “Medical marijuana is a controversial issue, but we felt if we could get some dialogue and discussion started at the state level, we'd like to.” He said 300 to 500 Idaho families have moved to Oregon because critically ill members of their families couldn't get medical marijuana in Idaho. “This is an issue that'll be with us for some time to come,” Trail said. “Many thanks for your understanding and listening. Again, this issue will be before us as we move ahead.”

Wrenching testimony from patients at medical marijuana hearing; no action planned on bill

The House Health & Welfare Committee is hearing wrenching testimony today from patients about their health conditions as part of its continued informational hearing on Rep. Tom Trail's medical marijuana bill, HB 19. Many have said medical marijuana would alleviate their suffering and remove the need to take other, stronger medications that cause them serious side effects. Also, Debbie Field, director of the Idaho Office of Drug Policy, spoke against the bill, saying a state criminal justice commission has voted to oppose it. “It is fueling all kinds of fires out there on a movement through an initiative process,” Field told the committee, and she said Montana is looking to repeal its medical marijuana law due to concerns.

Trail, R-Moscow, responded, “Debbie made an excellent point, and that is the fact that states that have gone through the initiative process did not go through the rigorous hearing” that legislation requires. Though the committee is holding an informational hearing, it doesn't plan to take any action on the bill this year.

Neighboring Washington, Montana, Oregon and Nevada all have legalized medical marijuana, but the substance is fully criminalized in Idaho, with possession of even traces classified as a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Anyone younger than 18 caught with any amount of marijuana also will lose their driver’s license for a year, and possession of 3 ounces or more is a felony, carrying up to a five-year prison sentence and fines of up to $10,000.

Dems: ‘Slowdown showdown’ is over, call for session shutdown before ‘any more harm’

House and Senate Democrats held a joint press conference just now to announce that the “slowdown showdown” is over - House Democrats won't continue to demand full reading of bills before they're considered in the House - but that they're anything but happy over the outcome of the session and the GOP supermajority's refusal to hear bills on a cigarette tax increase or an advisory vote on school reform. “Republican leadership squelches discussion of any ideas that a handful of people might disagree with,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “No state should make policy in this way. Serious policy ideas deserve a debate and should be done in the open, with public input.”

House Minority Caucus Chairman Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said, “The reason we are still here today, the 85th day of the legislative session, is because the Republican's don't want the shenanigans to end. In the exercise of absolute power, the Republicans continue to introduce new bills, many of which are half baked and hastily slapped together.” Cronin said just in the last two weeks in the House, 36 new bills have been introduced, 21 of those in the last week and three this morning in the Education Committee; the criticism was aimed at GOP reactions to the Democrats' “slowdown showdown” that included blaming the minority for extending the session and increasing costs to taxpayers. Lawmakers expect the legislative session to end this week; Rusche said that depends on the majority.

After the press conference, he said, “I didn't know how important it was to be a bully, and they showed that they're big enough that they can do it. What's the next best thing? Well, let's get out of town before they can do any more harm.” He did say the Dems' protest drew positive feedback from around the state. “I think there's a lot more concern about closed government, about using power inappropriately,” he said.
  

House, Senate both recess ‘til 3 p.m.

The House and Senate have now both recessed until 3 p.m., the House doing so just after sponsor Rep. Fred Wood's lengthy opening explanation of HB 341, the Health & Welfare budget bill. Debate on that measure will continue this afternoon when the House reconvenes.

House takes up Health & Welfare budget

The House is taking up the Health & Welfare budget, HB 341, a huge and complicated budget that includes the Medicaid program. Overall, it totals $564.8 million in state general funds next year, a 29.5 percent increase, but that's largely because of a drop in the federal matching rate for Medicaid, which is forcing the state to pay more of the bill for those services. In total funds, the budget comes to $2.2 billion, up 11.8 percent from this year; increased caseload is among the factors driving overall growth, despite $35 million in cuts to state Medicaid funding and services that lawmakers approved in separate legislation, HB 260; those cuts are reflected in the budget.

House sidelines bill to eliminate driver’s ed funding

The House was on the verge of killing HB 314, Rep. Steven Thayn's bill to eliminate public funding for driver's training in schools, when House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, abruptly asked to return the bill to the House Education Committee. Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, objected, saying, “There has been some great debate here and I think we probably have heard enough to be able to make a decision on this proposal.” But Nonini argued, “This is a good bill that needs a little bit more work,” and his motion carried on a 53-16 vote.

Thayn said the move would promote private driver-training businesses, but opponents raised questions ranging from teen driver safety to unavailability of private driving schools in rural areas to the lack of families' ability now to pay double the current fees for driver training. “This is dangerous ground,” warned Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper.

House Dems back off on demanding full reading of urban renewal bill

House Democrats had objected to waiving the full reading of HB 95a, the amended urban renewal bill, and the bill text was being read when House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, interrupted. Rusche said the Democrats still want hearings on bills to raise the state's cigarette tax and to hold an advisory vote of the people on this year's school reform legislation. “We've asked the introduction of two pieces of legislation in order that these concerns be heard,” Rusche said. “When we needed to, we used legitimate procedural protests to try to draw that attention…. But perhaps the best thing we can do for Idaho's citizens is rapidly bring this session to a close,” so lawmakers can return to their districts and hear the concerns of the citizens there. Therefore, he said, he'd ask unanimous consent to waive further reading of HB 95a.

That unanimous consent was granted, and the bill-reading was halted. After some debate, the bill then passed 64-6; it had earlier passed the House, but was amended in the Senate, so the measure still needed House approval as amended. It now moves to the governor's desk.

House Dems to hold own hearing on cigarette tax increase

House Democrats, rebuffed in their efforts to get a hearing on legislation to raise Idaho's 57-cent-per-pack cigarette tax by $1.25 a pack, have scheduled their own informational hearing on the issue this afternoon, at 4:30 in the House Health & Welfare committee room, Room EW 42 in the lower level of the state Capitol. “In response to overwhelming public input, House Democrats will hold an informational hearing on the issue of tobacco tax,” the minority announced. “Republican leadership has refused to allow an introduction or hearing on proposals to increase the cigarette tax to fill shortfalls in budgets for health services or public schools. The hearing is open to the public and there will be an opportunity to testify.”

House Dems also have scheduled a press conference when the House adjourns its morning session today, to discuss their protest efforts seeking hearings on both the cigarette tax bill and a measure calling for an advisory vote on school reform.

Compromise energy bill may be split in two…

The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced a new bill this morning, as a result of concerns that the compromise bill on renewable energy tax rebates, HB 337, includes multiple subjects. That bill already has passed the House, but hasn't had a Senate committee hearing. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, chairman of the state affairs committee, had scheduled two new bills for introduction, each containing a piece of HB 337, but said there was concern that one of the pieces relates to taxing and therefore should start in the House; the committee voted to introduce the other piece, which deals with PURPA rules relating to wind and solar energy projects.

Bill would expand GARVEE bonding…

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, has persuaded the Senate State Affairs Committee to introduce a bill - though he said he doesn't plan to proceed further with it this year - to issue additional GARVEE bonds to upgrade ailing Idaho bridges. The measure calls for issuing another $140 million in bonds, which is the remaining bonding capacity in the program under current state law. “This is just to begin the discussion,” McGee said. Though his bill would target the money to bridges, lawmakers may want to discuss other uses, including finishing some of the existing corridors in the bonding program, he said.

Anti-health care reform bill clears Senate panel

HB 298, the bill that's being referred to as the “grandson of nullification,” has passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on a rather unenthusiastic, divided voice vote. Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation; and a citizen who spoke of the virtues of nullification were among those calling for passage of the bill, which would forbid Idaho from accepting federal money to implement health care reform and would put a one-year hold on any actions by the state to comply with discretionary portions of the law, along with other measures. It's a follow-up to earlier attempts to declare the federal health care reform law “null and void” and block it from taking effect in Idaho; one bill aimed at that end passed the House, but died in this same Senate committee.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, asked how much Idaho taxpayers might have to pay as a result of the passage of the new bill, including paying the federal government back or paying “for services that we're not going to receive from the federal government?” Hoffman responded, “I don't believe it would cost the taxpayers anything. … We'd certainly be passing up some opportunities to get federal grants that are coming down, but it's not going to cost the state.” Lodge, who is chairwoman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, said, “I've heard that the taxpayers will have to pay back, they'll have to take part in any of the costs of this health care legislation if it's upheld by the Supreme Corut. And I was just kind of wanting to know if you've done that far an analysis of what it's going to cost the individual taxpayers.”

Hoffman said, “Our figure was around $200 million for the impact of the entire PPACA, if it stands,” in Idaho. The House-passed bill now moves to the full Senate for a vote.

Third school reform ‘emergency clause’ trailer bill introduced

The House Education Committee has introduced new legislation to add an emergency clause to SB 1184, the sweeping school reform bill that just passed the House on Friday. Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Supt. Tom Luna, asked by committee members about the impact of the emergency clause, said, “An emergency clause has the effect of ensuring that legislation that is ultimately brought up in a referendum … is going to go into effect and function.” The emergency clause, like two other “trailer bills” already pending to “trail” after the other two school reform bills, SB 1108 and SB 1110, would make the bills take effect immediately to evade a stay that otherwise would have been imposed if a referendum effort successfully qualifies for the ballot.

Instead, with the emergency clauses, a successful referendum could overturn the laws if it passes in the November 2012 general election, but it couldn't stop them from taking effect between now and then.

Off-track betting bill clears Senate committee

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 5-4 in favor of HB 191, the bill to allow licenses for off-track betting on simulcasts of live horse races to be transferred off of local fairgrounds racetrack facilities to more suitable locations. All the testimony on the bill was in favor. The bill, which previously passed the House, now moves to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

House Ed Committee introduces bill to lift charter school cap

The House Education Committee has voted to introduce new legislation to remove the cap on formation of new charter schools each year, currently set at six, but rejected a move to send the new bill straight to the full House without a hearing. Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, asked the sponsor, Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, “This is a pretty big issue and I would say not free from controversy. Why are we hearing this within days of adjournment?” Bayer said he thought the bill was “timely” with regard to “our overall global education reform and changes in direction.”

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, moved to send the bill directly to the House's 2nd Reading Calendar, rather than just introduce it, but her motion was killed on an overwhelming voice vote. “We need to have discussion on this,” said Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding. Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, agreed, and said the bill should be looked at next year. “I think the charter school issue should get more discussion than the 15 minutes here that we've given it,” he said. “I'd like to hear from some of the stakeholders, the charter school folks … I don't have any problem with sending this to print, but I think at this time, given the lateness of the hour, I think we should not be too precipitous here.”

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, said, “I'd like to talk to folks up in my district about this. … There are policy issues here that the stakeholders really need to come together and have a full hearing on it - otherwise we're going to get a lot of criticism.”

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television, I join Dr. Jim Weatherby and Idaho Press-Tribune Editor Vickie Holbrook, along with host Greg Hahn, to discuss the events of the week, and Greg interviews Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, along with “emerging leaders” Reps. Brian Cronin and Vito Barbieri. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m., then re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific; it also can be seen online at www.idahoptv.org. There's also a “Web Extra” of our continued discussion after the show - in which Vickie discusses how Canyon County will gain from redistricting, I recite limericks and Jim talks about medical marijuana - and another of Greg and the legislative leaders; you can see those at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.

Click here to see a slide show of the week in pictures, as the 12th week of Idaho's 2011 legislative session comes to a close. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the frame as the pictures show, to see the captions.
  

Lawmakers on wolves: It’s an emergency!

That hastily called meeting of the House Ways & Means Committee today? It was to introduce two bills: One on wind turbine siting restrictions (see item below), and one declaring a wolf disaster. Here's what AP reporter John Miller reports on the wolf emergency bill:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Wolf-fearing lawmakers want Idaho to declare a disaster emergency that could include enlisting local law enforcement officers to help eradicate packs of the predators. Rep. Judy Boyle from west-central Idaho, one of Idaho's most active wolf opponents, told a hastily organized meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee that residents feel physically and psychologically threatened.

No wolves have been documented attacking humans, but the predators kill dozens or hundreds of sheep, cattle, hunting dogs and wild game including deer and elk annually. Boyle wants a new law giving the governor authority to declare a disaster emergency that allows rapid steps to be taken against wolves until the species is delisted, or the emergency no longer exists. There's currently a proposal in Washington, D.C. to lift federal protections from wolves.

Hawkins pushes wind turbine siting bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Wind farms would be forbidden within two miles of a residential property without the owner's permission, according to a measure that proposes strict new limits on where the tall turbines could be built. Its sponsor is Rep. Tom Loertscher, a Republican whose eastern Idaho district is near the epicenter of residents' concerns about the proliferation of wind turbines. Loertscher's bill would also forbid counties from approving wind energy facilities whose spinning blades cast a flickering shadow on somebody else's property. He told the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday that such flickering shadows can be extremely disconcerting to drivers who may fear a semi-truck is bearing down on them. Former state Sen. Stan Hawkins of Ucon is promoting this bill after a wind-energy moratorium he also backed was defeated.

Ah, the ugliness…

Perhaps I should explain. There's a long tradition among the Statehouse press corps that when they deem the session has gone on long enough, they begin donning ugly ties in an effort to so shock and horrify the legislators that they'll wrap up their business and go home. As I seldom wear ties, a few years ago I began an alternative approach: Writing ugly poetry.

It mostly takes the form of lame limericks, but I also stoop to other questionable quatrains, and in the most extreme of circumstances, sometimes even a haiku. I am pushed, as they say, from bad to verse. So please pardon my rhymes; they come with the times.

Possible glitch for energy rebate bill…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho senators are raising concerns about the constitutionality of a measure to extend the alternative energy rebate to wind and other alternative energy developers. The House approved the bill, but Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Joe Stegner said Friday he's asked for an attorney general's opinion. The problem? This measure extends the tax rebate until 2014, but also puts strict limits on the size of future wind and solar projects that could demand state-mandated rates for their electricity from utilities like Idaho Power Co. Stegner says he fears including these two issues — one tax, the other energy policy — in the bill runs afoul of Idaho's constitutional restrictions that legislation “embrace but one subject.” With the 2011 Legislature winding down, that puts this measure's future in question.

School reform heads to governor’s desk

Here's a link to our full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho lawmakers today sent the final piece of a plan to reform the state's public schools to the governor's desk, following three months of fierce debate that dominated the 2011 session.

Otter on school reform: ‘Necessary and appropriate’

Gov. Butch Otter and state schools Supt. Tom Luna have issued a news release applauding the passage of SB 1184 in the House, with Otter calling the school reform bill “necessary and appropriate” and saying it “underwent extraordinarily thorough public and legislative vetting.” Click below to read the full release.

Limerick No. 6: After the hearings…

The crowds have come and gone
From auditorium, steps and lawn
Their tears all shed
Their emails read
But still the session goes on…

How they voted…

Here's how House members voted in the 44-26 passage today of SB 1184, the final bill in state schools Supt. Tom Luna's three-bill school reform plan:

Voting in favor: Reps. Anderson, Barbieri, Barrett, Bayer, Bedke, Bilbao, Black, Block, Boyle, Chadderdon, Collins, Crane, DeMordaunt, Gibbs(Wheeler), Guthrie, Hagedorn, Hart, Hartgen, Harwood, Henderson, Lake, Marriott, McMillan, Nielsen, Nonini, Palmer, Patrick, Perry, Raybould, Roberts, Schaefer, Shepherd, Shirley, Simpson, Sims, Stevenson, Takasugi(Batt), Thayn, Thompson, VanderWoude, Wills, Wood(27), Wood(35), Denney.

Voting against: Reps. Andrus, Bateman, Bell, Bolz, Buckner-Webb, Burgoyne, Chew, Cronin, Ellsworth, Eskridge, Higgins, Jaquet, Killen, King, Lacey, Loertscher, Luker, McGeachin, Moyle, Nesset, Pence, Ringo, Rusche, Smith(30), Smith(24), Trail.
  

Rusche: ‘It was bad form’

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said after the vote on SB 1184, on which debate was abruptly cut off, “There were a number of people who hadn't had a chance to talk.” The bill was perhaps the most controversial one of the session, and the final piece of the education reform package; it was the only business scheduled in the House today.

“I don't think it changed the outcome,” Rusche said of the abrupt cut-off of debate, “but I think it was bad form. Cutting people off from having their voice is pretty typical for the Republican Legislature this year.”

SB 1184 passes on 44-26 vote

The House has passed SB 1184 on a 44-26 vote. Now, it's adjourning until Monday. Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, then announced that the House Ways & Means Committee will meet after the scheduled meeting of the Resources Committee, which is meeting on adjournment.

Closing debate cut off too

“We can make the choice to reinvest or we can make the choice to just cut for another year,” Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the House in his closing debate. He was interrupted, however, by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who asked to set the House at ease. The problem: Rules say when debate is cut off in the manner it was here, there is no closing debate. So now it's time for a vote.
  

Marriott moves to cut off debate

Rep. Jim Marriott, R-Blackfoot, has just moved to cut off the debate on SB 1184, saying the debate has gone on long enough after four hours and people are just telling personal stories now. His motion passed, 44-20. That's two-thirds of those present. The move prompted a huddle of leadership from both parties at the speaker's desk during a brief at-ease; now the House is moving on to Rep. Bob Nonini's closing debate, and no other representatives will be allowed to speak.
  

Debate: ‘Power and choices,’ ‘Economy will improve’

Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, told the House, “One of the things I find really appealing about this bill is it gives power and choices to parents and students to choose classes that will benefit them personally.”

Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, said, “Technology - that's where we're headed, folks.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “This economy will improve, circumstances will improve, revenues to our school districts will improve. And yet according to my school district, this plan begins to take money out of local schools and put them in the state Department of Education.”

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said students already know how to evade computer security programs and other high-tech skills. “I submit that if we think we have something to teach these kids we are sadly mistaken when it comes to technology.” He said the legislation offers a “glib, marketing type of approach” that won't produce anything.

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “We have parents who cannot pay more. These parents are struggling. … This bill gives us an opportunity in our rural areas … we can go online, we can have a good teacher.”

The Citizen Legislature

You may talk as quickly as Moyle
Or favor the Ruschean pause
If you've got ideas that can fix things
Then you can come here and make laws.

Don't think that change will come easy
Or you'll think the outcome is right
But if you don't like how it's going
You might want to bring your own fight.

That's how it works in the Statehouse
Farmers, biz folks, retirees
Doctors, cops, lawyers and realtors
Compromise, jockey, appease.

The lawmaking often is messy
And lives are affected each day
The voters decide who comes down here
So make sure that you have your say.

Bedke: Schools can use other money to offset bill’s salary-fund shifts

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, debating in favor of SB 1184, passed out a report showing how school districts have spent the $51.6 million in federal jobs money they got last August; districts were given flexibility to spend the money to offset cuts immediately, or use the funds over the next two years or more, but warned to save at least some. “They obviously listened to the governor's admonitions at that time,” Bedke said, because many districts still haven't spent all of that money - and some haven't spent any of it yet. “They're in a position … to more than offset whatever budget actions that we do,” he said. He called that “what's been missing in this debate.”

Bedke also said when JFAC set its budget for public schools for next year, “They had heard the debate about taking money out of salary-based apportionment and buying technology with it. That didn't set well with the joint committee. … They used $13 million and some to eliminate this transfer from salary-based apportionment to technology. Technology is completely funded without taking money from salary-based apportionment.”

That actually was what Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, advocated in opposing SB 1184 in the Senate - that even without SB 1184, the state could fund state schools Supt. Tom Luna's proposed spending level for technology next year. And the joint committee did set a budget for schools for next year with a $47 million budget cut, rather than the feared $62 million. Did it reverse the SB 1184 fund-shift? I certainly didn't see that in the intent language, but it's long and complicated; you can read it yourself here.

DeMordaunt: ‘From sage on stage to guide by the side’

“Technology has become an agent of change,” Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told the House, debating in favor of SB 1184. “This is really about personalized education for our kids.” He said modern online courses involve students and teach collaboration. “It is not the electronic version of a correspondence course,” he said. “Did the microwave replace the cook in the kitchen? It did not, in the same way that technology is not going to replace the teacher in the classroom.” He said technology allows education to transform from “the sage on the stage to a guide by the side.”

Limerick No. 5: On referenda…

With all apologies:

The voters might want to weigh in
And that would be, oh, such a sin
We'll burden the laws
With emergency clause
And then we'll be sure that we win.
  

Debate: ‘Gladly skip back to JFAC,’ ‘Equalize the availability’

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said in response to comments from SB 1184's sponsor, Rep. Bob Nonini, about how the budget set for schools by JFAC this year is based on this bill, that she'd “gladly skip back to that Joint Finance-Appropriations room and make the necessary adjustments in the budget” if lawmakers turn the bill down. Ringo, a retired math teacher, said, “The question is how do you appropriately integrate technology in the classroom. It's not by replacing teachers by computers, and even though it has been argued that that's not the road we're going down, I would submit to you that we are.” To bolster her argument, she led lawmakers through a handout she's distributed showing details of the state's teacher salary grid and how it's impacted. Said Ringo, “It's not going to do anything for the quality of education.”

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, told the House, “I received over 600 emails, and only two were in favor of it, from my particular district.”

Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, spoke in favor of the bill. “There have been a lot of troubling things stated today,” he said. “We've heard that the stakeholders are unanimously opposed to this. … The stakeholders have had a lot to do with the development of this particular bill. They've been involved.” Shirley said, “They do not feel comfortable about the fact that the formula in this bill suggests that the percentage will go up each year based on the present-day economy, so that the debt on school districts will be heavier to bear. But if the economy changes, that fluctuates, and it will not be such a burden.” Plus, he said, “In Section 17 of this bill, we as a Legislature are given the power and authority to alter that,” if it would be “so burdensome to the districts.”

Shirley said online learning would let students in rural districts access the same courses as those offered in urban schools. “I think that's significant,” he said. “It equalizes the availability to all students.”

Cronin: ‘We’ve denigrated and devalued teachers’

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, debating against SB 1184 in the House, said stakeholders' concerns weren't addressed, and that's why they don't support the bill. Rather than back away from providing a laptop computer to every high school student, Cronin said, “We're now spending $2.3 million more” on buying laptops than in the previous version of the controversial bill. He said, “Here's what I know: That young people today, they are in no way challenged in the workplace due to a lack of familiarity and experience with technology.” Technology is practically “in their DNA,” he said. But young people need  analytical, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, he said, which they can't learn from computers.

“We've denigrated and devalued teachers,” Cronin said. “You only need to go back to your district and ask teachers if they feel they've been valued, with the legislation we've passed this year.” He said, “This plan, ladies and gentlemen, does replace teachers with technology. No amount of rhetorical tap-dancing can change that.”

Bateman: ‘Computers are already coming out our ears’

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said he supported the two earlier school reform bills proposed by state schools Supt. Tom Luna, but he can't support this SB 1184. Bateman said the bill isn't supported by school administrators, teachers, principals, school boards or students. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have to have support from these people if you expect to carry out these measures,” he said. “During these difficult times, we should not be mandating the purchase of computers over the next four years - especially since computers are already coming out our ears.”

Bateman said opponents of the bill aren't “backward” or opposed to technology - he said it's already here, and schools already have it. He said it's laughable to propose to give each teacher a computer in a year and a half - they already have them, he said. Bateman recalled watching his community's first TV at his grandparents' house in 1954, and how everyone gathered around to see it. Now, he said, TVs are everywhere; and that's what's already happened with computers in schools. “I think the real reason that this is being pushed is the notion that more computers and fewer teachers will lead to a superior kind of learning,” he declared. But, he said, “The best teacher I ever had used a piece of chalk.” Computers are a “wonderful tool,” he said, but he told the House that teaching is not a science - it's an art.

By moving to online classes, Bateman said, “You're going to make it easy for kids to find easy classes to fill course requirements.” He said the bill would lead to fewer teachers and more computers, and that wouldn't help learning.

Nonini: ‘Now is the time to step up’

Out of the entire school budget, Rep. Bob Nonini said the question posed by SB 1184 is about just a small fraction. “Out of that $2 billion, are we wiling to spend a fraction, 1 percent of the overall budget … now and in the future are we going to spend that little fraction of the overall appropriation for public education a little differently to move our schools and classrooms into the 21st Century?” he asked. “I say we step up. Now is the time to step up and prepare our students.

Nonini on SB 1184: ‘Spend what we have differently’

“This bill is spurred by the budget we find ourselves in today,” House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the House, but he said “in reality the policy changes … are ideas whose time has come.” He said, “Technology can't be an add-on in our schools, it has to be integrated.”
 
Nonini said, “The fact is we all know schools are going to receive less money. That's the economic situation we find ourselves in.” He said, “We have to be able to spend what we currently have differently.”

Nonini: ‘We weren’t elected to make easy decisions’

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, has opened debate on SB 1184, after more than an hour of bill-reading. “Today is a landmark day for the students of Idaho,” Nonini told the House. “We have to decide how to deal with the new normal in public education.” Nonini said there's not the money to keep things as they've been. “We've all had to learn to do more with less, to do things differently,” Nonini said, in areas from state agencies to people's household budgets. “Now we must do it to public education also.”

He said, “I know change is difficult. You all know change is difficult. But we weren't elected to make easy decisions.”

Up to page 23 of 24…

The reading of SB 1184 is now up to page 23 of the 24-page bill. As it's read, some lawmakers are talking on the phone or chatting with one another; others are following along on their laptop computers.

What the bill does…

SB 1184, the school reform bill now being read in full in the House, calls for phasing in new laptop computers or other mobile computing devices for every Idaho high school student, with the first set going to teachers; diverting school district funds to online course providers; and shifting funding from teachers to technology, among other changes; the bill also restores the state's minimum teacher salary to $30,000, requires the posting of school district fiscal report cards, and sets up a task force “to study and develop plans for implementation of online courses, one-to-one mobile computing devices, and other advanced technology in the classroom.”

The bill's Statement of Purpose says, “To ensure the state can educate more students at a higher level with limited resources, the state must reform and modernize the educational system. The Students Come First legislation reprioritizes statutory requirements to strategically invest in Idaho’s educators and technology.” You can read the bill here.

Not quite poetry…

The full reading of SB 1184 in the House has hit page 13 of the 24-page bill; after 35 minutes, it's just over halfway read. Among the scintillating phrases read so far: “Determine the administrative staff allowance by multiplying the 43 support units by .075; (4) Determine the classified staff allowance by multiplying the support units by .375,” and “'Online course' means a course which delivers a sequential program of synchronous and/or asynchronous instruction primarily through the use of technology, in which the instructor is not physically located at the school or place in which the student is receiving instruction.”

Limerick: Springtime in Boise

The weather is getting warm
Politics bloom in full form
From party lines
To nullifying
This is the new norm.

Full reading of SB 1184 begins in the House…

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, has objected to waiving the full reading of SB 1184, the school reform bill to shift salary funds to technology purchases, have school districts pay for online courses, fund a new teacher merit-pay bonus plan from salary-based apportionment funds and more. So full reading of the 24-page bill has begun in the House.

Limericks: The R’s and the D’s

They won't ban drivers who text
And health care reform makes them vexed.
Their right is to farm
Their students they arm
Your budget is what they'll cut next.

Objections don't stick in their throats
Nor loss after loss get their goats
Rather than cut
They'd revenue up
But they simply don't have the votes.

Denney: No Saturday session, House will debate school reform today

House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he's no longer looking at a Saturday session in the House this weekend. “I don't think we are,” he said. Added Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, “I think we're caught up pretty well.” Even if the House is forced to read every bill from here on out, Denney said, “I think we're done next week.”

This morning, the House will take up SB 1184, the third and biggest school-reform bill in state schools Supt. Tom Luna's “Students Come First” package. The bill is 24 pages long.

Legislative Limerick No. 1: At the Circus

In honor of April Fools Day and the 82nd day of this year's legislative session, I humbly offer my first legislative limerick of the year:

While one side is slowing it down
The other just wants to leave town.
So read all the bills
'Til we're blue in the gills
And wait 'til they send in the clowns.

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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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