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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2011

Privatizing liquor may be feasible, but that doesn’t mean Idaho would do it

It'd be entirely feasible to privatize liquor sales in Idaho, according to a new state-commissioned report - but that doesn't mean the state would do it. “Usually we're all about privatization,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who requested the study by the state Legislature's office of performance evaluations. But, she said, “Every issue has an exception, and this is it.” Gov. Butch Otter already has come out against the idea, and Jeff Anderson, current head of Idaho's state liquor division, told the lawmakers it's “not broken.” Dyke Nally, who headed the division for 15 years before he retired last April, said no control state has ever decided to privatize, though many have considered it. “This not an ordinary product,” Nally said.”We're not selling shoes. We're selling something that needs to have regulation.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

How Idaho decided to bond to cover unemployment debt to feds…

A Wall Street banker, a lawmaker from Ketchum and an agency director combined to craft a plan to refinance Idaho's $202.4 million in federal loans that have propped up the state's unemployment safety net for thousands of workers broadsided by the recession, AP reporter John Miller reports; click below to read his full article.

Report: Privatizing liquor feasible in Idaho

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee has just released a new state-commissioned feasibility study on privatizing liquor sales in Idaho. The study, requested by Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, has been in the works since last March. Among the results: Privatization is feasible, but if Idaho were to completely convert from a state-control state to a private liquor distribution with a liquor tax, it'd generate about the same revenue each year as the current control system. Another option would be to partially privatize, by maintaining the state's warehouse function and converting all stores to private market.

Idaho currently has 66 state-operated stores and 100 contract stores. The state could save about $700,000 a year by converting 13 of the state liquor stores to contract stores, the report found. Last year, the state's liquor division generated more than $47 million in profits for the state, with much of the money going to the state's general fund, cities and counties. A slice also goes to courts, substance abuse treatment, schools and community colleges.

The report acknowledges that making either change would be “a major policy decision,” and leaves that to lawmakers. It lays out questions to consider, including whether selling liquor is “a core function of state government;” and whether direct state involvement in liquor sales curtails the “intemperate use of alcohol.” Idaho's state Constitution says, “The legislature should further all wise and well directed efforts for the promotion of temperance and morality.” However, the state division controls only sales of hard liquor and some types of wine; beer and wine sales already are privatized.

Caucus discussions: Budget, IRS conformity…

Today's House GOP caucus focused on “the overall budget and implications of tax conformity and what that means to the budget,” according to House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “We're going to meet again later in the week to receive and discuss some more information,” he said. The House Democratic Caucus also discussed the same issues, according to House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. On Friday, the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro-tem sent out a “Dear Friends” letter saying the state's budget picture is worse than previously thought, due to anticipated costs of conforming with IRS rules and higher-than-expected costs for an existing alternative energy sales tax rebate; you can read the letter here.

Senate Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, says the Senate GOP caucus conferred for about 45 minutes; the meeting included election of Sens. Steve Bair and Jim Hammond to the legislative council, plus discussion of Supt. Tom Luna's proposed education reform plan and the cost to the state of conforming to new IRS rules.

Florida judge rules health care mandate unconstitutional, sides with Idaho

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge in Florida says the Obama administration's health overhaul is unconstitutional, siding with 26 states that had sued to block it. U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson on Monday accepted without trial the states' argument that the new law violates people's rights by forcing them to buy health insurance by 2014 or face penalties. Attorneys for the administration had argued that the states did not have standing to challenge the law and that the case should be dismissed. The case is likely to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Two other federal judges have upheld the insurance requirement, but a federal judge in Virginia also ruled the insurance requirement unconstitutional. Click below for more.

Loertscher mulls killing bill to protect dying patients’ wishes in living wills

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, says he hasn't decided whether or not to allow a hearing on legislation from Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, to amend Idaho's “conscience law” to ensure that patients' living wills and advanced care directives are followed - but he's  leaning against it. “I'm prone not to,” Loertscher told Eye on Boise. “It's only been in effect for six months or less. Let's see how it goes for a while.”

Loertscher also said, however, that he hasn't yet had a chance to read the bill, and he might decide to allow a hearing. As the chairman of the committee where the bill's been assigned, Loertscher can kill it simply by sticking it in his desk drawer and never scheduling a hearing on it.

Smith, who introduced the bill after he said numerous constituents pleaded with him to do so, said, “I think it's very important to hear that bill.” The original “conscience law,” passed last year, was aimed at letting health care providers decline to provide any service that violates their conscience; it's located in the part of Idaho's state code regarding crimes relating to abortions, and mainly deals with abortion and emergency contraception issues. But it also covers anything regarding “end of life care” - and Smith, an attorney, said that directly conflicts with Idaho's existing law that says patients who make out living wills or advance directives have a right to have their wishes followed regarding their care in the final days of life.

“In my view, and so many that I've talked to, including other legal counsel, it does pre-empt the living wills,” Smith said. “It lets a care provider make a decision that would be contrary.” His bill, HB 28, just adds a line to the existing conscience law saying that “no health care professional shall refuse to follow the patient's or physician's directions as established in” the existing Idaho law regarding living wills. It would make no other changes to the conscience law, of which Loertscher was a co-sponsor.

Loertscher said other states have enacted similar measures and had no problems with end-of-life provisions; he said he's worried about assisted suicide. However, the AARP has heard overwhelming concern about the measure from its members, and amending it is among the seniors' group's top priorities this year. AARP Idaho spokesman David Irwin said, “This is an issue that matters quite a bit to a great number of Idahoans. It deserves a hearing and it deserves to be heard before both houses - we will be working to make that happen.”

He added, “I will tell you on behalf of our members, this is an issue that they are gravely concerned about.” Living wills and advance care directives are ways that a patient can specify in advance what kinds of care they wish to receive, and not receive, when they are dying.
  

Thayn wants to amend early-grad program

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawmaker who spearheaded a program to reward Idaho students who graduate from high school early with scholarship money says he no longer wants to limit district participation by size or region. Rep. Steve Thayn, a Republican from Emmett, introduced legislation Monday to remove the requirement that only two school districts per region be allowed to participate. He also wants to remove rules requiring districts to have a certain number of students. Thayn says the rules are no longer necessary because the six-year pilot program was not as popular as lawmakers anticipated when it was passed into law last year. Only 15 districts applied in the first year of the program, well below the cap of 21. Thayn says under the current law, one or two school districts in northern Idaho could not participate.

GOP in both houses heads into caucus…

Both the House and Senate majority caucuses have gone into closed-door caucus meetings, as has the House minority caucus; neither house took up its calendar of bills this morning, instead just briefly convening and then adjourning.

Grant would add spaces at vets’ cemetery

One bright spot in an array of down budgets is at Idaho's Veterans Services Division, though it's not in the agency's state funding, which has dropped by 50 percent in recent years. Instead, it's a federal grant: $5 million to expand the Idaho Veterans Cemetery in Boise. It's enough to add 5,500 more sites for cremated remains, and an additional 4,000 in-ground vaults for burials. The division is seeking spending authority for the federal grant; the governor recommends approval.

“We recognize the daunting task of setting a sound budget in difficult times,” Col. David Brasuell, head of the division, told JFAC this morning. The agency plans to add some equipment and staffing at its nursing homes to keep up with federal and state standards, but it all would be funded by federal or dedicated funds. Its only state funding request, for $8,000 to boost a wheelchair transportation program that takes vets to medical appointments back to its 2009 funding level to meet demands, wasn't recommended by the governor; instead, he's calling for a $39,900 cut in state funding for the agency as part of omnibus reductions to most state agencies. That cut would be made up by shifting dedicated funds to cover the lost state funding. The result is a proposed budget for next year that's an 18.5 percent cut in state general funds, but a 1.8 percent increase in total funds.

Anti-union bill clears committee on party-line vote, despite legal problems

After an hour of legal arguments about complicated legal problems with the bill, the Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 7-2, along party lines, to approve SB 1007, legislation targeting labor unions by prohibiting them from subsidizing wages to aid contractors in winning bids. “The reason we brought this bill is to level the playing field,” declared Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, and nine other GOP lawmakers. “This bill is about freedom, it's about freedom to protect our workers and our workforce. This simply adds to and enables us to enforce Right to Work.”

Idaho already is a Right to Work state, in which union membership can't be a condition for hiring. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said only 7 or 8 percent of Idaho's workers now are union members. “They have that choice,” she said. “Whether we agree or not with labor unions and what they do with wages, they've chosen to do that, and they need to be protected too. … I think this bill doesn't allow for the level playing field that everybody keeps talking about.”

Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said he'd just sat through “an hour of listening to foreign language” about all the legal problems with the bill, and the likelihood of litigation. “In the best interest of looking out for the state, I don't have a comfort … right now in proceeding with a piece of legislation that has the likelihood of going to court,” he said. He moved to hold the bill in committee, but that motion failed on a 2-7 vote; the original motion from Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, to send the bill to the full Senate with a “do-pass” recommendation then passed on a 7-2 party-line vote. A companion bill with the same list of sponsors and co-sponsors, SB 1006, banning “project labor agreements” in public works contracts, already has cleared the committee and is up for a vote in the full Senate as soon as today.

Gibbs names Cam Wheeler as sub for week after son hurt in car accident

Rep. Marcus Gibbs, R-Grace, isn't at the state Capitol today, because his son and business partner Josh, 37, was seriously injured in a car accident on Saturday and is now in intensive care in a Salt Lake hospital. Gibbs has appointed former state Rep. Cameron Wheeler, R-Ririe, to sub for him for the week. “It's one of those things that in two minutes, your life changes,” Gibbs said. “And I've got different issues to worry about. But the reason I've got Cameron up there is I'm still worried about the folks in District 31.” Gibbs said of his son, who suffered a head injury, “This morning we're guardedly optimistic. Things are looking better this morning.”

Nominees to replace Sen. Geddes don’t include District 31 Rep. Gibbs

The Republican District 31 precinct committee has nominated three candidates to replace Sen. Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, the Idaho State Journal reports - and Rep. Marcus Gibbs, R-Grace, isn't among the three. Gibbs announced two weeks ago that he was seeking the Senate seat, which is from the district he already represents in the House. He said then that he was “honored to be seeking the seat of a long-time mentor and friend,” and said, “It is my intention to represent District 31 as their senator just like Sen. Geddes.”

However, the local party committee chose three others as its nominees for the seat: Former state Rep. John Tippets, 59, who served in the House from 1988 to 2000; former Preston Mayor Neal Larson, 56; and Georgetown resident Mark Harris, 39. Otter has 15 days to make the final decision. The district includes Bear Lake, Bonneville, Caribou, Franklin and Teton counties.

Gibbs told Eye on Boise he attended the district GOP committee meeting at which nominees for the Senate seat were discussed. “One thing that came out, they talked about the fact that they didn't want to have to go through this process again,” Gibbs said. “In all seriousness, while it would have been an honor to move to the Senate, I think I'm cut out for being in the House. … I don't think it has anything to do with dissatisfaction with my service or anything like that.” He said, “I honestly think the folks in District 31 think I'm doing a good job in the House.”

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public TV, I join new host Greg Hahn, Jim Weatherby and Brian Murphy to discuss the events of the week, including the historic public hearing that JFAC held today on health and welfare funding, drawing nearly a thousand people to the state Capitol. Greg also interviews Bruce Newcomb, Kent Kunz and Marty Peterson about higher education funding. 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.

Click here to see a slide show of the week in pictures, as the third 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.
  

Ringo introduces Tax Commission reform bill, would make compromises public

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, has introduced legislation to crack down on tax compromises, requiring them to be made public and not to be granted without review by at least three tax commissioners and the tax auditors involved in the cases. She said, “I'm thinking since we went through filing a lawsuit and all that, that it would be appropriate for me to put forward a bill that would correct the problems, in terms of structure and transparency.” Ringo said she doesn't yet know if her bill, HB 37, will get a hearing. If it were to pass, she said, the lawsuit over secret tax deals wouldn't need to be re-filed; it's now on hold to give the Legislature a chance to act.

Ringo said legislation that Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, is working on to restructure Idaho's state Tax Commission to operate more like Montana's, with a professional director rather than four political appointees running the agency, also would satisfy the concerns behind the lawsuit. “We just thought it was inappropriate to hold the lawsuit over the legislators' heads when we thought they had an opportunity to do something,” she said.
  

Energy rebate could fall victim to own success

The sales tax rebate that Idaho has been providing to developers of alternative energy projects, including wind farms, may fall victim to its own success, AP reporter John Miller reports. The rebate expires in June, and higher-than-expected claims are giving pause to some state officials, including Gov. Butch Otter, even as backers push for an extension. Click below to read Miller's full report.

Historic public hearing draws nearly a thousand

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today's historic public hearing on funding for Health and Welfare programs in Idaho; it drew close to a thousand people to the Idaho Statehouse to decry cuts in services for the disabled. Many called for tax increases instead.

JFAC co-chairs: ‘It’s extremely painful’

JFAC Co-Chairs Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, were clearly affected by the outpouring of input that close to a thousand people brought to the Statehouse today on Health and Welfare funding, with most pleading for the state to avoid cuts in services to the disabled. “It's extremely painful,” Cameron said. He said those who testified were thoughtful, and pointed not just to problems but also to their ideas on potential solutions. Said Bell, “It was democracy at its finest.”

Cameron said hearing from the public was “a first step” in the state's process of deciding what to do. Now, the House and Senate health and welfare committees, both of whose chairman and some members sat through the four-hour hearing today, will look at how to change Idaho's system to fit its funding. Said Bell, “I am always grateful to put a face with a number. … That face will always be before me.”

Keough: ‘Everything has to be on the table,’ including online sales tax

The heart-wrenching testimony at today's public hearing on funding for Health and Welfare programs moved Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, to tears. “We had some very moving testimony from people that clearly have no other sources for assistance other than their government - that's pretty compelling,” she said after the hearing. “I think that it would be less than human to sit here, with some of what we have heard this morning, and not be impacted. So the challenge will be, what do we do next?”

Keough said she was surprised to learn, even as person after person testified to the committee that the state should go after online sales taxes or make other moves, rather than cutting services to the disabled, that House Speaker Lawerence Denney had sidelined the bill to take the first step toward enabling online sales taxes. “I don't want to second-guess the speaker, because I have no idea what his intentions are, but it definitely was interesting timing,” Keough said. “In this session, everything's on the table, from the services we provide to the structure of our tax system. Everything has to be on the table.”

Hearing wraps up after 4 hours

At noon, after four hours of testimony from 82 people from all over the state, JFAC has closed its public hearing on Health & Welfare funding. “We appreciate your input,” said Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. He encouraged those who didn't get a chance to testify to submit written testimony.

Testimony: Tax Internet sales, don’t cut services to disabled

The 78th person to testify at today's “listening hearing” on Health & Welfare funding is Brian Dulin of Moscow, head of Latah County Probation. He said behavioral health services provided through the Department of Health & Welfare have helped his department divert kids from going into Department of Juvenile Corrections custody. “I can't tell you how many kids we have kept out of hospitals or out of DJC custody through cooperation with the department,” Dulin told lawmakers. “Fifty-eight percent of those kids were diverted from DJC custody.” Dulin told JFAC, “I would encourage you to consider less dramatic (steps), such as increasing revenue through beer and wine tax or taxing Internet sales.”

Ron Heath of Twin Falls, the 79th person to testify, called for a half-cent sales tax increase and other moves to avoid cuts to services to the disabled. “I would encourage you to get bold about tackling sales tax on Internet sales,” he told lawmakers.

Samuel E. Page of Homedale brought his 21-year-old son, Jonathan, who suffered a brain injury after a near-drowning accident when he was 15. “Prior to his accident he was a 4.0 student with an eye on politics,” Page said. “He had also asked me the day before his accident if he could be an exchange student to Russia.” Now, he said, Jonathan, who is in a wheelchair, goes to a developmental center every day. “These things are vital,” he said. “I'd just like for you to consider ,and you have, all the Jonathans that can't speak for themself.”

Denney sidelines bill to open door to possible future online sales taxes

Even as dozens of Idahoans are testifying to JFAC that Idaho should look to more revenue - including, many have suggested, possibly taxing Internet sales - rather than cutting services to the disabled, House Speaker Lawerence Denney has single-handedly sidelined a bill that was moving along to open the door to future online taxes. Here's an account from the Associated Press:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — House Speaker Lawerence Denney put the brakes on Idaho's effort to tax Internet sales — at least for now. The bill to join the nationwide push had been introduced Wednesday in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. The vote margin was a relatively comfortable 12-6 — especially considering virtually identical bills have died in the House for the last four years. Now, however, Denney has redirected the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee. This panel rarely meets, and can be used to rapidly scuttle bills that have fallen out of favor with leadership. It's possible the Internet tax measure could languish here for the rest of the session. Denney, no fan of any taxes, told The Associated Press on Thursday he took this extraordinary step because he wanted to examine what had changed in the debate over taxing Internet sales to merit reconsideration again this year.

Testimony: ‘A time to test our character’

Shirleane Abbott of Garden Valley, a psycho-social rehabilitation services provider who survived her own struggles with mental illness, told lawmakers, “What we need is more PSR, not less.” Idaho shouldn't go back to relying on hospitalization, she said. “This is really a time to test our character.”

Shaun Tobler, who is with Bear Lake Memorial Hospital in Montpelier, said people who've been cut from state mental health services are suffering and even dying. “We've had at least 10 deaths in Pocatello in the last year of those people that were on their caseload,” he said. “This is life and death. … These people cannot advocate for themselves. … People are dying. … Because they're people with disabilities, because they're people with mental illness, we don't pay attention. Please pay attention.”

Steve Young of Parma, the 70th person to testify today, said his severely autistic son qualifies for institutionalization, but he's not institutionalized, “because we love him and we want to care for him at home.” He receives home-based care. His wife, Laura Young, said, “I wish they would find other ways to cut rather than cut the children that need it the most.”

Testimony: ‘Where would you want to be?’

Terri Scarrow of Jerome told of how her 15-year-old daughter, a bright, promising, straight-A student, was hit by a drunk driver and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Now disabled, she lives at home while receiving care, thanks to the certified family home program; Scarrow said she doesn't want her daughter, whose very survival was miraculous, to live in a nursing home. She asked lawmakers to think about if it had been them. “Where would you want to be?” she asked.

Victoria Johnson of Caldwell said she operates a certified family home to care for six disabled family members, including two daughters in their 20s whose mental capacity is that of between a 2-year-old and an 8-year-old, and an autistic son. The daughters attend a center for people with developmental disabilities, which helps them immensely, she said. “I could not do it alone.” Without the certified family home program, Johnson said, she'd lose her home.

Ruth Greiting of Sterling told lawmakers that  a traffic accident 28 years ago left her in a wheelchair. “I will be 84 years old on Valentine's Day, and I find that I need more help than I did then,” she said. “I've been on the personal assistance program for the last five years.” She pays a substantial co-pay, while Medicaid pays the rest of the cost of her personal assistance. “By using attendant care, I saved Idaho $60,556 a year, and by living in my own home, I am contributing monthly and yearly back into the economy,” she said. Greiting urged lawmakers not to cut such services. “I've lived in my present home for 64 years, and I hope to remain there until I croak,” she said to laughter. “You and your loved ones are only seconds away from life-altering changes,” she told lawmakers. “Realize how vital these services are to us.”
  

Testimony continues; 80 more want to speak

Doug Loertscher of Boise told lawmakers he's testifying in opposition to the “blunt approach,” one of two options for cuts that state Health & Welfare officials have outlined to lawmakers, and that calls for eliminating developmental disability center services and psycho-social rehabilitation services. “I personally would pay more taxes to save some  of these programs and serve some of theses families that have testified today,” Loertscher said. He also called for extending temporary rules imposed last year aimed at savings in Medicaid, and adding to those; and implementing a provider assessment for mental health providers similar to those already in the works for nursing homes and hospitals.

Debbie Ciulla of Boise, mother of a disabled son, told lawmakers, “We're weary. We just love our kids, but we can't provide the level of support that we need by ourselves.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chair of JFAC, said after her testimony that the committee still has 80 more people who would like to testify, and it's nearly 11, the time the hearing was scheduled to end. “We do have the ability to go a little bit longer,” he said. “Committee members may have to leave.” From this point on, he said, the committee will hear just from those who've traveled from out of the area.

Testimony: ‘You guys are my only hope’

Jack Hansen of Boise, a young man with disabilities, told JFAC, “I've been in two group homes and I know for a fact that it's not very fun.” He said, “You guys are my only hope. I live in a certified family home right now. … If you make these cuts, I swear you'll be making a huge mistake.” A burst of applause followed the young man's final comment; JFAC co-chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, quieted the audience.

Testimony: ‘I cringe to think what might have happened if he’d been with a volunteer’

Denise Wetzel of Coeur d'Alene, mother of a 10-year-old son with disabilities, said she's grateful that her son has been able to attend his local public school and receive developmental therapy that he needs. “I never give up … on what he can accomplish and achieve,” she said. “I want to see my son as a taxpaying citizen in the state of Idaho.” But, she said, “He needs support from trained and professional providers.” She said, “I'm not proud to say that last week, my son tried to bite his developmental therapist. I cringe to think what might have happened if he'd been with a volunteer.”

Wetzel told lawmakers, “I encourage you to consider increasing revenue by implementing a sales tax over the next two years. … No one should have to live a life of isolation due to a developmental disability.”

Joni Sullivan of Dalton Gardens said her son with Down's syndrome receives services through TESH that enable him to hold a job. It's a menial task, cleaning the break room at the Sunshine Mint, but it's very important to him, she said. “We love him dearly. .. He deserves to be in our home and our community.”

Dellarae Warner of Deary said her grown son, Kyle, was thriving with services in the community, but now the state has told him his services are being cut and he'll have to go to a state institution hundreds of miles from their home. “This is the wrong decision not only for Kyle but for taxpayers as well,” Warner said.

Testimony: Cutting services to disabled, mentally ill will boost homelessness, emergencies

Rick Heikkila of Nampa, a licensed clinical social worker, said if lawmakers cut psycho-social rehabilitation services, “Idaho will see an increase in homelessness, an increase in psychiatric care at inpatient hospitals, an increase in emergency room visits,” and more people landing in jail. “I propose the following,” he said: A temporary cut in the cap on PSR hours from 5 hours a week to 4.5 hours; requiring agencies providing the services to be nationally credentialed; extending temporary rules changes enacted last year for Medicaid savings through 2013; and increasing the cigarette tax and instituting sales tax on Internet sales.

Juanita Allen of Boise spoke emotionally of her sister, Barbara, and the services she's needed throughout her life due to her disabilities. While the state must balance its budget, she said, “Let's make sure we don't do it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Christine Pisani, accompanied by her disabled friend David Dekker, read a letter from him because he can't speak. Dekker lived in an institution at one time and was abused there, she said, reading, her voice breaking, “The abuse I experienced 16 years ago is still something I struggle with today.” She urged lawmakers not to cut services that allow people to remain in their homes rather than be institutionalized.

Lisa Robbe of Bonners Ferry, with Partnerships for Inclusion, shared the story of a youngster from her community who is now living at the Idaho State School & Hospital for lack of services near his home. “Jordan does not want to live there,” Robbe told lawmakers. “Can you imagine having to place your child 500 miles away from your home? … Let me be clear, if he had adequate, trained supports in his community, he would be living at home. … Find a way to raise the revenue needed so no one else has to see their family torn apart.”

Testimony: ‘I realize how light my burden is’

Bob Van Arnem of Eagle said he was prompted to testify because of his property tax bill, but he said after listening to the testimony at the JFAC hearing today, “I realize how light my burden is.” Van Arnem said he's seen a property tax increase since the state increased the amount counties must pay per case before they can access the state catastrophic health care fund that helps pay for care for the medically indigent. Van Arnem urged lawmakers not to increase the counties' share any further, because that translates into property tax increases for Idahoans.

So far, 43 have testified in two hours

So far, 43 people have testified in two hours to JFAC on Health & Welfare funding this morning, including disabled people who receive services, their advocates, parents and other family members, and numerous providers, ranging from dentists to those who provide psycho-social rehabilitation services to people with mental illness. Here, members of JFAC, who have been joined by several members of both the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees, listen as Shiloh Blackburn of Rexburg testifies; in her wheelchair, she's partially hidden behind the podium. Blackburn urged lawmakers to consider raising revenue rather than cutting services for Idahoans with disabilities. A recurring theme among those testifying is that those cuts will actually cost the state more, by forcing more people into costly institutionalization.

Testimony: Raise cig tax, preserve home care, care for most vulnerable

Kevin Nye of Meridian urged lawmakers to raise the cigarette tax. Jill Payne of Idaho Falls said cutting services to the disabled would harm the economy; “Such an ill-informed decision to remove millions from the economy is unconscionable,” she said.

John Chambers of Gooding told of caring for his two developmentally disabled sons in his home for most of his life. “Certified family homes you get the best bang for your buck, no doubt about it,” Chambers told lawmakers. He kept his oldest son at home until two days before he died. His voice breaking, he said, “He had the care and love he needed at home. It was a lot cheaper. … This was very economical.”

His younger son has a job and pays taxes, Chamber said. “He feels he's important and he does a good thing. … We do not take services that we do not need. We have never taken food stamps or any other services. The services we receive are for my son and nothing else.”

Monsignor Andrew Schumacher, a Catholic priest and chairman of the board of Catholic Charities of Idaho, told lawmakers, “Through no fault of their own or of their parents, people with disabilities, together with children living in poverty, are the most vulnerable segment of our state population. Therefore, they must be given first priority in the formulation of the state budget.”

Testimony: ‘Everything needs to be on the table’

Katherine Hansen of Boise presented lawmakers with 13,740 petitions signed by Idahoans calling for lawmakers to consider a tax increase rather than cut home and community-based services for people with disabilities. The signers, she said, are “13,740 Idahoans from every county and every city in this great state. … The people who signed these petitions urge you to approach the current budget crisis in the same way they approach their budget crisis - everything needs to be on the table.”

Paul Tierney of Nampa, father of a son with developmental disabilities, broke down as he described how his family has done everything it can to help his son Nicholas, “a great kid,” with its own funds and credit cards, not with state aid. But, he said, Nicholas needs developmental disability services, and he'll need them when he turns 18 and becomes an adult. “Please do not support the cuts to these vital services, and consider raising revenues to keep the services Idahoans need,” he told lawmakers.

‘These programs work, so please don’t cut them’

Tonia Stephens of Nampa, accompanied by her son Ricky, said, “If his services were cut it would impact his well being and he would regress. … If he loses services, I lose my job. I would have to quit my job and stay home to take care of him.” She urged lawmakers not to cut funding for certified family homes. “These programs work, so please don't cut them,” she said.

Hearing has drawn up to 1,000 to Capitol

Cynthia McCurdy of Rexburg, mother of a daughter with developmental delays and other health problems, told lawmakers, “Please, let's not have another Jeff D lawsuit. That cost us millions.” She urged against reducing services for the developmentally disabled, saying without them her daughter's condition will decline. “Volunteerism is not a substitute for health care,” she said.

Shaun Bills of Rexburg, a provider from Rexburg, said, “The system is not perfect. There is room for improvement. However, it is significantly less expensive and more individualized than care provided in an institutional setting.”

Meanwhile, Idaho Public TV reports that legislative staff are estimating that there are between 700 and 1,000 people at the Capitol for today's hearing, and there are at least five overflow rooms for those who can't fit into the Capitol Auditorium.

Testimony: Idaho is improving PSR services thru nation-leading new credentialing requirements

Jodi Smith of Coeur d'Alene, a PSR provider, said Idaho is the first state in the nation to require new certification credentials for providers of psycho-social rehabilitation services, a requirement that's now pending. Yet the state is considering eliminating those services as part of $25 million in Medicaid cuts next year. “Providers in Idaho are actively working to obtain the necessary requirements for their certification,” Smith said, which she said will also improve the quality of care. “It seems ironic that a state that … so strongly … requires practitioners to obtain a certification in their area of work, is considering eliminating the very … services it seeks to improve.” Smith said in her work, she can report 90 percent success in avoiding psychiatric hospitalization for her patients. The average cost per patient per day for PSR services is $32.14, she said, while the hospitalization cost exceeds $500.

Testimony: ‘Idaho will end up paying more’

Michelle Bartlett, a licensed midwife and representative of the Idaho Midwifery Council, told JFAC that the state could save $130,000 per year by funding births attended by midwives, rather than in hospitals. That could be part of the solution, she said.

Robert Vande Merwe told lawmakers that Idaho's nursing homes are assessing themselves $10 million this year to help fund Medicaid, and they'll propose legislation to do so again next year. Nursing homes are expensive, he said, largely because of federal regulations. He also suggested that the state consider privatizing the Idaho State School & Hospital. “I think a private provider might be able to do it more efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Marcie Granahan, CEO of the U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, who traveled from Washington, D.C. to testify, told lawmakers that 5 percent of the population has a mental illness. “These individuals won't disappear if the funding does,” she said, “When community-based psychiatric rehabilitation services are squeezed from the bottom, the individuals migrate … to your state hospitals and your jails.” Cutting funding for those services won't save the state money, she said. “On the contrary, Idaho will end up paying more.”

Testimony: ‘I want to have a job’

Elizabeth Reedy, a Boise youngster, told lawmakers, “I am 14 years old. I am a person with autism. … I want to go to junior high. I want to go to college. I want to have a job … and a cat named Adam. … I want to pay taxes and help people.” Elizabeth said last summer she interviewed for a volunteer job at the veterans' hospital, and she got the job and served people food and did other tasks. “I like to help other people,” she said. The youngster said to grow up and live on her own, “I need … time skills, learning skills.” Her aides help her with those things, she said.

Elizabeth's mom, Phoebe Smith, told lawmakers, “With supports I believe she will be able to have a job and live independently. … A person like Elizabeth who is high-functioning can become a taxpayer or a tax consumer.” She told lawmakers, “Please choose to fund developmental disability services for both children and adults.”

Quadraplegic: ‘Bottom line is quality of life - let me keep mine, please’

Ryan Jacobsen of Coeur d'Alene, regional director for Addus Health Care, said his firm provides home care throughout the state and has 560 employees. “We are part of the solution,” Jacobsen told JFAC. He called for more collaboration with home-care agencies to set appropriate standards to help patients avoid institutionalization. “My concern is that further reductions in home care programs … are putting the ongoing viability of home care agencies in danger,” he said.

Greg Renshaw told lawmakers, “I've been a quadraplegic for over 20 years due to an auto accident.” He said he was a young man and “gainfully employed” before the accident, just starting a family. Now he's paralyzed from the neck down. Renshaw said he receives home-care services from Addus, but recent changes have boosted his cost-share payments for those services $580 a month. “With that cost of share, that just puts me into a bind,” he said, saying he's now in danger of losing his home. Renshaw said he doesn't want to end up in a nursing home. “Bottom line is quality of life - let me keep mine, please,” he pleaded.

Dentists: Proposed changes would cost state more

Steve Bruce, a dentist from Boise, cautioned strongly against eliminating non-emergency dental care services for adults on Medicaid. That may not save money, he said, as relatively inexpensive routine dental-care visits are foregone and the patients instead end up with expensive emergency room visits when their conditions worsen. Bruce said he recognizes that the state faces “a difficult situation - we stand ready to help.”

Coeur d'Alene dentist Jack Fullwiler told JFAC that the current head of the program that provides dental services through Medicaid is a dietician. A dentist needs to oversee the program, he said, to ensure it works properly and saves money. “As providers, we need better communications from the department and from DentaQuest,” he said. “We are the experts when it comes to dental treatment,” particularly on appropriate treatment and priorities. “We realize that tough decisions have to be made.”

Testimony: PSR services help mentally ill avoid psychiatric hospitalization

Kelly Keele, a mental health services provider from Rigby, told lawmakers that PSR services - psycho-social rehabilitation services - now being considered for elimination are what enable persons with mental illness to avoid the “revolving door” of psychiatric hospitalization. “If these people were to lose their PSR services they would lose their ability to remain stable,” hold jobs and be productive citizens, Keele said. He called for increasing taxes on beer, wine and cigarettes, repealing the grocery tax credit and imposing sales taxes on Internet sales rather than cutting these services.

Gregory Dickerson of Nampa, who is with Mental Health Human Supports of Idaho, said, “Eliminating PSR services for adults would cause many unintended consequences and will not result in the cost savings Idaho desperately needs.”

Testimony: Dentist says current Medicaid dollars ‘treat symptoms, not cause’

Scott Burpee of Pocatello, head of Safe Haven Health Care, told JFAC, “Many providers are facing imminent bankruptcy. … Many of us have ruined credit. … From a banking standpoint, Medicaid has become an unreliable funding stream to base credit on.” He said, “I strongly urge you to investigate what happened here.” He also urged lawmakers to keep personal care services. The cost per patient for day for those is just $8, he said, while the cost to institutionalize those same patients at State Hospital South is $550 per day, and it's all state general funds, rather than drawing on Medicaid.

Christa Ledbetter of Idaho Falls said her son, Spencer, has schizophrenia. “Eliminating mental health services will not eliminate mental health diagnoses,” she told lawmakers. “It will increase the health costs.”

Dentist Rich Bailey of Moscow suggested a tax on carbonated, sugary beverages rather continuing to limit funding for dental care. “Dental providers have left the program in droves,” Bailey said. “Current Medicaid dollars treat the symptoms and not the cause.”

Testimony: ‘I was a dysfunctional mess’

Mark Reinhardt of Boise, an aspiring young journalist, was the first to testify to JFAC this morning. He said, “I rise in opposition to elimination and/or cuts to DDA or PSR services,” which include services to people with developmental disabilities. Without those services, Reinhardt said, he'd likely be institutionalized or in prison. “At 18, I was a dysfunctional mess,” Reinhardt told the lawmakers. “I'm now able to learn from my mistakes and grow. He said he now aspires to be “the next Walter Cronkite.”

Amy Bertram of Salmon spoke as the mom of a developmentally disabled daughter. “We don't want to send the message to these people with disabilities that we don't think they're capable of learning any more,” she told lawmakers. She said she recognizes that the budget needs to be balanced. “I do believe there are ways of doing this without autocratically eliminating programs that provide services to the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said. Bertram suggested enforcing existing rules to go after those who fraudulently bill Medicaid.

Cameron: ‘Our goal today is to hear from as many of you as possible’

Among those waiting to testify at this mornings public hearing on Health & Welfare programs are several people in wheelchairs, who are among an overflow crowd in the Capitol Auditorium. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, just opened the hearing. “We're grateful and inspired that you're here to participate in this process,” he told the crowd. “Obviously we face some very difficult and painful decisions.” He said, “Our goal today is to hear from as many of you as possible.”

Huge crowd for H&W public hearing

There's a huge crowd here at the Capitol this morning for the JFAC “listening hearing” on Health & Weflare spending; here, people line up to sign in to have their say. Each person who testifies will get 3 minutes.

Public invited to testify Friday on funding of Health & Welfare programs

The public is invited to offer testimony on Friday in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee's second-ever public hearing, this time focusing on funding for state Health & Welfare programs. The public hearing will run from 8-11 a.m. in the Capitol Auditorium, and people can start signing up to testify at 7 a.m.

Last week's first-ever JFAC public hearing, which focused on funding for public schools, drew more than 500 people and nearly 80 testified; JFAC also received written testimony from more than 400 people. As with last week's hearing, those who can't make it to Boise to testify can submit testimony in writing, as can those who show up but don't get a chance to speak; click below for full details.

Two draft bills released on Luna reform plan

It's definitely not light reading, but State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has posted on his website draft versions of two bills to implement his sweeping school reform plan. The first one, entitled “Modernization and Reform,” is 91 pages; the second, entitled “Labor and Entitlements,” is 45 pages.

House GOP leaders raise budget concerns

AP reporter John Miller reports on new concerns House Republicans leaders are raising over the state's budget challenges: That the impact of conforming Idaho's tax code to new federal rules could cost Idaho's state coffers $70 million over the next two years, while sales tax rebates for alternative energy projects, including big wind farms now going up, could drain another nearly $50 million between 2011 and 2012. If you add that to the $33 million in excess tax revenues that Gov. Butch Otter included in his proposed budget for next year, which some House Republicans are leery of and don't think will hold - especially after the figure eroded in December - the result is up to $150 million more in budget challenges for the state, between this year and next year, than the governor anticipated in his budget proposal.

Add that to the $35 million Otter already proposed covering through budget cuts next year to balance the budget, and the total potential budget gap could reach $185 million. Click below to read Miller's full report.

Megaloads opponents plan no further challenge to ConocoPhillips loads

Megaloads opponents have announced that they'll file no further challenges to the four megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 planned by ConocoPhillips. 'We are proud of the work we have done over the last 10 months helping educate our friends and neighbors about the threats that hundreds of megaloads pose for the communities of the Highway 12 corridor,” said Karen “Borg” Hendrickson. “We now want to move past the Conoco shipments, and focus attention on the hundreds of mega-loads planned by ExxonMobil and Canada’s Imperial Oil, the Korea National Oil Corporation (Harvest Energy), Shell Canada and others companies that seek to use Highway 12 as a ‘high and wide’ corridor to transport overseas equipment to the Alberta tar sands.”

She and the other opponents said in a statement that they plan to monitor the Conoco loads but not to hinder them in any way. They said they “trust that ITD staff mean what they have said, that the ConocoPhillips permits 'do not set a precedent' for the permitting of future megaloads.” Click below to read their full statement.

Idaho Fish & Game prepared to move ‘instantly’ on Lolo wolf kill if OK comes

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State wildlife managers expect to hear back in the next six weeks on Idaho's petition to kill wolves in the upper Clearwater River Basin. Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Fred Trevey told lawmakers Thursday the state is prepared to move “instantly” into the Lolo Zone in northern Idaho. The state has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill up to 50 wolves in the Lolo Zone, with the goal of boosting elk populations. States are allowed to remove wolves if they are harming deer or elk herds. Fewer than 2,000 elk live in the Lolo Zone, biologist say, and that population fell after a steep drop in the mid- to late-1990s attributed to harsh winters, habitat changes, and predation by bears and mountain lions. State officials contend the elk population would have rebounded if not for wolves.

Luna to talk school reform on ‘Dialogue’ tonight, take calls

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna will appear on Idaho Public Television's “Dialogue” program tonight to explain his school reform plan and take calls from the public. The show airs live statewide, at 8:30 p.m. Mountain time, 7:30 p.m. Pacific time. Questions can be emailed before the show to dialogue@idahoptv.org; to call in during the show, call (800) 973-9800. There's more info online here.

PERSI benefits, 11th lowest in nation, due for 1% COLA, lawmakers told

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — About 33,000 Idaho state and local government retirees are due to get a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in their benefit payments. State pension fund director Don Drum told the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday the hike is required by law, since the inflation index Idaho uses rose by more than 1 last year. Drum says the fund's asset value has risen to $11.7 billion, more pre-2008 financial crisis levels. That's 88 percent of its total liabilities, and Drum says financial managers predict they'll will be able to invest their way out of a $1.4 billion unfunded liability. That's good news for current government workers and the state, because they're less likely to face increases in contributions. Idaho's average pension benefit is $1,340 monthly — or 11th lowest in the nation.

KTEC bill hits snag, held ‘til Tuesday

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has put off a vote on HB 35, legislation from Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, designed to let the Kootenai Technical Education Campus in Rathdrum open a year earlier than it could otherwise, until Tuesday. Committee members said they were concerned that by allowing construction before all the cash has been collected from a two-year, voter-approved levy, the change opened the way for shortfalls if tax collections fall short. “We're trying to spend money we may or may not get,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Goedde argued, “It's certainly an opportunity to move the opening of the building forward a year and not to cost taxpayers any additional money. … They're not going to spend money before they have it, and it's not going to cost the voters any more.”

Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, suggested holding the bill until Tuesday so Goedde could come back with more information about how the funds would flow under the bill. “Otherwise I think that we're going to lose the bill here,” he said, “and I think the bill has merit.” The KTEC project would build a technical school to offer juniors and seniors from three North Idaho school districts vocational courses in health occupations, welding, construction and auto tech; voters in the three districts approved a two-year property tax levy in August to raise $9.5 million to build the school.

Idaho’s child immunization rate has jumped 10 percent in past year

Idaho's child immunization rate has gone up by 10 percent since last year, when it was the worst in the nation. State public health division Administrator Jane Smith said three pieces of legislation that lawmakers enacted last year helped: A new mechanism for funding vaccines, in which insurance companies pay into an assessment fund, where the money is pooled to allow the state to purchase the vaccines at a lower price; changing the state's immunization registry from an “opt-in” to “opt-out” for parents; and the creation of a Child Immunization Policy Commission to offer advice on policies and potential legislation aimed at improving immunization rates of children.

“It is these actions, as well as a strong state immunization plan, a dedicated public health system, an engaged immunization coalition and committed physicians and others that have brought our immunization rate from the lowest in the nation to our current more respectable level,” Smith told legislative budget writers; Idaho now ranks 32nd among the states.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, vice chair of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, told Smith, “I appreciate what you've done in the last year. It's great strides in the right direction.”

Budget cuts have ‘disturbing’ results at state’s psych hospitals

The state's budget shortfalls have forced millions in cuts at the state's psychiatric hospitals, State Hospital South and State Hospital North, with “disturbing” results, Kathleen Allyn, division administrator at Health & Welfare, told JFAC this morning. “The hospitals have difficulty staffing the units at safe levels,” Allyn told lawmakers. So far, they've not lost accreditation, she said, but hospital managers feel they're “on the edge.” Since 2009, the state hospitals have seen a “increasing use of restraints and seclusion,” which are considered “emergency measures.” There also has been an “increase in hospital-to-staff assaults.” Said Allyn, “These are disturbing trends.”

Meanwhile, the patients are more seriously ill, meaning the hospitals are dealing with “higher acuity clients with fewer staff.” Said Allyn, “A great deal of pressure has been placed on the hospitals, and the risk for bad outcomes increased.”

AG’s opinion: Bills targeting unions could set state up for lawsuits

Two bills targeting labor unions promoted by Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, conflict with federal laws and could land the state in court, according to an Idaho attorney general's opinion. Nevertheless, a Senate committee passed one of the two measures on Wednesday, sending it on to the full Senate, while it'll continue considering the other on Monday. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Cig tax increase may not come up for a month; lobbyists gird against it

Former North Idaho state Rep. Jeff Alltus is back in the Statehouse, this time as a lobbyist. Alltus says he's representing convenience stores that oppose a cigarette tax increase; North Idaho activist Larry Spencer also has donned a lobbyist's green tag and joined the fight. Meanwhile, here's a news item from the Associated Press about the proposed bill:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Dennis Lake says a bill to hike the cigarette tax likely won't be introduced until late February. Lake, a Republican from Blackfoot, told The Associated Press that strategic reasons are behind the delay. Here's why: A health coalition is promoting the bill as a way to curb smoking by raising the cost of tobacco products. But Lake said the group is also watching the state's dwindling tax revenue, which in December missed forecasts by $10 million. If that trend continues, a bill hiking cigarette taxes by $1.25 a pack — it's currently 57 cents — could be promoted as a way to add an extra $50 million to help cover Medicaid's tobacco-related illness treatment costs. That public insurance program is already facing a $25 million cut in funding.

House Dems: Nullification bill a ‘dangerous stunt’

The House minority leadership has issued a strongly worded statement on the newly introduced “nullification” bill today, headed, “Majority Lawmakers Waste Taxpayer Dollars and Time on Nullification.” In the statement, Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “Though we often see meaningless grandstanding in the Statehouse, this current stunt is particularly dangerous in that such action simply cannot be reconciled with our sworn obligation to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho Constitution.” Click below to read the full statement.

Idaho could expand anti-discrimination law

Idaho's state Human Rights Commission has endorsed legislation adding sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law, a key move since two years ago, the commission opposed such legislation - and lawmakers refused even to introduce it. This year, the legislation's already been introduced, and Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, says he's hopeful lawmakers will consider it, especially now that the Human Rights Commission has voted 7-2 in favor of it.

“I have seen and experienced a lot of discrimination based on race and ethnicity,” said Malepeai, who is of Samoan ancestry. “I know what it's like to be on that end.” At least 20 states, including Washington, already ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but Idaho is not among them. State lawmakers have repeatedly rejected the idea over the past decade, most recently in 2009. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Barbieri: ‘Hearing general support’

Idaho Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, is a first-time lawmaker who stepped into the spotlight in a big way today, proposing the controversial “nullification” bill on health care reform in the House State Affairs Committee, and then fielding media interviews for several hours afterward. “I've been pretty busy talking to reporters,” Barbieri said. He said as far as other lawmakers, “I'm hearing general support.”

Barbieri is the former owner of the Sunshine Trader restaurant in Coeur d'Alene; before that, he was an attorney in California, where he practiced with his wife in Orange County for 20 years, focusing mainly on bankruptcy law. He sold the practice when he moved to Idaho in 2004. “I've never been a member of the Idaho Bar,” Barbieri said. He got his law degree in 1984 from Western State University in Fullerton, Calif.

Barbieri, 58, has never held public office before. “When Phil Hart called me and asked me to run, I figured it was just as good a time as any to be involved,” he said last spring. He's also vice-chairman of a crisis pregnancy center in Coeur d'Alene. Barbieri won a four-way GOP primary for an open House seat, then was unopposed in the general election. He and Hart both represent District 3 in North Idaho, as does Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, whom Hart also encouraged to run.

Anti-union bill clears Senate committee

Idaho state and local governments could be forbidden to require bidders on public works projects to pay their workers pre-determined wages and benefits, under legislation that cleared a Senate committee today, the AP reports. SB 1006, sponsored by Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee 7-2  to outlaw so-called “Project Labor Agreements” for state and local public projects. Those are collective bargaining agreements with unions that establish employment conditions for individual construction projects.

Non-union construction companies argue such deals drive up the cost of projects for taxpayers. Union representatives maintained that Idaho is inviting lawsuits if it tries to interfere. Two committee Democrats opposed the measure. Testimony on a second bill that takes aim at unions, SB 1007, also sponsored by Goedde, to forbid unions from using dues to subsidize members' wages, will continue Monday.

Bill to look toward online sales taxes introduced on 12-6 vote

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho lawmakers will at least debate joining the nationwide effort to tax Internet sales following a 12-6 vote in favor of introducing the measure in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Wednesday's vote brings the bill just as far as it made it during the 2010 Legislature, before it died on a deadlocked committee vote. In fact, four similar measures have died in the House since 2007. But the tax committee's chairman, Republican Rep. Dennis Lake, says he's convinced the panel's changed roster this year could give this push a better chance of surviving. Lake is among proponents who say joining the national push to tax Internet sales will help level the playing field for Idaho's Main Street brick-and-mortar merchants who suffer a 6 percent sales tax handicap, compared with many Internet businesses.

Kustra: Nation will lose edge if higher ed funding continues to slip

Boise State University President Bob Kustra, who is giving his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning, says BSU has increased the number of students choosing STEM majors - science, technology, engineering or mathematics - by 35 percent in the past four years. Fall 2010 enrollment was up 22 percent over the prior year, and in 2010, BSU produced 2,094 bachelor's degrees; Boise area residents with at least a bachelor's degree earn twice the wages of those without, Kustra said. BSU enrollment now is up to nearly 20,000 students by head count, he said, but state funding is falling. The average section size has jumped from 32 to 40 students. The university is “re-engineering and redesigning ourselves internally” to cope with the funding changes, he said.

“It has been a struggle and a true test of institutional character to advance as we have despite the dramatic reductions in funding over the last several years,” Kustra told lawmakers. “Our efforts have paid off, as evidenced in the quality of our educational offerings. But maintaining quality will become increasingly difficult with further budget cuts. We are coming close to a critical point in history where only those who can afford higher education will get it, just as we need an increased workforce knowledge base to maintain the recovery and global competitiveness.”

Kustra said tuition continues to climb, and there's no clear direction on where it's headed. “We're playing a game here with no end in sight,” Kustra said. “We don't  have this clear indication of what you expect the cost of public higher education to be, and how it should be borne.” He encouraged lawmakers to think about that long-term. Not knowing where it's headed, he said, “puts us in a difficult position,” in which “decisions are made incrementally year to year.” If the nation continues on that course, he said, “In the end I have no question that we will lose our pre-eminence across this globe of ours, when it comes to economic development, when it comes to ability to compete.”

Party-line vote introduces nullfication bill in House committee

On a straight party-line vote, with all 15 Republicans on the committee voting in favor and all four Democrats voting against, the House State Affairs Committee has voted to introduce legislation seeking to “nullify” the federal health care reform bill. You can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

Barbieri pitches nullification bill

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, told the House State Affairs Committee this morning, “The federal health care laws recently passed by the U.S. Congress have invaded the traditional sovereign powers of the state. This bill declares that this intrusion by the federal government is … null and void.”

Committee members had lots of questions for Barbieri. “Are you … aware that no court in the history of the United States has ever upheld a state effort to nullify a federal law?” Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, asked Barbieri. He responded, “I do believe no federal court has done that. The difficulty is that the federal courts are an arm of the federal government, so it would be very difficult to imagine an arm of the federal government ruling against itself.”

Barbieri said the bill's sponsors estimate that the state would save $228 million by passing their nullification bill. Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said the state Department of Insurance already has received $2 million from the federal government to start setting up health care exchanges. “This is the law of the land. So are we going to give it back? Are those folks working on this, are they going to be fired?” she asked. Barbieri said, “It's inestimable, and that's the difficulty.”

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, noted that other members asked Barbieri about an attorney general's opinion. “I'm not privy to what that is, other than what I read in the paper,” Anderson said. “I think if there's a decision we're going to make here without having access to that, I would feel very uncomfortable. We have an attorney general's opinion out there, and I would like to know what that is.” Barbieri responded, “I would not be comfortable. It's a three and a half page kind of rambling.”
  

House committee member questions gift of free ‘nullification’ book

As the House State Affairs Committee convenes this morning, Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, noted that there's a copy of a book before each lawmaker on the committee, entitled “Nullification” by Thomas Woods. Higgins noted that under the committee's rules, members need to know who paid for the book, why it's there, and what role it plays in the bill that's before it today, a measure seeking to “nullify” the federal health care reform law.

Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said the book was paid for by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and he'd get the other information for Higgins.

UI has crowd, displays in rotunda

About 40 University of Idaho students are down in Boise from Moscow, along with college deans, officials and more, including UI President Duane Nellis, and they're offering displays and breakfast in the fourth-floor capitol rotunda, where they're sharing information about the university and its programs. ASUI President Stephen Parrot said, “It's a great opportunity for us.”

CWI shares student success stories

College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon shared a rapid-fire series of a dozen success stories involving his college's students, including people who never thought they'd attend college and now are building successful careers, people who overcame family and financial struggles and more. Music played softly in the background. Glandon said the college is a “tremendous resource” for the region. “That was lovely,” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said at the conclusion. “It'll get me through the rest of the week.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, confessed, “I was a huge skeptic of CWI when we started it, and I'm ready to eat as much crow as I can. I'm very, very impressed.”

Community colleges ‘take everyone’

College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon is the next to make his budget pitch to lawmakers this morning; he'll be followed by College of Southern Idaho President Jerry Beck. After the community colleges, BSU President Bob Kustra is scheduled to address JFAC.

Glandon told lawmakers, “We are still on track with our mission and where we're going. … CWI continues to experience a great influx of students.” He said, “We're affordable, adaptable, accessible and accountable. … We are keeping our credit prices in line with the other community colleges in the state. … We provide opportunities for everyone seeking post-secondary education, regardless of their current level of education. It is noteworthy that community colleges are open entry, we take everyone no matter where they are.”

In fiscal year 2012, Glandon said the college projects that 47 percent of its funding will come from student tuition and fees; 32 percent from state general funds; and 20 percent from local property taxes. Those figures are for state-appropriated funds, excluding professional-technical education, which comes through a separate appropriation.

“Our growth far exceeded any expectations - we are already over 7,000 students,” Glandon said. He said the college has been “hit hard” by state budget shortfalls; it's eliminated 15 positions and cut pay for 35 others; increased tuition and fees by $10 per credit; and suspended some programs, while restructuring others.

Despite budget, staffing struggles, no increase in dropouts at NIC

Given the budget and staffing pressures at North Idaho College, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked NIC President Priscilla Bell if the college is seeing more students fail and drop out. Bell's answer: No. In fact, NIC's retention rates remain above the state average and above the national average, she said. That may be partly because people can't find jobs to move on to, she said, but it also may be related to NIC's stepped-up efforts to retain students and get them to finish their degree or program.

NIC prez: Employers cover much of costs for workforce training programs

Among the questions that JFAC members had this morning for NIC President Priscilla Bell, Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said he was surprised to learn that the college provides some customized workforce training for local employers. “There was a time when companies would train their own workforce,” Toryanski said, “and it sounds as if the taxpayer is now training the workforce for the private sector. … How long has that been the trend?”

Bell responded that there is some federal funding specifically for that, but, “The employers also have contributed, and in many cases pay completely for training for their particular company.” Bell said when she arrived at NIC, she found that some workforce training programs were operating at a loss; she put a stop to that, so that all now are at least self-supporting and most generate some funds for the college to cover overhead. “We're happy to fill that need, but we're not happy to fill that need at the expense of our local taxpayers and students,” Bell said.

NIC: Soaring enrollments, falling funding

Priscilla Bell, president of North Idaho College, is making her budget presentation to JFAC this morning, and her news is dramatic: Student enrollment, measured by total head count, has soared from about 3,500 when she started at the college in 2007, to some 6,700 this spring. “We've almost doubled our head-count in the four years I've been here,” Bell said. But at the same time, state funding for NIC has been dropping. Under the governor's proposed budget, “By fiscal year 2012 it will be at 2001 levels.”

Because NIC is funded by local property taxes as well as student tuition and fees and state funds, the falling state support will impact both property taxes and student fees, on which, Bell said, “We have to rely more and more.” No decision has been made as yet on property tax levies for the college next year, but Bell said the college has statutory authority to increase its levy by 3 percent a year, and it's done so every year she's been at the college. Student tuition and fees also have risen every year, though the impact has been diffused because of the college's shift over two years to a per-credit basis for its tuition. During the shift, that's meant bigger increases for part-timers than for full-time students. “So now when we do a tuition increase, it will be the same percentage across the board for all students,” Bell said.

Since 2001, NIC's student enrollment has grown by 106 percent, Bell told lawmakers, and property taxes to support the college have grown 112 percent. At the same time, state funding has dropped back down to the 2001 level. Gov. Butch Otter's budget proposal for Idaho's community colleges next year calls for an additional 1.7 percent cut in state support, on top of the earlier decreases. Now, Bell said, “Full-time faculty are teaching on average two classes more than their normal load every semester. On the non-faculty side, we have not increased our staff for several years.” That means, she said, that “the same number of staff struggle to meet the needs of more and more students.”

‘Nullification’ bill sponsors to press ahead despite Idaho AG’s opinion

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how a group of Idaho lawmakers, including freshman Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, is pushing ahead with plans to introduce legislation tomorrow to “nullify” the federal health care reform law, even though an Idaho attorney general's opinion says such bills violate both the state and federal constitutions and state lawmakers' oath of office. “I'm not concerned about that,” Barbieri said. “I think reasonable minds can differ.”

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, an attorney who requested the attorney general's opinion, said, “It's basically what the civil war was all about - are we a federal government or are we not? Apparently these guys have decided to fight the civil war all over again. It's crazy. It's like we haven't got better things to do in this economy than this.” He added, “If they're really serious about it, why don't they nullify the federal income tax law and we can keep all that money and solve our budget problems? That might be more productive.”

Luna reform bills on the way…

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, just announced that two bills that are part of state schools Supt. Tom Luna's sweeping education reform plan will be posted on the superintendent's website on Thursday “to give interested parties opportunities to read the bills.” Then, he said, “I expect that we will have print hearings on Monday. Because of the turnaround time, we will not take them up next week, but we will probably start taking them up the following Monday.”

Idaho AG’s opinion says ‘nullification’ bills violate Idaho and U.S. constitutions

The Idaho Statesman's Brian Murphy reports that a new Idaho Attorney General's opinion says “nullification” legislation - like the bill in the works in the Idaho House that seeks to “nullify” the federal health care reform law - would violate both the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho Constitution, along with lawmakers' oath of office. “There is no right to pick and choose which federal laws a State will follow,” states the opinion, which was requested by Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise. “Aside from ignoring the Supremacy Clause in Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, that contention cannot be reconciled with Article I, § 3 of the Idaho Constitution or the oath of office prescribed in Article III, § 25.” You can read Murphy's full post here, and the full opinion here.

Little: Fix roads or abandon them

Lt. Gov. Brad Little reported to the Senate Transportation Committee today on the findings of the governor's transportation funding task force, which concluded that Idaho's roads and bridges need $543 million worth of work, but that no funding increases should be proposed now in the midst of an economic downturn. “The $543 (million) number is the best number we can come up with,” given current systems at ITD, Little told the lawmakers. With the installation of new computerized management systems, he said, “We are on the glide path to having much better information.”

Some discussion focused on a comment from one of the task force members, former state Rep. Jim Kempton, that if Idaho can't afford to keep up its road system, it'll have to start abandoning parts of it. Little said that's a real concern. “If we're not going to do anything pretty soon, we're going to be in the position of saying, 'Are we going to keep the road to Stanley?' ” Little said. “What's it cost to maintain? … Are we going to allow the fog lines everywhere in the state to fade to where we're jeopardizing public safety, in order to keep the road open to Grandjean? If you've got any friends that have winter cabins at Stanley, I know what their answer is, but we as policy makers have a real safety obligation to keep those fog lines painted all over the state of Idaho.”

Legislation introduced to update Idaho’s geothermal lease rules on state land

A package of four bills designed to modernize Idaho's state leasing rules for geothermal development on state lands was introduced today, on unanimous votes in the House Resources Committee. “Basically it'll modernize our geothermal leasing statutes, we feel, to incentivize development in a timely manner,” said Kathy Opp of the state Department of Lands. The changes are backed by Gov. Butch Otter and the state Land Board, which he chairs; that board is charged with getting maximum long-term returns from state endowment lands for the endowment beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools.

In July, the Land Board learned that there's been a run on geothermal leases on state lands - 80 applications in the previous month and a half - and that Idaho needed to retool its geothermal lease rules if it hopes to eventually make millions for schools. The previous system, with dollar-an-acre rents but 10 percent royalties if the leases ever produce, had prompted speculators to take out leases and just sit on them, rather than developing them; of the  63 geothermal leases issued on state endowment lands since 2007, the only one that was producing was the one for heating the state Capitol and state office buildings. As a result, Idaho' had only made $60,000 a year in rent payments from its state-land geothermal leases.

The Land Board voted unanimously in July to declare a “known geothermal resource area” for the entire southern half of the state, including everything south of the Salmon River and everything in and south of Lemhi County to the Utah and Nevada lines; that allowed auctions to gain more for the state from the leases, but was just a stopgap measure until new rules could be passed. Opp said the “suite” of four bills introduced today apply both to endowment land and non-endowment state-owned land.

Group plans rally Saturday against discrimination, bullying

Backers of legislation to expand Idaho's discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and to step up anti-bullying measures in the state are planning a rally Saturday on the Capitol steps. “If you ask, you'll find Idahoans agree: no one should be harassed or bullied at school, fired from a job, denied housing or denied public services for no other reason than that they are gay or because of how they express their gender,” said Boise State University student Lindsey Matson of the “Safe Schools and Fair Employment Working Group.” The group is backing SB 1033, legislation introduced by Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act.

Similar legislation was defeated in the Senate State Affairs Committee in 2008 after an emotional hearing; the existing law covers discrimination in employment and public accommodations because of race, creed, color, sex, or national origin. Click below to read the group's full announcement.

Pharmacy board won’t act on complaint

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Board of Pharmacy says it has no basis to start proceedings against Walgreens in a complaint that alleged one of the drug store's pharmacists in Nampa improperly refused to fill a prescription. A Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest nurse practitioner contended the pharmacist in November abused the state's 2010 conscience law to balk at filling a prescription for a drug that helps control bleeding after childbirth or abortions. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, executive director Mark Johnston told Planned Parenthood that the board concluded the pharmacist didn't violate patient confidentiality laws by inquiring if she had received an abortion. In addition, Johnston said there was no requirement in the Idaho Pharmacy Act for a pharmacist to fill a prescription. He said the investigation is being closed “without further action.” Click below for more on this.

Bill would name Highway 3 the ‘North Idaho Medal of Honor Highway’

If legislation backed by Coeur d'Alene Sen. John Goedde is enacted, Idaho would rename the stretch of state Highway 3 from I-90 south through St. Maries and to its junction with Highway 12 between Orofino and Lewiston as the “North Idaho Medal of Honor Highway.” Goedde, a sixth-term Republican, said, “I was approached by a couple of veterans groups prior to the passing of Vernon Baker, to acknowledge Idaho's Medal of Honor winners. There are still two or three living Medal of Honor winners in North Idaho - it seemed appropriate. We've done that kind of thing before, and there'll be no expense to the state if veterans organizations want to put up signage.”

UPDATE: The Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, after Goedde told the panel, “Every once in a while this Legislature gets to do something nice without a whole lot of heavy lifting, and that's what we have here this afternoon.”

Lawsuit over secret tax deals suspended pending legislative action

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawyer has dismissed his own lawsuit against the Idaho State Tax Commission accusing it of dishing out improper deals to politically connected taxpayers. Bob Huntley says his lawsuit, brought originally by Democratic state Rep. Shirley Ringo and now the Idaho Education Association and others, sought to inform legislators about problems — and spur reforms to improve the state's tax collection system. In a press release, Huntley now says it's now in the best interest of all parties that the litigation be postponed until lawmakers have a chance to weigh in. Huntley says he could refile the lawsuit, depending on what happens. After Associated Press reports starting in December about ethical concerns by agency employees, Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow resigned this month. Chigbrow has been replaced by former Sen. Bob Geddes.

Biz group says poll shows megaloads support

“Drive Our Economy,” a business group in Idaho and Montana that backs megaload shipments on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, released a poll today that it says shows Idahoans back the megaloads too, including those who live near the route. “A similar poll was done in Montana that achieved similar results,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry and co-chairman of the “Drive Our Economy” coalition. “This is a well thought-out plan in moving these shipments from the Port of Lewiston up through Montana. The public supports this. This is about driving the economy.”

Several lawmakers joined LaBeau at a press conference to release the poll, as did the manager of the Port of Lewiston. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, former chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, said, “Think about what happens if people don't want farm equipment moved, they don't want a large manufactured home moved because it might interfere with their right to use the road. … You can't hide behind 'this is a scenic highway.' … This is something I think we all need to get behind.”

New Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, was among those endorsing the plan, which includes hundreds of giant loads of oil equipment traveling the scenic, twisting two-lane route at night over the next year or more, en route to the Alberta oil sands project. He said he thinks it's important to the nation's energy future and to job creation. “I think it would be a real danger to our economic development, as we start to grow again, if we try to hinder any of these kinds of loads,” Hammond said. “Most people, particularly in this tough economy, know that we need to start rebuilding, and this project is just one niche of that rebuilding.”

Idaho ranks last for doctors

Idaho ranks last in the nation for the number of physicians per capita, Dr. Ted Epperly told JFAC this morning, and is tied for last in the number of primary-care physicians. That's part of the reason the state sponsors programs like the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho, whose budget Epperly presented to lawmakers this morning; the state also has an ISU family medicine residency; an internal medicine residency; and cooperative programs with both the University of Utah and the University of Washington for doctor training. Idaho has no medical school. The residency programs are aimed at bringing new doctors to Idaho to serve their residencies, in hopes they'll stay; while the cooperative program allows 28 Idaho students per year to go to medical school in Washington or Utah.

Epperly told JFAC, “Our program this year will run $1 million in the red. That hurts.” But he said, “Thank you for level funding. If we can possibly receive continued level funding, we'll see that as a victory in this economy.”

Popkey: Luna sought school boards’ support for reform plan, they balked

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey has an interesting look today at how state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna sought support from the state's school board members for his reform plan, and at first seemed to have it, but then didn't; it was the only stakeholder group he courted, Popkey reports. You can read his full column here.

Lawmakers differ on university reserves

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, told ISU President Arthur Vailas, “I am concerned that the unrestricted, unallocated net assets for the universities are as low as they are,” and Vailas said, “I have the same concerns you do.” Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said he looks at it differently: The state has spent its reserves in this economic downturn, he said, so why shouldn't the universities as well?” Vailas responded, “A reserve fund to me is a misnomer. I look at that as an emergency fund that, as Rep. Wood said, is really inadequate.” Emergencies, he said, “I know are going to come before us.”

Vailas: ‘It’s been very painful’

ISU President Arthur Vailas said when he arrived at the university, it had hardly any reserves, which lawmakers made clear to him was unacceptable. It now has $7.6 million in net unrestricted assets, he said, though that is only 3.7 percent of its prior year net operating expenses, when the state Board of Education has set a minimum target level of 5 percent.

Vailas said, “We're doing our job in making difficult decisions. … It's been very painful to do a lot more with less, but I think we're all in that boat. I'm not whining about it, but I just want people to know that this is what we all have to share, is to do more with less and to leverage more.” He said ISU reduced travel, conferences, supplies, memberships and publications, and held off on filling vacant positions. “Over $8.8 million was saved in recurring costs,” he said. “More than half was in personnel, of hires that were vacant, we could not hire. So we found other ways to work together.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, complimented Vailas for his work, and JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, thanked him for working with lawmakers in these difficult times. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “As time goes on in this legislative sesison, we're finding out that the budget we've been presented thus far may not necessarily be balanced and we might be looking at deficits that we're going to have to prepare for.” He asked whether Vailas knew what would happen if the Legislature only funded, say, 93 percent of his budget request. Vailas responded, “We are engaged right now in what we call the what-if scenario,” though the what-ifs envisioned 5 or 6 percent cuts. He said, “I'm telling you, we're way down to the bone, and we're doing what we can to become self-sustaining.”

Vailas: ‘We realize we are challenged as a state’

Dr. Arthur Vailas, president of Idaho State University, told JFAC this morning that ISU has achieved a high honor, achieving “research university-high” status from the Carnegie Foundation. It was one of very few public universities nationally to increase its status this year, he noted. ISU also saw a 27 percent increase in its external funding in fiscal year 2010, he said, with 70 percent of that coming from federal funding, and a 17 percent increase in industry funding.

“In the budget … we know that we see a decline in appropriated dollars,” Vailas told lawmakers. “We realize that we are challenged as a state and you're doing the best job. And I want to tell all of you from all of us, we understand. We have these challenges. We know that you also don't want to see cuts anywhere. And we also know that you're trying to have the best solution to try to meet the challenges of other needs for state dollars. What we're asking is we can try to leverage that opportunity and work with you in a way that perhaps we can all benefit in certain ways. Can education help corrections? Can education help health care? Can education affect other areas that the state appropriates? Maybe we need to consider that as partners.”

Lawmakers: Turn support into dollars

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, told IPTV general manager Peter Morrill, “This committee got a lot of emails in support of Public TV last year. My question is, if each one of those emails came with a financial contribution you would be in much different financial shape this year. … Can you visualize a plan where that support can be turned into greater financial support?

Morrill responded that IPTV is working hard on fundraising, and has had strong support. But the economy is a factor, he noted. “These are challenging times. Private fundraising is not a robust area right now. … We have had good individual contributor success. Foundation support right now is kind of like that,” and he waved his hand in a wave-like motion. “We went though a dip.” More challenging, he said, and key to support for local programs, is corporate fundraising. “Corporate contributions are very challenging right now,” Morrill said. “It's not an easy field to plow now.”
  

IPTV winning awards despite funding crunch

Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television, told lawmakers this morning that broadcast television actually is drawing more viewership these days: People are watching an average of 35 hours a week of broadcast TV, but just 20 minutes of online video. He also noted that Idaho Public TV has won 71 major awards this year, including three Emmy awards for “Outdoor Idaho” and “Dialogue for Kids” and an Edward R. Murrow Award for “Outdoor Idaho.” “There's some good stuff happening even in these very, very challenging times,” he said.

The budget news for Idaho PTV is less sunny, however. Though the network has met its fundraising goals, raises more private funds than similar networks in other states and operates with a third less staff than its peers elsewhere, the governor's budget recommendation is for a 4.1 percent cut in state general fund support and 6.4 percent in total funds. That would mean cutting three positions; making permanent a $97,200 cut from last year that was replaced by a one-time federal grant that's no longer available; and the governor recommended zero funding for the $1.3 million in replacement capital the network has requested, including several items mandated by federal law.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked the consequences of not meeting those federal mandates. Morrill responded that there are two: The emergency alert service mandate, which requires IPTV to be able to provide emergency alerts on a localized basis to four zones; just the equipment to meet that mandate costs $120,000, and there's a deadline of Sept. 30, 2011. Failure to comply will bring fines starting at $8,000 per transmitter; IPTV has five transmitters. The second federal mandate comes under new federal legislation regulating loudness from one TV station to another; IPTV will need $57,000 worth of equipment to meet that by a fiscal year 2012 deadline; fines for non-compliance haven't yet been set. The replacement capital also includes $75,000 for tower maintenance that Morrill said is much-needed.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked, “Can we duct-tape and bailing wire and get through the time?” Morrill responded, “We're now about three years behind on deferred maintenance, and there are now cracks in our system that are beginning to appear. We have some absolutely required tower maintenance we're expecting this summer that needs to take place.” He acknowledged, “It's not going to be the kind of news you want to hear.”

State parks chief called on carpet for sending 32K letters on CdA boat launch

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on why state lawmakers called their parks chief on the carpet today over letters that were sent to 32,000 boaters about the possible closure of the 3rd Street boat launch in Coeur d'Alene. State Parks Director Nancy Merrill told the Senate Resources Committee she was just doing her job as required by state law: Standing up for boater access on state waters. But Coeur d'Alene city officials say the city always planned to replace the launch with another one just as good, if it removes the downtown launch as part of a big renovation of McEuen Field into a waterfront park - and that message got lost.

“I appreciate that they are looking out for boater access - we are doing the same thing,” said Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandy Bloem. Said city Parks Director Doug Eastwood, “It was very, very poor communication.”

Newest idea for specialty plate: ‘Fly Idaho’

Idaho already has more than 75 options for special license plates, from breast cancer awareness to snow skier to historic preservation to “Support Our Troops.” Today, legislation was introduced to add another one, to benefit the Idaho Aviation Foundation. Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, who is a pilot, said the foundation works to improve access at backcountry airstrips in Idaho, which in many cases are the only way to access big swaths of the state other than hiking in on foot or riding in on horseback. Among the group's efforts have been bringing disabled veterans to the backcountry by flying them in to the airstrips. The plates, as envisioned, would include the slogan “Fly Idaho,” and may also add the slogan, “Pilot's Paradise.”

Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said, “In 12 years I've never voted for one, but I told him I like his purpose on this, so he thinks he's going to break my record.” Smith noted that though he's routinely voted against specialty plates, “Every one of 'em passed.” He said, “If they sell enough plates, they put a little money toward whatever foundation it is, and that's a good thing.”

His committee voted today to introduce the bill, the first special plate of this session. Last year, lawmakers created specialty plates for mountain biking and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness; the previous year, they added four plates, the “Gold Star Family” license plate for families who’ve lost a member in combat; one for Idaho Freemasons, or Shriners; one backing education for youngsters about earth science and lapidary, which refers to the art of cutting gem stones; and one to recognize commercial innovation.

Most of Idaho’s special license plates are fundraisers for various causes, from the state Fish and Game Department (elk and bluebird plates) to the Boy Scouts and Special Olympics plates. Others recognize and promote industries, from timber to agriculture; tout Idaho’s sporting attractions, from white water to snowmobiling; or display the driver’s affiliation, with everything from colleges or universities to the National Rifle Association. There’s one for recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor; one for members of the House or Senate; one commemorating Idaho Basques; and one promoting “Historic Lewiston.”

Merrill: State took no position

Idaho state parks Director Nancy Merrill told the Senate Resources Committee today that when her agency sent 32,000 letters out to registered boat owners in North Idaho about the possible closure of the 3rd Street boat launch in Coeur d'Alene, it was following state law, which says it's responsible for boater access on “waters of this state.” Said Merrill, “We were not directing users up there … how to respond. We were just simply informing them there was a process, gave them the websites, how they could be informed.” The Dec. 29 letter, which the state ran by city officials before it sent it out, said, “The City of Coeur d'Alene is developing a conceptual plan for McEuen Park which may include closing the existing boat launch facility at 3rd Street Marina.” It then gave the time and place for the city's first public meeting on the project on Jan. 6, along with city website addresses information on how to send in comments.

“Closure of the 3rd Street boat ramp may limit boater access to Lake Coeur d'Alene in the future. If you use this facility you are encouraged to comment,” the letter concluded. Merrill said, “We did not attempt to define a position, nor have we taken a position.” Click below for more on this.
  

Senate committee to examine 3rd Street boat launch issue in Coeur d’Alene

The Senate Resources Committee will hear from state Parks Director Nancy Merrill today about the 3rd Street Boat Launch in Coeur d'Alene, which has been a target for possible closure. “We just want to know what's going on,” said Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, the committee's chairman, who noted that Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, asked the panel to review the issue. “We want to get the real facts out,” Pearce said. “There've been some ugly accusations made.”

University funding and reserves…

Here's a link to our full story at spokesman.com on today's budget discussions about the University of Idaho, and talk among lawmakers about use of reserves at the state's colleges and universities. “Frankly, your money looks better to me than mine does at this point,” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told UI President Duane Nellis, referring to reserves. Only $3.8 million of the University of Idaho unrestricted assets are “true reserves” and not already obligated in a contract or designated for a specific project, Nellis said. The money represents about 1 percent of the university's total operating expenses, well below the 5 percent goal the state Board of Education has set for Idaho universities and colleges. Commented JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “Frankly, the state's operating on less than 1 percent reserve.”

Capitol displays highlight BSU programs

Today is Boise State University day in the 4th floor of the Capitol rotunda, with lots of displays, giveaways, and folks eager to tell lawmakers and others what they do in programs ranging from energy to health. Also this week, University of Idaho Day is coming on Wednesday, with breakfast and displays planned in the fourth floor rotunda.

Ag Research & Extension suffers from budget cuts

John Hammel, dean of the UI Agricultural Research & Extension Service, is now giving his budget presentation to lawmakers; the agency has seen its base budget cut by 20 percent in the last two years, he said, plus another $7.5 million cut in one-time funds. “Expertise lost through budget-cutting will most probably never be regained,” Hammel said, so the service has tried to maintain its research faculty as it's made the cuts, from cutting graduate assistantships by 50 percent cut to cutting 70 positions while reorganizing and merging offices. The positions cut were mostly classified staff; nearly two-thirds were on the Moscow campus, while the other third were in research and extension offices around the state.

The governor's proposed budget for the agency for next year is flat; he didn't call for additional reductions in its base budget. However, Hammel said there are more than a dozen vacant faculty positions that are considered “at risk,” because the program currently is underfunded. Just an additional 5 percent budget cut would slash those key faculty positions by 50 percent, he said; he emphasized that it's the faculty positions that generate external funds, and if they go, so do the other funds.
  

Bell suggests tapping UI reserves; Nellis says they’ve eroded

JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said the University of Idaho has exercised good fiscal management and has maintained reserves in tough times. She told UI President Duane Nellis, “I hope you can find some one-time ways to help us through this.” Nellis responded, “I do worry, though. … If we were to have a major windstorm or flood or some significant event, fire, we're very, very concerned about that. … What if a major piece of research equipment breaks for a project that is bringing in millions of dollars?” Some flexibility is needed to deal with such situations, he said. “We've gradually eroded that base, and are very concerned about that.”

UI can handle short-term budget cut, but there are ‘long-term negative impacts’

Overall, the governor's proposed budget for Idaho's colleges and universities next year calls for an additional 1.3 percent cut in general funds, and a 3.5 percent cut in total funds, on top of the much larger cuts universities have seen in the past two years. Among the items for which the governor is not recommending funding: $8.5 million to cover costs of increased student enrollment; $5 million in replacement items; $2.8 million in inflationary adjustments; $4 million in occupancy costs for new buildings; and $2 million for a biomedical research initiative jointly proposed by UI, ISU, BSU and the  Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise. Instead, Gov. Otter is calling for a $4 million cut in overall funding to colleges and universities, as part of his budget-balancing cuts to most state agencies.

UI President Duane Nellis told JFAC, “I appreciate the governor's recommendations. It is a cut, but it is still something, I think, with a small fee increase, we probably can manage it.” The problem, he said, is longer-term: The state is on the verge of “long-term negative impacts to the institution and its ability to serve the state,” he said.

Nellis: Needs great, and investment in higher ed pays off

“According to the state Board of Education, not counting unfunded occupancy costs, we would need to increase our student fees another 8 percent just to cover unfunded maintenance costs for operations items,” University of Idaho President Duane Nellis told JFAC. “If we were to cover unfunded occupancy costs with student fees, we would need a total fee increase of 10.2 percent overall.” But, he said, student debt levels are rising, “and we've very sensitive to this.”

In addition to occupancy costs for buildings already constructed, the university has a long list of future renovation and construction projects to address. “Adequate facilities need to be available to our students,” he said. “This will require significant investment to create the capacity to achieve the goal.”

Said Nellis, “Your investment in higher education … is one of the single best investments you can make.”
  

Nellis: Short-term cuts ‘not sustainable’

The University of Idaho implemented a “strategic hiring freeze” in fiscal year 2009. It's now down 44 regular faculty and 36 staff positions, not including changes in part-timers; the total reduction in full-time equivalent employees from the general education budget is 136. Add in 73 cut from the Ag Research and Extension Services, and the total cut is 203 positions. All non-essential travel has been cut. The UI also has furloughed most of its employees. “The freeze on hiring and the reduction in travel have been important management tools, but these are short-term cuts and they're not sustainable,” Nellis told lawmakers. UI has 70 physical locations around the state; it now has more than $200 million in deferred maintenance on those structures.
  

UI’s budget relies on variety of sources

Of the University of Idaho's total operating budget for the current year of $453 million, only 23 percent - $104 million - comes from the state general fund. That includes general education, agricultural research and extension, medical education and special programs. Grants, contracts and federal support make up 42 percent of UI's budget, or $188 million. That includes federal student aid like Pell Grants, along with federal, state and private research grants.

Within its general education budget of $140 million, about 53 percent, or $73.5 million, comes from the state's higher education appropriation. The rest is from dedicated funds, land endowment earnings, federal funds and student fees. UI students are paying $30.7 million this year in matriculation fees, plus $58.5 million in other fees.

UI has had two largest freshman classes ever the last two years

The past two years have brought the two largest freshman classes in the University of Idaho's history, President Duane Nellis told JFAC this morning as he presents his budget request. Research, too, is continuing to grow, he said. “Last year alone our faculty submitted more than 1,000 research proposals for funding with a total value of nearly $300 million.” He said, “Our research and scholarly and creative activities are broad and vital.” A couple of examples: An assistant professor of forest ecology, Philip Higuera, is part of a multi-disciplinary and multi-university research team that secured a nearly $4 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service to study fire in sensitive forests worldwide. Earlier this month, UI microbiologist Carolyn Bohach was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her work with E. coli bacteria.

Nellis also highlighted STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, which he said is “essential for gaining profitable new industries and jobs in Idaho.” He said, “Roughly 33 percent of all the degrees we award are in STEM areas. By comparison, other Idaho institutions average 12 percent, and our western peers average 25 percent.”

UI Prez Nellis: The UI returns $9 for every $1 the state invests in it

The University of Idaho was ranked 153rd in the nation in the most recent U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges,” UI President Duane Nellis told lawmakers this morning. The Carnegie Foundation classified UI as a “research university with high research activity.” “Every year, we put nearly $1 bllion into Idaho's economy,” Nellis told JFAC. “That's roughly 2 percent of the state's economy. In other words, we return $9 for every $1 you invest in us.”

He noted that 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the UI's Moscow campus, and said, “I am especially interested in the University of Idaho … because I know that the university represents that which shall count in the state tomorrow, and that it makes possible the growth in the 50 years to come.” Said Nellis, “A century later, his observations ring true.”
  

Budget cuts take toll at LCSC, prez says

Though Lewis-Clark State College enrollment has been soaring, budget cuts are taking their toll, interim President Tony Fernandez told legislative budget writers this morning. Already, certain highly sought after classes, like microbiology, have had enrollment caps, making it harder for students to get into sections of the class they need as prerequisites for their majors, particularly in health-related fields. That could delay their graduation by as much as a year. “Faculty and staff retention may be affected if we continue to have years without merit increases,” Fernandez said. “Our salaries do not compare with our educational peers.” Through recent years' budget cuts, the college has tried to avoid cutting permanent faculty, but has reduced other positions, including a big cut in temporary hires, including adjunct faculty. He noted, “If there is a continued decline in general fund appropriations for support of higher education, there will be student fee increases.”

LCSC enrollment has grown 68% since 2000

Lewis-Clark State College has seen its total student enrollment rise 68 percent since 2000, interim President Tony Fernandez told JFAC this morning. “We think that our enrollment increases in the last few years show that we continue to be a successful higher-education enterprise for the state of Idaho,” he said. Fall 2010 enrollment, in total headcount, was 4,542 students. “Just about every category, we have increased,” Fernandez said. Plus, the college got top marks in its latest accreditation review and has won several major awards. Placement rates are over 90 percent, he said, meaning students have either been admitted to higher education programs in their field after graduation or have secured jobs.

Health care ‘nullification’ bill getting some fine-tuning; may or may not be up today

Freshman Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, is on the House State Affairs Committee agenda this morning, along with Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, to present legislation on “state sovereignty.” Barbieri said it's the “nullification” bill on national health care reform that's been discussed, but some changes to the proposed bill are in the works. “It may be that we're not going to be able to be on the agenda today,” Barbieri said. “We've got a couple of changes that we've implemented that it may not be ready for the committee this morning.”

Barbieri said it's the same bill that Sen.. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, has been working on. “We actually early on got together and merged the two so that they were identical,” Barbieri said. The measure is “to nullify within Idaho's borders the, pretty much, the health care plan,” he said. “I think we have carved out the Pell Grants and a couple of other things that the U.S. House has done when they put their repeal (bill) together.” He added, “It's not as strong as Texas' bill, where there are criminal penalties to the state and federal employees who would attempt to implement despite the law, but it does pretty much bar state agencies from accepting or distributing money and it bars them from entering into agreements that would further the national health care plan.” The bill also contains an emergency clause, making it take effect immediately upon passage.

Said Barbieri, “It's just a major issue that at least at this point we can take the lead on with the other states that are agreeing that the national health plan is overreaching.”

Trail: Medical marijuana could save state money

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, says part of the idea behind his medical marijuana legislation is to save money for Idaho's money-strapped Medicaid program. “It’s a safe, nontoxic, nonaddictive drug, as contrasted to opiates like morphine, oxycontin and hydrocodone,” he said. “There could be a substantial savings to the state of Idaho by using medical marijuana, as contrasted to the other opiates that are legal today.” However, he said so far other Idaho lawmakers haven't been receptive. His bill, HB 19, has been assigned to the House Health & Welfare Committee.

Though neighboring Washington, Montana, Oregon and Nevada all have legalized medical marijuana, 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. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public TV, I join host Thanh Tan, Jim Weatherby, Kevin Richert and David Adler to discuss the events of the week, including the historic public hearing that JFAC held today on public school funding, drawing a huge outpouring of public input; Thanh also interviews    Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, Rep. Janice McGeachin, and Rep. John Rusche about Medicaid cuts. 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.

Click here to see a slide show of the week in pictures, as the second 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.

Pearce plans ‘nullification’ bill

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, plans to introduce legislation early next week to “nullify” the federal health care reform law, a move that's drawing favor among tea party adherents who believe the federal government is out of control. Gov. Butch Otter also raised the idea of “nullification” in his State of the State message this year, though multiple U.S. Supreme Court decisions have rejected such moves, including a landmark 1958 ruling that Arkansas couldn't defy the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and refuse to desegregate public schools. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Lahti opts for lump sum for her Mega Millions lottery prize

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lottery officials say a 29-year-old northern Idaho woman has decided to collect her half of a $380 million Mega Millions jackpot in a lump sum payment. The Idaho Lottery announced Friday that Holly Lahti, from the small town of Rathdrum, had elected to take the $120 million lump sum instead of collecting her cash in annual payments over 25 years. The federal government would take $30 million in taxes, while the Idaho State Tax Commission would take a $9.3 million slice, leaving Lahti with about $80.6 million. Lahti, a mother of two, is splitting the second-largest lottery jackpot in history with Jim and Carolyn McCullar of Ephrata, Wash.

Bell: hearing was ‘extremely successful’

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the JFAC co-chair who ran today's unprecedented, four-hour public hearing on school funding, deemed it “extremely successful.” She said, “When people will travel and sit quietly and wait a turn that may never come…” She said there were only roughly three people who exceeded the three-minute time limit. Her co-chair, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “It's a success any time you can get the public to participate in the process.” Added Bell, “We oughta bottle this up and share it with some others.”

Cameron said, “I don't think you can walk away from the testimony that was given and not feel an impact.” But he added, “Whether it changes somebody's vote is another matter.” Lawmakers still are sorting through the details of the superintendent's school reform plan, he said. “We're working really hard not to have an opinion until we've heard from the public, and all the details are unveiled.”

Legislative services officials said as many people watched the school hearing live online as watched the governor's State of the State address this year.

Wood: ‘They don’t support this plan’

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said the message she took from today's four-hour public hearing on school funding was, “They are not supportive of this plan - even the people that kind of lean to support had a lot of questions.” She said, “I was extremely excited about the turnout and the passion that some of the parents spoke with about their children. I had no idea that we were going to fill up three committee rooms. … It's pretty impressive.”

Worth the 400-mile trip to testify…

After traveling 400 miles from Post Falls to testify at today's public school funding hearing, Matt Barkley, a school band director, said the trip was worth it. “I was a little nervous with the large crowds here,” he said. “I came down at 6 in the morning to get in line. It was worth it - I heard a lot of compelling testimony, and I hope that the committee heard that, too.”

Four-hour hearing wraps up; testimony was nearly 6-1 against Luna reform plan

“You've been a very gracious and a very patient audience,” Rep. Maxine Bell said as today's unprecedented public hearing on school funding concluded - at noon, after four full hours. Overall, nearly 80 people testified. By my count, only 14 spoke in favor of state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's far-reaching school reform plan, and two of those wanted changes in it (that figure also includes two children who testified in favor of their virtual education); the plan calls for raising class sizes and moving to more online classes to pay for a boost in technology, a laptop for every high-school student and merit pay for teachers, along with other changes. Nearly all of the others testifying today - 65 people by my count, from all over the state - spoke in strong opposition to the plan; that's nearly a six-to-one margin against.

Testimony: ‘Can work at your own pace’

Lawmakers called up two children from Kuna who attend the Idaho Virtual Academy, an online charter school, and spoke in favor of online education. Fifth grader Wyatt Bell said he's been learning online since kindergarten, and because his dad is off on Wednesdays, he can go skiing on Wednesdays and have school on Saturdays. Alexa Bell of Kuna told lawmakers, “The virtual schools are amazing and you can work at your own pace.” She said she was sick a lot as a baby, and the school helped her catch up and get ahead.

Karl Abel of Kuna said he's a school bus driver, but he's speaking today as a parent. He suggested cuts elsewhere, such as food assistance to people who spend the money on junk food, would allow more funding for education. “I have 75 kids on my bus,” he said. His voice breaking, he said, “They're my kids.”

Wade Coldiron, a school board member from Priest River, said, “A computer is a tool, that's all it is. We need teachers to implement that tool.” He said, “I think I have the best teachers in the state. … We don't give them the resources they need.”

Testimony: ‘A risky experiment’

Among the final speakers, Todd Wells of the Castleford school district spoke in support of the Luna reform plan; teacher Darin Gonzalez of Kimberly said there's lots of technology in use in his school now; a mom from Idaho Falls, Rebecca Bohman, spoke in favor of online classes, saying they give her children “a very customized education;” and another woman from Idaho Falls, Jacinda Lyon, said states that have tried giving laptop computers to all students have backed away because of problems.

The principal of the Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy, Daniel Nicklay, spoke in favor of the Luna plan, saying, “This plan is bold and innovative and that will always make some people uncomfortable.” He added, “We must remind ourselves that schools do not exist primarily to provide employment.”

A special education teacher from Homedale, Debra Haase, said her students' parents don't want larger classes; and Laurence Gephardt, a businessman and Navy veteran from Pocatello, compared Luna's plan to Obamacare, and said, “My recommendation is to send the Luna plan back for rework. It's current form would spend precious state dollars on a risky experiment.”
  

Bell: About 133 signed up to testify

Rep. Maxine Bell told the crowd, “We have just listened to 60 of you, and you've been so gracious in allowing us to chop you off. … There are about 133 of you  who signed up.” At this point, she said, she's going to jump ahead to those remaining on the list who have traveled from other parts of the state. “Those of you who have waited and waited and still haven't been heard - there's still technology, and we have computers,” Bell said to a murmur of laughter. “Please get to us.”

Testimony: ‘We’ve won race to bottom’

Terry Soule, a parent and teacher from Caldwell, told lawmakers, “We are already an extremely cost-effective state. We've won that race to the bottom. But our teachers are performing well for the students in the classroom.” He said, “We need to find the money and invest in the future for this state.”

Jennifer Swindell, spokeswoman for the Caldwell school district, said, “In Caldwell we're on a road of continuous improvement, and there's one thing we just can't take, and that's more cuts in education funding.” She said, “We support Supt. Luna's plan to reform education.” Swindell said the district is “very willing to sit at the table” to turn Idaho's current funding constraints into solutions.

Emma Roemhildt, speaking for Idahoans for Choice in Education, said she's a recent graduate of a high school in rural Alaska where students in some classes, including her younger brother's - but not hers - were issued laptop computers. She said she was her class valedictorian, but lacked computer skills when she headed to college at Northwest Nazarene University, and wished she had more. “Those who are technologically illiterate are falling farther and farther behind,” she said.

John Gannon, a former state lawmaker, told lawmakers, “I would like to suggest to you today that whatever you do, give as much flexibility as possible to our local school districts. These proposed changes usurp that historical role of the local school board.”

Testimony: ‘My children will fall thru cracks’

Lynnette Aldridge of Oldtown, a mother of four including a child with developmental delays, said, “Providing all our students with online learning sounds great on paper, but my children will fall through the cracks - they will not succeed.” Her high-school-age daughter tried online classes and failed, she said, but thrived back in regular school with support from her teachers.

Betty Gardner, a small business owner from Priest River who also subsitute teaches and has a daughter who is a teacher, said, “We already have 25-plus kids in most of our classrooms. … I have questions especially about the virtual classes. If students don't have Internet and have to stay after school to do homework, who's going to supervise them?” She said, “I don't think public education is an entitlement, I think it's a duty.”

Theresa Watson, a fourth-grade teacher from Priest River, said, “We need money and funding for our schools.” Teachers in her district received no money for supplies this year, she said, and had to buy them on their own. “It's my responsibility to provide a safe, nurturing, encouraging classroom - not to fund it,” she said.

Testimony: Top colleges don’t accept online foreign language classes

Brian Potter, a teacher and father of two from Potlatch, said his son, a top student, couldn't apply to Dartmouth or Stanford for college because they wouldn't accept online foreign language classes - which is all Potlatch offers. His son even took two online PE courses, he said, drawing some laughter. He said, “Is it really student centered to remove effective educators and replace them with clickers and laptops? Is this the new paradigm we want?”

Carol Wallace, who works with poor and homeless students in Lewiston, told lawmakers, “Lewiston's fourth, fifth and sixth grades average 25 students each.” Of several will have disabilities, some may be learning English, and one may be homeless, she said.

Penni Cyr, a teacher from Moscow, said, “Online classes are important - we have students in Moscow who take them, but it should remain a choice. It should not be imposed on the student and the parent.” She said students tell her they take online classes because they're easier, and in-person teachers demand more of them. “Some teachers in northern Idaho currently receive compensation below Idaho's poverty level,” she said.

Testimony: School lacks wireless, electrical to accommodate laptops

Pam Danielson of Peck told lawmakers, “Orofino Junior-Senior High does not have the wireless capability nor do we have the electrical capability for multiple laptops.” She said when her daughter took an online class through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, technical problems, including filters that dropped tutorials, kept it from working and she had to drop the class.

Pat McAllister of Boise, who identified himself as a taxpayer, said, “Let's really make it count and have the students really come first this time.” What students need, he said, is “smaller class sizes, more attention,” and most of all, content. “Overcrowded classes have led to problems in schools, so why would we ever consider it again?” he asked. “We've made budget cuts that have compromised our children's future by playing politics with it.” He said if the state wants expert advice on how to improve education, it should ask teachers, not a committee.

Wilburn Wesche of Boise said, “The paradigm shift required to reform schools is complex.” He said, “Education reform relies on three pillars: Time to teach, resources and evaluation. Time to teach requires a class small enough for optimal learning.” Wesche said there's a place for online classes, but they shouldn't be seen as the equal of classroom instruction. “I have let to see a laptop or  a clicker comfort a neglected or abused child,” he said. “This obsession to fire teachers is not the answer,” he said, and added, “Most of us want to reform our schools, not dismantle them.”

Testimony: ‘All our eggs in one basket’

Britton Blauer, a teacher and parent from Pocatello, broke down as she told lawmakers she had to take a second job and now works 70 hours a week. “I have less time and energy for my students, and my family deserves more,” she said. Her class has 29 students, she said. “They are little people who deserve lots of attention every day.” The youngsters include those struggling with disabilities and those who speak other languages. “Larger classes will make this … impossible,” she said. “My students deserve more. …  Technology can never replace the teacher.”

Christina Hartman, a teacher from Bear Lake, said the Luna education reform plan would “put all our eggs in one basket,” by staking Idaho's education future on “a technology largely untested.” She called instead for issuing flash drives to students, rather than laptop computers, and establishing technology checkout programs and other moves to make better use of technology in schools.

LaVon Dressen, a parent and teacher from Emmett, said, “One astute student commented, 'More students in here? Where are we going to put 'em? It's already crowded in here.'” Dressen said small school districts struggle when the state makes cuts; her school is scheduled to be closed next year. “As I look at this plan I see a lot of things that are going to harm my children and not a lot that's going to help them.”

Brenda Dunstan, a 1st grade teacher, Kuna, told lawmakers that the benefit of smaller classes is a matter of common sense and “a simple math equation: Minutes per day divided by number of students equals amount of one-on-one time.”

Tamara Fisher, a mom from Bear Lake, told lawmakers, “Our kids get the laptop when they're a senior and they have to work for it in our family.” She said, “I do think we should use the technology we already have.”
  

Wood: Educators offended at idea haven’t been putting kids first all along

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, told lawmakers, “Idaho educators are offended by the idea that we haven't been putting students first all along.” She said, “Two weeks ago, Idaho parents and teachers thought the main debate this session would be how to avoid further cuts from Idaho's schools. Now, however, you are being asked to adopt a hastily formed plan developed without input from Idaho educators and parents.” She said class sizes already are high in Idaho. “The fact remains two years from now, if you pass this plan, Idaho will have a thousand fewer people contributing to our economy,” because it would eliminate that many jobs in schools.

Student: Online classes ‘not very effective’

Kaitlin Howell, a high school student from Caldwell, said she took three online classes and found them “something completely different from normal teaching.” She said “Learning is all self-taught and not very effective. One of the worst things that could be done to the school system is to implement more of these classes. Students would not learn the necessary material and education would be very ineffective.”

‘Time it takes to soft-boil an egg’

Pat Bollar, a teacher from Rupert, got a warm laugh from the crowd with her closing comment: “Three minutes is the time it takes to soft-boil an egg, not express opinions from a lifetime in teaching.” That's all the time people are being allotted to testify today, and the hearing has been moving briskly from one three-minute talk to the next.

Bollar told lawmakers, “Please don't demean the importance of teachers in the classrooms. Please don't believe that virtual education is anything different than what the name implies, to be seemingly but not really there.”

Steve Smylie, a former state lawmaker and former candidate for state superintendent of schools, was the second person today to plead to restore funding for a school in Boise that serves pregnant high school girls; its state funding has been eliminated.

Ryan Kerby, superintendent of schools in New Plymouth, spoke in favor of the Luna reform plan. “We have a former Idaho teacher of the year in New Plymouth. She has a computer for every student in her room and has told me that is heaven on earth,” he told lawmakers.

Kymberly Herridge, a parent from Boise, said, “I come before you today with a stomach full of nerves and a heart full of pleas.” She said while others have chosen online education for their kids, “My husband and I have chosen traditional neighborhood schools for our, where they are thriving.” She said, “Think about the teachers that you had and how they have impacted your life…. Tell me how a computer is going to do that. Please don't take away my choice.”

So far, just four of 27 people testifying favor Luna’s reform plans

Maria Nate, a parent, school volunteer and former school board member from Rexburg, said, “I would call myself an ardent public education supporter. I believe in public education. And that is why I support Tom Luna's forward-thinking plan, Students Come First. The way we do business in current public education is not working.”

She was in a decided minority of those testifying today; so far, of the 27 people who have testified, only four spoke in favor of Luna's reform plan; many more spoke out strongly against it. Nate said she served on the negotiating committee in her district, and it was “an awful, horrible experience.” She told lawmakers, “I found out first-hand that the union negotiates for the best interest of the union, not for the best interest of the teacher or the children.” She said, “The district was forced to sell our soul to the union so they wouldn't sue us. … I was accused of being heartless and hateful and not caring about teachers.”

Testimony: ‘We need to adapt’

Lorna Finman of Post Falls told lawmakers, “I am here today to wholeheartedly support Supt. Tom Luna's plan for students come first in Idaho. … We need to adapt and increase our level of education quality like never before if we are to adapt.”  Finman, who's been active in promoting technology programs including robotics for school kids in North Idaho, shared the story of a formerly homeless North Idaho student who was given a laptop computer, and became a successful programmer and went on to attend MIT. “We are not tapping into the potential of these students and preparing them for 21st century jobs and job creation,” she said. “In my opinion, Supt. Luna's plan is the only option that makes sense on the table.”

Laurie Langdon of Garden City, by contrast, said, “I don't agree that the best tools we have should be given up in favor of technology.” She said her children's schools already have technology including smart boards, computers and clickers. “Please leave us with the options of deciding whether or not those online classes are good for our students,” she said. “Please don't hamper local schools with more mandates in these areas.”

Testimony: Online classes, testing, class size concerns…

Several people who have testified have called for smart boards and classroom computers to enhance teaching, rather than issuing each high school student a laptop computer. Kerrin Rue, an American Government teacher at Borah High School in Boise, said, “At my school alone, the failure rate is between 30 and 40 percent for students who take online classes. Do you really want to be spending money on a program that takes teachers away from kids?”

Meghan Ridley, a special education teacher from Sandpoint, told lawmakers that education cuts in recent years have had deep impact on schools. She decried reliance on standardized tests, including requiring special-ed students to take the ISAT. “Literally they are tested on material they haven't been taught,” she said. “How can this be an accurate measure of anything, let alone the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom?”

Rick Checketts, a parent from Mountain Home, said, “Mr. Luna has proposed that we put our children first. I agree with that. But how can we, if we increase our class size?” He said, “I feel that to increase the size of the classroom will lead to more dropouts,” as teachers have less time to help individual students who struggle. “We don't need to start experimenting with Idaho's education,” he said.

‘We have to make the cuts - it’s simple math’

Danielle Ahrens, who spoke on behalf of Bonner and Boundary county Republicans and the Bonner County Republican Women, told lawmakers, “I've been PTA president twice and I do understand the value of education. But these are hard times.” She said she backs Supt. Luna's reform plan, including more online classes and giving students laptop computers. “We also recommend cutting research and development funds for the college and university systems,” she said. “These things can be done in the private sector.” Said Ahrens, “We don't have the money, we have to make the cuts. … It's simple math.”

Tina Williams, a teacher at West Minico Middle School in Paul, opposed Luna's plan, particularly in how it would raise class sizes. She testified, “At West Minico, the average class size is 27 with some as high as 35. I teach science - it's a safety issue. If I give them a hands-on lab, they need smaller classes, not larger ones.”

Stephanie Archuleta, a 6th grade teacher from Caldwell, said, “I don't know of one teacher who is opposed to change, one who doesn't like technology or what it can do to enhance the learning process, or one who wants their students to fail.”

Tearful mom tells lawmakers of cuts in her kids’ school, problems with online class

Lauren Peters, a mom from Hansen, broke into tears as she began addressing lawmakers. “Our children lost out,” she said. “Art, music … are entirely gone. … This year my son will graduate, and for the first time, no band will play Pomp and Circumstance as he makes his way to the stage.” She said the library was another casualty of budget cuts at her kids' school, so she's been volunteering every day. “I understand that money is tight, but when I heard Mr. Luna's plan to decrease the number of teachers and replace them with online classes, I had to come share my experience with you.”

She said at her kids' school, four students enrolled in an online class through the IDLA, but struggled, and found that “the instructor responded to questions by telling students to try this or that website rather than answering them herself.” Two of the students dropped the class, she said, and the other two passed only with the help of extensive tutoring by a teacher at the school. “If highly motivated, capable students had this much trouble with online learning and had a 50 percent dropout rate, I shudder to think” how others will do, she said. “And I don't think an online band is going to play for their graduation.”

Mom: ‘Please don’t give my son a laptop, send that money to his school’

Karen Mahoney of Eagle told lawmakers, “I'm here to represent my sons. Mr. Luna's plan is bad for students, bad for teachers and bad business for our state.” She said she's been “an art mom, a room mom and a copy mom,” and she can't imagine any parent wanting bigger classes. Parents want their kids to get more attention, she said. “My 8th grader is thrilled with the proposal to get a new laptop,” she said, so he can play games and use Facebook, “rather than have to ask my permission to use the family computer. … Please don't give my son a laptop. Instead send that money to his school, where it's desperately needed.”

Colby Gull, superintendent of the Challis School District, said, “On this proposal the superintendent hit the nail on the head. Students have a comfort zone with computers and with online learning, it's adults who struggle with these things. … For two years education funding has dwindled and this is the only plan that offers something different.”
  

Testimony: ‘Hold everyone accountable’

Matt Barkley, band director at Post Falls High School, testified, “Budget cuts from last year's session have hit hard in the music community.” Some Idaho school districts have lost their entire music programs, he told lawmakers. “I implore you to not pass the education budget with the superintendent's proposed policy changes,” he said. “It's time to hold everyone accountable, not just the teachers - then we will truly have a student-centered education system,” he said.

Dennis Burt of Coeur d'Alene told lawmakers he sees Supt. Tom Luna's reform plan as deeply flawed, and he's concerned about a history of poor education funding in Idaho. “Communities are constantly required to run override and supplemental levies just to meet the most basic of education needs,” he said, while kids go door to door selling cookie dough, wrapping paper and candy to raise money. “Is some type of reform needed? Absolutely,” he said. “Go back to the drawing board with all parties at the table.”

Testimony begins at school funding hearing…

The first to testify at this morning's public hearing on school funding is former state Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise. “As an educator and as a parent of four children,” he said, “I care deeply about my children's education. … We have to be competitive as a state, and as a state we need to attract the best and brightest teachers.”

Second up was Julie Dillehay of Meridian, a high school counselor. She said she's concerned about the proposal to increase class sizes. “It means we will lose millions of dollars in funding,” she said. At her school, Vallivue High School, there already have been classes with 45 students in them. “What you're seeing here is what we're seeing in our classrooms this fall,” she said. The proposal to raise the student-teacher ratio will cost her school district about $1 million, she said. “They would either have to raise levies, or we would have less teachers. That would have a domino effect.” She said her high school could lose its accreditation as a result.

‘Delighted you care so much’

“This is gratifying,” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, declared as she opened the JFAC public hearing on school funding this morning to a packed auditorium. “I'm delighted that you care so much about your government.”

Overflow room opened for hearing

People were lining up as early as 6:30 this morning for today's unprecedented public hearing on school funding before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. There are about 240 theater seats in the Capitol Auditorium; all are full, and people are standing around the sides and in back. Now, an overflow room has been opened up across the hall with video and audio. More than 70 people already have signed in to tesify; at three minutes apiece for three hours, there's likely time only for 60. Those who don't get to have their say today are being asked to submit their testimony in writing.

More than full house for ed hearing…

The Capitol Auditorium, which seats more than 300, is already more than full for this morning's public hearing on public school funding, and there are dozens of people lined up in the hall outside, signing in to testify.

Public can testify Friday on school funding

This Friday morning, for the first time, JFAC will take public testimony, and it'll be on the public school budget. From 8-11 a.m., anyone who wishes to offer their thoughts can address JFAC, with a time limit of 3 minutes per person. The hearing will take place in the Capitol Auditorium; a week later, JFAC will hold a similar, and similarly unprecedented, hearing on Health and Welfare funding.

For those interested in testifying on Friday morning, or those who can't make the hearing but want to submit testimony, JFAC is offering tips and information; click below for all the details.

Ness: Idaho can only afford to replace bridges once every 120 years

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State officials say bridges designed to last up to 60 years will have to hold out twice that long without an increase in transportation funding. That's what Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness told lawmakers Thursday, saying his agency only has enough money to replace bridges every 120 years. A state task force on transportation funding determined in November that Idaho will need to come up with an additional $543 million annually to fully address its needs to maintain highways and bridges. But the task force directed the governor and Idaho lawmakers to explore their ideas only after the economy has improved and more revenue is available. Until there is more money, Ness says his agency will rely on short-term fixes to keep Idaho roads and bridges intact in the meantime.

Tribal policing bill introduced

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the tribal policing issue that's back before lawmakers, after a deal that averted legislation last spring fell apart. “That agreement was not signed, which necessitates coming back before the Legislature and asking for a resolution of this issue,” the tribe's lobbyist, Bill Roden, told the House State Affairs Committee. Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts disputed that. “If you agree in principle, it's not a final contract,” he said. “They said, 'No, you can't make any changes to what you agreed to in Boise.' That's not how it works.”

The tribe said the county proposed about 50 changes to the agreement after the Legislature adjourned last spring. Rep.  Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, the new House Judiciary Committee chairman and a retired state trooper, traveled to Benewah County in December to try to get the two sides back to the table to reach an agreement. Things looked promising, he said. “When I left there, I thought we had a good understanding, but it didn't materialize - the county wouldn't even come back to the table.”

Idaho highway deaths drop to 1975 level

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State officials say motor vehicle fatalities across Idaho declined in the past year, dropping to the lowest level since 1975. Idaho Transportation Department Deputy Director Scott Stokes told lawmakers Thursday there were 211 deaths on Idaho roadways last year, the lowest number since 1975. There 226 highway deaths in 2009, compared to 232 in 2008. Stokes told lawmakers on the House and Senate transportation panels that his agency was encouraged by the decline in vehicle fatalities.

Lawmakers bring up megaloads during ITD officials’ presentation

As top ITD officials, including Director Brian Ness, Deputy Director Scott Stokes and the state Transportation Board, make presentations to a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees this afternoon, lawmakers asked about the megaloads that ITD just approved to travel on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho. The decision covers just the four loads proposed by ConocoPhillips to go from Lewiston to its Billings, Mont. oil refinery, but ExxonMobil also has plans pending for 207 more giant loads on the same route, from Lewiston to Montana and then up to its Alberta oil sands project in Canada. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, asked, “How are you guaranteeing that these loads, especially if there are 200 or more of them … how are your guaranteeing that the damage … will be repaired without the taxpayers picking up the bill?”

Ness responded that multiple axles will spread the weight of the extra-large loads, which are so big they'll take up both lanes of the two-lane route. “Probably you'd find that there's less damage being done to the road on a per-axle basis than you'd probably find on a normal vehicle going down the highway,” Ness said. He added that the megaloads are among the “most-inspected” loads, and said the state is requiring a “significant bond” to cover any road damage. He said the most likely damage would be to shoulders if the loads stray off the road.

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “I want to congratulate you on your decision.” He said the United States can't continue to rely on foreign oil from places like Iran, and instead should be looking to “our friends in the north,” referring to the Canadian oil sands project. “This is a no-brainer for the security of this nation, so I congratulate you for your decision,” McGee said.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “Most situations are sufficiently interesting that I don't consider them to be a no-brainer.” Ringo said she attended an early meeting in the region on the loads, and, “It really seemed to many of us there, at least to that stage, there was a lack of process.” The department at that point had no answers on what would happen if there was an accident, she said, and no information about the bond that eventually was required. “It wasn't a particularly good start,” Ringo said. “I hope at the end that there will be a process in place that can be made clear to everybody and we can get some comfort with it.” Ness responded that with possible litigation, “When we get to the point of ITD defending or changing its process, that's probably something that I shouldn't comment on at this point.”

2009 law raises safety concerns in forests

Two years ago, Idaho legislators passed a law that exempts anyone under age 16 from having to have a driver's license to operate an off-highway vehicle, ATV or motorbike on national forest roads. Now, the Forest Service is doing a review of safety issues on its roads in light of the change. “Previously, Idaho law prohibited use of OHVs by unlicensed riders on roads open to passenger vehicle traffic,” said Intermountain Regional Forester Harv Forsgren. “While responsible OHV recreation is welcome on National Forest System roads, safe operation of motor vehicles on National Forest roads is compromised because unlicensed and untrained drivers are now sharing roads designed and maintained for passenger cars and commercial truck traffic.”

The Forest Service is taking public comments through Feb. 22 on concerns about specific stretches of road in the eight national forests in the state, which contain more than 7,700 miles of roads open to both off-road vehicles and highway vehicles. Possible safety moves include reducing speed limits, removing brush for improved visibility, warning signs, speed bumps or, as a last resort, banning off-road vehicle use.

The 2009 law, sponsored by Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, was mainly aimed at changing registration and insurance requirements for off-road vehicles, but it also included a clause allowing anyone under 16 to ride the vehicles without a driver's license on federal or state land where the road is not part of the state or local highway system, when the youngster is supervised by a licensed adult operator. The bill passed unanimously in the House and got just two “no” votes in the Senate.
  

Cross-border group pushes for more exports

Representatives of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region group, or PNWER, are in Boise today and tomorrow, and they're pushing to expand exports to boost the economies of both the states and the Canadian provinces in the region. Among the ideas: Expanding capacity for wheat storage at the Lewiston terminal on the  Columbia River. So far, the group has met with the Idaho departments of Agriculture and Commerce; it'll be meeting with the governor, business groups and more. “All of it is aimed at trying to benefit the region as a whole,” said Idaho Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover.

Matt Morrison, the group's executive director, said tourism also is among the exports that should be increased, and the group is interested in legislation in the works from Idaho's congressional delegation that could allow tourism or business visa interviews to be done online, reducing delays. “Tourism is a clean industry,” he said. “It's something here in the Northwest we all benefit from.”

Oregon state rep. Mike Schaufler said, “We're struggling with a budget deficit too. We need to recognize and expand and shore up our relationship with the states and provinces … so we can get the money to educate, medicate and incarcerate people in Oregon.” The group came to Boise from Olympia, Wash., where Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire is pointing to increasing exports as a key to coping with that state's budget shortfalls. Said Morrison, “In this climate, it's really why PNWER was created - we have to think regionally, look for efficiencies and be collaborative to be successful.”

Tribal policing issue back before lawmakers, after county reneged on deal

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe is back before Idaho lawmakers this year, after Benewah County reneged on a deal last spring that prompted the tribe to drop legislation on policing that lawmakers were on the verge of passing. “Obviously we were extremely disappointed,” said Helo Hancock, legislative director for the tribe. “We felt like we'd been deceived in a lot of ways, that it was just an act to get out of getting a law passed.”

This time, the tribe has dropped proposals calling for a six-month window to reach a collaborative cross-deputization agreement with a county, and just written a bill modeled after other states' laws clarifying that tribal police with all required training and legal indemnification can enforce state laws. The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said, “I think I understand the value of the cross-deputization, because I was a county commissioner when we did that in the early '80s in Kootenai County, and it was to the advantage of law enforcement at that time. I continue to believe it is a benefit, properly done, and I'm hopeful that the bill that comes forward today will find acceptance.”

A new federal law - sponsored in part by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson - allows tribal police officers to enforce federal law on reservations, and if necessary, to cite violators of state law into federal court. “That is not the desire of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, to use that,” Bill Roden, lobbyist for the tribe, told the committee.  “But frankly it is such a severe problem that unless this is addressed at the state level, we're merely inviting further federal action, and the current law that is on the books would permit that.”

Last March, lawmakers heard chilling testimony about criminals going free; tribal officers tied up for hours waiting for deputies to respond and take over an arrest when they're needed to address other crimes; and more, due to the lack of a cross-deputization agreement. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe long has had such an agreement with Kootenai County, and it had one with Benewah County until the sheriff there revoked it in 2007.

Under questioning from lawmakers on the committee, Roden said Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, traveled to North Idaho in December and attempted to negotiate an agreement between the tribe and the Benewah County Sheriff, who wanted a change to last year's deal to ensure non-tribal members cited on highways would be cited into state court, not tribal court. The tribe agreed, Roden said. “The sheriff represented that if Benewah County reneged on that concept he was going to resign. I haven't seen the resignation yet, but we did get a letter saying that now he doesn't agree with that either. But we tried,” Roden said. “That's all I can say.”
  

Raising tuition isn’t the answer, state Ed Board chief tells lawmakers

The answer to Idaho's higher education funding conundrum - more students, less money - can't just be raising tuition rates further, state Board of Education President Richard Westerberg told lawmakers. “Longterm in Idaho, we cannot continue to raise tuitions at the rate we have in the past. It's an unsustainable course,” he said. He noted that in 1991, students paid 12 percent of the cost of their education in tuition and fees; today, it's 39 percent. Though Idaho's tuition rates remain lower than some other states, he said, “In Idaho, our ability to pay is less.” Idahoans have lower incomes, he said. “Remember our goal is to get more students to go on to higher education. If we continue to raise the cost to do that, that seems to me to be counterproductive.”

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told him, “We understand it's not an easy task that you have. So much is expected, and so little is given in here.”

Idaho higher ed: ‘More students, less money’

Idaho State Board of Education President Richard Westerberg told lawmakers this morning that the state board's goal is 60 percent by 2020 - that 60 percent of Idahoans who are ages 25-34 should have some sort of post-secondary degree or credential. “Our society, our global competitiveness and our workplace require it,” Westerberg said. Right now, only 31 percent do achieve that. Yet forecasts show that by 2018, 61 percent of jobs will require a post-secondary degree or certificate. “I know you understand how important education is to the success and economic health of Idaho,” Westerberg told a joint meeting of JFAC and the House and Senate education committees. “I have great respect for the difficult choices you all have to make.”

However, for the past few years, Idaho has cut funding for higher education; Gov. Butch Otter's proposed budget for next year calls for another small cut on top of those decreases. Westerberg said Idaho will have to focus on preparing high school students for post-secondary education in ways that cost less, from dual credit programs, to grant-funded efforts to improve college access for traditionally underrepresented and under-served students, to online learning. When a high school student takes a dual-credit college class, it costs about $65, he said. At college, the same course costs the student $247.

“Doing more with less isn't just a mantra any more, it's a reality,” Westerberg said. “That's our world.” Higher education has seen a 22 percent cut in funding since fiscal year 2009, he said. “It has had a significant impact on all of our campuses.” He added, “All of them are seeing record enrollments - more students, less money.”

Historical society wants to free old records from modern-day redactions

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — It's been more than a century since Harry Orchard planted the bomb that killed former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg outside his house in Caldwell on Dec. 30, 1905. But historians requesting a copy of Orchard's prison record from the Idaho State Historical Society might be disappointed in what they get. That's because state archives staff by law must redact the names of victims and witnesses — though these details are readily available from other sources, and the names in question are of people long dead. State Archivist Rod House says that takes time and money — not just for Orchard's records, but for thousands of other aging documents, too. So House's agency proposed a bill Wednesday in the state Senate to declare most records public 75 years after their creation; the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to introduce the bill. Records like births, deaths and divorces in the state registrar's custody would still be subject to exemptions.

Senators have lots of questions on Luna school reform plan

State schools Supt. Tom Luna has gotten lots of questions from members of the Senate Education Committee about his education reform plan. Among them: Lots of questions about his proposal to give every 9th grader a laptop; questions about whether his proposal to require school districts to use state purchasing contracts will cut out local merchants from providing products or services to schools; a question about whether his plan for university-sponsored charter schools would fall under current caps on new charter schools (it would); and questions about lost teaching jobs under Luna's plan.

Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, noted that statewide turnover in teaching positions may not occur equally in all districts, and raising class sizes might still require layoffs in some districts.  “We still may find ourselves in a situation where the loss of teachers in a particular district cannot be covered by attrition,” Goedde said. Luna responded, “We know that that's … the probability. Attrition is not going to deal with every one of the reduction in force issues. But with the numbers I've presented, I'm comfortable that it's going to compensate for most and a considerable majority of the positions that we would eliminate.”

Luna to senators: Larger classes, free laptops tied together for funding

State schools Supt. Tom Luna is at the Senate Education Committee this afternoon, taking questions from committee members about his reform plan. Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said, “In my district we had a town hall meeting yesterday, and about 90 percent of the time that we had with the residents was spent on your plan.” Among their questions, Toryanski said: Why give laptop computers to every 9th grader? Why not give them to seniors, “students who are more mature,” and start with a certain number of schools rather than all of them?

Luna responded, “Understand that if we were not to do the laptop program, then we do not make the adjustments to student-teacher ratios. It would be a wash. It's by having the laptops we can have students take two online credits per year, and the money that saves us pays for the laptops and the maintenance on the laptops. … It self-funds.” Luna said it wouldn't save any money to buy the computers for an older group of students; his plan is to buy the computers for all of next year's 9th graders, then continue to do so as the next year's class comes in, with all high-schoolers eventually getting them.

House GOP worries about tax revenues

The House GOP caucus is worried about state tax revenues, according to Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, and discussed the issue at length in its closed-door caucus today, which ran for an hour. “There's certainly some cautionary approaches that we're going to take,” Roberts said. “We're trying to get the caucus and the legislators to understand that there may be more significant reduction measures than what we're hearing from the agencies now.”

Of particular concern, he said, is the governor's inclusion of $33 million that state tax revenues were running ahead as of November into his budget calculations, when December's figures showed that figure dropping. Said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakely, “The governor had to shut the suitcase and go with what he had. … We're still going to wait before we do the big stuff … (until) the January numbers are in.”

Panel introduces ‘conscience’ law amendment to protect living wills

Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, says he's been getting heat ever since the last legislative session about last year's hastily enacted “conscience” law, which is aimed at letting health care providers decline to provide abortion-related services if they violate their conscience, but also takes in “end of life care.” He even heard about it at a presentation at his local Rotary Club, where the message was that living wills, advance health care directives and even doctor's orders and do-not-resuscitate orders can be overrided by the law. “I can't help thinking there was an inadvertence,” in including that clause in the bill, Smith told the House Judiciary Committee today. “I don't think the crafters intended this sort of disruption in those areas.”

So Smith drafted a bill adding a clause to the law citing Idaho's existing Natural Death Act, which guarantees that living wills and such orders must be complied with, and stating that the measure can't override that. The Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, clearing the way for full hearings.

House GOP heads into caucus

House Republicans have gone into their first closed-door caucus of the session, though House Democrats already have held several closed-door gatherings. The majority caucus will last 'til about noon, which would be about 45 minutes, though House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, termed that “optimistic,” suggesting it could go longer.

Chief justice: Civil litigants can’t afford counsel, marriage license fee could help

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Eismann is delivering his “State of the Judiciary” address to the House and Senate today; here, he's speaking in the House. “In spite of the challenges resulting from the economic downturn, the judiciary is still fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to the people,” he told lawmakers. That's in part because of the emergency surcharge on all infractions, misdemeanors and felonies lawmakers enacted last year to help the courts stay open through the budget crunch. “One of our judges did his part by receiving a traffic ticket the first day the surcharge went into effect,” Eismann said.

He said Idaho's courts have successfully made use of special problem-solving courts, including domestic violence courts, drug and mental health courts, DUI courts and child protection courts. Eismann said he's working to start a veterans' court in Ada County, “to deal more effectively with veterans struggling with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health issues.”

One serious challenge in the courts has been the number of people involved in civil cases who can't afford counsel, Eismann told lawmakers. That's particularly a problem “in many domestic relations cases, especially those involving children.” He said a possible solution would be to increase the cost of an Idaho marriage license by $20, “which would generate about $280,000 a year that could be used to provide legal assistance in civil cases involving children and families.”

One in three Idahoans received state assistance in 2010

One in three Idahoans received help from the state Division of Welfare in 2010, from food stamps to Medicaid to Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled. Russ Barron, division administrator, told members of  JFAC and the Senate and House health and welfare committees this morning that more and more people are coming to the division who've never sought public assistance before, due to unemployment. With the sharp increases in the programs, “The workload for our staff continues to increase,” Barron said.  Caseloads have jumped. “We have improved productivity by more than six times,” he said. In 2010, however, the division's personnel budget was cut by $1 million in state general funds, $2 million in total funds.  “We are faced with an ever-increasing demand for services, and we've had to make difficult decisions about how to trim budgets.”

Among them: The division has eliminated services and programs that weren't required by the federal government. That means people who apply for food stamps no longer are forced to comply with child support services as a condition of receiving food stamps. Aggressive efforts to locate non-paying parents for child support also have been dropped. Job assistance for food-stamp recipients aged 18-50 who don't have children and aren't disabled has been cut off. And 1,400 recipients have been booted off the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled program, while another 600 had their benefits reduced. “We realize that some participants were impacted more than others,” Barron said. “The main impact was to those living in certified family homes, and the majority of these participants live in homes operated by their relative caretakers.”

Mental health services face cuts

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The economic downturn has left deep scars on Idaho's public services for the mentally ill, including efforts to help some of the state's most-vulnerable children. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's recommended budget for the Department of Health and Welfare's mental health services division for fiscal year 2012 is $32.4 million, down 4.6 percent from 2011 and a full 19 percent less than in 2008. The division has laid off or left unfilled 35 full time positions to assist adults with mental health problems, and another 14 positions to help kids. Administrator Kathleen Allyn says limited funding and staffing have forced her to prioritize. At the top of her list are intervention services for people in imminent danger to themselves or others. As funding has dived, demands have risen: Allyn's staff is completing some 400 crisis evaluations monthly.

Possible Medicaid cuts include eliminating PSR services

Members of JFAC and the House and Senate health and welfare committees got a chance this morning to ask questions of state Medicaid administrator Leslie Clement, after her presentation on Monday of the Medicaid budget. Half an hour was allotted; there were so many questions that they went on for 45 minutes. Among them: Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, asked why psycho-social rehabilitation services were targeted for elimination in one of the two scenarios for cutting $25.2 million from Medicaid services next year.

Clement responded that psycho-social rehabilitation is “a benefit that I think our state has struggled with for a long time, in terms of having the confidence that it's really producing good outcomes for the individuals receiving those. So we've been nibbling at that policy and changing criteria and trying to increase the standards. … It continues to be one of those benefits that we hear the most criticism about, have the least amount of evidence that it's producing positive outcomes and we're spending a ton of money on it.”

On Monday, Clement provided lawmakers with two scenarios on how to cut millions out of Medicaid. Scenario 1 called for eliminating PSR services, to save $11.8 million in state funds, and developmental disability center services, to save $8.4 million in general funds, along with cuts in dental services and new copays. Scenario 2 called for  a series of smaller reductions in various services along with eliminating all non-urgent dental care for adults and raising assessments on providers. Later this morning, lawmakers will hear a presentation on services for the developmentally disabled.

Lawmakers raise questions about reform plan

Key Idaho lawmakers raised serious questions Tuesday about state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's sweeping education reform plan, which he detailed to nearly half the Legislature in a massive joint committee hearing. Luna's plan relies on raising class sizes and employing fewer teachers, administrators and other school workers over the next two years, and funneling the savings into technology upgrades, a teacher pay-for-performance plan and other reforms.

“I would suggest that it is not on greased skids at this point,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene. “I would anticipate hours of additional questions.” Goedde said Idaho's school facilities simply may not have room to increase class sizes. “It's a question that at least hasn't been addressed at this point,” he said. “That's the linchpin in this whole funding, so if that falls apart I don't know where we go.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of the Legislature's joint budget committee, said it's misleading to rely on the current average statewide student-teacher ratio of less than 20 when considering the plan. “In reality, in my district anyway … there are teachers with 35, 36, 38 students - and they're already squeezed into rooms,” she said. “I applaud the superintendent for thinking outside the box, but we really don't have enough detail budget-wise or policy-wise to make a decision. This really does turn our system upside down, and there are huge policy issues with that.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Megaloads now won’t move ‘til Feb. 1

ITD now says the ConocoPhillips megaloads won't start moving until Feb. 1, rather than on Monday. The agency earlier today said the loads could start rolling Monday, but then it learned that Conoco wouldn't be ready by then, so it changed the permit date to Feb. 1, which is two weeks from today.

Task force backs $10 car fee hike

The legislative task force on alternative funding for ISP and state parks has voted unanimously to propose a $10 vehicle registration fee increase to make up the Idaho State Police's lost funding when it loses gas tax funds. The $10 per vehicle increase would raise $15.6 million a year. Now, legislation will be drafted, and the task force will reconvene in the coming weeks to look at it and decide where to direct it for consideration.

Task force reverses ‘doozy’ of a mistake, says trails funding should stay with parks

A legislative task force that's been looking into alternative funding sources for the Idaho State Police and the state parks trails program - rather than gas tax funds that long have gone to the two programs -  has voted unanimously to permanently restore the trails funding from gas taxes to the Department of Parks and Recreation. An earlier transportation funding plan would have shifted the money to the Idaho Transportation Department, but lawmakers decided that was a mistake; the funds are based on estimates of how much fuel is burned in off-road vehicles and boats. “When we make a mistake, we really do make a doozy,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

Now the panel is discussing how best to address the ISP funding. Among the proposals: A car insurance surcharge to make up for the lost gas tax money, or, ISP's preferred option, a vehicle registration increase. Gov. Butch Otter recommended putting the decision off for another year, allowing the gas tax money to continue to flow to ISP.

Talk by Tax Commish whistle-blower draws lawmakers from both parties

Idaho State Tax Commission whistle-blower Stan Howland is now speaking in the Senate flex room, room WW17 in the Senate wing, on the lower level of the state Capitol. At least half a dozen legislators, from both parties, are among those in the audience. “Auditors are not against compromising taxes,” Howland told the group. “What we are concerned about is the legality of them, the process, and how often they should be used. … The Tax Commission currently does not have sufficient internal controls.”

Howland estimated that Idaho could lose $50 million to $100 million in state tax revenues in 2011 due to secret compromise deals, plus another $20 million to $30 million a year in future years. “It could be more,” he said. At the conclusion of his talk, he'll take questions from lawmakers and others.

Howland detailed a list of changes he said are needed in Idaho's tax-settlement process to end improper secret settlements, from less secrecy to restoring restrictions on when cases can be settled, rather than leaving that to the tax commissioners' discretion. “The fact is, folks, that the Tax Commission is broken,” he said. “You can't remove that commissioner and cure this problem, because unless you change the law, this problem will rear its head again.”

Bill would clear ski patrollers’ work on slopes from legal bumps

Ski patrollers on Idaho's slopes are concerned that a quirk of Idaho law might make them guilty of practicing medicine without a license when they help injured skiers, so the Senate's majority leader has introduced legislation carving out a legal exception to make sure that doesn't happen. “Under the statute defining unauthorized practice of medicine, there is a series of exceptions,” said Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, an attorney. “One is if you render first aid.” He said it was generally assumed ski patrollers fell under that exception, but concerns raised in recent months have prompted ski patrollers from throughout the state to contact him about the issue.

So he drafted a bill and ran it by the Idaho Medical Association and the state's hospitals. It adds an exception to specifically recognize work by ski patrollers certified by the National Ski Patrol. Today, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee agreed unanimously to introduce the bill, clearing the way for full hearings on it.

Megaloads opponents respond to ITD decision to let Conoco loads start rolling

Opponents of the proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho today issued this response to ITD's decision today to let four ConocoPhillips loads start rolling on Monday:

“The 13 contested case intervenors are pleased that during the past 10 months the citizens of Idaho have had an opportunity to peel back the hidden layers of state agency decision-making and to learn more about what their state government has been planning for the Clearwater Valley and Highway 12.  We are saddened by the fact that the thousands of Idahoans who oppose the megaloads are having to work so hard to have one of their own state agencies hear them.  Citizens' right to question decisions made by state agencies is central to our democratic form of government. The 13 intervenors and their counsel will now need to confer to determine their next step.”

Gibbs wants Geddes’ Senate seat

Rep. Marcus Gibbs, R-Grace, says he's seeking the appointment to replace Sen. Bob Geddes in the Senate now that Geddes is the new chairman of the state Tax Commission. Gibbs, who like Geddes represents District 31 in southeastern Idaho, is in his second term in the House. He said he feels “honored to be seeking the seat of a longtime mentor and friend.”

If the district GOP central committee nominates Gibbs and Otter selects him to replace Geddes in the Senate, then the same process would begin again to fill Gibbs' House seat.

Geddes: ‘All people treated fairly’

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said of Sen. Bob Geddes, the new chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission, “He has truly been a statesman. He has been a resource for each of us. … One of the important institutions, the institution that collects our taxes, has had its integrity tarnished, and I can think of no better person, no one who's more respected by all people in this state … whether Republican or Democrat or anything else. … Even though we're going to miss him a great deal in the Idaho state Senate, he's going to provide some very important services to the citizens of the state, and I wish him all the best.”

Geddes said he's starting his new job as a tax commissioner today. “We want to make sure that as people come before the Tax Commission, that they are treated with respect, that they are treated fairly. … My job is going to be to make sure that that tax policy is implemented as all of us as citizens of the state would want it to be.”

Otter says he has ‘total confidence’ in Geddes to take over Tax Commish

“He has my total confidence and my appreciation,” Gov. Butch Otter said of Sen. Bob Geddes, his choice to be the next chairman of the state Tax Commission. “Bob has great respect in the Legislature, I think he has great respect all over Idaho. I have found that wherever I go, and a high level of confidence that not only comes from both sides of the rotunda but both sides of the aisle.”

Otter said, “Collecting taxes from people is one of the most important jobs and one of the most sensitive jobs we have in the state. People understand their responsibility in paying taxes, but they want to make sure it's fair, that it's equitable, and that it's done with respect.”

Geddes said, “I have accepted this position - I will do my very best.” He said he'll be retiring from his longtime position at Monsanto Corp.

Otter said possible reform of the Tax Commission still is under consideration. “I believe having Bob there will be very helpful in directing those issues or those questions or those ideas for change with the legislators,” Otter said. Geddes said, “I don't really have any preconceived notion of what really needs to be done at the Tax Commission at this point.” He said, “Certainly there is always room for improvements.”

Otter's previous Tax Commission chairman, Royce Chigbrow, who also was his longtime campaign treasurer, resigned a week and a half ago after allegations that he used his position to help a friend in a business dispute and to aid clients of his son's accounting firm.

Otter to name Geddes head of Tax Commish

Gov. Butch Otter is about to hold a press conference, the press is assembled, and his staff has just passed out the written announcement: He'll be naming Sen. Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, to be the next chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission.

ITD to let Conoco megaloads roll Monday

Idaho will let the four ConocoPhillips megaloads of oil equipment start traveling U.S. Highway 12 on Monday, Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness announced today. “I am convinced the record showed the loads can be moved safely, without damage to the roads and bridges and with minimal disruption to traffic and emergency services,” Ness said. “Every argument has been heard and considered. We can no longer delay this process.”

Ness sided with a state hearing officer who backed the loads after a day and a half of testimony and arguments last month. Opponents, including residents and businesses along the scenic route in north-central Idaho, said the extra-large loads, which will take up both lanes of the twisting, two-lane road, threatened tourism, safety and travel in the area.

“I will not comment further on this case because litigation is possible and the similarities because of the pending request from Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to transport oversized loads on U.S. 12,” Ness said. The permits for the ConocoPhillips loads, which consist of two giant coker drums cut in half, will be issued for travel starting on Monday, Ness said, weather permitting. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Cameron: How does 1k fewer people working help the economy?

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said under Luna's proposals, Idaho would lose between 770 and 825 teachers over the next two years, depending on how growth is forecast. It would also lose 300 classified personnel in school districts, and would have about 60 fewer school administrators. “You indicated that the economy demands this type of change,” he told Luna. “I have to wonder in my mind why a thousand less people working helps the economy.”

Luna responded, “Understand that through attrition, most if not all of these positions can be absorbed.”

Luna: Korea increased class sizes

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked state schools Supt. Tom Luna, “Do you have a notion whether countries such as China and India are having to lower their investment in education, or if they're in fact raising their investment?” Luna responded, “Korea made the distinct decision to raise class sizes considerably so that they could invest more money into their classrooms. The United States has one of the lowest class sizes in the world. Since the '70s, early '80s we have been on this goal of reducing class size, hoping it would have a positive impact on student achievement. We haven't seen that by any means.” He added, “The United States spends more per child on education than the countries that outperform us, and we have smaller class sizes than the countries that outperform us. … If we want to look at an international example, I think there's plenty of evidence. that slightly increasing our class sizes so that we can put more money into the system, stabilize the system, is a model they've used successfully.”

Senator worries students would use free laptops to cheat, ‘pass around porn’

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, expressed some misgivings about giving every high-school student a laptop computer. “What other states have found is that these laptops are used to cheat on tests, pass around pornography,” Pearce said, along with “other problems. … I wonder if we've really looked ahead.” State schools Supt. Tom Luna responded, “We're aware of the challenges, and we're aware that we ned to protect students from predators and from their own curiosity, if you will.” Luna said the state would “be diligent to make sure these devices aren't used incorrectly. .. .We have looked at what other states and large districts have done. We're well aware of the pitfalls that we need to be concerned about and prepared for.”

Luna said his plan anticipates spending $4.7 million each year to buy laptops for a class, plus additional amounts for maintenance, repair and support; that amount would start at zero in 2012, rise to $2.4 million in fy 2013, $4.8 million in 2014, $7.2 million in 2015, and $9.6 million in 2016 and thereafter.

Luna says his reform plan would also cut administrators, classified staff

In response to questions from lawmakers, state schools Supt. Tom Luna said his reform plan would not only reduce the number of teachers, but also administrators and classified staff. “For every teacher we fund, we fund one-tenth of an administrator (actually 0.075), and 0.375 of classified staff. So you will see a reduction in administrators and classified staff and teachers,” he told legislators.

‘Fractional ADA’ plan would shift funding

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, asked Luna how his proposal for “fractional ADA” would work. ADA is average daily attendance, and is a major piece in how the state parcels out funding to school districts. Luna said, “We're paying to educate the same child twice. … If we can identify when a student is taking one course out of a traditional school, then the money follows the student.” The idea, he said, is that if a student takes five regular classes and one online class through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, two-thirds of the funding for that one class would be shifted to IDLA, while the other third would stay with the student's school to reflect fixed costs.

Hagedorn: What if we cut ed further?

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked Luna, “If this body were only able to appropriate 95 percent of the governor's recommendation, … what would you have to trim off?” Luna responded, “I did not come prepared with those kinds of numbers. … I would have to take some time and do some homework to come up with that. What I've shown you is that by transitioning to this system we don't have to depend on more and more money every year just to keep things intact.”

Hagedorn said he just pulled the number out of the air, and wanted to know if Luna had prioritized, and whether he could accomplish his plan if funding fell short. Luna responded, “What I've shown you is what I firmly believe is necessary. … I don't think there is one thing I've put in this plan that is unnecessary.”

Lawmakers’ questions for Luna start with his plan to grow class sizes

Lawmakers on the budget and education committees are now questioning state schools Supt. Tom Luna on his proposals. The first few questions have focused on his proposals for larger class sizes, and on paying for high school students to take college-entrance exams and dual-credit college classes.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, challenged Luna's assertion that research has found no correlation between class size and student achievement. “That in fact is not true,” LeFavour said. “Research hasn't found that it's the greatest factor or the only factor. … But the same great teacher with a very large class or a very small class, or even with some degree of difference, really will see a difference in those students.” JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron asked LeFavour to refrain from making comments, to reserve today's time for questions.

Luna’s new reform plan replaces earlier budget, smaller drop per support unit

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that the proposed budget that state Supt. of Schools Tom Luna submitted to lawmakers earlier essentially is now “obsolete,” and has been replaced by his reform plan. Luna said that's correct. He distributed a new summary of the distribution factor in his proposed public schools budget showing that, under his plan, state discretionary dollars per support unit next year would drop by 1.4 percent, which is a much smaller decrease that was proposed under his original budget plan from the fall or under the governor's budget proposal.

Luna: ‘This is why I was elected’

After passing out a summary of his budget proposals over the next six years, Luna said, “Basically what this chart shows you is that we can have an education system that educates more students at a higher level with limited resources.” He noted that some have called his plan “radical.” “I guess to some it's radical that we can accomplish all this with little or no new money and without raising taxes,” he said. “It's not radical for students to take online courses. Idaho students have been doing this for almost a decade. … It’s not radical to improve teacher pay through pay for performance. … The only thing that is really 'radical' about this plan is that it puts students first.” He said, “Look at what we can accomplish if we're just willing to spend what we have differently.”

He said his plan is “the only way” to accomplish this. “Nobody has presented an idea or a plan that gets us even close to that,” he said, declaring, “This is what Idahoans have been asking for. It’s why I was elected. This is why you were elected.”

Luna budget plan includes consolidating school districts in seven counties

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has built into his proposed budget consolidating school districts in the “seven least efficient counties,” or at least funding those districts as if they were consolidated. He said those are the seven counties with the most school districts, and consolidation could save $11 million. However, his staff said later that his proposed budget for next year is not dependent on the move; he's just letting lawmakers know they could achieve additional savings through consolidation.

The seven counties are: Shoshone, Payette, Canyon, Gooding, Twin Falls, Lincoln and Bingham.

Luna outlines plans for larger class sizes, fewer teachers

State schools Supt. Tom Luna is now outlining his plan to increase class sizes in grades 4-12 to save $100.7 million a year, which he'd use to fund his other reforms, including technology and pay-for-performance. “Great teachers know how to handle one or two more students,” he told lawmakers. “The vast majority of credible research hasn’t found a correlation between class size and student outcomes.”

He said “great teachers know how to engage students,” using tools ranging from classroom “clickers” to more computers.

Under his plan, Luna said, “We would need about 770 fewer positions over the next two years. This can be absorbed primarily through attrition.” Then, he said, as student enrollments continue to grow, some would be added back; over five years, the net loss of teachers would be about 320, he said.

Luna: Idaho could save $5.4M a year by changing funding formula, laying off teachers

Idaho could save about $5.4 million a year by ending the current funding formula's protection for schools with sudden enrollment drops from year to year. Instead, state schools Supt. Tom Luna said he'd empower school districts to lay off teachers and give them severance payments when student numbers drop, while seeing their overall district funding drop.

Price tag for Luna performance pay: $38M first year, $51.3M each year after

Under state schools Supt. Tom Luna's proposed pay-for-performance plan for teachers and administrators, he's calling for $38 million for performance bonuses for the first year, and $51.3 million in each subsequent year.

Luna’s plan for ‘great teachers and leaders’: Restore pay cuts, add pay for performance

“Right now, the current system limits our ability to reward our great teachers and remove poor teachers,” state schools Supt. Tom Luna declared. “It’s in our children’s best interest to remove the barriers to both. Why? Because, again, we know that the most important factor is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.”

His plan: First, over several years, restore the teacher salary grid to full funding, which would mean reversing cuts made this year. Second, he'd restore the minimum teacher pay to $30,000 a year, which is where it was before the current budget cuts. Third, he'd implement a pay-for-performance plan, giving bonuses of between $2,000 and $8,000 to teachers and administrators who work in hard-to-fill positions, as determined by school districts; for taking on leadership positions, like mentoring new teachers or developing curriculum; or for working in schools that meet “student growth targets,” set on both a state and district level.

Luna: $4.7M a year to buy laptops for students

“It's nothing new for Idaho students to take online courses - it's definitely not a radical idea,” state schools Supt. Tom Luna told lawmakers this morning in his budget hearing. He said he wants to require all 9th graders to take two online credits per year starting next fall, and expand that each year as those students move up. Also starting next fall, every 9th grader in public school in Idaho would be given a laptop computer. “This is the new textbook, the new research device, the connection to information and learning inside the classroom and out,” Luna said.

He said under his plan, the state would begin spending $4.7 million a year on laptops starting in fiscal year 2013, though it wasn't clear how the initial computers for 9th graders then would be purchased next fall, in fiscal year 2012. He also wants to fund $800,000 a year for teacher training and curriculum integration, and $842,000 to pay for seniors who have completed all high school graduation requirements to take dual-credit college courses.

Luna: Idaho must ‘harness the technology’ for education

“We have to harness the technology,” state schools supt. Tom Luna said. “In this day and age, a child’s education can no longer be confined by the hours of the school day or the walls of a classroom or school building. Our education system must change to recognize this.”

His plan includes requiring a third year of math and science for Idaho high school students, and paying for students to take the SAT, ACT or Compass college-entrance exams. He also wants to spend $6,000 per classroom on new technology; that would be split between classroom hardware and software; a statewide longitudinal data system; and professional development for teachers.
  

Luna begins outlining reform plan to joint budget committee, ed committees

“The fact is the voters made it clear on Nov. 2nd that they do not want their taxes raised to solve government revenue problems,” state schools Supt. Tom Luna told lawmakers in his budget hearing today. “We must have the will to change the current system or the will to raise the revenue necessary to fully fund the current system. By changing the system we will put our public schools back on firm financial footing in this new economy we face in Idaho.”

His plan: “The entire system will be funded by primarily finding cost savings and efficiencies in the current system and then reinvesting them back into the classroom.”

Luna: School cuts are the ‘new normal’

“Our thinking and hope was that the economic situation was temporary and would improve sooner rather than later,” state Supt. Tom Luna said as he began his public schools budget presentation. So various cuts were made, from transportation and maintenance to furloughs for teachers, and federal stimulus dollars and other one-time funds were plugged in to prop up the budget. Some districts went to four-day school weeks. “Today we now realize that … what we have today is the 'new normal' and that we can't continue to rely on annual federal bailouts to prop up our education system,” Luna told lawmakers. “Today is a different day. We are now three years into an economic crisis. And revenue forecasts do not paint a positive picture for our schools in the future.”

Services for deaf and blind students weather budget cuts

Brian Darcy, administrator of Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and Blind - formerly the Idaho School for the Deaf & Blind - is up next. He said the entity, created a year and a half ago, operates statewide, including within the state's school districts. The governor's budget recommendation for next year is for $2.6 million in total funds for outreach, and $4.9 million for on-campus services; that's a 1.3 percent decrease in total funds, and a 6.7 percent decrease in general funds. The agency offers preschool classes for deaf and blind students at districts around the state; provides books in braille and other resources; and operates the school, which runs from preschool through 12th grade, and includes both resident and day-school students. Budget cuts have resulted in a four-day school week, Monday through Thursday; teachers and staff have been furloughed.

Luna highlights savings at SDE, though budget grows with data system

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, in his first presentation - the budget for the State Department of Education - said his department has been finding savings. “In the last three budgets, the State Department of Education has given up more than 20 percent of our general fund budget. … We recognize at the department that every dollar we save at the administrative level is one more dollar that can be put into the classrooms for the benefit of our students.”

The department's budget request for 2012 shows an increase - 13 percent in general funds and 3.3 percent in total funds, under the governor's recommendation - but Luna said he's requesting a 2 percent reduction in general funds for the department, as far as operating and personnel funds. “We will absorb these … by continuing to find efficiencies and innovations within the agency,” he said. The budget actually grows because a federal grant for a longitudinal data system now is being replaced by state general funds.

Public schools budget hearing opens

As JFAC takes up the biggest single slice of the state budget today - public schools - it's convened jointly with the House and Senate education committees in the Capitol Auditorium. “There's 47 of us - we almost have half the Legislature here,” commented JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, as the meeting began. Today's budget hearing will include presentations from state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna; first off, legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee is giving an overview. No decisions will be made today, but it's a chance for lawmakers to hear the details of the budget proposal and ask questions - in preparation for budget-setting, which follows in February.

In going through the fiscal year 2010 budget request for public schools and the governor's recommendation, Headlee noted that the governor's proposal for next year calls for a 9.44 percent decrease in state discretionary funding per support unit from this year's level. This year marked a 14.4 percent cut in state discretionary funding per support unit from the previous year.

Guv to announce new Tax Commish chair

Gov. Butch Otter will hold a press conference tomorrow at 2 p.m. to announce his choice for a new chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission. The press conference, in the governor's ceremonial office, will be streamed live here.

Meanwhile, former longtime state tax auditor and Tax Commission whistle-blower Stan Howland will appear Tuesday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the Senate flex room, WW17, to give a talk and answer questions from legislators. His appearance is sponsored by Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, and the group Stop Unequal Taxation in Idaho.

Cigar group wants Idaho to ban ‘blunt wraps’

The Cigar Association of America wants Idaho to outlaw “blunt wraps,” a type of roll-your-own cigar wrapper, as drug paraphernalia. Russ Westerberg, lobbyist for the group, told the Idaho Senate Judiciary Committee today that “blunts” traditionally were cigars rolled in a single, continuous tobacco leaf, which had a blunt end as opposed to a tapered end. “In recent times, the term 'blunt' has become associated with marijuana or joints,” he told lawmakers.

The wrappers, which are made of tobacco, often flavored, and sold in cigar stores and convenience stores for little more than a dollar apiece, “are becoming popular with users of marijuana and other illegal substances,” Westerberg said. “If there is a legitimate use, at a minimum any legitimate use of a blunt wrap would pale in comparison with the illegal one,” he declared. “Near as we can tell, there is no legitimate use for a cigar wrap.”

Senators on the panel had some questions, but voted unanimously to introduce the bill. Said Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, the committee chairman, “It is so typical of what we've faced within the whole drug culture - they're always coming out with some new technology to be ahead of us.”

Westerberg told the senators that if there's any legitimate use for the products, those who legitimately use them can make their case when the bill comes up for a hearing. He said the tobacco in the wrapper, plus the flavoring, are popular with marijuana users because they can help disguise the marijuana aroma. The bill, as introduced, would ban “blunt wraps, including individual tobacco wrappers, also known as wraps or roll your own cigar wraps, that are made wholly or in part from tobacco, including reconstituted tobacco, whether in the form of a leaf, sheet or tube, and that are used to hold any burning material or illegal substance.”

Bill to amend rape law introduced, supported

Idaho would amend its rape statute to address a recent Ada County case that was dismissed because a judge said it fell into a legal loophole, under legislation introduced unanimously today in the Senate Judiciary Committee. “As soon as I read about this in the paper, I called,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Denton Darrington, R-Declo, who is sponsoring the bill and worked with the state prosecutors' association to draft it. “I've had several legislators approach me on that,” he added.

Current law includes a definition of rape wherein the victim submits because she's been falsely convinced that the perpetrator is her husband. But in the Ada County case, the perpetrator was masquerading as the victim's boyfriend, not husband; the case was dismissed. Darrington said he views the legislation as a technical correction and expects it to pass easily.

MLK Day ceremony draws hundreds to rotunda

Hundreds of people filled the Capitol rotunda today for Idaho's official observation of Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, including lots of children. Estella Zamora, president of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, quoted Martin Luther King: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.” She said, “We hope today that you leave here inspired that one person can make a difference, and that one person can be you … that justice and dignity is a right that can and should be given to all of God's children.”

Lieutenant Gov. Brad Little read the official state proclamation, declaring that the holiday is a time to reaffirm “equal treatment and justice for all.” He also encouraged those in the crowd to participate in the political process, saying, “It only works if we have broad participation.”

Holocaust survivor Rose Beal shared her story, including the horrors she endured as an 11-year-old Jewish girl in Nazi Germany - horrors that she survived, but many in her family didn't. She remembered sailing into New York harbor after her escape. “We were all on deck. We were crying, we were laughing,” she recalled. “This great country with all its opportunity never disappointed me.”

The state ceremony, sponsored by the Idaho Human Rights Commission and the Idaho Department of Labor, included music by the Common Ground Community Chorus with soloist Holly Ann Kling; a youth mariachi band; a trumpet fanfare and more.

Tea party rally features music, exhortations

More than 200 people gathered on the steps of the state Capitol for a tea party rally on this Martin Luther King/Idaho Human Rights Day holiday today, while a knot of protesters waving a drawing of Martin Luther King Jr. and signs saying “No Tea for Me” protested from across the street. Wayne Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, exhorted the crowd to push lawmakers to, among other things, do away with Idaho's state employee retirement system.

“Let's get out of these lifetime pensions that are siphoning the taxpayers' dollars,” he declared to cheers, adding that school teachers also should be ejected from the system. “It's time to pull the plug on the state teachers' union being a part of the private-public state employees retirement system,” Hoffman said.

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, told the crowd, “I'm so proud of you, because you've given me hope. Prior to the tea parties being organized, the majority was clearly silent.” He also urged the group to avoid demonizing its enemies. “Their fruits will identify them. We need our fruits to identify us,” Nielsen told the crowd. At the side of the steps, a charcoal portrait of President Barack Obama with swastikas in each of his eyeballs was leaned against the concrete wall on display.

The rally included music; two Nampa High School students sang the national anthem, and David Westmoreland performed an upbeat, country-style rendition of “Take Our Country Back” that had members of a uniformed mariachi band, on their way into the capitol to participate in today's official state MLK/Human Rights Day observance, clapping along.

Scenarios for cuts would hit services for the developmentally disabled

State Medicaid administrator Leslie Clement is laying out a couple of possible scenarios for cutting $25 million from Idaho's Medicaid benefits. The first scenario: Eliminate all Developmental Disability Center services for adults, to save $8.4 million in state funds; and eliminate psycho-social rehabilitative services, to save $1.8 million. In addition, the scenario contemplates covering only urgent dental services, except for pregnant women; and charging co-pays. In total, that'd save $25.2 million in state funds, and cut $84 million in total funds from Medicaid services.

A second possible scenario would increase provider assessments, and rather than eliminate developmental disability center services, reduce them by 10 percent; cover only urgent dental care for adults; and reduce chiropractic, podiatry and vision services; charge co-pays; and trim other services and therapies. That scenario saves only $20.7 million in state funds, however, short of the target.

The changing FMAP rate…

At the height of the increased matching rate that the federal government offered states for Medicaid, Idaho was getting a 79.18 percent federal matching rate for the program, meaning the state only had to fund 20.82 percent of the program's costs. Now, the federal match rate is stepping down, Medicaid administrator Leslie Clement told lawmakers. This month, the matching rate dropped to 76.18 percent, and starting in April, through the end of the year, it will drop to 74.18 percent. The result is an increased funding responsibility for the state of $29.7 million; Gov. Butch Otter has recommended funding that in the current year from the Millenium Fund.

In July, August and September, the federal matching rate is expected to drop to 68.85 percent; then, it rises to 70.23 percent for October through the following June. That means a $139.3 additional cost for the state, which many have referred to as a funding “cliff.” The matching rate is called the Federal Matching Assistance Percentages, or FMAP. It's just one of the factors in the Medicaid budget outlook for next year, along with growing caseloads; plans to impose additional taxes, or “assessments,” on hospitals and nursing homes to make up some of the shortfall; and the governor's recommendation to cut $25.2 million in Medicaid benefits or services, which results in a corresponding loss of $58.8 million in federal funds, for a total cut to the program of $84 million.

Nearly all of Idaho’s Medicaid spending goes to provider payments

Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health coverage for the poor and disabled, makes up 80.5 percent of the total Department of Health & Welfare budget, Medicaid administrator Leslie Clement told a joint meeting of JFAC and the House and Senate health and welfare committees today. Within Medicaid, 96.9 percent of the state appropriation goes to payments to providers. Idaho's Medicaid program has seen a 21 percent jump in enrollment from fiscal year 2007 to  today; there are now 223,198 Idahoans on Medicaid. The top five cost drivers for Medicaid in Idaho are hospitals, nursing facilities, developmental disability services, in-home services and prescription drugs.

Armstrong: R.I. no model for Idaho; managed care possible route for savings

Rep. Steven Thayn said Rhode Island was able to save a big chunk on its Medicaid program without dropping eligibility, and asked if Idaho could follow suit. Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong responded, “One thing I've learned is if you look at a state, you've looked at one state. … Rhode Island, for example, has fewer people in Medicaid, they have about 176,000 to our 223,000, and they spend about $700 million more than we do. We went down another route years ago.” Idaho's “baseline benefits package” has offered much less since about 2005, he said. “So we are actually, with our state plan amendment, we are in a stronger position than they are. Plus, their eligibility was dramatically higher than ours.”

Armstrong said, “I didn't see anything in the Rhode Island proposal that would necessarily mean a similar reduction here. We would probably approach it in a slightly different way, because of where we are now.”

When Thayn asked what flexibility from the federal government would help Idaho cut costs, Armstrong said, “I would like to see us move away from a fee-for-service system into a managed care environment.”
  

Lawmaker questions on Medicaid: Drug testing, use of volunteers

Lawmakers are now questioning Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong. Sen. Bert Brackett asked about results of a resolution lawmakers passed last year asking the department to explore drug-testing of people who receive benefits. Armstrong said the report will be published soon, and it found mixed results. “There are some federal programs that we already do some drug testing in, there are others where we are prohibited,” he said. “When you go through the report, it narrows it down. … On some programs, it would cost more to do the testing program than you would have as a reduction in expenses.”

Sen. Melinda Smyser asked Armstrong how volunteers could provide services to patients without fear of being sued, and how the department could help on that score. Armstrong responded, “The key here is that these volunteers are not providing therapeutic services. What we are looking for are simply observations. As the department shrinks, we are moving more to be the crisis response entity.” The idea, he said, is that a volunteer might stop in to see a disabled patient and who hadn't shown up at church, notice the patient is agitated, and alert providers.

Armstrong said, “The last thing I want to see happen is us to be criminalizing the mentally ill or disabled. I think that would be a tragedy.” Idaho must find a way to still provide a “safety net” for those individuals, he said.

Armstrong: Only option is to cut services

How to save money in Idaho's ballooning Medicaid program? State Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said, “We already have one of the most restrictive Medicaid programs in the nation as far as eligibility. Further tightening would not help us much, even if we could.” Plus, he said, “Today our reimbursement rates in most areas are dangerously low. If we further erode reimbursement rates, providers will stop seeing Medicaid patients.” The only remaining option, he said, is to cut services, and focus only on “services that literally are a matter of life and death.”

Disabled people may have to turn to family, friends, churches or others for services that now come from the state, Armstrong said, citing Gov. Butch Otter's comments in his State of the State address. Armstrong said he'll “work to preserve the most critical and core services.” But he said the state must turn back to volunteers, as it did decades ago.

Armstrong details H&W struggles

Idaho led the nation in food stamp growth in 2010, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers this morning. That's partly because in 2008, Idaho was 48th in the nation for food-stamp participation. At that time, only half the Idahoans who qualified for the help actually applied for it. “This tells us there was a large number of people who qualified for assistance, but were getting by and did not need the help,” Armstrong said. “That's changed with the latest economic downturn. Many people could no longer get by on their own.”

Food stamp benefits are paid for 100 percent by the federal government, he said, with Idaho only administering the program. That's not true of Medicaid, in which the federal government pays about three-quarters of the cost, and the state pays the rest.

“From a state budget perspective, Medicaid is the dominant story for our agency,” Armstrong said. “Idaho Medicaid has some of the most restrictive eligibility criteria in the nation.” Yet, participation has soared, as more and more Idahoans are living at or below the poverty line. “Despite the unbelievable demand for our services, we have held the line everywhere,” Armstrong said. His department has closed nine of its 29 field offices and today has 10 percent fewer workers than it did in 2008. Employees have been furloughed, and more than 300 positions are being held vacant for lack of funds. Now, he said, top employees are leaving, citing pay, workload and stress as the reasons.

Really, really big joint committee convenes

It looks like a really, really big committee that's holding a joint hearing today on Health & Welfare and Medicaid budgets. That's because the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee - which itself has 20 members - is sitting jointly with the House and Senate health and welfare committees, for a total of 45 lawmakers. First up for the joint hearing is an overview from legislative budget analyst Amy Johnson on where Medicaid funding stands.

Today is MLK/Idaho Human Rights holiday

Today is Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, an official state holiday, though the Legislature - which doesn't take holidays - is in session. Legislative doings today include a joint hearing between JFAC and the House and Senate health and welfare committees in the Capitol Auditorium on Health & Welfare and Medicaid budgets, which runs from 8 to 11 a.m. There are also festivities for the holiday, including the official state observance, at noon in the Capitol Rotunda, at which Holocaust survivor Rose Beal will give the keynote address, Fidel Nshombo of the Republic of Congo will read original poetry, and Lt. Gov. Brad Little will formally proclaim the holiday. There also will be music, displays and a color guard.

Also planned for the holiday are service projects across the state to mark a national Day of Service; a “Feed the Dream” event at the Idaho Foodbank at which 240 volunteers will work in shifts all day to build 5,000 backpacks full of food for hungry Idaho children; and Boise State University events, including a march and rally today, and a week of activities including a performance by the Harlem Gospel Choir on Thursday and a free keynote address next Monday from Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, the longtime pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn.

Also, as it did last year, the Idaho Freedom Foundation has chosen the Martin Luther King holiday to sponsor a tea party rally at the Capitol. It's scheduled for 11 a.m. on the steps, and will include costumed historical figures. The group also plans afternoon workshops inside the capitol on such topics as “State Sovereignty & Nullification” and “Tea Party Youth Outreach.”
  

Ward back in Idaho political fray

Failed congressional candidate Vaughn Ward, now CEO of a for-profit hospital in Post Falls, has waded right back into the middle of the political fray in Idaho, the Associated Press' John Miler reports. Ward's new task is to help lead the latest charge by private hospitals and independent doctors who want to add to their patient rolls by forcing their way into the state's private health care networks, over the networks' objections. A bill to do just that died last year in the House, Miller reports, but it's back this year and at least 27 lobbyists are working the issue - as is Ward. Ward told Miller he didn't think the effort would rehabilitate his image after a gaffe-plagued campaign last spring, and he has no plans to run for office again. Click below to read Miller's full story.

Forest service concerned about megaloads

The Missoulian reports that the U.S. Forest Service has expressed concerns to transportation departments in both Idaho and Montana about the megaloads of oil equipment proposed for U.S. Highway 12, saying they could conflict with its ability to “preserve, protect and manage the cultural and historical values associated with the corridor.” Northern Region Forester Leslie Weldon said the issue is of special concern “should frequent transport of significantly oversized loads become the norm for these forest highways.” You can read the Missoulian article here.

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public TV, I join host Thanh Tan, Marc Johnson, Dan Popkey and Jim Weatherby to discuss the events of the week, including Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State message and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's education reform plan; Thanh also interviews JFAC co-chairs Dean Cameron and Maxine Bell. The show airs tonight at 8 p.m., then re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific. There's also a “Web Extra” of our continued discussion after the show, which focused on Luna's education reform plan; you can see that at www.idahoptv.org.

Click here
to see a slide show of the week in pictures, as the first 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.

Dems slam Luna reform plan

Idaho Democrats have issued a statement slamming state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's sweeping school-reform plan. Among their comments: “If after four years of his leadership, our public school system is 'broken,' why should any parent, student or voter put the slightest faith in any idea proffered by the architect of such failure?” Click below to read their full statement.

Idahoan is new chief of staff for VP Biden

Bruce Reed, son of former state Sen. Mary Lou Reed of Coeur d'Alene and Coeur d'Alene attorney Scott Reed, was named Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff today. You can read the official White House press release here. “I’ve known and admired Bruce for over 20 years,” Biden said.  “We worked closely together to pass the crime bill in the 1990s and I’ve frequently sought his advice and counsel in the years since.  He brings a unique blend of experience and perspective to this position and his leadership will be a tremendous asset to my office, and to the entire White House.”

Reed said, “I’m very excited to join Vice President Biden’s team, and to work with the fine staff he has assembled.  I’m thrilled that he asked me to take on this role, and I look forward to helping him advance the important agenda of the Obama-Biden administration.”

Energy rebate extension in the works

For the past five years, developers of geothermal, solar or wind power generation facilities have gotten a rebate from the state for the sales tax they pay on the major, permanent equipment that goes into their plants, but the tax credit will expire in June. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, wants to extend it. “If we don't have the rebate, the sales tax rebate on wind generation, it will preclude development of wind energy in Idaho, because other states are more competitive,” Eskridge said. A Boise State University study is in the works to look at the economic benefit of the rebate in the five years it's been in effect; lawmakers enacted it with a five-year sunset, which is why it expires this year.

“That's going to be probably a little controversial, because we're starting to develop a little bit of opposition to wind generation,” Eskridge said. “It seems every time we get a legitimate power resource on the table, somebody finds a reason to object.” Eskridge, who co-chairs an interim energy committee with Sen. Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa, said the panel decided in August to wait for the BSU study before endorsing the extension. He's anticipating positive results, and hopes to co-sponsor an extension bill with McKenzie and several other lawmakers.

Eskridge said in the five years it's been effect, the rebate has meant about $3 million to $4 million in lost tax revenue to the state, but has generated much more than that in property taxes and other economic activity in the state. “That's what this study will show, those kinds of results,” he said.

Money-saving move: Interns now unpaid

The governor's office and his Division of Financial Management have eliminated pay for their interns, as part of money-saving moves, DFM administrator Wayne Hammon told JFAC this morning, as he presented the two agencies' budget pitches to lawmakers. “In 2012, the budget is flat compared to 2011,” he said. He said the lack of replacement capital is becoming noticeable; “we actually don't have enough telephones to put one on every desk in the agency. … So we can get by another year, but that is an area of risk. Our infrastructure is starting to show the signs of stress.”

On estimating revenues…

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, quoted John Maynard Keynes, saying, “It's better to be roughly right than precisely wrong,” as she moved for JFAC to accept the revenue committee's report. Added Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “The only thing that we're certain is that we're all wrong.”

JFAC votes 16-3 to accept revenue panel’s report

Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who serves on both the JFAC and the revenue projection committee and opposed its recommendation, said, “It gives me a great deal of concern that the number we picked has absolutely no relation to the projections of the experts. I guess to some extent the process felt a little bit random to me, and it seemed perhaps a little bit unbelievable, too, that it ended up matching what I though was some very unusual math on the part of the governor.” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked, “Can you … help me understand why we thought that this year would be better than next year?”

The projection calls for 4.2 percent revenue growth this year, and just 3 percent next year, though state economists forecast. 6.9 percent next year. Goedde responded, “The numbers that are closest to you I think are the most accurate. You can feel more comfortable about what's happening in the next six months than the next 18 months. … We want to budget on the conservative side so that we don't have holdbacks. I think that sentiment was reflected in the … revenue projections.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, cautioned that the revenue projection committee is supposed to project revenues, not recommend budgeting amounts. Goedde said that's what he meant. “I believe it was the feeling of the committee that that was a more accurate projection,” he said of the 3 percent.

The committee then voted 16-3 to accept the report.

JFAC hears from revenue panel

Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment committee co-chairs Rep. Cliff Bayer and Sen. John Goedde are presenting the joint panel's recommendation to JFAC this morning. Bayer noted that the recommendation includes “that we maintain some flexibility in looking at these numbers as they come in.” Goedde said, “January's a big month for this state in revenues.”

The panel's recommendation for revenues for this year and next year matches the governor's budget recommendation. “There was only one motion that was considered and voted on by the committee, and it had bipartisan support,” Bayer said.
  

ITD files megaloads response

ITD has filed its own response to the appeal from opponents of its decision to grant permits for ConocoPhillips to transport four megaloads of oil refinery equipment across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho; you can read it here. The ITD response says, “The hearing officer applied the correct legal standards and properly applied the burden of proof.” ITD also wrote that the fact that Highway 12 is a state and federally designated scenic byway is “irrelevant” to its application of its administrative rules regarding over-legal loads, and that “Nowhere in the rules is the department allowed, much less required, to take into consideration these designations.” The primary purpose of the route is commerce, ITD writes. ITD spokesman Adam Rush said, “The director will review the appeal from Advocates for the West and responses from ConocoPhillips and ITD as soon as possible. There is no timeframe for his decision.”

Lake motion passes, 12-3

The revenue committee has voted 12-3 in favor of Lake's motion, to adopt the governor's recommendation. Before the vote, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, proposed a substitute motion of $2,359.2 million for 2011 and $2,521.5 million for 2012, but her motion died for lack of a second. The three “no” votes on Lake's motion came from LeFavour, Rep. Janice McGeachin, and Rep. Grant Burgoyne.

Asked by McGeachin how a revenue-setting action today, followed by a revision later would affect the JFAC process, JFAC Vice-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “We don't start setting budgets until about the middle of February, and at that time we will have January's numbers, and at that time will be able to take corrective action if we should need to.”

Burgoyne, D-Boise, questioned why the committee would adopt figures showing stronger growth in fiscal year 2011 than in 2012, saying the economy should be improving, not slowing. “I do think that's a little illogical or inconsistent,” he said.

Incidentally, at the start of the meeting, state economist Derek Santos was scheduled to discuss the latest revenue figures and DFM forecasts. But when he started talking about the DFM forecast of 6.9 percent revenue growth for fy 2012, Goedde cut him off, saying the panel only wanted to hear about the governor's recomendation, not the DFM forecast.

Lake amends motion, but numbers remain the same

Rep. Dennis Lake has just amended his motion, not changing the amount, but “to include the fact that we need to come back if the chairs see something that would cause my number to be overstated, understated, and that we would meet again and revisit the amount.” His second agreed to the change. Sen. Bob Geddes said, “I believe that there is great value in this committee's recommendation, even if we are not correct. Even a directional opinion is helpful to the joint committee and to leadership” to reflect what the revenue committee heard in its day and a half of hearings, he said.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “My preference would be just simply to wait until January numbers, because we could decide then if our very sobering December number was an anomaly or not, and we don't have to in any way commit ourselves to what in my mind is a really, really low number.” Geddes said, “I agree, this is … a low number. But what would be more dangerous than supporting a low number is supporting a number that doesn't really come to pass.”

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said it's always good to have more information. “I support the motion, and we'll deal with it as the time goes on,” he said.
  

Concerns about revenue, impact

Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “I really would want to caution us against setting a number that's a lil too dire, because those really are substantial to the lives of a lot of people, when we start setting the Medicaid budget. I'm concerned that the 3 percent (for 2012) is really just unrealistically too low.” Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said, “I think I will probably support the motion, but I think it would be prudent on this committee's behalf that we … reserve the right to maybe address this issue as we see final numbers for January, probably around the 10th of February … just to have one (more) month's worth of data.” The panel's co-chairman. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, called that a good idea. “We don't know what's going to hap in the month of January, and it's a huge tax collection month,” he said. The revenue committee then went at ease, at the request of Sen. Bob Geddes. Members are now conferring, some gathered in clumps, others remaining in their seats.

First motion dies for lack of second

The first motion, from Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, was for $2,305 billion for for fy 2011, and $2,376 million for fy 2012, but her motion died for lack of a second. Then, House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, moved the governor's recommendation, $2,359.2 for 2011 and $2,430 for 2012.

Revenue panel convenes

The Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee has started its meeting. The task: Set a revenue forecast on which the Legislature can base its budgeting for the coming year. Each member of the joint committee has turned in his or her forecast, as is customary. For the current year, fiscal year 2011, the committee median estimate is for 3.3 percent growth, as compared to the governor's forecast of 4.2 percent. For the coming year, fiscal year 2012, the committee's median estimate is for 3.5 percent growth. State economists are forecasting 6.9 percent tax revenue growth in fiscal 2012, but Gov. Butch Otter has set his budget recommendation based on just 3 percent to be prudent.

That means if the committee were to adopt its median estimate, it'd be at $2,340.1 million for 2011, and $2,422.5 million for 2012 - both of which are below the governor's recommendations of $2,359.2 million for 2011 and $2,430 million for 2012. That's a difference of $19.1 million for the current year, 2011, and $7.5 million for 2012. Since 1999, the joint revenue committee's estimate has matched the governor's Division of Financial Management revenue forecast every year but the last two. In both of the last two years, the committee has set its projection lower than the governor's.

ConocoPhillips in megaloads appeal response: ‘The delays must end’

ConocoPhillips has filed its response to the appeal filed with ITD on Monday on a hearing officer's ruling upholding the issuance of ITD permits to Conoco for four megaloads of oil refinery equipment to travel U.S. Highway 12 from Lewiston to Billings, Mont. “The delays must end,” Conoco wrote in its response. “ConocoPhillips needs to get two coke drums to Billings to make much needed repairs to its refinery.” The company argues in its response that the process worked properly and opponents had the burden of proof to show it didn't; it writes, “It is undisputed that ConocoPhillips and its transporter, Emmert International, have satisfied every requirement and have addressed every question posed by ITD.” You can read the company's full filing here.

Groups: Guv’s approach overlooks consequences

United Vision for Idaho, a coalition of Idaho nonprofit groups, convened a dozen of them, ranging from the Idaho Community Action Network to the Interfaith Alliance to Church Women United, to watch Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State message on Monday. The groups then released a joint response taking issue with the governor's approach. “We found that content of the speech largely ignored the real history of how this country was built, and ignored the role that people, not industry have played in the making of some of our greatest achievements,” the groups wrote in their response. “Governor Otter believes that our reliance on government constitutes failure and that we must free ourselves from the 'soul crushing tyranny of entitlement.' … But if there is any real failing, it is in failing to recognize the consequences this would have on our children, our aging, our veterans, our disabled, hard working, struggling families and entire communities throughout our state.” You can read the groups' full response here.
  

Carlson is new Idaho Judicial Council head

The Idaho Judicial Council's executive director, Bob Hamlin, has retired after 29 years. The new director is Jim Carlson, who is now making the council's annual presentation to JFAC. A longtime attorney and former deputy Idaho attorney general, Carlson is the son of former state Sen. Herb Carlson, R-Eagle.

The council had no judicial vacancies to fill in 2010, and Carlson reported that the number of complaints it received was down, to 76, from 101 in 2009 and 121 in 2008. The council responded to more than 168 requests from judges for ethics opinions in 2010. “These judges in Idaho, they are proactive in trying to do the right thing,” Carlson said.
  

Courts trim costs, services in budget crunch

Idaho's court system isn't requesting any increased funding next year, and instead has agreed to a 1 percent cut to help balance the state budget, Patti Tobias, administrative director of the courts, told legislative budget writers this morning. The courts have three vacant magistrate judgeships and six requests for new judgeships that have been deferred for now. They have a hiring freeze, are down 16 percent in staffing as a result, and are relying on an emergency court-fee surcharge enacted by lawmakers last year to balance their budget. “For this budget year, the court stretched already stretched judicial resources across the state,” Tobias said. “The court has cut all possible costs. All court services to the public have now been affected.” Among the cutbacks: Startup of three new DUI courts has been halted.

Jackpot jumps sales at North Idaho store

Lottery ticket sales have jumped at Ady’s Convenience Store & Car Wash on Seltice Way in Post Falls, where the winning ticket for a Mega Millions $190 million jackpot was sold. The winner, Holly Lahti of Rathdrum, was a regular customer at the convenience store; you can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

Ysursa: ‘Doing more with less’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told JFAC, “As all agencies are doing, we're doing more with less. Various positions, especially in our commercial affairs area, remain unfilled, but yet our work continues to get done.” He said, “We will start filling those hopefully when the economy starts to improve.” Ysursa said, “Our No. 1 job is to serve the public and do it in a fair and efficient manner.”

The only line item in his budget for next year is to publish the Idaho Blue Book next year, which is required by law, at the cost of $40,000. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked if that could just be published online instead. Ysursa said a version already is published online, but some users, including school classes, “appreciate having the books.” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell said as a one-time librarian, “There is a place where everybody needs a hard copy - a blue book, I guess.”

Ysursa said his budget request for fy 2012 is 16 percent less than what he requested in 2011. “We pulled out some election costs and that made us look good,” he said with a smile. “Next year, we're going to come here and pu in election costs, and we're going to be the bad guys.” The governor's budget recommendation is for a 1 percent increase next year in general funds, but a 15.7 percent reduction in overall funds.

ISP patrol force is at 1977 levels

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, asked ISP Chief Jerry Russell if it's true that ISP still has the same number of officers patrolling today as it did in 1977. “You're right as far as our staffing level,” Russell responded. He said of the current patrol force of 150 authorized positions, six are investigators, and there currently are 33 vacancies. Nine position are being held vacant due to budget cuts; seven officers are gone on military leave, “and I then have 11 that I hope to fill in this fiscal year. So that's 33 officers that are vacant.” The cost to fill one of those positions is about $55,000 a year, Russell said, “But when you look at the cost of startup, it's substantial.” Plus, he said, the vacancies mean bigger costs in overtime, “because somebody has to respond out there when there's that call for service, that fatal accident takes place or whatever. So it affects service and it also impacts the financial health.”
  

Lawmaker broaches funding cut for ISP, chief says it would be ‘devastating’

Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation calls for ISP to have a 20.7 percent increase in general funds from the state next year, but that equals out to a 1.9 percent reduction overall. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, just asked ISP Chief Jerry Russell, “If you had to take a 7 percent reduction,” in general funds - does the agency have have priorities set out “so you can lop off, say, a whole service out of your organization to meet that requirement?” Russell responded, “Yes. Now if I can follow up on that.” He said during the course of zero-based budgeting, the department has laid out all its costs and all its priorities. “With 7 percent, we're looking in the neighborhood of 30 officers additional that I would lose,” he said. “So when you talk about prioritizing, yes, we've done it. Yes, I know what the impact would be. … It would take me up to roughly 51 percent loss since 2009. Bottom line, it would be devastating as far as services.” That ranges from patrolling highways to doing criminal investigations. “Every part of the agency would be negatively impacted,” Russell said.

Former state drug czar is now Idaho’s anti-meth chief, thanks to federal grant

Idaho is one of seven states receiving a Rural Methamphetamine Law Enforcement grant from the federal government, which is funding a “meth coordinator” for the state for 18 months to “draw together Idaho resources to further attack meth manufactured in, or traveling through, the state,” ISP Director Col. Jerry Russell told JFAC today. The coordinator: Jim Tibbs, who was Idaho's first “drug czar” when then-Gov. Jim Risch appointed him to that position in 2006. Tibbs is a retired longtime Boise Police officer and former interim chief; a former chairman of the state Board of Correction; and a former Boise city councilman.

ISP makes budget pitch; now missing 6 detectives, 9 patrol officers due to cuts

Col. Jerry Russell, director of the Idaho State Police, is up for his budget presentation to JFAC this morning. Not only is he in uniform, there are lots of dark uniforms in the audience as staffers are accompanying him. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who's chairing the joint budget committee today, remarked, “I'm not sure if I feel extremely protected this morning or extremely nervous.”

Russell said he is proposing three pieces of legislation this year: Extending a law on assault/battery of certain on-duty personnel to include POST decertification staffers and emergency services dispatchers; increasing the POST fee from $10 to $11.50; and making notification requirements consistent with regard to all towed or stored vehicles.

Russell said ISP's mission is public safety, provided through its investigations, patrol and police services programs. “In fiscal years 2009-2011, our greatest challenges have been providing these services while managing a 44.3 percent reduction in general funds from the initial fy 2009 appropriation,” he said “ISP's holdbacks and base reductions were achieved primarily by reducing operating expenditures and by holding open vacant positions, a strategy begun midway through FY 2009. Among those: Six vacant detective positions are being held open in investigations; and nine patrol positions, in addition to seven troopers who are gone on active military duty. “Our budget reduction strategies since FY 2009 have allowed us to retain critical FTPs (full-time position authorizations), and when funding is available, I hope to fill open positions by priority of need again,” Russell said.

Luna plan would cut 770 Idaho teaching jobs

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's school reform plan, just unveiled today, would eliminate the jobs of about 770 teachers over the next five years, according to Department of Education estimates. “Because we are requiring online courses and because we are going to increase the student-teacher ratio over the next five years, there is anticipated to be fewer teachers,” said Luna's spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath. “Over five years it would equal about 770. … We believe over the next five years we can absorb most of those through attrition.”

Increases in class sizes would go into effect next fall, and bump up again the following year. The requirement for high school students to take two online courses per year would start with next year's 9th graders, the move up a year each year until it applied to all high school students.

Idaho’s Mega Millions winner identified

The winner of the $190 million Mega Milions Lottery from Idaho - half the full $380 million jackpot - is Holly Lahti of North Idaho, and the ticket was sold at Ady's Convenience & Car Wash on Seltice Way in Post Falls, Idaho Lottery Director Jeff Anderson just announced. He called Lahti “a delightful individual,” but said she's asked for privacy, and the lottery isn't releasing any information about her other than that she's from North Idaho. She turned her winning ticket over to the lottery office in Boise yesterday, at the end of the day, and the lottery has confirmed that it is the winner. It hasn't yet paid, her, however, Anderson said. She has 60 days to decide whether she wants to take the 26 payments over 25 years, or the smaller lump sum of $120 million, which would equal $81 million after state and federal income taxes.

“She's given us an indication that she's willing to talk to the media when she's got her affairs in order,” Anderson said. “As you might expect, there's a lot of things that Ms. Lahti has to get in order.” He said, “We thank everyone who plays our fun and entertaining games.” He said Lahti is an Idaho native, but declined to provide any more information about her. “She's asked that we respect her privacy, so no, I can't,” Anderson said. “There's lots of curious people who want to know the winner is. This is a big deal.” Her name is public record, he said.
  

Ethics committee meets, takes no action

Idaho's House Ethics Committee met behind closed doors for an hour and a half today, but reached no decisions and took no action. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, the committee chairman, said much of the time was spent going over materials the committee had requested from the Idaho Attorney General's office in regard to a complaint filed by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, charging that Hart has violated his oath of office. There was also brief discussion of two citizen complaints that have been submitted to the committee, one from North Idaho political activist and Hart supporter Larry Spencer against Anderson, and one from Hayden businessman and former Hart write-in election challenger Howard Griffiths against Hart.

Before the committee schedules another meeting, Loertscher said, “We've got to do some background stuff first in preparation for that.” Loertscher said, “I've read and reread Rule 76, so we're going to try to follow that to the letter if possible. So we've got some things we have to do before we made a decision about how we move forward.”

Lawmakers: Luna’s plan is ‘comprehensive,’ will take time to consider

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on state schools Supt. Tom Luna's far-reaching school reform proposal outlined today, which would eliminate tenure for new teachers, limit all collective bargaining agreements with teachers to one year and raise class sizes in grades 4-12 to fund a big new emphasis on technology and accountability.     The plan includes a laptop computer for every 9th grader and requirements for every high school student to take two online classes a year. Luna unveiled it to lawmakers today; he'll provide more detail next week when he gives his budget presentation.

“This is probably the most comprehensive school reform plan that i've seen in a while,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene. “It's going to take a while for this committee to digest the presentation and act on it.” House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he and his committee will have lots more questions for Luna as they consider the plan.

Luna cites election mandate for pushing ahead with school reform plan

State Supt. Tom Luna said it's his election mandate that's prompting him to push forward with his far-reaching education reform plan. “The urgency that we're moving this with is based on what the governor and I experienced this past year … going from community to community, a very, very rigorous campaign, on top of being a governor and state superintendent at the same time,” he said. “The people had a very clear choice, because those who defend the status quo ran very vigorous campaigns on how they thought education should operate now and in the future. The governor and I had a different plan. The people … rejected the status quo.”

Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, responded, “Education is a team sport- no one makes a unilateral decision.” When it comes to “how you increase the skill level of students, you have parents, you have teachers, you have administrators involved in the decision-making process. When a decision is reached, it is reached through a collaborative effort and everyone is satisfied with the approach. I'm not seeing any specific play by which … that was done. … If there was a lack of participation in a collaborative effort, then we've got a problem here.” Malepeai said the plan won't work unless all stakeholders are involved and can “buy into” it. “It is an Idaho problem,” he said, “and it cannot be sort of a unilateral approach to how we do that.”

Luna said he worked with stakeholders after his last pay-for-performance plan failed several years ago to develop a new one. “Well, then the wheels fell off the economy,” he said. “So we kind of put it on the shelf.” But that piece of the plan, he said, had input from stakeholders. “We are always willing to work with any individual, any group, any organization that puts students first,” Luna said. “That's the only litmus test, if you will.”

December revenue slip could reflect IRS delay

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho tax revenue missed forecasts in December for the first time in months, potentially complicating the effort to craft a budget for the coming year. State budget director Wayne Hammon said Wednesday it's possible the $10.7 million shortfall in December results from taxpayers delaying filing. The state was a combined $33 million ahead of projected collections through November, but Hammon says low receipts from individual income and sales taxes caused Idaho to miss the mark in the most recent reporting period. December revenue means the state is still about $22 million ahead, but Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's fiscal year 2012 budget that starts next July hinges on having a cushion. Some filers must delay filing taxes while the Internal Revenue Service reprograms computers to reflect a tax agreement reached by Congress last month.

Luna: ‘No correlation’ between student-teacher ratios, student achievement

Lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees are now asking questions of Supt. Tom Luna about his plan. Among the questions: Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, asked, “Student-teacher ratio - how do we compare now, with the rest of the nation?” Luna responded, “There are some states that have higher student-teacher ratios than us, like Utah for example; there are other states that have lower student-teacher ratios. There's no correlation between student achievement, when you compare (across states by) … student-teacher ratios.” He said, “Over five years we're going to increase student-teacher ratio by 1.6 students, but in return we're going to provide a tremendous amount of additional technology,” and restore other budget cuts. “That additional technology is going to give the teachers the tools they need to manage the classroom even with an additional student or two.”

Idaho's current average student-teacher ratio is 18.2, Luna said in response to a question from Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise. “It will increase to 19.8,” he said.

To fund Luna’s plan: Increase class sizes in grades 4-12 to save millions

State schools chief Tom Luna said the way he'd fund his new program is by shifts in the current school system, including enlarging average class sizes by 1.25 students per teacher in grades 4-12 to save $62.8 million. He'd bump that up another three-quarters of a student in 2013. “Just look at what we can accomplish by spending what we currently have differently,” he said. “We can give all students laptops. … We can provide teacher training… We can restore the salary grid, we can raise minimum teacher pay.” Other funding shifts include eliminating the 99 percent funding protection for school districts from year to year to save $5.4 million. “There's nothing in this plan that hurts Idaho students,” Luna declared. “It may be a little difficult for adults, but there's nothing in this plan that hurts Idaho students or will have a negative impact on student achievement.”

Luna’s 3rd pillar: Limit all collective bargaining agreements to one year, plus other changes

The “third pillar” of his school reform plan that state schools Supt. Tom Luna is describing, “transparent accountability,” would impose strict new limits on school district bargaining with local teachers' unions. Luna said he wants to limit all collective bargaining agreements so they can't extend beyond the end of the state fiscal year. Local teacher unions would “have to come to the table every year to negotiate a new master agreement,” he said. He'd also limit collective bargaining to salaries and benefits - not length of school day or any other issues.
 
In addition, his “third pillar” includes requiring parent input to be considered in all teacher evaluations; requiring school districts to post their budgets online; and all district salary negotiations would be required to occur in open public meetings. “Folks salaries and benefits make up 80 percent of our public school budget. … They have the right to observe the process.” All district master agreements with local teacher unions also would be required to be posted online. “The public should have easy access to those documents,” he said.

Luna also wants to give students flexibility to take online course without permission from schools or districts. And he wants changes in purchasing practices and the state funding formula, to require funding to follow the student and eliminate protection districts now have from big swings. He also said he'd authorize severance payments to teachers who are laid off because the student population suddenly drops.

Luna: ‘Age and longevity does not define quality teaching’

State schools chief Tom Luna said, “Tenure may have been a rite of passage in the past but it now … (has become) an obstacle to improving schools. He said he also is proposing to eliminate seniority as a criteria in teacher layoffs, meaning longtime teachers could be laid off before newer ones. “Age and longevity does not define quality teaching,” he said. “If we're putting students first, we cannot allow this to continue.” He said other states are looking at similar moves. He also called for tying teacher and administrator performance evaluations to student growth. “This is how we will recruit and retain great teachers in our public schools,” he said. “These are the tough choices we must make for the benefit of our students.”

Luna: End tenure for new teachers

State Supt. Tom Luna said his “second pillar” of reform also includes “focused, meaningful professional development and continuing education” for educators, along with more flexibility in hiring both for school districts and school principals, who would have veto power over hires at their school. He also said he's proposing “fair and effective labor practices,” which he defined as a two-year rolling contract for all new teachers to replace tenure. “We can no longer permit a forever contract in our schools,” he said, saying that no research shows tenure improves student achievement. Existing teachers, however, would retain it, he said.

Luna outlines pay-for-performance plan

Supt. Tom Luna has now started expanding on his “second pillar” of school reform, “great teachers and leaders.” He cited a study showing that having a highly effective teacher and principal has a big impact on student achievement. “Why would we ever leave this to chance?” he asked. “We must do everything that we possibly can to ensure that we have a highly effective teacher at the helm of every classroom and a highly effective leader at the helm of every school.” He said the current system limits the state's ability to reward great teachers and remove less-effective teachers.

“First and foremost, we will restore the instructional salary grid to full funding,” he said, which would reverse a budget cut made last year. “In addition the state will raise minimum teacher salary to $30,000. We have to get minimum teacher salary back up where it was.” In addition, he said, he proposes “a pay for performance plan to recognize and reward our excellent teachers and administrators. … I'm convinced this is the only way we will be able to attract and retain a highly qualified workforce in every school across Idaho.” He said, “We already know our teachers and principals are working hard every day to help our students. The goal is to reward them for the work they already do.”

Luna said he's proposing to move forward with a pay-for-performance plan he negotiated with stakeholders in 2009. It includes bonuses for working in hard-to-fill positions; taking on leadership responsibilities like mentoring new teachers or developing curriculum; or for working in schools that meet student growth targets, at both state and local levels. Luna said teachers could earn from $2,000 to $8,000 a year in bonuses under the plan.

Luna: Every 9th grader would be given laptop

Under Supt. Tom Luna's plan, every 9th grader in public schools in Idaho would be given a laptop computer, he told lawmakers. “We must recognize that hardcover textbooks are becoming a thing of the past,” he said.

Luna’s three pillars…

Luna said the “three pillars” of his school-reform proposal are: The 21st century classroom, which he said is “not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography;” “great teachers and leaders;” and “transparent accountability,” to hold students accountable for the work they do and to hold teachers, leaders and school districts accountable for student achievement.

He then proceeded to pass out “clickers” to the committee members to demonstrate one aspect of the “21st century classroom,” and had them answer questions about Idaho history. In addition to investing in technology, the state needs to expand virtual learning, he said. By the fall of 2012, he said, all 9th graders would be required to take two online courses per year, a requirement that would then expand to all students.

Luna: Current education system is ‘financially unsustainable,’ must change

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has begun his school-reform presentation to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees, first thanking the committees for granting his and Gov. Butch Otter's request for the joint meeting. “Now is the time for us to make significant, comprehensive changes to Idaho's education system,” Luna declared. He touted gains in student achievement in recent years, but said they're not enough.

“The current system has become the No. 1 stumbling block to further improvement, because it is financially unsustainable,” Luna said. He said, “We must have a system that can educate more students at a higher level with limited resources. The current system cannot do that. … Idahoans have made it clear… that they don't want further cuts to education and they don't want taxes increased. … The answer is we must change the system.”

Luna to discuss ‘three pillars’

When state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna presents his education reform plan to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees tomorrow, his talk will be entitled, “The Three Pillars of Student-Centered Education,” according to the agenda. The meeting starts at 8:30 in the Capitol Auditorium; you can listen live via LegislatureLive.

Ethics session to touch on all three complaints

It turns out that the House Ethics Committee will, in fact, be considering Rep. Eric Anderson's ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart when it meets in executive session tomorrow, along with two citizen complaints the panel has received. The committee, at its last meeting, requested additional legal review from the Idaho Attorney General's office on the Anderson-Hart complaint; it'll go over that during Tuesday's meeting. “In my opinion, they're treating this as an extension of that preliminary investigation,” said Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane. However, Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he anticipates only an executive session tomorrow morning, and that no decisions will be made; none can be made in a closed session.

That means the committee would have to schedule another meeting to take any action stemming from its closed-door discussion tomorrow.

Dems respond to gov’s State of State message

The House and Senate minority caucuses held a press conference this morning to give their response to the governor's State of the State message and budget. “In the face of enormous challenges and widespread economic hardship, the governor and many legislators have no plans to do anything significant,” declared Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello. “In fact, rather than being proactive, they've simply strengthened their resolve to dismantle the very public structures that help create prosperity.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “Here is where we may differ from the governor. We believe that maintaining our public structures is essential to protecting the Idaho way of life for our families and our businesses. It is not 'tyranny' to feed hungry children, care for the disabled or educate workers.” He added, “It is precisely because families are struggling that we need to makes sure our public systems have the resources to respond. We do this not simply by asking 'What can we afford?' but also asking, 'What must we do to protect our future?'”

Rusche acknowledged that the Democrats' numbers are small in both houses. “But we do have a job as the opposition, and that's to point out consequences,” he said. “What are the consequences of the deconstruction of the public structures that communities rely on, that businesses rely on here in Idaho? … Somebody has to talk about the consequences of actions and that is our role.”

Rusche said Democrats' priorities are jobs, providing a high-quality education to children, protecting the state's most vulnerable citizens and “ensuring that our state government is responsible, ethical, and accountable.” Malepeai said Democrats stand ready to work for solutions in collaboration with the majority. “I think we can come up with some of those solutions. I think a collaborative effort is what we're looking for,” he said.

‘We sharpen our swords on you’

After Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, told JFAC that it's an honor to be the first presenter to the joint budget committee each year, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded with a smile, “We sharpen our swords on you.”
  

Water quality monitoring would be funded, but just on one-time basis

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, is fielding questions now about the governor's budget proposal from legislative budget writers. Among them: Whether water quality monitoring is funded in the Department of Environmental Quality in 2012. The answer: Yes, but it's funded on a one-time basis through a fund shift. Hammon said the department is “very concerned” about where that leaves the program in 2013, “and so are we.”

Another question focused on whether state agencies may hand out salary increases from savings in their budget, even though the budget provides no funding for raises. That answer, too, was yes. “The governor has not instituted a hiring freeze or a salary freeze,” Hammon said. “The governor has entrusted his cabinet members to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. So while we're not providing money for a CEC, if the department has the money, or decided that within their appropriation can make room for that, they can move forward.”

Budget would mean no new Opportunity Scholarships for a 3rd year, just renewals

The governor's proposed budget for next year includes $1 million for Opportunity Scholarships, but that's just enough to continue funding renewals of the scholarships for students who already are receiving them; it's not enough to add any new ones. It would be the third year the state has taken that position; no new students have been able to apply for the scholarship for the past two years, due to lack of funds. About 450 students are getting the scholarships now, down from about 700 when the program started. Opportunity Scholarships provide needs-based scholarships of up to $3,000 per year, renewable for up to four years.
  

Gov still concerned about lagging state salaries, but can’t afford to address now

Gov. Butch Otter still is concerned about state workers' salaries lagging below market levels, Otter's budget chief, Wayne Hammon, told legislative budget writers; it's an issue Otter emphasized at the outset of his first term as governor, calling for a series of big pay boosts. Nevertheless, he's proposing no pay increases next year. “The state employees still lag in most areas,” Hammon said. “However we just can't afford it at this time.”

Hammon to JFAC: Dec. number ‘missed the mark - question is how much’

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, has begun his presentation to JFAC this morning on the governor's proposed budget. “The December revenue numbers are still not final,” Hammon told the budget writers. He said the Division of Financial Management “was hoping to get it finalized for the governor yesterday and was unable to do so.” He noted, “The December number is not positive, it missed the mark - the question is by how much.”

He also noted, “The governor's recommendation is a snapshot in time … and things will change. And they'll change again when we get the January revenue, and they'll change again by the time we get the budget set.”

House Ethics Committee to hold first closed meeting; here’s why

The House Ethics Committee has scheduled an executive session meeting for tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. This is a change - heretofore, all proceedings and documents of the ethics committee have been open to the public, a point emphasized by the chairman, Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. The change comes at the urging of House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who notes that House Rule 57 specifically permits a committee to go into executive session - a closed session, excluding the public - for preliminary review of an ethics complaint.

The committee has two complaints before it for preliminary review, both submitted by citizens, not by House members; one is from North Idaho political activist Larry Spencer targeting Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake; the other is from Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, questioning Rep. Phil Hart's participation in a legislative meeting with judges at which the same judge before which he's arguing his state income tax appeal was among the presenters. The executive session can't include any discussion of a pending ethics complaint filed by Anderson against Hart; the committee already has voted to move beyond the preliminary investigation stage on that complaint.

The Idaho Attorney General's office has advised lawmakers that House ethics rules, which outline procedures for complaints, apply only to House members, not to the general public - so not just anyone can submit a complaint. Denney said if the committee finds the issues in the citizen-initiated complaints valid, he figures a House member will file a complaint to allow review.

Megaloads opponents file appeal

Opponents of megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho have filed an appeal of the state hearing officer's findings and recommendation after a contested case hearing. The appeal, which you can read online here, contends that the hearing officer focused in his findings only on arguments presented by ITD and ConocoPhillips, and didn't deal with issues raised by the opponents. “ITD has a duty to consider all of the relevant facts and evidence before making a final determination,” said Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, attorney for the opponents. “We’re taking exception to the hearing officer’s recommendation because he didn’t do that.”

ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said ITD and ConocoPhillips now have 21 days to submit their responses to the appeal. ITD Director Brian Ness plans to review the filing and the responses before he rules on the issue, which regards whether permits should be granted for four megaloads proposed by ConocoPhillips to travel from the Port of Lewiston to Billings, Mont.

Otter works some budget magic, avoids calling for tax increase

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter worked some budget magic to trim the state's looming shortfall for the coming year down to manageable size and avoid calling for any tax increases, in the budget he unveiled to state lawmakers Monday. They were skeptical, however, because Otter's plan relies on modest economic growth in the remainder of this year and into next year - and lawmakers aren't convinced it'll happen.

“I hope that he's right,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. “I would love it if we can make it work with what he's given us.” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature's joint budget committee, said “We are not out of this year yet. … One robin does not a spring make.” She said, “I'm not even cautiously optimistic.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Ed reform plan to focus on teacher performance pay, more

Gov. Butch Otter and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna say Luna will unveil a big new education reform plan to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees on Wednesday, but neither would give details in their joint news conference this afternoon via the Idaho Education Network. “It's a comprehensive change in the way we spend the money we have,” Luna said. Otter reiterated his support for a pay-for-performance plan for teachers. “That is going to be our focus, and that is rewarding the best teachers that have the most success with those students as they exit those classrooms,” he said.

Luna said, “This is very comprehensive plan. It's far greater and it touches far more bases in education than just pay for performance. We can teach more kids at a higher level with limited resources and pay for performance is just part of that.”

He said, “Basically we have three choices: We, we can continue to cannibalize the system that we currly have, which means more furlough days, less instruction time for students who struggle, no money for technology … that's the first option. Second option is we can raise taxes so that we can fund the current system that quite frankly nobody has been satisfied with the results that we've been getting from the current system. Or you can change the system to a system that is student-centered and focuses on teaching more kids at a higher level.” He said, “Those details will be coming out Wednesday morning.”

Otter said, “I totally agree with Tom - we've got three options and I like the final option the best.”

Otter on cig tax: ‘Gonna have to convince me’

Gov. Butch Otter is holding a post-State of the State press conference via the Idaho Education Network, though few are participating on the network and many are in the room with him at the Idaho Department of Education. Among the questions so far: What Otter thinks of the proposed $1.25 per pack cigarette tax hike, which he didn't mention in his State of the State address. “It depends upon where that money's going to go,” Otter said of the proposal. “I'm a user pay guy… I have talked to the chairman. In fact I had a discussion since my State of the State speech with Chairman Lake, and I said I'm not convinced - you're going to have to convince me.”

Harwoods: New House power couple

The Idaho Legislature has a new power couple - Dick and Carole Harwood. Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, is a sixth-term District 2 representative. Now his wife Carole is in the House chamber too, filling in for newly elected Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Kellogg, whose husband is ill. “Maybe we set a record,” Carole Harwood said with a smile - spouses serving in the House representing the same district. She said McMillan just called her to ask her to sub yesterday. “As I was leaving the house, I got a call,” Carole Harwood said. “I'm available as long as she needs me.”

Mrs. Harwood hasn't held elective office before, other than a past stint as Republican Party chair for Benewah county. She's now the treasurer.

Speaker: ‘Hope we are up to that challenge’

The governor has concluded his State of the State message, in which lawmakers interrupted him with applause more than a dozen times. House Speaker Lawerence Denney told Gov. Otter, “I'm sure that this is going to be a challenging session for us, and I hope that we are up to that challenge.”

The governor’s budget

The governor's budget - the dollars and details behind the proposals he outlined today in his State of the State message - uses a variety of steps to cope with what had been expected to be a budget shortfall for fiscal year 2012 as of much as $340 million. First, he uses state economists' newly revised forecast of revenue for the current year, fy 2011, of 4.2 percent, which is revised down from their original forecast of 4.7 percent. In the first five months of the fiscal year, state tax revenues actually have been exceeding that forecast. Then, for next year, he budgets based on 3 percent revenue growth, even though his economists forecast 6.9 percent. That leaves  $91 million cushion in case the economy falls short of the forecasts.

Lawmakers set this year's budget based on revenue growth of practically zero, so that revenue makes a big difference in cutting into the budget hole. Then, the governor cut into the maintenance portion of the budget to save $20 million because an anticipated PERSI rate increase was delayed and $40 million by covering health insurance cost increases from reserves in the insurance fund for a second straight year. He also got state agencies to kick back to the general fund any unused reserves, including $8 million from the liquor division and $10 million from the permanent building fund. He tapped the remaining $74 million in the non-endowed portion of the Idaho Millenium Fund, a fund made up of tobacco settlement proceeds, with part of that covering a Medicaid shortfall for this year, and the rest boosting next year's budget. All state saving accounts essentially are drained. Plus, hospitals and nursing homes will kick in millions to help fund the Medicaid program, but it still will take a $25 million cut in benefits, which largely will hit adults on the program.

Then, to make up the final piece of the budget hole, the governor called for $35.5 million in cuts from state agencies, with differing amounts for each but averaging 2.2 percent; those don't affect public schools; and he called for delaying for one year the next scheduled step-up in the grocery tax credit, saving the state $15 million next year. That means the grocery tax credit would stay at its current level - $70 per person per year for the lowest-income Idahoans, and $50 for everyone else. There would be no raises for state employees, little or no funding for inflation, and furloughs could continue at some agencies.

The result, at the end of all that, is a balanced budget for next year - should lawmakers choose to go along with the governor's proposals. Overall, state general-fund spending would rise by 7.7 percent next year, under the governor's blueprint, while total spending would be up 5.3 percent. The budget still would contain $78 million in one-time money to help it balance, continuing a 15-year trend of structural imbalances but bottom-line balance.

What were emergency cuts must now become ‘new concept of governance’, guv says

Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers, “It's time to make the extraordinary measures that were born of necessity these past years into the foundation for a new concept of governance for Idaho, governance that emboldens and frees individuals and communities from the soul-crushing tyranny of entitlement.”

Guv: Session is like a ‘family council’

The governor just told lawmakers to “think of this legislative session as a family council - all Idahoans drawn up around the kitchen table to discuss how to make the best possible use of what we have.” He said greater value must be placed on “self-reliance,” and said, “We must not be satisfied with answers from government, any government.”
  

No relief from cuts for higher ed

“Tough choices and changes have to be made,” Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers, including for higher education. “Higher education does have some built-in constituencies that can provide alternatives to a higher level of general fund support,” he said. That's not likely what higher education advocates want to hear; Idaho's higher-ed system has been hit with big budget cuts for several years running. Otter's proposed budget for next year calls for another 1.3 percent cut in state general funds for colleges and universities, and a 1.7 percent cut for community colleges. In total funds, colleges and universities would end up with 6.4 percent more than this year, while community colleges would have 3.5 percent less.

Otter talks about changing gov’t ‘culture’

A theme that Gov. Butch Otter talked about last week, changing the “culture” of government, has resurfaced in his State of the State message. “Building partnerships. Fostering more cooperation between the public and private sectors. Doing more with less. All that is part of what must be a cultural change in our policies and our programs throughout state government,” he said, “a change in how we set our priorities and how we approach challenges.”

Otter says he’ll look at ‘nullification’ on health care reform

On health care reform, Gov. Otter has won several rounds of applause - first for noting that a Virginia judge said a health care mandate is unconstitutional, and second for saying, “We are actively exploring all our options - including nullification.”

Guv endorses plan to bond to cover state unemployment fund’s debt to feds

Gov. Butch Otter has endorsed a plan in the works at the state Department of Labor to issue bonds to cover the state's unemployment fund debt to the federal government, and redeem the bonds over four years. “It also involves raising the target balance in the trust fund formula to avoid borrowing in the future,” he said. “Our plan will save Idaho employers an estimated $110 million over the next three years. My thanks go to Labor Director Roger Madsen for thinking outside the bureaucratic box on that issue.”

Employers must start hiring, gov says, for Idaho’s economy to improve

What Idaho's economy really needs is for employers to begin hiring, Gov. Otter said, though many have been reluctant to do so in part because of uncertainty about health care reform and other issues. “We must use our bully pulpit to encourage those who can help to take a chance on our state's future,” he said, “to pay it forward by embracing those less fortunate among us. Just as our Project 60 partners are working with us to create and sustain the right business climate in Idaho, the time is now for our citizens and businesses to show confidence in our communities, our neighbors, and ultimately ourselves.”

Guv again calls for biz tax incentives

The governor has again mentioned tax incentives. “We must continue rewarding those private sector investments that grow our economy by providing appropriate and carefully crafted tax incentives for job creation,” he said.
  

Otter backs teacher pay-for-performance

Gov. Otter is joining state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna to propose a pay-for-performance system for the state's public school teachers. “Excellence should be rewarded,” Otter told lawmakers, “which is why Supt. Luna and I are committed to establishing a pay system for teachers that emphasizes their performance, not their tenure.” The comment won a round of applause in the House chambers.

Gov lauds education network

The Idaho Education Network, a broadband network that links Idaho high schools, is coming in for much praise from Gov. Butch Otter in his State of the State message. Already, he said, school districts are using the network for innovative programs. The Bonneville school district and the Vallivue district in Caldwell are “rolling out a virtual school option for students, and several other districts are heading that direction,” Otter said. “It's a tremendous resource.”

A flat school budget…

School funding, as the largest single piece of the state budget, is a big focus for the state Legislature. Gov. Butch Otter is proposing a budget for public schools for next year that imposes no further cuts, but keeps in place the full $128.5 million in cuts imposed on schools this year. Overall, schools would get a 1.8 percent increase in general funds next year, and a 0.2 percent increase in total funds. “While my budget recommendation does call for a little more state support for public schools, it also includes significant, targeted investments in our children's future - investments like a third year of math and science in high school, and paying for all Idaho juniors to take college entrance exams,” Otter said. “Those investments are part of important changes that Supt. Luna and I are proposing in the way our public schools do their jobs.”

He said he'll push for “a fundamental shift in emphasis from the adults who oversee the process and administration to the best interests of our students.”

‘Not time to coerce with more taxes’

Though there's been much talk among lawmakers of the potential for a tax increase to cope with the state's expected huge budget shortfall next year, Gov. Otter said, “I haven't heard one Idahoan say they want their taxes raised. If anyone wants to contribute more to state government, they're free to do so. But this is not the time for us to coerce those payments with more taxes.”

The governor said his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 is “based on a modest but responsible 3 percent growth rate in our state revenue.” That's despite the fact that his own Division of Financial Management economists are forecasting 6.9 percent more in tax revenue will come into state coffers in fiscal 2012. Otter is proposing to budget to just the 3 percent figure - leaving $91 million on the table if the state's forecasts prove true. Lawmakers have been pessimistic about forecasts since revenues fell short in the past few years.

Most state agencies will take a budget hit in the coming year, Gov. Butch Otter said. “Most state agencies will see their budgets reduced by more than 2 percent under my recommendation,” he told lawmakers. The governor's proposed budget for next year calls for general-fund cuts that vary by agency but average 2.2 percent; they'd total $35.3 million.

Otter wants biz incentives

In one of the few specific legislative proposals he's mentioned thus far, Gov. Butch Otter said, “I will be proposing legislation aimed at providing an incentive for investment and creation of career opportunities, targeting those small and start-up businesses that show great promise for Idaho's future - especially as new technology and innovation are applied.”
  

Otter: ‘Reducing tax burden’

Gov. Otter has specifically singled out Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, saying he's proposing phased-in tax-cutting legislation that Otter thinks lawmakers should “seriously consider.” “His bill would equalize and then gradually reduce our marginal state income tax rates for individuals and businesses over ten years, starting in 2013,” Otter said. “But whether it's that bill or an alternative, we need a long-term plan for reducing the tax burden on our citizens.”
  

Guv address Tax Commish trouble

The governor mentioned the trouble at the state Tax Commission, where his appointee as Tax Commission chairman, Royce Chigbrow, resigned on Friday amid allegations that he interfered in tax cases for the benefit of a friend an of clients of his son's firm. “I have shared some ideas on possible ways to improve operations and public trust at our state Tax Commission with Pro Tem Hill, Senator Stegner and Representative Lake,” Otter said. “While those talks progress, I look forward to working closely with all of you in finding solutions that help restore public confidence in that institution and the essential work it does through greater accountability and efficiency.”

Otter: ‘It means stability’

Otter sounded themes he's been hitting in recent weeks about how to improve the economy - that government isn't the answer. “Along with responsibly balancing our budget, there is no task before us more important than improving Idaho's economy,” he said. “That does not mean government spending. It means stability. It means predictability. And it means keeping more money in the hands of the people whose innovation and enterprise actually creates those career opportunities.”

Guv: State more efficient now

Gov. Otter said, “Our state government today is far better and more efficient than it was two years ago.” He said “all our state agencies are continuing to build partnerships, find efficiencies and develop smarter ways of doing their jobs.”

The governor has been highlighting some of what state agencies have done to save money. The state prisons and parole system are saving $32 million a year, he said, by improving offender assessment and placement and making better use of retained-jurisdiction programs; as a result, the inmate population is more than 1,500 below projections. ITD Director Brian Ness has unveiled a realignment plan that he says will save $1.5 million over the next two years. The Division of Building Safety is saving $415,000 a year through such steps as sharing office space, using videoconferencing and issuing more permits online. And Otter said his tax compliance initiative, which added tax auditors, “now is bringing in more than $1 million a month to the general fund that previously was going uncollected. That's money we can use for public schools or other pressing needs.”

Otter: ‘Back to the family’

Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers, “Folks, we've got to turn this discussion back to personal responsibility. We've got to turn it back to the family. We've got to turn it back to the communities.”
  

Otter warns lawmakers: No illusions

The governor had a warning for lawmakers. “No one in this room is under any illusion about the task before us,” he said. It could be the kind of legislative session that leaves people wondering why anyone would want to go into politics or public service. … In some cases it may boil down to what our principles, values and the best data available tell us are the least-bad options.”

Guv: ‘Our work cut out for us’

Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers, “Your wisdom, patience, judgment and good humor will be crucial in the days to come as we navigate through the difficult process of balancing our state budget in a way that fulfills the proper role of government.” He said, “Now we have our work cut out for us.”
  

Moment of silence before gov’s speech

The joint session of the House and Senate paused for a moment of silence before the governor's State of the State speech, in commemoration of the victims of the shootings in Arizona.
  

Senators arrive in House chamber

Senators have arrived in the House chamber, and the joint session has now begun. Next to arrive will be the state's top judges and elected officials; then the governor will arrive to give his State of the State message.

Speaker promises civility in House

House Speaker Lawerence Denney took a moment after the House convened to convey condolences to the families of those killed and injured in the shootings in Arizona, which he called “a senseless act.” Denney said, “As Speaker Boehner said in the U.S. House, an attack on one of us is an attack on us all.” He called for civility in politics, and said, “What we say reaches far beyond these walls.” Denney said he'll try to set the example in the House chamber this year. “In this chamber … we will not allow any debate that is personal, questions motives or is mean-spirited,” he declared.
  

House convenes, with third sub rep

The Idaho House has convened for the session, as has the Senate. In the House, the formal announcement of substitutes for the opening of the session included the two previously announced - Julie Chadderdon for her mom, Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d'Alene, and Gayle Batt for Rep. Pat Takasugi, R-Wilder; plus one more: New Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Kellogg, has named Carole Harwood to be her substitute as the Legislature begins. Mrs. Harwood is the wife of Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, who represents the same district as McMillan, whose husband is ill.

Next up, the senators will come to the House for the governor's State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature.

The session ahead…

There’s a desperate edge to the talk in Boise as Idaho’s legislative session approaches. “It’s not going to be a fun place to be in the Capitol this year,” said new Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “We’re probably facing the worst year coming up that I’ve ever seen.” It's a looming budget crisis that's causing the consternation. “It’ll be ugly,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review on the upcoming session in Idaho, which lawmakers say will be a difficult one. It starts on Monday, when Gov. Butch Otter delivers his State of the State and budget address to a joint session of the Legislature at 1 p.m.

Chigbrow resignation came after allegations of intervening in tax cases

Idaho Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow resigned Friday after employees at the agency said he intervened in tax cases involving clients of his son's accounting firm as well as for a friend and political supporter, the AP reports. Click below for the full article from AP reporter John Miller.

Otter accepts Chigbrow’s resignation

Gov. Butch Otter just announced that he's accepted the resignation of Royce Chigbrow as chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission. Here's Otter's statement:

“Royce has been my friend and trusted adviser for a number of years. He was kind enough to enter the arena of public service at my request, and I applaud his hard work, knowledge and expertise in that role. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
  

Chigbrow resigns from Tax Commission

Idaho State Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow has resigned. In a hand-delivered resignation letter sent to Gov. Butch Otter, Chigbrow wrote, “Our system of taxation is not perfect, but I tried to do my best on behalf of every Idahoan during my tenure, while treating taxpayers with the respect, fairness and dignity they deserve. … Despite all of this I know there needs to be a change.” You can read his letter of resignation here.
  

Governor inaugurated, on to session…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on Gov. Butch Otter's second inauguration today, which came amid hoopla, booming cannons and an A-10 jet flyover on the state Capitol steps. Otter pledged to turn the emergency measures the state has taken to cope with a huge economic downturn into “standard operating practices” for his administration, as he started his second four-year term leading the state. You can read the full text of the governor's speech here.

Simpson: EPA has ‘run amok,’ is ‘bloated’

Speaking of the EPA, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, newly named chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment, which oversees funding for the EPA, said of the agency: “The EPA is the scariest agency in the federal government, an agency run amok. Its bloated budget has allowed it to drastically expand its regulatory authority in a way that is hurting our economy and pushing an unwelcomed government further into the lives of Idahoans. As Chairman of this subcommittee, I look forward to bringing some common sense to the EPA and some certainty for our nation’s job creators.” Click below to read his full statement.

Otter: ‘I’ve already had my tussle’

Gov. Butch Otter, who made a point of criticizing the reach and growth of the federal government throughout his inaugural speech today, also made a reference before he began to his own run-ins with the EPA regarding Clean Water Act violations at his ranch in Star. After military cannons boomed out a 19-gun salute, belching smoke in a spectacular display that was topped when, between the last two booms, four A-10 jets flew over in formation, Otter said, “I hoped, as I watched that cannon being fired over there, that (state DEQ chief) Toni Hardesty didn't show up with some sort of an air violation.” Amid laughter, he said, “But if she does, general, it's yours - I've already had my tussle with those folks.”

Handful of protesters…

A handful of protesters held signs at the back of the crowd at today's inauguration; most of them were family members of Pro-Life, the frequent election candidate who changed his name to the slogan and today held a large sign saying, “Abortion is murder.”  His family members offered such messages as “Unjust war is murder” and others objecting to Chinese corporations. A Caldwell woman held two protest signs saying, “Recall Otter Now” and “Free Trade is Marxist.”

Officials sworn in, one sets record

Here, Gov. Butch Otter waves to the crowd after taking the oath of office for his second term. He and all the state constitutional officers took oaths today administered by the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court. One of them, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, set a record by doing so - he's now the longest-serving Attorney General in the history of Idaho. Wasden is starting his third term.

Otter in inaugural address: Emergency cuts should become ‘standard operating’

In his second inaugural address, Gov. Butch Otter had this message: The steps Idaho has taken to cope with an unprecedented economic downturn are going to become the new normal and “standard operating practices” for his administration. “Over the next four years you can expect my administration to keep building partnerships for addressing some of our most pressing challenges, to keep clearing the way for entrepreneurs to create more career opportunities and to keep protecting our Idaho way of life,” the governor said. “You will see that what started as emergency measures taken in response to the great rec'ession's impact on Idaho become standard operating practices of our state government, permament changes in how we have done business, aimed at leaving a smaller, better defined and more constructive imprint on our people's lives.”

The inaugural…

Here, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter are escorted in to today's inaugural festivities on the state Capitol steps. Four former governors are attending the ceremony: former Govs. Risch, Kempthorne, Batt and Andrus.

Stage set for inauguration today

The stage is set, the 25th Army Band is playing, and a giant American flag has been strung up on the front of the state capitol for today's inaugural festivities. At noon Boise time, Idaho's 46th inauguration will begin. Gov. Butch Otter and all other state constitutional officers will take the oath of office, administered by Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Eismann, and Otter will give his second inaugural address.

New ethics complaint targets Rep. Hart

Yet another ethics complaint has been filed against Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, this one by the write-in candidate who unsuccessfully ran against him in November. Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, who garnered 25 percent of the vote for his write-in bid, sent in an ethics complaint even though officials say only House members can file those; earlier, another North Idaho resident, Larry Spencer, did the same, filing an ethics complaint against another North Idaho representative who had filed his own complaint against Hart.