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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2012

118 have now filed to run for Legislature, including former Sen. Stan Hawkins

Here's a link to the latest candidate filings for the upcoming election; among the 118 people filing to run for the Legislature so far is former state Sen. Stan Hawkins, R-Ucon, who filed to run for the House in District 34, where five-term Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, is retiring. Hawkins served in the Senate from 1991-2002, and in the House from 1985-1990.

House Resources backs sale of endowment’s business assets; chairman dissents

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — House lawmakers' unease with an endowment trust-owned storage business in Boise shined through in a 15-1 committee vote that could force the state Department of Lands to sell the operation. The Resources Committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday for HB 495, the measure requiring the Land Board to sell or lease all improvements on endowment-owned ground, and sell off all business operations. Back in August 2010, the Land Board's purchase of Affordable Self Storage in Boise drew free-market advocates' fiery critique. They argued the endowment trust that benefits public schools was encroaching on the private sector by buying a business, rather than merely grazing, timber or commercial buildings, like it's owned for a century. The Department of Lands has been leery of this proposed restriction, because the storage business is among the endowment's best-performing assets.

House Resources Chairman Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, cast the only vote against the bill, which now moves to the full House.

Oil, gas industry pressure on counties riles senators as they consider bill…

Several members of the Senate Resources Committee bristled this afternoon over suggestions that the oil and gas industry pressured Idaho counties, saying if they didn't sign on to an industry-proposed compromise, HB 464, they'd lose all local control over oil and gas drilling. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked Kerry Ellen Elliott of the Idaho Association of Counties why the association was willing to give up any local authority over siting of the wells, and only have planning and zoning authority for post-drilling developments. “I'm going to be very blunt,” she said. “If we did not compromise on this in some respect, we were not going to have any local control at all. There would have been statewide pre-emption.”

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said, “I have a concern when we start saying that if we don't sign on, some industry is going to do this. My concern is that sends a message in the public that it's somebody other than the Legislature that's making the laws around here.”

When Elliott said, “It was in our counties' interest to work something out in this regard; we wanted 90 or  95 percent of something instead of 100 percent of nothing,” Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, retorted, “I think most of us on this committee are in favor of oil and gas drilling, and we probably have been from the get-go. But the way this verbiage is, you have no local control. … You testified you thought you had control, but the verbiage here … says you have no control.”

There are six oil and gas drilling bills on the committee's agenda this afternoon, but the attention has focused on the first one, HB 464, the industry's controversial state pre-emption bill. So far, a Washington County commissioner, Rick Michael, has testified against the bill, saying, “I am opposed to what is essentially an attack on local control by the oil and gas industry,” while a Payette County commissioner, Mark Shigeta, testified in favor of the bill. Larry Lundin of Midvale told the committee he thinks the bill is a “good compromise,” and said, “There seems to be a tendency in our county to over-regulate.” Mary Sue Roach told the panel, “This takes away my right as a property owner in Washington County to protect my property.”

After an hour and a half of testimony, the committee ran out of time; Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said the hearing will continue Friday at 1 p.m., and, “We'll stay 'til we get 'er done.”

House GOP leaders push for interim committee or task force on Internet sales tax issue

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he's confident that the Idaho Legislature won't let the streamlined sales tax issue drop after the legislation's failure in a House committee today. Instead, he said he'll push for an interim legislative committee or task force to look into the issue and propose legislation next year; this year's bill, which would conform Idaho's sales tax definitions to national standards to enable the state to join a national coalition of state governments gearing up for congressional approval to collect sales tax on Internet or other remote sales, wouldn't have taken effect until 2013 anyway.

“I didn't want this to be just a big floor fight out in the weeds of the details,” Bedke said. “I think there are very few people that have a problem - they understand that in this day and age, when a lot of commerce is conducted on the Internet, that creates a disadvantage to traditional businesses in Idaho.”

Even Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, who opposed the bill in committee today, said before her vote, “I'm probably 80 percent in favor of this bill,” and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who also voted against the bill, said, “I think this issue has been around and we need to get everybody at the table and come up with a solution. … An interim committee gives us the opportunity to go through that process, get a comfort level and make sure it's done right.”

In a three-hour committee hearing on the bill today, only one person, Wayne Hoffman, testified against it; all other testimony was in favor. House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “An interim committee or interim task force might be a good thing to do.”

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, argued in favor of the bill in today's hearing. “It's a tax that's due and payable currently,” he said. “It does level the playing field. And there is some need from time to time to adjust the tax code. From 1965 (when Idaho's sales tax was enacted) to 2012 is 47 years.” Roberts said he sees it as an economic development issue. “If you're a business and you want to locate in Idaho, you're going to look at whether you automatically step into a disadvantaged situation.” Removing out-of-state retailers' tax advantage, he said, would bring more business into the state.

Sens. Malepeai, Bilyeu, Rep. Bilbao all decide not to seek re-election

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, has announced that he won't run for re-election; so have Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, and Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett.

Malepeai, a five-term lawmaker, said of his “difficult decision,” “I have cherished my time in the Idaho Senate serving the people of Bannock County and fighting for all Idahoans who value education, our unique quality of life and the importance of minority representation in Idaho.” But he said he was “deeply disappointed” in the passage of last year's “Students Come First” school reform laws, and saddened that the Senate State Affairs Committee this year refused to introduce his legislation to expand the Idaho Human Rights Act to cover job or housing discrimination against gay people. “I wanted very much to allow my fellow Idahoans who experience discrimination simply for being themselves to have a chance to bring their stories into this building so that others might understand the overwhelming need to extend the basic protections too many of us take for granted,” Malepeai said. You can read his full announcement here.

Bilyeu, who's completing a third consecutive Senate term after earlier serving a term in the Senate from 1968 to 1970, is a former president of the State Board of Education; prior to her current three terms, her late husband, Chick, held the Senate seat for 24 years. You can read her full announcement here.

Bilbao is a fourth-term lawmaker and vice-chairman of the House Health & Welfare Committee; he is a retired senior quality manager for Boeing. He said in an email that the large size of his new district, District 8, was a factor in his decision to retire from the Legislature; that new legislative district contains four House incumbents, including Bilbao and Reps. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, and Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who are seeking re-election; and Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, who's running for the Senate.

House, Senate Dems decry introduction of ultrasound, contraception bills

House and Senate Democratic leaders have issued a joint news release, decrying the introduction of three bills in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday that require an ultrasound before a woman can get an abortion, decry a federal insurance rule on contraceptive coverage, and order doctors not to deny feeding or other life-preserving care to patients against their will, even if the treatment is “deemed medically inappropriate or futile.” All three measures were introduced on party-line votes, over Democratic objections.

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, who voted against introducing all three measures, said, “After watching this very same committee summarily refuse to print a bill extending coverage for sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho’s existing Human Rights Act, it is stunning to me how very quickly they voted to print bills that violate the right of Idaho citizens to determine their own health-care needs.” Click below for the Dems' full statement.

Utilities start legislative fight over renewable energy credits

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho utilities today began what's likely a tough legislative fight to force small alternative power projects to hand over their renewable energy credits. Idaho Power Co., Avista Corp. and Rocky Mountain Power began pushing lawmakers on the Senate State Affairs Committee to award them these so-called “green tags” that result when they buy renewable projects' electricity; the committee agreed to introduce the bill. Currently, alternative power developers that include agricultural giants Simplot Co. and Cargill can keep the credits, which are worth up to $1 million annually when they're sold to utilities in states with renewable portfolio standards that Idaho doesn't have. Developers say they need these valuable credits, arguing they sometimes make the difference in their small projects' economic viability. Utilities counter they should have them to sell, to offset costs and reduce customers' rates.

Fulcher elected GOP caucus chair

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, has been selected Senate majority caucus chairman, replacing former Chairman John McGee, in a contested election that ran for about 40 minutes in a closed-door Senate GOP caucus. Fulcher held that post previously, serving two years before giving it up to make an unsuccessful bid for Senate president pro-tem. McGee resigned from the Senate last week amid allegations of sexual harassment against a female Senate staffer; the Idaho State Police is now investigating.

“This is a nine-month term,” Fulcher said, “and we need to have some continuity. We need to put all our distractions behind us, just plug back in, pull the caucus together and get back to work.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said of Fulcher, “I think that he's proven himself in the past, and that past experience was very important to the caucus, as was his high regard in the caucus.” Both Davis and Fulcher declined to name the unsuccessful candidates.

Senate GOP holding leadership election…

The Senate convened today, but adjourned early, at 10:35 a.m., for a majority caucus, at which Senate Republicans are holding a leadership election to fill the post vacated last week by the resignation of then-Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee of Caldwell.

All three motions fail on streamlined sales tax bill, two on ties…

After two and a half hours of testimony, nearly all of it in favor of the bill, and another half-hour of debate, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee has failed to pass any motion with regard to HB 581, the streamlined sales tax bill. House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, offered an amended substitute motion to pass the bill on to the full House without recommendation, but it died on an 8-10 vote. House Assistant Majority Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, made a substitute motion to refer the measure to an interim committee for more study, but that died on a 9-9 tied vote. Then, the original motion to pass the bill and send it to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass” also failed on a slightly different 9-9 vote: Roberts voted yes, but Bedke voted no.

“I think the bill is dead,” Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said after the votes. “I wouldn't place it on the agenda again knowing the result would be the same.” However, he said there might be some possibility of reconsideration; it's also possible another measure could be drafted for an interim committee study on the issue. “I'd probably support that at this point in the game,” Lake said.

Here's the breakdown in the final 9-9 vote, on the motion to send the bill to the full House with a “do pass” recommendation:

Voting in favor: Reps. Collins, Raybould, Roberts, L. Smith, Gibbs, Killen, Burgoyne, Rusche, and Lake.

Voting against: Reps. Barrett, Moyle, Schaefer, J. Wood, Bedke, Harwood, Barbieri, Bayer, and Ellsworth.

Bill to eliminate urban renewal districts killed

After two days of testimony, the House Local Government Committee voted 5-4 yesterday to kill Rep. Bob Schaefer's bill to eliminate urban renewal districts in Idaho, reports Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin; you can read her full report here. While that bill, HB 560, was dumped, the panel voted to give Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, a chance to change his bill, HB 580, that would require urban renewal districts to get approval from two-thirds of county voters before incurring any new debt.

Idaho retailers on online sales taxes: ‘It is a fairness issue’

Among those who have testified in favor of HB 581, the Internet sales tax bill, at this morning's committee hearing is Idaho Retailers Association head Pam Eaton, who gave lawmakers a big list of all the retailers in Idaho. “By not having this, what we're actually doing is we're pushing money and business out of state - we're saying, 'It's OK, go online,'” Eaton said. “It is a fairness issue.”

She said of the complicated bill, “We have truly read and scoured over every page.”

ISP budget has boost, but not enough to increase patrols…

The Idaho State Police would be able to replace 10 patrol cars and four SUV's, plus a $1 million radio system conversion needed for communication with 14 Idaho counties, under a budget set this morning in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. It'd also be able to add two forensic scientists to comply with a state law requiring DNA testing of all those convicted of felonies, and cover a $340,000 jump in fuel costs. But it wouldn't be able to increase its ranks of patrol officers. Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, House Appropriations vice-chair, said, “They don't even have cars for the people they have.”

Bolz proposed a budget that shows an 18.3 percent increase in state general funds over this year, but just a 2.8 percent increase overall; Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, offered a substitute motion to let ISP replace 10, rather than seven, patrol cars by tapping a dedicated fund, and it passed 10-9. State police patrol cars aren't being replaced until they have as many as 120,000 miles on them, Brackett said.

Col. Jerry Russell, ISP director, said in his budget pitch this year that he can only categorize ISP's service level now as “satisfactory,” in the wake of deep budget cuts. “ISP is not doing more with less,” Russell told JFAC. He said both the “modest” 24-hour patrol coverage and the number of miles patrolled have been reduced.
  

No dispute this year over budget-setting for state Liquor Division…

Last year's budget-setting for the Idaho State Liquor Division was delayed a day after the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee deadlocked over a proposal to keep some state liquor stores open later hours; the proposal eventually was approved. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, dubbed the extension from a 7 p.m. closing to 9 p.m. “the gettin'-in-trouble time,” and raised concerns about the change. This morning was different; the budget for the Liquor Division for next year, which includes no state general funds and has an overall increase of 2.2 percent, passed JFAC on a unanimous 18-0 vote and there was no dispute.

Eskridge said he was pleased by the response he got from the division to his information request about the impact of the change on the Sandpoint liquor store in his area. There, the closing time was extended from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The result: The store is pulling in an estimated $25,000 more in sales.

“It's a good thing, because it's justifying their extra hours,” Eskridge said. “I wasn't convinced they were going to add that much revenue. … I thought all it would do is change people's buying habits,” prompting them to purchase their liquor later in the evenings. Eskridge said Idaho needs to be careful about expanding liquor sales hours, because the move could fuel arguments that the state ought to privatize its liquor sales; an initiative to do that is now circulating. “I'm not supportive of that, at least at this point, because of the revenue we get to the state,” he said.
  

Lawmaker questions continued state funding phase-out for Human Rights Commission

As JFAC set the budget for the state Department of Labor this morning, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, raised concerns about the continuing inclusion in that budget of a “general fund phase-out” for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, cutting state general funds to that agency by $156,600 next year for the third straight year; after four years, the commission would have no general funds. The money is being replaced with dedicated funds, including federal funds, from the Department of Labor.

“Really, to continue phasing out those general funds for a really critical agency - they protect employers,” LeFavour said. “I'm surprised to find that phaseout language in there. … I think it'd be better if we reassessed that.”

But Labor Director Roger Madsen told the joint committee that he believes the Human Rights Commission is more secure with dedicated funds than with state general funds. “We hope the Human Rights Commission does stay in our agency. We think they're a great fit with our agency, and we're committed to full funding,” he said. He acknowledged that the department's budget is stressed, but said he's protected the Human Rights Commission from cuts.

Given that assurance, LeFavour withdrew her substitute motion, which sought to reverse next year's general-fund phaseout, and a budget for Labor for next year that's close to the governor's recommendation passed unanimously on an 18-0 vote. Gov. Butch Otter called for the phase-out two years ago, when he targeted a number of agencies; the Human Rights Commission is the only one still seeing annual state funding phase-outs.
  

Testimony: ‘They go home, order it online and save 6 percent’

Shawn Barigar, president and CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, told the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning, “There is a western wear store in Twin Falls that sells saddles. And this particular retailer has people come in the store, they look at the saddle, they write down the model number, they write down the detail, they go home and they order it online and save 6 percent. That's unfair to these business folks. … This is the right thing to do. I believe this is the right time to do it.”

Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation testified against the bill, HB 581, saying, “If you want equity, the way that you do it is to lower your tax.” He said, “If you pass this bill, you're taking $35 million out of the economy. … That's good, that that money is in the economy rather than in government.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, responded, “So it appears that your position supports tax scofflaws.” Asked Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, “Are you suggesting we should change the existing law?” Hoffman said, “Yes, you should.” He said Idaho's existing sales and use tax, which is a tax imposed on consumption, is “just a mechanism to gather more money for the state.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, told Hoffman that Idaho decided 47 years ago to impose its sales and use tax. Said Hoffman, “The reason why you're doing it is because you can, and that's not a very good reason.”

Hearing opens on Internet sales tax bill…

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has opened its hearing this morning on the streamlined sales tax bill, HB 581, which would allow Idaho to tax Internet sales once Congress gives the go-ahead. Tina Wilson of Bonners Ferry was the first called to testify. “Speaking on behalf of our community, I just wanted to ask you to consider this bill and give it your support,” she told the lawmakers. “We'd like to balance the scales.” Wilson said, “You know, when you shop on the Internet and you see the box stores … you see 'free shipping' … 'exempt from sales tax' … suddenly the Internet has an advantage over the small-town, Main Street businesses.”

Idaho State Tax Commission Chairman David Langhorst told the committee that the bill would get Idaho at the table as national policy for taxing Internet sales is crafted. “We will be subject to rules and laws made by other states if we don't,” he said. “I strongly support this.” He said state estimates suggest Idaho is losing out on more than $30 million a year in sales taxes that are due by law, but not collected; people are supposed to report their Internet, catalog or other out-of-state purchases on their Idaho income tax returns and pay the sales tax then, but few do, and there's little enforcement.

And the races are on…

One hundred candidates have now filed to run for the Legislature; you can see the latest list here; it'll be updated again mid-day today and at the end of the day. Among the latest: Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, filed to run for the Senate; Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, filed for re-election, defending his seat against a challenge from his predecessor Gary Schroeder's son Barrett; and the first official race between two incumbents is on: Sens. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, and Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, will face off in the new District 23.

Parks Passport program wins unanimous Senate support, heads to governor

Legislation creating the new Idaho State Parks Passport program is on its way to the governor's desk; HB 446 has passed the Senate on a unanimous vote. The legislation will give Idahoans a chance to buy either a $10 annual pass or $20 two-year-pass to all Idaho state parks when they renew their vehicle registration. That's far less than the $40 annual passes have cost in the past (daily entry is $5), but the hope is that by widely offering the passes to all motorists at the lower price, more will sign up; the state parks system estimates that if just 20 percent of motorists buy the pass, it'll make $1.9 million a year in net revenue.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the lead Senate sponsor of the bill, said it's “a creative bill that will allow a steady funding source for the department.” Idaho's Department of Parks & Recreation has seen massive budget cuts, said Cameron, the Senate Finance chairman. If Gov. Butch Otter signs the bill into law, the new passes would be available Jan. 1, 2013.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said her constituents have been enthusiastic about the idea. “I think there'll be a huge outpouring of Idahoans who want to participate in this wonderful opportunity,” she said.

Unanimous Senate kills wolf-kill bill after sponsor’s emotional request

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, spoke emotionally to the Senate of his guard dogs being killed and torn apart by wolves. “You'll find a leg over there, the backbone over here,” he said, choking up, “just literally tear 'em to pieces.”

“I know there are some real reservations about what this bill would do, how it may threaten a re-listing, and I have to listen to that counsel,” Siddoway said with difficulty. “And with that, Mr. President, I would ask unanimous consent that 1305 be sent back to the Resources Committee.” The Senate gave its unanimous consent, then went at ease; senators are subdued and visiting quietly, and Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, spoke to Siddoway. The move means the bill is dead. You can read a full report here on the issue from Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker.

Siddoway: ‘The killing is going on and on and on’

Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, opening debate on SB 1305, the wolf-kill bill, said, “Senators, this is a bill that's caused a lot of tension. We have a serious problem in the state of Idaho with depredation.” He then yielded the remainder of opening debate to Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, a rancher and the bill's lead sponsor.

Siddoway began by disclosing his conflict of interest, under Senate rules, noting that he is a livestock operator. “This bill could have a direct impact on the profitability of our livestock operation,” he said. Siddoway told the Senate, “This really is about livestock and it's about domestic animals, it's not about wildlife.”

In the past week, comments from Congressman Mike Simpson, who wrote the legislation that got Idaho's wolves removed from the endangered species list, have suggested SB 1305 may go too far in exceeding the state's wolf management plan, possibly landing the animals back on the endangered list.

Siddoway said ranchers are suffering from wolf attacks on their livestock. “The killing is going on and on and on, on almost a daily basis,” Siddoway said. “We have literally a million cattle that are susceptible to wolves.” Another 350,000 head of sheep in Idaho also are vulnerable to wolves, he said. “I have personal knowledge about what's going on, as far as the depredation on my operation.” He reeled off a long list of names of other ranchers. “We're all susceptible to these,” Siddoway said. “All of us are telling the same story. Every one of these operations are suffering depredation from wolves.” As for government wolf-control efforts, he said, “It just ain't working.”

Senate back in, wolf bill on agenda…

The Senate has reconvened for its afternoon session, which Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis announced earlier will include SB 1305, the controversial wolf-kill bill that allows ranchers to use a variety of means, from aerial shooting to live bait, to target and shoot wolves that molest or attack their livestock. Earlier, the Senate GOP held a closed-door caucus on that same topic.

House panel passes texting ban on unanimous vote, backs amendment

Sen. Jim Hammond, in his closing comments on SB 1274, the bill to ban texting while driving, told the House Transportation Committee that he's in full support of a proposed amendment to the bill drafted by committee Vice Chair Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, to remove a law-enforcement exemption; it's not needed, he said, as the bill is only about use of hand-held electronic devices, and police and emergency workers don't use those to text on the job. “Is it a feel-good law?” Hammond asked. “If we can save the lives of some of our youths, and that feels good, then yeah, I guess this is a feel-good law.”

Among those testifying in favor of the bill today have been teens, a bicycle/pedestrian advocate, law enforcement, an insurance representative, and the lobbyist for AAA of Idaho, Dave Carlson, who told the committee that from 2008 to 2010, 192 people died in distracted-driving crashes on Idaho roads, “nearly 30 percent of all crashes.” His organization commissioned a survey that found “nearly nine in 10 Idaho voters” support a law banning texting while driving. “In this case, we believe the law can make a difference,” he said.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper, moved to send the bill to the House's amending order for the purpose of making Ellsworth's amendment. “I think we should strike that out,” he said of the law-enforcement exemption. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, speaking in favor of the motion, joked amid laughter, “This also plays into a saying that there has never been a Senate bill that wasn't improved by a House amendment.” The motion then passed on a unanimous voice vote.

Law enforcement exception in texting ban could change…

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she understands “there's going to be some changes suggested” to the texting-while-driving ban, SB 1274, in the section that exempts law enforcement. That clause in the bill says, “Except that texting by persons driving law enforcement, fire or emergency medical vehicles shall be exempt while engaging in the course and scope of their duties.” Lodge said she spoke with her local fire chief, and he already has a rule in his agency banning his workers from texting while driving.

Most of the testimony at the hearing so far has been in favor, with just two people speaking against the bill and all the rest in favor. Idaho State Police Officer Shedon Kelly, shown here testifying, said ISP is in full support of the bill and stands ready to enforce it. “The state police procedure now does not allow for officers to text while they drive or use their cell phone,” he said. They may receive information on a computer touch screen, he said. “We'd need to be able to still manipulate those.”

Hearing on texting-while-driving ban: ‘Teenagers need it spelled out’

In this afternoon's House Transportation Committee hearing on SB 1274, the bill to ban texting while driving, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the panel, “It's intentionally simple so it's easily understood by the public and by law enforcement.” The bill simply makes texting while driving an infraction, he said.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the bill's co-sponsor, said, “Current law does not adequately address driving while communicating through social media such as texting. … We write laws to address problems. Texting while driving is a problem we must face before we lose any more promising young people.”

Shauna Sauer, whose 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, died in a texting-while-driving accident on an Idaho freeway in January, said, “Please remember, remember the loss that we will endure for the rest of our lives.” Sauer said, “I keep hearing from people that it's stupid people that do this. My daughter was not stupid. She was salutatorian of her class. … We feel there needs to be a law that specifically states that texting while driving is illegal. Teenagers need it spelled out. They honestly don't feel that texting is inattentive since they are so proficient at it.”

Taylor's 11-year-old sister then gave a moving tribute to her sister and how much she misses her. Erik Makrush, lobbyist for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, was called to testify next - against the bill - and was initially at a loss for words. “We support the initiatives by multiple efforts to educate the dangers of texting while driving,” Makrush told the lawmakers. But, he said, “The bill carves out texting when other activities may be just as distracting.” He argued that eating or putting on makeup could be just as distracting to a driver as texting; he called for extensive amendments to the bill, moving instead toward a hands-free requirement.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, said there may not be time for such extensive amendments to the bill this year. Teenager Janelle DeWeerd of Meridian told the committee, “Let's be the 43rd state to ban texting while driving.” Rocky Mountain High School senior Eli Nary asked lawmakers, “How many people have to die for this to be a law?”
  

McGee resigns as Canyon GOP chairman

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: NAMPA, Idaho (AP) — Former Caldwell Senator John McGee has stepped down as chairman of the Canyon County Republican Central Committee. The decision to leave the committee post came days after McGee resigned his Senate seat amid allegations he sexually harassed a female Senate staffer. Canyon County Central Committee officials say they received McGee's resignation as chairman on Friday. A new chairman will be picked at the committee's next meeting on March 20. Meanwhile, the Idaho State Police is investigating allegations against the 39-year-old McGee. McGee resigned his Senate seat last Wednesday after Senate Republican leaders learned of the alleged misconduct. McGee did not acknowledge any wrongdoing. His troubles began last year when he pleaded guilty to drunken driving in a deal that erased accompanying auto theft charges in that case.

Revised state energy plan clears House, 56-9

The House has voted 56-9 in favor of the newly revised Idaho Energy Plan, HCR 34. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said Idaho enjoys some of the lowest electric rates in the nation, but at the same time, “Idaho's position as an importer of more than 80 percent of our energy needs leaves Idaho vulnerable to issues that are outside of our control.” The plan, he said, calls for “robust development” of a “broad range of … power generation resources,” including promoting conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable resources. Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said if the plan promotes renewables over more traditional power sources, she won't support it; she voted no.

Eskridge said, “It provides some guidance … for the legislators and others to look at as we plan our future energy policy. … For the benefit our citizens, we need a diverse energy supply at the lowest cost possible. … We have some potential within our own state borders to develop our own energy resources.” The resolution now moves to the Senate; it includes a minority report on concepts that weren't supported by the majority of the Legislature's interim energy committee, including establishment of a citizen advocate in the utility rate-setting process, which Idaho now lacks.

Who would benefit from tax cut…

The $35.7 million tax cut bill that cleared the House Rev & Tax Committee today would go only to those paying Idaho's corporate income tax, and to top earners who are paying at the highest individual income tax rate. That's because the bill lowers rates only for those in the top individual income tax bracket - those with more than $26,760 in taxable income (not gross income). For a single person who doesn't itemize and takes the standard deduction, that equates to a minimum gross income of $36,260 to start getting any tax break. For a married couple filing jointly with no dependents, it's $72,520. For a couple with two children, it's $79,920.

That's 108,397 of Idaho's 600,000-plus individual income tax returns, or 17.83 percent of filers.

Henderson’s aircraft parts bill heads to governor’s desk

HB 417, Rep. Frank Henderson's sales tax break bill for aircraft parts installed into out-of-state aircraft - which Henderson, based on his research, says will generate dozens of high-paying aircraft technician jobs around the state at Idaho businesses - has passed the Senate on a 33-0 vote and now heads to the governor's desk. The bill, which includes a five-year expiration to allow lawmakers to review its effectiveness, is the first sales tax break to clear the Senate tax committee in at least four years.

Rev & Tax passes $35.7 million tax cut bill on 13-4 vote

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has approved HB 563 on a 13-4 vote, and sent it to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.” The bill, which permanently cuts individual and corporate income taxes for top earners by $35.7 million a year, is co-sponsored by 40 of the 70 members of the House. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, told the committee, “The governor has recommended that we not collect this money, that we're collecting too much.” House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who made the motion to pass the bill, said, “It's not the $45 million that the governor proposed in his budget … but unless we move forward with putting a number and a tax bill before the Legislature, it's likely that the budget committee will basically spend everything we have.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “This proposal violates some of my principles. I don't think it's responsible to cut taxes when we can't meet the current needs,” noting a half-billion dollars in deferred maintenance on state buildings, cuts in Medicaid, lagging state employee pay, school funding and drained reserves. Rusche said the committee heard testimony that a family of four with a $60,000 income would get no benefit from the cut. “This is a tax cut for the top, when we're still having the lower income people pay sales tax on food and clothing. I don't think it's fair at all,” he said.

Just one Republican, committee Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, joined the panel's three Democrats in voting against the bill.

Commerce chief: Importance of ‘window dressing’ and sending a message…

Idaho Commerce chief Jeff Sayer, speaking in favor of HB 563, the $35.7 million tax cut to the Rev & Tax Committee this morning, said, “This legislation helps us.” He said in competing to attract businesses, “The analogy we like to use is window dressing. … One of the challenges we have is our tax rate is not competitive. … Underneath that, our effective rates are lower, but the challenge is window dressing. … We don't make the cut, because our corporate rate is higher and that sticks out.”

Sayer said. “The message this would send to the nation is significant. There are states all across the nation that are scrambling to fill deficits and to resolve their spending problems. There are companies in those states that are looking over their shoulders wondering if their tax rates are going to go up. This legislation would allow us to step forward and announce to the world that not only is Idaho financially solvent and fiscally sound, but we just reduced our taxes.”

Testimony: ‘We simply can’t afford a tax cut’

Donna Yule, executive director of the Idaho Public Employees Association, spoke against HB 563, the $35.7 million tax cut bill. “It seems to me to be the height of irresponsibility to pass any kind of tax relief or tax cut at this particular moment in Idaho's history,” she said. She decried recent cuts in everything from Idaho's Medicaid program to its ranks of state patrol officers on the road. “It seems it would be far more responsible to restore funding in many of the areas that have been cut in the past few years,” Yule said. “The Legislature has starved our state government so much in the past few years that things are getting pretty desperate. We simply can't afford a tax cut.”

Testimony: ‘Mediocrity won’t cut it’

John Watts, lobbyist for the Idaho Chamber Alliance, spoke in favor of HB 563, the $35.7 million tax cut bill. “A corporate tax cut would put Idaho in the game,” he said; Idaho's corporate tax rate currently ranks 23rd in the nation, he said, but it's higher than neighboring states. “Mediocrity won't cut it,” Watts said. “I think this is a splendid time to do this. … If we don't do this now, we may not do it, and we may not do it very soon. … We will fall behind, because our neighbors are not going to sit around and wait.”

Tax cut debate: ‘A question of priorities’

House Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told David Hensley, Gov. Butch Otter's chief of staff, “As you know and he knows, I'm a critic of this legislation, simply because in my analysis of where we're at with the state, we do not have ongoing revenues that provide the funding for an ongoing tax relief. What is your response to that?”

Hensley responded, “First and foremost, the governor's appreciative of the fact that you had a hearing on this bill. I think in addition to that, we're aware of your concerns, and I think the governor shares your concern about structural balance in the budget. … That is his goal and we are working towards that. The good news is that there is enough revenue to accommodate tax relief. … The question is one of priorities.”

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said, “This bill seems to suggest that we can throw caution to the wind. … Every study I've seen says cutting taxes in and of itself does nothing to further economic growth, even though I recognize that's a strong belief by many in this body. … The only policy that really makes a difference … is investing in higher education. … I certainly don't think giving money back in the hope that it'll somehow generate jobs is a very intelligent way to go about it.”

Rev & Tax begins debating $35.7 million tax cut bill

The House Rev & Tax Committee has taken up HB 563, the bill to cut Idaho's personal and corporate income tax rates. “It lowers taxes in the state of Idaho, it makes Idaho more competitive with its surrounding states,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the bill's lead sponsor, along with Gov. Butch Otter. “It also makes Idaho known on the map and sends th eworld a message that Idaho is open to do business. … While I don't think it's enough, I think it's a step in the right direction, and it's probably the best economic development bill we've seen all year.”

The bill would lower Idaho's top individual income tax rate from 7.8 percent to 7.4 percent, and lower the corporate tax rate from 7.6 percent to 7.4 percent; it would take $35.7 million out of the state's tax revenue stream next year. There are seven senators and 40 House members signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “This clusters the tax cut at the upper incomes. … Why does the governor think that this is the best way to serve the citizens of Idaho?” David Hensley, Otter's chief of staff, responded, “The governor believes that this is going to help businesses, small businesses, who also employ those individuals and file under the individual brackets.”

Rev & Tax, after half-hour debate, agrees to introduce IJOBS ag bill

The House Rev & Tax Committee has voted 10-5 against a motion to reject another piece of legislative Democrats' IJOBS 2.0 package, and instead voted to introduce the bill, which proposes an investment tax credit for new agricultural processing facilities. The measure was proposed by Reps. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, and Donna Pence, D-Gooding; the committee debated for half an hour before agreeing to introduce it. It can now be scheduled for a full hearing.

Budget for community colleges follows governor’s recommendation

Lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee have set a $27.7 million general-fund budget for the state's three community colleges for next year, which, like the university budget, includes a boost for expected enrollment growth next year, but nothing to cover jumps in enrollment in the last few years for which the colleges got no additional state funding. The budget matches the governor's recommendation, with the sole difference that funding for 2 percent raises is included; Gov. Butch Otter had called for separate bonuses, so his community college budget didn't include the funding for raises. That brings the bottom line to a 20.5 percent increase in general funds over this year, up from the 19 percent in Otter's budget, but nearly all the increase goes to the enrollment adjustment, $1.4 million in new building occupancy costs at CSI and CWI, and a $1 million “equity adjustment” for CWI to cover its exponential enrollment growth.

New higher ed budget funds universities just below 2006 level

A higher education budget for next year with an 8.6 percent increase in state general funds has cleared the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on a unanimous, 17-0 vote. Under the budget, higher ed funding in fiscal year 2013 would be slightly below where Idaho funded the state's colleges and universities in 2006.

Democrats on the committee proposed a slightly higher budget, funding 80 percent of eligible occupancy costs at universities, rather than the 55 percent funded in the successful motion; that came to $3.5 million in the Democratic plan, vs. $2.4 million in the approved plan, for an overall 9.2 percent increase in general funds for universities next year. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that much of the increase for universities next year goes to specific research funding and for enrollment growth, which she said, “just helps the universities pretty much maintain.” Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, commented, “Any time we don't fund occupancy costs maybe we shouldn't build a building.” But that motion failed on a 5-12 vote, with two Republicans, Patrick and Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, joining the three Democrats who were present in supporting it. The committee than voted unanimously for the original motion.

The higher education budget reflects an 8.6 percent increase in state general funds over this year, up from the governor's recommendation of 8.1 percent, but that's largely because 2 percent raises are built into the total, as they are for all state agencies for next year; Otter's proposal for 3 percent one-time bonuses was funded separately in his budget plan.

The legislative plan includes the $4 million Otter wanted for IGEM, the “Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission,” with half of that going to the Center for Advanced Energy Studies and the other half going to university research; the other $1 million for IGEM is proposed for the state Department of Commerce budget. JFAC actually funded less for new building occupancy costs than Otter called for, at $2.4 million instead of $4.8 million; Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said the idea is to fund the full amount over two years. Like the governor's recommendation, the legislative plan includes the universities' top priority: $6.6 million for an enrollment workload adjustment to cover anticipated enrollment increases next year, but not the $17 million universities wanted to cover big enrollment increases they've seen through the years of economic downturn with no compensating boost in their state budget.

JFAC gets down to details…

JFAC members were at odds this morning over a $6,900 difference in a budget proposal for the Idaho Secretary of State's office for next year, for travel funds for the four members of the Commission on Uniform Laws to attend an annual conference this year in Nashville, at which uniform codes for things like limited partnerships and limited liability corporations will be written. Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, initially proposed zero-funding the $11,900 request for the trip, which matches Gov. Butch Otter's recommendation. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, initially proposed $5,000 in funding to cover registration fees and airfare, leaving the volunteer commissioners to cover their own hotel and meals. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said, “These are volunteer people. … These four commissioners spend hours and hours reviewing and trying to make sure that our laws are somewhat competitive with others, looking at the advantages of them. I just really struggle with us not even paying their hotel. To me that's just such an injustice to them.”

So Jaquet proposed the full amount for the trip, and Mortimer seconded the motion. Bolz then proposed Jaquet's original plan, with $5,000 for the trip; he noted that the state hasn't funded the trip since 2009, and then it was only for $5,000. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, then proposed funding the full $11,900 for the trip, but reducing the $430,000 allocated for this year's election costs by $60,000, to reflect HB 391, which has passed both houses, to eliminate the presidential preference primary this year, a move that's expected to save $60,000 in election costs. “I'm splitting the baby here,” Hagedorn said. Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst was quizzed by the committee; he said if the governor signs the bill, the office won't need the $60,000.

“I think Rep. Hagedorn's math is exactly right on,” said Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise. Hagedorn's proposal then passed the joint committee on a 16-3 vote.

Next, Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, tried to slice out $125,000 in dedicated funds from the budget for the Office of the State Board of Education for a remodeling project, to remove asbestos and improve a part of the agency's office space.  “I think they've been doing fine the way they are,” Patrick, said. “I see no reason to create a nicer and better office space for the State Board when the colleges and universities are not able to do the same.” But his motion died on a 9-9 tied vote; the budget then passed 15-3 with the remodel included.

Budget-setting for higher ed is today; first off is debate on Historical Society

Budgets will be set this morning for higher education, including the state's four-year colleges and universities and its community colleges. First up, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has the budget for the Idaho State Historical Society. Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, proposed the governor's recommendation, leaving out all replacement items - including replacement of a 1996 van that now has an inoperable motor and is sitting unused. Reps. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and George Eskridge, R-Dover, offered a substitute motion to replace the van along with a five-year-old server and 22 aging computers. The total capital replacement item funding in the Jaquet/Eskridge plan comes to $69,000; the agency had requested $277,700.

“They've got the money available in federal funds, all we're doing is just spending that down,” Eskridge said. “This is pretty outdated equipment and needs to be changed.” That motion passed 17-2, with just Heider and Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, objecting. Overall, the Historical Society would see a 6.7 percent increase in general funds next year compared to this year's reduced level, 3.1 percent in total funds. “This agency has been pretty hard hit over the past few years,” Eskridge said.

Rev & Tax kills port districts bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho — House lawmakers sank a proposal to expand port districts from Idaho's rivers to the state's other transportation thoroughfares. The Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 15-3 Monday against Coeur d'Alene Sen. John Goedde's measure to allow port districts along highways, rail lines or airports. Goedde is a Republican, but won backing from only the panel's three Democrats. He'd hoped permission to erect port districts beyond the Snake River near Lewiston would create jobs and economic growth. The districts can levy taxes and use revenue to acquire land and build facilities to accommodate shipping from Idaho to the rest of the nation and world. But skeptics complained this expansion put too much taxing authority outside traditional government, with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star complaining this was “urban renewal on steroids.”

More candidates file; races shaping up include Rammell vs McMillan

At the close of business today, 73 candidates had filed to run for the state Legislature so far; you can see the full list here. Candidate filing runs through March 9. Among this afternoon's additions: Former gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell has filed to run against freshman Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, in the new District 7; and southeast Boise's District 18 will see rematches in two close races from 2010, with former Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, challenging Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise; and  Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking challenging Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise. In 2010, Toryanski beat Durst by 103 votes, and Ellsworth defeated Ward-Engelking by just nine votes. Not on today's list but announcing his candidacy today via press release is Barrett Schroeder, who says he'll seek the Senate seat in the new District 5; click below for his full announcement. He is the son of longtime Moscow GOP Sen. Gary Schroeder.

Of parking meters, ethics and disclosure…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho’s House transportation chairman, who successfully pushed a bill through the House last week to shut off parking meters around the state Capitol during legislative sessions, didn’t disclose that his 24-year-old son has gotten numerous parking tickets in the area during the session and had his car towed on the first day of this year’s legislative session. Instead, Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, told the House, “The reason I’m bringing this bill is because I had a constituent come to me.”

Palmer said today that the constituent he referred to wasn't his son; he said he heard from angry constituents concerned about parking after a hearing three years ago on a fire marshal bill. Palmer introduced his bill, HB 480, in the committee he chairs on Feb. 6, four weeks to the day after his son's car was towed. The issue comes as Idaho lawmakers struggle this year with proposed ethics reforms.

Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University and a longtime observer of Idaho's legislative process, said, “I'm not sure he had to disclose, but under the circumstances, it would probably have been better for him to have done so. It's often better, if there is any doubt, to disclose rather than not to.”

Anti-parking meter bill sponsor didn’t disclose his son’s numerous parking tickets, towed car during session

When House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer  opened debate in the House last week on his bill to shut off parking meters around the Statehouse during the legislative session, he said, “I'll just let everybody know up front that this is about parking and parking tickets, and I've had my share of parking tickets. That is not the reason I'm bringing this bill. The reason I'm bringing this bill is because I had a constituent come to me.” Asked today if that constituent was his son, Ty, who currently has three outstanding parking tickets - one last week, one the week before, and one from Jan. 20 - and whose car was towed for six outstanding unpaid Capitol-area parking tickets on the opening day of this year's legislative session, all incurred during last year's session, Palmer had a one-word answer: “No.”

“That's his problem - I'm not going to worry about him,” Palmer said of his 24-year-old son's parking ticket problems. Ty Palmer is sponsoring a bill this year to ban state agencies from making more than 10 paper copies of their annual report or strategic plan, and has testified to the House State Affairs Committee on the bill; the measure, HB 515, is currently awaiting amendments.

The elder Palmer said a hearing on a fire marshal bill three years ago was when he heard complaints from constituents about Capitol-area parking. “There were people testifying who were mad as hell,” he said.

Asked if he thought he should have mentioned his son's situation when introducing his bill in the Transportation Committee and on the floor of the House, Palmer said he thought he'd been clear enough. “You know what? There's not a bill on this floor I vote for that won't have some sort of effect on me,” he said. “We're a citizen Legislature - it's ridiculous.”

Asked about the issue, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “It is a citizen Legislature, and we all bring in our history and experiences. But in order to have people believe that when we're here, we're acting in their best interest, I think we have to be more open.” Rusche said he had no specific comment about Palmer's actions, but said, “Restoring confidence is what this whole ethics goal is,” as lawmakers examine ethics reforms this session.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “I don't think that crosses that ethical line.” He said, “He did announce that he's gotten tickets - I've gotten tickets.”

According to Boise city records obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law, Rep. Palmer was issued a parking ticket near 6th and Jefferson streets on Jan. 10, but it was voided because of a non-functioning parking meter. He hadn't had a ticket before that in more than a year.

The city of Boise tows cars for unpaid parking tickets only after a vehicle owner accumulates five or more open citations more than 30 days old, or more than $200 in parking citations over 30 days old. Palmer introduced his bill, HB 480, in the committee he chairs on Feb. 6, four weeks to the day after his son's car was towed.
  

Permanent reversal of ‘Students Come First’ teacher pay cuts clears Senate committee

The Senate Education  Committee has approved SB 1331 on a unanimous voice vote; it would halt all future cuts to state teacher salary funds now required by the “Students Come First” school reform law to fund the technology and performance-pay bonuses the law requires. The bill now moves to the full Senate.

Bill would reverse all future ‘Students Come First’ pay cuts for teachers

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is pitching SB 1331, his bill to reverse the future cuts in state teacher salary funds required by the “Students Come First” reform law, to the Senate Education Committee this afternoon. “As long as I've been here, public schools has been and I hope always will remain the highest priority to fund,” Cameron told the Senate committee. The bill has a $34.7 million fiscal impact over five years, he said; it would move the budgeting process for public schools back to how it was prior to Students Come First when it comes to funding teacher salaries. The law, passed last year, scheduled future cuts in the salary funds to pay for technology boosts and performance-pay bonuses.

Cameron's bill has 15 Senate co-sponsors, including Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, the education committee chairman. Among those testifying in favor of the bill so far: Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, who told the committee, “We highly support this,” and Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Supt. Tom Luna, who read a letter in support. Luna, in his letter, said if lawmakers are now confident they can cover the reform initiatives without salary cuts, “This is good news. This means our reform efforts can move forward with full funding.” Representatives of the Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Education Association also spoke in favor of the bill.

State species conservation chief resigns

Nate Fisher, head of Idaho's Office of Species Conservation since 2001, has resigned, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker; you can read his full post here. Barker reports that Fisher said he's had an “uphill battle lately” on endangered species issues.

Rep. Lake, House Rev & Tax chair, won’t seek re-election

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, chairman of the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, won't run for re-election, reports Clark Corbin, reporter for the Idaho Falls Post-Register. Corbin tweeted, “He will not seek re-election. Formal announcement coming today.” Lake, 74, is in his 8th term in the House; he's an agribusinessman and former school board member who holds an accounting degree from Brigham Young University. You can read his full announcement here.

Occupy Boise member: ‘A victory for our freedom of speech’

Occupy Boise member Mary Reali called today's federal court ruling - which upholds the state's new ban on camping on state property, but blocks removal of the Occupy Boise tents on 1st Amendment grounds - “a victory for our freedom of speech, for what we are aiming for.” Said Reali, who hasn't been camping overnight at the site but visits often and participates in meetings there, “One of the important functions of the vigil was to have a place for people to come. We will continue to use the vigil site for meetings and gatherings.”

Reali, a retired office manager and a member of Occupy Boise's public information working group, said there's a “certain hard-core group that have camped there,” but many Occupy participants, like her, haven't, or have stayed overnight only occasionally. “There are some people not affiliated with the Occupy movement … living there. They will have to go,” she said. She said the group has worked to  “find places for all the people that are homeless,” and been “fairly successful.” Click below for a full report from the Associated Press on today's decision and the Occupiers' reaction.

She's also distributing fliers for an upcoming event planned by Occupy Boise: A showing of the documentary “Inside Job,” narrated by Matt Damon, about the nation's financial meltdown; it's set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium. The showing is free, legislators and the public are invited, and the screening will be followed by “informal discussion.”

Candidates start filing for Legislature…

The filing period opened today for state legislative offices, and so far, 22 incumbents and two challengers, Kent Marmon of Caldwell and Doyle Beck of Idaho Falls, brother of GOP activist Rod Beck of Boise, have filed to run; the Idaho Secretary of State's office is updating its list here at noon and 5 p.m. Among those filing so far, three current House members, Reps. Bob Nonini, Cherie Buckner-Webb, and Steven Thayn, have filed to run for the Senate.

School funding measure would come at districts’ expense

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A plan to restore funding protections for school districts with enrollment declines is getting a hearing in the 2012 Idaho Legislature, though it'd be at districts' own expense. The state previously let shrinking school districts keep a one-year extension of 99 percent of the state funding that came with a departed student. But those protections were eliminated in education reforms approved last year. Public schools chief Tom Luna argued Idaho shouldn't give schools money for “ghost students” a year after they left their classrooms. But lawmakers late in the 2011 session restored a bulk of those funding protections, at 97 percent, for one year. That's costing the state roughly $2 million. Legislation introduced Monday would maintain the 97 percent provision but shift the cost to districts, forcing each to give up a portion of their per-student funding.

House approves lifting all caps on new charter school creation

The House has voted 49-19 in favor of HB 481, Rep. Bob Nonini's bill to lift the cap on the number of new charter schools that can be created each year. The bill would lift both the six-per-year statewide cap, and the one-per-school-district cap. Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, and co-sponsor Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said Idaho can't tap into federal and private foundation grant funds because its current caps make the state appear unfriendly to charter school development. “There is a need for more charter schools,” Nonini told the House.

The bill was opposed in committee by the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators, who warned that it could have a serious impact on school district funding. Nonini said, “These schools are doing good things for students.” The bill now moves to the Senate side. After the vote, the House recessed until 1:15 p.m., House Democrats announced that they'll head into a closed-door caucus; and Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, announced that the House Ways & Means Committee will meet tomorrow at 8:40 a.m.

Winder on pre-abortion ultrasound law: ‘There’s no harm done’

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today's introduction in Idaho of legislation to require an ultrasound before any Idaho woman could have an abortion; similar legislation caused a brouhaha before being withdrawn in Virginia last week because of the prospect that an invasive procedure would be used in order to get a clear picture of the fetus when conducting ultrasounds on women whose pregnancies are at very early stages, prior to six to eight weeks gestation. Idaho's legislation would let patients and doctors choose which procedure to use; Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, said if the woman and doctor opt for the non-invasive procedure and it provides no clear picture, “Then there's no harm done.”

Otter says he’ll follow judge’s order on Occupy Boise site

Asked Gov. Butch Otter's reaction to today's ruling on the Occupy Boise encampment, Jon Hanian, press secretary for Otter, said, “We just received it about an hour and a half ago. … Obviously we're going to follow the law and the judge's order.”

The governor had issued an order that the encampment site, across from the state Capitol, be vacated by 5 p.m. today. U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill, in a decision released today, ordered the state to hold off until Friday before seizing any property, such as cooking equipment, and also blocked the state from removing the tents from the site - even while banning camping there - because the “symbolic tent city” is a protest projected by the 1st Amendment.

Otter’s IGEM initiative passes House, 63-2

Gov. Butch Otter's IGEM initiative, a $5 million push to speed commercialization of university research into commercial products, has passed the House on a 63-2 vote, with just Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, and Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, objecting. The bill, HB 546, now moves to a Senate committee. It would direct $1 million toward grants for startup businesses or technologies, $2 million to the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, and $2 million to the state's public universities for research.

Right-to-hunt measure passes Senate

The Senate has voted unanimously, 34-0, in favor of SJR 106, which would amend the state Constitution to add a right to hunt, fish and trap. To amend the constitution, the measure must pass both houses by a two-thirds margin and then receive majority approval from voters at the next general election. The measure, sponsored by freshman Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, has been through numerous iterations; three previous versions, SJR 103, 104 and 105, were introduced and then abandoned as the wording was repeatedly refined. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said he was hopeful that this version will avoid creating unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, the Senate has delayed consideration of SB 1305, the controversial bill allowing ranchers to shoot wolves aerially and by a series of other means, to Thursday.

Judge orders state to hold off ‘til Friday before seizing anything at Occupy site

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill wrote in his Occupy Boise decision today, “The Court directs the state to delay until March 2, 2012, the seizure of any personal belongings at the encampment to give all parties a chance to read, understand and comply with this decision.” The judge ruled that the state can't require removal of the symbolic tent city, but can ban sleeping, camping, or storing camping-related personal property - including cooking and fire-building materials - at the site. The state had planned to evict all tents from the site at 5 p.m. today.

Judge: State removal of Occupy Boise tents ‘invalid under the 1st Amendment’

“Occupy Boise's tent city is a political protest of income inequality,” writes U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in his decision today, which blocks the state from removing tents on the site on 1st Amendment grounds, but upholds the state's new ban on camping there. “Once a state law, or the state's enforcement of that law, targets certain speech for restriction because of its content - especially when the target is political speech in a public forum - the law is presumptively unconstitutional.” He found that the new state law “only prohibits 'sleeping' and 'camping' on state grounds and does not purport to ban the maintenance of a symbolic tent city which could be staffed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Yet Gov. Otter's letter announcing his signing of the legislation appears to require the removal of all tents, and that appears to be how the State Police are interpreting the law. Such action is simply not authorized by the statute.”

Added the judge, “Because the reach of the State's enforcement may exceed the grasp of the statute, this creates the appearance that the state is stretching to suppress the core political message of Occupy Boise - its tents - as presented in a public forum. These circumstances render the State's enforcement policy of removing Occupy Boise's tents presumptively invalid under the 1st Amendment.”

In describing Otter's eviction order for Occupy Boise, Winmill wrote, “Governor Otter's edict, and the stated intention of the State Police, is to remove Occupy Boise entirely - tents and all. … This creates the appearance that the State is stretching to shut down a political message - a tent city - presented in a public forum.”

Judge on Occupy Boise: No camping, but symbolic tent city can stay…

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill's ruling is out, and he's granted the Occupy Boise motion in part, and denied it in part. What that means: The state would be enjoined from removing “the symbolic tent city erected by Occupy Boise,” but Occupy Boise participants would be banned from “camping, sleeping or storing camping-related personal property at the site.” You can read the judge's full ruling here.

Winder on pre-abortion ultrasound: ‘We feel that the state does have a right’

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, said the original version of his pre-abortion ultrasound bill specifically mentioned the use of a wand inserted into the patient's vagina, the method by which very early-term ultrasounds before six to eight weeks of gestation, must be conducted in order to show a clear picture of the fetus, but he removed that from the bill. “It didn't require it, but in my opinion it was confusing … so we took it out,” Winder said.

The bill, as introduced this morning, now says, “The physician who is to perform the abortion or a qualified technician shall perform an obstetric ultrasound on the pregnant patient, using whichever method the physician and patient agree is best under the circumstances.” Winder said if the woman and doctor opt for the non-invasive procedure and it provides no clear picture, “Then there's no harm done.”

Winder said while he's not aware of any idaho state law requiring any other medical procedure be performed without the patient's consent, “I think it's an appropriate thing in this case to do, because you're trying to determine the developmental stage of the fetus. … We feel that the state does have a right to look after that unborn child.”

Abortion ultrasound bill introduced on party-line vote

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted on party lines to introduce legislation requiring any Idaho woman who has an abortion to first have an ultrasound. “Because ultrasound is a key element of informed consent, it should be required that a woman have that before she has an abortion upon her,” Kerry Uhlenkott, legislative director of Right to Life of Idaho, told the senators. “Information empowers a women to make true, informed decisions.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, immediately moved to introduce the bill, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, seconded the motion; Sens. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, then asked Uhlenkott questions about the bill. “We were just presented an RS that someone should not be required to pay for a medical procedure or be part of a system that is against their conscience. I guess my question is, this is requiring an invasive procedure to be done possibly against someone's wishes as part of a medical process. Do you see any contradiction in requiring someone to have a procedure like this?” Uhlenkott responded, “No, the informed consent is vital for a woman, ultrasound is vital for a women to have, before she makes her decision on to have an abortion or not.”

Uhlenkott said the bill “would require that an ultrasound be performed on a pregnant woman … by whichever method the abortion provider and the pregnant woman decide upon.”
  

Sen. Nuxoll calls contraceptive coverage rule ‘greatest attack on our rights since Roe v. Wade’

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, proposed a non-binding memorial to Congress this morning opposing federal requirements that health insurance cover contraception or sterilization. “This is the greatest attack on our rights since Roe vs. Wade in 1973 condoning the abortion of the unborn child,” she told the Senate State Affairs Committee. “It's an attack on our right to religious freedom. … This is not a contraception issue, this is a conscience issue. … Most faiths are taking a stand.” She called the Obama administration's “so-called compromise” on the issue “utterly deceptive” and “an accounting gimmick.” Nuxoll said she thought the Obama administration's rule would “cause the closing of many schools and hospitals throughout the nation.”

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, asked Nuxoll numerous questions about her proposal. Among them: “If we start crafting or creating plans that cover a specific belief system, say under an employer, wouldn't that impede or go over the top of someone else's conscience or belief system that doesn't believe the same way?” Nuxoll responded, “I should have the right to buy insurance that does not cover contraception, sterilization, etc., you should have the right to buy insurance that does cover if you so wish.”

The committee agreed on a divided voice vote to introduce the measure; another memorial on the topic from Rep. Carlos Bilabo, R-Emmett, already has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

JFAC nixes extra travel money for Office of Species Conservation

An effort by Sen. Lee Heider and Rep. Jim Patrick, both Twin Falls Republicans, to insert an extra $25,000 in state general funds into the budget for the Office of Species Conservation for next year for travel related to meetings about heading off potential listing of sage grouse as endangered has been defeated in JFAC on a 13-6 vote. Opponents noted that the agency didn't request the money, and has a large amount of federal funds for the sage grouse effort already in its budget. Patrick said, “It is a lot of travel, but there's a lot of sage grouse, and if we can keep 'em from being listed on the endangered species list, it's well worth it.” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “They didn't indicate the need for the travel money. I think the $25,000 is probably an overstatement of the need.”

Fish & Game budget set on 16-3 vote

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has set a budget for Idaho Fish & Game for next year that appears to show a 20.5 percent increase in total funds, but that's largely because of a $13 million federal grant to construct the Springfield Fish Hatchery. Aside from that, it's closer to a 4.3 percent increase; Fish & Game gets no state general funds, operating instead solely with hunting and fishing license and tag fees, other receipts and federal funds. The budget plan, following Gov. Butch Otter's proposal, includes a $100,000 increase in wolf control funds, but doesn't include the department's requests for $300,000 to improve sport fishing access next year or $642,400 to boost regional fisheries programs. The proposal, from Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, passed in the joint committee on a 16-3 vote.

Fish & Game is seeing declining revenues from licenses, but is planning to draw on reserves for next year rather than seek a fee increase; however, a future increase request is likely.

On a 9-10 vote, JFAC defeated “intent language” proposed by Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, to add a clause to the budget declaring that “local units of government have not been given fair consideration from the Department of Fish & Game regarding implementation of the wolf conservation and management plan,” and ordering that consultation occur, though that's already required by state law. Several JFAC members said that kind of policy statement seemed inappropriate to include in intent language for a budget bill.

Controversial anti-abortion bill that could require invasive procedure up for introduction in Idaho

Legislation that caused a brouhaha before being withdrawn Virginia is up for introduction in Idaho this morning, requiring an ultrasound before an Idaho woman could have an abortion; the issue is that at very early stages of pregnancy, a regular abdominal ultrasound doesn't provide a clear picture of the fetus, only an invasive transvaginal ultrasound, which requires insertion of a wand into the patient's vagina, does. In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell and GOP lawmakers abandoned the bill last week after an outcry and national ridicule on TV programs like the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live; McDonnell said, “Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state,” the AP reported. An amended bill is now pending in that state.

The Idaho bill, sponsored by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder and Right to Life of Idaho, doesn't specifically mention the invasive procedure, according to Kerry Uhlenkott of Right to Life of Idaho. “The language is a little different,” she said, comparing the Idaho bill to the Virginia one. Winder said, “We took that out.” Julie Lynde of the Cornerstone Family Institute, another backer of the bill, said, “It just requires an ultrasound,” with the provider and patient determining the procedure. “That's up to the abortion provider to decide that,” she said.

In Virginia, the AP reported that a female lawmaker called the proposal “state-mandated rape.”

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports,” I join Jim Weatherby and host Greg Hahn to discuss the legislative developments of the week, from Sen. John McGee's abrupt resignation to legislative retirements to fees and tax breaks. The program also includes Hahn's interviews with Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, and Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, about ethics; with Reps. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, on the state budget and state employee pay; a report on state employee salary needs at the DEQ and ITD; an interview with new state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer; and more.

The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television; it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time, 10 a.m. Pacific; and will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 6 p.m. After it airs, “Idaho Reports” also can be viewed online at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.
  

Judge Winmill to rule Monday on Occupy Boise eviction challenge

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill, who held a hearing this afternoon on a motion to block a new law that would evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol, told attorneys for both sides that he'll issue his ruling on Monday. The state has ordered the Occupy group to vacate the site by 5 p.m. on Monday. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Alex Morrell.

Ways & Means introduces new version of VINE fee bill

Legislation to impose a $10 fee on all criminal convictions, traffic citations and the like to fund the “Victim Information Notification Everyday” or VINE system, which notifies crime victims of changes in the offender's status or case, already passed the Senate 30-5 and cleared a House committee unanimously. But today a new version of the earlier SB 1263 was introduced in the House Ways & Means Committee. “It is identical in every way,” said Mike Kane, lobbyist for the Idaho Sheriff's Association. The reason: An Attorney General's opinion found that because the measure raises revenue, it should have started in the House.

Today's quick meeting of Ways & Means was the leadership panel's first meeting this legislative session; it generally meets when legislative leaders want to do something quickly. The panel voted unanimously to introduce the new version of the VINE bill. It also introduced a new measure from Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, to impose a one-year, $10 fee on vehicle title transfers to shore up the deteriorating ILETS system, which 3,000 law-enforcement officers use daily to run checks on people they're pulling over.

Race shaping up for open Senate seat in District 15: Betty Richardson, Fred Martin

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Former U.S. Attorney and Democratic activist Betty Richardson says she's running for a seat in the Idaho Senate. Richardson announced Friday that she would run in West Boise's newly redrawn District 15. Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter are co-chairing her campaign. Richardson was appointed by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Attorney for Idaho and served from 1993 to 2001. She was named attorney/advisory in the executive office for US Attorneys in Washington D.C. last year. Satellite TV business owner Fred S. Martin has already said he's running for the same seat as a Republican. Martin's business operates in Idaho, Oregon, California, Texas and Arizona. Martin was an aide to former U.S. Rep. George Hansen.

Rep. Block won’t seek another term

Six-term state Rep. Sharon Block , R-Twin Falls, has decided not to seek re-election, the Twin Falls Times-News reports; you can see their story here. Block is the current chair of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee.

House passes bill to do away with little-known tax on free wine sips at tastings

The House has voted 64-0 in favor of HB 489, to do away with a little-known tax on free sips of wine or other beverages handed out at free tastings. “Wineries did not know that use taxes applied to free tastings,” Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, told the House. So they were surprised last August to receive a letter from the Idaho State Tax Commission, telling them go through their records going back three years, to see how much they'd given away in free product at wine-tastings, and pay sales and use tax on that amount.

The industry, the Tax Commission and state authorities met in recent months and determined that enforcing the little-known law would cost more than it would collect, and worked together on HB 489 to get rid of it. The bill applies to all beverages given out at free tastings, from winery tasting rooms to farmer's market free samples of apple cider. The bill now moves to a Senate committee.

Senate passes big-game auction tags bill on 17-16 vote

The Senate has voted 17-16 in favor of SB 1256, legislation from Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, and Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, to establish new “Governor's big game auction tags” and auction them off to raise money for Fish & Game programs. The Idaho Fish & Game Commission voted narrowly to oppose the bill; opponents in the Senate said it raised troubling questions about who gets opportunities to hunt for Idaho's state-owned wildlife. The bill would allow one moose tag, up to three deer, elk or antelope tags, one wild sheep and one mountain goat tag per year, taken from the nonresident tag pool; the program would raise an estimated $200,000 a year for Fish & Game. After the initial roll call in the Senate, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, changed his vote from no to yes. The bill now moves to a House committee.

Half of Idaho schoolkids now qualify for free or reduced-price lunch

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — State education officials say one out of every two Idaho students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches in 2011. The Post Register reports (http://bit.ly/w9ntlt ) that 50 percent of students were eligible to receive subsidized school meals last year. That's up from 2008, when 37 percent qualified for meals through the federal nutrition program. Idaho's child nutrition programs director Colleen Fillmore blamed the increase on the recession and the economy's fragile recovery, saying more families need financial help than in previous years. A spike in Idaho families getting federal help to buy groceries also played a role. Students in families receiving food stamps automatically qualify for the federal lunch program. Food stamp recipients hit a record benchmark in Idaho last year, with 235,000 people receiving the federal aid in November.

Moyle bill would cut local government budgets to make up for state-granted tax breaks

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, introduced legislation this morning to cut the budgets of local taxing districts whenever anyone gets a big new property tax exemption - like the big one lawmakers granted to Micron Technology several years ago when they capped its taxable value; that exemption is now shifting $2.5 million a year in taxes to other taxpayers in the county as a result. “So we're trying to figure out how not to make that shift happen,” Moyle told the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. He said his bill also would cut local taxing districts' budgets when, say, a church buys property and builds a tax-exempt church, or a non-profit hospital buys a for-profit clinic property, or a highway district buys property for a public road.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said, “I think I understand what your bill does, but I don't understand why it does it.” Killen said if, for example, a big Boise hospital buys a nearby private clinic, “Police, fire, everything else has to continue to service that property. … You're going to reduce the budgets of those responsible jurisdictions. They have the same level of service they have to provide, but now they have fewer dollars to provide it. Why is that a good idea?”

Moyle said, “I think it's a fundamental question we need to discuss - is it fair to shift that tax burden for a church or for a Micron or for a hospital or for a highway district to other taxpayers? … I firmly believe it's not fair, as we look at the property taxes and the way the property taxes are going up, that we keep shifting the burden on those who are paying more property taxes.”

Moyle said his bill could be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011, to reverse the Micron tax shift in Ada County, or it could take effect in 2012; that way, the total estimated statewide cuts to local government budgets would be $1.6 million a year, rather than $4.1 million. Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, moved to introduce the bill, and her motion passed on a divided voice vote.

Sen. LeFavour won’t run for re-election

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, has decided not to run for another term, after serving two terms in the Senate and two in the House. “The job that I've had, I think, often is just speaking up for those who are about to lose, the side that's going to go down,” she said. “I think your heart can only take that for so long.”

LeFavour, 48, a teacher and a writer, is the Legislature's only open gay member. She's been an outspoken advocate of legislation to expand the Idaho Human Rights Act to cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; that legislation has seen growing support, but lawmakers have never granted it a hearing.
 She serves on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

She said, “My biggest worry is letting a lot of people down.” Click below to read her full announcement.

Attorney General gets small budget boost to refill 2 of 19 vacant attorney slots, halt furloughs

JFAC has set a budget for the Idaho Attorney General's office for next year that reflects a 5.8 percent increase in state general funds and fully funds Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's $400,000 request to refill two vacant attorney positions and head off unpaid furloughs for the coming year. The budget makes some small trims elsewhere, however, and would still leave the office with 23 vacant positions, including 17 for lawyers.

“I'm hoping with this budget that we can help the Attorney General's office, because they do tremendous work,” said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello. Added Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, “I wish this was better. Maybe next year.”

Wasden's budget has been cut by nearly $2.4 million since 2009; the budget approved for next year is $16.5 million in state general funds, a 5.8 percent increase, and $18.7 million in total funds, which overall comes to a 4.4 percent increase. The joint committee also voted unanimously for a maintenance-level budget for the Office of the State Appellate Public Defender for next year.

More budgets set, Youth Challenge funding not yet addressed…

Budgets for the offices of the governor and the lieutenant were quickly approved by JFAC this morning on unanimous, 20-0 votes; neither contains any new line items, and the only increases are for the 2 percent raises for state employees and statutorily required increases in the two elected officials' salaries.

The joint committee also voted unanimously for a budget for the Military Division for next year that doesn't include $1.25 million requested for the Youth Challenge program, which would set up a school in north-central Idaho. “The intent here is not to just say no to the Youth Challenge program,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. “We had a meeting late yesterday afternoon, and there was some new information that came in. I feel uncomfortable at this point in time … not really knowing enough about how the program is going to move forward.” Bolz said his proposal would fund the division and leave for now the issue of funding the Youth Challenge, with the idea that it could be addressed later either with a trailer bill or reopening the budget. Gov. Butch Otter recommended earlier this month that the program be funded from excess funds in the Division of Veterans Services.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I really like the idea of the Youth Challenge program, but I'd really like to see maybe just a one- or two-page summary that would help me understand where we are today.” Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, agreed. “We've got to get a little better vision … on this program,” he said.

At the close of the meeting, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, warned committee members, “The budgets will be increasing now in difficulty. We start Monday with Fish & Game.”

Little breaks tie, sends bill ending May presidential primary to governor

Lt. Gov. Brad Little had to break a 16-16 tie in the Senate this evening, as senators deadlocked over HB  391, which removes the presidential preference primary from Idaho's May primary election ballot. Both parties are now using caucuses to select their presidential convention delegates, so the primary no longer served any purpose, and removing it will save the state $60,000. Little voted yes, so the bill passed.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate he planned to “cast a little protest 'no' vote,” saying, “I understand the bill probably needs to pass. I respect that each of our parties have the right to have a caucus.” He said he scoffed at the notion that a Super Tuesday caucus would get GOP presidential candidates to come to Idaho, but was proven wrong, to his delight. But, he said, “I am not a fan of any process that is exclusionary by its actual application, and in my opinion, the caucus does it.” People like his parents, who have a church assignment on Tuesday nights, won't be able to attend, Davis said; nor will deployed military members who are overseas, senior citizens who aren't up to participating in an hours-long caucus in the evening, and others.

“I also realize that frankly it needs to pass, and so I need 18 of you to vote for it,” Davis told the Senate. “I just don't want to be one of them.”

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, also spoke out against the bill. Even though Democrats long have selected their delegates through a caucus, she said the “beauty-contest” vote during the primary helped show if the caucus was a good representation of the party's desires. Plus, she said, “One of my concerns beyond that is how does that affect turnout in the primary election that's just about to be closed?”

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, the bill's Senate sponsor, said, “It just doesn't make sense to print names on a  primary ballot when it doesn't mean anything.” The bill, which earlier passed the House on a 56-12 vote, now heads to the governor's desk.

Rep. Harwood won’t seek re-election

Six-term Idaho Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, has decided to end his 12-year legislative career after this year. “I'm not going to run,” Harwood said Thursday. “My wife's family's not doing well. … She needs me to be there.” After 12 years in the Legislature, Harwood says he's most proud of his work to push back against the federal government, including his failed bill this year to kick the EPA out of Idaho. “My whole goal has been to push back from the federal government,” Harwood said. “Just having someone here to try to push back and say, 'Hey, we have sovereignty as a state,' and try to keep the federal government from running over the top of us. That's been my goal.” He said his only regret is that he wasn't able to do more on that score; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

With Harwood stepping down and Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, deciding to run for Latah County commissioner instead of seeking a ninth term in the Legislature, a new North Idaho legislative district that will take in all of Latah and Benewah counties has dropped from containing three House incumbents to just one, so it now will have an open House seat. Harwood said, “I've got a gentleman that's going to run that I'm going to support,” Ken Devries of St. Maries. The candidate filing period for the Idaho Legislature opens on Monday.
  

House panel kills bill to zero-fund state employee raises, endorses JFAC plan

The House Commerce & Human Resources Committee voted this afternoon to kill HCR 41, which would have zero-funded state employee raises next year, and passed HCR 40, setting raises at 2 percent; the committee voted to send the measure to the House's amending order for amendments to alter the wording to give 2 percent raises to all performing state employees, matching the plan already approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last week.

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls. who drafted the two measures and co-sponsored them with all four members of House GOP leadership, said, “The end result was that it mirrors JFAC. … I'm fully in support of that. … We got good discussion from the members. It was exactly what you want a policy committee to do.”

Four state employees or state employee representatives testified to the committee, all supporting the change to HCR 40 to remove a clause making the 2 percent boost a merit-based raise that would vary. Hartgen said, “I got quite a few emails on this topic.”

ISP investigating whether McGee violated any criminal laws

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has reviewed the sexual harassment allegations against former Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, and handed the case over to the Idaho State Police. “He determined it was appropriate to provide to ISP,” said Attorney General's office spokesman Bob Cooper, who said Wasden met with ISP Director Col. Jerry Russell yesterday afternoon to hand over the case.

Asked the status of the matter at ISP, Russell said today, “ISP is currently conducting a preliminary investigation to determine if any criminal laws have been violated.”

McGee, 39, resigned from the Senate yesterday amid allegations of sexual harassment involving a female Senate staffer; he was the Senate Majority Caucus chairman, the fourth-highest leadership position in the Senate, and was a fourth-term Republican senator and former Transportation Committee chairman.

House backs Bilbao memorial on contraceptive coverage, 53-15

The Idaho House has voted 53-15 in favor of HJM 10, Rep. Carlos Bilabo's non-binding memorial to Congress backing legislation to allow employers to exclude contraceptive coverage from the health coverage they offer their employees. “If you want to go and lend yourselves to buying birth control or contraceptions or whatever, that's your right, you go do it,” Bilbao told the House. “Just don't make me pay for it. And that's what this resolution is about. Don't make people pay for something they don't believe in.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who spoke against the measure, said she might not support a war, but that doesn't give her the right to withhold her federal taxes. Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, said, “Religious liberty does not come with the right to impose one's faith on others. The contraceptive coverage provision serves the nation's interest in gender equality … and religious freedom by making contraception accessible, affordable, and therefore allowing women using their own conscience to choose for themselves whether, when, and how to use birth control.”

Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, a supporter of the measure, told the House, “I believe that women have the right to go out now and get the contraceptives that they need from free clinics and things like that, so why do employers have to provide it?” All House Democrats opposed the measure; all House Republicans supported it except Reps. Leon Smith of Twin Falls and Tom Trail of Moscow. The memorial now moves to the Senate side.

Both parties head into closed-door caucuses in the House

Both the Republican and Democratic caucuses of the House are headed into closed-door caucuses, as they adjourn their afternoon session; that means House committee hearings that were scheduled for 1:30 today will be pushed back further (it's already almost 2 p.m. Boise time). House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, estimated his party's caucus would last about half an hour.

House passes property tax break for developers

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Land developers could see a tax break on improvements to their properties that remain idle, under a measure that cleared the Idaho House. Rep. Steve Hartgen's measure passed the chamber on a wide 57-12 margin on Thursday. Republicans backed sending the measure to the Senate, while Democrats were against it. Under the bill, when a developer adds improvements like roads, the resulting increase in value would be exempt from taxation until building begins or the developer sells the property. It includes provisions preventing any reduction in the taxable value of the property from shifting to other taxpayers. Hartgen, a Twin Falls Republican, hopes this will spur development — and protect developers whose projects have been delayed by the residential housing downturn from being taxed out of existence.

How they voted…

Here's how Idaho House members voted on HB 480, the bill to shut off parking meters around the Capitol during the legislative session, which passed 41-27:

Voting in favor: Reps. Anderson, Andrus, Barrett, Bateman, Batt, Bayer, Bedke, Bell, Bilbao, Block, Bolz, Boyle, Collins, Crane, Denney, Ellsworth, Eskridge, Gibbs, Guthrie, Hagedorn, Loertscher, McMillan, Moyle, Nesset, Nielsen, Palmer, Perry, Raybould, Roberts, Schaefer, Shepherd, Shirley, Simpson, Sims, Stevenson, Thayn, Thompson, Vander Woude, Wills, Wood(27), Wood(35).

Voting against: Reps. Barbieri, Black, Buckner-Webb, Burgoyne, Chadderdon, Chew, Cronin, DeMordaunt, Hart, Hartgen, Harwood, Higgins, Jaquet, Killen, King, Lacey, Lake, Luker, Marriott, McGeachin, Patrick, Pence, Ringo, Rusche, Smith(30), Smith(24), Trail.
  

Idaho House votes 41-27 to shut off parking meters around the Capitol

The Idaho House has voted 41-27 in favor of HB 480, the bill from House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer to turn off all parking meters around the Capitol during the legislative session, despite warnings from House members from Boise that it won't work. “I don't think there is a prayer, if these parking meters are hooded during the time we are in the session, that anyone who doesn't arrive in downtown Boise by 7 a.m. is going to get a parking spot around the Capitol building,” said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, whose district includes the state Capitol, said, “There are tens of thousands of people that come downtown every day to work, and parking … is at a premium. What will happen inevitably is that people will show up, people who work in offices downtown, and they will get here very early, and they will park in those spots … and that's where their cars will remain for the entire day.”

Palmer, R-Meridian, told the House, “This is not a perfect bill. There is reasons to be against this bill. But I think it is a starting point.” He said if the law is enacted and it doesn't work out, “It's easy to repeal this” in a subsequent legislative session. Palmer said he's “had my share” of parking tickets, but that's not why he brought the bill; it's because a constituent complained to him after sitting for four hours in a legislative hearing only to not get to testify, then ended up with a parking ticket too at an expired two-hour parking meter. “We've had frustrated people here this year across the street telling us that they don't have access to us and they want to know how they can get better access to us,” Palmer said. “There is that problem of parking which I hear over and over.”
  

Animal cruelty bill passes Senate, 31-1

The Senate has voted 31-1 in favor of SB 1303, the animal cruelty felony bill proposed by Idaho's livestock industry. “It seems to be a bill not to like,” said sponsor Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson. “On the one hand, many who think we should do nothing will not have to defend against a possible initiative. On the other hand, those who oppose the bill because it does not go far enough” may not be satisfied, he said. “This bill strikes a balance that will provide the livestock industry with needed protection,” he said, without going to “extremes.” The bill would make a third-time offense of the worst form of animal cruelty a felony; any agricultural practice would be exempt. It's intended, in part, to siphon the steam from a voter initiative that would go further, making first-time animal torture a felony and escalating penalties from there.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, “It is supported by the Idaho Humane Society, so I do urge your yes vote.”

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, cast the only Senate vote against the bill. “You know, fellow senators, this is an interesting piece of legislation,” he said. “It's like trying to decide which way to fall out of a tree.” Idaho is one of just three states with no felony animal cruelty penalties. “This is a compliment to Idaho - we have never addressed this really before because we don't have a problem,” Pearce said. “Other states have had this problem for a long time, and for us to not have addressed it is simply a compliment to Idaho.”

Public memorial for Steve Appleton begins; it’s streamling live online

This morning's public memorial service for the late Micron CEO Steve Appleton has begun at Taco Bell Arena; you can watch live here or here, courtesy of TV stations KTVB-7 and KBOI2.

On 9-8 vote, House State Affairs introduces 3-foot-to-pass-bikes bill

The House State Affairs Committee has voted 9-8 to introduce legislation to require motorists to stay 3 feet away from bicyclists as they pass them on the road, and also requires bicyclists to ride single-file and stay as far to the right as possible safely, and to get off the road and let vehicles pass if they're slowing down three vehicles who can't pass them with the 3-foot distance. Rep. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, who proposed the bill, said, “More and more people are on rural roads as they walk, as they jog or ride bicycles. … There is a real danger when automobiles come too close to non-motorized modes of transportation.” The bill would cover pedestrians, joggers, wheelchairs and horses.

Several committee members raised objections. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “The bicyclists and the runners, they don't have much regard for the hazards either. … They've gotta have some responsibility.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “I think having a set 3-foot distance is just not manageable. … I've actually had bicyclists move in front of me to block me from getting around, and then I have to go 3 feet farther? And not all bicyclists are that way, but there are aggressive bicyclists out there.”

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I think we do need to do a little bit more to protect cyclists, and I can speak from experience, riding out in the country many, many times I had cars go by me so close that I could literally feel their side mirror just right by my head as they went by me at 50 mph.” Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, said, “I think there's a shared responsibility for all those that are operating on the road, and … this is an opportunity to get us started at least with a discussion.”

Here's the close vote to introduce the bill, which clears the way for a full hearing: Voting in favor were Reps. Black, Andrus, Simpson, Guthrie, McGeachin, Elaine Smith, King, Higgins and Buckner-Webb. Voting against were Reps. Loertscher, Crane, Stevenson, Bilbao, Luker, Palmer, Sims and Batt.

A blue-sky morning…

Framed through a third-floor window of the state Capitol, it's a blue-sky morning; the tiny white decorative lightbulbs inside the rotunda are reflected in the window against the sky…

Dept. of Insurance budget set without health exchange grant

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has approved a budget for the state Department of Insurance for next year that leaves out a $20 million-plus federal grant to plan for a state-run health insurance exchange. “There's no mention of anything like that in there,” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, told her fellow JFAC members at an early-morning workshop before this morning's vote, joking that they can stop looking for it. The Department of Insurance budget for next year includes no state general funds; it totals $8.2 million in federal and dedicated funds, a 1.9 percent increase from this year.

Jaquet said later that she was just joking with other JFAC members. She said it “wouldn't be appropriate” to include that in the budget until the germane committees, the governor and the legislative leadership figure out where they're headed on the issue.

Otter names Kempton to ITD board

Former state Rep. Jim Kempton, R-Albion, has been named to the Idaho Transportation Board by Gov. Butch Otter, to replace Gary Blick as the Region 4 member on the board. Click below for Otter's full announcement.

Statesman: Wolf-kill bill could backfire on Idaho

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, who authored the federal legislation that removed Idaho wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act, is worried that a wolf-kill bill approved by a Senate committee yesterday goes beyond the wolf management plan Idaho approved in 2002 - and could give a federal judge a reason to return Idaho wolves to the endangered list, the Idaho Statesman reports today.  The measure, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, a sheep rancher, would let let livestock owners whose animals are molested by wolves shoot the wolves from motorized vehicles, powered parachutes, helicopters or fixed-wing planes, by night or day, using rifles, pistols, shotguns, or crossbows, night scopes, electronic calls, and traps with live bait. “I think you have to give the state management plan time to work,” Simpson told Statesman reporter Rocky Barker; you can read his full report here.

Bell: ‘When the wheels fall off, I feel somebody’s responsible, and it’s us’

Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation for next year calls for zero funding for capital replacement items, but lawmakers are concerned that some equipment replacement needs are too critical to continue to overlook. “I worry about this infrastructure,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I feel responsible for letting everything fall apart.”

Examples: Roofs and HVAC systems need replacing at state ag research stations where researchers are working on seeds.  Idaho Public TV workers must climb a 350-foot tower on an 8,000-foot mountaintop every year to replace a special lightbulb, because the agency can't afford to switch to a longer-lasting fluorescent bulb that would last 10 years because of the replacement cost. The Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind needs a school bus with a wheelchair lift that'll cost $65,000. None of those were included in the governor's proposed budget.

Bell and other JFAC members, led by both the joint committees co-chairs and vice-chairs, have been  working on a plan to address a limited number of capital replacement items in next year's budget, though far less than agencies say are needed. Bell said the target is no more than $5 million statewide, in all agencies. As a result, budgets set by the joint committee this morning for  Agricultural Research and Extension, Idaho Public Television and Professional-Technical Education all included small amounts to replace the most critical items - including the tower light bulbs for IPTV.

“We have really kept them so short on maintenance and equipment,” Bell said. “When the wheels fall off, I feel somebody's responsible, and it's us.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think we're at the duct tape and baling wire stage on many of those replacement items. I think we need to put that right up at the top of our priorities.”

IPTV's critical replacement item list totaled $1.5 million; JFAC approved $189,600. Ag Research and Extension identified more than $1 million in needs; it got $325,000. In the Professional-Technical Education budget, the state's six technical colleges will get $65,000 each to replace instructional equipment. All three votes were unanimous, 20-0. The request for the school bus for the School for the Deaf and Blind won't come up until the public school budget is considered on March 5; numerous other agencies also have pending requests for equipment replacement.

Ringo said, “I think Public TV has gone the extra mile and then some to try to keep things working and make these budgets work.” Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said the replacement items funded there “fall under the categories of aging or dead equipment, employee and public safety, and risk of losing their broadcast signals.” Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said he checked the mileage on a non-working vehicle that's finally being replaced, “and it was in excess of 190,000.” JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said to laughter, “That's just getting a new life in Rupert.”

Wind power moratorium narrowly clears House committee

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill that calls for putting a two-year moratorium on new wind energy projects has narrowly made its way out of a House committee. After more than three hours of testimony Wednesday, the House Local Government Committee approved the measure on a 6-5 vote. The bill would also require lawmakers to undertake a two-year study of the wind power industry's overall impact in the state. Idaho Falls Rep. Erik Simpson argues it's time to slow an industry he blames for increasing costs on utilities and power customers. Others complain the rapid growth of wind farms has come at the expense of residents who have seen their property values decline. But opponents like Republican Rep. Christy Perry of Nampa say the moratorium would unfairly jeopardize future projects worth millions of dollars.

Dems: ‘Sobering, a sad day for the Senate’

Here's a link to the full story at spokesman.com on today's resignation of Senate Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee, in which AP reporter John Miller notes that McGee's resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment of a female Senate staffer capped a political free-fall that began last year with a drunken driving arrest.

Minority Democrats said they were informed of McGee's resignation Wednesday morning and were shocked by the news. “Whenever any of our members has this happen, it's sobering,” Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, told the Associated Press. “It's a sad day for the Senate.”  Meanwhile, the Idaho Democratic Party issued a statement saying it was “thankful” that McGee resigned today. Party Chairman Larry Grant said, “I am glad that GOP leadership has finally accepted that something must be done to turn around the culture that has rooted itself in the Statehouse.” You can read the party's full statement here.
  

The AP reports that McGee's sunny disposition and rapid rise into Senate leadership last year at the age of just 38 made him constant fodder for talk that he'd seek higher elected office; but that his departure from the Senate likely means any further political aspirations he had are over.
  

Attorney General’s office reviewing allegations against McGee

Sen. John McGee's resignation letter will be spread across the pages of the official Senate Journal tomorrow, said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. Hill said he spoke with McGee several times this morning, and after this morning's Senate session, “When I came off the floor, this was sitting on my desk.”

Hill said he anticipates a leadership election in the Senate GOP caucus next week to select a new majority caucus chairman.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, who was among those who signed a letter earlier in the session stating he'd voted to remove McGee from his leadership position, said, “No one is saying I told you so.” Winder said he'd been “optimistic the Senate was healing. … Honestly, this fell out of the sky.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, an attorney, declined to say whether the allegations against McGee of sexual harassment of a female Senate staffer could lead to criminal charges. The Idaho Attorney General's office is looking into the matter,  Davis and Hill said.

Hill said, “I have requested the attorney general's office to further review the matter. We also express our compassion to John McGee's family, and most particularly his wife.”

 

McGee’s resignation letter…

Here is the text of Sen. John McGee's resignation letter:

The Honorable Brent Hill
President Pro Tempore
Idaho State Senate
State Capitol
Boise Idaho 83720

Dear Brent,

Please accept this letter as my formal resignation from the office of State Senator for the 10th Legislative District in the State of Idaho, effective February 22, 2012.

It has been my pleasure and honor to serve the citizens of District 10 in the Idaho State Senate for the past eight years. I appreciate and am grateful for the opportunity and treasure the association with you and our colleagues.

Sincerely,
John McGee

Cc: Senator Bart Davis, Majority Leadership
      Senator Chuck Winder, Assistant Majority Leader
      Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter
      Secretary of State Ben Ysursa
  

Hill: McGee hand-delivered his resignation letter this morning

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said on Saturday, Feb. 18, he and Majority Leader Bart Davis were notified of confidential allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell. “The Idaho Senate takes all allegations of sexual harassment seriously,” Hill said. “At leadership's request, the Senate secretary, throughout Monday, investigated and counseled the attache to report the claims of misconduct to Brent Hill. Monday afternoon the attache, together with the Senate secretary, met with the Pro Tem and majority leader to report the asserted misconduct.”

Hill said he immediately reassigned the Senate staffer “to another position within the Senate.” Hill said, “In this situation, my first priority is to ensure a safe, secure and professional work environment for Senate employees. My second priority is to protect the integrity and institution of the Idaho State Senate.”

Hill said McGee did not admit to any wrongdoing, but “informed leadership that he believed it was in the Senate's best interest for him to resign.” Hill said McGee hand-delivered his letter of resignation this morning. Hill urged people to respect the privacy of the Senate attache involved, who is on paid leave. “This is an extremely difficult time for her,” he said.

McGee has resigned after sexual harassment allegation involving Senate attache

The three remaining Senate GOP leaders - Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, Majority Leader Bart Davis, and Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder - have announced to a packed press conference that Sen. John McGee has resigned from the Senate in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment of a Senate attache. Hill said the harassment charges are being investigated by the Idaho Attorney General, and the attache, a woman who is not a minor, is on paid leave.

McGee, R-Caldwell, is a fourth term state senator and also is the chairman of the Canyon County Republican Central Committee. A former aide to then-Sen. and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, McGee, 39, is the marketing director for West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell, and is married with two young children. He was widely viewed as a rising star in the Idaho GOP before the bizarre incident last June in which he was arrested and convicted of drunken driving. After he paid restitution, additional charges were dropped against McGee for stealing a stranger's vehicle and attached trailer, then jackknifing it in a neighbor's front yard.

McGee was found sleeping in the vehicle's backseat and was arrested; he said he couldn't remember what happened after an evening of drinking at a golf tournament six miles away.

The Senate GOP has wrestled this session with questions over the fate of McGee as its majority caucus chairman.  The caucus voted earlier to retain him in his leadership post, but then nine GOP senators signed a public letter saying they'd voted against retaining him. In the House, Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, introduced a bill to change House rules to boot out any House majority or minority leadership member who is convicted of driving under the influence; that bill still is pending in a House committee.
  

AP: Otter confirms McGee has resigned from Senate

The Associated Press reports that Gov. Butch Otter has confirmed that Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, has submitted a letter of resignation to Idaho Senate. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

House GOP emerges from brief caucus on Senate matter, has no comment…

House Republicans have emerged from their closed-door caucus after just a few minutes, and would acknowledge only that it was on a Senate matter. “We have no comment collectively over here,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis wasn't available for comment, but his secretary, Marian Smith, said he instructed her to tell anyone who asked that there would be no statements before the Senate GOP's press conference this afternoon, and that this is the first time in Davis' memory that the Senate GOP leadership has held a press conference.

The Senate GOP has wrestled this session with questions over the fate of its majority caucus chairman, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, after his arrest last spring in a bizarre incident after a night of drinking at a golf tournament which left him with a DUI conviction. The caucus voted earlier to retain him in his leadership post, but then nine GOP senators signed a public letter saying they'd voted against retaining McGee in the position.

House GOP also heads into caucus…

House Republicans also are heading into what they say will be a brief closed-door caucus, even though there are people waiting for committee meetings that were noticed as starting more than an hour ago; at this time of the session, the House pushes back committee meetings indefinitely until after its afternoon floor sessions. The GOP caucus will delay them further.

Senate Resources Committee endorses night, aerial wolf kills, live bait use for ranchers

The Senate Resources Committee has voted 7-2, along party lines, to pass SB 1305 to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.” The bill would let livestock owners whose animals are molested by wolves shoot the wolves from motorized vehicles, powered parachutes, helicopters or fixed-wing planes, by night or day, using rifles, pistols, shotguns, or crossbows, night scopes, electronic calls, and traps with live bait. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the bill goes too far. “I really am afraid that you worked long and hard to gain an agreement with the federal government to be able to have wolves be hunted and managed by the state, and I'm afraid that this bill will put us out there to jeopardize that,” she said. “I think in that case it's counter-productive. I'm just afraid that that just sends a message that we aren't honoring something that's already in place as far as wolf management.” She noted, “There is no definition or parameters about what live bait means in this bill. … It takes it to a level that it's just not supportable to me.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked the bill's sponsor, sheep rancher Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, why he needed the live bait provision, which he said has prompted the most opposition. “You know, the darn things keep coming at us in the night, that's the only explanation,” Siddoway responded. “They come in the middle of the night. … You can only see probably 150, 200 head out of 2,500 head in a band of sheep. … You just literally can't find 'em. And most of these kills come in the nighttime. So if you can figure out the direction in which they're coming and put a pen down there with a few sheep in it, so that they come … into that area and they circle that pen at 2 o'clock in the morning, you've got a much better chance of getting the perpetrators of that depredation. … That's why we need the live bait.”

Rep. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, moved to hold the bill until July 1, 2012.  “The language that says 'notwithstanding any other provisions of Idaho law' is about as broad an exemption from Idaho law as I've ever seen in legislation,” he said. “I would hope that the committee would decide that we want to take a step back.” Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, made a substitution motion to approve the bill, Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls seconded it, and it passed with just Werk and Stennett objecting.

House votes 57-11 for Semanko bill to ease canal companies’ liability

After much debate, the House has voted 57-11 in favor of HB 398, legislation proposed by Norm Semanko of the Idaho Water Users Association to exempt owners of “a ditch, canal, conduit or other aqueduct” from liability for “wasting water or damage to others that is caused by the acts of third parties and acts of God.” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, debated against the bill, citing residents in her district whose basements and yards were flooded and damaged by an apparent canal leak. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “We have ditches and canals running through our neighborhoods and urban districts, and there are real dangers … associated with the structures.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “This does not offer blanket immunity to a canal company, if a canal company does something wrong.” He said it only covers acts by others. Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, the bill's House sponsor, said the bill doesn't “eliminate the ability of folks to go to court.” She said, “Existing statute clearly provides that canals must be kept in good repair. … However it will be clear that problems caused by outside parties or acts of God are not their responsibility.” The bill now moves to the Senate side.

Senate GOP schedules press conference

The Senate Republican Caucus, which is holding a 3:30 closed-door caucus today that Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis earlier warned would be “very important,” has now announced that it'll hold a press conference immediately after the caucus, a highly unusual move. The press conference will be in room WW 53 on the garden level of the Capitol.

Of the House, the Senate, and ‘nap time’…

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, sponsored a bill about the Idaho plumbing code in the House this afternoon, and told the House that last year, the bill, proposed by the state Division of Building Safety, passed the House 69-1, but “it got over to the Senate in the afternoon when it was nap time,” and ended up getting killed amid some confusion over a motion in a Senate committee. This time, the bill, HB 466, passed the House on a 61-0 vote; that means nine House members were absent for the after-lunch vote.

Earlier today, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, a former Idaho Senate president pro-tem, was asked what it was like to address the Idaho House as a former Idaho senator. Crapo responded diplomatically that when he served, there was little or no rift between the House and Senate, in part because in both, “There's so much common sense.” Crapo served in the Idaho Senate from 1984 to 1992, when he was elected to Congress; he then served three terms in the U.S. House and is now a third-term U.S. senator.

Denney says state employee pay resolution is just a ‘process’ dispute…

House Speaker Lawerence Denney says the leadership-backed resolution introduced Tuesday to zero-fund raises for state employees next year is more about process than a disagreement that could stall budget writing and delay adjournment, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey; you can read his full post here. Denney told Popkey he wants a hearing in the House Commerce Committee, and said, “The rumblings that we had in the caucus were when we brought up the budget everybody goes, 'Hey, we haven't had our say yet.'”

However, it was the leadership of both houses - including Denney - who opted not to convene the House and Senate commerce committees as the Joint CEC Committee this year for hearings on state employee pay, and instead just hand that decision off to JFAC; the Joint CEC (Change in Employee Compensation) Committee hasn't met since 2008.

Roberts pushes Boise County bailout bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Call it a bailout bill for Boise County. This mountainous, sparsely-populated county north of Boise faces a $5.4 million court judgment, after a jury ruled in 2010 it broke federal laws by blocking a teen treatment center. Ever since, it's been trying to figure out how to pay the bill, without burdening its 7,000 residents too much. Declaring bankruptcy failed. Now, House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts of Donnelly is carrying Boise County's water. His measure would allow the county to bond for the money —even if a tax increase necessary to pay off the bonds violates a statutory 3 percent increase limit that normally must win a two-thirds vote. Roberts, ordinarily a Republican anti-tax hawk, says his measure is narrowly crafted, to assist a county in a dire situation.

Bill to relieve Pennsylvania firm from asbestos-claim liability passes House

Legislation designed to relieve Pennsylvania-based Crown Holdings from liability for millions in old asbestos claims has passed the House on a 47-22 vote, after much debate; after the vote, the House recessed until 1:30 p.m. The asbestos bill got strong opposition, including from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who said it would violate the Idaho Constitution's ban on local or special legislation. He said while 14 states have passed the legislation proposed by Crown Holdings, “Eleven have not passed the legislation - in fact, four of them have rejected it twice.”

The bill's House floor sponsor, Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, responded, “You do not have any person or corporation listed in this legislative language, like the Constitution prohibits. … I think Idaho is business-friendly and has to have this message sent to its business community.” The bill, which the American Legislative Exchange Council drafted with Crown and has been proposing state by state, now moves to the Senate side.

Senate defeats landowner hunting tag sales bill on 17-17 tie

The Senate has defeated SB 1283, Sen. Jeff Siddoway's bill to let landowners sell special “landowner appreciation” hunting tags on the open market for profit, on a 17-17 tied vote after much debate. Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, who was presiding over the Senate at the time of the vote, said, “The president does not have the power to break the tie in this instance,” and declared that the bill had failed.

Siddoway's opening debate was so long that it had to be interrupted for Sen. Mike Crapo's scheduled 11 a.m. address to the Senate; he finished it after the U.S. senator left and headed over to the House. There were lots of concerns raised about the bill. “I think it sends us in a direction that allows for elite hunting,” said Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. “I think selling our wildllife for personal, private gain is inappropriate, and I don't think this bill is appropriate either.”

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, said in his view, landowner appreciation hunting tags are about reimbursing landowners for crop loss, not about hunting access. But Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, noted, “SB 1282 is a very similar bill, but it would allow access, reasonable access, to hunters. Without that provision, I cannot support the bill.”

Crapo: Bipartisan support growing for big fiscal fix in D.C.

Idaho's senior U.S. senator, Mike Crapo, is addressing both the Idaho House and Senate today, and much of his message is very similar to what he told lawmakers a year ago: The nation's fiscal situation is “the greatest danger facing our country right now,” with a $15.4 trillion national debt that's grown by more than $5 trillion in the past three and a half years. “Every day by somewhere between noon and 4 o'clock, the federal government has borrowed the entire amount of money that it takes to run the state of Idaho for a year,” Crapo said.

But this year, he is reporting some progress, he said, toward the solution advocated by the bipartisan “gang of six” of which he's a member: Cutting at least $4 trillion from the federal debt in the next decade, three quarters of that through spending cuts and a quarter through new revenue. “I believe that we are building a mounting bipartisan support for this kind of a broad solution that I think would be one of the best things that we could do for America,” Crapo said. “We now have about 45 to 50 Republicans and Democrats, about evenly balanced, who are supportive of this approach. … We are trying to build the support around the country.”

Crapo said the $4 trillion solution means “we're going to have to look at entitlement programs, we're going to have to look at farm programs, we're going to have to look at defense programs … our entire budget. Nothing can be off the table.” As for the revenue part, he said, the idea is “not just to raise taxes” because that could hurt economic recovery. Instead, he said he favors reforms aimed at “a tax code where we broaden the base, reduce the rates, and actually grow the size of the economy that will generate the revenue streams.”

Sen. Crapo about to address Idaho Senate

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo is being escorted into the Senate chambers to address the Senate; when Crapo served in the state Senate he was president pro-tem. As he arrived, Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, told him, “Sen. Crapo, welcome home.”

Bill would authorize ISP security detail for lieutenant governor

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Senate committee has introduced legislation that would allow Idaho's governor to assign to the lieutenant governor the same security protection afforded to other high ranking public officials. Idaho Falls Sen. Bart Davis is sponsoring the measure introduced Wednesday in the State Affairs Committee. The Idaho State Police is authorized by law to provide protection to the Governor, the Legislature, Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Davis and Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter believe it's appropriate to provide the same measure of security in cases when the Lieutenant Governor travels overseas on trade missions or elsewhere on state business. In December, Lt. Gov. Brad Little led a trade mission that included visits in Mexico and Brazil.

Senate backs study of state taking primacy on wastewater permitting

The Senate has voted unanimously in favor of SCR 116, Sen. Jim Hammond's resolution to launch an interim study committee to look at how Idaho can take over primacy on NPDES wastewater permits from the EPA. “This is not an effort to diminish the criteria that we use to issue those permits,” Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the Senate. “It is only an attempt actually to study the idea of bringing those permits in under our own DEQ as opposed to the EPA.” Hammond noted that the issue's been studied in the past, and the main drawback “has always been financing.” This committee would look into making the change with no impact to the state general fund, he said, instead drawing on fees from permit applicants.

For the study to happen, the House also would have to pass a similar resolution, and then the topic would have to be among those selected by leadership from both houses for assigning lawmakers to an interim committee.

House Ed approves bill to lift all charter school caps

The House Education Committee has voted 12-5 in favor of HB 481, Rep. Bob Nonini's bill to lift all caps on creation of new charter schools in Idaho.

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, spoke out against the bill. “We have opposition from the school boards association, the administrators association, and from the teachers association. They brought us some concerns here that I think we really need to reconsider what we're doing here. I'm for removing the general cap, six new charter schools per year, but I'm not inclined at this time to remove the cap for one … per district, and based on the potential financial problems brought out by all three of these groups, I just think this is not the year to remove the cap per district.”

Leslie Mauldin, president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, told the committee, “I waited four years before my child got accepted as a fourth grader through the lottery system at Liberty (Charter School). … I do urge you strongly to remove the outdated caps on charter schooling and allow us to access more funds for the state of Idaho.” Lobbyist Briana LeClaire of the Idaho Freedom Foundation backed the bill, saying, “We believe it adds to freedom.”

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, the bill's lead co-sponsor, said, “I think the cap is for all intents and purposes artificial,” and it brings a “stigma” that's hurting the state's chances of getting federal and private grants. He said he'd support further reforms as well, but said, “This is an opportunity this year, and I think it's very timely and very important.” Said Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, also a co-sponsor, “We can't afford to wait. We need to move forward with this legislation. … This is about empowering our parents.” Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “I just don't see where lifting the cap on any one of these is anything but beneficial.”

Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, offered a substitute motion to send the bill to the House's amending order, to keep the one-per-school district cap in place, while removing the six-per-year statewide cap. She said she supports charter schools, but also doesn't want to hurt children in Idaho's regular public schools by destabilizing funding to school districts. Her motion was defeated on 4-13 vote.

Testimony on charter cap: ‘We believe this legislation is premature’

Among those testifying so far on HB 481, the bill to lift all of Idaho's caps on creation of new charter schools each year, was David Meyer, administrator of the Monticello Montessori Public Charter School in Bonneville County, who said his school lost $233,000 this year due to the state's loss of a federal grant. “That's been difficult for us,” he said.

Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association testified against the bill. Idaho's charter school law does need updating, she said. “We believe it's time for all stakeholders to begin discussions about what is working and what is not.” Allowing an uncontrolled proliferation of new charters would destabilize funding for Idaho's existing schools and school districts, she said. “We believe that this legislation is premature, and would prefer to have time to work with stakeholders over the next year, and come back with comprehensive legislation. … We support charter schools. I think we just need to be careful about how those are authorized and when those are authorized.”

Luci Willits, chief of staff for state schools Supt. Tom Luna, spoke in favor of the bill, saying Idaho lost a federal grant for charter schools in part because its charter school laws was ranked unfavorably compared to other states.

Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said his association is less concerned with lifting the overall cap than with lifting the cap of one new charter school per school district per year. “School districts do not currently have financial protection” when they suffer a sudden drop in enrollment, he said. “Lifting this cap could potentially put a school district at financial risk if several charter schools open within a school district within one year. … Until school districts have financial protection, our association will not be able to support HB 481.”

Hearing that many want to testify on charter school cap, Nielsen moves to just pass bill; Nonini holds off for testimony

Rep. Bob Nonini, House Education Committee chairman, said there is a page and a half of people signed up to testify on HB 481, the bill to lift the charter school cap. Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, immediately made a motion to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do-pass.” There was a pause, and then Nonini said he'd hold the motion and call on those who have signed up to testify first, plus allow for committee questions. Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, was the first called to testify; she opposed the bill, though she said the IEA does support charter schools to promote innovative practices in education.

However, she said, “Charter schools do take resources away from neighborhood schools that most of our children attend. With resources still so scarce, now is not the time to divert more resources away from those schools.”

Charter school advocates say cap keeps Idaho from getting federal, private foundation grants

HB 481, Rep. Bob Nonini's bill to lift both of Idaho's current caps on creation of new charter schools - the six per year total statewide, and the one new one per year per school district - is up for a hearing in Nonini's House Education Committee this morning. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, Nonini's co-sponsor, told the committee that the cap “limits Idaho's competitiveness for federal grants,” and also may be keeping some private foundations from awarding grants to Idaho charter schools. “The existence of the cap is limiting opportunity to bring non-state funds into the state for charter schools,” Bayer said.

Diane Demarest, executive director of the Idaho Charter School Network, said pro-charter groups have ranked state laws, and the cap caused Idaho's laws to be ranked poorly. “With a ranking of 32, Idaho is not viewed as a very charter-friendly state, regardless of the position of both our governor and our superintendent and our Legislature,” she said. That's kept some pro-charter foundations including the Walton Foundation from  deciding to send funds to Idaho, she said.

Nonini: Let insurance firms set up, fund their own health exchange

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, proposed a resolution this morning for neither a state-run health insurance exchange nor a federal one. Instead, he'd tell the health insurance industry that if they want an exchange, they can set one up and fund it themselves. “I'm not a fan of doing any kind of an exchange, but if the industry wants to do an exchange … we don't need to be involved in it,” declared Nonini, who proposed his concurrent resolution for introduction in the House Education Committee, which he chairs. Nonini said, “I think we're just going down a terrible road. … I'm willing to say no and not just no but heck no.”

Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, said, “I think this is the best idea yet.” Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, asked, “What has been holding back the industry for the last 25 years? … I'm wondering why that hasn't taken place.” Nonini said that's a question for the industry, not for him.

Nonini said he joined five other lawmakers in a working group to figure out legislation on an exchange. “We met twice, the first week of the session and the second week of the session, and could come to no agreement on how we might move forward. Since then, Rep. (Fred) Wood has drafted a number of pieces of legislation.” The latest called for a “private exchange that was outside the compliance of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “But as I've gone through and dissected it, I think every part of it continues to drive up health costs. … As someone who's spent 25 years in the insurance industry, I just don't see where the legislation that's been put in front of us does anything to drive down health costs. … It seems that the industry is the ones promoting an exchange, I don't see anything stopping them.”

Cronin called Nonini's proposal “absolutely absurd,” and said the industry hasn't solved the problem in the decades in which the exchange idea has been floated.

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I think this resolution really makes sense at this point. … I don't think we should do anything about a state exchange right now, and just hope that we win that case, and I think we've got a pretty good chance of winning that case.” Bateman was referring to the legal challenge of the national health care reform law, in which Idaho is a party.

The committee voted 13-3 along party lines to introduce the bill, which Nonini said he expects to be referred to the House Health & Welfare Committee.
  

JFAC sets CAT fund budget, lauds board for keeping costs from growing more

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning voted unanimously, 20-0, to set a $36.5 million budget for next year for the Catastrophic Health Care program, the program that pays the rest of the cost for indigent medical care after counties pay the first $11,000 for each case. Compared to last year's original appropriation, that looks like a 63.4 percent increase, but in reality, it's only a 3.12 percent increase over this year's spending level, because for several years, the CAT fund has been underfunded initially, then boosted the following year by a supplemental appropriation to cover the rest of the costs.

This year's budget bill, proposed by Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, reflects the full cost for next year, up from $35.4 million this year. “If I might take just a second and really congratulate the CAT board managers,” Wood said. “They have done an admirable job in controlling costs, and that's why you're only seeing an actual increase of expenditures of 3.12 percent year-over-year.”

JFAC's budget-setting today also includes public health districts, medical boards, the Division of Human Resources, PERSI, the Commission on the Arts, and supplemental appropriations including several for Health & Welfare.  Some of the bigger decisions coming up, according to JFAC's tentative budget-setting schedule, include higher ed budgets next Tuesday; public schools and corrections a week from Monday; and Medicaid March 9.

Trail to run for Latah County commissioner

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, will run for a Latah County commission seat rather than seek a ninth term in the Legislature, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports today; click below for a full report from Daily News reporter Brandon Macz.

Occupy Boise files federal court challenge to block eviction, hearing set Fri. with Judge Winmill

Members of Occupy Boise today filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court, and U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill scheduled a hearing on it for 3 p.m. Friday. Bryan Walker, attorney for the group, said the group is trying to stop the eviction of the Occupy Boise vigil from state property across from the Capitol. “Our point is it's a violation not only of 1st Amendment rights, but 4th Amendment due process rights,” Walker said.

You can read Occupy Boise's amended complaint and other filings here; allow some time to load, as it's a 45-page PDF. The legal challenge, filed on behalf of four individual Occupy members and the movement, names Gov. Butch Otter, state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna, and Idaho State Police Director Jerry Russell, each in their official capacity, and cites the history of protest and free expression in the United States. “The plaintiffs' vigil encampment protest on the grounds of the vacant old Ada County courthouse - in direct view of the Idaho Capitol building and the office of the Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives - is not just integral to their expression of grievances, it is their protest,” the amended complaint says. “The defendants will imminently tear it down and seize thousands of dollars worth of private property without due process.”

Occupy Boise members weigh options as eviction looms…

With Gov. Butch Otter's signing of the HB 404a today, banning camping on certain state lands, state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna says she's sent notice to participants in the Occupy Boise encampment that they must be off the vigil site across from the Capitol by 5 p.m. on Monday. “The Department of Administration has kept the encampment members regularly informed through every step of the legislative process, as the bill made its way through the legislature and to the Governor’s desk, including verbal updates with frequent visits to the encampment, and written updates in the form of printed status notices,” Luna said in a statement. “Because of this ongoing communication, we trust that by Monday’s deadline Occupy Boise will choose voluntary compliance with the new law, and will leave the Capitol Annex property in the condition in which they found it.”

Meanwhile, some Occupy members told the Associated Press today that they're still weighing their options, and expect their protest to continue even if they move elsewhere; click below for a full report from AP reporter Alex Morrell. Also, Occupy Boise said in a news release that a  legal challenge is being pursued and a hearing on a possible restraining order has been scheduled for Friday.

Otter’s IGEM initiative clears House committee

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's $5 million proposal to speed commercialization of university research into commercial products that boost Idaho's economy won a House committee's blessing. The Commerce Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to send the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission, or IGEM, for a full House vote. Department of Commerce director Jeff Sayer says IGEM may not immediately produce tangible results, but he's optimistic about its prospects. According to the plan, Idaho would direct $1 million toward grants for startup businesses or technologies, as well as $2 million each for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies and Idaho's other three four-year universities. The measure, modeled after a Utah program, still must survive legislative skeptics who worry it dabbles in picking winners and losers, something they feel is best left to private industry. All the testimony today was in favor of the bill, however, except for one dissenting lobbyist from the Idaho Freedom Foundation who called the proposal government overreach.

Curt Fransen named new DEQ director

Curt Fransen, deputy director of the Idaho DEQ since 2007, has been named the agency's director by Gov. Butch Otter. Current Director Toni Hardesty is leaving this week to become the Idaho director of the Nature Conservancy; Otter praised Hardesty as he named Fransen to the post.

“One of the best measures of Toni’s effectiveness as director is the quality of the team she’s built at DEQ, and Curt is ‘Exhibit A,’ ” the governor said in a statement.  “Along with Director Hardesty, he’s helped establish a high level of respect for the agency with industry, the environmental community and federal regulators.”

Fransen is an attorney who started with the state as a deputy attorney general in 1983, and moved to Coeur d’Alene in 1997 to represent a number of state agencies on mining cleanup and other North Idaho natural resources issues; he became DEQ’s deputy director in 2007. Fransen said, “I appreciate the support of Gov. Otter and look forward to maintaining and advancing the high standards established at the Department of Environmental Quality by Director Toni Hardesty.” Click below for Otter's full announcement.
  

Attorney General: Liquor privatization initiative may be unconstitutional

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attorney General Lawrence Wasden says a proposed voter initiative to privatize Idaho's lucrative hard liquor business might be illegal because the Constitution says such decisions are the Legislature's purview. Since 1934, the Idaho Constitution has given the Legislature full power and authority to regulate the sale of intoxicating liquors. Wasden's office reviewed a proposed initiative aiming for the November 2012 ballot to privatize liquor sales and concluded in a review released on Tuesday that the 78-year-old constitutional provision makes an initiative vulnerable to a challenge. In January, the Idaho Federation of Reagan Republicans submitted a citizen's initiative to privatize liquor sales in Idaho and eliminate the Liquor Division. In addition, the Northwest Grocery Association is pursuing privatization, but says it will ask the 2013 Legislature before going the initiative route.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Senate tax panel unanimously endorses Henderson’s aircraft parts tax-break bill

The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee has voted unanimously in favor of Rep. Frank Henderson's bill to offer a sales tax rebate for sophisticated parts installed in Idaho into out-of-state aircraft, after an hour-long hearing in which all the testimony was strongly in favor of the bill and aircraft company employees filled the audience. Henderson said the tax change would directly create jobs at aircraft parts businesses across Idaho.

“That was an historical event,” Senate Tax Chairman Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said after the vote; the Senate committee has resisted enacting any new sales tax breaks for at least the last four years, and last year's version of the aircraft parts bill didn't even get a hearing from the panel.

Henderson's version expanded the break to apply to aircraft parts businesses across the state, rather than just to one in Boise, and imposed a five-year “sunset” or expiration for the break, so lawmakers can examine how well it's worked and decide whether or not they want to extend it. Henderson, R-Post Falls, said the tax change would directly create jobs at aircraft parts businesses across Idaho.

“The fact is that there are 23 states where the sales tax is not … (charged) on those parts,” he said. “So our companies in that industry in the state of Idaho are at a competitive disadvantage.” Henderson said if the bill is enacted, seven Idaho companies would add 32 jobs within a year, and in the next five years, they'd hire on 182 new aircraft technicians. “There may be more potential than that, but today I wish to deal in the facts, and those seven companies are factual,” Henderson said. “They are significant jobs and very important to our economy.”

Jeff Mihalic, president of Western Aircraft in Boise, told the committee, “It will level the playing field, and it will create good-paying aviation jobs in the state of Idaho. … We think this is an excellent piece of legislation for the entire state of Idaho, and also obviously very important to Western Aircraft.”

Mark Warbis, a senior special assistant to Gov. Butch Otter for economic development, told the senators, “Our Department of Commerce has identified aviation and the aeronautics industry as a potential growth area for our economy. … We want to see them become a critical mass.” Also testifying in favor of the bill was Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry. “We do believe that it is a jobs bill,” LaBeau said. Bill Miller, a volunteer with the Idaho Aviation Association, spoke out in favor of the bill, saying it'd boost the state's economy. So did Ray Stark of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, who said, “We think of airports as magnets of economic activity. Certain businesses like to locate on airport property or nearby, and we're very excited about the potential for increased jobs at the Boise Airport over the next several years.” The bill now moves to the full Senate for a final vote.

Rep. Hart gets new version of gold, silver coin bill introduced in House State Affairs

The House State Affairs Committee voted this morning to introduce a new version of Rep. Phil Hart's gold and silver currency bill, which declares that Idahoans may use gold and silver coins at face value as “legal tender” and “as an alternative to the Federal Reserve Notes that currently circulate as our only currency,” and also exempts from all taxes any transaction paid for in gold and silver coins. It's a new version of HB 430, which Hart earlier introduced as a personal bill; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, voted against introducing the new bill. “To me, it looks like nothing more than a tax avoidance,” Anderson said. “I don't buy the argument.” Hart has been working on various versions of his “sound money” proposal for several years; he's also a tax protester who currently has an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court pending over unpaid state income taxes, and a pending action in federal court in which the IRS is trying to foreclose on his Athol home for back federal income taxes.

The bill says gold and silver coin transactions “shall not be subject to any sales, excise, gross receipts, income, capital gains, or other form of tax.”

Hart's new bill, like the previous version, declares, “History attests that monopolistic monetary systems based on legal tender edicts tend toward manipulation of the supply, resulting in lost purchasing power, inequitable wealth redistributions, misallocation of productive resources and chronic unemployment, thus impairing life, liberty and property. In order to protect Idaho and its citizens against this danger, it is necessary for the state to permit gold and silver coin as 'legal tender' in payment of debts under certain circumstances.”

The difference from the earlier version of the bill: HB 430 estimated it would have no impact on the state general fund; the new version estimates the state would lose about $50,000 in capital gains taxes on the sale of gold and silver coins. The new version also adds several additional paragraphs of legislative findings about the value of “sound money, most commonly precious metal coin.”

House passes bill to ‘rein in urban renewal a little bit’

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, is pushing HB 506 to further limit urban renewal, by removing any authority for eminent domain or condemnation, and by removing urban renewal agencies' power to enter and inspect properties within their projects. “We think it's time to maybe rein in urban renewal a little bit,” Nonini told the House, which voted 47-18 in favor of the bill; it now moves to the Senate side.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, argued against the measure, noting that legislation passed last year already strictly limits when urban renewal agencies can use the power of eminent domain. He said when he served on an urban renewal board in McCall, “We needed it at times,” for “pieces of land that were clearly blighted and deteriorated.” Killen said, “You're limiting the local governments unnecessarily.”

Nonini said an attorney for urban renewal agencies who testified against the bill in an earlier committee hearing said he'd never seen condemnation power used by an urban renewal agencies in 30 years, but that it'd been a “good threat tool.” Nonini said he didn't like that idea. “I mean, c'mon people, is that any way to treat our people?” he asked.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “They just got a little too big for their britches in some areas,” and urged support for the bill. Of urban renewal, she said, “It's been nothing but a pain in the bee-hind.”
  

House afternoon committee hearings pushed back by floor session…

Today is the House's first afternoon floor session; as is its custom, the House went into session at 1:30, pushing back all the committee hearings that already were scheduled for that time. As a result, anyone waiting to testify at or observe one of those hearings is just left waiting indefinitely; the House expected to be on the floor for about an hour this afternoon, but it's already been an hour and they're still going.

The Senate also has an afternoon session today, but its custom is to have scheduled committee meetings first, then go back on the floor late in the afternoon; the Senate will reconvene at 4:30.

Bill closes Sunshine Law loophole for recall votes, passes House, heads to Senate

The House has voted 62-1 in favor of HB 490, which expands Idaho's Sunshine Law to cover recall elections, applying campaign finance reporting requirements and contribution limits to those votes just as to all other Idaho elections. “HB 490 is designed to close up a loophole in the Sunshine Law,” Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, told the House. “All of this was outside the law, the law was silent on it. Nothing governed it. It's just a free-for-all if we don't apply the Sunshine Law to this area.”

Ellsworth discovered the loophole when she was the subject of a recall attempt last year; she said she wanted to report her finances, and was dismayed to be told that wasn't required. The only “no” vote came from Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, who didn't say why he objected; the bill now moves to the Senate side for consideration. Later, Smith explained, “It was a 'throwaway' as a joke.  The sponsor and I are the only two in here that I know of who have gone through a recall election.”

House passes $5 POST fee increase with no debate, after defeating smaller one last year

In a dramatic turnaround, the House has voted 40-27 in favor of HB 448 to raise fees to support the POST academy, which trains law enforcement officers, from the current $10 per criminal conviction to $15. Last year, the House defeated a proposal to raise the same fee by just $1.50, with many House Republicans saying they didn't want to raise any fees. The fees are imposed on every felony, misdemeanor, infraction, traffic, conservation or ordinance violation conviction.

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, sponsor of HB 448, said said Idaho's crime fee collections are way down, and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy needs the money to keep training law enforcement officers for agencies across the state. State law requires every law enforcement officer employed in Idaho to complete a POST training course within his or her first year on the job. “The people who are causing the crimes are the ones that have to pay for it,” Bolz told the House. “You're not paying for it in your taxes.”

This time, there was no debate, and the bill passed. It also got only one “no” vote when it emerged from committee in the House this year, Bolz said.

Otter signs anti-Occupy bill, gives group ‘til Monday at 5 to vacate

Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 404a into law, emergency legislation that bans camping on certain state land and effectively evicts the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol. “I will be communicating with the leadership and attorney from 'Occupy Boise' to let them know that I  have received and signed the bill,” Otter said in his signing statement, “and to provide that they have a deadline of 5 PM on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, to vacate the impacted state properties.”

Otter's press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “He gave them until 5 o'clock on Monday to dissemble and start vacating the impacted state properties.” Asked what will happen after that, Hanian said, “You're going to have to talk to the (state) Department of Administration,” which administers the capitol mall property on which the encampment is located. Asked if the Idaho State Police also would be involved, Hanian said, “We hope it doesn't come to that.”

House GOP emerges from caucus, will come back on floor at 1:30

The House Republican Caucus has wrapped up, but lawmakers haven't returned to their floor session; instead, said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, they're planning to come back on the floor at 1:30 p.m. and work for about an hour, he said, before starting afternoon committee hearings.

Senate recesses ‘til 4:30; House GOP still in caucus…

The Senate has recessed until 4:30 p.m., when it'll come back into session, likely until about 5:15, announced Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis. Meanwhile, the House GOP is still in a closed-door caucus, and has been for more than an hour. House and Senate Democrats are planning a caucus of their own over the noon hour.

Gingrich to campaign in CdA on Thursday

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich will hold a town hall meeting in Coeur d'Alene on Thursday night, the Idaho Republican Party announced today. The event is set for 7:30pm at the Coeur d’Alene Inn, said Idaho GOP executive director Jonathan Parker. The former speaker of the U.S. House also will hold a private fundraiser at a Harrison home on Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m., Parker said. Gingrich's visit marks the fourth major GOP presidential candidate to campaign in Idaho in less than two weeks.

“It's pretty exciting,” Parker said. “It's one of the primary reasons we went to the caucus system, one, to be relevant and actually have a say in who our nominee would be, but No. 2, to bring presidential candidates to Idaho to discuss issues important to Idahoans and to get them here to court our vote.”

Last week, GOP candidates Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all campaigned in Idaho, and Paul and Santorum campaigned in North Idaho along with Boise rallies.

Senate passes texting-while-driving ban

The Senate has voted 29-6 in favor of SB 1274, the bill to ban texting while driving, making it an infraction; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Among the comments in the Senate debate:

“My cell phone won't text” - Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth

“I have to admit, I've done it, and I found myself weaving and not being in my lane of traffic. … We need to be sure that we are protecting Idaho citizens from their own stupidity, and I'm sorry, that's the way I feel about it.” - Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle

“A prosecutor can certainly prosecute using inattentive driving, although the basis is texting.” - Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, an attorney, addressing concerns that the texting penalty is less than that for inattentive driving.

“For our young people, reaching for their smart phone is second nature. With the exuberance of their youth, they do not understand the dangers of driving while texting.” - Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who read a letter from her neighbors whose daughter died in January in a freeway texting-while-driving accident

“73 percent of teens admit to texting while driving.” - Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene

The six “no” votes came from Sens. McKenzie, Nuxoll, Pearce, Vick, Fulcher and McKague. The bill now moves to the House side; two years ago, a texting ban that had passed the Senate died in the House on the final night of the legislative session when it got majority support, but then-Rep. Raul Labrador used a parliamentary procedure to require two-thirds, causing it to fail. After today's vote, the Senate welcomed the Sauer family, whose daughter Taylor died in the January accident, with applause; they were in the Senate gallery for the vote.
  

Senate debates texting while driving; House GOP heads into caucus

The Idaho Senate has taken up SB 1274, the bill to ban texting while driving. “This bill specifically calls out texting as inappropriate and unsafe, and it provides guidance for those who might text that it's against the law,” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the Senate.

Hammond said he used to think Idaho's inattentive driving laws adequately addressed this issue, but then he learned that just from 2002 to 2007, 16,141 deaths nationwide were caused by texting while driving. “Any activity that we undertake to enhance the safety of our driving public relative to this rising number of fatalities seems imperative to me,” he said.

Hammond said, “Not too long ago, I was pulled over and warned for exceeding the speed limit. That was a great motivation for me. I was tickled that I didn't actually get a citation, but just visiting with the officer was substantial motivation for me to remember to watch my speedometer a little closer.” He said he disagrees with arguments that a texting ban will mean a jump in traffic stops. “The level of enforcement that's taken on any piece of law is up to the discretion of the officer,” Hammond said. “They're not compelled to make stops specific to any bill that we pass. But they can use that to visit with drivers and better educate them as to safer … driving.”

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, “It's been a long wait. … We have a bill that I think is better than any of the bills that we've seen before.”

Meanwhile the House has recessed its floor session for a closed-door Republican caucus.
  

Emergency legislation would remove little-known tax on free sips of wine at tastings

Roger Batt, lobbyist for the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers, told the House Revenue & Taxation Committee today that Idaho wineries were surprised last August to receive a letter from the Idaho State Tax Commission, telling them go through their records going back three years, to see how much they'd given away in free product at wine-tastings, and pay sales and use tax on that amount. They were stunned, he said.

“It raised a question of why the state of Idaho was taxing businesses on losses,” Batt told lawmakers. Meetings then began between the wine industry and the Tax Commission, and it was determined that a use tax on free beverages given away at tastings “could not be fairly administered,” he said. “It was agreed then that a legislative fix was in order. We have worked with the Tax Commission on this fix.” The result is HB 489, which Batt said all parties have signed off on. It not only removes a tax requirement from wine given out at tastings, but from any beverage, for example, “a local farmer's market giving a free tasting of apple cider.” Batt said, “The Tax Commission has been excellent to work with.” The bill has an emergency clause, making it effective upon passage, and it's not estimated to cost the state general fund anything - because enforcing a tax on free sips of wine or cider given out at tastings was estimated to cost more than could be collected.

The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

How state employee raises have been set in the past…

From at least 1990 until 2008, Idaho held a joint meeting most years early in the legislative session of what was often called the CEC Committee, with CEC standing for Change in Employee Compensation; the joint committee consisted of the House and Senate Commerce committees, and the joint panel held hearings on state employee pay and benefits and took hours of testimony from state employees, and then made a recommendation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. That joint CEC committee hasn't been convened since 2008, and legislative leaders opted not to convene it this year. State employee raises, or CEC, haven't been funded at all for the past four years.

Internet sales tax bill introduced on 12-6 vote in Rev & Tax

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted 12-6 to introduce legislation to have Idaho join the streamlined sales tax project, which means conforming the state's sales tax definitions to standard ones - without changing anything about Idaho's tax - to position Idaho to be able to tax Internet sales when Congress gives the go-ahead. “I came to the Legislature to make sure the values of my district are represented, and one of those values is fairness,” said Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston. Said Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, “It helps our brick-and-mortar businesses compete on a level playing field.”

Said Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, “I'm going to support the original motion to print the bill. I'm not going to commit that I'm going to support a bill. But I believe this body has an obligation to let the commununity, the public, especially our business community, come in and testify on this. … This is extremely important legislation, probably as important as anything that we will do in this committee this year. I really believe that if we don't print this bill and open it up to the public to testify, that we are then denying the public what they're entitled to in this legislature.”

Rep. Lenore Barrett's substitute motion to reject the bill failed on a 7-11 vote, with only her and Reps. Moyle, Schaefer, JoAn Wood, Harwood, Barbieri and Bayer supporting it. Then, Rep. Leon Smith's motion to introduce the bill passed 12-6; Moyle switched sides and voted in favor of introducing the bill, which now can be scheduled for a full hearing.
  

House Rev & Tax in second hour of debate on whether to introduce Internet sales tax bill…

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has spent another hour this morning asking questions about the streamlined sales tax bill, which would position Idaho to be able to tax Internet sales when Congress gives the go-ahead. Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, moved to introduce the bill, which is co-sponsored by Reps. Jeff Nesset, R-Lewiston, House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and Bill Killen, D-Boise. Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, made a substitute motion to return it to the sponsors, refusing to introduce it.

Barrett said, “It still offends me that if I buy something out of state and I bring it back, I gotta pay an Idaho tax. What did Idaho do to deserve that?” She added, “Congress should sit down and shut up. This is a state sovereignty issue.”

Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, said co-chaired a legislative committee on e-commerce with Sen. Hal Bunderson 10 years ago. “I couldn't swallow this then and I can't now,” Schaefer said. “I see this streamlined sales tax as more government, at least 79 pages of more government. It's more complex, more complex tax law for the taxpayers.” He said instead of this approach, he'd prefer to see the state target taxpayers who don't report and pay their taxes now on Internet purchase:  “Do some more audits and educate them, and get 'em to paying their fair share.”

JFAC Co-Chair: ‘They can introduce anything they like’

JFAC Co-Chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responding to the House Education Committee's introduction of two resolutions today aimed at overriding JFAC on state employee raises, said, “Obviously it's incumbent upon JFAC to set the budgets, and those decisions generally involve our personnel. It was my understanding that House and Senate leadership had agreed JFAC would make the determination on CEC this year. So if something else has changed, they can introduce anything that they like. Whether it makes it through the process is another question.”

Rep. Steve Hartgen, who introduced resolutions this morning in the House Education Committee calling for either zero raises for state employees next year - for a fifth straight year - or 2 percent merit raises, as opposed to the 2 percent across-the-board raises JFAC approved for all permanent state workers who are performing to standards - said he wanted his bills to go to the germane committee, the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee, for a hearing and further action.

However, the chair of that committee, Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, already made her budget pitch to JFAC, and didn't mention the issue. The Senate Commerce chair, Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, in his budget pitch to JFAC, called for 3 percent across-the-board raises for state workers. Block's committee never introduced legislation like Hartgen's, and because it's not a privileged committee, couldn't do so now; that's why Hartgen, who is vice-chair of the Commerce committee, said he brought his proposals to the House Education Committee today.

Gov’s budget chief: ‘Typically those decisions have been made in JFAC’

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, said called Rep. Steve Hartgen's introduction of legislation today to try to override JFAC and give state workers either 2 percent merit raises or zero raises next year “kind of a unique situation.” Hammon, speaking in the JFAC hearing room just after the joint budget committee adjourned today, said, “I've only been doing this for five years, but typically those decisions have been made in this committee.” Otter recommended 3 percent one-time raises for state employees next year. Asked about Hartgen's contention that some in the House GOP caucus want to redirect money from raises to tax cuts and refilling reserves, Hammon said, “The governor believes there's room in the budget for all three.”

Otter already has introduced legislation for $35.7 million in corporate and individual income tax cuts for top earners; he's co-sponsoring the bill with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. “That is a high priority,” Hammon said.

Some in House GOP push for zero raises for state employees, want to override JFAC

The House Education Committee has voted to introduce two new bills seeking to override JFAC's earlier action setting state employee raises for next year at 2 percent. Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, proposed two bills, one for 2 percent merit raises, and the other for zero raises. Both were introduced on divided votes.

Hartgen said the House Republican Caucus discussed the issue, and some members were unhappy with JFAC's action. “It's a situation where maybe the cart got a little bit in front of the horse,” Hartgen told the Education Committee. “I think the intent here was to put two options on the table before the germane committees.” Hargten said leadership asked him to draft the two bills, for 2 percent merit or zero, as “broad parameters.”

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, asked, “Are we stepping on the toes of the Finance & Appropriations Committee? And why are we looking at this question in isolation rather than in the context of the larger budget, which is what JFAC does, and thus better understands how much money we have available for any sort of compensation increases?” Hartgen responded, “I think it's always been the sense that policy should drive budgets rather than having budget drive policy. … So that in itself is not a new concept, that the work of the germane committee, I think we would all agree is to discuss and shape and form the policies that we think are appropriate, and then JFAC …  is to try to get the arms around the numbers available.”

Hartgen said as far as state employee raises, some House Republicans have had “discussion of whether we shouldn't do any this year and … (instead direct) additional revenues to other needs, whether that's tax relief or filling reserves.” Hartgen said the two measures he introduced “represent a range of the discussion that we've heard in the last number of weeks around the building.”

The Legislature hasn't funded raises for state employees for the last four years.

JFAC action: Lakes commissions funded again, but tech worker pay boost at DEQ defeated

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, moved to approve a budget for the Department of Environmental Quality next year that is very close to the governor's recommendation, but adds $50,000 each to restore funding for the Pend Oreille Lakes Commission and the Bear Lake Regional Commission. Both were zero-funded last year amid budget cuts. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, offered a substitute motion that didn't include the lakes commission funding, but added $239,200 for targeted 3 percent raises to technical staff. “This is an area where turnover is extremely costly,” Ringo said. “We need to incentivize these well-trained employees who love to work at DEQ. We want them to stay at DEQ and know that there is a future with the organization.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, then offered a substitute motion including both Ringo's targeted pay hike, and Keough's lakes commission funding. However, both it and Ringo's motion failed on 4-16 party-line votes. “I'm afraid this is going to lead us to additional problems,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. “We can't do this with every agency. We've got problems with the departments of correction, transportation. … We've got this issue across the board, and if we're going to do it here, then I feel we've got an obligation to do this with every agency.” Eskridge said he didn't think that would be fiscally responsible, “and No. 2, I don't think we'll get it through the system, and we'll be back visiting all these budgets again.”

After both those motions failed, Keough's passed unanimously. It funds the DEQ next at $14.3 million in general funds and $61.9 million in total funds; that's a 3.5 percent increase in general funds, and a 0.8 percent increase in total funds.

Wolf-kill bill for ranchers gets much debate; vote delayed to Wed.

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two sides are squaring off over a bill that lets Idaho ranchers hunt problem wolves from the sky using powered parachutes and helicopters. The Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee delayed till Wednesday a vote on the measure, which would also permit live-bait trapping of the predators ranchers say are ravaging their cattle and sheep. They could then get 60-day permits to pursue offending wolf packs. Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a southeastern Idaho rancher, says wolves wreak tens of thousands of dollars in damage to livestock owners like him and the new tools may help stop the bleeding. But opponents say it's overkill. Idaho Conservation League representative Jonathan Oppenheimer worries wolves could be relisted as an endangered species as a result and Idaho could lose authority to manage its wolf population.

Budget writers: State worker pay ‘a more in-depth problem’

The first agency budget approved by JFAC this morning, for the Department of Finance, includes both the 2 percent raises already OK'd by the joint committee for all performing state employees, and $163,800 to bring seven financial examiners' salaries up to policy; Gov. Butch Otter also had recommended that change. The motion by Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, passed on a unaniomus, 20-0 vote, but Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “We did a supplemental (appropriation) a few weeks ago for Fish & Game, for them to try to get their conservation officers up to speed. Now it appears we have a line item … for some of our finance folks. It's appearing more and more to me that CEC is not going to fix our problems. … It's a more in-depth problem.”

CEC is legis-speak for state employee raises; it stands for Change in Employee Compensation. That's the figure that JFAC set at 2 percent, after Gov. Butch Otter had recommended 3 percent, but wanted to make it one-time bonuses rather than ongoing raises. Neither Fish & Game nor the Department of Finance receives any state general tax funds.

Judicial Council member who didn’t disclose felony record resigns

Here's a link to Dan Popkey's full column in the Idaho Statesman today about Gov. Butch Otter's appointee to the Idaho Judicial Council who failed to disclose her felony record; yesterday, Susan Kiebert resigned from the council. The council disciplines Idaho judges, and selects candidates for appointment to the bench.

Agency budget-setting starts today…

Today is the first day of budget-setting in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, so the joint committee has gathered for its usual early-morning work session to prepare. Agency budgets to be set today include the departments or divisions of Finance, Building Safety, Lottery, Hispanic Commission, Endowment Fund Investment Board, Energy Resources, PUC and the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Among those, the Office of Energy Resources gets no state general funds, instead operating mostly with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Energy. Finance, Building Safety, the state lottery, the endowment board and the PUC also receive no state general funds, operating solely with dedicated funds including fees and receipts. The governor's budget recommendation for the state lottery includes an accounting change that makes the bottom-line appropriation appear to drop in half, but actually it doesn't change; instead, the portion of the budget that pays gaming supplier vendor fees is shifted to the continuously appropriated part of the lottery's budget, rather than the regular appropriation; that gives the lottery more flexibility to impose performance measures in its contract with the vendor.

DEQ will be the first significant general-fund agency budget set this year. The DEQ's budget request for next year is almost $1.5 million less than its general-fund appropriation was in 2001, though its workload has grown significantly since then; the agency's state funding has dropped $4 million since 2009. For next year, the agency has requested permanently tapping the state's dedicated water pollution control fund to pay for annual water quality monitoring. Last year, amid budget cuts, all funding was cut for the Pend Oreille Lakes Commission and the Bear Lake Regional Commission.

Bill to ban kids from using cancer-causing tanning beds clears House committee

Legislation to ban minors from using tanning beds in Idaho has cleared the House Health & Welfare Committee, and now heads to the full House for amendments; sponsor Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, has some changes to the bill proposed by the Academy of Dermatologists. Committee Chair Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, asked Rusche if he'd also consider an amendment to lower the $500 fine in the bill. “If it's the will of the committee that the penalty be reduced,” Rusche said, he'd certainly consider that. “I think what's more important is to have a law.” Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, made the successful motion, which passed on an overwhelming voice vote after two days of testimony; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“Tanning in tanning beds is a known cancer-causing condition,” Rusche, a retired physician, told the panel. He said the devices cause “a higher incidence of skin cancer and higher incidence of fatal skin cancer.” Those who use tanning beds, he said, “might look toasty for a few days, but the downside can be a fatal cancer, and it's totally preventable.”

Popkey: Otter appointee to Judicial Council didn’t disclose felony record

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey has a rather stunning story today: Confirmation of Gov. Butch Otter's appointment of Susan Kiebert to the Idaho Judicial Council was pulled from the Senate Judiciary Committee's agenda today because Kiebert, who has been serving pending her Senate confirmation, failed to disclose her 1995 felony conviction. Popkey reports that Kiebert was convicted of making false statements by a federal jury in Pocatello in 1995; she didn't disclose that to Otter on a confirmation form that asked about convictions.

Popkey reports that Kiebert was sentenced to two years of probation, a $2,500 fine and agreed to pay $4,161 in restitution. She paid her assessment and fine and completed her probation in 1998; you can read his full post here.

Lobbyist claims tanning bed ban for minors will lead to sunscreen fines for parents

So far this afternoon, two lobbyists have testified against HB 486, the bill to ban the use of tanning beds for minors. Jerry Deckard of the Idaho Indoor Tanning Association told the House Health & Welfare Committee, “A 17-year-old can drive a car,” with all the risks of driving, “and yet you would not be able to get a sun tan.”

Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation told the panel that next, the government will fine parents who let their children outside without sunscreen. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, asked Hoffman, “Could you show me in the bill where it shows you can't let your kids out in the sunshine?” Hoffman responded, “Obviously that's not in the bill, but my point is we're finding new ways to invite government interaction with people's families. … Parents and families should still matter.”

Numerous dermatologists and melanoma survivors testified in favor of the bill last Thursday; Idaho has the highest rate of melanoma deaths in the nation, and 34 percent of Idaho girls have used tanning beds by age 17. Jared Scott, a Boise native and Yale fellowship-trained dermatologist, told the committee this afternoon that people who have been exposed to indoor tanning beds have a 75 percent increased risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Non-binding memorial on contraceptive insurance coverage clears committee

HJM 10, the non-binding memorial to Congress, accompanying Rep. Carlos Bilbao's anti-contraceptive insurance bill, has cleared the House Health & Welfare Committee on a straight party-line, 7-2 vote. It now moves to the full House.

House panel votes 7-3 to hold contraceptive bill, bring it up again later…

Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, moved to send his bill, HB 530, to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass,” but Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, offered a substitute motion to hold it in committee. The bill would permit any Idaho insurance plan to exclude coverage of contraceptives, sterilization or any drug that induces abortion. Ultimately, the committee voted 7-3 in favor of an amended substitute motion from House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, to hold the bill and bring it up again later for discussion of possible changes.

Wood, a physician, told the committee, “First of all, it's pre-empted by federal law and federal rule, so we're going to go down the road again of having to go to federal court, this will be set aside, and we'll spend Idaho's hard-earned taxpayers' dollars to defend something that we know already falls under a federal preemption.” He also noted several other problems with the bill, including that it would permit employers to impose their religious beliefs on their employees; and that birth-control pills “are also used in a the treatment of a lot of disease processes that have absolutely nothing to do with contraception whatsoever. They are expensive. I think the cost now, even at Walmart prices, probably runs somewhere around $600 a year or so.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, also a physician, said the bill's definition of abortifacient is so broad - any substance that stimulates an abortion - that it would apply to chemotherapy drugs prescribed to a pregnant patient with cancer.

Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said he thought Bilbao's intent was to maintain the status quo in Idaho, where there's currently no mandate that insurance policies include contraceptive coverage, and Idaho law already requires abortion to be in a separate insurance rider. “I believe if we passed this bill, most of the insurance companies would continue to offer these (contraceptive and sterilization) services because it makes financial sense for them to do so,” Thayn said. “I would like to support the bill. Unfortunately, I won't be able to at this time.” The vague definition, he said, “does open it up to many other things that I don't think are intended.”


After Roberts offered his motion to hold the bill and bring it back up again later for discussion of possible changes, Rusche spoke against it, saying the bill is beyond repair, but Roberts' motion passed on a 7-3 vote. Wood and Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, were the only opponents besides Rusche.
  

Bilbao: ‘When I think it is wrong, it is wrong whether you like it or not’

Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, sponsor of HB 530, told the House Health & Welfare Committee, “If it's for medical reasons, I have no problem. It's also legal for you to use it to end life, that's your business. But I say to you and the federal government, do not ask me to pay for your abortions and your contraceptives. Do not. And the federal government is saying I will.”

Bilbao said his bill was prompted by the federal health care reform law requiring contraceptive coverage as part of basic health care. It would let any policy exclude contraceptives because “I do not know whether it's going to be a pill used to end life or fix a medical problem,” he said. “When I think it is wrong, it is wrong whether you like it or not. That is for you to judge.” He urged passage of the bill.

Testimony: ‘The wrong direction to go’

Former Idaho state Rep. Bonnie Douglas, D-Coeur d'Alene, was among those testifying against HB 530 this afternoon in the House Health & Welfare Committee. “I was a teenager with acne, I have acne scarring,” she told the panel. “I was put on birth-control pills - they were the first thing that stopped the acne scarring that I have. The fact that you would deny access to women for medical reasons that are not birth control, I really believe that this is the wrong direction to go,” she said. “I have a family member who, in her 20s … was put on birth-control pills to help her have regular periods.” Douglas suggested that the bill be amended to remove contraception. “This bill should not go forward as it stands.”

Muriel Roberts of Pocatello, director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters of Idaho, told the committee, “The League of Women Voters of Idaho asks that you respect the privacy of Idaho's women in reproductive health decisions.”

“Probably hundreds of thousands of us have to take those pills for other reasons than birth control,” Cay Marquart told the committee.

Testimony: ‘Abortion is not health care’

Julie Lynde, executive director of the Cornerstone Family Council, was the first to testify in favor of HB 530 today, following about a dozen opponents. “Why is this good state policy?  It protects religious freedom and states' rights,” she said. “I don't know that the government should be injecting itself into telling an insurance company what they actually have to provide, when there is so much difference in society on whether or not that's objectionable.”

Jason Herring, president of Right to Life of Idaho, told the House Health & Welfare Committee, “We are not opposed to contraception. We are, however, opposed to abortifascients that are packaged under the guise of contraception. … Abortion is not health care.” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, asked Herring, “But this bill doesn't differentiate 'good' contraception from 'bad' contraception, does it? I can't read that in the bill at all.” Herring responded, “That's something you'd have to take up with the bill's sponsor, but we do support HB 530 for this reason.”

Testimony: Contraceptive bill would ‘set women’s health care back at least 30 years’

So far, more than a half-dozen people have testified on HB 530, the bill to permit any Idaho health insurance policy to exclude coverage for contraception, sterilization or abortion-inducing drugs, all of them women, and all of them against the bill. Among them:

Sylvia Chariton of the American Association of University Women of Idaho told the committee, “Trying to block … poor working women's access to contraception  is reprehensible, wrong and completely out of touch with today's … landscape. … To deny these working women improved pregnancy prevention programs, new technologies and … access to complete reproductive health care will serve neither employee nor employer well in the long run.”

Eve Palmer told the committee, “I believe passage of this bill will set women's health care back at least 30 years.”

Elaine Kazakoff, of Boise, said, “I believe that contraception is an individual choice, so I would urge you all to oppose this bill.”

Two young women testified that they take contraceptive medication for non-contraceptive reasons, one who suffers from chronic ocular migraines, and another who suffers from extremely heavy periods accompanied by serious nausea and fatigue; the second said she couldn't keep her job without the medication, as she'd miss at least one day a month of work.

First testifer at contraceptives hearing gaveled down twice

The first person to testify at this afternoon's packed hearing on HB 530, the bill to permit any Idaho insurance plan to exclude coverage for contraception, sterilization or abortion-inducing drugs, was gaveled down twice by committee Chair Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. The first came when Yvette Sedlewicz of Boise commented, “I'm kinda surprised that there are so few women on the committee.” McGeachin admonished Sedlewicz to refrain from personal comments; the only female member of the committee besides McGeachin is Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise; the other eight members are males.

Sedlewicz told the committee that millions of American women have tubal ligations and that the typical patient is over 30 and married with two or three children. “Why do you want to press your religious beliefs upon others who not believe as you do?” she asked. The second gaveling came when Sedlewicz told the committee, “In Afghanistan they sell their daughters into marriage, they sell women into marriage, they sell women into adultery. Is this what you're aiming for in the United States?” McGeachin said, “Ma'am, that's not appropriate. … You're speaking to people's motives.”

E-cig ban for minors clears Senate committee, heads for final Senate vote

Legislation to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine to minors in Idaho cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning on a unanimous voice vote; HB 405, sponsored by Sen. Jim Hammond and Rep. Bob Nonini, both Coeur d'Alene Republicans, earlier passed the House on a unanimous 68-0 vote. The problem the bill addresses: Idaho law bans minors from buying or using tobacco, but the new e-cigarettes don't contain any tobacco. They do, however, contain nicotine, the addictive ingredient smokers get from tobacco. The bill was drafted by and is supported by the state's public health districts, which say teens in Idaho already are reporting being pitched to buy the new e-cigs, which come in kid-friendly flavors. The bill now heads to the full Senate for a final vote; if it passes there, it goes to Gov. Butch Otter's desk.

Senators share painful stories, unanimously pass Alzheimer’s resolution

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Deeply personal stories preceded a unanimous Senate vote to support a statewide plan meant to help Idaho's increasing population of people suffering from deadly Alzheimer's disease. Sen. Joyce Broadsword of Sagle on Monday spoke of the painful decline of her grandmother, who ended her days unable to remember loved ones surrounding her — or details from the rich life she'd lived. Creating a statewide plan, according to its Senate sponsors, would boost community awareness and help nurture a comprehensive approach toward educating the public about the United States' sixth-leading cause of death. According to Center for the Study of Aging at Boise State University, three dozen states are working on plans for Alzheimer's and other dementias. After Monday's Senate vote, the resolution, SCR 112, goes to the House for further debate.

Senate adjourns after memorial service

The Senate has now adjourned for the day, but it'll be back tomorrow at 10 a.m. and also will hold an afternoon session. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, noted that more than 40 pieces of legislation are pending on the Senate's calendar, so senators can expect more afternoon floor sessions this week.

Before the Senate adjourned, among those making introductions was Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, who welcomed back Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, and welcomed Patrick Malloy, who has filled in for McKague in her absence, who was in the gallery. Winder added of McKague that he wanted to “thank her for her graciousness to me for not running.” The two are in the same new legislative district; McKague decided not to seek another term and instead endorsed Winder. He also thanked Malloy for deciding to run for a House seat in that district, rather than a Senate seat.

House votes 57-11 for new ABC fund to enforce liquor license laws

The Idaho House debated for an hour today before passing HB 450, which would restore staffing for the state's Alcohol Beverage Control bureau to its level of the 1960s of about 10; the bureau now has only one field officer to enforce alcohol beverage laws across the entire state. Backers of the bill said licensees are complaining about delays in issuing and transferring licenses because of the lack of staffing. The bill would shift $1.5 million from fees that license holders pay to a dedicated fund to support the bureau's operations.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “Obviously one guy can't do that.” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I do want to emphasize that this is a user fee, and that the people that pay the fees have been on board and would like this to happen.” Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, questioned whether the change would support the Idaho Constitution's requirement to promote temperance and sobriety. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said the Idaho State Police should compete in the appropriations process for the funds like any other agency. “We should not be in the position of just setting up dedicated funds because somebody wants one.”

But after some confusion over the amount of funds to be shifted - just the $1.5 million from license fees, not the entire $17 million a year in profits the state makes from its liquor dispensary, which the bill's fiscal note noted have been increasing over the years - the bill passed the House on a 57-11 vote and now heads to the Senate side.

Lawmakers recall 14 former members…

Here are the former Idaho lawmakers who have died in the past year, who are being memorialized today in memorial services in the House and the Senate:

House: Allen Andersen, who served Bannock County from 2003 to 2004; Lee Barnes, Twin Falls County, 1989-1992; Don Brennan, Bannock County, 1971-72; James H. Elgin, Canyon County, 1971-74; Christopher R. Hooper, Ada County, 1979-1988; W. Israel Merrill, Bingham County, 1971-76; Pat Takasugi, Canyon County, 2009-11; Martin B. Trillhaase, Butte, Bingham and Bonneville counties, 1981-1984; and Jay Webb, Ada County, 1967-70.

Senate: Kenneth Bradshaw, who represented Camas, Gooding and Jerome counties from 1977-82; Vearl Crystal, Custer, Clark, Jefferson, Lemhi and Butte counties, 1977-88; Don Mackin, Latah County, 1987-90; William Crutcher, Clearwater and Nez Perce counties, 1967-72; Warren “Is” Merrill, Bingham County, 1977-83; and James A. McClure, Payette County, 1961-66.
  

Families, kids, art, more fill Statehouse…

On this President's Day holiday, the state Capitol is filled with folks, from families with their kids out of school who are taking a look, to more than 100 4-H kids attending a conference, to families and friends of former lawmakers who've died in the past year who are here for memorial services in both the Senate and the House. Also, on the 4th floor of the Capitol rotunda, the 28th annual Idaho Watercolor Society art show starts today, with more than 80 original works on display, nearly all of them for sale, with prices ranging from $45 to $820.

Senate moves anti-texting bill to top of calendar, then moves to memorial service

The Senate has reordered its 3rd reading calendar, moving SB 1274, the bill to ban texting while driving, to the top of the calendar. However, rather than taking up that calendar now, it's now going on to begin its annual memorial service.

Senate, unlike House, unanimously approves call for 3rd fed judge for Idaho

There was no debate as the Idaho Senate this morning unanimously approved HJM 4, a non-binding memorial calling on Congress to add a third federal judge in Idaho - quite a contrast to the House's earlier consideration of the same measure, which passed there on a 47-21 vote, but only after objections on the floor to allowing a Democratic president to appoint another federal judge; more than a third of House Republicans opposed a new federal judge for Idaho if current President Obama might get to make the appointment.

Idaho's had just two federal district judges since 1954, and the federal court caseload has increased so dramatically that there are now big delays in processing civil cases, since criminal cases are given priority. Other states including Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota already have three federal judges and have smaller populations than Idaho.

House, Senate memorialize former colleagues in annual service

Both the House and Senate are holding their annual memorial services today for former members who have died in the past year. The House already has begun its service; the Senate is taking up some of its calendar and will start its memorial service at 11, but it likely won't get to its 3rd reading calendar, which is topped by controversial legislation on controlled hunt tags.

So far this morning, the Senate has approved HJM 4, a memorial that earlier passed the House urging that Sgt. Chris Tschida, an Iraq war veteran wounded in a 2005 grenade attack on his tank crew between Ramadi and Fallujah, receive the Medal of Honor for his heroics. The Senate and its gallery gave Tshida an extended ovation.

House Rev & Tax debates sales taxes on Internet sales, no decision today on introducing bill

After an hour of questions and debate this morning, the House Rev & Tax Committee ran out of time on the question of whether to introduce the streamlined sales tax legislation, which would position Idaho to be able to charge sales tax on Internet sales if Congress approves that; the committee will take the issue back up again tomorrow. “We can start to do something very good for business in Idaho,” sponsor Rep. Jeff Nessett, R-Lewiston, told the committee; he's co-sponsoring the bill with Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise. “We can make a statement this morning to our existing brick-and-mortar businesses in Idaho,” he said, toward “eliminating the 6 percent disadvantage that they have in competing with online competitors outside the state.” Nessett added, “Equally important, this will impose no new taxes.” That's because Idahoans who make online or catalog purchases from out-of-state companies already are required to self-report that and pay the 6 percent tax on their Idaho income tax returns; hardly anyone does, and there's little enforcement.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, who said, “I don't use the Internet” other than for email, declared, “I really don't feel that I need to pay Idaho sales tax on something I buy somewhere else,” and asked, “Why are our retailers to reluctant to compete with each other?” Lake noted, “The sales and use tax is a consumption tax - it is on consumption. So that's why you pay the sales and use tax where you buy the product.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “Don't get me wrong - I'm not opposed to this collecting sales tax on Internet sales. I think we owe that to our local people. But I do have concerns with this legislation. … This bill is so complex.”

This year's bill is 79 pages long, detailing how Idaho will update its definitions for sales tax purposes to qualify for participation in the multistate streamlined sales tax project. Lake said last year, he proposed a simple, one-page bill to just put Idaho at the table, but House Speaker Lawerence Denney held it at the desk, and instructed him instead to come forward with legislation showing what it would take “for this to happen for Idaho.” That's what this year's lengthier bill shows, he said. It calls for Idaho to become a member of the project on July 1, 2013.

After the hour-long meeting, House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I support the concept, but we'd better know exactly what we're getting into here.” However, he said, “A 79-page bill shouldn't scare anyone. This is a complicated issue, and we ought to be able to work our way through it.”


Senate panel backs new study of state primacy for wastewater permits

The Senate State Affairs has unanimously approved a resolution from Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, to launch a legislative interim study committee to look at Idaho taking over primacy from the EPA on issuing wastewater permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). A 2005 state study never led to such a change, though Idaho is one of a handful of states without primacy in that area, in part because of its costs and because of resistance from the construction industry.

An array of lobbyists spoke out in favor of the resolution, including John Eaton of the Idaho Association of Realtors. He said, “From the construction industry side … what you do right now is you go online and you fill out a form that says this is my permit and this is how I'll conduct my business for my little site, and you're deemed to have complied with the federal permitting requirement.” He said feds typically didn't show up at construction sites to check further, but that's changed. “We are now hearing from our developers that the hard hand of the federal government is intruding very much into their developments,” he said. The NPDES permits cover runoff from developments.

Eaton said the Idaho Transportation Department also has raised the possibility of primacy fitting into streamlined permitting processes for projects including road construction, modeled after programs in Florida and Michigan. “It could be a tremendous cost saving,” Eaton said.

Lobbyists for the Association of Idaho Cities, the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, Potlatch Corp. and the Northwest Food Processors Association also spoke in favor of the resolution, which now heads to the full Senate. If both houses approve resolutions for the study committee and it's among those selected by leadership, a group of lawmakers would launch the new study over the summer.

Hammond said the permits are needed for any discharge into streams, from logging roads to agricultural herbicide applications to city wastewater systems. “We have lost control over our own destiny,” he said. “For instance in North Idaho, the Kootenai County cities that discharge into the Spokane River are being told by the state of Washington what criteria they have to live under for their permits, and our own DEQ doesn't even have a seat at the table.” Hammond said it's not an effort to change standards for wastewater discharge, just to allow permitting at the state level. The shift could be funded by charges on all those who have to get the permits, he said. “Quite frankly, spreading that cost out over all the users … it really becomes a pretty small number per individual, so I think it's very doable.”

Legislature in full swing despite holiday today…

Today is President's Day, a state and federal holiday, but the Idaho Legislature doesn't take holidays when it's in session, so the Legislature is in full swing today. Among the issues to be debated today: Introduction of streamlined sales tax legislation in the House Rev & Tax Committee, which would open the way to future taxing of Internet sales, a big issue for in-state businesses; debate and votes this afternoon in the House Health & Welfare Committee on legislation regarding insurance coverage of contraception and forbidding minors from using tanning beds; Senate debate on controversial legislation dealing with controlled hunt tags; and more.

Meanwhile, the holiday weekend has brought news of its own, as GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul became the third major candidate to hold a Boise rally and drew a raucous crowd of more than 2,000 to the Century Link Arena in downtown Boise; click below for a full report from the Associated Press. Here's a link to my Sunday column about state employee raises, which will be set at 2 percent across-the-board for all permanent state workers who are performing to standards; that decision in JFAC Friday came only after a protracted debate. Also, the Idaho Statesman's Sunday coverage of the Paul rally includes a “Republican Caucus 101” that tells you how the process will work in Idaho this year.

  

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports,” I join Jim Weatherby, Kevin Richert, Clark Corbin and host Greg Hahn to discuss the legislative developments of the week, from state employee raises to lobbying to partisan splits. The program also includes Hahn's interviews with Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa on this year' much-changed election and party caucus scene; and with Senate Education Chair John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, and House Health & Welfare Chair Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, on budgets; and a report from Aaron Kunz on a proposed wind-power moratorium.

The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television; it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time, 10 a.m. Pacific; and will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 6 p.m. After it airs, “Idaho Reports” also can be viewed online at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.
  

Birth control new front in war over national health care reform…

Republican lawmakers in a handful of states are opening another front in the war against President Obama's health care overhaul, seizing on the hot-button issue of birth control with bills that would allow insurance companies to ignore new federal rules requiring them to cover contraception, reports AP reporter John Miller. Measures introduced recently in Idaho, Missouri and Arizona would go beyond religious nonprofits and expand exemptions to secular insurers or businesses that object to covering contraception, abortion and sterilization. Click below for Miller's full report.

Romney to Boise crowd: ‘I am the fiscal conservative’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter introduced GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Romney's Boise campaign rally this afternoon. “Folks, this election is about your and my liberty,” Otter said. “We will turn out for that Idaho caucus. … We will turn out for the man that has the executive experience, understands that we are a free market, not a socialist country, that has been there and done that.”

Romney, who's come to Idaho to campaign for Otter in the past, told the crowd, “What a great state this is - you're lucky to live here.” He recalled a summer he spent working on an Idaho ranch near King Hill when he was 15. “I learned so much about cultivating corn and spring corn and irrigating corn,” he said. “I thought I'd never see the end of corn.”

Romney said, “I've got a note here in my pocket that says remind the people there's a caucus on March 6th. I think you know that.” To cheers, he said, “I need your vote, because I want to be president!” The crowd chanted, “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt.”

“It's a remarkable country that we live in, and what breaks your heart is to see how many people (are) having tough times right now,” said Romney, who criticized both President Obama and GOP rival Rick Santorum, who held a Boise campaign rally on Tuesday.

Among Romney's applause lines: “I think to create jobs it helps to have had a job” and “I am the fiscal conservative, I'll balance the budget, I'll get America back on track economically.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kasie Hunt.

Tax cut bill would cut $35 million permanently for top earners

Under legislation introduced in House Rev & Tax this morning, Idaho would cut $35 million in corporate and individual income taxes permanently, starting next year. “This is a start,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, reports the Associated Press. “This sends a good message for the state of Idaho as we try to attract more businesses here … and to get Idaho to be more competitive with surrounding states.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak; this legislation, which next will have a hearing in the House committee, is co-sponsored by Gov. Butch Otter, who challenged lawmakers at the start of this year's session to come up with $45 million in unspecified tax cuts.

National writer knocks Romney donor, as Romney’s Boise campaign rally nears

Glenn Greenwald, a contributing writer at Salon.com, former constitutional law attorney in New York, author of three books and a widely known political commentator who was the featured speaker at the ACLU of Idaho's Bill of Rights dinner last week, has published an article today on Salon about Frank VanderSloot, the eastern Idaho businessman who's a big-dollar donor to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and VanderSloot's history of threatening lawsuits over critical press coverage entitled “Billionaire Romney donor uses threats to silence critics;” you can read it here.

Meanwhile, Romney himself is in Boise today, for two high-dollar fundraisers at the Grove Hotel, followed by a public campaign rally at 1:30 at Guerdon Enterprises, 5556 S. Federal Way in Boise. And tomorrow, GOP candidate Ron Paul will hold a campaign rally at 12:30 the Century Link Arena downtown, 223 S. Capitol Blvd.; Paul also plans rallies in Moscow at the University of Idaho at 4 today, and in Spokane tonight at 7:30 at the Spokane Convention Center. This after GOP candidate Rick Santorum drew big crowds to rallies in Boise and Coeur d'Alene on Tuesday.

Idaho GOP Executive Director Jonathan Parker said in a statement today, “With three Republican presidential candidates campaigning in Idaho in one week, the national media and presidential candidates are recognizing what we have known all along – that Idaho’s 32 delegates are more than Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. For the first time in many years, the road to the White House goes through Idaho!” Attracting some of the candidates and attention to Idaho was part of the Idaho GOP's thinking in scheduling a Super Tuesday presidential caucus this year on March 6, rather than a May presidential primary election.
  

House sends governor emergency bill to evict Occupy encampment

“This bill closes a loophole,” House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the House of HB 404a, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol by imposing a new emergency ban on camping on certain state property. “The matter of time, place and manner of speech is settled law,” Bedke told the House. “This … will be applied uniformly into the future.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, spoke against the bill. “I don't know why we need to poke a thumb in the eye of the people across the way, as I believe the emergency clause does,” he said. “I don't think this is the way that I care for my government to work.” With no further debate, the bill passed on a 51-14 vote; all House Democrats voted against it, along with GOP Rep. Tom Trail of Moscow; all other Republicans who were present voted in favor of the bill, which now heads to the governor's desk. It takes effect as soon as Gov. Butch Otter signs it into law.

House passes oil/gas pre-emption bill, 54-13

Before the House suspended its rules to take up HB 404a, the bill to ban camping on state property, it voted 54-13 in favor of HB 464, the oil and gas pre-emption bill; that measure now moves to the Senate side.

House suspends rules to take up anti-Occupy bill

The House has just suspended its rules to take up HB 404a, the anti-Occupy Boise bill.

Visitor from Canada is on a ‘capitol quest’

Been wondering about the scruffy-looking gent who's been in the front row of the audience at JFAC each day for the last few weeks? He's Alfred Rogalsky, a 73-year-old from Alberta, Canada who says he's on a “capitol quest.” Shown here at center, he's been visiting various provincial and state capitols, and hones in on spots like the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee: “I go where the power lines are,” he said.

Rogalsky, whose long hair and full grey beard are set off by his dark suit and tie and battered red parka, said he's been in Boise since September; he's staying at a homeless shelter. “I'm allowed 180 days,” he said, per visa rules. Boise is his third American capitol; he's also paid visits to Sacramento, Calif. and Boston, Mass.

Rogalsky is a retired flight steward who says he's been homeless for 44 years. “I'm on old-age security,” he said. Asked how he travels on his quest, he said, “I fly - usually first class.” He said because of his background in airlines, “I want to see the service.”

House debate on oil/gas bill: ‘This is production, production pays the taxes’

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, spoke out in favor of HB 464, the oil and gas pre-emption bill. He said two years ago, his daughter, a newly minted teacher, was offered $46,700 a year to teach in Wyoming, plus full benefits. “We have been envious of Wyoming and their gas and oil resources, and now we have an opportunity to potentially reap some of that benefit for ourselves,” Andrus said. “If you want to drill a water well, you don't go to the county to get that permit. It's a state resource. And we're handling this gas and oil as the same.” He said, “If we want to keep the gas and oil industry out of the state, then we can turn it over to the counties. If we want to develop the resources, then in the legislation we have a reasonable way to control and regulate it.”

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, told the House, “The opponents are missing the point because this is production. Production pays the taxes, provides the jobs, pays the bills so that the rest of us can have a job and pay the taxes and pay our bills. It's simply the free-enterprise system.”

In addition to House Resources Chair Bert Stevenson, the bill is co-sponsored by House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Rep. Judy Boyle, both Midvale Republicans; they're both from Washington County, the very county that's just passed its own regulations for gas and oil drilling after a year a work - which HB 464 would forbid. Numerous residents of the county testified against the bill at an earlier House committee hearing, but the committee then approved the measure unanimously, setting up today's debate and vote in the full House.

Denney told the House, “Fear and uncertainty come with any new industry. I'd just like to point out that Idaho is not the first state to develop an oil and gas industry. … We are not reinventing the wheel here, and I can tell you that most other states grant absolute primacy to siting for the drilling and exploration of oil.” He said, “We control from the state level all other natural resources. … These are good-paying jobs, and they are good-paying jobs with benefits.”
  

Tax cut bill introduced, co-sponsored by Moyle, Otter

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House committee has taken the first step toward providing tax relief for Idaho businesses. The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted Friday to introduce legislation aimed at cutting the state's top individual income tax rate for individuals from 7.8 percent to 7.4 percent. It would also lower the corporate income tax rate charged to businesses from 7.6 percent to 7.4 percent. The bill's sponsor is House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. The Republican from Star says his proposal would cut taxes by an estimated $35 million in the next fiscal year. Moyle says it's time to give Idaho companies a break and make the state more competitive. The measure falls below the $45 million in tax relief proposed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter at the start of the legislative session, but Otter is co-sponsoring it; it would provide $35 million in tax cuts.

House debating oil/gas pre-emption bill

The House is now debating HB 464, the controversial bill to ban any local restrictions on siting of oil and gas wells, reserving that regulation to the state Oil & Gas Commission. Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, asked sponsor Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, the House resources chair, whether the bill would force local governments to accept a gas well in “the park in the middle of town. … They would not be able to prohibit that?” he asked. Stevenson responded, “I can't imagine someone wanting to set up a well rig in the park in the middle of the town to drill for gas and oil, but that being the case, if, when they applied for the permit from the Department of Lands … the Department of Lands would then contact the county and the city” to notify them.

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said the state Oil & Gas Commission by law isn't tasked with considering local zoning conflicts that well siting issues would raise. “The primary purpose of the commission is not to waste this resource,” he said. “My city and my county will not be able to prevent drilling in residential neighborhoods. They will not be able to prevent drilling on the river, under the river that runs through it.”
  

Hagedorn’s motion defeated 7-13, 2% raises will be for all performing workers

Rep. Marv Hagedorn's motion to block across-the-board raises for state workers and instead give agency directors full flexibility has failed on a 7-13 vote. The original motion for the 2 percent raises for all classified and non-classified permanent performing employees then passed unanimously, and JFAC adjourned.

As call of Senate looms, JFAC debates across-the-board or varying raises

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron just told JFAC, “They're going to have a call of the Senate here in a few minutes if we don't get through this.” A call of the Senate or House is an unusual move in which the doors are locked and the sergeant-at-arms is instructed to go and arrest any missing member and bring him or her to the chamber; everyone in the chamber must remain there until the call is lifted.

Cameron told Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, that there have been situations in which agency directors want to have flexibility on granting raises, but the governor's Division of Financial Management doesn't approve it. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said giving agency directors total flexibility over raises could lead to decisions based on favoritsm. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “I think it's important that we recognize those people who are performing,” though others noted that the proposal would give the 2 percent raises only to employees who are performing.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said he's heard of situations where upper-end employees get bigger raises and lower-end workers get nothing; he argued for the across-the-board 2 percent for performing state employees. Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said, “My preference is let managers manage.”

Cameron told the committee, “Should the call of the Senate come, since there are motions on the table, we must act on those motions.”
  

Hagedorn: Let agency directors decide, don’t guarantee every performing worker a raise

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, suggested a change in wording to note that salary savings could go to retention bonuses as well as merit raises, on top of the 2 percent ongoing raises. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, who has been protesting all morning that he wanted longer to make these decisions today, proposed a more extensive change: He wants to take out the part about everyone who's performing getting a 2 percent raise, and instead leave the decision on how to apportion the funds to agency directors. Sen. Dean Mortimer seconded Hagedorn's motion.

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, told JFAC, “The directors have repeatedly asked, and the Legislature has affirmed, the desirability to give the directors as much flexibility as possible.” He said that's because so many state employees are far below desired pay levels; granting a 2 percent across-the-board raise “just moves the problem,” he said.

JFAC is now half an hour over its allotted meeting time; both the House and Senate were scheduled to convene at 10:30. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, just showed up and told the co-chairs, “I'm ready to do a call.” A call of the Senate would order all senators to the chamber immediately.

The details: Every performing worker would get 2 percent raise

JFAC is now discussing the details of how the 2 percent ongoing raises for state employees next year would work; under proposed language, all classified and non-classified permanent employees who are performing to standards would get 2 percent raises. That's different from the usual merit-based approach in which the amount each worker gets varies based on performance. The legislative intent section JFAC is examining says, “The Legislature recognizes and thanks all state workers for their dedication, professionalism, and for the personal sacrifices they make every day in the performance of their duties to serve our citizens,” and directs that any salary savings in agencies be used for additional merit-based raises.

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, moved to approve the language; his motion was seconded by Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls.
  

JFAC approves 2% ongoing raises for state employees for next year

JFAC has voted to fund merit-based raises for state employees next year at just 2 percent, but to make that ongoing raises, rather than one-time bonuses.

First, Rep. Wendy Jaquet's motion for ongoing 3 percent merit raises was defeated on a 4-16 party-line vote. Then, Sen. Dean Mortimer's motion for just 2 percent one-time bonuses failed on a 1-19 vote, with only Mortimer voting in favor - even Rep. John Vander Woude voted against the motion, though he'd seconded it. Informed that he had to vote consistent with his second but could then change his vote, Vander Woude, after some struggling and some laughter, changed his vote to yes, then back to no.

Then, the original motion from Sen. Shawn Keough passed on a 16-4 party-line vote.

Three motions on the table in JFAC for state employee raises…

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, moved for 2 percent, ongoing merit raises for state employees as outlined by the committee's co-chairs; Rep. Darrell Bolz seconded the motion. Sen. Dean Mortimer then moved for 2 percent one-time bonuses instead; the Legislature hasn't approved raises for state employees for four years.

“They've worked hard, they've worked hard for less, they deserve this money,” Mortimer said. “But I still am very concerned about where our economy is going. … I don't want to come back and have to take it back.” Rep. John Vander Woude seconded Mortimer's motion.

Keough, arguing for her motion, said, “I do believe that we have some serious issues across our employee workforce that we need to address. … I recognize for many 2 percent is not going to be seen as much, however I do think it's in balance with the economic times that we continue to struggle through, and it does I believe give a signal that we do understand the service our employees provide for us and that we know that there are services the public expects the government to provide, and they expect folks to be there to do that.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, then made an amended substitute motion for ongoing 3 percent merit raises; like the others, hers wouldn't cover teachers eligible for performance-pay bonuses. “I just think that 2 percent is too little given the circumstances that our employees are in with no raises for four years,” Jaquet said.

JFAC looks at 2% raises for state employees, not including teachers…

Legislative budget writers are now turning to the question of state employee raises; that has to be decided in advance of budget-setting so that the amounts can be built into each agency's budget when it's set. Legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith said, “I was requested by members of the committee to prepare a 2 percent change in employee compensation.” The merit-based boost would be ongoing - permanent, not just a bonus - and would include classified employees in public schools who are not eligible for the Students Come First performance-pay bonuses, but would not apply to teachers.

“Anybody can make a motion for any percentage,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron said.

Party-line vote adopts Economic Outlook figure for state budget, 4.43% growth

Urging support for her substitute motion to adopt the governor's revenue forecast, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I'm not suggesting at all that we appropriate more money than we have.”  But the motion was rejected on a 4-16 party-line vote. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee then voted 16-4 along party lines to adopt Rep. Maxine Bell's original motion, adopting the Joint Economic Outlook Committee's recommendation of a figure $33.3 million lower than the governor's projection on which to set the state budget, a 4.43 percent increase over this year.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “The good news is that we're arguging about how good we're going to do. We're not arguing about a decrease, we're arguing about the projected increase.”

Dems offer substitute motion: Adopt governor’s revenue forecast for budget

As JFAC members debate their budget target for next year, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, offered a substitute motion, to adopt the GOP governor's forecast for state tax revenues for next year. “We think that the trends we see give us a reason for confidence in the progress that Idaho is making in an economic recovery.” She called the governor's projection, for 5.78 percent growth over this year, or $2.7003 billion in state tax revenue, is a “realistic projection.”

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “We have kind of frozen state government in place. We've stopped hiring, we've stop replacing things, we've stopped building things. … This is having a really negative impact on our economy and our private sector. I worry a bit that our pessimism could put our economy at risk. … I am concerned that our pessimism could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said her view from North Idaho is different. “In the Panhandle, we are not seeing the growth and the rosy picture that is occurring in other places in the state,” she said. “The trends have been up and down. Our economy, at least in the rural areas of the state, is still suffering. We don't have job opportunities. We've got a great number of Idahoans that have exhausted their unemployment benefits. … At this point in time it's good to not be overly optimistic.”
  

Bell: Adopt Economic Outlook revenue figure for next year’s budget…

JFAC has voted to adopt the same revenue figures for this year's budget as Gov. Butch Otter recommended; the governor's revised recommendation, which estimated 4.43 percent growth in the current year, or $2.5527 billion, also was adopted earlier by the Joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee. That vote was unanimous, 20-0.

Now the discussion turns to the coming year, 2013. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, moved to adopt the Economic Outlook figure, which reflects a 4.5 percent increase over this year, totals $2.667 billion, and is $33.3 million below the governors' recommendation. Bell said she appreciates the joint revenue projection committee's work. “They spent days,” she said. “I think them for their help.”

Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, questioned why the motion didn't address increases in state revenues since the economic outlook committee met. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, acknowledged that as of the January revenues, the state is $13.5 million ahead of target, but he said that's this year, and doesn't guarantee rising revenues next year.
  

Goedde: ‘8 in 6’ program will cut into IDLA funding…

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning that his committee supports the Students Come First pay-for-performance bonus plan, and also supports “backfilling” the money that the law requires to come out of teacher salary funds to pay for it, thereby replacing the salary funds. “We're also very supportive of IDLA,” He said. “The number that you, Mr. Chairman, suggest of $5 million was discussed in our committee. … And it's our understanding that the 8 in 6 program will actually work against the $5 million, so it will not be separate funding at least for the first year.” He added, “We're also supportive of continued funding, maintaining funding for Idaho Public Television.” He said the panel also supports maintaining discretionary funding for schools at at least the current level; state schools Supt. Tom Luna is recommending a 2 percent increase.

He also backed funding requests from higher education, saying, “We all agree that the enrollment workload adjustment needs to be funded.”

Nonini on lifting charter school caps…

Rep. Bob Nonini, the House education chairman, told legislative budget writers this morning, in response to a question, that the State Board of Education brought his committee legislation to lift the annual cap of six new charter schools in the state, but not the cap limiting them to one new one per district. Nonini said he didn't like that bill and refused to allow it to be introduced in his committee; he then introduced a bill to lift both caps, and the state board subsequently endorsed that.

Nonini: IDLA ‘needs to sharpen their pencil’

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, told legislative budget writers this morning that his committee “supports the tenets of Supt. Luna's budget” for public schools, including fully funding the “Students Come First” reforms. “Students Come First is the law of the land,” he said.

Nonini said there's been some concern about funding for the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, the state-run provider of online courses for high schools across the state. “IDLA has been the largest provider in the state and has done quite a good job with that,” Nonini said. “I think where the concern comes, as more online providers are out there in the marketplace, there's a thought that IDLA maybe should try to sharpen their pencil a little bit and be more competitive.” He said House leaders and others are working on that “but it's still a moving target,” as of a 7:30 a.m. meeting he attended this morning.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Nonini that a working group including Nonini's vice-chair, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, and JFAC members has been working on a proposal for IDLA funding. That group most recently recommended funding for next year at $5 million, he said; it's been at $6 million; the idea is “to allow some transition because the other carriers were not equipped” to start up, he said. Nonini said, “It was the first, solid, good online provider. … But I think as we move forward and watch what we do with our revenues, the concern is … maybe we should have some going into stabilization accounts. … I think my committee will probably be working on some legislation that will address the IDLA issue.” He added, “We all agree that IDLA needs to sharpen their pencil and that that safety net won't be there.”

JFAC hears final presentations, prepares for big budget decisions…

JFAC is hearing from Senate Local Government & Taxation Chair Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, this morning, and he'll be followed by Senate and House education chairmen John Goedde, left, and Bob Nonini, right, shown here visiting outside the JFAC chamber before their presentation. After those final presentations, the joint committee will make some big decisions: A target figure for next year's budget, and what to allocate for raises for state employees.

Labrador gets first bill through U.S. House

Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador had his first bill pass the U.S. House today, an amendment aimed at easing geothermal energy exploration. “My amendment establishes a common sense, streamlined policy for the development of clean geothermal resources that will create jobs and provide American families increased access to affordable energy,” Labrador said. The measure, H.R. 2171, passed as an amendment to H.R. 3408, another energy bill; it was approved on a bipartisan 244-176 vote. You can read Labrador's full announcement here.

Two hours of emotional testimony backs ban on tanning beds for minors

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Skin doctors told House lawmakers to ban tanning beds for people under 18, while a personal liberties activist argued such laws turn Idaho into a “nanny state.” Similar bans are being debated in states including Washington, West Virginia and Utah. On Thursday, Blake Sampson, a University of Washington medical student working in Idaho, told the House Health and Welfare Committee he's promoting the bill because Idaho has some of the highest rates of skin cancer — and teen tanning — in America. Sampson says it's irrefutable that ultraviolet radiation increases cancer risks. Half a dozen dermatologists called this a necessary step to helping young people make healthy decisions, and another half-dozen survivors of melanoma shared their stories with the committee, often with great emotion. The Idaho Freedom Foundation's Erik Makrush said families, not well-intentioned legislators, should decide; an industry representative called the bill the most extreme she'd seen. The committee is scheduled to consider the bill, HB 486, on Monday.

Heidi Low of the American Cancer Society told the panel that 34 percent of Idaho girls have used tanning beds by age 17, and the state is “first in the nation for melanoma deaths.” She said, “This bill is a step in the right direction to change this scary statistic.”

State board removes ‘flagship’ from UI mission over university’s objections

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's oldest public university is opposing efforts to remove the word “flagship” from their mission statement. The state Board of Education approved changes Thursday to the mission statements for all of Idaho's public universities. Board members said they want to promote a collegial relationship between the schools and use of the word “flagship” in the University of Idaho mission statement suggests a special prominence. The school was founded in 1889, a year before statehood, and its mission statement current says: “The University of Idaho is the state's flagship and land-grant research university.” The board voted to remove word “flagship” amid strong objections from university president Duane Nellis. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines “flagship” as “the finest, largest, or most important one of a series, network, or chain.”

Idaho Statesman reporter Brian Murphy has a full report here.

Ron Paul announces Boise rally Saturday

GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul has announced a Boise campaign rally this Saturday at 12:30 at Century Link Arena, 223 S. Capitol Blvd. in downtown Boise. Paul spoke at a rally in Twin Falls earlier today, and will hold campaign rallies Friday at 4 p.m. in Moscow, at the UI student union ballroom, and at 7:30 p.m. at the Spokane Convention Center.

Meanwhile, rival candidate Mitt Romney, who has the endorsements of most of Idaho's top GOP elected officials, will hold a Boise campaign rally tomorrow at 1:30 at Guerdon Enterprises, 5556 S. Federal Way in Boise, after a high-dollar fundraiser at the Grove Hotel; and candidate Rick Santorum rallied crowds in Boise and Coeur d'Alene on Tuesday. All are seeking Idaho's 32 delegates in the GOP presidential contest, which will be awarded in statewide caucuses on March 6, Super Tuesday.
  

Emmett rep pushes emergency bill to let Idaho insurers, employers nix coverage for contraception

Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, is pushing emergency legislation to permit any insurance policy in Idaho to exclude coverage for contraception, sterilization or abortion-inducing drugs, along with a memorial to Congress, HJM 10, backing legislation to amend the national health care reform law to allow insurers and employers to decline to offer coverage they object to on religious or moral grounds. The bill, HB 530, came up for a hearing in the House Health & Welfare Committee this afternoon, but the committee's agenda hadn't been properly posted, so Chair Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said she'd take testimony today but then take both measures up again on Monday.

“It is an attack on my rights of conscience,” said Bilbao, a Catholic, reports Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman newspaper. “It is an affront to my religious freedoms…It is not right that we have to bow down and take something that is against our moral beliefs.” You can read Popkey's full post here.

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the Idaho ACLU, testified against the memorial, saying it backs “radical” legislation in Congress under which “the religious beliefs of some are forced on the lives of others.” She said the approach also would constitute sex discrimination, by denying essential health care only to women. She noted that birth control drugs and sterilization often are prescribed for health purposes other than contraception.

Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “I don't think the issue here is if contraception is valuable or not. The issue here is should some people be required to buy insurance that covers it if they don't want to.” Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a retired physician and former health insurance executive, noted that most Americans get health care plans that are provided by their employers, so the bill addresses the employer's or insurer's decision, not the employee's.

Updated Idaho Energy Plan clears House committee

The House Energy, Environment & Technology Committee voted unanimously this afternoon to approve the new five-year update of the Idaho Energy Plan. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who co-chairs the Legislature's interim energy committee, noted that more than 150 comments were received on the plan, and some of those concerns were incorporated; the plan also includes a minority report on items that weren't written into the plan, including adding a consumer advocate at the Public Utilities Commission. The new plan now heads to the full House.

House panel backs bill to shut off parking meters around Capitol during session

Ross Borden, whom many lawmakers know as  a former legislative budget analyst and who is now the director of intergovernmental affairs for the city of Boise, told the House Transportation Committee today that HB 480, Rep. Joe Palmer's bill to turn off all parking meters around the Capitol when the Legislature is in session, wouldn't actually make it easier for folks to get to the Capitol to testify at legislative hearings. “The fact is that unregulated free parking in high-activity areas such as downtown Boise would actually make parking much more difficult to find,” Borden told the committee. “If all the meters were deactivated, every spot would be filled all day long, and I promise you they would not be filled by your constituents.” Instead, they'd mainly be filled by people who work downtown, he said.

But the committee voted 9-5 to pass the bill, which now heads to the full House. Palmer, the new chairman of the Transportation Committee, opened the hearing by saying, “I think today you'll probably hear some testimony that might be against it, I don't know why. I don't think it's a controversial bill at all.” He added, “Just for the record, I have had parking tickets.”

Laurie Boeckel of Nampa, a child advocate, testified in favor of the bill, saying the current time allowed on the meters is too short for people to attend committee hearings without getting tickets. “This is the people's house,” she said. “I just know that what is in place right now is not right.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, asked Borden if the meters could be switched to four hours maximum parking time rather than two, and he said they could be reprogrammed. “With longer periods of time there is less turnover, that's the trade-off there,” Borden said. He said the current system accomplishes the goal of frequent turnover; on his way in to the hearing today, he said, he counted eight open paring spaces.

Palmer said, “The question here is accessibility.” He said lawmakers have been hearing complaints all session from people who say their lawmakers aren't accessible to them. “The way it is now, we have mad people,” Palmer said. “We have tried to get solutions.” He urged the committee to pass the bill on to the full House, saying, “I think that's only going to open up more dialogue over the process.”

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “I agree with you that at least this is a starting point,” and he made the motion to approve the bill. Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, spoke against it. “I worry that people would abuse this,” he said. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I think that sometimes to solve a problem, it's got to get bigger, and that's where we're at.” He joined the majority in supporting the bill.

Monsanto picks fight with utilities; lobbyist Trent Clark likely to face fine

Monsanto Co. is picking a fight with Idaho's utilities, arguing they should be forced to disclose more information about costs of future power plants or transmission lines so customers will be better armed to oppose unnecessary rate hikes, AP reporter John Miller reports. In one sign of the fight's bitterness, Rocky Mountain Power's representatives in Idaho recently reported former Idaho Republican Party Chairman Trent Clark, Monsanto's lobbyist, to the secretary of state's office for not disclosing his lobbying activities. He didn't pay a $10 registration fee before he started pushing Thursday's bill. “We're looking seriously at the imposition of a fine,” Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told The Associated Press, adding any penalty will likely be less than the $50 per day maximum, but enough to underscore the importance of following the rules. Click below for Miller's full report.

House returns from caucus, adjourns without taking up any bills today

The House has returned from caucus and adjourned for the day without taking any action on bills. Though House Speaker Lawerence Denney had said last week that at the next GOP caucus, he'd ask  members if they wanted to end the lockdown of their office areas in the basement of the state capitol that he imposed in January, the topic didn't come up today. Instead, the closed-door GOP confab focused on budget issues. “It went long, we had to cut it short,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “We're going to sit down again next week.”

Ron Paul rallies Twin Falls crowd; says ‘the people are waking up’

“Very nice welcome - sounds like a lot of friends here today,” GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul told an enthusiastic crowd at a Twin Falls high school auditorium just now; you can watch live here courtesy of KBOI2 News. “I think we have to face our problems,” he said. “We're paying for this debt. That's why the economy's in a very weak state, and why the wars keep going on and our civil liberties are being violated. We have to address that.” Paul drew a big cheer when he said, “Outside of Washington the people are waking up and they're sick and tired of what we're getting.” He said, “When the people wake up, Washington will eventually change.” Another applause line from Paul: “I want to be president, but I don't want to be president to run your life.”

He also said to cheers, “The federal war on drugs has caused a lot more harm than the drugs themselves.”

Lawmakers grapple with ethics reform

When Idaho Sen. Mitch Toryanski was a West Point cadet, the definition of ethics was clear: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do. The penalty was expulsion. Now that he's a state senator serving on the Idaho Legislature's bipartisan working group on ethics, it's a bit more complex. “What kind of system do we want to ensure integrity?” Toryanski asked. “I don't think anyone knows what we're going to do, but hey, the conversation's started.”

The working group, with four senators and four representatives, half from each party, has been meeting twice a week for the past four weeks to try to find common ground on how to establish an independent ethics commission for Idaho, something 41 states have but Idaho lacks. Legislative leaders have also expressed hope that the group can open the way for debate on other ethics reforms this year, including Idaho's first-ever financial disclosure requirements for public officials; a “revolving-door” law requiring a year's break before lawmakers or other public officials could go directly into lobbying; and a whistleblower hotline for public employees to call in complaints.

Ethics reform was a high-profile issue at the start of this year's Idaho legislative session, but has moved largely under the radar as the working group has held its weeks of discussions; members say they still have lots more work to do. Meanwhile, nine ethics reform bills have been introduced this session. “Ideas are being floated - nobody's waiting on this group to come up with something,” Toryanski said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Senate adjourns, GOP heads into caucus

Now Senate Republicans also are headed into a closed-door caucus; at 11: 15 Boise time, the Senate adjourned for the day without ever going to its 3rd reading calendar to consider passage of bills. Instead, the Senate's session this morning was spent in the 14th Order for amendments, in which there was an extended battle over rules between minority Democrats and majority Republicans as Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, unsuccessfully attempted to append the “Add The Words” human rights bill onto a measure dealing with prison contraband.

House halts floor session for closed GOP and Dem caucuses

The House has halted its morning session this morning for closed-door Republican and Democratic caucuses. Majority Leader Mike Moyle announced that if the caucus doesn't run “super long,” the House will return to the chamber and begin taking up bills; if it does run long, it'll just come back in and adjourn. The first bill up for House consideration today is HB 464, the controversial bill on state pre-emption of local government authority to regulate oil and gas drilling.

LeFavour’s move to revive ‘Add The Words’ bill blocked in Senate

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, has been overruled in her attempt to challenge Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder's ruling that her amendment to SB 1215 can't be considered. The bill is about increasing penalties for prison contraband; LeFavour argued that the bill says it's about promoting safety and security, and so was her amendment - to expand the Idaho Human Rights Act to cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That would include prison employees who are gay or lesbian, she said.

“Within the bill we are addressing public safety and security,” LeFavour told the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who repeatedly interrupted LeFavour with objections, told the Senate, “If this body were to merge these two together, it is my opinion you would lose the whole bill. I do not believe the court would sustain the proposition that we are dealing with just one subject.”

Lt. Gov. Brad Little then ruled against LeFavour's challenge. “Indubitably, the Constitution trumps everything we have in this body,” he said. He said allowing her amendment would be “a very slippery slope given the very, very weak nexus that is here.”

Senators puzzle over rules, LeFavour move…

Nine senators are gathered in the well of the Senate going over rules questions with Lt. Gov. Brad Little, as Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, formally challenges Sen. Chuck Winder's ruling that her amendment is not germane, and that it would result in violating the state Constitution by creating a bill addressing two separate subjects.

Sen. LeFavour attempting to amend Senate bill to add ‘Add The Words’ measure

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, is attempting to amend SB 1215, legislation regarding prison contraband, to add into it the “Add The Words” bill expanding the Idaho Human Rights Act to cover discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation; the act now covers discrimination for race, religion and disability. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, ruled LeFavour's amendment “not germane.” She protested, saying both are in Title 18 of the state code.

Capitol displays tout clean energy

Locally made solar panels and high-output LED lights are among the items on display in the fourth-floor rotunda of the Capitol today as part of “Energy Lobby Day,” an event sponsored by the Idaho Energy Collaborative to educate lawmakers and the public about the benefits of clean energy for the state. The displays are up until 1 p.m.

H&W chairs from both houses call for restoring some of last year’s Medicaid cuts

House Health & Welfare Chair Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, told legislative budget writers, “In reviewing the budget before you with Medicaid specifically, it strikes me the enormity of what is before us. … It's simply unsustainable. … I'm struck by the enormity of the challenges.” She said she's been examining requests to restore some pieces of the $35 million in service cuts in Medicaid that lawmakers approved last year, and urged JFAC to restore “whatever you feel can fit within your budget,” including services to patients with both mental illness and developmental disability; eliminating the “tiered budget approach for adults,” and “working to restore preventive dental services to all of those in the enhanced plan if possible.”

McGeachin said her committee has “gone into extensive review” of Medicaid readiness, a set of federal guidelines that Idaho must meet to continue to get its current rate of federal matching funds for Medicaid, and concluded that it's needed and will “really increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.”

Senate Health & Welfare Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, also asked for restoration for some of last year's Medicaid cuts, including no longer making those with both developmental disabilities and mental illness choose which condition to treat, and expanding dental services, at least for those in certain programs for people with disabilities. Lodge also called for funding a state suicide hotline, noting Idaho's high suicide rate.

Hammond: State will need to look at general funds for transportation in future…

Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, making his final presentation to JFAC (he's not seeking another term), told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning this morning that Idaho is going to have to look seriously at spending some state general-fund money on transportation; it's now funded entirely by gas taxes, registration fees and federal funding. “There are over 574 bridges that are over 50 years old,” Hammond said. “Truly we've got to address that issue. But beyond that, we're not even raising enough money to take care of the maintenance of our current system.”

Hammond said, “We see diminishing revenue from the federal government, we see at this point diminishing revenue per car-mile traveled in terms of gas taxes. So we have to develop some alternatives. And quite frankly, I think we've moved way past the pay-as-you-go system, because of efficient cars, because of electric cars, becuase of other forms of transportation. Gas tax just doesn't do it by itself. So we have to look at our strategies.”

He said, “We have an extremely expensive asset that is important to the state of Idaho. … We have to take care of that.”

Judiciary chairs on budgets: ‘We are jeopardizing safety’

Senate Judiciary Chairman Denton Darrington told legislative budget writers today that Idaho has a problem with its correctional officers, as Corrections Director Brent Reinke earlier detailed: “They are so poorly paid … and it's not an easy job.” As a result, there's high turnover, both in adult and juvenile corrections. “That's probably the biggest problem in both agencies is the retention and pay of trained people,” Darrington said. At the Idaho State Police, he said, “We have remote stretches of interstate without officers on them very often.”  Said Darrington, “State police needs people.”

House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper, said, “I've seen the rise and fall of what law enforcement tries to do to serve their communities. … These people are all, in their own agencies, really paying a terrible price right now.” ISP officers now often travel alone in very remote areas, he said. “They no longer have the opportunity of having someone to back them up that's close.” And he said prisons are understaffed. “I think that the safety of the public has to be paramount,” Wills said. “If we can't take care of our citizens, we're in trouble … and right now we're jeopardizing their safety, I truly do believe that.”

Santorum’s public land sale proposal taps long-divisive issue in Idaho

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum won applause at a campaign rally in Boise this week when he advocated transferring or selling off federal lands in the state, but the issue has been a loser for other politicians over the course of history, report Idaho Statesman reporters Dan Popkey and Rocky Barker today. Those include Gov. Butch Otter, who backed off and apologized after co-sponsoring a bill in Congress to sell off forest land to pay for Hurricane Katrina cleanup, and President Herbert Hoover, whose 1929 offer to transfer 190 million acres to the states, but not the minerals beneath, was rejected as westerners derided it as “skimmed milk” or “the lid without the bucket.” You can read their full report here.

Andreason: Give state employees a 3% across-the-board pay raise

Senate Commerce Chairman John Andreason told JFAC this morning, “It has been four years since the state employees have received a cost-of-living adjustment. Idaho's public servants are our greatest assets,” and he said the lag in their pay is having serious impact. “Managers across state government have shared concerns. … We have lost significant university professors and researchers to neighboring states, and we are paying too much to train a rotating case of corrections employees. We have created uncertainty for our teachers, discouraging our best and brightest from joining this important profession. So the responsible course of action would be to institute an across-the-board, ongoing, 3 percent salary increase. The cost would be identical to the proposal put forward by Gov. Otter in his State of the State address of $41 million (for one-time bonuses), but the message to the employees about their value would be significantly improved. This action will help retain our current hard-working state employees and ensure that the state government is again a good career choice.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, responded, “Some of these positions are so out of the payline, so low, that a 3 percent won't even bring them to where they need to be competitive.”

Committee chairs bring their input to JFAC; big decisions loom tomorrow morning

Chairs of eight House and Senate committees are presenting their recommendations to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, as the joint committee prepares to start setting budgets for state agencies next week. First up this morning was House Commerce & Human Resources Chair Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls. Also scheduled to present are Senate Commerce Chair John Andreason; Senate Judiciary Chair Denton Darrington; House Judiciary Chair Rich Wills; Senate Resources Chair Monty Pearce; Senate Transportation Chair Jim Hammond; House Health & Welfare Chair Janice McGeachin; and Senate Health & Welfare Chair Patti Anne Lodge.

Among Block's recommendations: Funding the plan to shift from single-day issuance of food stamps each month, which is causing rushes that overwhelm Idaho grocery stores, to multi-day issuance.

Tomorrow morning, JFAC will hear from three more committee chairs: Senate Local Government & Tax Chairman Tim Corder; Senate Education Chair John Goedde; and House Education Chair Bob Nonini. Then, it'll make some big decisions: Deciding on a target figure for the total state budget it'll set, and determining what will be included for raises for state employees. “We'll make the entire pie fit, we hope,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

Luna: Cameron’s bill to remove pay cuts from ‘Students Come First’ law is ‘good news’

Here's a statement from state schools Superintendent Tom Luna on Sen. Dean Cameron's bill, introduced today with a slew of cosponsors, to amend Luna's “Students Come First” school reform law to remove cuts in funding each year for teacher salaries: “If there is support for this bill, this is good news because it means that our reform efforts can move forward with full funding and support this year and in future years.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Wolf killed in Hailey had parvo virus

A wolf killed by a Hailey homeowner on Jan. 22 has tested postive for parvo, a common and highly contagious canine virus that can be fatal. Idaho Fish & Game reported that the homeowner reported the wolf had been observed near his house for at least two days and was acting sick or injured; click below for the full news release from Idaho Fish & Game.

Occupy Boise member arrested in October heads to court with free-speech argument

Geoff Burns, a 63-year-old retiree and Occupy Boise member who was arrested Oct. 15 for setting up a tent in Capitol Park and refusing to leave, goes to court on Friday and plans to make 1st Amendment arguments in his defense; he'll appear Friday at 11 a.m. before Judge Daniel Stecke at the Ada County Courthouse, the Idaho Statesman reports. Statesman reporter Katy Moeller has a full report here.

ISU faculty senate dispute leads to federal lawsuit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and Idaho State Journal: POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) — Faculty leaders at Idaho State University claim administrators violated their free speech rights when blocking the provisional faculty senate from sending emails to the campus community. The Idaho State Journal reports a complaint filed Tuesday alleges the university started blocking emails from faculty leaders in November, following a disagreement over the adoption of a new faculty constitution. On Tuesday, a university spokesman said administrators had not yet seen the complaint and would respond in “due course.” The state Board of Education is expected to discuss faculty governance issues at ISU during a meeting Thursday in Boise. The board voted last year to dissolve the university's previous Faculty Senate, which been at loggerheads with school President Arthur Vailas. The university then elected new, temporary faculty leaders to adopt a constitution and bylaws.

Idaho Dems issue second correction in two weeks

The Idaho Democratic Party has issued its second correction in two weeks, this time correcting a guest opinion it distributed earlier today from party Chairman Larry Grant that said proceeds from former Congressman Bill Sali's proposed special license plate “would go to Sali's recently formed non-profit foundation of which he, his wife and his nephew are paid employees.” The Dems have corrected the opinion to say instead that the three are the “sole members of the board of directors.”

This follows a scathing news release on Feb. 2, based on a state audit that raised questions about accounting practices in the office of State Treasurer Ron Crane, in which the Dems charged that Crane “was living the high-life using state funds to pay for … whitewater rafting trips.” Actually, there was no mention in the audit of whitewater rafting trips, nor have there been any reports that the state treasurer's office has funded or held them.

In a correction, the Dems said a staffer misread “rating,” as in annual bond rating trips, as “rafting,” leading to the error. “Through all the edits that it went through … somebody made the original mistake of writing 'rafting,' and then somebody had turned it into 'whitewater rafting,'” explained Idaho Democratic Party spokeswoman Sally Boynton Brown. “I apologize. … It certainly is embarrassing for it to happen. … We're going to have to obviously re-look at our process, because apparently some of the people we have on our team are not rechecking their facts.”

Senate approves offender fee to fund victim-notification program

Sen. Denton Darrington, presenting SB 1263 to the Senate today, which imposes a $10 one-time fee upon conviction of a misdemeanor or felony to raise funds for the state's victim notification system, had this answer to the question of whether the state wasn't piling fees on top of fees: “There is a way not to pay it and all the others: Do not do the crime.”

He said, “We have a lot of fees. It would be nice to go to the general fund for everything. Do you want to lead the way in going to the general fund for a half million dollars, under the circumstances we're under right now? I don't think I do. … Right now all of our public employees are in need. All of our schools are in need. Higher education is in need. And we're not going to go to JFAC to get a half-million dollars plus to run this fund. This is a solid funding mechanism.”

Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said he strongly supports the mission of the victim notification program, which makes sure victims of crime are notified of changes in the status of offenders. “However, I am one of the persons who has concerns about the funding mechanism,” he said. “In fact there are now over 20 fees and other obligations, in addition to fines and restitution which these citizens must pay.” Toryanski, an attorney, said minor offenders in Idaho face a growing load of fees beyond their ability to pay, and the state faces growing collection costs.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, also an attorney, spoke in favor of the bill. “This is something that is very important to victims out there who are the victims of violence or some other type of criminal activity, and we cannot drop the ball,” he said. He said the fees could be reconsidered in the future when state finances improve.

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he's had “a little bit of a personal experience” with the program; his 23-year-old son was shot to death in 2003. “Are we prepared to take the money from other scarce resources?” he asked. “That's really the hard decision that we as a Senate have to wrestle with.” Davis said he found the notification system “really easy to use. … For me, in this moment, I think this is a pretty good approach.” The bill then passed the Senate on a 30-5 vote; it now heads to the House side.

House adjourns for day without getting to oil/gas pre-emption bill

The House has adjourned for the day without taking up HB 464, the oil and gas regulation bill that would pre-empt local county regulations. That means the next time the measure could come up for a debate and full House vote is tomorrow.

House hosting page program, as first group of youngsters prepares to depart, second to arrive

The House has begun its page program, including skits; that may mean HB 464, the controversial bill asserting state authority over local government regulation of oil and gas drilling, may not come up today, depending on how long the program takes. It's the next bill up on the House calendar. House and Senate pages are high school students from around the state; the current batch is nearing the end of its stint, and a new group will arrive for the second half of this year's session.

Washington County passes own drilling ordinance; sets up fight with state

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Leaders in Washington County now have a new set of rules that require energy companies to get local approval before drilling for natural gas or building refineries. The Idaho Statesman reports that the rules adopted by county commissioners Monday also impose bonding requirements on oil and gas projects. Officials acknowledge the new rules likely conflict with legislation making its way through the Idaho Legislature. Last week, a House committee approved a bill that gives the state much of the regulatory authority over the industry; that measure could come up shortly for a debate and vote in the full House. County officials have been working on new rules for more than a year in response to growing industry activity in the region. In 2010, a company reported promising discoveries of gas reserves in Payette County — and since then drilling has expanded into Washington County. You can read the Statesman's full report here from reporter Rocky Barker.

Nearly twice as many Idaho teachers left the profession in 2011 vs. 2010

Nearly 1,300 Idaho teachers left the profession in 2011, the AP reports, up from about 700 the year before. More than half of the educators who abandoned teaching last year left for “personal reasons,” according to data from the state Department of Education. The number of teachers leaving the profession for personal reasons more than doubled to 697 in 2011, up from 314 in 2010; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Bill would change ‘Students Come First’ law to remove teacher salary cuts

A rare meeting of the Senate Finance Committee - the Senate half of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee - convened this morning to consider a bill proposed by Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, to make a significant change to the “Students Come First” school reform laws. The bill would eliminate the law's requirement that salary-based apportionment, the state funding source for teacher salaries, be permanently reduced by set percentages each year for six years, to fund technology boosts and a teacher merit-pay bonus plan.

The bill wouldn't remove this year's reduction of 1.67 percent - $14.8 million - in the salary funds. “But all future reductions or increases in reductions are removed,” Cameron told the Senate Finance Committee. “Should this bill pass, it forces the responsibility on us (JFAC) to find the funding to pay for performance and for technology moving forward, rather than us finding funding to backfill reductions in salary-based apportionment,” he said. “From my perspective, the motives for bringing this forward are to clean up what I thought was an inappropriate step, and … that we budget for items that are approved by this Legislature and that we not do it through salary-based reduction.”

Cameron is co-sponsoring the bill with Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene; Senate Finance Vice-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; and 15 other Republican senators, including Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.

The Finance Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill; Cameron said it'll go to the Education Committee for a full hearing.

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

It's “Buy Idaho” day in the state Capitol today, which means that three floors of the rotunda are crowded with displays, information booths, products and freebies galore, all highlighting Idaho businesses and products made in Idaho.

JFAC wishes DEQ chief Hardesty well; her last day will be next Thursday

After JFAC this morning unanimously approved a $671,200 supplemental appropriation to the Department of Environmental Quality for continued cleanup at the Bunker Hill Superfund site - the money comes from a settlement with Hecla Mining and is part of continuing cleanup within the 22-square-mile “box” at the center of the cleanup site - state DEQ Director Toni Hardesty stood up to leave. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, interrupted the proceedings to recognize her; she's leaving her post to take a job with the Nature Conservancy and her last day is next Thursday. Said Cameron wistfully, “I was hoping if we passed this that you would stay.” He thanked Hardesty for her service and wished her well.

The money is for the continuing institutional controls program overseen by the Panhandle Health District. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “It is incredibly difficult to just do even a sign placement in the Silver Valley without extensive permit process through the institutional controls process. I met with a constituent last week who told me it took eight hours” to go through approval “just to put a new sign for their nursing home up. It has to do with the contaminated soils. … So this is an important program.”

CAT fund supplemental appropriation of $13M this year gets lawmakers’ nod

JFAC has approved a $13 million supplemental appropriation for the Catastrophic Health Care program for the current year, down from the original request of $17.6 million. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said that will be enough to bring the total ongoing funding for fiscal year 2012 to $35 million, “which is the amount needed this year.” The supplemental appropriation includes one-time funds of $5.5 million to pay off bills that went unpaid last year and were carried over into this year.

Gov. Butch Otter had recommended the full $17.6 million, but since he made that proposal, counties have agreed to the lower figure, said Wayne Hammon, Otter's budget chief. “It's not going to be a problem - the counties are convinced that this is enough,” he said. The program helps pay for medical care costs for indigent Idahoans; counties pick up the first $11,000 for each case.
  

Party-line vote approves $200K state voter-ed effort for GOP closed primary

Idaho's election laws have changed dramatically for this year's primary election, due to the Legislature's passage of HB 351 last year to allow the Republican Party to close its primary to anyone who's not a registered Republican; Idaho's never before had official party registration. So Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa came before JFAC this morning to request $200,000 for a voter education campaign to bring Idaho voters up to speed.

“There's a lot of uncertainty out there,” Ysursa told legislative budget writers. “An informed voter is a good voter, and we think we need to do the best we can to get them informed so they can make a proper choice on Election Day, and save a lot of trial and tribulations for our poll workers.”

The money includes $56,000 for newspaper advertising, $16,000 for billboards, $7,000 for radio ads, $82,000 for TV advertising, $6,000 for graphic design, printing and postage, and $25,000 for poll worker training, along with some miscellaneous expenses. Lawmakers suggested Ysursa consider social media as well, to help inform younger voters.

Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, asked whether Ysursa had asked the political parties to pick up the cost, and he said no. In Georgia, counties sued and went to the state Supreme Court trying to recover primary election costs from the parties there, and the court said the counties had to pay; Ysursa said elections are paid for with state general funds.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “Given that really only one political party is bent on closing their primary, and given that the entire system is very confusing … I guess I'm a bit more surprised that there hasn't been more of an effort to ask at least one of the political parties to participate.” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said,  “Well, we get the dubious honor in this committee of funding lots of things that we didn't vote for … or things that we don't necessariy agree with.” Though HB 351 last year had a fiscal note suggesting a $215,000 cost, money wasn't appropriated then, he said; Ysursa has lowered that to $200,000 now.

The motion to fund the $200,000 from state general funds passed on a 15-4 party-line vote, with all four of JFAC's Democrats objecting.

Santorum rallies Boise crowd

Rick Santorum's campaign rally in Boise drew an overflow crowd to the 1,300-seat Capital High School auditorium tonight. “The bigger the government is, the smaller you become,” Santorum told the enthusiastic crowd. “It is a zero-sum game.” Most of  his remarks were aimed at President Obama, though he also talked quite a bit about religion. Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House from 1990 to 1995 and in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2006, was misidentified by a local news station as the former governor of Pennsylvania; he was defeated for re-election to the Senate by a pro-life Democrat in 2006.

His reception in Boise was highly enthusiastic; backers had to set up overflow space in the school gym. It followed a Coeur d'Alene rally that also overflowed. “There are more delegates here than in South Carolina and Iowa combined, almost as many as in the state of Florida,” Santorum said to applause. “You can have a huge impact on March 6th.” That's Super Tuesday, the date of Idaho's first GOP presidential caucus.  After Santorum's talk and Q-and-A with audience members, he said, “I will take pictures with anyone who puts it on Facebook.” Click below for a report from the AP on Santorum's Boise stop and other recent events; you can read Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey's full report here.

Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul has scheduled a campaign stop for Thursday in Twin Falls, according to the Twin Falls Times-News. Paul reportedly may visit Boise over the weekend, while Mitt Romney has scheduled both a high-dollar fundraiser and a rally for Boise on Friday.

CdA Basin cleanup to be scaled back, anti-EPA resolution shelved for now

The EPA will unveil plans tomorrow to scale back its Coeur d'Alene Basin Superfund cleanup from a 100-year, $1.3 billion deal to more like about 30 years and $730-some million, in response to public comments from the state and local residents. Idaho DEQ Director Toni Hardesty revealed the news while testifying to a legislative committee considering Silverton Rep. Shannon McMillan's resolution to order EPA to leave the Silver Valley within five years and take its Superfund cleanup with it. The resolution asks the federal government to take actions it can't by law, Hardesty told lawmakers. “In fact, EPA cannot legally rescind the Superfund designation until they have completed the cleanup,” Hardesty said.

The House Environment Committee voted to hold the resolution, HJM 9, but not kill it, in case they want to bring it back up for a rewrite. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Senate panel approves texting-while-driving ban on unanimous vote

The Senate Transportation Committee has approved SB 1274, Sen. Jim Hammond's bill to ban texting while driving. The bill defines texting as, “Engaging in the review of, or manual preparation and transmission of, written communications via handheld wireless devices.” Law enforcement, fire or emergency medical vehicles are exempt with regard to actions “in the course and scope of their duties,” and the bill wouldn't ban the use of voice-operated or hands-free devices while driving.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, offered a substitute motion to send the bill to the amending order to remove the exemption for law enforcement. “They're no better drivers than we are, and I'd like to strike that language,” he said. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, seconded Bair's motion, but it failed with just two votes in favor. The original motion, to send the bill to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass,” then passed on a unanimous voice vote.
  

Testimony for, against texting ban…

Seven more people have now testified in favor of SB 1274, the bill to ban texting while driving, including lobbyists for insurance companies and law enforcement, who were in favor; a Meridian police sergeant, in favor; several teens in favor; one teen against, who said current inattentive driving laws that have higher penalties should be enforced; and Idaho ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins, who opposed the bill “because it is ineffective, opens the door to discretionary stops, invites widespread violations and creates unintended consequences.” She said her problem with the bill is making texting while driving a primary offense. “We would support legislation that addressed the problem as a secondary offense or an enhancement, such as SB 1311 that was introduced on Friday,” she said.

Texting hearing: ‘Easy for us to enforce’

Idaho State Police Capt. Ryan Zimmerman told the Senate Transportation Committee that SB 1274, the anti-texting while driving bill, is strongly supported by the ISP. “It is very cleanly written easy to understand, and easy for us to enforce,” he said.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, the bill's sponsor, said, “There have been several attempts to pass a texting bill in our Legislature over the past three sessions. They have all failed. I brought forth a bill that is very simple and straightforward.” It just defines texting, he said, and, ” Now if you do that, it's an infraction and a law enforcement officer can cite you for it.” He said, “I do this because I think this is a new technology that specifically needs to be called out in legislation. … It's become very obvious to me that it's necessary to call out this specific activity as inappropriate and unlawful.”

Among those testifying in favor of the bill so far are Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who introduced the Sauer family, her neighbors; Janelle deWeerd of the city of Meridian mayor's youth advisory council, who noted that her city has banned texting while driving; and Dave Carlson of the AAA, who said 35 states now ban texting while driving, with most of those laws passed in just the last three years, and in a recent statewide survey, 87 percent of Idahoans favored banning texting while driving. No one has testified against the bill.
  

Grieving mom at texting hearing: ‘Teenagers need things spelled out’

Shauna Sauer of Caldwell told the Senate Transportation Committee this afternoon that her 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, died on Jan. 14 of this year from a texting-while-driving accident. “Taylor slammed into the back of a tanker truck that was doing 15 mph on the freeway that evening,” the mother told the senators, surrounded by her husband, Clay, and Taylor's four surviving siblings. “She was on her way home for the long weekend from college, where she had attended Utah State in Logan. Taylor was a very intelligent and caring young lady. She was salutatorian of the Marsing 2011 class. … She was involved in many community activities.”

Sauer said, “As a family we strongly feel that there needs to be a law that specifically states that texting and driving is illegal. … Teenagers need things spelled out. They honestly don't feel that texting is inattentive since they feel they are so proficient at it.”

She urged passage of SB 1274, Sen. Jim Hammond's bill to ban texting while driving. “Isn't saving one life worth passing a law?” she said, “because what if that one life were your daughter's, or your granddaughter's, or your best friend?” Her voice breaking, she said, “We don't want any other families to have to go through this pain.”

Hammond told her, “The point that you make I think is a very important point. We need to stop this before it happens to anyone else. Thank you.”
  

Full house, surviving family turn out for hearing on anti-texting bill…

There's a full house for this afternoon's hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee on SB 1274, Sen. Jim Hammond's bill to ban texting while driving; seated in the front row are the parents and four surviving siblings of 18-year-old Taylor Sauer of Caldwell, who was killed in a freeway crash while texting three weeks ago.

AP: Idaho likely to spurn federal cash for health insurance exchange

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — With the 2012 session half over, opposition from the Legislature's conservatives has all but ended Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's plan for using a $20.3 million federal grant for a state-run insurance exchange required by Congress' health care overhaul. Discussions between legislators, Otter and the insurance industry have shifted toward a state-run exchange created without federal money, but that's sufficient to reassure U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials Idaho isn't ignoring them. This approach walks a thin line between practical and political considerations: Doing enough to keep Washington, D.C., bureaucrats from imposing a federal exchange on Idaho, while letting “Obamacare”-loathing legislators tell constituents they didn't bend to the hated federal government. Democrats fear spurning the federal cash is tantamount to Idaho cutting off its nose to spite its face. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Two GOP presidential candidates campaigning in Idaho this week

On the very day that GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is campaigning at two rallies in Idaho - in Coeur d'Alene right now, and in Boise tonight - rival Mitt Romney's campaign has announced that Romney will appear at a rally Friday in Boise, at Guerdon Enterprises, 5556 S. Federal Way, at 1:30 p.m. That's right after Romney holds a high-dollar fundraiser at the Grove Hotel, where attendees will pay $2,500 each to attend a VIP reception or $1,000 each for lunch.

Santorum's rally tonight at 7 at the Capital High School auditorium is free. His Coeur d'Alene event is kicking off now - it started at noon North Idaho time - at the Hagadone Event Center at the Coeur d'Alene Resort golf course. Half an hour ago, S-R reporter Jon Brunt tweeted that the rally was at capacity, and police were turning cars around at the gate.

House Resources chair Stevenson won’t run again

House Resources Chairman Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, has decided not to seek a ninth term in the Idaho Legislature, the Twin Falls Times-News reports today. Stevenson, 76, a semi-retired farmer and Army veteran, landed in a legislative district with two other House incumbents when legislative district lines were redrawn this year; the two are Reps. Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Scott Bedkey, R-Oakley. You can read reporter Melissa Davlin's full report here.

Senate passes anti-Occupy bill, 26-9

The Senate has voted 26-9 in favor of HB 404a, the anti-Occupy Boise bill, which would evict the encampment from state property on an emergency basis. The bill now goes back to the House for a vote on it as amended in the Senate, which adjusted clauses on property seizure.

In the vote, every Senate Democrat voted against the bill, and they were joined by two Senate Republicans, Sens. Patrick Malloy, the substitute for Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian; and Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston. All other GOP senators voted yes.

Senate debate: ‘Some folks starting to see this as long-term residence’

As senators debate HB 404a, the anti-Occupy Boise bill:

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said he stopped in at the Occupy Boise encampment one evening. “I sat down by the wood-burning stove for about an hour, and talked to them,” he said. Tippets said it was a good discussion. But, he said, “My concern is that some folks are starting to see this as a long-term residence. … I don't think it's appropriate to be camping and living on that property, so I'm going to support the bill.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, said he's offered to help Occupy Boise members find a meeting room, and noted they can use capitol meeting rooms for any lawful purpose. “If there are grievances, let 'em come, keep your doors open,” he said. But he favored the bill to end the indefinite encampment.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “This is not aimed at one group. … It's good long-term policy for the state of Idaho.”

Senate debate: ‘A sinister echo of what’s happening in our chambers’

As the Senate debate on the anti-Occupy bill, HB 404a, continues, here are some more of the comments:

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, told the Senate, “Folks, this bill is aiming at a group of people who are just simply exercising their rights. That's not right.” He compared the tents of Occupy Boise to crosses on public property, or yellow ribbons on trees. “When I look at these tents, I really see freedom and democracy, as we exercise our right to express ourselves.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he's asked himself, “Would I feel the same way if the folks over there were fighting for some principled position that I agreed with? And for me, the answer is yes.” He spearheaded amendments earlier to soften provisions that would've allowed property left on the site to be disposed of as litter; the bill now, instead, requires property to be held for possible claim for 90 days. Davis said he sees overnight stays as going beyond freedom of expression on public property, asking, “Can individuals also declare some of this ground to be their temporary or permanent place of dwelling?”

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said she sees the bill as a sign of everything that's going on in the Legislature this year, from a newly renovated Statehouse that permits lawmakers, if they choose, to use back elevators and hide from the public in private offices, to growing evidence that “bills brought by the minority are repeatedly not even introduced to print.” Davis objected, but Lt. Gov. Brad Little said he'd allow LeFavour “a little leeway” given the gravity of the issue.

LeFavour said, “To maintain that Idaho's government is as open as possible, I think, is perhaps in this bill so evidently not the case.” She said in the legislative committee process, “It is our job as much as it is the majority's job to bring forth issues for debate, for thoughtful debate. Today we debate a bill that attempts to silence some and remove them from our sight, and I worry that this is only a really sinister echo of what's happening in our chambers and in our committee rooms every day this year, and I'm sorry for that, because I think debate is important. And I think looking people in the eye is important. And I think hearing what needs to be said is so vitally important.”

Senate debate on Occupy bill: ‘When we quiet what we don’t want to hear…’

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, opening debate on HB 404a, the anti-Occupy bill, told the Senate,  “Our goal is to maintain the highest esthetic standards for the Capitol Mall and have consistent public use guidelines.” He said, “Good senators, in my view the Capitol Mall is kind of like our front yard for the state of Idaho,” and he said people don't allow others to camp indefinitely in their front yards. “The Supreme Court has ruled that you can place time, place and manner restrictions on speech, and this bill clearly falls within those guidelines,” Vick said. “I think this is a necessary piece of legislation.”

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, spoke against the bill. She said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Stennett noted that people in her area have very differing perceptions of the annual Trailing of the Sheep, as everything from a disruptive nuisance to a tourist attraction. “If the members of a church had decided to have a vigil for a few days to pray for us and our decision-making in this building, would we remove them?” she asked. “Or would it depend on their religion?” Said Stennett, “Tread lightly here. When we quiet what we don't want to hear, we open a space to be quieted when we want to be heard.”

Substitute Sen. Patrick Malloy, who is filling in for Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, spoke against the bill, saying he thought other laws already on the books adequately addressed the issue. “I just don't feel that this bill is necessary,” he said.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, “What this is about actually is the fact that some people are offended that we have an encampment on state property, they don't like it, it's dirty. And they don't want to listen, they don't want to see it.”

Senate takes up anti-Occupy bill…

The Senate is now taking up HB 404a, the anti-Occupy Boise bill.

Senate could get to anti-Occupy bill, HB404, today if other bills go quickly…

The Senate has put off consideration of an array of gubernatorial appointments and several bills today, for various reasons, making it more likely that it could get to HB 404a, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the capitol by imposing a new camping ban on certain state land. The Senate's 3rd Reading calendar still has about nine ahead of HB 404a, but it has an hour to go before noon. If the bill doesn't come up today, it'd be high on the calendar tomorrow…

Bill: Coaches would have to pull players who show signs of concussion

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Athletics school coaches and officials would be required to remove players from games who show signs of a concussion, according to a measure aimed at boosting protections for young athletes who suffer head injuries. Rep. Erik Simpson of Idaho Falls wants to strengthen laws passed in 2010 in the wake of several severe concussion cases. According to Simpson's proposal, an athlete could return to play if he or she were cleared by a qualified medical professional. Parents couldn't make the decision, Simpson said, to eliminate conflicts of interest. Though some lawmakers at Tuesday's House State Affairs Committee hearing worried the bill saddles coaches with undue responsibility, Rep. Carlos Bilbao of Emmett says it would help remedy dangerous situations where a head injury could be a “death warrant” for a young athlete.

A kiss for Valentine, but budget looking less rosy…

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is giving his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning, but first, JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, noted that a special guest of his, wife Tracey, is in the audience. Wasden pulled out a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, and said, “In that vein, I brought some roses for my valentine.” Tracey came forward to accept the roses from her husband with a kiss, as Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, asked to laughter, “Is that a budgeted item?”

Wasden's budget presentation was less rosy. His office has 25 vacancies out of 207 positions - 19 of those lawyer positions - “and we could be facing more,” he said. Since 2009, his budget has been cut by nearly $2.4 million, “almost all of which is personnel.” Yet, legal work hasn't decreased, and big cases loom, including fighting tobacco industry attempts to withhold or cut the millions in tobacco settlement payments Idaho is receiving each year, and the state's challenge of the national health care reform law, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court March 26. Wasden said his office brought in more than $42 million last year in legal settlements. “As you can see, your lawyers continue to deliver,” he said. But, he warned, “My office cannot retain attorneys in the face of offers from other state agencies.”

In the past year, he's lost two lawyers to other state agencies for big pay boosts. Lawyers who leave the AG's office for the private sector get an average raise of 50 percent. “Retention and recruitment are virtually impossible without a meaningful effort to address salaries,” Wasden said.

He's proposing three steps to stop furloughs and layoffs in his office: Fully funding his $400,000 fiscal year 2013 budget request to refill those vacant positions; continuing to allow his office lump-sum authority to shift funds where needed; and extending interagency billing authority to allow agencies to be billed for additional attorneys; that's been a success already for two attorney positions to do work for the Transportation Department and two for the Department of Health & Welfare. However, Wasden said those steps won't address the salary issue.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, we interviewed an attorney we wanted to hire. He withdrew his application after learning that he would have to take a 50 percent pay cut in order to work in our office. This is not the exception, but the rule,” Wasden said. Attorneys with “significant legal experience” make far more elsewhere, he said.  “This office should not continue to be the training ground for private firms that they will then use to turn around and sue you.”

Felony animal cruelty bill clears Senate committee with just one ‘no’ vote

Legislation making a third offense of intentional and malicious animal cruelty a felony punishable by a year in prison cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee this morning with just one “no” vote and headed to the full Senate; no one testified against the bill, SB 1303, which was brought by the Idaho Cattle Association and the Idaho Wool Growers Association. Lobbyist Stan Boyd told the committee all agricultural practices would be exempt, “So nobody can say, 'hey, you're branding your calves, that's cruelty to animals.' It's very well defined that this is exempt.”

Rick Stott, executive vice president of AgriBeef, spoke strongly in favor of the bill. “What this proposal does … is really puts the line in the sand to tell not only our industry but our citizens, the people in Idaho and the people across this country, that Idaho does care about animals and takes it seriously,” he said. “It's the right thing to do.” Plus, he said, the industry's customers care about this.

Idaho is one of just three states with no felony penalty for aggravated animal cruelty; an initiative now gathering signatures in Idaho would define animal torture and make it a felony on a first offense, with escalating penalties for subsequent offenses. Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson,  said, “If we pass this legislation, the livestock industry will have a much better chance to defeat an initiative. … We cannot defend bad actions and bad behavior.”

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, asked, “If somebody's capable of committing horrific acts against animals of whatever sort, why don't we go straight to the felony?” Stott responded, “We had lots of discussion about why we only went this far, the reason being that we want to pass something.” Two years ago, the same committee and the full Senate passed a farther-reaching bill, but it died in the House. “It's about passing a felony provision, it's plain and simple,” Stott said. “It's been proven over the last couple years that we can't get a comprehensive animal welfare bill through this, for a lot of reasons.”

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, who cast the only vote against the bill, said he feared it would just open the way for others to propose farther reaching bills in future years. He recalled a former neighbor whose family fell on hard times and its animals were neglected and had to be taken by neighbors and the Humane Society. “To even have them considered to be a felony looks pretty tough,” he said. “We're going to try to fill the big house (state prison) out here.” Stott responded that a case like Pearce's neighbor's wouldn't be covered by the bill, which only targets third offenses, and only for the “intentional and malicious infliction of pain, physical suffering, injury or death upon an animal.” Maliciously overworking, starving, and abandoning animals would remain misdemeanors. “This would be indication of a repetitive, completely irresponsible, habitual animal abuser,” Stott said.

Wyoma Clouss of the Idaho Dog Coalition, a group of kennel clubs and hunting dog clubs across the state, said, “There are times that people really do commit unspeakable acts toward animals, and torture really describes what's going on. This is not just not taking care of your animals.” Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society, called the bill “a positive step forward.”
  

Sage grouse hearing draws crowd, ‘bear’

At a joint hearing of the House and Senate Resources committees this afternoon on state-federal oversight and the sage grouse, there was lots of concern that efforts to improve habitat for the unique fowl in order to avoid endangered species listing might be as onerous for ranchers and others as listing itself. As the various presenters spoke, a member of the audience dressed as a big, fuzzy bear nodded thoughtfully. Presenters included Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore; former U.S. Interior solicitor Bill Myers; and Office of Species Conservation Administrator Nate Fisher. Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker has a full report here.

The sage grouse, whose habitat extends through much of southern Idaho, is listed as “warranted but precluded” from listing as endangered, because the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ruled that listing it was “precluded by the need to take action on other species facing more immediate and severe extinction threats.” However, it remains on the list of species that are candidates for Endangered Species Act Protection, and its status is reviewed annually. The birds, prized for hunting, are dependent on dwindling sagebrush habitat; they now occupy 56 percent of their historical range.
  

Senate votes down Schmidt amendment to anti-Occupy bill

Only one amendment was considered to HB 404, the anti-Occupy Boise bill: The one sponsored by Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, and seconded by Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, to exempt college and university property from the bill's new camping ban on certain state property. “Now this is an amendment to an amendment,” Schmidt told the Senate. “The intent is the same.”

Said Schmidt, “The purpose of this amendment is to make sure the public universities and public colleges in the state of Idaho will not be included in this statute that is being considered. My discussions with universities as well as the Board of Education have said they are in favor of this exclusion. In my opinion, the drafters of this bill didn't think about this, and thus, we could, if this bill passes, eventually have unintended consequences. I don't think that's the intent of this bill, and I don't think that's the intent of this body.” But, he added, “We're going to find out.”

Then, the Senate voted on the amendment by voice vote, and it clearly failed – it sounded like the chamber's seven Democrats and very few others voted in favor of it; the Senate has 28 Republicans. The amendment had passed the same chamber last week. Now the bill will go back into line to be voted on as amended, taking the Senate back to where it was before today's exercise.

HB 404a, anti-Occupy bill sent back to amending order

HB 404a, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state land across from the Capitol by imposing a new camping ban on certain state property, has been referred back to the Senate's 14th Order for amendment by unanimous consent of the Senate. Sen. Dan Schmidt's proposed amendment, which would exempt colleges and universities from the new ban so they could choose to allow camping for soccer tournaments, swim meets and the like, is now an “amendment to the amendment.”

Senate to reconsider UI amendment to anti-Occupy bill; UI ‘would appreciate the clarification’

Former Idaho Sen. Joe Stegner of Lewiston, now the University of Idaho's chief lobbyist, said the U of I was fine with an amendment to the anti-Occupy bill proposed earlier by Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, to exempt state colleges and universities from the new camping ban on state property. “We're comfortable and if it passes, we would be fine with that,” Stegner said. “We did not initiate that effort.” That's because the university's general counsel thinks other laws might protect the university's abilities to manage it campuses, Stegner said, so the UI is “kind of neutral,” but, he said, “If that is the amendment and it goes through, the university community would appreciate the clarification.”

The amendment earlier passed the Senate, but then was lost on procedural grounds after a different amendment that replaced entire sections of the bill was approved. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who sponsored that other amendment, said the plan is to return to the Senate's amending order when the Senate reconvenes this afternoon to give senators a chance to reconsider that. Said Davis, “All I wanted to do was make sure that Sen. Schmidt had a more fair shot at this university amendment, that he is treated with the dignity that any senator is entitled to.”

Bill headed to gov’s desk eases in-state tuition rules for returning vets

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Lawmakers have stamped final approval on legislation to let out-of-state service members pay in-state tuition at Idaho's universities and colleges. The Idaho Senate voted 35-0 to approve the measure, HB 384, which allows members of the U.S. armed forces to meet residency requirements and pay in-state tuition immediately upon their return home. Under current law, these soldiers would have to live in Idaho for at least a year before they could pay in-state tuition. The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition can mean thousands of dollars each year. Lawmakers have previously moved to allow out-of-state members of the Idaho National Guard to pay in-state tuition. The state Board of Education has said the absence of a similar fix for U.S. armed service members was an oversight.

Four new bills introduced today to amend ‘Students Come First’ laws

Three bills making a series of mostly minor changes to all three of last year's “Students Come First” school reform laws have been introduced in the Senate Education Committee this afternoon at the request of Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Supt. Tom Luna. Meanwhile, another measure introduced in the House Education committee today would broaden the program's performance-pay bonus program so that teachers with fewer than three years of experience would be eligible; Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, called the decision to exclude those new teachers from the bonus plan “unfair and unnecessary,” the AP reports. All four measures now await committee hearings.

POST fee increase measure clears House committee

After a smaller fee hike was killed in the House last year, the Idaho State Police persuaded the House Judiciary Committee to pass legislation today to shore up the dwindling budget for the Peace Officers Standard and Training (POST) Academy by increasing a current fee on offenders from $10 to $15, the AP reports. Last year's bill would have raised it by just $1.50. The bill, HB 448, now moves to the full House for a vote.

Otter offers to send Kitzhaber 150 wolves

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has offered to send Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber 150 wolves, saying his own state has a few of the predators to spare. Monday's offer came in a tongue-in-cheek letter where Otter sarcastically apologized to Kitzhaber after an Idaho hunter killed a wolf from an Oregon pack that strayed across Idaho's border to the east. On Feb. 2, the Idaho hunter killed a brother of an Oregon wolf that became a celebrity by wandering hundreds of miles into Northern California seeking a mate. Otter, no fan of the mid-1990s wolf reintroduction to central Idaho, offered Kitzhaber “my sincerest apologies.” Then, Otter said he'd have the Idaho Fish and Game Department round up another 150 wolves ― or any number Kitzhaber needed or was willing to take.

LewTrib: Second Dems jobs bill shot down without a hearing

A second Democratic jobs bill was shot down today without even a public hearing, reports Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence at his Political Theater blog; you can read his full post here. Spence reports that the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning voted 11-6 to return the bill to its sponsor, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, rather than introduce it; the bill would have created a $500 “finder's fee” tax credit incentive for businesses that persuade their suppliers or partners to relocate to Idaho.

Three Republicans joined the committee's three Democrats in backing introducing the bill; they were outvoted. Last week, the House Business Committee voted against introducing another bill from Rusche that would have used state bonding authority to create a revolving loan fund for small businesses; both measures are part of legislative Democrats' “IJOBS 2.0” package of legislation this year aimed at creating jobs in the state.

Labrador: ‘Washington has not changed me,’ he bunks on office couch when there

“Washington has not changed me,” Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador declared today as he launched his bid for a second term in Congress. Here's evidence: The freshman congressman hasn't found himself a home to rent in Washington, D.C. while he's there - he's sleeping on his office couch instead, and returning to Idaho and his family each weekend. “I commute every week,” Labrador said. Asked how that's going, he said, “Planes are not my favorite thing - that's really the only tough part.”

Labrador is not alone among congressmen in choosing to bunk in his congressional office while in the nation's capitol. “There's people who have been doing it for over 10 years,” he said. Last year, Politico reported that retiring Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, slept on the couch of his Capitol Hill office for 17 years and nine months; he told Politico then, “I always figured I’d lose someday, but it’d never be because I’d gone D.C. and forgotten who I worked for.”

Labrador and his wife, Becca, looked at possible homes in the D.C. area for the family when he first was elected, but decided against getting a place, at least for now. “I have kids in high school,” he said. “I want to make sure they still have those Idaho roots.” Labrador said if re-elected, he'll continue sleeping on  his office couch for the next two years.
  

Labrador launches re-election bid

Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador announced his bid for a second term on the Statehouse steps today, flanked by more than 30 state lawmakers who served with him when he was a state representative and a bevy of the state's top GOP elected officials. Labrador said with the economy improving, “The government just simply needs to get out of the way.” He told an appreciative crowd of about 300, “I share your values and your vision for America.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, with whom Labrador clashed as a state lawmaker when Labrador led House opposition to Otter's proposed gas tax increase, laughingly ordered anyone in the audience who was wearing their red Labrador sticker on the left side to move it to the right. “We're talking about Raul Labrador here!” he declared. Otter said, “It's awfully important that we have a voice in Washington, D.C. that speaks loud and clear about the new Republicanism and the federalism that we believe in in Idaho. And Raul along with the rest of the delegation has been at the forefront for that.”

Labrador spoke proudly of his votes in Congress, including opposing reauthorization of the Patriot Act, supporting repeal of the national health care reform law, voting to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, and opposing the National Defense Reauthorization Act because “it failed to clearly protect U.S. citizens from indefinite detention.” He also alluded to his recent televised scrap with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a congressional hearing over the “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking investigation. “I don't think he will ever forget that I am from Idaho,” Labrador said. “And yes, Mr. Holder, to answer your question, that is how we do things in Idaho. We ask direct questions and we get direct answers.”

Labrador is being challenged in his bid for a second House term by Democrat Jimmy Farris, a former NFL football player and Lewiston native who's making his first run for office.

Senate will be back at 4 p.m., may go into amending order…

The Senate is now recessing until 4 p.m., the first time this session it's come back in for an afternoon session. “Remember, today is the last day for non-privileged committees to introduce legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate. So the Senate will reconvene at 4 to address those newly introduced bills. “In addition, there is a possibility that we will also go into the amending order this afternoon,” Davis said.

House Lincoln commemoration includes re-enactors, music…

The Idaho House is holding its annual Lincoln Day commemorative program today; the Senate held its on Friday. Here, those portraying President and Mrs. Lincoln and their children make a presentation to the House; also part of the program are civil war re-enactors, former Idaho Lt. Gov. David Leroy and musical performances.

Senate GOP emerges from caucus

Senate Republicans have emerged from their closed-door caucus after 20 minutes; Caucus Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, would say only that the confab was to discuss “procedural issues.” There were lots of discussions on Friday about amendments, rules and HB 404, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise vigil from property across from the state Capitol, which the Senate amended last week; that bill is now on the Senate's 3rd Reading calendar, which mean it's ready to come up for a vote, but it's far down the calendar.

Senate breaks for GOP caucus…

The Senate has gone on recess midway through its floor session this morning for a closed-door Republican caucus…

New Commerce chief reorganizes department, focuses on jobs

New Idaho state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer made his first budget pitch to lawmakers this morning, and he noted that he's reorganized the department, with the advice of former Commerce Director Jim Hawkins, to eliminate duplication and get staffers back out in communities working on economic development. “We now have a 13 percent reduction in our workforce, and part of the objective of that was to find money,” Sayer told JFAC, to funnel into the department's top priority: Jobs.

He said the department's marketing division was “replicating efforts that the tourism division was already doing, and we were able to collapse four positions into one.” Two other divisions were eliminated in favor of creating a “business attraction team.” Sayer said the department is “becoming laser-focused on who our customer is, and we've declared to the world and ourselves that our customer is business, both existing and new, and we're doing everything we can to fulfill that obligation.”

First priority, he said, is “to protect and retain what we have - we have to remember that our companies are just as vulnerable to being recruited out of state as we are to recruit other states' companies into ours.” Second, he said, “Our fastest source of jobs is going to come from growing our own companies.” And third priority is attraction of new businesses to the state. One of Idaho's greatest strengths, he said, is the momentum it already has going in certain key industries. “It's in our best interest to focus on those industries,” Sayer said. That means spending time with business leaders in those sectors to “have them help us figure out who we need to recruit,” that would be “complementary to those industries and can help them grow even more.”

Sayer told lawmakers, “Many of you know I come from industry. I'm a CPA by background, I started my career in Silicon Valley with Ernst & Young. I spent most of my career with small- to medium-sized businesses and I have a little bit of experience in the ups and downs.”

He also shared some positive economic news: Idaho exports hit $5.89 billion in 2011, the third record year for exports in the last four years; they were up 14.3 percent from 2010. Tourism also has begun to pick back up after a dip during the economic downturn.

House panel nixes bill declaring blue heeler Idaho’s state dog

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, is pushing legislation to declare the blue heeler the official state dog of  Idaho, but the House State Affairs Committee this morning rejected the bill on an 8-11 vote.

“I'm bringing to you a piece of legislation this family had brought to me and have asked for several years that we take a look at,” Wood told the House State Affairs Committee, introducing a constituent who gave an impassioned pitch for the blue heeler, noting its merits and that “the blue heeler is a common fixture of Idaho ranches, where it is said that one such dog will do the work of three cowhands.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “I appreciate the presentation here and the history that's contained here, but I guess I always have trouble with these kinds of bills. There's lots of dog lovers in the state, and they have lots of kinds of dogs that they love, and I hate to discriminate one over another.”

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “I appreciate that the blue heeler is a great dog for cattle people,” but he said sheep ranchers don't share those feelings. “The worst dogs to get in sheep, and from my experience, I've lost thousands and thousands of dollars … German shepherds and black labs and blue heelers are the worst,” Andrus said. “So I would certainly not like to enthrone the blue heeler as the state dog. If we want to have a state dog, I would think we ought to have some nice gentle dog like Lassie.”

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said blue heelers are the national dog of New Zealand and Australia, urged a full hearing on the bill, calling the blue heeler “an amazing dog,” but adding, “I'm biased also because we have one. … I do believe that the blue heeler has a great history here in Idaho that's probably greater than any other breed.” But he and the other eight backers were outvoted, and the panel refused to introduce the measure. It's the second state-symbol bill to be proposed so far this year; HB 451, proposed earlier by Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, would declare “We Were Miners Then” by former Gov. Phil Batt to be the state poem, in commemoration of 40th anniversary of the 1972 Sunshine Mine disaster.

Tax Commish: Cracking down on those who don’t pay their taxes makes it ‘more fair to everybody’

Idaho's state Tax Commission is giving its budget presentation to lawmakers this morning, and Commissioner David Langhorst said the initiative to step up collections of already-owed taxes has paid off in a big way for the state. In fiscal year 2012, the effort, which includes adding auditors, cost $1.4 million, and brought in $20.5 million in new revenue, Langhorst said; that's a 14.7