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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2012

McKenzie: No public testimony to be taken on ‘Add The Words’ bill

The Idaho Press-Tribune has published a correction to its Sunday story that reported that Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, would allow public testimony at the print hearing on the “Add The Words” human rights bill; instead, McKenzie says he won't allow public testimony. “If I don't think that it's going to get a majority to get all the way through the process to the governor's desk, I don't have a hearing on it,” McKenzie told the Press-Tribune. Click below for their full report.

AP: Former Dems chief Foster to work with Otter against school referendum

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has enlisted a former Democratic political operative to help develop his strategy for fighting to preserve new education laws that weaken teacher negotiating power and emphasize online learning. The governor has vowed publicly to do everything in his power to guarantee the measures aren't rejected by voters in November. The battle over the reforms deeply divided Republicans and Democrats during the 2011 session. Now, Otter's staff has brought on John Foster to serve as an informal adviser leading up to the referendum. The decision, which Foster confirmed Tuesday, may surprise some. Foster is a past executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party and was campaign manager for former Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick. Foster says the education reforms aren't about partisan politics, but about improving schools. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner; you can read Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey's column about the the move here.

Allen Foundation gives $655K to seven Idaho nonprofits

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Catholic Charities of Idaho are among a handful of nonprofits around the state getting more than $650,000 from The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The Seattle-based foundation announced its latest round of grants Tuesday. Each year, the foundation supports nonprofits in the Pacific Northwest, and this year seven Idaho groups split $655,000. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival got $125,000 to support a technology project, while Catholic Charities received $110,000 for a project to provide financial stability to low-income residents. The foundation also gave $50,000 to the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev., to underwrite a multimedia project for the annual Fiddler's Pilgrimage in Weiser. Other winners include the Boise Art Museum and the Idaho Nonprofit Center. The foundation has injected $4.3 million into Idaho since 1990.

Rare Canada lynx sighted in Salmon-Challis area

Idaho Fish & Game is reporting a rare Canada lynx sighting in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the first direct evidence of lynx presence there since 1991. “This would be an extremely rare event, and we’re waiting to get genetic test results before we confirm it’s a native, wild lynx,” said Fish & Game wildlife manager Tom Keegan. Canada lynx are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and they are designated an Idaho “species of greatest conservation need.” Fewer than 40 have been reported in the Salmon-Challis region since 1896. Click below for the full Fish & Game news release.

Luna touts ‘one-to-one devices’

State schools chief Tom Luna told lawmakers, “The next step is implementing a one-to-one ratio of mobile computing devices to students and teachers in every public high school in Idaho. This is a critical step in making sure every student has equal access to the best education opportunities.” He said the devices will be demonstrated to lawmakers at a reception at the State Department of Education tomorrow afternoon. “The device has endless possibilities in every classroom,” he said. “It becomes the textbook in every classroom, the calculator in math, the research tool in science, the word processor in English, and it's the portal to a world of information and knowledge.”

The “one-to-one devices,” meaning every student has one, will start being distributed to students in the fall of 2013, under the Students Come First phase-in schedule, with a third of high schools getting them each year. He said his 38-member technology task force recommended that the devices be laptop computers, not tablets or other devices. “An overwhelming number of our schools want these devices,” Luna said; so far, three-quarters of high schools have requested to be in the first third to get them. “They want to participate now, not later,” he said.

Luna updates lawmakers on ‘Students Come First’ reforms

Idaho's “Students Come First” school reform laws have been in effect for about nine months, state schools chief Tom Luna told the House and Senate education committees this afternoon. “Since these laws passed, my staff and I have worked diligently with local school districts, and the organizations that represent them, to implement these laws successfully statewide,” he said.

Among the law's provisions: That teacher union negotiations with school districts take place in open meetings. Luna said that's been a success. “People on both sides of the negotiating table have told me these discussions were more civil being held in open public meetings,” he said. “Master agreements were signed on time and in place before the school year began.” The new laws also limited teacher contract negotiations solely to pay and benefits; Luna said other issues that used to be part of negotiations, like school schedules, are now part of school districts' policies or employee handbooks.

Luna also touted the performance-pay bonus plan included in the law, and emphasized that under his budget proposal for next year, regular teacher salary funds wouldn't be cut to pay for that, as Students Come First requires, because he's calling for shifting other, additional funds to offset those cuts.

Luna to lawmakers: ‘We had to have a new education system’

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna is addressing a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees this afternoon, giving an update on his controversial “Students Come First” education reforms that lawmakers enacted last year; they're the target of a referendum on the November 2012 ballot seeking to repeal them. “As year, as you know, we passed the most comprehensive education reform in the country,” Luna told the lawmakers. “We had to find a way to spend the money we currently had differently.”

The reform laws included trimming teacher collective bargaining rights; shifting funds from salaries into technology boosts and teacher merit-pay bonuses; and a new emphasis on online learning, including requiring online classes to graduate from high school in Idaho. “We had to have a new education system - a system that could educate more students at a higher level with limited resources,” Luna told the committees. He said he'll give the lawmakers an update, plus a report from his techology task force, which has been working on implementing the tech portions of the reform plan.

Senators introduce ‘simple, straightforward’ texting ban

At the urging of its chairman, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, the Senate Transportation Committee today voted unanimously to introduce legislation to ban texting while driving, making it an infraction. Hammond said the bill is needed “because of great concern among the driving public for an activity that 10 years ago didn't even exist, and that is texting.” He said, “It's fine to text, but it's not fine to text and drive at the same time. It's quite a danger.”

Lawmakers have struggled to pass such a ban for the past two years without success. “They've all gotten hung up over issues of language and enforcement,” Hammond said. “The attempt with this bill is to make it very simple and straightforward and easy to understand. The bill defines what texting is, and says if you are driving and texting, it's an infraction, and if caught you will be cited and fined. It's that simple and straightforward.” The measure now will be assigned a bill number and can be scheduled for a public hearing; another bill banning texting while driving, SB 1252, already has been introduced as a personal bill by Democratic Sens. Les Bock and Elliot Werk of Boise and Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City.

Hammond is co-sponsoring the bill with Senate Health & Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

Denney after apology to caucus: ‘The issue is done’

A subdued House Speaker Lawerence Denney said after a 45-minute closed GOP caucus today that he apologized to the caucus for his handling of the attempted ouster of GOP redistricting Commissioner Dolores Crow. “Most of the comments were very, very supportive,” Denney said. He said he gave “kind of a statement as to what happened and what went on,” lasting two to three minutes, then took questions from caucus members. Then, he said, “We talked about two or three other things that kinda came up in the course of that.” There was no decision to make any changes in the caucus or leadership, Denney said; other members backed that up, calling the party gathering “congenial,” though lawmakers gathered in clumps in the hallways afterward, clearly still airing some concerns.

Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, didn't attend the caucus, citing a schedule conflict. He said, “The speaker has not shown a great deal of deference toward some of us,” and added, “I imagined it was going to be some sort of apology.” Said Schaefer, “Obviously it was not the way to handle things, or it wouldn't have come to this.”

Denney said, “I think, to quote Timon in the Lion King, it doesn't matter - it's in the past. I think the redistricting is over, and I've got the final plan on my desk and I don't think it's going to be challenged, so I think the issue is done.”

Asked about a joint statement he and GOP Chairman Norm Semanko sent out last Friday, saying they're continuing to explore legal options, Denney said, “With the plan, yes, it's ended.”

The speaker said, “Well, you know, we learn from all of our actions.” He said he thinks some changes should be made in the redistricting process “at some point in the future,” saying, “Certainly, the court's decision on county splits really tightens it down so tight that the commission can't even look at communities of interest. What community of interest is there between Sagle and Riggins?” He said he'd ask the same question about Emmett and Salmon or Challis.

“If we had it to do over, we may do it differently, but really, no regrets,” Denney said. “It's a learning process.”

Why Reps. Hagedorn and Patrick are looking to run for the Senate…

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, says he decided that he'll run for the Senate next year because the new redistricting plan left his new district with three House incumbents and an open Senate seat. “There's three of us in the same district now, and we all three talked about it and who would be best to do what and what everybody's desires were,” Hagedorn said. The other two lawmakers in his new district are House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who's in his seventh term, and first-term Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

Hagedorn, a third-term lawmaker and retired naval officer, said, “This just appeared to be where we could all contribute the most.”

Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, has made a similar decision, reports Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin on her Capitol Confidential blog here. Patrick landed in the new District 25, along with Reps. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls; that district initially appeared to take in Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, but Brackett said while his mailing address was in District 25, his actual residence is in the new District 23, which also includes Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home; that leaves an open Senate seat in District 25.

House GOP heads into closed-door caucus

The House has wrapped up its floor session for the day without hearing any bills, and the GOP majority has headed into a closed-door caucus; Speaker Lawerence Denney said last week that he planned to both apologize for his move to oust GOP redistricting Commissioner Dolores Crow, and explain his actions, during a closed-door caucus session with his fellow Republicans this week.

Rep. Bateman wants to repeal ‘No Child Left Behind’ law

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State lawmakers have introduced a measure urging Congress to repeal the nation's governing education law. Republican Rep. Linden Bateman of Idaho Falls offered a list of complaints Tuesday targeted at No Child Left Behind, which is known primarily for its emphasis on standardized testing and the labeling of thousands of schools as “failures.” Bateman says Idaho now spends $5.7 million a year on a “mean-spirited testing system” that No Child Left Behind thrust upon the state. A memorial introduced in the House Education Committee supports a repeal of the federal law. Idaho education officials want to adopt their own school accountability system while seeking a waiver from the Obama administration to reject the latest federal requirements. But Bateman says he doesn't believe the president has authority to grant such waivers.

Dems unveil ‘iJobs 2.0,’ slate of seven jobs bills

Legislative Democrats today unveiled their “iJobs 2.0” package, which includes seven pieces of legislation, from tax credits for new agricultural processing operations, to a “finders fee” tax credit for businesses that persuade vendors or partners to relocate to the state, to a “Buy Idaho First Contracting Act” that would allow agencies to award contracts to Idaho companies even if they're up to 5 percent higher than the lowest out-of-state bidder.

“We have an obligation … because we are in very dire economic times right now,” said Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise. “What we can do is create an environment where prosperity is possible. That is what government does … and we're certainly hearing that from our constituents.”

Three of the measures already have been introduced as personal bills; the three others have been presented to committee chairmen and House and Senate Democrats said they're receptive to holding hearings on introducing them. The Dems also talked with Gov. Butch Otter about the bills this morning, and “he expressed some interest,” Cronin said, and have talked with the state commerce director. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “We know that at 20 percent of the body, we're not going to drive an agenda.” He said the Democrats are calling on Republicans to work with them on the concepts and “make the bills better.” Click below for more on the bills.

Lawmakers who later take state jobs would lose special pension boost, under new bill

Idaho lawmakers would no longer be able to “spike” their retirement pensions by taking a high-paying state job for a short time after a long legislative career, under legislation introduced today at the urging of Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot. Lake told the House State Affairs Committee that in 1990 - and retroactive to 1985 - the Legislature created a special exemption for itself, so that lawmakers who take end-of-career state jobs are treated differently than all other elected officials. As a result, a legislator who serves for 13 years would earn a PERSI retirement pension of about $350 a month, Lake said, but one who served 10 years as a lawmaker and then took an $80,000-a-year state job for 42 months would get $1,782 a month, the same as if he'd served in the higher-paying job for 13.5 years.

“We don't believe this is quite right. In fact, it's unconscionable for a policy-setting body such as we are to allow this practice to continue,” Lake said. He noted that he introduced similar legislation late in last year's session, but it didn't have time to proceed.  The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, which would treat lawmakers the same as all other elected officials; that means their years of parti-time legislative service would be blended with later, higher-paying state jobs to determine their PERSI retirement benefit. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
  

JFAC to take public testimony Friday morning in Capitol Auditorium

For only the second year ever, the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing on the state budget this year and take public testimony. This year's will be a single hearing, set for this Friday, Feb. 3rd, from 8 to 10:30 a.m. in the Capitol Auditorium. People wishing to testify can sign in as early as 7 a.m.; testimony will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis, with some possible exceptions at the discretion of the committee chair “in consideration of geographic diversity.” Each person's testimony will be limited to three minutes; overflow rooms will be provided with a live feed of the hearing in case the auditorium overflows, as it did last year when thousands of people came to have their say on state spending and cuts. There's more info here and here.

Next F&G license fee increase request likely a year away…

The Fish & Game budget request for next year shows a 20 percent increase, but that's due to a one-time project: $13 million to build the new Springfield fish hatchery with Bonneville Power Administration funding, for sockeye recovery. “Excluding the hatchery, our budget request is $79.3 million, or an increase of less than 3 percent from this current year,” Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore told JFAC this morning.

Asked by lawmakers whether the department needs to look at a license fee increase, Moore said, “We probably should come back next session for a request, but we can likely survive one more year. At that point we're going to be right up against the wall … unless the economy improves and non-residents start coming back in previous numbers.”

Drop in non-resident license sales crimps revenue at Fish & Game

Idaho's Fish & Game Department receives no state general funds, instead operating solely on hunting and fishing license dollars, federal funds, power company mitigation funds and revenues from special license plate sales. Hunting and fishing license funds are 46 percent of the department's total funding, and more than half comes from non-residents.

However, non-resident license buyers have been declining since 2008. Non-resident deer tags have dropped from 15,800 then to 9,200 now. “That's a 40 percent loss in tag sales in the last three years,” F&G Director Virgil Moore told JFAC today. Non-resident elk tags have seen a similar trend, dropping from a long-stable 13,000 a year, which hit the quota, to about 8,00 now. “These two tags make up the bulk of our non-resident revenue,” Moore said. “So this is a very important customer to the department and to the state of Idaho. Not only do these folks pay for the most expensive product that we sell, they usually spend four to five times what they spend on licenses … when they come to hunt,” and some as much as 10 times. “So it's a loss to our rural economy.”

Resident tag sales also are down from the high of 62,000 to about 58,000, a 7 percent decline, Moore said. “Some of this is just the general economy. Some of it has to do with issues associated with elk herd status, and some of it has to do with people's view of whether or not they can get an elk or opportunity out there.” Strong fishing license sales and wolf tag sales have boosted revenue in the last six months, Moore said, but haven't made up the last three years' losses.

Moore said the shift from running out of tags - they routinely used to sell out - to having leftovers has put the department “in the position of we've got product available … and they have a very short shelf life. After the season is over, they have no value whatsoever; we can't stockpile those and sell 'em next year. So we undertook some marketing last year.” The department created “I-Hunt” and “I-Fish” websites, aimed at both residents and nonresidents, and launched Internet banner ads on news sites, targeting “hunter-rich states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and California.” “The first six months of the fiscal year, our license revenue is up 5 percent, and it coincides with this campaign,” Moore said. “We only spent $35,000 on this campaign, and its impact is huge.”

“The reason folks said they were staying away from Idaho was wolves, the elk herd status, the economy and the price of the tag,” Moore said. “But the good news is wolves have not killed all our elk.” Bull elk numbers now exceed objectives in 20 of Idaho's 29 zones, he said. “There's still very good hunting in many areas,” though the zones that have been impacted are among the state's most popular.
  

F&G ‘pay equity’ plan: Cut two top managers, give small boosts to 71 lower-paid workers

Idaho's Fish & Game Department has cut its workforce by 9 percent since 2008, Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore told legislative budget writers this morning. Part of that came through a plan lawmakers approved two years ago to consolidate temporary employees; that's saved the department $220,000, Moore said. This year, he's proposing a “pay equity plan,” at zero bottom-line cost; it takes funds from eliminating a deputy director and the Salmon regional supervisor position, and uses it to “provide small salary increases to 71 on-the-ground employees” whose current pay rate is significantly below standards.

F&G chief: Hunting, trapping putting ‘important pressure’ on wolf population

Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore told JFAC this morning that as of yesterday, Idaho hunters had killed 206 wolves during the state's wolf hunting season, and trappers had taken 60. “That's a total of 266 wolves taken so far in this hunting season,” Moore said. In addition, about 60 more were killed in depredation actions, either through landowner action or or wildlife services efforts; that brings the total wolves to date in the past year to 326 “that have been harvested or taken for various purposes,” Moore said. “We think we're beginning to put some important pressure on those animals.”

This year's was only the state's second-ever wolf hunting season; the first was in 2009, but then wolves were returned to the endangered species list. “I feel real proud of the work that the department has done, and the help that we got from Congressman Simpson in getting the congressional authority to get out from underneath the judicial trap that we'd been in for so many years relative to wolf management..”

Twin Falls County won’t challenge new redistricting plan

Twin Falls county commissioners have announced that they've decided not to file any further challenge to Idaho's new legislative redistricting plan, though they're not entirely happy with it. The county led an earlier challenge to the Idaho Supreme Court that overturned the previous plan submitted by the state's citizen redistricting commission.

County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said, “It’s not a good plan, but it’s an acceptable one. It’s considerably better than the previous plan that extended Twin Falls districts all the way to Chubbuck.” Click below to read the county's full news release about its decision, reached today.

State auditors, Idaho treasurer at odds over office audit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislative auditors found several problems with how Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane oversaw his office's accounting, including how he documented trips to New York City where some costs were found to exceed allowable limits. Crane disputes the findings, contending no previous audits of his office raised similar concerns. Still, the four-term Republican agreed to report expenditures through Idaho's accounting system in the future, among other changes. For months, it's been public knowledge Crane's office was under scrutiny, after The Associated Press reported he used stretch limousines on New York trips to transport family members. Monday's report outlines three findings: Crane's New York trips weren't adequately documented; he didn't properly account for a taxpayer-provided Chevron card used to gas up his private vehicle; and he exceeded his office's authority with several programs. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

House panel backs ban on sale of e-cigarettes to minors, sends to full House

Current Idaho law bans tobacco products from being sold to children, but doesn't cover a new product called “e-cigarettes,” electronic cigarettes that contain no tobacco, but instead allow users to inhale a nicotine-infused mist without creating smoke. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, lead sponsor of HB 405, told the House Health & Welfare Committee this afternoon his bill would ban the sale of e-cigarettes containing nicotine to minors, a move he said even tobacco companies are backing; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. As he began his presentation to the committee, Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, asked him, as she asks everyone, to state his name and who he represents for the record. Nonini replied, “Bob Nonini, representing, I guess, children in this case, in trying to keep these cigarettes away from them.”



Health districts around the state, including the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho, support the move and asked Nonini and co-sponsor Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, to sponsor legislation. Nonini said the products contain “large amounts or what could be considered deadly amounts of nicotine.” Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a retired physician, said, “There's no reason to suspect that nicotine delivered by a mist is any different than nicotine delivered via cigarette smoke. … I guess my question is, why are we allowing sales of these at all?”

Nonini, a smoker, said he understood Rusche's desire on health grounds to not have people smoke at all. “I get that,” he said. “The purpose of this legislation is at least a starting point, try to keep them out of the hands of children.” E-cigarettes are marketed with flavorings, he said, as “an enticement to get children to start smoking.” He called the bill “a first attempt … to regulate the sales of these so they don't get to minors.”

Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, noted that a clause in the bill requires any mail-ordered electronic cigarette purchased on a credit or debit card to be shipped only to the address of record of the cardholder, as part of its age-verification requirements. She questioned whether that wouldn't limit adults in purchasing the product, as well as children. Nonini said, “I guess I would rather err on the side of keeping 'em out of the hands of as many young people as possible, as opposed to changing this.”

Lora Whalen, director of the Panhandle Health District, said e-cigarettes are “battery-powered nicotine delivery devices,” which come in “fun flavors” like bubble gum and light up when a user inhales. Idaho's health districts unanimously approved a resolution supporting banning their sale to minors, she said, and the cities of Coeur d'Alene, Post Falls and Hayden already have passed ordinances banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

“Minors should not have access to nicotine,” Whalen told the committee, calling the bill “just common sense.” She said, “Nicotine addiction has historically been one of the hardest addictions to break.” Toxic levels of nicotine are much lower for children than for adults, Whalen noted.

Rusche moved to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it pass; his motion passed unanimously. “I would like to congratulate the good gentleman,” he said of Nonini. “Sometimes you just have to take first downs instead of touchdowns.”

Drug settlement brings Idaho $625K

Two prescription drug manufacturers, Mylan Laboratories Inc. and Mylan Pharmaceuticals, have agreed to pay Idaho $625,000 in a legal settlement over allegations of overcharging the state's Medicaid program, without admitting wrongdoing. “This settlement addresses the harm incurred by Idaho’s taxpayers and the State,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “It should stop the reporting of false and misleading drug prices and provide the state significant financial relief. This settlement is good for Idaho because it successfully resolves this dispute without the need for further, costly litigation.” Click below for the Attorney General's full announcement.

Idaho’s formerly stagnant prison population now growing again…

After four years of virtually no growth in Idaho's prison population, it's now growing again, state Corrections Director Brent Reinke told the House Health & Welfare Committee this afternoon. “We have really enjoyed this period of no-growth in the state of Idaho,” the prisons chief said. “We went about four years with no particular growth. We're beginning to see an uptick now.” He said, “If fiscal year 2012 trends continue, Idaho will have a 4.5 percent prison growth rate. … Next year, if this trend continues, we would need about 832 additional beds, so theoretically we could be looking out of state by July of this year.”

Idaho in past years placed its overflow inmates in out-of-state private prisons, a costly move that also led to numerous problems, including riots and escapes. “We're looking at every option that we can,” Reinke said. “This is based at 99 percent utilization within our beds statewide.” He said the issue will come before legislative budget writers next week when the Department of Corrections makes its budget presentation.

Senate backs online course rule change to allow teacher to be in same building as students

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State senators today voted in favor of deleting a portion of Idaho's new education laws that defines an online course and says the instructor cannot be physically located in the same school in which the student is receiving the virtual instruction. The Idaho Senate voted 33-0 Monday to remove the provision that says teachers and students must be separate during the online instruction. The clause aimed to ensure the state was providing distance education, as the new education changes intended. But Republican Sen. Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls says the distance provision could also cause problems, such as prohibiting a teacher from loading online course material in the same school where students are taking the class. A bill now headed to the Idaho House would delete the clause.

Paul, Romney, Santorum, Gingrich have filed for Idaho GOP’s March 6 caucus

Four GOP presidential candidates have filed for Idaho's March 6 Republican presidential caucus, the Idaho Republican Party reports: Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The party today issued a “final call” for others who want to participate, with Chairman Norm Semanko saying, “We welcome all Republican presidential candidates who are seriously campaigning to secure the Republican Party’s nomination in 2012 to visit our great state, to discuss issues important to Idahoans, and to campaign for Idaho’s 32 delegates to the Republican National Convention.” Click below for the Idaho GOP's full announcement.

Popkey: Otter recruiting candidates for new GOP party chairman

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is recruiting candidates to replace Norm Semanko as Idaho's GOP party chairman, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey; Semanko defeated Otter's favored candidate, then-Chairman Kirk Sullivan, in 2008. “I was roundly criticized by all you guys that I couldn't control my own party and I was probably the only governor in the United States that didn't have his choice as party chairman,” Otter told Popkey. “I've been able to work with Norm, but you know, I just don't want that to happen again.” You can read Popkey's full post here.

Backers of cig tax increase deliver thousands of postcards to lawmakers

Backers of a $1.25-per-pack increase in Idaho's cigarette tax, now 57 cents per pack, delivered more than 8,000 postcards in support of the move from Idahoans to state lawmakers today, for a total of nearly 20,000 this year. Susie Pouliot, head of the Idaho Medical Association, said, “Raising the tobacco tax will result in a 19 percent decrease in tobacco use by kids and raise $50.5 million a year.  Those dollars can be directed towards tobacco cessation and health care related costs.” The national average cigarette tax is $1.45 per pack; Washington's is $3.025 a pack. Thus far, no legislation has been introduced on the matter in Idaho this year.

Otter favors taxing Internet sales

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter backs taxing Internet sales to level the playing field between virtual businesses and brick-and-mortar establishments on Idaho's Main Street. Otter made the remarks to Idaho chamber of commerce leaders meeting in Boise on Monday. Past efforts to deepen Idaho's involvement with a national movement to tax Internet sales have foundered in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, whose anti-tax conservatives have killed previous proposals. Idaho has a use tax, meaning everybody who buys over the Internet is required to report them to the State Tax Commission when they pay their annual income taxes. However, few people actually report them. Some estimate Idaho loses tens of millions annually in revenue, hurting schools and Main Street businesses whose products cost more because they're required to submit sales taxes.

Cocolalla minimum lake level measure sent back to Senate committee

SCR 111, a resolution setting a long-sought minimum lake level for Cocolalla Lake in North Idaho, has been sent back to the Senate Resources Committee. “There's been some information that's come out, some folks have some concerns, and I think that it's only appropriate that the committee get a chance to address those concerns before it moves forward,” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, told the Senate today; she's the bill's floor sponsor. No one raised any objections to the bill when it had its committee hearing earlier, but Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said he received some calls Friday morning, and wanted to allow any concerns to be heard in another hearing before bringing the measure up for a full Senate vote.

More than a third of House GOP doesn’t want new fed judge for Idaho if Obama would appoint

The Idaho House has passed HJM 4, a non-binding memorial calling on Congress to add a third federal judge in Idaho, but only by a 47-21 vote and after objections on the floor to allowing a Democratic president to appoint another federal judge; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Idaho's had just two federal district judges since 1954, said the measure's sponsor, Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and the federal caseload has increased so dramatically that there are now big delays in processing civil cases, since criminal cases are given priority, and some Idaho cases are even being taken to other jurisdictions. Burgoyne said, as an example, “Micron Technology recently found itself in Texas with respect to an intellectual property case, which it fortunately won.” He said it's his opinion, and that of the business community and Idaho's bar association, “that Idaho juries and Idaho judges should be deciding case affecting Idaho people.” Furthermore, other states including Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota already have three federal judges and have smaller populations than Idaho.

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said he believes the “federal judiciary has served as a handmaiden” to overstepping the U.S. Constitution. He said he'd be willing to support the memorial, but only after a new president is elected and replaces President Obama. “I hardly think he would appoint a new federal judge who would reflect the values of the citizens of Idaho,” Bateman declared. “I'll be glad to support this memorial if we get a new president.” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, objected, and Speaker Lawerence Denney asked Bateman to keep his remarks from getting personal.

Burgoyne told the House, “I bring this memorial with absolutely no partisan motive. We have the very finest of judges serving as our federal district judges and as our federal magistrates here in the state of Idaho, they are Idahoans, they have been appointed by presidents of both parties. I cannot distinguish between them when it comes to who appointed them, and I doubt that anybody else can.”

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, requested a roll-call vote, which is unusual for non-binding memorials, which usually pass on voice votes; then, 21 House Republicans voted against the measure, though it still passed.
  

Redistricters file new plan, May primary election back on track

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission has submitted its new legislative district plan, approved on a unanimous 6-0 vote, to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. Ysursa, joining the confab by phone from a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State, told the commissioners, “I sure want to thank you for all the work you've done.” He quoted Commissioner Sheila Olsen about a “triumph of civility,” and said in his view, that's what occurred in the commission. “We can get going for that May primary,” Ysursa said. “Obviously there could be lawsuits, but I think you've done a commendable job of it. Thank you all for your service.”

When Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher offered a quip about the tough leadership of Co-Chairwoman Dolores Crow, Crow responded, “Yeah, I'm a real bear,” and then, amid some prompting and laughter, said, “Oh, yeah, I'm a rhino, I forgot.” Ysursa, a big man who often jokes about his size, said, “Well, I'm a hippo, so you're OK.”

RINO, or “Republican In Name Only,” is the pejorative term some in the GOP have tossed around to apply to party members who aren't sufficiently loyal; House Speaker Lawerence Denney has taken a ton of political heat for trying unsuccessfully to oust former longtime GOP lawmaker and Republican activist Crow from the commission.

Parks chief cites successes despite drop in state funding

Tops on the list of 2011 for Idaho's Department of Parks & Recreation: All 30 state parks remain open. Parks chief Nancy Merrill is giving her budget pitch to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. She said volunteers are contributing more than 86,000 hours to the park system each year; overnight camping is up 1.07 percent and visitation is up 8 percent, despite drops in staffing and state funding; surveys also show increasing customer satisfaction, from 89 percent in 2010 to 94 percent in 2011, she reported.

The parks system requested four new positions for next year, including a senior IT systems technician who would be funded from state general funds; most of Idaho's parks funding now comes from dedicated funds, including fees, fuel taxes, and boat and RV registrations. Gov. Butch Otter didn't recommend the new positions. The parks department's budget request, with the $63,500 for the IT systems technician, amounted to a 101.4 percent increase in state general funds for next year, and a decrease in total funds of 1.6 percent. The governor's recommendation: A 0.4 percent increase in general funds to $1.3 million, and a 6 percent drop in total funds.

Merrill said the parks system is putting its hopes into new ways of generating revenue, including “parks passport” legislation, modeled after a Michigan program, that would give Idaho motorists a chance to buy an annual passport to state parks for a $10 fee when they register their cars. She told lawmakers, “We are seeking sustainability by reinventing ourselves and moving forward.”
  

Otter hints a new option is in the works on insurance exchange…

In response to questions from members of chambers of commerce around the state, Gov. Butch Otter this morning said the state recently had news from the feds that Idaho insurance companies actually would be able to participate in a federally operated insurance exchange, if the state doesn't set up its own. “The resistance in the Legislature I fully understand, because they're saying no matter what we design in Idaho, if it doesn't comport to what the federal government wants, well then, why don't we just let the feds come in and put it over,” Otter said.

“Up until  three weeks ago we were under the impression …  that if we don't design our own, then our state-based insurance, those that are indigenous to Idaho, companies, primarily the big three, the Blues and Pacific Source, would not be able to participate in the insrance exchange. About three weeks ago we got a letter that said that is not exactly right. Even with a federal exchange, you could have your companies in Idaho participating in that federal insurance exchange.”

Otter said, “We were concerned about whether or not they would be able to participate. We've been told, or at least indicated in a letter, that it's not automatically exclusive of our state-based insurance companies. But once again my whole effort there was to preserve every option for the Legislature to consider.”

Otter hinted that a different approach now is being considered on the insurance exchange issue.  “I believe we have some other options - I'm not at liberty to tell you those right now,” he said. “I do have Bill Deal and Dick Armstrong working on some options, that's probably outside the Affordable Health Care (bill) box. … Maybe it's something that they hadn't thought of when they created that monster.”

Otter: ‘I see a lot of optimistic signs’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is addressing the Idaho Chamber Alliance this morning, and he told the group of business people from around the state, “I believe we're looking at a good year. I tried to get that across in my State of the State. … There's a lot of positive things going on.”

Otter said December state revenues were strong, and there could be news about January revenues next week. “So if we establish a trend … we'll know more about our future, exactly where we're going to be able to go, not only with funding the proper and necessary roles of government, but also with tax relief, where it's going to go.” Otter said, “Over the summer … I had a multitude of legislators come in and talk to me about where they would like to see some tax relief.” He reiterated that his “druthers” would be first to drop the state's individual income tax rate to match the corporate tax rate, then, in the future, as revenues allow, move both rates down together. That would cost the state treasury a little over $13 million a year.

“I am positive. I'm bullish on this year and where we're going, because I see a lot of optimistic signs, I see a lot of faith,” Otter said. “I see a confidence coming back.”

Popkey: Speaker plans apology to caucus over redistricting mess

House Speaker Lawerence Denney plans to gather the House GOP caucus this week and both apologize and explain his actions in trying to boot longtime GOP lawmaker Dolores Crow off the state's citizen redistricting commission, reports Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, who writes in his Sunday column that Denney's “miscalculation has the feel of a last straw,” opening the door to challenges to his leadership post, which he's held for six years. You can read Popkey's full column here.

‘Add The Words’ rallies held across state

More than 1,000 people turned out for an “Add The Words” rally at the state Capitol on Saturday, reports the Boise Weekly, with hundreds then pouring into the state capitol and quietly posting sticky notes on glass doors inside with the message - asking support for adding “sexual orientation or gender identity” to Idaho's Human Rights Act, which now bans discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of race, religion or disability, but not sexual orientation. Similar rallies were held in numerous locations around the state.

The Idaho Press-Tribune reported on rallies in Caldwell, Nampa, and Weiser, and reported that Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, indicated he'll take the unusual step of allowing public testimony at a print hearing for the bill this year if requested to do so by the measure's sponsors; last year, Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, introduced the measure as a personal bill, but McKenzie declined to schedule a hearing on it. A print hearing is the preliminary consideration of a bill by a legislative committee, at which members decide if the bill should be introduced, printed and given a bill number. Generally, such hearings are brief and include only comments from the bill's sponsor and questions from the committee; if a bill advances, the next step is a full public hearing.

The group's ongoing sticky note campaign was prompted by the lack of a hearing to take public testimony on the bill, despite pushes for it for the last six years; Capitol security personnel are removing the sticky notes once they're posted. “People's words are there in the statehouse,” said campaign spokesperson Mistie Tolman. “For some of us, that's a start to a powerful conversation that's constantly improving the outlook for the legislation this year.” Members of the group say they're posting the sticky notes because they can't otherwise get their point across to the Legislature without a hearing. The issue was a focus at Idaho's recent Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day celebration in the state capitol.

Company, ALEC push asbestos-claim bill

A company that, with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council, has succeeded in winning protections from liability for asbestos claims from state legislatures in 14 states has brought its push to Idaho, the AP reports; the Idaho bill is sponsored by Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Counties, gas drillers reach agreement on legislation

A group representing Idaho counties and a group representing companies interested in tapping natural gas in the state announced an agreement Sunday on legislation they plan to introduce into the Idaho Legislature next month, the Associated Press reports. The Idaho Association of Counties and the Idaho Petroleum Council said the guidelines will allow counties some control over natural gas development, while natural gas wildcatters will have a clearer path to tapping fields; but a conservation group said the agreement appears to reduce local control over industries by allowing state lawmakers to create rules that counties and cities wouldn't be able to exceed with their own ordinances. Click below for a full reporter from AP reporter Keith Ridler.

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports,” I join BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby and host Greg Hahn to discuss the events of the week in the Legislature, from redistricting to school funding to the  anti-Occupy Boise bill. The hour-long program also features Hahn's interviews three Idaho university presidents, and with Gov. Butch Otter, whom Hahn quizzes about what his 1973 self would say to the Otter of today.  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/.

Broadsword weighing options in light of new redistricting plan…

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, says she's weighing her options, now that the new legislative redistricting plan shifts her into a different district, where she wouldn't have to face ally Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, if she ran for another term. “I haven't had a chance to look at what the size of the district is or what it looks like,” Broadsword said. “I have to look at all my options. I've been receiving a lot of encouragement to stay, to please run for the Senate again … so I just have to look at the whole picture.”

Under the new plan, L-93, Broadsword ends up in the new District 7, along with first-term incumbent Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. The previous district plan, L-87, put both Broadsword and Keough in District 1.  Three members of the House GOP leadership - Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star, Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke of Oakley and Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts of Donnelly - would face other House incumbents in their districts, under the new plan, but House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who in the last plan landed in a district with five House incumbents, this time wouldn't have to face any other incumbents to keep his seat.

The new legislative district plan has a population deviation among districts of 9.7 percent, which meets the 10 percent standard considered presumptively constitutional; and divides just the minimum number of counties possible - five, plus two, Ada and Kootenai, that are divided only internally because they're large enough for multiple districts. Redistricting commissioners are planning to present it to Secretary of State Ben Ysursa on Monday; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Incumbents would face off in 10 districts

Under the new legislative district plan adopted on a unanimous vote today by Idaho's redistricting commission, there are some notable matchups created between incumbents, including some that already would have happened under the previous plan, and some changes.

Among the new contests: Senior Sens. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Denton Darrington, R-Declo, both landed in the new District 27, which means they'd have to run against each other if both wanted to remain in the Senate. Also facing potential face-offs with other incumbents: House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

Here are the districts with multiple incumbents under plan L-93:

In District 5, as before, there are three House incumbents and just two seats; the three are Reps. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries; Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; and Tom Trail, R-Moscow.

In District 8, there are four House incumbents: Reps. Barrett, Bilbao, Roberts and Thayn. No longer in that district: House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who now lands in District 9 along with Rep. Judy Boyle; there's no incumbent face-off forced there.

In District 11, there are two incumbent senators: Sens. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and Melinda Smyser, R-Parma.

District 14 has three incumbent House members and two seats; they're House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star; Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle; and Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian.

District 15 also has three House incumbents, Reps. Max Black, R-Boise; Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; and Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, who earlier announced she doesn't plan to seek another term.

District 16 has two incumbent senators, Sens. Andreason and Bock.

District 20, as before, has two incumbent senators, Sens. Shirley McKague and Chuck Winder.

In District 25, Reps. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome; Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls; and Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; all land in the same district.

District 27 has three House incumbents: Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; House Resources Chairman Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert; and Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley. It also has two incumbent senators: Cameron and Darrington.

District 30, as before, also has three House incumbents, Reps. McGeachin, Simpson and Thompson.

 

Sens. Keough and Broadsword no longer in same new legislative district

Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, are no longer in the same district in the new legislative redistricting plan, Plan. L-93. Keough lands in the new District 1, but Broadsword ends up in the new District 7, along with Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood.

Broadsword had earlier said she'd retire from the Senate rather than seek a fifth term next year by running against Keough, a close ally and eight-term senator. Nuxoll is a first-term senator.

Redistricters adopt new legislative plan

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission has agreed on a new legislative plan, dubbed L-93; it's now up online on the commission's website. The six-member commission voted unanimously in favor of the new plan. “What we did was we revised L-87 at the direction of the Supreme Court,” said commission Co-Chair Ron Beitelspacher.

He said, “Unfortunately, in my opinion, but at the direction of the Supreme Court, we combined a small part of Bonner County with Shoshone County.” A chunk of southeastern Bonner County, with the dividing line running along Highway 95 and then turning east at Pend Oreille Lake, joins Shoshone County and points south in the new District 7. Beitelspacher said that's among three very large districts included in the plan, and he's not happy about that. “I represented a huge district for several years, and I know how difficult it is for the representer and for the represented,” he said. “I'm not in favor of what we've done” on those large districts.” But, he said, “This is what the Supreme Court has said we have to do.”

The other two large districts are District 8, which includes all of Valley, Gem, Boise, Lemhi and Custer counties; and another in southeastern Idaho that includes Teton, Caribou, Bear Lake, Franklin and Oneida counties and part of Bonneville County. “It's horrible - I think it's horrible,” Beitelspacher said. The new District 8 stretches from a point 11 miles from the Oregon border all the way to the Montana line.

A number of districts remained the same as they were in L-87; those include virtually all of Ada County; Latah and Benewah counties, which form the new District 5; Nez Perce and Lewis counties; and more.

Semanko won’t seek another term as GOP chairman, defends redistricting move, touts party successes

Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko has sent out a guest opinion defending his attempt to try to fire GOP redistricting commissioner Randy Hansen, touting the party's Idaho electoral successes and announcing that he won't seek another term as party chairman. Semanko wrote that the “secret to our success” was that “the grassroots of our Party was motivated and energized to recruit candidates and support them because they were included, and we weren't shy about standing up for our core, conservative Republican principles.” He wrote, “As I conclude my four year tenure as Chairman and hand the reins over to someone else at the Republican State Convention in Twin Falls this summer, this will be my proudest accomplishment.” Click below to read his full guest opinion.

Redistricters making progress, could agree on plan today…

Idaho's redistricting commission has convened again this afternoon after a lunch break, and plans to meet in open session all afternoon and work on its legislative district plan. “You will know exactly what we do,” said Co-Chair Dolores Crow. The bipartisan commission has a working copy of its plan that's basically the previous plan, L-87, with revisions to it to try to limit it to no more than seven county splits, including splitting Ada and Kootenai counties internally only. It's possible they could reach agreement on a new plan today.

In North Idaho, the major change is that a chunk of southeastern Bonner County would be paired with Shoshone County and points south in a legislative district, rather than with northern Kootenai County, to avoid splitting any part of Kootenai County off into another district with other counties. “The Supreme Court has said we've got to keep Kootenai whole,” said Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher. “So we've got to figure out exactly where in the devil we're going to take it from.” Pointing to the map, Beitelspacher said, “There are no roads from Shoshone County into Bonner County here,” though a state statute requires road connections. “If we move with this, we're going to have to pass a motion to suspend that with at least five votes.”

Cocolalla lake level vote delayed

A concurrent resolution establishing a long-sought minimum lake level for North Idaho's Cocolalla Lake wasn't voted on in the Senate this morning, as Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, asked to hold off until Monday. Pearce, the lead sponsor of the measure who had asked Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, to be its floor sponsor in the Senate, said he was surprised to get “some calls” with questions about the issue this morning. “We thought it was a no-issue slam dunk,” he said. “All we're doing is responding to some crying.” The move has been in the works since 2004; the Idaho Department of Water Resources held a public hearing on it in Sandpoint in October of 2009, and all the testimony was in favor.

JFAC accepts economic outlook report, no commitments yet on budget number

The co-chairmen of the Legislature's joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee presented their report to JFAC today, and the budget committee voted unanimously to accept the report, while noting that it'll decide later on setting the state's budget. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, told JFAC that the panel accepted Gov. Butch Otter's revised revenue projection for this year of 4.4 percent growth, and then set its estimate for next year at a point between the governor's projection and the median of the estimates each individual committee member had set; that comes in $33.3 million below the governor's figure. “We've had more positive revenue numbers available after we set that median,” Goedde explained. “There was some optimism on the part of the committee. They moved that number up.” He said, “We did not have the December numbers when we made the original projection, and there was some consensus that those December numbers were more positive than what we might have been led to believe prior to seeing them.”

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Goedde and Co-Chairman Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, “I don't envy you this task. … We appreciate it.”

IPTV facing equipment replacement costs, lack of funding

Idaho Public Television has had zero funding for capital equipment replacement for the past three years, and Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation calls for another year of zero funding next year, though IPTV requested $1.5 million. “Our operating model is not sustainable with current capital funding levels,” general manager Peter Morrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. “Continued deferral of equipment repairs and maintenance will lead to loss of service.”

The public TV system has about $24 million in state fixed assets, Morrill said. “We will always have an ongoing need for some replacement capital … to keep it up properly.” Among the challenges: Workers must climb a 350-foot tower on an 8,000-foot mountaintop every year to replace a special lightbulb; IPTV can't afford to switch to a longer-lasting fluorescent bulb that would last 10 years because of the replacement cost. One of its vehicles, which has more than 200,000 miles on it, left two IPTV employees stranded in Stanley this year until a tow truck could arrive from Boise; no money is available to replace it.

The governor's budget recommendation for IPTV for next year calls for a 0.5 percent increase in state general funds; the agency laid off two employees last year. Meanwhile, federal grant funds for public TV equipment replacement have fallen precipitously. IPTV this year also requested $116,500 in state funding to help pay for “Legislature Live,” the service that airs proceedings of the state Legislature and other public bodies; the governor didn't recommend the expenditure. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I'm really impressed in the years that I've been here, the transparency that you allow the Legislature to have across the state. … It seems like the Legislature should be helping to finance part of this function in some way as a line item.”

Legislature Live costs $205,000 a year; an array of sponsors underwrite a little under a quarter of the costs. “We really want to ensure that Idaho Legislature Live is a sustainable piece of the fabric of what happens in this building,” Morrill said. Half of the viewers of Legislature Live are from state agencies; the other half come from across the state.

Idaho universities have cut 72 degree programs since downturn began

Richard Westerberg, president of the State Board of Education, told legislative budget writers this morning, “Obviously the last three years have been difficult economic times.” At the state's colleges and universities, student fees have risen for the past four years while state funding has dropped, he noted. The schools have also had to eliminate an array of programs; in the past three years, 72 degree programs, 13 minors or certificate programs, and 28 professional-technical ed programs have been eliminated; there are another 20 requests pending to discontinue degree programs this year. Westerberg said the moves have been part of an appropriate streamlining and consolidating in higher ed programs in Idaho.

“We've really shown significant progress in reducing the cost per credit-hour,” he said. That cost for four-year institutions in Idaho was $167 in fiscal year 2011, down from $213 in fiscal year 2008. Meanwhile, he said universities have also helped boost the state's economy, securing $415 million in federal grants and contracts in fiscal year 2012. “I know the last three years have been difficult,” Westerberg told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. He urged lawmakers to invest more in education, now that the state's finances are improving. “We do believe it's a great investment, and we do believe the education community is working hard on maximizing that investment,” he said. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, responded, “We agree.”

Crane seeks amendment to treasurer’s duties after audit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane wants the Legislature to expand his authority to run financial-literacy workshops, after auditors who are reviewing his office's practices questioned if he's overstepping his powers by financing a conference to educate women about managing their money. Crane went before the House State Affairs Committee Thursday, asking them to add promotion of financial literacy to his duties. The panel unanimously sent the bill to the House floor for a vote. Crane founded a nonprofit organization to run his “Smart Women Smart Money” conference, to which he directs $10,000 annually from taxpayer funds. State auditors who are reviewing a broad range of financial records from Crane's office from the past three years questioned whether Crane's authority extends to holding such a conference. Auditors haven't released their findings yet.

Measure sets minimum lake level for Cocolalla, protects water rights

Folks who live on Cocolalla Lake in North Idaho, fish its waters and enjoy its seasons feel strongly about protecting its peaceful waters, year in and year out. They've mobilized to clear invasive Eurasian milfoil from the lake, monitored its algae and pond weed, and gauged its ups and downs. “The worst thing that can happen is to see the water going down,” said Chuck Gladish, a retired airline pilot from western Washington who's lived on the lake for the last 16 years and serves as president of the Cocolalla Lake Association.

Now a measure is pending in the Idaho Legislature to declare an official minimum lake level for Cocolalla Lake, with water rights to back it up appropriated by the Idaho Water Resources Board; it's a move that's been in the works since the association requested it in 2004. The Idaho Senate is expected to vote on the concurrent resolution this morning, and its sponsor, Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said she expects smooth sailing for it. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter tells police chiefs he opposes legalizing medical marijuana

Speaking to about 70 police chiefs from around the state at the winter meeting of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association today in Boise, Gov. Butch Otter spoke out against legalizing medical marijuana; Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, has introduced such legislation this year. “I told Tom Trail I would not look with favor on that bill,” Otter told the police chiefs.

The governor said he's sympathetic to people who suffer from chronic pain, but said he believes dangers from passing such a law outweigh any possible benefits; he said he's heard as much from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose state passed a medical marijuana initiative in 2004. Said Otter, “I just think it's dead wrong.”

Luna ‘confident’ after his school budget pitch

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner on today's school budget hearing, in which state schools Superintendent Tom Luna told JFAC he'd rather offset the cuts to teacher salaries called for in his “Students Come First” laws next year than refill a state rainy-day fund for schools. “I'm confident that when we're done, we will have a budget that fully funds all of the elements of the Students Come First education reforms, and keeps teacher salaries equal to what they are today,” Luna told reporters after the budget hearing. He didn't propose reversing this year's shift from salary funds of $14.7 million.

Luna said because two-thirds of Idaho high schools have expressed interest in being among the first third of schools to get new laptop computers for each student under Students Come First, he's convinced there's “overwhelming support that's been developed for this one-to-one program.” With a referendum looming to ask voters if they want to repeal the Students Come First laws, Luna said, “I think when we get to November of this year, the last thing people are going to want to do is go back to what it was before.”

No charges for Crane over gas card use

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A southwestern Idaho county prosecutor won't pursue criminal charges against state Treasurer Ron Crane over his use of a state gas card to fill up his private vehicle. Canyon County prosecutor Bryan Taylor did recommend Crane begin more-comprehensive record keeping, to ensure he's not using taxpayer-funded gasoline for personal trips. Taylor also said he strongly advocates for the state to clarify its state travel policy. Crane said in a statement that he was delighted with Taylor's findings — and will keep comprehensive driving records. His office's finances have been the focus of an audit by Legislative Services. The state forwarded concerns over Crane's use of a state Chevron card to fill up his personal vehicle and commute to and from the Capitol in Boise to the prosecutor for further scrutiny. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Redistricters back at work…

Idaho's six citizen redistricting commissioners have been working straight through since 9 this morning, either in small working groups or as a full commission; they worked through lunch, while reviewing all seven of the plans that already have been submitted to the commission that have the minimum number of county splits - five. (The way the Idaho Supreme Court counted it, it's seven - five with external splits, and two, Ada and Kootenai, that must have internal splits due to their population, without any district lines crossing their borders.) The five that mathematically must be split are Bonner, Canyon, Twin, Bonneville and Bannock. The seven plans that meet that criteria include five submitted previously, and two new ones from Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs and from Don Rosebrock; here, the commissioners look at the final two.

In North Idaho, the result is likely to include something similar to the previous big District 7 from Plan L-87, except instead of taking in a chunk of Kootenai County, the sprawling district likely would have to take the portion of Bonner County that doesn't join Boundary County in District 1. Asked if there's any way to avoid a district that runs from Bonner County all the way south to the southern Idaho County line, commission Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher said, “You'd have to talk to the Supreme Court justices.” He said, “My job's not to second-guess the Supreme Court, my job is to follow the law.” He added, “If you go to 30 districts (vs. the current 35), then there are some ways to have fewer counties split, but that's a big jump for those rural areas.”

After a short break, the commissioners are going to reconvene to go over the required county splits, then head back into small groups to draw district lines. They'll reconvene at 5 today to see what's next, but they've got meetings scheduled through next week. Said Beitelspacher, “We will not stop until we get this done.”

Three Republicans joined all 13 House Dems in opposing anti-Occupy bill

In the 54-16 vote in favor of HB 404, the anti-Occupy bill, all 13 House Democrats were among the no votes, as were three Republicans: Reps. Phil Hart, R-Athol; Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls; and Tom Trail, R-Moscow. All remaining Republicans voted in favor; there were no absences.

House passes anti-Occupy bill, 54-16

The House has voted 54-16 in favor of HB 404, the anti-Occupy bill; it now moves to the Senate side.

House debate: ‘Extraordinary times,’ ‘Desecration,’ ‘Entirely fitting’

Among those debating against the anti-Occupy bill: Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, who said, “They are us, they are our friends, our neighbors, citizens,” and Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who said, “I'm going to vote against the bill because I feel like we're in extraordinary times right now, and we ought to be looking at what's going on across the street in light of these extraordinary times.” Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said the message the bill sends is “we don't want to see you and we don't want to hear from you.”

Among those debating for the bill: Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “We had people who live in this area and who feel that there's a desecration of a historic grounds and building,” and Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said, “Yes we have a loophole, and it seems to me it is perfectly appropriate that we would take legislative action to close it.” Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, asked whether without the law the state would see a wave of campers come spring break.

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, the bill's sponsor, said in his closing debate, “It's entirely fitting that we should regulate camping on the grounds around the Capitol.” As lawmakers debate the bill, he said, “There's still time to get your stuff and take it home.”
  

House debate: ‘What will public discourse look like in Idaho?’

Here are some of the comments from today's House debate on HB 404, the bill to ban camping on the grounds of the Capitol Mall and thus evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol:

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said she originally thought the anti-Occupy bill, HB 404, sought to abridge 1st Amendment freedoms, but after reading an Attorney General's opinion and studying the law, concluded it didn't. “But the perception is still out there,” King said. “I've gotten emails from all over the state. They believe they are just expressing their rights to freedom of assembly.” She said, “I think the occupiers have pointed out issues that we should be working on,” from jobs to the homeless to drug and alcohol treatment. “As you vote, think about the image of Idaho - are we portraying an image of intolerance?” King asked. “Maybe a better approach would have been to just talk to them and ask them to leave, and maybe even ask if you could help. But this bill is too harsh, and I don't think we really need it.”

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, House majority caucus chairman, read from the 1st Amendment. He said lawmakers, too, are concerned about what's going on in the country and the economy. “We get it,” he said. “We run for office, we stand for issues. … We do it in a peaceful manner. … That's how we change things in this country.”

Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said, “I am sympathetic to some of the issues that some of those who are camping on state property are raising, but that is not the issue. … What will public discourse look like in Idaho? Will we continue to show each other the respect that we should?” DeMordaunt said, “I have great respect for colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and if they don't agree with me, I don't camp on their lawn until they do. … This is no different than the playground bully who will sit on your chest … until you give in.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “The bill is constitutional and it is within the state's power to pass it. The question is, should we?” He said, “We're not truly in an emergency situation. It may be distasteful to some to have Occupy across the street. … But sometimes those who are weakest, those who are most ill-equipped to be heard in society, nonetheless should be heard, to my inconvenience, to your inconvenience, and even to your distaste.”
  

House opens debate on anti-Occupy bill

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, opened debate in the House on HB 404, his bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across the street from the Capitol. Bedke said the measure “closes the loophole that allows for camping on the lawns.” He said, “This bill has been twisted into things that I don't think it is - I'm sure that we'll hear some debate on that here today.”

Bedke said Occupy supporters say “that the encampment was the equivalent of a soapbox … and that it was worthy of f1st Amendment protections.” But he said the issue is “settled law.” “I don't think it was ever the state's intention to allow camping on the grounds adjacent to the capitol or at the capitol itself,” he said. He noted that sex offenders staying at Occupy Boise have used the address as their “domicile” for purposes of the sex offender registry.

Luna: ‘It was a difficult, difficult decision’

Among the questions that JFAC members had this morning for state school Superintendent Tom Luna about his budget request:

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, told Luna, “I want to thank you for the courage it's taken to make students come first in Idaho. I appreciate hearing that we're not going to decrease any salaries and we're not gonna lay off any teachers. But we also have to hire a lot of IT personnel … to maintain the devices.: He said he's wondering where schools will find those people and what their salaries will be.

Luna responded, “Some tell me they don't anticipate any need, others tell me they're very concerned.” But he said, “When it comes to the mobile computing devices or the laptops, the state provides not only the devices but the repair.” A state contract will cover maintenance and replacement, he said.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, asked, “The units, you're saying we're going to have 100 less. … Is that a good, firm number?” Luna responded, “It is a good firm number. They are always some form of estimate 'til we get to the very end of the school year.. We have a number of parts of the budget that are based on some forms of well-educated estimate.” Last year, for example, the state deposited $4 million into the Public Education Stabilization Fund at the end of the year, he said, because of changes. But, he said, “We're very confident with that number.”

Having 100 fewer classroom support units would cost the state $8 million less.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Luna, “First I want to applaud you for receommending the $19 million backfill of the reduction of salary-based apportionment - I think that's appropriate and I applaud you for that effort. … But I'm wondering about the additional adjustment in salary-based apportionment that took place last year that's continuing. … Why did you decide to do the $19 million rather than the entire 4 percent reduction of salary-based apportionment?”

Luna responded, “We made a commitment last year, and it was a difficult, difficult decision, but are we willing to spend the money that we have differently, or are we going to do those things that we know are necessary for students. … It was obvious that if we were going to move forward, we had to spend some of that money differently. The only place left to go was salary-based apportionment,” he said, because many other line items in the school budget already had been cut. “It was a matter of priorities.” He said other agencies took bigger cuts in their personnel costs than the 1.67 percent cut in school salary funds imposed this year; in dollars, that equates to $14.76 million.

Under the Students Come First laws, this year's was the first of six years of cuts in salary-based apportionment to finance the law's reforms, including technology boosts and performance pay bonuses. Next year's scheduled $19.67 million shift is the one that's being discussed for possible “back-filling.” In the following year, the law calls for another $21.5 million to be shifted out of salary-based apportionment, on top of the first two years' shifts; with smaller shifts following in each of the next three years.

Lawmakers question Luna; he says future years’ salary shifts stand, but could be changed if revenue allows

Questions from JFAC to state Superintendent Tom Luna over his school budget request have begun; in response to a question from Co-Chairman Dean Cameron about teacher pay, Luna said, “We are not restoring the years of movement on the grid that were frozen dealing with experience.” That means teachers won't regain those lost pay hikes from the past few years.

Cameron said, “You spoke very passionately about needing to provide teachers a level of certainty, and that was the reason we need to backfill the $19 million, and I agree with you, by the way.” He asked Luna if he's now proposing changing the Students Come First law's provisions that require additional multimillion-dollar shifts out of teacher salary funds each year for the next several years to fund reforms.

“No,” Luna replied, “We have the same commitment that we made last year. … based upon the amount of money we have. … We're not asking for changes to the law that was passed last year, but I think you'll see the same commitment: If revenues continue to increase, if the economy continues to improve, then we will do what we did this year, and that is we will offset that adjustment.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked about reductions in funding for the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, the state-operated provider of online high school courses. Luna aide Jason Hancock said a portion of IDLA's funding would shift to the new “fractional average daily attendance” system, in which a portion of the school's ADA-based funding for that student would be payable to whatever online course provider the student selected.
  

JFAC co-chair, Luna clash over budget process

JFAC Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is admonishing state schools Supt. Tom Luna for changing his budget request on the day of his presentation; he said it's not uncommon for estimates of student enrollment growth to change, but procedures require line items and other issues to be submitted in advance so they can be analyzed and included in the legislative budget book. Last-minute changes, Cameron said, are “a waste of our time and a waste of our staff's time.” He said, “I'm not aware of how many changes that you have.” He's asking Luna and staffer Jason Hancock to run down how the budget request now differs from the submitted request, “to make sure that we have the right information.”

After Hancock gave the rundown, Cameron said, “We'll need the appropriate forms filled out and submitted.” Hancock responded, “We can have those this week.”

Luna: Budget request has changed since Sept., less enrollment growth now expected

State schools Supt. Tom Luna says his budget request now is slightly different than what he submitted in September, in part because, he said, “We do not need as much money for growth and student enrollment. That money can be spent differently.” Overall, he's calling for a 4.7 percent increase in state general funds for public schools. He said he'd include a 2 percent boost in discretionary funds to school districts, and his revised proposal would fit within the governor's budget recommendation.

The original budget request anticipated 150 additional support units, which are funding measures roughly equal to a classroom full of students; now, it's estimated at closer to 50.

Luna: Two-thirds already want to be part of first 3rd to get laptops

State schools Supt. Tom Luna said there's strong interest in being among the first third of schools to join the new “one-to-one” laptop computer program, in which every high school student would get a computer; his budget request includes $2.5 million for that next year. “Just as it is in every other part of our lives, we recognize that technology is no longer a 'nice-to-have' tool in the classroom. It is an essential tool,” Luna said. He's asked schools and districts to send letters of interest if they want to be in the first third; so far, he's gotten 73 letters representing 139 schools and more than 57,000 students - that's two-thirds of the state's high school students. “The overwhelming number of our schools want these devices, students and parents and schools want this technology, and they want to participate now, not later,” Luna told JFAC.

Redistricting: Minimizing county splits now is ‘an absolute’

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told Idaho's citizen redistricting commission as it reconvened this morning, “This commission has a solemn duty to redistrict the state of Idaho, and I wish you well in your deliberations and will support you 100 percent.”

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the commission, “Based on what the Supreme Court has said, one-person, one-vote still has to be at the top of the list. … County splits now have to be minimized, and we have clear direction on that. … In my reading of that case, that is an absolute.” The court was so firm on that point, he said, that by its ruling, the proposed plan submitted by Twin Falls County would be unconstitutional, because it unnecessarily split Teton County. Kane said including internal splits, mathematically, in any 35-district legislative plan, “You can't avoid splitting seven counties.”

Luna: ‘We are paying teachers differently’

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna is calling for tapping the $29 million that Gov. Butch Otter proposes depositing into the Public Education Stabilization Fund to instead go to back-filling the cuts in teacher salary funds mandated by the Students Come First laws. “While I believe it is important to fund PESF now and in the future, I think it is more important to put funding into salary-based apportionment first,” he told lawmakers.

He said if lawmakers follow his recommendation and also move forward with the reform law's performance bonus pay system, overall teacher pay would rise by 5 percent next year. “Under this plan, we estimate at least 85% of teachers will earn a bonus,” Luna said. “Not only are we moving toward paying our teachers more this year, but we are paying them differently, we are paying them better. This moves us away from the one-size fits all approach to paying teachers statewide.” He said, “When it comes to pay-for-performance, we may not agree on every aspect of this plan, but the fact is every penny will go to Idaho educators.”

Luna: ‘Something has to change’

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna told legislative budget writers, “We have good schools in Idaho, some of the best in the country. But that’s not the challenge, that’s not the question. The question is, in today’s world, is good good enough?” He said Idaho has high high school graduation rates, but one of the lowest rates in the country of students going on to post-secondary education.  

Luna said, “There is a renaissance going on all across America in education. People have come to the realization that the status quo cannot continue, must not continue. Something has to change.” He touted his “Students Come First” reform plan, enacted by lawmakers last year, which includes trimming teachers' collective bargaining rights, phasing in laptop computers for every high school student and teacher, pay for performance for teachers and more; funding for the reforms is shifted from salaries.

He said, “We always made the commitment that we would backfill salary-based apportionment if we had the revenues.” Luna's budget proposal calls for a base salary increase to offset the cut, though Gov. Butch Otter didn't include that in his proposed budget. Luna told lawmakers, “With this budget (request) there will be no decrease for state-funded salaries.”


  

Luna: First increase for schools in four years is ‘welcomed good news’

“I know as well as you do that the surplus this year will not be a panacea for the struggles our schools have faced since the end of 2008, but I also know that our public schools will see an increase for first time in four years,” state schools Supt. Tom Luna told JFAC this morning. “And that’s welcomed goods news.”

Denney, Semanko say they’re ‘continuing to evaluate legal options’

The Idaho Republican Party has released this statement this morning from House Speaker Lawerence Denney and state party Chairman Norm Semanko:

“Unfortunately, the Idaho Supreme Court was unable to reach the merits of the case yesterday, opting instead to dismiss it on procedural grounds. As a result, the Court did not decide whether the Redistricting Commissioners can, in fact, be replaced. We are hopeful that the Court will have the opportunity to address the issue in the near future and are continuing to evaluate our legal options as we review the decision. In the meantime, the Commission will reconvene today with a cloud of uncertainty continuing to hang over it with regard to the ultimate legality of any new plan that it may adopt. That is the unfortunate reality of yesterday’s ruling.”

Redistricters to convene at 9

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission meets at 9 this morning in room C110 of the Capitol; thanks to Idaho Public Television, you can listen live here. According to its agenda, from 9:05 to 10:30, it'll hear from Brian Kane of the Idaho Attorney General's office and discuss recent Supreme Court action. From 10:45 to noon, it'll review plans already submitted that have minimal county splits. After a noon to 1 p.m. lunch break, it'll spend the afternoon working in small groups on possible legislative district lines.
  

Luna: Not requesting any raises for state Dept. of Education employees

State schools Supt. Tom Luna told legislative budget writers this morning, “I'm not requesting new funding for my agency,” other than the continued requests for completing the multimillion-dollar longitudinal student data system - that's $873,800 in state funds and the next, $11.6 million phase of a grant from the Albertson Foundation. Luna said he's not requesting any money for raises for employees, known in legislative parlance as CEC, for “change in employee compensation.” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “Everyone who has come before us has put CEC first,” and she noted that Gov. Butch Otter has proposed addressing state employee pay. “You have got 133 employees and you don't want any CEC? It concerns me. … We're all striving to see what we can do in that area.”

Luna responded, “Want, or need?” He said, “I think that when you see that our department has seen double-digit reductions in our appropriations over the past few years, then we would always be looking for more sources of revenue, but we prioritize - where we think the first dollar should go is to the public schools, not to the Department of Education. I don't speak just for myself. This is the priority of the whole department.”

Under questioning from JFAC members, Luna noted that he got a pay increase, required by law, which he opposed and donated to charity. “I've received an increase this year of 4 percent. I think the only employees that are making more now than they were before is because they were promoted.”

Luna said he'd prefer that top elected officials like himself get the same CEC as all state employees, “and if it's zero, it's zero, if it's cut it's a cut. … A leader never asks others to do something he's not willing to do himself.” JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron responded with a grin, “We're glad to know you would like to have it the same, and we will set you up a pay for performance program as well.”
  

Luna: ‘No longer focusing on where we can strategically cut’ school funding

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna is up at the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, to present the budget requests for the single largest slice of state government: Public schools. “I stand here for the first time in four years with good news when it comes to our public schools financial situation,” Luna told JFAC. “We're no longer focusing on where we can strategically cut funding for our public schools in these difficult economic times, but we are actually facing a surplus.” You can watch live here; Luna will first address state Department of Education budget request, then the request for schools.
  

Redistricting fracas divides Idaho GOP

Here's a link to our full story at spokesman.com on today's drama over redistricting, with the timing of the state's primary election hanging in the balance and the fracas dividing Idaho's supermajority Republican Party. The Idaho Supreme Court stepped in today, halting a move by House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko to fire the two GOP redistricting commissioners they'd earlier appointed and replace them with new ones. Denney told the Associated Press late Wednesday that he planned no further challenges. “If that's their decision, we'll just move ahead,” he said; the commission reconvenes on Thursday morning.
  

Statehouse reactions: ‘She bleeds Republican,’ ‘Always a fracas on reapportionment’

The first-floor rotunda of the State house was packed just now for a reception honoring longtime University of Idaho chief lobbyist Marty Peterson upon his retirement; the talk of the crowd as it milled around, amid congratulations to Peterson, was this afternoon's Idaho Supreme Court decision tossing the redistricting petition from House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko. State Tax Commission Chairman Bob Geddes, a former Senate president pro-tem, said he had some sympathy with the two for filing their petition to try to oust two redistricting commissioners. “I think those appointees serve at the will of the people who appointed them,” Geddes said. But he said he also agreed with former Gov. Phil Batt's comments in a guest opinion today that party leaders were trying to “sully the reapportionment process for more political gain.” Said Geddes, “I don't necessarily disagree with the governor on that issue.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I'm glad that the Supreme Court acted expeditiously. I certainly respect that Norm Semanko and the speaker have their opinions, but I disagree with those opinions. I've worked with Dolores Crow in her years here, and she bleeds Republican, so I'm astounded at the actions that were taken there. I think they did the right thing in ignoring partisan politics and acting on the numbers.”

Lt. Gov. Brad Little said, based on his work helping the governor with appointments, “There's some appointments that say 'at the pleasure of,' and there's other appointments that have a different hurdle. Without doing the research, I would've said it's in the latter category.” But he added, “There's always a fracas on reapportionment.”

Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said, “Just my initial thought, if I was that person and the person that appointed me was so unhappy with me, wanted me out, I would (quit).” She said, “We just all want to have it be decided, and know what we're dealing with.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I'm glad the Supreme Court resolved it in an expeditious manner. My concern is any action that would delay the commission from getting the work done, and the impact it was having on the whole election process and pressure to move the election back. … We can get on with our business for the benefit of our constituents.”
  

Idaho Supreme Court dismisses petition from Denney and Semanko

The Idaho Supreme Court has issued an order denying the petition from House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko asking the court to order Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to declare two vacancies on the state's citizen redistricting commission; you can read the order here. The court essentially ruled that Denney and Semanko hadn't come up with sufficient legal reasons why the court should take that action; this means their challenge is dead, and the citizen redistricting commission is good to go as-is; it's scheduled to meet tomorrow morning at 9. “Petitioners failed to file a brief showing a clear right to the relief sought under statute or constitution of the state of Idaho,” the justices wrote, in an order signed by Chief Justice Roger Burdick.

Denney and Semanko wanted to replace the two GOP commissioners, Dolores Crow of Nampa and Randy Hansen of Twin Falls, that they had chosen for the commission; now both can serve.

Bill would change how PERSI views legislators’ per diem payments

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, persuaded the House Commerce Committee today to introduce his bill to stop counting per-diem payments to legislators who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol into PERSI retirement calculations; they have been included thus far because the $49 daily payments are considered taxable income, while the $122 payments for lawmakers from father away are not, under IRS rules. “That means they accumulate PERSI benefits, retirement benefits, at a faster rate than those who live more than 50 miles away,” Lake told the committee, though there's no difference in the job or salary.

Lake said his bill wouldn't change anything about the taxability of the per diem payments or their amounts; it would just change how they're viewed with regard to PERSI benefits. He said, “This came  to our attention last summer when one of our investigative reporters was doing a little work on another issue and ran across this.”

That reporter, John Miller of the Associated Press, discovered the quirk while gathering information for his report that two Canyon County lawmakers, Sens. John McGee and Curt McKenzie, were claiming the higher $122 per day per diem rate, though they lived less than 50 miles from the Capitol, by claiming a second residence for the session; Miller reported that McGee said he slept at his parents' and McKenzie said he slept on a couch at his Boise law office. Both stopped claiming the additional pay after the report; McKenzie had to return more than $2,400 that he also was paid for mileage from his home to the Capitol during the 2010 and 2011 sessions while also claiming to be staying in Boise, an overpayment that was attributed to a clerical error.

Former Gov. Batt weighs in - strongly - on redistricting dispute…

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, who also is a former Idaho state GOP chairman and widely considered the architect of the party's dominance in the state, has submitted a guest opinion to the Idaho Statesman newspaper decrying the moves by current party Chairman Norm Semanko and House Speaker Lawerence Denney to fire two GOP redistricting commissioners, reports Idaho Statesman editorialist Kevin Richert. “Now our party leaders want to sully the reapportionment process for more political gain. I guess they want 100 percent Republicans of their own variety (Dolores and I probably don’t qualify),” Batt writes. “But I predict that Republican dominance in Idaho will decline rather than grow if we say neutrality has no place in reapportionment, and that the commission must do it our way or else.” You can read Richert's full post here, which includes Batt's full guest opinion, submitted today.

Another tidbit from the former governor's piece: “Labeling Dolores Crow as a RINO is ridiculous. She has been a steel-tough Republican and is just trying to do what she was appointed to do — to produce a plan based on facts and not on politics.”

Chief justice on redistricting: ‘We’re workin’ on it’

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports that as Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick visited the Statehouse today, he indicated the court will have something to say soon on the ongoing redistricting dispute. “We're workin' on it,” Burdick told Popkey. “That's all a guy can say.” You can read Popkey's full post here; House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko have sued Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, demanding that the high court order Ysursa to declare two vacancies on the citizen redistricting commission so Denney and Semanko can replace two GOP members. The commission is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow morning.
  

Chief justice to Legislature: Mental commitment proceedings up 151%, funding static

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick is giving the annual State of the Judiciary address to both houses of the Legislature today; he spoke first to the House, then to the Senate, shown here. Among his points: Idaho's judges have seen a 30 percent increase in district court civil cases, including complex civil, medical and business disputes “that often take years to resolve.” Divorce and child custody cases are up 10 percent. And, he said, “With the decline in availability of mental health treatment, we have seen an astounding 151% increase in mental health commitment proceedings. These trends - likely the direct result of the economic decline - are a reflection of the heightened stress levels that Idahoans, businesses and families are experiencing in this economy.”

Said Burdick, “The challenge then is how to meet this upward trend with static resources.” He noted that Idaho's trial judges haven't had a pay increase since July of 2008; the state now ranks 47th in the nation for its judges' pay. Since July of 2000, openings for district judges have attracted a full slate of qualified candidates only 26 percent of the time.

“The state of the Judiciary is straining under increased caseloads, expanded duties, scarce resources, and stagnant compensation,” he said. “We must begin a conversation with the Legislature, the governor, and county clerks and commissioners about how best to address the pent-up demand for judges, court facilities, and new resources needed to conduct safe, timely hearings on the vital issues facing everyday Idaho citizens.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney told Burdick, “You've done more with less, and we really do appreciate that, and we are committed to looking into ways to enhance the judiciary as well.” Lt. Gov. Brad Little, president of the Senate, told the chief justice, “We welcome your presence here. We value you as a partner in that third but equal branch of government.”
  

Nellis to JFAC: Raises needed to avoid losing top UI faculty, researchers, staff…

In his budget pitch this morning, University of Idaho President Duane Nellis told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that raises for university employees are his top budget priority for next year. “Enrollment's gone up, funding's gone down, and because of this we're doing more with less,” Nellis told lawmakers. But he said he's “very worried” about losing top faculty and staff. Already this year, UI lost a top wheat breeder and researcher to Oregon State University “for a significant increase in salary,” Nellis said. “That's just one example of the types of faculty that we've lost because of our budget situation.” He said, “As you know, most of our employees have not had a salary increase in four years. … Our faculty and staff have additional responsibilities, they're doing more.”

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

UI students, officials, displays fill rotunda

Dozens of University of Idaho students, professors, and officials, including every college dean, are at the state Capitol today, where displays about the various UI offerings and programs fill the fourth-floor rotunda; they're there until 11:30 today, visiting with lawmakers and others. It coincides with UI President Duane Nellis' budget pitch to JFAC this morning, and Gov. Butch Otter will sign a proclamation at 10:30 declaring “University of Idaho Day.”

Otter on state worker raises, Obama, Geddes, more…

Among other subjects Gov. Butch Otter addressed in his Q-and-A with the Idaho Press Club this morning:

Otter said he's in discussions with lawmakers about making a switch in priorities in his budget proposal, switching state employee raises or bonuses from being a “surplus-eliminator” that happens only if revenues meet forecasts, to fully including them in the budget - while swapping tax cuts to the “surplus-eliminator” category. That's something many lawmaker are talking about. “We're discussing that - I'm open to the discussion on it,” Otter said.

On President Obama's State of the Union speech last night: “It doesn't comport with his actions, so I think it was a great election speech.”

On state Tax Commission Chairman Bob Geddes: “There are other things he would like to be considered for, there are other things he is being considered (for). … I think Bob has met all of my expectations … (from) when I pleaded with him to take that job.” He added, “I would tell you this, Bob Geddes is going to bloom wherever he's planted. He's a good guy, he's a quick study, and he embeds himself in the job. That's what I saw him do in the Senate, that's what I've seen him do out at the Tax Commission.

Otter declined to wade into the current fracas in his own party over redistricting. “This is a short answer - separate but equal,” he said. “That is the legislative domain, and I'm not going there.”
  

Otter opposes pushing primary election back to August

While the Legislature debates pushing back Idaho's primary election from May to August, Gov. Butch Otter said today he doesn't like the idea. “It would cause a lot of problems in Idaho, including Bone,” he said, referring to the hometown of the measure's sponsor, Rep. Tom Loertscher. Otter said, “The August time is a couple of weeks before school starts, families are trying to get their summer vacation in. The May primary is before school lets out. … I think if we try to put that on in a time when people are otherwise attended of something else, that their primary vote won't be as urgent to them as it is if they're at home working on their job and have their kids in school.” He noted Idaho's already-low primary election turnout.

Otter said he plans to inform legislative leaders tomorrow of his opposition. “I'm going to let 'em know what my wishes are tomorrow morning in the leadership meeting. That's one of the things I'm going to relay to them,” he said. “There's going to have to be overwhelming reasons and merits to an August primary, which I don't see right now.”

Otter says barring time extension from feds, Idaho’s out of time for state insurance exchange

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told the Idaho Press Club today that he's all but given up on establishing a state-based health insurance exchange, unless the federal government gives Idaho more time. “Quite frankly, the clock is running - I don't know that we've got time to put together a state exchange,” Otter told the Idaho Press Club this morning. The state needs “at a minimum a year,” he said. And, he said, “January of 2013 is our drop-dead date of getting acceptance of a state-based exchange design.”

With the U.S. Supreme Court arguments pending this spring and a decision coming in summer on constitutionality of the individual mandate and the national health care reform law as a whole, followed by elections in November that could then change things again, Otter said there's too much uncertainty.

“What we're going to have is one that, if it stays in place, if nothing changes in November, we'll have a federally imposed exchange in the state,” Otter said. That's not his preference, Otter said. “I think I've made my thoughts pretty well known on that. I don't like the Affordable Health Care Act. … I can hope that my candidate for the president wins, because he's one of the ones that's said Obamcare is going right out the window if he's the president.” Otter has endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Said Otter,  “There's not a lot you can do in that environment without wasting a lot of assets.”
  

Guv: Revenues can ‘still fund all of my priorities’

Gov. Butch Otter didn't sound too upset this morning at lawmakers yesterday setting their revenue estimate for next year's budget at $33.3 million less than his. “We can still fund all of my priorities within that,” Otter told the Idaho Press Club this morning, at his annual address to the group. “My revenue projection was 5.8 (percent growth), but my budget was set at 5.” Still, he said he'll be talking with lawmakers about their reasoning and sources for going below his projections, provided by the state's chief economist, in the interest of reaching a compromise.

Otter said it's still important to him to refill rainy-day funds - his budget calls for transferring $60 million into those funds, beyond his 5 percent spending cap. “If we have a second run at this recession,” he said, “we'll have the money just like we did in '08 and '09 and '10 - we'll have a little meat on our ribs.”

JFAC hears UI budget pitch today

Budget hearings for the University of Idaho are up in JFAC today, starting with UI President Duane Nellis making his budget pitch at 8 a.m.; you can watch live here.

‘Add the Words’ sticky note campaign continues

The “Add the Words” campaign, which is pushing to add the words “sexual orientation or gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination on that basis in housing and employment, has continued to post sticky notes in the state Capitol with its supporters' messages; the act now bans discrimination on the basis of race, religion or disability. The campaign was a big focus of Idaho's recent Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day celebration; legislation to make the change was introduced last year but didn't advance. Here, former Idaho Human Rights Commission Director Marilyn Shuler, who gave the keynote address at the state's official MLK Day ceremony, displays her sticky note with the “Add the Words” message. Click below for the group's full announcement about its campaign.

Idaho delegation pans Obama’s State of the Union speech

Reviews of last night's State of the Union speech from Idaho's congressional delegation: “He had a good delivery, as he always does,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. “But this was clearly a political speech.” Said Congressman Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, “A lot of lofty rhetoric, but no action.” Congressman Mike Simpson said, “He hasn’t given us hope of anything better this year, further convincing the American people that their government cannot solve problems.”

Said Simpson, “Putting Band-Aids on our broken tax code does nothing to fix it. What we really need is for Republicans and Democrats to come together to implement fundamental tax reform to bring about a new tax system that lowers the rate and broadens the base, creating a simpler and fairer tax code. This, in conjunction with significant spending reductions and reform of our entitlement programs that are on auto-pilot spending, would go a long way toward creating the growth necessary to revitalize our economy and bring our deficit under control.”

You can read a full report here from S-R reporter Jim Camden on reactions to President Obama's speech from Idaho and Washington members of Congress.

Will they? Won’t they? Redistricting dispute still murky…

The day has ended without word from the Idaho Supreme Court on its next move on the Idaho GOP's lawsuit challenging the makeup of the state's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa contends the panel can reconvene on Thursday as planned even if it just has four members present – minus the two disputed seats – because four members constitute a quorum. “Unless there's an injunction, they're going to convene on Thursday at 9 a.m.,” Ysursa told The Associated Press today. But House Speaker Lawerence Denney said he thought the Thursday meeting would have to be delayed. “I'm not sure if they (the Supreme Court justices) can or will rule” in time, Denney said. Click below for AP reporter John Miller's wrapup of the day's developments on the fast-changing political dispute within the state's dominant political party.

LewTrib: ITD losing half a million-plus a year on oversized load permit program

Idaho has been losing $645,000 a year administering oversize-load permits including those for so-called megaloads, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence reported today; the news came out when an ITD official briefed a legislative committee on pending ITD rules, which include fee increases designed to try to wipe out that deficit. “We're required to recoup the administrative cost of running the program,” ITD official Regina Phipps told the Senate Transportation Committee; you can read Spence's full post here at his “Political Theater” blog.

What it means…

The joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee's decision today to set a revenue figure for next year that's $33.3 million below the governor's estimate could have a variety of impacts. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, noted that state chief economist Derek Santos advised watching how the next month's worth of numbers come in. “JFAC's not going to start setting hard budgets here for another month,” Bedke said. “If by then, things are still positive,” the joint budget committee might choose to “bump things up at that point, and if it turns south like it did last year,” the committee could choose to budget below the amount.

Among the spending priorities in the governor's budget proposal that could change, depending on lawmakers' decisions: The $45 million identified for unspecified tax cuts; the $60 million designated to refill rainy-day funds; and the $41 million in conditional one-time bonuses for state employees in lieu of raises, to be given only if state revenues meet targets.

Said Bedke, “He's put his deal out there. We'll return serve and see what happens.”

In some ways, today's decision was a sign of optimism from lawmakers; if they'd stuck with their median figure based on what each committee member had estimated and turned in before today's meeting, they'd have taken another $28 million off the table for next year.

Lawmakers trim $33.3M from governor’s revenue estimate

Rep. Dennis Lake, chairman of the House Rev & Tax Committee, has moved to approve the governor's recommendation for 2012 revenues, then a figure for fiscal 2013 that's a 4.5 percent increase over that at $2.667 billion - $33.3 million short of the governor's figure for next year. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, seconded the motion, and it passed on a 15-3 vote. The three “no” votes came from Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Curt McKenzie, R-Caldwell, and Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said he thought it made sense to accept the governor's figure for the current year, since it was so close to committee members' estimates, and then to “split the difference” between the committee's median estimate and the governor's figure for 2013. That's what passed.

Keough said she voted “no” because she favored a lower figure. “I just think it's great that there is so much optimism, but in the rural parts of the state we still have double-digit unemployment,” she said. Keough said she wants to make sure the Legislature sets “a budget we can realistically deliver.”

The numbers: Committee members’ estimates all came in below guv’s…

Several members of the joint economic outlook committee have questions for state chief economist Derek Santos, who presented his projections – he's dropped his forecast for state tax revenue growth for this year from 6.4 percent to 4.4 percent, then predicted that next year, revenues will grow 5.8 percent above that lowered figure. That comes to 2.7003 billion for next year, fiscal year 2013.

The committee members have turned in their estimates, and the median is at $2.6389 billion, which assumes growth of 4.3 percent this year and then 3.5 percent above that next year. That's $61.4 million lower than the governor's forecast. If that were the figure adopted, it'd mean taking that amount out of the state's spending plan for next year, compared to what the governor wants to do; it'd be enough of a change to remove all funding for the governor's proposed $45 million in tax cuts or $60 million in refilling of emptied state rainy-day funds. Every single member of the committee submitted an estimate below the governor's.

Lawmakers prepare to set revenue figure for state budget…

The Legislature's Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee is beginning its meeting now; this is when lawmakers will decide on a revenue figure on which to peg the state budget. If they go lower than Gov. Butch Otter's figure, that pushes part of what the governor proposed in his budget off the table for next year. You can listen live here.

Senate panel backs revision to ‘Students Come First’ law to let online course teacher be in building

The Senate Education Committee has voted unanimously in favor of SB 1237, a proposal from the state Board of Education to delete a line from the “Students Come First” reform law that, in a definition of what an “online course” is, added the line, “in which the instructor is not physically located at the school or place in which the student is receiving instruction.” Traci Bent of the board office said since online courses are defined in state board rules, the line was unnecessary in the law, and that it could cause problems like prohibiting situations where a teacher was loading online course material in an office in the same school where students were taking the course.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, sponsor of the original law – which is up for a referendum vote in November that could overturn it - said, “The thought is to provide distance education,” and the line originally was included “to make sure that there was some distance there.” But he said a southern Idaho consortium of high schools that's sharing teachers and sharing courses online ran into problems with the clause. “The work that's being done by that group of schools is important to recognize, and this kinda got in the way of it,” Goedde said. The bill now moves to the full Senate.

GOP wants Supreme Court to order Ysursa to declare redistricting vacancies

About half an hour ago, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus in the Idaho Supreme Court, calling on the court to “immediately” order Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to declare two vacancies on the Idaho citizens redistricting commission, and then recognize their new appointees for those spots; the two said they'd asked Ysursa to declare such vacancies but he'd refused, citing the legal advice of the Idaho Attorney General, who provided him with a legal opinion saying commissioners can't be removed. You can read the GOP court filing here. It's not clear yet how the high court will react; it could request a response from Ysursa, the respondent to the complaint, or it could just issue a ruling.

Denney, Semanko say they want Forrey and Cross as new redistricters…

The Idaho Republican Party says its chairman, Norm Semanko, and House Speaker Lawerence Denney have made their choices for two new redistricting commissioners: Denney's chosen former state lawmaker Bob Forrey of Nampa, and Semanko has chosen Angela Cross of Post Falls. The party also said it's “filed the necessary documents with the Idaho Supreme Court today to ensure that their new commission appointments are recognized and seated when the commission reconvenes;” click below for the Idaho GOP's full statement. The redistricting commission – including the two previous appointees, Dolores Crow of Nampa and Randy Hansen of Twin Falls – is scheduled to reconvene Thursday morning.

Idaho GOP suing over redistricting commissioners flap

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The Republican Party is suing the secretary of state over redistricting in the Idaho Supreme Court, contending the party's chairman and the speaker of the House of Representatives have the power to fire their appointees and name new members to the panel. Republican Chairman Norm Semanko and House Speaker Lawerence Denney want to remove redistricting commissioners Randy Hansen, a former Twin Falls legislator, and Dolores Crow, a former House member from Nampa. But the Idaho attorney general says Semanko and Denney don't have the power to remove them, even though they appointed Hansen and Crow to the panel. And Secretary of State Ben Ysursa hasn't declared a redistricting commission vacancy. The redistricting panel is due to reconvene Thursday to draw up maps after previous plan was thrown out by justices.

NIC president warns cost burden is ‘shifting to our students’

North Idaho College has seen its funding burden shift more and more to its students, college President Priscilla Bell told Idaho lawmakers today. “As with most higher education institutions, NIC has experienced significant growth in enrollment over the past four years,” she said, even as state funding has dropped. NIC's for-credit student population has increased by 45 percent in four years; professional-technical education enrollment has grown “by a whopping 68 percent,” Bell told the Legislature's joint budget committee. Now, both student tuition and fees and local property taxes exceed state funding as a portion of NIC's budget.

“More and more, the funding burden is shifting to our students,” Bell said. “This is also reflected in our students taking on more debt. … We're very worried about the amount of debt our students are incurring, which on average, over the last few years, has doubled.” Bell said the typical NIC student now leaves the two-year community college with $3,200 in debt. “It is alarming,” she said. Her budget pitch to lawmakers today came as all three of the state's community colleges made their budget appeals; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Idaho Senate honors longtime secty Jeannine Wood, chief assistant Rusti Horton

The Senate today has a special resolution up, SR 103, honoring and commending former Secretary of the Senate Jeannine Wood and her chief assistant, Rusti Horton, both of whom have now retired. Wood served as the Senate's secretary from 1990 until this year, and won national acclaim for her work. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “It is not … hyperbole to say that Idaho's government, its laws and its legislative history is better because these two women graced these marble halls.” Davis said the two were responsible for ensuring that the Senate operated according to its rules, and that an accurate record of its actions was preserved.

He requested a roll-call vote on the resolution, and every member of the Senate rose to support the request. Davis said that was the first time he's aware of that the entire Senate rose to support such a request. “Senators, thank you for doing that,” he said. “Senators, process matters, and Jeannine Wood and Rusti Horton mattered to process.” Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said Wood and Horton's work to “keep our proceedings dignified and orderly was unmatched.” Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, a stickler for rules, said of Wood, “She truly wrote the book, in so many ways.”
  

Of apologies, disrespect, and beginning a discussion…

Before the House State Affairs Committee's 13-5 vote in favor of the anti-Occupy bill, Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, noted that he's received lots of comments from people who thought he was being disrespectful last week when he asked a man who testified that he became homeless after his wife died and he lost his job whether he'd considered going to Washington to pick apples. “I'm sorry about that, if I was intolerant,” Andrus said. “I've heard frustration, I've heard concern, and I've heard anger.” But he said, “We didn't cause this recession, Rep. Bedke didn't cause this recession. … We're concerned (too).” However,  Andrus said when he arrived in Boise for the legislative session and saw the Occupy Boise tents, “I felt that showed a disrespect for our public buildings and our public grounds.”

After the vote, in the hallway outside the committee's meeting room, Occupy supporter Katie Fite sounded a hopeful note. “You heard from some folks on the committee, like Rep. McGeachin, some real compassion, I thought, coming out, some understanding,” she said. She noted that lawmakers also are hearing this session about the high numbers of Idahoans on food stamps, and considering legislation to keep recipients from overwhelming grocery stores on the 1st of each month; she also noted that Occupy Boise has invited lawmakers to an open house at their vigil site this afternoon. “I think the message of the Occupy Boise folks, I think some of that resonates across party lines in Idaho, and that a very important discussion has begun.”

Anti-Occupy bill passes committee, 13-5

The motion to pass HB 404 as-is has passed on the same 13-5 vote; the only “no” votes were Reps. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls; Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello; Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City; and Phylis King, D-Boise. After the vote, one man tried to address the committee, saying he's the “janitor” who's been cleaning the grounds and citing a law section; committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, stopped him, saying the committee had concluded its consideration of the bill.

The bill now moves to the full House; State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told the House State Affairs Committee that once the bill has passed the Senate, her department will post notices to evict the Occupy Boise group, and they likely would have three days to vacate the site, as the bill would sit on the governor's desk for three days before he'd sign it into law.

Motion to amend anti-Occupy bill fails

The motion to hold off and let a subcommittee study changes to HB 404, the anti-Occupy bill, has failed with just five “yes” votes - the House State Affairs Committee's four Democrats plus Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. By the same vote, the committee then also killed the motion to send the bill to the House's amending order to remove the emergency clause. The panel is now debating the original motion, to pass the bill as-is.
  

Lawmakers: Concerns about respect, limits, a ‘Woodstock on our front lawn’

Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I'm just happy that we had a chance and an opportunity to hear from the public, because that's really what this movement is really all about. We may not agree on everything, but … I'm glad that they had an opportunity to express their concerns.”

Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, said, “I have heard your voices. … We have work to do, and we thank you for being so powerful to step up and talk about that work. … The goal for me is to ensure that the legislation that goes forward is respectful. … We are neighbors, we're friends, we're colleagues, some of us are family, and so we do want to move forward in a very respectful way.”

Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, said her motion was a compromise, offering to amend the bill simply by removing the emergency clause. Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, offered an amended substitute motion to defer the bill and allow a subcommittee to work on changes.

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, said without the emergency clause, “In essence we would be announcing free camping on the capitol mall until July 1st. … I fear that we're going to end up with a sort of Woodstock on our front lawn,” as other groups join in on other issues. “Waiting 'til July 1st just sets a dangerous precedent.”

Lawmakers debate anti-Occupy bill, possible amendments…

Rep. Max Black, R-Boise, posed a hypothetical: What if Idaho's dairymen were upset about an issue – laws, prices, or something else, and decided to protest. “Could they back up their truck and unload 100 Holsteins” onto Capitol Mall property? Rep. Scott Bedke responded, “That would be inappropriate in my opinion – it would be completely inappropriate.” But he said he thought “if they have enough gall, I guess, for want of a better term … chutzpah or something like that, they could go in.”

Now, Rep. Bert Stevenson has moved to pass the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.” Rep. Elaine Smith proposed a substitute motion to send the bill to the amending order to remove the emergency clause. Rep. Phylis King offered a motion backing additional amendments, including more notice.

Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, spoke in support of Smith's substitute motion. “I am not opposed to clarifying our state policy on this issue,” she said. But she said the amendments described by Smith and King would “make the bill a better bill.” Said McGeachin, “People in this movement have some legitimate concerns about what is happening in America. It's not a Democratic issue, it's not a Republican issue, it's an American issue. … Crony capitalism is a big problem in our country.”
  

Rep. Bedke defends anti-Occupy bill

State Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, sponsor HB 404, said, “I have been impressed by the eloquent defense of the vigil and the passionate nature of the testimony.” But he said lawmakers are charged with maintaining “minimum levels of health and safety” at state buildings. Without rules, he said, “the logical conclusion of what we would have is chaos.”

Bedke said the rights to free speech and assembly are “sacred to us,” and he said suggestions that lawmakers were “willing to trample on those” concerned him. “I was offended by that, that's not what I'm about, that's not what you're about, I  know you,” he told the House State Affairs Committee.

He said, “In their words, it's not an encampment, it's a soapbox to make a point. I guess some of the points they made, they allege that you're out of touch, that you're not the 99 percent, their term. We are citizen legislators. We go home to families, we go home to jobs. We go home to all the problems that are described here, and my constituents are not bashful when it comes to telling me about all these problems. … To say that we're somehow removed, that we're somehow bought and paid for and not tuned in to all these issues, is offensive to me on nearly every level.”

Said Bedke, “This is not hard, this is not a big stretch. Who would've thought that we'd need to regulate camping on the capitol lawns?” He said, “It's within the state's prerogative, the Legislature's prerogative, to regulate camping. It's settlled law. … This is not about curtailing freedom of speech. All of the venues are still open that they had.”
  

Luna: Occupy movement had no permission

State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told the House State Affairs Committee this morning that when the Occupy Boise group notified her office of its intent to begin an indefinite vigil on state property on the grounds of the Capitol Annex, the department searched statutes and its rules “for something we could point to” to deny the use. What they found, she said, was, “The law was silent  on the grounds that surround the Capitol Mall. … There was nothing available to stop this type of activity on property that the department manages.”

Luna urged support for HB 404, the anti-Occupy bill, saying she's already received inquiries from other groups wanting to set up camp on state property. Luna said, “To date, costs related directly to the encampment have cost the Department of Administration nearly $9,000.” She said costs have included an extra security officer and removal of graffiti from the LBJ building.

“The Occupy group did not ask permission to set up camp on the state's property, nor did we grant them permission,” Luna told lawmakers, adding that the group has been issued no permit for its encampment. Under questioning from lawmakers, she said the department received a “courtesy letter only” from the group. “We then met with the group to try to set some boundaries,” she said. “We did meet with them, but we did not give them permission. They knew they didn't have permission. They also knew that we didn't have anything that would stop them from doing so.”
  

Budget hearings: Community college students ‘need an affordable solution’

This morning, the presidents of Idaho's three community colleges – the College of Western Idaho, the College of Southern Idaho and North Idaho College – give their budget pitches to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee; you can watch live here. First up today is CWI President Bert Glandon, who told JFAC that the Treasure Valley's fast-growing community college has connected students with more than $53 million in grants, scholarships and student loans. “Nearly 40 percent of aid applicants reported family income at or below the federal poverty threshold, and 77 percent were eligible for Pell grants,” Glandon said. “Students coming to CWI need an affordable solution that does not turn them away.”

Responding to questions from lawmakers, Glandon said, “We have proprietary schools all around us that offer similar programs at 10 times the cost of what we're offering. … We cannot rely on the rich only being educated. We must rely on building people from the ground up and building opportunities for those. The American dream is built around there's opportunities for all.” He said, “What you're seeing at CWI is truly the American dream come true. You're seeing people who had no opportunity, had no hope, didn't even believe they would move on – and now they believe in themselves.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, said, “It's a miracle and I can't imagine Treasure Valley without it, because we had the same miracle in Magic Valley with CSI.” She said she doesn't begrudge the property taxes she pays for her area's community college, which she said is less than she pays to support the local landfill.

Budget hearings look at higher ed, tuition hikes, student growth

Lawmakers are wondering if the state's colleges and universities will continue to hike student tuitions, reports AP reporter Jessie Bonner, who covered this morning's budget hearings for Boise State University and Idaho State University. Under questioning from JFAC, BSU President Bob Kustra argued that even with the potential increase in funding for higher education under the governor's budget, the schools are still digging themselves out of a financial hole, Bonner reports; click below for her full article.

“We've lost $20 million dollars because of this difficult economy over the last four years,” Kustra said. “It's not just about getting the governor's current recommendation through, it's also about trying to recoup money that we've lost that's forced us into larger class sizes and has forced us into offering fewer classes for students.”

Kustra said BSU turned away 976 students this past fall, even as its student population continued to grow. The official “snapshot” of enrollment at BSU is 19,664 students, he said, but the total number of “distinct students” served in the past year, including fall, spring and summer terms, was 29,454. The school has been rearranging class schedules and days and making other moves to fit more students into the same buildings over the course of the year, he said.
  

AP: Geddes may leave Tax Commission

Former Idaho state Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes has gotten high marks since he took over as head of the Idaho State Tax Commission, but AP reporter John Miller reports that after a year, Geddes is looking to move on. Click below for his full report.

AP: Lawmaker’s son arrested

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The son of state Rep. Joe Palmer was arrested and booked into the Ada County Jail over the weekend on felony and misdemeanor drug charges. The Idaho Statesman reports (http://bit.ly/yivPeC ) 21-year-old Cord Charles Palmer remained held early Monday. He was arrested early Sunday in downtown Boise after police say they found 132 grams of psilocybin mushrooms in his vehicle. Cord Palmer was expected to appear in court later Monday on a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. He also faces misdemeanor counts of marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession. Joe Palmer is a Meridian Republican who chairs the House Transportation & Defense Committee. He issued a statement Monday saying he and his wife were devastated and believe their son must take responsibility for his actions.

AP: Idaho GOP deepens ‘intense internal fight’ over redistricting…

Idaho's dominant Republican Party on Monday deepened an intense internal fight, the AP reports, with the state GOP chairman and House speaker announcing they'd fired two of their own redistricting commissioners, at least in part because they hadn't helped the party enough. Meanwhile, the two commissioners have refused to go without a fight — and the Republican attorney general agrees they can't be ousted against their will. On Monday, the Republicans produced a legal opinion of their own contending Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office has it wrong.

Already once last week, the Idaho Supreme Court intervened in the state's latest bid to draw up new legislative district boundaries, throwing out a previously approved set of maps because it split too many counties. Now, justices may be called into action again, to determine if Republican Chairman Norm Semanko and Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney are legally entitled to remove Randy Hansen, a former Twin Falls legislator, and Dolores Crow, a former House member from Nampa, from the commission; click below for the latest full report from AP reporter John Miller on this developing story, in which Hansen says, “I made a commitment to the citizens of the state of Idaho that I would fulfill my responsibility as a commissioner. I made that commitment to the citizens, not to Representative Denney or Norm Semanko.”
  

GOP club says liquor privatization is a conservative, smaller-government issue

An offshoot of one of Kootenai County's numerous Republican clubs filed a statewide initiative Monday to privatize liquor sales in Idaho. The move is separate from one that had been mulled by the same grocery association that backed the successful liquor privatization drive in Washington state; that group said today that it won't push an initiative this year after all.

The “Reagan Republicans” group said its initiative would push privatization on smaller-government grounds. “This was kind of our coming-out party for Reagan Republicans statewide, something that we thought reduced the size and scope of government,” said Jeff Ward, president of the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans and the new Idaho Federation of Reagan Republicans. “I'm an evangelical Christian, very conservative, and my viewpoint is with the way that works now, as a state, it makes me basically a shareholder in the liquor business, and I don't want to be in the liquor business.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Reagan Republicans say they’ll file their own liquor privatization initiative

The “Idaho Federation of Reagan Republicans,” an expanded version of the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans group that's intending to go statewide, announced today that it plans to submit its own proposed initiative to privatize liquor sales in Idaho, separate from an effort that's been in the works by the Northwest Grocery Association, who've been exploring an initiative of their own; they're the group that sponsored the successful measure to privatize liquor sales in the state of Washington.

Jeff Ward, president of the Reagan Republicans, said in a statement that his group's initiative is “a conservative effort to reduce the size and scope of government and to free each Idahoan from being in the liquor business.” He said it would take effect July 1, 2013, if it made the November 2012 ballot and voters approved it. As of 3:30 this afternoon, the Idaho Secretary of State's office hadn't yet received anything from the group; click below to read the group's full statement.

GOP offers its own conflicting legal opinion; redistricting commissioners say they’ll fight to stay…

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney and state GOP Chairman Norm Semanko have now submitted their own legal opinion, written by attorney Christ Troupis, contradicting the Idaho Attorney General's opinion finding that they can't remove their appointees to the citizen redistricting commission. “The legal opinion provided to Denney and Semanko concludes that the AG's opinion is in error,” says a press release from the Idaho GOP; you can read it here.

Troupis' opinion cited two Idaho Supreme Court cases, from 1963 and 1988, saying they ruled that the power of removal is incident to the power of appointment. Denney and Semanko said they plan to name two new appointees to the commission tomorrow; the commission plans to convene on Thursday.

The two GOP commissioners, Randy Hansen and Dolores Crow, both former GOP state lawmakers, refused to quit. Crow told the AP today, “I'm going to hang in there.” She said, “The law was set up for it to be a citizen's commission. That was to keep this kind of thing from happening.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
  

Idaho Dems on redistricting: ‘Bullying and arrogance’

The Idaho Democratic Party issued a statement this afternoon decrying the latest move by Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko and GOP House Speaker Lawerence Denney to attempt to fire their two appointees to the state's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission. “Make no mistake, this is a Republican against Republican fight and a clear example of the unacceptable culture in the GOP-controlled Statehouse. That culture is one of ongoing bullying and arrogance as GOP leaders seek to purge moderate, reasonable lawmakers from their ranks,” the Dems' statement said. State party Chairman Larry Grant said, “It’s pretty obvious that GOP leadership wants the commission to fail so they can put redistricting back in the legislature where they can use it to continue to purge their party of moderate Republicans.” You can read the Democrats' full statement here.

Freshman senator pushes ‘right to hunt’ constitutional amendment

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, today proposed a “right to hunt, fish and trap” amendment to the Idaho state Constitution, saying, “I'm surprised that this wasn't part of the Constitution when Idaho became a state over 100 years ago.” The amendment, for which the next step would be a hearing in the Senate Resources Committee, would add to the Constitution: “Hunting, fishing and trapping are a valued part of the heritage of the state of Idaho and shall forever be preserved for the people. The exercise of this right by the people shall not be prohibited but shall be subjected to laws, rules and proclamations of the state. The rights set forth herein do not create a right to trespass on private property, shall not affect rights to divert, appropriate and use water, and shall not lead to a diminution of other private rights.”

The approach raised some questions among members of the Resources Committee today. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I certainly agree with the heart and the intent of what you're trying to do.” But he said the middle sentence opens the door to allowing a future legislature to override the new constitutional provision, perhaps even by banning hunting or fishing. “I have concern with making the Constitution 'subject to' any state law provisions,” he said. Committee Chairman Monty Pearce said he was glad the questions were being raised at this early stage. “If there need to be any changes made, I think we should back up before we get too far down this road,” he said.

Heider, a first-term senator, read from the Vermont Constitution in support of his proposal, saying, “Their constitution was written in 1777, 235 years ago, and it's been upheld for all those years.” The committee voted unanimously to introduce the measure. “We'll look forward to that hearing,” Pearce said.
  

Hansen didn’t know Semanko removing him ‘til got calls from reporters…

Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that GOP redistricting commissioner Randy Hansen of Twin Falls didn't know he'd been removed from the commission by state GOP Chairman Norm Semanko until receiving reporters' calls today; you can read her story here. The party responded by releasing a letter Semanko sent to Hansen on Friday telling him to resign or be fired; you can read it here.
  

Rep. Hart among opponents of bill on notices to delinquent taxpayers

Idaho could save $200,000 a year by no longer using certified mail to send two types of deficiency notices to delinquent taxpayers, and instead using first-class mail. The reason: 35 percent of certified mail is returned, simply because folks don't bother to pick it up. Today, Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, urged the House to support HB 362, legislation from the state Tax Commission to try first-class mail instead for a year, to see how it works; the Tax Commission would report back to lawmakers after a year on the results. “Changing to first-class mail would result in more taxpayers actually receiving the notices,” Barbieri told the House. “It' is much more cost-efficient. It's good legislation.”

Rep. Lynn Luker R-Boise, said he worried about who would have the burden of proof if a delinquent taxpayer claimed he hadn't received the notice; Barbieri said Tax Commission rules require two personal phone calls to the taxpayer as well as the mailed notice. “There are safeguards in the procedure,” he said, but Luker responded, “I'm concerned about this ability to prove who sent what when and who got it.”

House Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake noted that the bill is just to try the different procedure for a year. “We thought, take a look at it, because of the savings and because people simply don't bother to pick up that certified mail,” he said, and “claim they don't have notice.”

The bill then passed the House on a 60-8 vote; among those voting “no” was Barbieri's fellow District 3 lawmaker, Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who currently has an appeal of past-due state income taxes pending before the Idaho Supreme Court. The other “no” votes were Reps. Loertscher, Shepherd, Andrus, Marriott, Patrick, McMillan and Barrett; the bill now moves to the Senate side.
  

Senate approves constitutional amendment to allow county probation services

The Senate has voted unanimously, 34-0, in favor of SJR 102, in what sponsor Sen. Denton Darrington called “a bit of history in the making.” The measure is a constitutional amendment; to take effect, it requires two-thirds approval in both houses of the Legislature and then majority approval of voters at the next general election, which in this case is in November of 2012. It would add one word - “felony” - to the clause of the Constitution, Article 10, Section 5, that specifies the powers of the state Board of Correction, to clarify that the board oversees adult felony probation and parole. That's the only kind of adult probation and parole that used to exist; but now counties handle misdemeanor probation and parole.

As for the Board of Correction, which runs the state's prison system, “They don't mess with misdemeanants because misdemeanants don't go to prison,” Darrington said. “Misdemeanants occasionally go to jail. So that would clear up any ambiguity.”

Darrington said the state's Criminal Justice Commission looked into the issue and recommended a constitutional amendment as the best way to clarify the status of county misdemeanor probation services. “Believe me, the program is worth preserving,” he said. It's designed to supervise misdemeanor offenders, in hopes they don't progress to becoming felony offenders. The resolution now heads to the House for assignment to a committee there.

Denney, Semanko say they’re replacing Crow, Hansen on redistricting commission

The Idaho Republican Party just sent out this news release, despite an Idaho Attorney General's opinion issued last week saying there's no legal way to remove redistricting commissioners:

 

Chairman Semanko and Speaker Denney to Appoint New Redistricting Commissioners Tuesday

Boise, Idaho – The Idaho Republican Party announced today that State Chairman Norm Semanko and Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney have removed Randy Hansen and Dolores Crow from the Idaho Redistricting Commission effective immediately.

The names of the two new commissioners will be released Tuesday morning.

The Redistricting Commission will convene on Thursday, January 26th at 9am at the Idaho Capitol.

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House State Affairs finishes testimony on anti-Occupy bill; will vote tomorrow

After more than two hours of testimony, the House State Affairs Committee has adjourned after hearing from all those who signed up to testify; several deferred their chance to speak and submitted their testimony in writing. “I'm sure this will take some time to debate and vote on, so we will be doing that tomorrow morning,” said committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. He said tomorrow's meeting will start at 9 a.m., and, “We will not be accepting testimony. We will give Rep. Bedke a chance to wrap up.” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said she'd still like to hear from state Department of Administration chief Teresa Luna and the Attorney General's office; Loertscher said that will be allowed in the morning.

Testimony: ‘Walk across the street and meet with us, talk with us’

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, told Occupy Boise volunteer Dean Gunderson, “This is nothing but chaos to me, because as long as everyone behaves according to your doctrine and your group's doctrine, no one else can participate over there because you've set up your own governance for those grounds.” Gunderson responded, “The particular scenario he envisioned implies an exclusivity of use, that somehow we occupy the entire site and it's ours. If you actually go over to the vigil site, you'll find that there's a tremendous number of other activities, both state activities and non-state activities, and additional space for any other group that wish to come in and engage in political protest.”

Mary Reali of Boise told the lawmakers, “I consider being involved in Occupy Boise an honor. … I see Occupy Boise as part of a long tradition of Americans exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. … You can find veterans and students and retirees and professionals from many sectors, some of whom you've heard from today.”

Glen “Angel” Garity told the committee, “My first night out of prison I stayed at the Boise Rescue Mission.” The second night, he said, he stayed by the river. “The next morning I was wet, cold and miserable, and ready to commit another crime.” Then, he said, “I came to the Occupy town of Boise. They gave me a tent, a few warm blankets - now they're my family and my town.” Garity said he became active in the group. “This gave me a  reason to stay out of prison. … I hide nothing from them. They all accept me as one of them and I belong to them. Now I spent 13 years in prison and became institutionalized, and now this family of mine is the only thing that helped me become a citizen again.”

Marlenee Diaz of Bliss, said HB 404 was “proposed for the sole purpose of getting us to shut up. … Instead of trying to silence our voices, walk across the street and meet with us, talk with us.”

Bob Blurton, asked by committee members if the encampment might move elsewhere at some point, perhaps to private land, said he figured it would move at some point, when the currently vacant old Ada County Courthouse is needed for something else. To chuckles, he said, “We have more contingency plans than the U.S. military.” But Blurton urged against HB 404. “There's no room for free speech any more, and by God, if somebody figures out a creative way to do it, we'll regulate that too,” he said.

Stan Hoobing, a retired Lutheran pastor, told the lawmakers, “There is a purpose to this colorful tent city. It's a symbol of hurt, frustration, despair about the economic situation in our country.” Hoobing urged lawmakers not to pass the bill, but instead to engage in a conversation with the Occupy participants about their concerns.

ISU President Vailas: Reserves up, debt down, but campus infrastructure hurting

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The president of Idaho State University says the school has not only increased its reserves to more than $12 million, but also rearranged programs on the Pocatello campus to help cut costs and take a bite out of its long-term debt. University president Arthur Vailas reported Monday to the Idaho Legislature's budget writing committee. Vailas said the university had just $250,000 in unrestricted assets when he started in 2006 and under his leadership, those reserves have grown to $12.3 million. The school also paid off more than $4 million in outstanding debt during the past fiscal year. But these highlights, Vailas cautioned, do not mean the school has been untouched by the economic downturn. He reported the university has roughly $440 million in unmet infrastructure needs.

Rep. Crane: Under bill, Occupiers could still have vigil - just not overnight…

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told Occupy Boise volunteer Dean Gunderson, “I don't think we're going to restrict your right to have a vigil or have a protest.” Instead, he said, the legislation would restrict people from staying overnight, but protests still could occur on the Capitol Mall grounds during the daytime.

Gunderson said the Occupy Boise specifically sets up a “perpetual vigil” as its means of political expression, and he argued that the right to freedom of assembly permits that. “It is that convening is occurring,” he said.

Lawmaker: What if ‘thousands’ suddenly took up residence on Capitol mall?

Dean Gunderson, a volunteer with Occupy Boise, said the vigil has actually reduced crime in the Capitol Mall area; a participant reported a person who was seen vandalizing cars in the area, and the police apprehended the vandal.

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, asked Gunderson, “Don't you see this as potentially sort of a troubling precedent, if we have every group that's protesting here on the Capitol grounds to all of a sudden take up residence?” He said it “might limit the access of the public to the Capitol … if we had thousands of people who suddenly took up residence on the Capitol Mall.”

Gunderson responded that the only action he's aware of now restricting access to the Statehouse is the stepped-up security apparently targeting those attending the Occupy bill hearings. “Your question, is whether or not representatives should fear their constituents who feel that they have issues that they would want to bring.”

Testimony: Occupy vigil across from Capitol on vacant property ‘poses no emergency’

Among the testimony at this morning's hearing on HB 404, the bill to evict Occupy Boise from state property across from the Capitol:

Fairy Hitchcock, who said she's a registered lobbyist on behalf of herself and her family, spoke in favor of the bill, the only person thus far to do so. She said she spoke for “people who are regular, normal, average and everyday,” and said, “The things that are over there embarrass me.”

Rachel Raue told lawmakers that both the state Department of Administration and the Idaho State Police have copies of the Occupy Boise encampment's 42-page operational plan, and the group has been operating under that plan. “Using a tent doesn't equal camping,” she said. “Camping, you're out there for recreation. In a vigil protest, you're petitioning your government for redress of grievances.”

John Howard said participants in Occupy Boise have been maintaining the site, raking leaves and removing trash. The protest has received favorably publicity nationwide and even internationally, he said. “We haven't had an Oakland, we haven't had a Wall Street. We've been looked up to as having a higher standard.”

Anne Hausrath, a 35-year Boise resident and former Boise city councilwoman, told the committee, “I am very impressed by the consensus-based process of Occupy Boise. I have never been involved with a group which is more respectful. … I respectfully ask that you not rush forward with this bill.” She said, “The vigil across the street on an unused piece of land … next to a vacant building … poses no emergency.”

Testimony: ‘We had a pact in America; work brought dignity’

First up to testify on HB 404 this morning, the bill to ban camping on the Capitol Mall grounds and evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the capitol, was Geoff Burns, an older man neatly dressed in a sweater, tie and slacks, whose career was in construction management. Burns told lawmakers, “Going forward, you have two options: One is to create conflict, the other is to work cooperatively with your constituents.” He said, “Never in our history have the heavy-handed efforts of government to quell the voice of the people been successful, from Lexington and Concord to Haymarket Square to Selma, Alabama to the steps of the Oakland City Hall, the will of the people has always prevailed. And we all, all of us who are so fortunate to call ourselves American , thank God for that.”

Answering questions from lawmakers, Burns said he's concerned about corporate influence in politics and the economy. Years ago, he said, “We had a pact in America. Anyone who was willing to work was able to live with dignity and promise. … That pact has been broken in this country. Work doesn't necessarily bring dignity any more.” He invited lawmakers to an open house at the Occupy Boise vigil site tomorrow afternoon. “Can I guarantee you when those tents can come down? I can't,” he said. Calling for cooperation instead of conflict, he said, “But I'm trying to show you a path forward.”

Rep. King wants emergency clause removed from anti-Occupy bill

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, is proposing amendments to HB 404, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol. King wants to remove the emergency clause, so the bill wouldn't take effect until July 1st; limit fines for violations to no more than $50; require 72 hours notice to vacate; and enable seized property to be recovered within 30 days. Here, King talks with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Bedke, before the start of the hearing on the bill, which is just starting now. As on Friday, the room is packed for the hearing.

JFAC starts week of education budget hearings…

Hearings on education budgets are scheduled in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this week, starting off with higher ed: ISU is up Monday from 8-9 a.m.; BSU from 9-10 and LCSC from 10:10 to 11 a.m. Then Tuesday morning will bring budget hearings for the state's community colleges and health education programs; the University of Idaho is up on Wednesday; and public schools are up on Thursday. The week of education budget hearings wraps up Friday morning with the Office of the State Board of Education, Idaho Public Television and the Division of Professional-Technical Education.

As the education funding talks start, Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey shines a light on a rift between state school Supt. Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter over school funding in light of the “Students Come First” school reforms; you can read his full column here from Friday. Last week's budget hearings focused on health and human services budgets; some of the highlights are in my Sunday column here. JFAC's budget hearing schedule also calls for a “listening hearing” for budget writers to hear from the public on next year's state budget; it's set for Friday Feb. 3rd from 8-10:30 a.m. in the Capitol Auditorium. If JFAC sticks to its schedule, the joint committee will complete budget-setting for next year by March 9.
  

Three longtime District 1 incumbents draw tea party challengers

A trio of tea party sympathizers is challenging three longtime GOP incumbents in North Idaho's legislative District 1, as Idaho gears up for its first-ever closed Republican primary this year. Pam Stout, president of the area's Tea Party Patriots group, is challenging Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who's seeking a seventh term in the state House. She's made a splash with her tea party involvement in the past two years, appearing on the David Letterman show and being interviewed by the New York Times, though this is her first run for office.

Stout said she'd considered challenging eight-term Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, but when her friend and fellow tea party activist Danielle Ahrens wanted to run against Keough, “I said, 'If you want to run against Shawn, I'll run against George.” While Ahrens is running against Keough, Donna Capurso, a real estate broker and Boundary County Republican Central Committee chair, is challenging Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake.

Candidate filing doesn't open for another five weeks, but all three challengers have filed initial paperwork with the Idaho Secretary of State to begin fundraising for their campaigns. Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus, said Idaho could well see more such races around the state. “Ideology, I think, will be a major feature in a lot of races, given the closed primary,” he said. “And that was really the purpose … to purify the party.” You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review.
  

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports,” I join BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, Boise Weekly reporter George Prentice and host Greg Hahn to discuss the events of the week in the Legislature, from the anti-Occupy Boise bill hearing to Health & Welfare cuts; the hour-long program also features Hahn's interviews with businessman Kevin Settles on jobs; with lobbyists Alex LaBeau of IACI, Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Lee Flinn of AARP-Idaho on business incentives and ethics; and with BSU political scientist Gary Moncrief on redistricting; IPTV reporter Aaron Kunz' report on resource issues in the Legislature; 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/.

Bogus Basin to open new Superior chair Sat.

Bogus Basin has just announced that it will open its new Superior high-speed quad chairlift tomorrow for the season. In addition to the new lift, the resort also will open the Pine Creek and Bitterroot Basin areas of the mountain on Saturday; night skiing will start Wednesday.

Denney, Semanko both lean on their redistricting appointees to quit

In addition to House Speaker Lawerence Denney wanting to fire GOP redistricting commission Co-Chairwoman Dolores Crow, Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko also has been trying to oust his appointee to the bipartisan citizen commission, Randy Hansen of Twin Falls, reports AP reporter John Miller, as Republicans grumble that the commission's last legislative district map was too favorable to minority Democrats. However, neither can fire his appointee, according to an Idaho attorney general's opinion.

Miller reports that Denney left a message on Crow's answering machine asking her to resign. “I'm not going to call him back,” Crow told the AP. “We did what we felt was good for the people of the state of Idaho. That's what we swore we would do, and I believe in keeping my promise. If the Supreme Court decided we didn't quite finish the job, I think we should be allowed to go back and finish it.”

Semanko sent a letter to Hansen with an ultimatum: Quit or be fired. Meanwhile, Democrats say they'll stick by their commissioners, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he's happy which the performance of his appointee, Shelia Olson, and won't ask her to resign; click below for Miller's full article.

McGee responds…

After nine GOP senators issued a statement this afternoon saying they voted against Sen. John McGee keeping his leadership post during an earlier closed caucus, but were outvoted, McGee, R-Caldwell, issued this statement:

“No one is more disappointed by the mistake I made last June than me.
I am solely responsible for my actions. I am humbled daily by the
support I have received from my constituents, my colleagues and most
importantly my family. I look forward to now working with my
colleagues to address the important issues facing the citizens of the
state of Idaho.”
  

Nine of 28 GOP senators sign statement saying they voted against McGee

Nine GOP senators have issued a statement saying they voted against allowing Sen. John McGee to keep his caucus chairman post, during a closed caucus last week. “Various news reports have led many of our constituents to mistakenly conclude that all members of the Senate GOP Caucus voted to affirm support for Sen. McGee continuing as our caucus chairman,” the senators wrote, “and thereby protect him from the consequences of his action. This is not accurate.”

The nine who signed the statement saying they voted against McGee, who are a minority of the 28 caucus members, are Sens. Russ Fulcher, Monty Pearce, Chuck Winder, Dean Mortimer, Sheryl Nuxoll, Shirley McKague, Lee Heider, Mitch Toryanski, and Steve Vick. You can read their full statement here.

Bill would ban sale of e-cigarettes to minors, current law only covers tobacco

The House Health & Welfare Committee has voted to introduce legislation from Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine to children. “The health districts around the state got together and talked about this issue, it's become quite a concern,” Nonini said. The districts asked him and Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, to introduce legislation. “Idaho laws relating to tobacco products currently specifically address tobacco, and these electronic cigarettes are nicotine without tobacco,” he said; so-called “e-cigarettes” allow a user to inhale a nicotine-containing mist, without smoke. The next step for the measure is a public hearing in the committee.

Attorney General: Redistricting commissioners can’t be fired

Redistricting commissioners can't be removed by those who appointed them, according to an Idaho Attorney General's opinion issued today in response to an inquiry from Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “No mechanism exists for the removal of a Commissioner once appointed,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane wrote in the opinion. “A vacancy can occur if a Commissioner resigns.” You can read the full opinion here.

The question comes up because House Speaker Lawerence Denney said yesterday he wants to fire commission GOP Co-Chair Dolores Crow of Nampa, whom he appointed to the panel.

Hearing wraps up on anti-Occupy bill; will start at 8:45 a.m. Monday

The House State Affairs Committee has wrapped up for the day after more than an hour of testimony; there were also quite a few called to testify who said they'll speak Monday instead. Those testifying covered a range of ages and occupations, from a 19-year-old college student to grandparents and retirees.

Among the last to testify: Fran Lawrence, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, wife of a disabled Vietnam veteran and mother of four, told the committee, “I have the brave people at Occupy Boise who are holding vigil for me when I cannot be there. Respect what our forefathers have done for all of us … Allow Occupy Boise to maintain its indefinite vigil … Instead of diminishing our 1st Amendment rights our legislators here in Boise should be standing up for the people, rather than trying to dictate or legislate our rights away. Please help us maintain the flames of freedom.”

Harold Stiles told of his home mortgage that's underwater: “I call it my submarine.”

One man left the room when his cell phone went off, cock-a-doodling repeatedly with a rooster call. “What can I say?” said committee Chairman Tom Loertscher with a smile, as someone in the audience muttered, “Only in Idaho,” and another man in the audience called out, “Do not lose your sense of humor.” Loertscher responded, “We'll try not to do that.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, moved to hold HB 380, the first version of the anti-Occupy bill, in committee - killing it - “since we have a new bill now.” His motion passed unanimously.

Loertscher announced that Monday morning's meeting will start at 8:45 a.m. “For your information, the bill that was introduced here earlier today has become HB 404, so that will let you know what will be on our agenda for Monday,” he said.

Testimony: ‘An example of democracy in action’

House State Affairs Chairman told Idaho ACLU head Monica Hopkins that if she testifies today, she won't be allowed to testify on Monday, so she went ahead today. Several others have said they can be here Monday, so they won't testify today. K.C. Hunt, a Boise State University student, said he'd speak today out of concern that by Monday, lawmakers will already have made up their minds.

“Occupy Boise has gone to great lengths to work with the community and the authorities,” Hunt told the committee. “They aren't breaking any law, and I think that to create one as a reaction to Occupy Boise is an abuse of power. … To create a new law in reaction to a peaceful assembly just comes across as hostile to the people of your state and your neighbors.” He urged the committee to reject the bill. “I think we can show the rest of the country that Idaho is a place where freedom still can exist.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, asked Hunt what would have to happen to get the Occupy folks to want to pack up their tents and go home. Hunt said it would take a lot, from decreasing the influence of money in politics to prosecuting abuses on Wall Street.

Shavone Hasse read her modified version of a Langston Hughes poem with a new line saying, “Shut up, says Scott Bedke!” was gaveled down by the chairman. “You're not going to use a personal assault on anyone,” Loertscher told her. “That is not a personal assault, it's a poem,” Hasse responded, as a state trooper escorted her out, adding, “That's why we're here.”

Cay Marquart of Boise listed an array of grievances. “The vast majority of the people in Idaho want financial disclosure, a citizen ethics panel, a ban on texting while driving, the cigarette tax increased, Medicaid restored. We want fairness,” she said. “We want legislator Hart to pay his taxes.” At that, Chairman Loertscher stopped her, saying he won't allow attacks on “any member of the body.”

Greg Olson, a small business owner, told the lawmakers he's struggling in the current economy. “I've talked to you guys, I've called you on the phone, I've come to meetings,” he said. “I don't know how to get this fixed.”

Barbara Kemp said, “I have been proud to bring my boys down to this vigil site as a beautiful testament to the courage of people wiling to disrupt their lives, endure discomfort … to confer for the common good.” She called the encampment “an example of democracy in action.”
  

Testimony: Not a camp, a ‘political message’

Among testimony at this morning's hearing on legislation to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state land across from the Capitol:

Mike Despot of Boise, who had a supporter read his statement for him because he's legally blind, asked, “Is it truly an emergency to pass this anti-free speech bill?” He said, “We are not your enemy, we are your fellow citizens.”

John McMahon of Boise, a 26-year U.S. Army infantry veteran, University of Idaho graduate and retiree, said he's been active with Occupy Boise since its inception. “I have attended general assembly meetings and participated in many marches, rallies and other activities as well, and will continue to do so,” he said. “I have been present at meetings with state and local officials with whom we have had, I believe, respectful and cordial relationships. My involvement with the Occupy movement is a natural follow-on to my military service, in that I truly believe my services is to defend the Constitution and every American's rights under it. In the last 10 years I have seen many of our rights become eroded and infringed upon.”

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho,  told lawmakers that their bill is modeled after the Boise city camping ordinance, which itself has been the subject of litigation since 2009 and is currently being litigated in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. That, she said, “leaves the state open to litigation at the expense of Idaho's taxpayers.” She also said the bill “allows authorized persons to seize and dispose of property without due process.” Hopkins said, “The Occupy movement seeks to redress government practices that increase economic inequality, and in Idaho, where the homeless population has jumped 37 percent from 2007 to 2010, a statute such as this one may serve to further intimidate and harass the homeless … for sleeping.”

Mary Bolognino of Boise said, “The Occupy Boise vigil site is not a camp. We're not roasting marshmallows. The purpose of the vigil camp, it is a place for deep moral significance and political purpose. … It is itself a profound political message. It is a piece of political speech.”
  

Occupier’s testimony: ‘I need to be heard’

“Virtually everyone” who's signed up to testify on the anti-Occupy bill today has said they can't return on Monday, said House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, so they'll be allowed to testify this morning.

First up was Dana Jablonski of Marsing. Asked who she represents, she said, “The 99 percent, and myself.” Jablonski told the committee, “The ones that are represented are the ones with the money and the power. … I put a tent down at Occupy Boise, and I would come and spend the night on the weekends.” It's gotten a little cold for her lately, she said. “I can't occupy your office with a lobbyist, so I occupy outside your window. … That tent is a representation of my presence, because I need to be heard.”

Occupiers: Not camping, a ‘vigil’

Occupy Boise released a statement this morning, saying it'll hold a march from the state Capitol to the federal courthouse this afternoon, with Boise Police officers as escorts. Click below to read their statement, which says the proposed anti-Occupy legislation “attempts to silence Idahoans who have held a vigil at the Old Ada County Courthouse since October,” saying, “The bill mischaracterizes the Occupy Boise movement protestors, asserting that they are 'camping,' when in fact they are holding a 'vigil.'”

New version of anti-Occupy bill: HB 404

The House convened and read the new version of the anti-Occupy bill across the desk; it's HB 404. Rep. Tom Loertscher announced that the House State Affairs Committee will meet immediately upon adjournment, and the House adjourned.

Delays, uncertainty on progress of anti-Occupy bill this morning…

Now there's a delay, and Occupy Boise supporters are milling around in the House State Affairs hearing room. Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said the committee's report must be sent up to be read across the desk when the House reconvenes in a few minutes, and only after than can members come back and restart their meeting. “If we don't do it right, we get in trouble,” he said. “We need to make sure we do things right here. The courts don't smile on us violating our own procedures.”

Committee introduces new anti-Occupy bill, takes break and will return for some testimony

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, suggested that if the House State Affairs Committee wants to take  any testimony this morning on legislation to ban camping on state property on the Capitol Mall, it should first vote to introduce the bill, so he made a motion to introduce the corrected version of the bill. “We do have a lot of folks here that want to speak,” he said.  Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, offered a substitute motion to kill the proposed new version. “I don't think we need it,” she said. “I think this infringes on free speech. … It infringes on their right to assemble. The taking of the camping equipment and throwing it into the trash is a taking. There's just too much in this that is going to give Idaho a bad name. … This is democracy and I think we should let it play out.”

The committee's four Democrats voted in favor of King's motion, but all the panel's Republicans opposed it, and it failed. The committee then voted on a party-line vote to introduce the new version of the bill.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, noted that the House is standing by, awaiting the return of the committee members, and suggested the committee recess and go back to the House floor, then return to the hearing room for whatever testimony will come today, apparently on the previous version. Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, called for that move and it passed; the committee is now headed back upstairs, but Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, noted that it'll return in 10 to 15 minutes.

House State Affairs debates letting some speak today, holding hearing Monday…

Rep. Brent Crane told the House State Affairs Committee that he's concerned about putting off the hearing on the anti-Occupy bill when so many people are here to testify; the room is full. “My concern is there's folks here that want to testify today that may not be able to testify on Monday,” he said, asking if there's a way to let those people testify now, then still hold the hearing on Monday.

Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said on an issue like this, it's important to make sure that everything is done correctly. People who came from out of town and can't be back Monday could be allowed to testify today, he said, but he added, “It's a little unusual to do that about an RS, especially when they don't even have a copy of the RS.” RS stands for “routing slip,” the early version of a bill before it's been introduced.

Bedke on no-camping bill: ‘This will be a law that will be applied neutrally’

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, presenting the new version of his bill to forbid camping on state property in the Capitol Mall, told the House State Affairs Committee this morning, “If this law is passed, this would make our camping policy consistent with the camping policy across the street. The city of Boise has a no-camping ordinance.”

When the original bill was introduced, the committee voted to add two words to clarify a technical issue; those words were accidentally added in the wrong place. The new version of the bill has “no substantive change” from the earlier one, just that fix, Bedke said. He said, “This will be a law that will be applied neutrally. The Boy Scouts will not be able to camp there, the Girl Scouts will not be able to camp there, and neither will anyone else unless the law is modified in the future.”

Chairman: Committee could still decide to hear anti-Occupy bill this morning…

House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, just said that the committee could decide to hold its hearing on the new version of the no-camping bill for the Capitol Mall today, but “that would be a little unusual.” The measure's sponsor, House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the existing bill could be passed and then fixed in the full House. So now it's unclear whether today's hearing will go forward or not…
  

Occupy eviction bill hearing put off to Monday

This morning's planned hearing on legislation to evict the Occupy Boise encampment is being put off to Monday, due to a clerical error in the bill. “We have discovered a technical problem,” said House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. Loertscher said the committee will print a new version of the bill this morning, and put the hearing off to Monday. The room is full, with more than two dozen Occupy Boise supporters in the audience.
  

Idaho unemployment in December fell for 5th straight month

Unemployment figures for Idaho for December show that the state's jobless rate has dropped for the fifth straight month, falling to 8.4 percent. More than 698,000 Idahoans were working in December, the Idaho Department of Labor reports, 13,000 more than the previous December. You can read the department's announcement here.
  

AP: Denney wants to fire Crow from redistricting commission

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican House Speaker Lawerence Denney may fire his appointee to Idaho's redistricting commission, former GOP state Rep. Dolores Crow, because party members don't think she protected their interests. That's after Idaho Supreme Court justices threw out the new political boundaries Wednesday. On Thursday afternoon, Denney told the Associated Press that GOP legislators are angry and believe Crow and other Republican commissioners in October backed a plan that's too generous to minority Democrats. They want commissioners who will support a map more favorable to Republicans. Denney says he'd prefer Crow to resign, not force him to fire her. Crow, a former Nampa lawmaker, told the AP Thursday she's planning to reconvene with other commissioners next week to draft a map that meets Supreme Court muster; she's yet to hear from Denney. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Otter brings his ‘Capitol for a Day’ to Murphy, population 97

Next Friday, Gov. Butch Otter will bring a bevy of top state officials to tiny Murphy, Idaho - population 97 - for his 51st “Capitol For A Day” event. Click below for Otter's full announcement. “Murphy is one of America’s smallest county seats – but Owyhee County is one of Idaho’s largest counties, as well as being one of the most rural, remote and rugged,” Otter said. “Any community that can serve as county seat to such a proudly independent and self-reliant bunch has a lot to teach the rest of us.”

Occupy Boise group calls bill ‘an attack on civil liberties’

The Occupy Boise group has sent out a press release declaring HB 380, the bill to evict its encampment from state property across from the state Capitol, “an attack on the civil liberties of the Idaho people's constitutional right assembly.” The group wrote, “Our vigil is set up in a legal fashion so we are not breaking any laws, but there are those who don't want a visible demonstration across the street from the Capitol building.” Click below to read their full statement; a hearing on the bill has been scheduled for early Friday morning.

Hearing on bill to evict Occupy Boise encampment will be early Fri. morning

The House committee hearing on legislation to boot the Occupy Boise encampment off state property will be early tomorrow morning, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher said today. “We felt that it's a good idea to get it through, get it out of here,” Loertscher said of the timing. The bill was just introduced yesterday, amid comments from committee members that they welcomed all interested to attend and testify when the committee held a full hearing on the measure.

Loertscher said he's scheduling the hearing for tomorrow upon adjournment of the House, which means at whatever time the House concludes its floor session. That session will start at 8 a.m. and is expected to be very brief - the House won't take up any bills for debate.

Redistricting Commission sets meetings next Thursday, Friday

Idaho's citizen redistricting commission has set public meetings for two days next week: Thursday Jan. 26 at 9 a.m., and Friday Jan. 27 at 9 a.m. The group will convene in Room C110 of the state Capitol; it's been ordered back to work by the Idaho Supreme Court, which yesterday overturned the group's legislative redistricting plan for dividing too many counties.

Attorney general, sheriffs assn unveil wallet card for abuse victims with protective orders

The Idaho Attorney General's office and the Idaho Sheriffs Association have gotten together to make available free, wallet-sized cards to Idahoans who have a long-term civil protection order, so they can quickly alert law enforcement officers to the order in case of violations. The cards will include a photograph of the person whom the order requires to stay away. “It is much easier to carry with you than the actual, multiple-page legal-size court order,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “In case of a potential violation of an order, a law enforcement officer can quickly refer to the Hope Card for more information.”

The new “Idaho Hope Card” is for people with long-term civil protection orders of 12 months or more; the orders protect victims of domestic violence by imposing criminal penalties on abusers who contact their victims in violation of the orders. There's more info here.

Idaho Supreme Court issues decision on 2nd redistricting challenge, echoes first one

The Idaho Supreme Court has issued its decision in the second challenge to the state's current legislative redistricting plan, L-87, repeating its reasoning from yesterday's decision, which ruled the plan unconstitutional for dividing too many counties. It therefore didn't take up arguments on other issues brought by a group of North Idaho counties. “Petitioners ask that we 'immediately issue an appropriate writ of prohibition or appropriate injunction enjoining implementation and enforcement of Plan L-87 as adopted by the Idaho Commission on Reapportionment' and that we 'enter an order establishing legislative districts in the state of Idaho which will comply with Constitutional and statutory requirements.' We decline at this point to do either. We have no reason to believe that the commission will not perform its duty to adopt a plan that complies with mandatory constitutional and statutory provisions. Accordingly, pursuant to Idaho Code section 72-1501(2), this Court orders that Plan L-87 be revised.”

The second challenge had been scheduled for oral arguments before the justices today, but the court canceled that as moot when it issued its decision yesterday on the first challenge.

House panel OKs online course rule

The House Education Committee, like the Senate Education Committee before it, has voted with just one dissenting vote to accept the new State Board of Education rule requiring two online courses to graduate from high school in Idaho, with the caveat that the state board will take action in February to remove the requirement that one of the two courses be “asynchronous.” Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, the lone dissenter, said he supported the first two bills in the “Students Come First” reform package last year, but opposed the third because it placed too many mandates on local school districts. “Now, I'm so happy we moved from 8 credits to two” for the online-course graduation requirement, he said. But he said the state doesn't need to place requirements like this on local school districts. “Let local districts decide these things,” he said. “I don't think we need to be afraid of 'em, and perhaps we've gone too far in mandating too many courses.”

Why there was no MLK Day conflict on the steps this year, like last two…

For the past two years, the traditional Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day human rights rally on the steps of the state Capitol has had to be moved, because the Idaho Freedom Foundation scooted in early and reserved the steps for a Tea Party rally. That didn't happen this year.

Asked why not, Freedom Foundation head Wayne Hoffman said, “I think the Tea Party group has gone from doing rallies to doing a lot more public policy-type work,” including getting involved with legislation. Said Hoffman, “I asked 'em if they wanted us to help put together another event, and they said 'no, we'd rather do this other stuff instead.'”

Legislation introduced to move Idaho’s primary election to August

The House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously to introduce two bills dealing with this year's primary election: One from committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, to delay the state's primary from May to August while also doing away with the presidential primary; and one from Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to just do away with the presidential primary; it no longer serves any purpose since both parties now choose their presidential delegates by caucuses.

Loertscher said he favors the shift of the primary to the later date because the move back in 1980 from August to May made for more months of campaigning. “The political season was extended in Idaho, which in my personal opinion is not a good thing,” Loertscher said.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said the change may not shorten campaigning for those who have contested races in both the primary and general elections. “In the past I've had both, and it seemed like at least … June, July and August were kind of mild, you weren't out there actually beating the bushes to garner support as you would be, I think, under this scenario.” Nevertheless, he voted to introduce the bill, which now can be scheduled for a full hearing before the committee.

Loertscher noted yesterday's Idaho Supreme Court decision overturning the current legislative redistricting plan, and said pushing the primary election back to August would give Idaho election officials and county clerks a reprieve from a tight time frame; under current schedules, candidate filing for the primary starts Feb. 27. “That pinches county clerks quite a bit,” Loertscher said. Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, responded, “Yeah, the timing of this draft legislation is impeccable.” But he questioned whether counties would face a time crunch at the other end in the new schedule, with less time between the August primary and November general elections.
  

Redistricting decision throws primary election timing into doubt

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how the Idaho Supreme Court overturned the state's new legislative redistricting plan today, ordering a citizen commission back to work and throwing into doubt the state's schedule for its May primary election. Thursday morning, a House committee will consider legislation to push the May primary back to August; the bill is sponsored by Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, the state's chief election officer, said, “We're not jumping up and down opposing a move to August.” But, he said, “I happen to believe May's a better time for an election than August, in the middle of the summer, just with people on vacation.” Idaho's primary elections already see notoriously low turnout. The filing period for the May primary is coming right up, though - it starts Feb. 27. Without a valid redistricting plan, candidates don't know in which districts they'd file or against whom they'd be running.
  

Panel backs rule with change

The Senate Education Committee has voted to accept the State Board of Education's online course rule requiring two online classes to graduate from high school in Idaho, with the caveat that it'll be adjusted by the state board to remove a requirement that one of the courses be “asynchronous,” a term that means the course is delivered entirely online and teachers and students participate on their own schedules. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, cast the lone vote against the rule, saying she still had concerns about it.

Luna backs move away from ‘asynchronous’ requirement in online course rule

The Senate Education Committee started its meeting late this afternoon; first up is state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who said after yesterday's meeting, he met with representatives of the Meridian and Boise school districts, Idaho school superintendents and the school boards association, who indicated yesterday that they opposed the part of the state Board of Education's new online-course graduation requirement rule that required one of the courses be “asynchronous.” Luna said those groups have agreed to support the rule if that's removed. “We think that is a fair request on their part,” Luna said.

He said, “There are limits to what this committee can do to amend rules.” Therefore, he's requesting that the committee approve the rule as-is, “with the understanding that in February the state board will propose a temporary rule that will remove the asynchronous requirement.” That means that requirement would go away, he said.

Bogus Basin to open tomorrow

Bogus Basin has announced that it will open for the season tomorrow - Thursday, Jan. 19, the non-profit Boise ski resort's latest-ever opening; there's more info here. Charlifts 1, 2, 4, 7 and the Easy Rider carpet will operate; hours Thursday and Friday will be 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and lift tickets will be discounted to $30 until more of the mountain opens. The resort is asking folks to wait until after 8 a.m. to head up, so its snowplows can work both sides of the road.

Redistricting decision could lead to delay in Idaho’s May primary election…

With today's decision from the Idaho Supreme Court leaving Idaho without a valid legislative redistricting plan just five and a half weeks before candidate filing is supposed to start for this year's May 15 primary election, the timing could lead to a delay in the primary election.

Years ago, Idaho moved its primary election up to May from August, in part to move up its presidential primary. But now, both the Republican and Democratic parties in Idaho plan to select their presidential delegates by caucus this year, so the state already was looking into legislation to cancel the presidential portion of its primary election. That could remove any barriers to pushing the election date back, if lawmakers wanted to make that change this year with the scramble over redistricting.

County splits at issue in today’s 4-1 redistricting decision…

The Idaho Constitution says that counties may be divided among legislative districts only to the extent necessary to comply with the U.S. Constitution, whose one-person, one-vote rule requires that districts be apportioned by population; a population deviation between legislative districts of more than 10 percent is presumed to be unconstitutional.

Idaho's Supreme Court decision today overturning the state's new legislative district plan said it violated that clause in Idaho's Constitution, in Article III, Section 5, by dividing too many counties.

Justice Jim Jones, in a 14-page dissent, differed with the majority, writing, “If this Court imposes a strict requirement that the Commission adopt whatever plan meets the ten percent population deviation and produces the lowest possible number of county splits, the Commission's jurisdiction will be limited to the point that it will have no realistic function.”

But the majority, in an opinion written by Justice Daniel Eismann, wrote, “Plan L-87 divides 12 counties. The commission considered and rejected other plans that comply with the federal constitution and divide fewer counties. Thus, Plan L-87 does not divide counties only to the extent that counties must be divided to comply with the federal constitution.” He also wrote, “If one plan that complies with the federal constitution divides eight counties and another that also complies divides nine counties, then the extent that counties must be divided in order to comply with the federal constitution is only eight counties. It could not be said that dividing one more county was necessary to comply with the Constitution.”

Idaho Supreme Court overturns redistricting plan, rules it unconstitutional

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled 4-1 against the new legislative redistricting plan, L-87, developed by Idaho's second bipartisan redistricting commission this year, holding that it violates the Idaho Constitution. A court challenge led by Twin Falls County contended the plan was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily split counties. The court found that since the plan's unconstitutional, it “must be revised,” and ordered, “The commission for reapportionment is directed to reconvene to adopt a revised plan.”  A second challenge to L-87 from a group of North Idaho counties was scheduled for arguments at the high court tomorrow, but the justices declared that one moot, canceling the arguments. You can read the court's full opinion here.

Snow update: 9” new at Bogus so far…

Snow update: Bogus Basin has gotten 9 inches of new snow, for a base of 12 inches and a summit depth of 16 inches. There's no announcement yet as to a possible opening for the local, non-profit ski resort that's gone dry so far this year, but one could come tonight during the “Get Louder for Powder” party on the Basque Block in downtown Boise; mountain supporters are being asked to wear ski clothes and goggles to the 5-8 p.m. bash of live music, food, beer and wine. It's still snowing in Boise, too; there's about 3 inches of wet snow on the ground outside the state Capitol. And at noon, Brundage Mountain at McCall reported 15 inches of new snow since 5 p.m. yesterday, 24 inches in the last 24 hours.

‘Terrible damage to system of support’

Krystal Esterline is among about 600 people in Idaho with both developmental disabilities and severe and persistent mental illness who had to choose between her developmental services and her mental health services, under one of this year's Medicaid cuts. The results were disastrous; after losing her psychosocial rehabilitation services, the 22-year-old began to let people into her apartment, gave her keys out, and the police had to get involved. The young woman, whose mother died when she was 13 and who lived in more than a dozen foster homes, had been living in her own apartment and holding down a job; she moved in with her legal guardian, and then to a group home; she lost her job and is suffering from dental problems. “It makes me feel like I can't be a civilized, successful person in Idaho,” she said this morning. “If you don't have insurance you can't pay for dental so you don't have good teeth. … You don't have money to pay for your medicine so you can go on with your day. … I don't like any of it. It just made my life harder and more stressful.”

Jim Baugh, executive director of Disability Rights Idaho, said, “All 600 of those people had to make a choice. Most of those people chose their developmental services because that's what they live with day to day. … Most of those people lost those psychiatric supports.” He said, “Already we have been getting reports and calls from people who, like Krystal, their whole system of supports is collapsing because they don't have that specialized psychiatric assistance. This is something we really need to restore.”

Baugh and other advocates said the Medicaid cuts imposed this year were meant to balance the budget, but now that revenues have improved they should be restored. “In a desperate move to address what we thought was a crisis in revenue, we have done terrible damage to that system of support,” Baugh said. “We need to make sure we take out of the statute these temporary, desperate changes in the service system.”

Former state chief economist Mike Ferguson said the low-balling of state revenue forecasts in setting the state's budget has resulted in a $103 million surplus that now is essentially “parked,” awaiting being carried over into next year's budget. That money could be used instead to restore Medicaid cuts now, he said. “For every dollar that we don't spend in Medicaid, we're giving up 70 cents in federal matching money,” he noted.

Sgt. David Cavanaugh of the Boise Police Department said, “What's important to me is the misleading concept that the cuts save money - they don't. They just rearrange where the money is spent.” He said his department is increasingly dealing with people with serious mental illness. “If everyone thinks that these folks are just suddenly going to get better or they're just not going to be as serious with less medication and with less help, they're deluding themselves,” the police sergeant said. “Ultimately when they can't cope or don't have the right support groups and can't get the medication they need, then they call 911.”

Ferguson: Economic impact of this year’s Medicaid cuts: 4,000 lost jobs

Former state chief economist Mike Ferguson estimates that the $35 million in state funds cut from Medicaid this year, which with federal matching funds adds up to $100 million, had a direct impact of eliminating about 2,000 jobs in Idaho. “Those dollars are no longer circulating in the economy,” he said. For economic impact, he said, “You can probably effectively double that. So basically we've taken probably somewhere equivalent to 4,000 jobs out by making those cuts.”

He noted that lawmakers set the state budget for well below state economists' forecasts for revenues, essentially leaving millions on the table and forcing the cuts when the funds actually were available.

Medicaid: Putting faces on the impacts…

Kelly Buckland, the former director of Idaho's State Independent Living Council and now executive director of the National Council for Independent Living in Washington, D.C., is back in Boise today to lead a roundtable on the economic and other impacts of Medicaid in Idaho, including impacts of recent cuts. “It's great to be back amongst friends and colleagues and I'm really happy to see everybody,” Buckland said. He's the facilitator for a panel that includes Mike Ferguson, director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy and former state chief economist; Sgt. David Cavanaugh of the Boise Police Dept.; Katherine Hansen of Community Partnerships of Idaho; Jim Baugh of Disability Rights Idaho; JB Steel & Construction owner Joe Alcala, a member of the Main Street Alliance; and four people whose stories are shared in a “Medicaid Matters Storybook.”

“When you make cuts to Medicaid, you're not just cutting this bureaucratic program, it affects real people and it affects their lives in very meaningful and substantial ways,” Buckland said. “I think it's very important to put faces on the people who are getting those cuts.”

Among those: Retta Green of Caldwell, who told the group this morning, “I am fighting cancer, and it seems like I am getting better. … There is no way that I could pay for this if it wasn't for the Medicaid.”

Baugh said for disabled Idahoans, Medicaid covers basic services that allow them to live and function in society. “Those kinds of services have no counterpart in regular medical insurance, but they are the ticket to freedom … that we prize in this country,” he said.

House State Affairs introduces bill to evict Occupy Boise, on 15-1 vote

With nearly two dozen Occupy Boise supporters quietly looking on, the House State Affairs Committee voted 15-1 this morning to introduce legislation to ban camping on the Capitol Mall or other state lands - legislation aimed at booting the Occupy Boise encampment from its spot on the grounds of the old Ada County courthouse across the street from the state Capitol. “This is not a prohibition of freedom of speech - this is a prohibition of camping on the lawns in the Capitol Mall,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, the bill's lead sponsor; it's co-sponsored by House Speaker Lawerence Denney, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts. Said Bedke, “That's not the intended use of the lawns at the capitol.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, offered a substitute motion to return the proposal to Bedke, but she was the only one to vote for that. Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said she wanted a hearing on the bill. “I actually view this as an opportunity for freedom of speech,” she said. Said Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, “We do need to have a conversation.” She added, “Often the esthetic is unpleasant, but there's a message that's mighty.”


The bill, which includes an emergency clause making it effective upon passage, adds a new section to state law banning camping on any state-owned or leased property or facility except for designated campgrounds, though it exempts state parks, state endowment land and Fish & Game lands. Violations would be infractions, which Bedke described as “the lightest touch as far as enforcing and penalties in our code,” similar to a speeding ticket. It says in case of violations, personal property like tents or bedding “shall be considered litter” and “shall be disposed of.” Bedke said enforcement would be “kind and gentle and firm.”

The legislation was discussed at a closed-door House majority caucus earlier this week, and Bedke said it's been run by the state Attorney General's office, the governor's office, the Idaho State Police and the state Department of Administration. Now that the bill's been introduced, it'll be scheduled for a public hearing in the same committee.

Lawmakers express concerns about cuts in mental health services

Mental health services are up today at JFAC, and committee members are expressing concerns about the impact of cuts. The state has cut staff, but is still seeing as many or more patients, and the level of the severity of their illnesses has increased. “We have a more critical nature of individuals we're serving,” said Ross Edmunds, division administrator for H&W.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “The suicide rate in Idaho apparently is sixth in the nation, and I think we are the only state that doesn't have a suicide hotline.” She asked Edmunds if there are any plans to correct that. “The department is working closely with the Council on Suicide Prevention and United Way to create a suicide hotline in Idaho,” Edmunds responded. “My division has offered up some funds. I have about $50,000 in funds through our federal block grant that we've spent in the past on suicide prevention activities, a lot of that has been research and investigating evidence-based programs through a contractor. We're going to redirect that. … I'm very hopeful we'll have one relatively soon.”

In psychiatric hospitalization, Edmunds said, “We're dealing with a more chronic population, we're dealing with a lot more of them at our state institutions.” He said there are “challenges and opportunities with this population,” including that teaching them to live in an institution isn't as helpful as helping them to be able to live in the community. Therefore, he said, “We've reduced our lengths of stay.” As a result, however, more are coming back for readmissions. Admissions to State Hospital South were up 100 percent in 2011 from 2008, and it's at capacity. “Staffing levels at our state hospital is really at a critical high-risk level,” Edmunds told lawmakers. “We're seeing increased risk to our patients and increased risk to our staff.” The department is requesting to restore 10 positions due to safety concerns, relying on federal and endowment funds rather than state general funds.

Idaho Dems, GOP agree to negotiate full slate of ethics reforms

This morning, minority Democrats in the Idaho Legislature announced three new ethics reform proposals and called on Republicans to work with them on the bills - and by this afternoon, the Republicans had agreed. The Democrats called for requiring financial disclosure from public and elected officials in the state, something only Idaho and two other states lack; a bill to impose a one-year wait before former lawmakers or other public officials could register as lobbyists; and a whistleblower hotline law for state employees. The proposals came on the heels of the Democrats' call for Idaho to create an independent ethics commission; GOP leaders agreed, and both sides have formed a bipartisan working group to draft a consensus bill.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill both said they'd like the working group to also consider the three issues Democrats highlighted. “I think the working group ought to discuss those things, see if they can come up with suggestions,” Hill said. “I'd just encourage it.” Denney said he's open to the ideas, including the one-year lobbying restriction. “I don't have a problem with that,” he said. “Let's hear it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

House panel endorses new oil, gas rules, 16-1

Idaho's House Resources and Conservation Committee voted 16-1 today in favor of proposed new rules regulating oil and gas drilling in the state, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker, who reports that the lone “no” vote came from Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, who worried the rules might be too burdensome for industry. Barker reports that Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, said, “The sales point to me is that industry was involved. For now I think we have to drill, baby, drill.” You can read Barker's full blog post here about the new rules; if the House and Senate don't vote to oppose them, they go into effect.

Lawmakers rev up truck speed debate

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today's new legislation to let big trucks drive 75 on Idaho's freeways, just like cars; Idaho's current truck speed limit on freeways is 65 mph. In Washington, the top freeway speed for trucks is 60 mph, and for cars, 70 mph. Montana's current limits match Idaho's. AAA of Idaho hasn't taken a position on the new bill yet, but five years ago when similar legislation was proposed, the motorists' group opposed it, citing “massive public opposition.”
  

Senate Ed adjourns for the day without voting on online course rule

The Senate Education Committee has adjourned for the day without voting on the State Board of Education's online course rule; vice-chairman Sen. Dean Mortimer said the panel would “hold this and all further rules 'til tomorrow.” Committee Chairman John Goedde has a meeting at 5 on health insurance exchanges.
  

Luna: ‘E-learning is a critical skill for the 21st Century’

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna, testifying in favor of the state Board of Education's online course rule, told the Senate Education Committee, “Education all across the country is changing for the betterment and focus on our students.” He said his goal is that Idaho's high school graduates be prepared for college or the workforce and “not need remediation when they get there.” Said Luna, “We must make sure Idaho students get the knowledge and the skills they need in K through 12 in order to be successful after high school. We know that online learning or e-learning is a critical skill for the 21st Century.”

Testimony at online course rule hearing overwhelmingly against ‘asynchronous’

Among the testimony at this afternoon's hearing on Idaho's new rule requiring high school students to take two online courses to graduate:

Julie Browning of Boise, parent of two children enrolled in Idaho Virtual Academy, testified in favor of the rule. “We have to employ tools that increase efficiency,” she told the committee. She said, “I just feel like if my 11-year-old can do it, I'm pretty sure that some 11th and 12th graders can handle it as well.”

Jan Sylvester of Meridian, who said she's a citizen representing herself, had a number of questions about the rule. Among them: Why an online course must be one in which there are no printed materials. She said she's taken online courses, and often there's a book to read on one's own time; she questioned whether the rule prohibits books in online courses. Committee Vice Chairman Dean Mortimer said she could ask questions of the state Department of Education; testimony should give positions on the rule. Sylvester than said she agreed with earlier testimony that the requirement that one of the courses be “asynchronous” should be removed.

Linda Clark, superintendent of the Meridian School District, said, “We are as a district in support of offering online courses for our students.” She said, “I'm really here today to encourage the committee to drop the portion of the rule that requires some kind of synchronicity, and to simply say two credits of online courses are required for graduation. We believe as a district that this allows families the greatest choice, and allows districts the greatest options to best meet the needs.”

Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association, speaking on behalf of 560 school trustees across the state, called for removing the “asynchronous” course requirement. “ISBA has always called for as much flexibility as possible at the local level,” she said. Under the “asynchronous” requirement, she said, “Parental choice is taken away,” along with the school district's preferences. She called on the panel to reject the rule so a new, temporary rule without the “asynchronous” part can be submitted by the State Board of Education.

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, said, “When a child has a question, he or she should be able to get help in real time by a teacher who knows the subject matter.”

Testimony on online rule: School boards want ‘asynchronous’ removed

Among the testimony on the online course requirement rule this afternoon: Janet Orndorff of the Boise School Board asked to remove the requirement that one of the two online classes Idaho students would be required to take for graduation be “asynchronous”; she said the Idaho School Boards Association has overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution calling for that move, and her board strongly agrees. “Asynchronous” means the entire class is delivered online, and students and teachers participate on their own schedule, rather than interacting in real time. “It's not that our district is opposed to asynchronous courses - to the contrary,” she said. “But our concern is the requirement.” She said data shows many students won't succeed in that type of class. “It doesn't provide, necessarily, the support system for students that needs to be there,” she said, “… especially at the high school level.”

Briana LeClaire of the Idaho Freedom Foundation told the Senate Education Committee, “The Idaho Freedom Foundation is in favor of this law and in favor of this rule.” The committee is alternating between proponents and opponents of the rule; so far, only LeClaire and Orndorff have testified.

How Idaho’s freeway speed limits compare to surrounding states…

With lawmakers considering allowing big trucks to drive 75 on Idaho freeways, here's a comparison of Idaho's freeway speed limits to surrounding states, from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, December 2011:

Idaho: 75 mph cars, 65 mph trucks
Montana: 75 mph cars, 65 mph trucks
Nevada: 75 mph all vehicles
Oregon: 65 mph cars, 55 mph trucks
Utah: 75 mph (some sections of I-15 are 80 mph)
Washington: 70 mph cars, 60 mph trucks
Wyoming: 75 mph, all vehicles

Idaho's lower speed limit for big trucks was imposed in 1998, as part of legislation that also designated pilot routes for heavier trucks than had previously been allowed, up to 129,000 pounds. Two years earlier, in 1996, Idaho raised its top freeway speed limit to 75 mph for all vehicles.

Goedde: Idaho already buys textbooks from out-of-state, so why objections to online courses?

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he has a rebuttal to the argument that requiring students to take online courses will send state education funds to out-of-state providers. “The objection to money being sent out of state - where are the textbooks published that school districts purchase in Idaho?” he asked Tracy Bent, chief planning and policy officer at the State Board of Education. She responded, “I believe the majority if not all of them in fact are purchased from out of state. … I would of course have to defer to the Department of Education to tell you exactly where they come from.”

State parks pitch $10 ‘passport’ to buy with car registration

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has been under financial pressure after Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter moved to wean the agency from taxpayer support two years ago. Now, director Nancy Merrill is promoting a plan she hopes will raise an additional $1.9 million annually. It's called a “Passport” program, to allow drivers to voluntarily pay a $10 fee when they register the automobiles, giving them access to 30 Idaho state parks. The agency currently offers a passport, but it costs $40 and raises only $800,000 annually. Merrill is hoping the reduced price — and access to more potential buyers, through the state's vehicle registration program — will result in more revenue. She says that happened in Michigan, which raised $18 million during the first year of a similar program. Click below for a full report.

Senate ed takes up online course rule…

As the Senate Education Committee prepared to hold its hearing this afternoon on the administrative rule approved by the State Board of Education requiring two online classes for Idaho students to graduate from high school, committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, noted that lawmakers passed legislation last year in the “Students Come First” package calling for an online-learning high school graduation requirement. Because of that, he said, “Testimony on the thought of 'no online courses' is not appropriate.” Instead, he said, the committee will hear testimony only on the details of the board's rule.

Senators introduce bill to let big trucks do 75 mph on freeways

Big trucks could drive 75 on Idaho's freeways, just like cars, under legislation introduced in the Senate Transportation Committee today at the behest of its chairman, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene; Idaho's current truck speed limit on freeways is 65 mph. “The intent of this legislation, should it move forward, is to enhance safety by having all vehicles on the highway drive the same speed limit, thus eliminating a lot of lane changes that currently are necessary because of the differentiation in speed limits,” Hammond told the committee. His bill would declare that the speed limit for big trucks would be the same as that for “other motor vehicles,” not only on freeways but also in town and on state highways.

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, who owns a trucking company, said there were unsuccessful proposals in the past to move all vehicles to a 70 mph speed limit on the freeways, and to move them all to 75. “Probably the thing you need to consider is that there are a growing number of those trucks that will not do 75,” Corder warned. “They're much more sophisticated than cars; they're limited by their computers and they're controlled so they can't exceed that speed because of our neighboring states that don't allow it.” Trucking companies, he said, “have done extensive studies,” and determined that their best fuel consumption is around 62 to 63 mph, “and that produces the least wear on tires.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, offered a similar bill with an emergency clause. “It does have an emergency clause because this is a public safety issue,” he said, “and instead of waiting until July 1st to implement this, it would seem logical because it's public safety that we'd want to implement it as quickly as we could.” However, the panel opted to introduce Hammond's version instead; it'll return later for a full committee hearing. Senators on the committee said they hope to hear from experts, including ITD and the Idaho State Police, about the safety issues involved, and about how big trucks have fared under the current 65 mph speed limit as far as tickets and accidents.

Corder voted for introducing the bill, but warned he'll have questions at the hearing. “You are correct, certainly, in that the interactions between slow and more rapidly moving vehicles has always been the issue - not even the speed, it's just been the interactions.” But by setting a truck speed limit that most trucks can't or won't drive, he said, “You won't be able to do what you want to do.”

Medical marijuana bill introduced in House

Medical marijuana legislation was introduced in the Idaho House today, where Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, introduced HB 370 as a personal bill. He proposed similar legislation last year; it got an informational hearing from the House Health & Welfare Committee, but didn't proceed. HB 370 would permit patients with debilitating medical conditions to be dispensed up to 2 ounces of marijuana every 28 days; they'd have to get it from state-authorized “alternative treatment centers.”

The bill says, “Compassion dictates that a distinction be made between medical and nonmedical uses of marijuana. Hence, the purpose of this chapter is to protect from arrest, prosecution, property forfeiture, and criminal or other penalties those patients who use marijuana to alleviate suffering from debilitating medical conditions, as well as their physicians, primary care givers and those who are authorized to produce marijuana for medical purposes.” Under the measure, only patients who'd registered with the state and received a registration card could legally possess medical marijuana.

An Idaho group currently is gathering signatures for a proposed initiative to legalize medical marijuana; Trail said last year that other states' experience has shown that legislation with strict controls is preferable to a voter initiative.

Hill: Senate GOP on board to work with Dems on three new ethics proposals

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill is also responding favorably to legislative Democrats' call today for bipartisan work on three new ethics reforms they've put forth: Financial disclosure, a one-year wait before former lawmakers or public officials could register as lobbyists, and a whistleblower hotline. Hill said he's already talked with his appointees to the bipartisan ethics working group, Sens. Dean Mortimer and Mitch Toryanski, about covering those topics in addition to the establishment of a new independent state ethics commission. “I think the working group ought to discuss those things, see if they can come up with suggestions,” Hill said. “I think both parties are cooperating, and trying to come up with something that'd be helpful to the state.”

He added, “I'd just encourage it - I think it's good.”

Democrats announced their working group appointees: Reps. Phylis King and Cherie Buckner-Webb, and Sens. Michelle Stennett and Dan Schmidt. Denney said he'd named GOP Reps. Cliff Bayer and Brent Crane, but Crane wanted to check with his dad, state Treasurer Ron Crane, before committing; the state treasurer is currently involved in a potential ethics issue over his use of a state gas card. Denney said if Rep. Crane chooses not to serve, he's thinking of maybe tabbing Rep. Vito Barbieri.

Denney says GOP will work with Dems on their 3 new ethics proposals

House Speaker Lawerence Denney had a favorable reaction today to legislative Democrats' announcement that they'll put forth three more ethics bills and they'd like to work with Republicans on them. “I think that's wise,” Denney said. The GOP speaker said he'd be amenable to having the bipartisan working group that already is slated to work on legislation to create an independent state ethics commission examine the Democrats' three other proposals as well: Financial disclosure, a one-year wait before public officials or lawmakers could register as lobbyists, and a whistleblower hotline for state employees. “The financial disclosure, I do want to see it,” Denney said. “I don't want the same thing come through as two years ago, that proposed to be a financial disclosure bill but exempted all these classes of people.” When a financial disclosure bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2009, Denney blocked it in the House, in part because he was concerned that it didn't require disclosure of law firms' clients.

Told that the Democrats say their new disclosure bill will be more stringent than the last one, Denney said, “I'd certainly be willing to look at it.”

As far as a one-year wait before lawmakers or other public officials could register as lobbyists, Denney said, “I don't have a problem with that. Let's hear it.”

Durst, Ward-Engelking to try rematch in close District 18 race from 2010

Today, former state Rep. Branden Durst announced that he'll challenge Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, and Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking announced that she'll challenge Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, in a rematch of the super-close 2010 election in Boise's District 18. Durst lost to Toryanski by just 103 votes, and Ellsworth defeated Ward-Engelking by just nine votes. Click below to read the pair's full announcement.

Dems announce three more ethics reform bills, ask GOP to work with them

Legislative Democrats today announced that they'll be proposing three additional ethics reform bills: A financial disclosure bill dubbed the “Conflict of Interest Act;” a revolving-door bill called the “Lobbyist Restriction Act” that would impose a one-year waiting period before public officials or legislators could register as lobbyists; and a “Whistleblower Reporting & Protection Act,” which would strengthen Idaho's whistleblower law by adding a telephone hotline and online reporting for active or former state employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation. Complaints received under that act would be referred to the new independent ethics commission that both parties are working this year to create.

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said the Democrats are hoping that Republicans will join them in working on all three bills plus the ethics commission bill, through the bipartisan working group that's been appointed to work out a bipartisan ethics commission bill. That working group, with two members from each party in each house, likely will hold its first meeting tomorrow morning.

“The ethics commission is only the first critical step in the right direction,” Malepeai said. “Idaho still lags significantly behind other states in demonstrating to people that we value integrity so much that we make it the law of the land.” He noted that Democrats have been pushing for ethics reforms since 2005, but nothing has passed, though a bipartisan financial disclosure bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2009 before dying without a hearing in the House; the Democrats' proposed new disclosure bill will be “slightly more restrictive” than the 2009 measure, Malepeai said. He said Idahoans are losing trust in their lawmakers. “The need … has never been greater, and the time for reform is now,” he said.

One funding bright spot…

One bright spot as far as funding in the Medicaid budget for next year: The federal matching rate for Idaho, known by the acronym FMAP, will rise from 70.23 percent to 71 percent on Oct. 1, 2012. That means the blended FMAP rate used for budgeting will rise from 69.86 percent in the fiscal 2012 budget to 70.81 percent in the fiscal 2013 budget. The result: A drop of $15.7 million in Idaho's general-fund spending requirement for Medicaid for fiscal 2013.

On the down side, hospital and nursing home assessments adding up to $36 million that helped boost Medicaid to avoid losing federal matching funds this year are sunsetting; Gov. Butch Otter is proposing replacing $20 million of that next year from an excess cash reserve at the Division of Veterans Services, and continuing the rest for one more year.

Overall savings on track from last year’s Medicaid cuts, H&W reports…

Overall, Idaho's Medicaid program is making the savings anticipated from program cuts in last year's HB 260, division administrator Paul Leary told JFAC this morning, though not every cut has yielded the expected savings. Examples: Cutting non-emergency dental coverage for adults will meet or exceed the anticipated $1.7 million savings, but cutting podiatry and optometry services other than those needed for chronic care hasn't yielded the anticipated $800,000 savings; enough people with chronic conditions are needing those services that there haven't been savings. A reduction in psychosocial rehabilitation services by one hour per week is on track to save the anticipated $2.27 million or more; cuts in pharmacy reimbursements and adult developmental disabilities services also are saving the anticipated $2 million each or more. A plan to establish enforceable co-payments hasn't yet yielded savings.

Lawmakers begin examining Medicaid budget

The Medicaid budget, which makes up 81 percent of the Department of Health & Welfare budget request for next year, is up next; lawmakers will hear presentations and discuss it over the next two hours. The request for next year is for $481 million in state general funds, which would be 24.3 percent of the program; 65.6 percent, or $1.3 billion, would come from federal funds. Of the total $1.9 billion budget from all funds, 96.5 percent would go to benefits; just 0.7 percent to personnel and 2.8 percent to operating costs.

Paul Leary, Medicaid administrator for the state, said Idaho's staffing for Medicaid has dropped by 8 percent since fiscal year 2009, though the number of people eligible has grown by 25 percent. No additional positions are requested for next year.

Some lawmakers concerned about cost of food stamp distribution changeover

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he's concerned that the ongoing cost of $220,000 a year, half of which would come from state funds, is too high for the changeover from single-day distribution of food stamps to the new 10-day staggered system. Said Wood, “$220,000 seems like a lot for an ongoing effort. Now I may be able to see that cost for the first year. … I just am concerned that that's a little bit of a generous price tag for an ongoing effort and that we may be able to trim that.”

Russ Barron, Division of Welfare administrator, said the estimate is based on the state's previous experience; when it switched from a 5-day distribution to the single day in August of 2009, it was able to move three staffers off the program to other work. Now, with much higher numbers of Idahoans on food stamps, it's estimating it will take four more workers to run the new system, one more than back in '09.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, asked Barron, “Have the food stamp numbers peaked?” Barron responded, “No, they have not peaked. They're still growing at 6 percent a year.”
  

Guv’s budget includes shift to multi-day distribution of food stamp benefits

Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation for next year includes the proposal from the state Department of Health & Welfare and the Northwest Grocers Association to shift the state's food-stamp distribution program from single-day distribution on the 1st of each month to a staggered, 10-day distribution, to do away with the mad rush at Idaho's grocery stores every month on the 1st. The grocers say that's led to $1 million in spoiled food being thrown out over the last two years. Lawmakers still must approve it for the change to take place; it's tentatively planned for May. The grocers are putting up $100,000 for the changeover; there would be no general-fund cost to the state until 2014, when the ongoing cost to the state would be $110,000 per year. The remainder of the cost to make the change would be covered by federal funds.

A look at who’s on food stamps in Idaho…

This morning, as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee continues its week of health and human services budget hearings, the Department of Health & Welfare's Division of Welfare is first up. Administrator Russ Barron shared some stats about the 235,000 Idahoans now receiving food stamps, which are administered by the division. Nearly half - 48 percent - are children. Of the adults, 9 percent are disabled, and 3 percent are seniors over age 65; two-thirds have children at home.

Barron described a typical situation: A family of four, in which the father has lost his full-time job, and is working part-time at $9 an hour; the mother is working at $7 an hour; and neither employer offers health benefits. With average costs for rent, utilities and transportation to work, “A family living in poverty has little left to pay for food, child care and especially health care needs,” Barron told lawmakers. “Our program helps families to maintain their stability in the workforce.”

AP: Bill would boot Occupy Boise from state property

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Some Idaho lawmakers want to bid adieu to “Occupy Boise,” whose campers erected tents on state-managed land surrounding the old Ada County Courthouse starting in November to protest social and economic inequality. On Monday, House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke said a bill to forbid camping on the Capitol Mall and nearby state property could be up for consideration as soon as Wednesday. Bedke says it's modeled after a Boise ordinance outlawing camping on city property, adding that the right place for people to exercise free speech is on the Capitol steps, not a permanent tent city on taxpayer-owned land. Even so, Occupy Boise's police liaison Dean Gunderson fears Bedke's proposal is designed to quell his movement's right to speak its mind, something protected by the U.S. and Idaho constitutions.

Report: Sparse Idaho college scholarship money has gone unspent

Among neighboring states, Idaho ranks lowest for state and local financial aid per college student, according to a new report out today from the state's Office of Performance Evaluations. Yet, more than $1.3 million in scholarship funds that Idaho lawmakers appropriated in the past two years has gone unspent, as the Office of the State Board of Education reverted the money back to the general fund rather than spending it on scholarships. “While these scholarship moneys, in excess of $1.3 million, were reverted back to the General Fund and were not lost, per se, they were not used for their intended scholarship purposes,” wrote legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith in a letter included in the report. She said her office supports the report's recommendation that the state Board of Education work with the Legislature to review current appropriations. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “It's hard enough to get funds into those scholarships, and of course when it reverts we use it, but then you can't get it back.”

The report, which looked into reducing barriers to post-secondary education in Idaho, suggested better coordination of school counselors statewide and reducing student-to-counselor ratios, which now exceed national guidelines. It also called for more need-based aid for college students; better tracking of whether Idaho students go on to higher education; and better coordination of workforce needs with degree programs through the Department of Labor and the State Board of Education. The state board has set a goal to have 60 percent of Idahoans aged 25-34 have a college degree or at least a one-year certificate by 2020. That was based on a national study estimating that by 2018, 60 percent of jobs will require such a degree. But the report found that in Idaho, most jobs actually don't require such degrees. “Idaho has continued to grow in low-wage, low-skill jobs over the past ten years,” the report found. The full report will be posted online here shortly.

Poll: 87% of Idahoans favor ban on texting-while-driving

A new statewide survey shows that 87 percent of Idahoans favor a ban on texting while driving – including 78 percent who say they'd strongly support it. “It's higher than we would've guessed,” said Dave Carlson, spokesman for AAA of Idaho, which commissioned the statewide poll by Riley Research Associates of Portland. Yet Idaho lawmakers, who've struggled with the issue for the past two years, still haven't passed anything and Idaho doesn't ban texting while driving, unlike at least 30 other states.

“I've already got a texting bill sitting on my desk that I had drawn up,” said Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene. “I hope we can move forward with it, just to take care of those concerns.”

Two years ago, a texting-while-driving ban was killed on the final night of Idaho's legislative session, despite having won majority support in both houses, when then-Rep. Raul Labrador, now a congressman, used a parliamentary maneuver to require a two-thirds vote in the House. The bill got a 37-30 majority - not two-thirds. Last year, Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, proposed compromise legislation he described as “truly a piece of sausage” that would have banned texting if it distracted the driver, but not if it didn't; that didn't pass.

“I think we've tripped over the details,” Carlson said. “There's been a naysayer for every bill that's been brought, including, as you might recall, AAA last year, because we were hoping for something a little bit stronger.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Idaho grocers plead for food-stamp distribution fix after $1M in spoiled food

Idaho's grocery stores are putting up $100,000 of their own money and asking state lawmakers to change back to multi-day distribution of food stamps each month, after having to throw out a million dollars worth of food over the last two years because of the crush of food-stamp recipients all descending on the stores at once. “It's just grossly inefficient and wasteful,” said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocers Association. “The last two years my industry's lost over a million dollars in spoiled food over this, just in Idaho.”

The reason: When the crowds hit on the 1st of the month, some people abandon their full carts and give up because the lines get so long. All the frozen food in the carts can't be restocked and goes to waste. Idaho is one of just a handful of states in the nation using a single-day distribution for food stamps each month; it's the only one in the Northwest. Now, the state Department of Health and Welfare has a plan to shift to a staggered, 10-day distribution, which could start in May – but it'll cost more. The grocers have agreed to foot $100,000 of the change-over cost, and the state wouldn't have to pay any more until 2014, but lawmakers are being asked for approval now. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Senate panel hears roadkill recovery rule

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho's road-killed wildlife could become fair game. The Senate Resources Committee on Monday got a glimpse of a proposed rule allowing legal recovery of big-game species run over by cars. Right now, animals that draw the short straw during vehicle-wildlife encounters belong to Idaho. With proposed changes, drivers or anybody else who happens upon a clobbered critter could recover it, provided they report their serendipitous find to the Department of Fish and Game. The changes are a response to northern Idaho Republican Rep. Dick Harwood's efforts to legalize harvest of valuable fur-bearing animals like bobcats, foxes, bears and mountain lions run over by cars. Fish and Game's Sharon Kiefer reminded lawmakers this would be for accidental collisions only ― they're not opening the door for drivers to just hit wildlife.

Anti-bullying bill introduced

Last year, legislation to beef up Idaho's anti-bullying laws, in party by clarifying that school officials are “authorized and expected to intervene” in cases of bullying, harassment or intimidation of a student, passed the Senate with just three “no” votes and cleared the House Education Committee amid much debate, but never came up for a vote in the full House. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee has voted unanimously to reintroduce the legislation.

Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, who made the motion, said, “What we have doesn't seem to be working, and we need to fix it.” Kim Kane, executive director of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network, who presented the bill to the committee, said, “Every parent has the right to expect that their child will be safe at school. … We are hoping this year there will be a clearer understanding of what bullying is and what this piece of legislation does.” The measure is identical to last year's SB 1105. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said she talked with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle over the summer about the measure, “and he said he didn't see a problem.” The bill will return to the Senate committee for a hearing before proceeding further.

Prosecutors introduce bill to bring drive-by shootings under felony murder rule

Idaho's state prosecutors association got legislation introduced today to add drive-by shootings to the state's “felony murder rule,” meaning killings committed in drive-by shootings could be charged as first-degree murder even if the shooter didn't have the specific intent to kill the person he or she killed. That specific intent requirement is waived for certain crimes that fall under the felony murder rule; those now include aggravated battery against a child under 12, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, mayhem and acts of terrorism.

“Prosecutors believe this is a very serious crime,” Holly Koole of the Idaho State Prosecutors Association told the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. “There is an innocent life that is taken, and the most we can charge now is involuntary manslaughter, which is not murder.”

The prosecutors have proposed similar legislation before, but this time, they limited the rule to situations “where a reasonable person would know or have reason to know that such building was occupied.” It also applies to shooting into occupied vehicles. “That makes it a little clearer as to the intent of the person,” Koole said. Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, an attorney, said he thought the change was an improvement, and he supported introducing the bill.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, questioned the bill's fiscal impact statement of no impact. “There would be some impact because people would be spending longer time in jail, isn't that correct, if convicted?” he asked. Koole responded that currently such killings, which are very rare in Idaho, would draw up to 10 years in jail, so the cost difference wouldn't be large. The bill now can advance to a full committee hearing.
  

Idaho marks MLK Day/Idaho Human Rights Day

“We've made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus,” Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared today at the state's official celebration of Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day in the state Capitol rotunda. The holiday, he said, is “a time for all Americans to reaffirm their commitment to the basic principles that underly our Constitution: Equal treatment and justice for all,” reading from the state's official proclamation declaring the holiday today.

Earlier, hundreds marched from Boise State University down Capitol Boulevard to a rally on the Statehouse steps, chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, Idaho's too great for hate,” and carrying signs with slogans including, “Keep his dream alive,” “Freedom,” and “Add the Words.” That's the slogan for a campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho's human rights law, which provides protections against discrimination based on race, religion or disability. Legislation to add the words to the law was introduced last year, but didn't advance. At least 20 states, including Washington, already ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Former longtime Idaho Human Rights Commission director Marilyn Shuler gave the keynote address at today's official ceremony in the rotunda, entitled, “Have we gotten there yet?” She noted, “Dr. King was born 83 years ago, the same year as Anne Frank.” Both are honored in Idaho today, through the official state holiday, and through the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, which Shuler noted is “visited every year by countless schoolchildren who come to learn about basic human rights.”

Said Shuler, “We have a chance to ask ourselves a simple question: Have we gotten there yet? And a second question: What should I be doing to see that we get there?” She recounted the history of human rights in Idaho, including early low points like the Idaho Legislature banning marriage between caucasians and people of Japanese ancestry, and high points like the creation of the Idaho Human Rights Commission in 1969 to enforce anti-discrimination laws. “It's worth thinking about how far we still have to go,” Shuler said. “We know we haven't gotten there.” She pointed out that the state still doesn't ban discrimination, including in housing and employment, based on sexual orientation, and noted disadvantages faced by Idaho's largest minority, its Hispanic population. “We still need to do better … in our state,” Shuler said. “Each one of us, every day, has a chance to make a difference.”
  

Future enlargement of Medicaid could remove need for much of CAT fund…

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong what the cost will be once 100,000 more people are eligible for Medicaid in Idaho in 2014, under the federal health care reform law. “Because of the way the law was written, the newly eligible individuals, i.e. the single male, it starts out with the federal government paying 100 percent of that cost,” Armstrong said. “So we don't have a match that first year.” Then, over five years, a state match would phase in, he said.

“Theoretically that expansion wouldn't cost us anything as a state. But that's not what happens, because there's a woodworking effect,” Armstrong said. People who are newly eligible tend to come in along with others who already were eligible, like their kids, but who they hadn't previously signed up. “Those are not newly eligible categories, those are historically eligible categories. So our estimate is that there will be about $19 million of cost to the state of Idaho in 2014 because of this rise in eligibility.” However, Armstrong noted, “We could say that that $19 million is offset by the fact that the CAT fund is estimated, between 80 and 95 percent of those dollars are for people who now would be eligible for Medicaid. So globally for the state of Idaho, for general funds, we would see a reduction in costs between the various pieces.”

People who now turn to Idaho's catastrophic health care fund would become eligible for Medicaid, so the state would no longer have to fund their care through the CAT fund, which is 100 percent state-funded.

Hagedorn asked how much the state would have to pay through Medicaid eventually for the expanded eligibility group. Armstrong said, “It becomes significant. My recollection was that we'll be in the $100 million range, I think, in time,” though he noted that that wouldn't be until 2020. “I'll give you the chart,” he said. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “Several of us may like to see that chart.” Armstrong noted, “Remember, it is just a guess,” to which Cameron responded, “As is every bit of that whole program.”

Armstrong: Idaho’s challenge: How to make Medicaid sustainable

Idaho's big challenge, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers this morning, is this: “Where do we go from here to make Medicaid sustainable?” He said it's unrealistic to think Idaho can continue to make pricing and benefit reductions to balance the budget. Instead, the state should look toward a new managed-care type model designed to improve patient outcomes, accessibility and coordination of care, “especially for high-cost participants with multiple conditions.” Armstrong said the answer will require “collaboration and compromise from all stakeholders,” and there's no single solution that works for every state.

The Department of Health & Welfare's budget request for next year is $2.4 billion in total funds, of which $616.8 million, or 25.4 percent, would come from state general funds. Of that $2.4 billion total, $1.98 billion - 81.5 percent - is in Medicaid, the program that provides health coverage for the poor and disabled.

State could end first-of-month food stamp rush at grocery stores, but at a cost

Food stamp benefit payments are up more than 380 percent in Idaho since 2007, according to state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong. That's led to huge rushes at Idaho grocery stores on the first of the month, when recipients get their payments. H&W is working with the region's grocers on a plan to move to a multi-day issuance system for the payments, rather than the current single-day issuance, but the current system is the cheapest. The initial changeover wouldn't create any general fund cost, Armstrong said, but it would create maintenance costs of $220,000 a year, and the state would need to commit to funding $110,000 a year of that with general funds starting in fiscal year 2014. A new multi-day issuance system also would require the equivalent of four more state staffers.

H&W worker caseloads soar, turnover is up, workers leaving for better pay

Idaho's Department of Health & Welfare, the state's largest agency, has seen its employees' workload soar in recent years as caseloads have risen, it's had furloughs, staff reduction and office closures due to budget cuts, and turnover was 13.6 percent in fiscal year 2011, Director Dick Armstrong told JFAC this morning. “The average pay increase for people leaving DHW for private employment was 43 percent last year,” Armstrong told lawmakers, urging them to consider funding an increase in state worker pay. “We cannot afford to lose our high-performing and skilled workers,” he said.

In 2011, 25 percent of the department's departing employees had exemplary job performance ratings, Armstrong noted, while only 1 percent had negative evaluation ratings. “High performing employees are exiting,” he said.
  

CAT fund cases dropped in fy ‘11 due to changes, but are growing again now…

Idaho's catastrophic health care program, also known as the CAT fund, had 1,286 cases approved in fiscal year 2011, at an average cost per case of $24,329, CAT  board chairman Roger Christensen told JFAC this morning. The number of new cases dropped slightly in 2011, after years of sharp increases, but Christensen said so far this year, they're going up again. “We are still seeing a fairly significant increase in caseloads, and I think that's due to the economy,” he told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning.

The program pays for health care for indigent Idahoans, after counties cover the first $11,000 per case as a deductible; Christensen said it'll be seeking a $17 million supplemental appropriation this year to fully cover costs, after this year's state appropriation was set at just $22.2 million, though costs were estimated at $31.6 million.

Legislative changes in the past three years have helped stem the growth of the program, Christensen told lawmakers. Among them: The increase in the counties' deductible from $10,000 to $11,000 in 2009; and requirements to first submit applications to Health & Welfare for a determination if the patient qualifies for Medicaid. That move alone has meant $21 million in what Christensen first said is “savings,” then corrected himself, and said, “transfer to another program.” The state pays 100 percent of CAT program costs; it pays only about 30 percent of Medicaid costs, as the federal government picks up 70 percent. As a result, Christensen said he estimates the state has saved between $6 million and $9.7 million. “A much higher percentage of those individuals who would have qualified for Medicaid qualified,” he said.

Other changes: New board members added under a bill passed in 2010 pointed out the CAT fund was covering weight-reduction surgeries, which most health insurance doesn't; that's no longer covered. “There have been a few cases and now they've been not approved because of that,” Christensen said. “These are policy decisions the Legislature has to make. What drives the cost in this type of a program, is the qualifications for the people, the individuals that are covered, and the types of things that the Legislature wants to cover.” That legislation also clarified that the program is a “last resource,” so there can be no “balance billing” to offset its payments.

When the CAT fund makes payments for an indigent patient, it filed liens against the patient to recover the funds; in fiscal year 2011, it collected $2.3 million in reimbursements, while it paid out $34.9 million in payments to medical providers. Christensen said reimbursements are down as economic conditions leave people with less ability to pay. The program also received $152,832 from seat belt citations in fiscal year 2011.
  

Lawmakers in session on holiday Monday

The Idaho Legislature doesn't take holidays when it's in session, so lawmakers will be at work on Monday despite the Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day holiday. Among the events scheduled: JFAC will hold a hearing the CAT fund and begin delving into budgets for the Department of Health & Welfare; numerous House and Senate committees will meet to consider administrative rules or introducing legislation; Gov. Butch Otter will issue a proclamation in honor of the holiday at noon in the 2nd floor rotunda, and Marilyn Shuler will give a keynote speech, at a public celebration that also will include music and is sponsored by the Idaho Department of Labor and the Idaho Human Rights Commission; Boise State University students will march to the Capitol for a human rights day rally on the steps, also at noon, followed by an afternoon of volunteer service; and a “Kitchen Table Economics” session, sponsored by the Idaho Jobs Coalition, will run from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium, featuring retired UI Professor Stephen Cooke addressing the wage gap between Idaho and other states.

Among news reports from the weekend: Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey looks into the the scramble set off by Gov. Butch Otter's call for $45 million in unspecified tax cuts, in an article that also notes that the House and Senate tax committees are planning a joint hearing on the issue after the Legislature sets its official revenue estimate Jan. 24; Statesman business reporter Audrey Dutton's report here on Idaho's request to the feds for one-year extension on the January 2014 deadline to set up a state-run health insurance exchange; and Statesman reporter Kathleen Kreller's article here on how “mental holds” by law enforcement in Idaho have spiked since Idaho cut funding for adult mental health services. You can ready my Sunday column here, with tidbits from the legislative session's first week; and the Idaho State Journal reports that Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, will no longer claim the higher $122 per diem that out-of-area legislators receive for maintaining a second home in Boise for sleeping on his Boise office couch; click below for that report.
  

The week that was…

On tonight's “Idaho Reports,” I join BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, AP reporter Jessie Bonner and host Greg Hahn to discuss the events of this first week of the Legislature, from school funding to ethics; the hour-long program also features Hahn's interview with three lawmakers, Reps. Ken Roberts and Grant Burgoyne and Sen. Tim Corder, about possible tax cuts; a discussion of Gov. Butch Otter's “IGEM” proposal with Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Roberts; IPTV reporter Aaron Kunz's analysis of the lack of mention of environmental issues in this year's State of the State speech; 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/.

The ethics tit-for-tat…

Click below to read AP reporter John Miller's full story on today's tit-for-tat over ethics among Republicans and Democrats, as they move haltingly toward a bipartisan effort to craft a bill setting up Idaho's first independent state ethics commission. The bipartisan House-Senate working group that will work on the bill is expected to start meeting next week.

Rusche: ‘This is about the institution’

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, had this response to Speaker Lawerence Denney's statement today about Democrats' rhetoric on ethics: “My response to that is that if there are things that we are doing that impact people's confidence in government, we should be called to account.” Said Rusche, “This isn't about individuals. This is about the institution and our government and how we serve our people.”

Rusche said both parties are moving forward with a working group to develop bipartisan agreement on a new ethics commission bill. “I certainly hope that doesn't disrupt the progress that we've made,” he said. “It takes all of us pushing together, I know that.”

Denney blasts Dems for ‘culture of corruption’ rhetoric

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney is lashing back at some Democrats who have been criticizing what they call a “culture of corruption” among Republican officials, saying some Democratic lawmakers, too, have stepped across ethical lines. “Both sides – Republicans and Democrats – make mistakes or even cross the line into the camp of ethical lapses of judgment,” Denney  wrote in a statement. “Both sides are looking at reforming the process to, as is best possible, reduce the chance of partisanship when looking into complaints of ethical violations.” Click below for his full statement.
  

‘Yes’ vote will support ‘Students Come First’ reforms, ‘no’ vote repeals them

Looking ahead to the November 2012 general election, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said there will be three referenda on the ballot on the “Students Come First” school reform plan. “Folks should remember that a 'yes' vote would be in favor of the legislation that was passed by the Legislature dealing with Students Come First,” Ysursa told JFAC. “If you're against the legislation and do not like it and wish that it be repealed, then the person would cast a 'no' vote. I think it's going to be pretty clear.”

Ysursa: ‘Perfect storm’ in elections this year

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, making his budget pitch to lawmakers this morning, said, “I do find it rather disconcerting that we're here on Friday the 13th.” He noted that his office is requesting a supplemental appropriation for $200,000, “for a public information campaign, voter information campaign related to the primary May 15th, which is a brand-new scenario in the state of Idaho.” For the first time, Idahoans will have to register their political party affiliation.

Ysursa said a “perfect storm in elections” is happening this year, with the new closed primary and redistricting not yet settled. He recalled how in 1984, the Idaho Supreme Court extended candidate filing by a week as a court-ordered plan was imposed. “That is not our goal,” he said. “We want to get this thing done. We need finality, so do you.”

Ysursa said he'll propose legislation this year to do away with Idaho's presidential preference primary in the spring, since both parties are choosing to hold caucuses instead. If that passes, his office will save about $60,000 on its costs for the primary election.
  

Controller: Statewide accounting system could fail without funding boost

State Controller Donna Jones says her office needs a $245,000 budget increase in general funds for computer services for the statewide accounting system, and needs it badly. The accounting system had an operating deficiency last year, and she shifted funds from personnel savings, she said - otherwise, “I would have been forced to shut down my accounting division before the end of the fiscal year.” The problem, she said, is “so severe that unless action is taken to secure it, our ability to fulfill our statutory and constitutional duties may be compromised.”

Jones' budget request is for a 9.5 percent increase in general funds next year, but an overall decrease in all funds of 2.2 percent. Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a 1 percent general fund increase, and an overall 6.3 percent cut. He didn't recommend funding the $245,000 request, Jones' top request. “Over the past five years we've cut everything that can be cut from our budget,” Jones said. “When you asked me to tighten my belt and my budget, I did.”

All bill drafters are attorneys, except 34-year vet who’s ‘walking encyclopedia’

Responding to questions from JFAC members, legislative services chief Jeff Youtz said, “All the bill drafters are attorneys, with the exception of Mike Nugent, who is a walking encyclopedia.” Youtz said after 34 legislative sessions, law school would probably be a waste of time for chief bill drafter Nugent. (Actually, Nugent does have a law degree, in addition to a master's degree in public administration; he just hasn't taken the bar exam, as he doesn't need it for his work). Also an attorney: Legislative librarian Kristen Ford.

Youtz told budget writers that philosophically - and also according to state law - he believes state employees should get pay increases each year to keep their compensation in line with the private sector, “to retain and attract the best possible state employees you can get. … If it forces you to cut the number of employees to do that, I think you should do that.”

As for the legislative staff, Youtz said, “We've made a decision to work the people we have to a frazzle, and allow them to earn comp time.” Legislative workers build up comp time during the legislative session, then are entitled to take it off other times of the year on an hour-for-hour basis. However, he said, “I know for a fact I've got employees that are losing comp time and vacation time, just because they don't have the time to take that off.”
  

Of his 34 legislative sessions, Youtz says recent years have been the worst

Idaho Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz is making his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning. He said the Legislature's nonpartisan staff is down to 62 positions, from its high a few years ago of 69; there are 64 authorized positions, “but I can only afford to fill 62 of those,” Youtz told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I'm not asking for any restoration of anything, nor do I have any new line items.”

He ran through the various parts of the legislative services staff; they include the Capitol gift shop, which is self-supporting. Youtz praised Dewain Gaudet, who runs it. “He's a retired businessman - I pay him minimum wage,” he said. “It's kind of a hobby for him.”

Idaho was well-prepared for its redistricting effort this year, Youtz said, with special software and more. “Being the organizational nut that I am, we started shopping for it four years ago,” he said. The redistricting budget still has about $58,000 left in it, he said. “I'm confident that's enough to cover a consequence of having to reconvene the commission again, if that's the case. … Time is a bigger issue than money at this point, as you all well know.”

Idaho's new “GEMS” bill-drafting system has now won both state and national awards, Youtz said. “We developed it in-house over probably six years, and I think that's how you have to do it,” he said. “You have to invest in people that are talented and you have to invest in the technology to make it work. … The GEMS system has worked extremely well.”

Youtz said the Legislature's nonpartisan staff has gone for four years without raises - its pay for directors and division managers ranks last among the 13 western states - and last spring, he sought approval for one-time bonuses to try to compensate the staff. “I was promptly roasted like a marshmallow with the editorial writers around the state,” Youtz said, “but you have to do something. Sometimes you have to step up and not just pay lip service to state employees, you have to provide some compensation. So we did that in the spring. It was one-time.”

Youtz said he's never seen such tough legislative sessions as the past few years', with the state's budget crunch, and, “this is my 34th legislative session. This past three or four years have been the worst.”

Agreement to work on bipartisan ethics panel bill marks session’s first week

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com about the agreement announced yesterday between legislative Democrats and Republicans to work together on a bipartisan bill to set up a new, independent state ethics commission. That came as the Dems unveiled their initial draft of the bill, authored by Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, a centerpiece of a slate of new ethics bill they'll be pushing for this year.

Both House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill confirmed the agreement. A working group consisting of two members of each party from each house will work on the bill over the next two weeks; then, it'll be presented to both parties' caucuses. Denney said he’d also like representatives of the Attorney General’s office and the governor’s office to participate in the working group, “so we’re all on the same page.”

Hill said, “We are all concerned about good government and ethics in government, so I’m very pleased that both the House and the Senate are willing to approach it on a bipartisan basis.”

Report: Fewer state employees now out-earn Otter, who got a raise last year

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — The governor got a pay raise this year, but he still earns less than half of what some of Idaho's public university presidents take home. The Lewiston Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/wkYE7H ) the state gave Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter a 4 percent salary increase in the current fiscal year. Otter now makes about $115,300, up from $110,700 during the last fiscal year. In comparison, Boise State University President Bob Kustra and University of Idaho President Duane Nellis each earn about $335,000 a year. According to the state controller's office, 261 state employees earned more than the governor as of this month. That's down from last year, when nearly 300 employees made more than Otter, according to a report released last Friday.

ADDITIONAL INFO: Here's an excerpt from a post from this blog on March 30, 2010, regarding HB 692, which passed that year to set raises for top state elected officials for the next four years; under the state constitution, their pay must be set before their terms start, and not changed during the term:

“Here are some of Gov. Butch Otter’s reactions to the just-concluded legislative session:



TOP PAY: The governor praised a pay bill for the state’s top elected officials put together by House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, which cuts pay next year, restores it the following year, then grants raises the next two years. “I think the Legislature did the right thing,” Otter said. “They cut back on all of the officials, and then allowed for hopefully within the growth of the economy increases the third and fourth years out.” Otter said he’s donated any raises he’s received since 2007; he liked the idea of allowing officials to reject raises - now forbidden - but acknowledged that that didn’t get done.”

McGeachin makes a splash, prints up and delivers copies of fed health care bill

There was quite the spectacle in the House Health & Welfare Committee meeting this afternoon, where the committee's chairwoman, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, had a string of pages bring in tall stacks of paper for committee members - a copy for each of a 906-page printout of the federal Affordable Care Act. Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that McGeachin said she shopped around for the best deal on printing, and got the giant document printed by a local printer for less than half what the Capitol's in-house copy center would have charged - and that panel members should keep private-vs.-public costs in mind when considering insurance legislation; you can see Davlin's full post here at her “Capitol Confidential” blog.

McGeachin, describing the voluminous bill as the “Bible” that her committee members should study this year, said she'll begin hosting “weekly Bible sessions” starting next Tuesday, where “anyone who has a question about this law” can participate. McGeachin earlier cast the only “no” vote in the Legislature's joint Health Care Task Force against an Otter Administration bill to set up a state-run health insurance exchange; the panel endorsed the bill on an 11-1 vote. She said at the time that she didn't object to a state-run exchange, but had some concerns about how that bill was drafted.

At today’s meeting, McGeachin said she was concerned that the federal health care reform law radically expands the government's powers, Davlin reports, saying, “Some of us feel we are fighting for the life of our country on this issue.”

Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Clark Corbin (@clarkcorbin) tweeted, “McGeachin showed me receipt from BizPrint in Boise showing she spent $397.40 printing 10 copies health care act. Used her Visa.”

AP: Otter backtracks on exchange claim

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter now says he misspoke when he said Idaho risks losing $300 million in federal matching funds for the state's Medicaid program if it doesn't set up a state-run health insurance exchange. Idaho could lose that money if it fails to complete a separate system to process Medicaid applicants by an October 2013 deadline, reports AP reporter John Miller. That system, called Medicaid Readiness, will help determine whether people are eligible for Medicaid, or if they qualify for subsidized insurance provided through an exchange.

“I must have left the impression it was the insurance exchange,” Otter told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “That's simply not right.” While Medicaid Readiness will be integrated into a state-run or federally-run exchange, it isn't part of the exchange; Idaho has every intention of completing Medicaid Readiness, via a $3.48 million appropriation it expects to get through the Department of Health and Welfare's fiscal year 2013 budget request, said agency director Dick Armstrong. “That's in the current budget,” Armstrong told the AP. “That's the match required.” Click below for Miller's full report, which also suggests Otter is backing off from his earlier strong support using federal grant money to set up a state-run exchange.

Dems unveil ethics commission draft, agree to working group with GOP

Idaho legislative Democrats unveiled draft legislation setting up a new independent state ethics commission today, and they also announced that they've agreed with GOP leaders to set up a working group, with lawmakers from both parties and both houses, to agree on a bipartisan bill within the next couple of weeks. Both House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill confirmed the agreement. “I believe we must maintain and grow public trust in government,” declared Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, who said she began working on the bill in the fall. “My intent was to keep it simple, easy to use and low-cost. I am pleased to say that Speaker Denney also recognizes the importance of the idea and will collaborate with us.”

Idaho's new ethics commission would be independent and nonpartisan. In King's current draft, it would review complaints from anyone about any public official, but would keep them confidential unless it determined they had merit; at that point, the commission would publish a report and refer the complaint to the appropriate agency for action, in the case of ethical issues, or to prosecutors, in the case of criminal violations.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “What's wrong with the way things are is that people don't trust us, they don't trust us. They don't trust us to manage our own behavior. So this is an attempt to restore that trust.”

Denney said his initial reaction to the Democratic draft was that there should be some way to limit or discourage frivolous complaints, and that a provision including complaints about waste of public funds was probably too broad. “In some people's minds, that what we do is waste public funds,” he said with a chuckle. “We don't want to outlaw the Legislature.” But overall, Denney said he and the minority aren't far apart on the setup of a commission. He also said he'd like representatives of the Attorney General's office and the governor's office to participate in the working group, “so we're all on the same page.”

Said Hill, “We are all concerned about good government and ethics in government, so I'm very pleased that both the House and the Senate are willing to approach it on a bipartisan basis.”

This year’s state fire-season cost: $4 million

Each year, lawmakers have to authorize payment for costs that have been run up fighting forest and range fires on state lands. This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved $4 million in fire deficiency warrants, the first state spending the budget committee has approved so far this session, on a unanimous, 20-0 vote. The amount is relatively low, as the fire season this year was 59 percent of the 20-year average in numbers of blazes, and the acreage burned, 981, was just 11 percent of the 20-year average; the payment is equal to 62 percent of Idaho's 10-year average, and 84 percent of its 20-year average.

Understanding the health insurance exchange…

For a simple, easy-to-understand explanation of the state health insurance exchange issue in a Q-and-A format, check out this report today from Idaho Statesman business reporter Audrey Dutton. Among the questions it answers: What is a health exchange, how would it work, why is it so expensive, who will run it, and how has this turned out in other states.

Thomas, longtime chief deputy, named new state appellate public defender

Gov. Butch Otter has named Sara B. Thomas, longtime chief deputy State Appellate Public Defender, to succeed Molly Huskey as head of that office; Huskey was appointed a 3rd District judge last month. Thomas, of Meridian, has been with the office for 13 years; she has a degree in criminal justice administration from BSU and a law degree from the U of I. The state appellate public defender provides representation to indigent defendants convicted of felonies in state district court; the office has a staff of 20. Click below for Otter's full announcment.

PERSI has had ‘two good years of returns’

The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, PERSI, “has experienced two good years of returns and we're cautiously optimistic about the future,” PERSI executive director Don Drum told legislative budget writers this morning. “Fiscal year 2011 was a very successful year for PERSI. … We actually had our highest growth in the last 25 years in the fund this year.” During the fiscal year, the fund grew by $1.9 billion, and at the end of the fiscal year was approaching fully funded status at 90.2 percent funded; the U.S. Government Accountability Office considers plans that are 80 percent funded  healthy.

In fiscal year 2011, PERSI paid out $578 million in benefits, Drum said. “Most public employers believe the PERSI benefit is important to retaining staff. … It also is important in the Idaho economy,” he told lawmakers.

In May of 2011, PERSI hit a historic high in its asset value at $12.2 billion; that's a gain of nearly 65 percent since the market low on March 9, 2009. Historically, PERSI's 46-year average returns are 8.31 percent.

Questions from lawmakers included one from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who asked how Gov. Butch Otter's proposal to grant state employees one-time bonuses rather than raises next year would affect their PERSI retirement. Drum said bonuses don't count toward retirement. “They would not factor in for the retirement salary calculation,” he said.

JFAC kicks off agency budget hearings with guv’s office, DFM

Presenting the budget requests for the governor's office and the governor's Division of Financial Management this morning, DFM chief Wayne Hammon said the governor's office has eight staff vacancies, and DFM has four. “We continue to do the same amount of work with less bodies, as has been the norm in the rest of state government,” Hammon told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Answering questions from lawmakers, Hammon said the governor's office remains authorized for those positions in case the state chooses to return to that staffing level in the future. The governor's office budget request for next year doesn't include any increases; the DFM budget has two: A request to hire a second economist, bringing the office back up to its traditional number; and a $45,000 line item to upgrade the budget development computer system. Hammon said, “$45,000 will not fix the system. The system is old, it's dying a slow and painful death. $45,000 is enough to keep it on life support for another year or two.”

Hammon said he's been in talks with legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith about development of a single budget system that could work for DFM, the Legislature, and all state agencies. “That would be expensive, several hundred thousand dollars, so this is not the year for that,” Hammon said. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, had questions about the proposal to bring on a second state economist. Hammon said, “I strongly believe and the governor supports that we need a second economist.” He added, “We need a second set of eyes.”

The joint budget committee is beginning its process of budget hearings for state agencies; Hammon's was the first. Also scheduled this morning is PERSI, the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho; the joint committee then will hear several requests for deficiency warrants and supplemental appropriations, which are expenditures to be made from the current year's budget. On Friday, JFAC will hold budget hearings on the Legislative Services Office, the state controller and the secretary of state; on Monday, it'll begin digging into budgets for the state's largest agency, the Department of Health & Welfare.

Dems to unveil ethics commission bill; Denney may co-sponsor with them

Idaho is one of just nine states with no independent ethics commission, but that may soon change. Democrats in the Idaho Legislature will unveil a new ethics commission bill this morning, and GOP House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he may end up as a co-sponsor. “We're still on board with moving forward,” Denney said late Wednesday. If Democrats want him to co-sponsor, he said, “I'd love to do it.”

You can read my full story here in today's Spokesman-Review. Idaho's movement follows the path other states have been treading since the Watergate scandal in  the 1970s; the last two states to create ethics commissions were Utah and Colorado, which both created them by voter initiative in the past five years. According to the Ethics Center of the National Conference of State Legislatures, ethics commissions in 38 states, including Washington, have subpoena power; those in 20 states can issue orders that are enforceable in court.
  

Economic Outlook meeting delayed to Jan. 24

The Legislature's joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee has put off its scheduled Thursday meeting, resetting it instead for Jan. 24. “The chairmen asked that we reschedule,” said legislative staffer Keith Bybee. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, co-chairman of the panel, said, “We decided we'd give everybody a chance to think about it.” He noted that the panel did the same thing last year. The meeting is the one at which the lawmakers will decide on a figure for forecast tax revenue for the coming year, on which to peg the state budget.

Grocery industry eyeing Idaho for possible liquor privatization initiative

Grocery industry lobbyists are eyeing Idaho for a possible liquor privatization push, reports AP reporter John Miller; click below for his full report. Miller reports that an industry lobbyist met with Gov. Butch Otter and other state officials last month over the issue, including inquiries about how to qualify a voter initiative for next November's ballot. In addition, some Idahoans are reporting receiving calls from a pollster with questions gauging their support for liquor privatization and grocery store sales.

McGee: ‘I’m really ashamed’

Some expected Sen. John McGee to apologize to the Senate when he rose during today's session, but McGee told Eye on Boise, “My family was sitting up there. I was much more focused on, we had just got done with that caucus meeting. That was an introduction of my family, a compliment to my wife. … That was five minutes after the caucus meeting.”

During the nearly two-hour closed-door confab, McGee apologized to the caucus, which then discussed and voted on whether he should keep his leadership post as caucus chairman; the vote was to keep him. “It was frank, and it was honest,” McGee said. “That was the first time we'd really had a chance to be together and address that issue. It was a very good and frank discussion, by a lot of well-meaning people.”

McGee said the caucus didn't want explanations of what happened in the bizarre incident last May that left McGee with a DUI conviction and a battered reputation. “This was an opportunity for me to be in front of them and offer my apology,” he said. “They want to move on. That's hopefully what we've done today.” He added, “I'm really ashamed that I embarrassed my peers and my constituents and most importantly my family,” saying, “I have and I will continue to be spending a lot of my time apologizing, and I should.”

‘Fairly minor change’ to Students Come First teacher evaluation rules introduced

The Senate Education Committee has voted to introduce legislation from state schools Supt. Tom Luna to make a “fairly minor change” in the “Students Come First” school reform laws, to clarify when parent input would be required to be a part of teacher evaluations. “That happens later, after June 30, 2012,” Luna aide Jason Hancock told the committee. “The legislation before it was a little bit unclear. … We just wanted to reorder that so it was a little bit clearer that it should happen after June 30, 2012. It's a fairly minor change, but the request was to get this in the hopper quickly, so that we could get it moving before the next set of evaluation dates comes due on Feb. 1st.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, had several questions, but the panel voted unanimously to introduce the bill; Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he hopes to schedule a hearing on it Monday. Click below for a full report on the issue from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

McGee retains GOP leadership post

Senate GOP Caucus Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, retained his leadership post today after a closed-door caucus in which GOP senators voted on whether or not to oust him after a bizarre drunken driving incident. It took nearly two hours, with the overlong caucus pushing back the Senate's plan to convene at 11:30 today to nearly noon. Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said afterward, “I'm confident we came out united,” the AP reports. 

As he emerged from the caucus, McGee told reporters, “My actions on that night showed clearly a lack of judgment. I've been humbled by the support that the community has given me, and I'm particularly humbled by the support that the caucus has just shown me. I made mistakes, and I've paid the price for those mistakes, and every day now that I wake up, the first thing that I think of is how can I make this better. For the rest of my life I'll be working on making this better. … As difficult as the day has been, I'm very humbled and thankful to the caucus for their support.” KTVB-TV has the video posted here.

It's customary in the Senate for senators to introduce their guests who are in the gallery; just before adjournment today, McGee rose to acknowledge his wife and two young children in the gallery. “For some of you it's been a year since you've seen them; senator from 7, you've never seen them, perhaps,” he said with emotion. “My beautiful wife, Hanna. I've heard from the senator from 33 that once upon a time his mother was given the Mother of the Year award in the state of Idaho. Well, I don't know if I can formally submit this or not, Mr. President, but I would submit today the Mother of the Year and the Wife of the Year to my wife Hanna, and I thank her and my family for being very, very patient over the last several months, as I do all of you.” The Senate welcomed McGee's young family with a sturdy round of applause. She had arrived midway through the caucus, pushing the youngsters in a stroller, and waited for McGee in his office, which adjoins the caucus room.

McGee, 38, is a fourth-term senator and is the marketing director for a Canyon County hospital. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Senate GOP caucusing on McGee

Senate Republicans have gone behind closed doors to discuss whether Idaho Senate Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee should continue in his leadership role after a bizarre incident that included a DUI conviction; here's a link to a full report from AP reporter John Miller on what's at stake.

Proposal would merge state, historical records archiving and management

State Historical Society Director Janet Gallimore told legislative budget writers today that 35 states have combined their state archives and their state and local government records management, and she and state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna are proposing that Idaho do that, too. The merger, Gallimore said, would mean better service for the public and government agencies, centralized online access, and streamlined costs. At issue are official records from 1863 to the present, everything from court records to historical photos to maps to marriage licenses.

The state archives, operated by the Historical Society, currently gets about 17,000 records requests a year, Gallimore said. The state records center gets about 4,650 requests. The documents involved are required by law to be preserved. The Idaho associations of cities and counties, the State Historical Records Advisory Board, and the Foundation for Idaho History all are working on the merger plan. Gallimore is proposing the first of three phases for the coming year, to amend legislation to merge the two functions and begin streamlining the state's records management. The second phase would include a consultant's study on ways to enhance access to the  records, including an online catalogue. The third phase would recommend alternatives for a “fiscally sustainable model for a long-term archival program for state, city and county records of enduring value,” she said.

State worker salaries now lag market 18.6%

The last time the Legislature funded raises for state employees was in fiscal year 2009, state Division of Human Resources head Vicki Tokita told legislative budget writers this morning. As a result, state worker salaries now lag 18.6 percent behind market rates, up from 15 percent in 2009. Gov. Butch Otter targeted that market lag in the early days of his administration and proposed boosts, but that was before the state's economy tanked.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked how state employees' total compensation package, including benefits as well as salaries, compares to the private sector. State Department of Administration chief Teresa Luna responded that the state last examined total compensation a couple of years ago; at that time, compared to seven large Idaho employers, state employee compensation was “about 15 percent less than the private sector, including benefits, pension and retirement,” Luna said.

According to the latest report, the fiscal 2013 Change in Employee Compensation Report, state employee turnover is now 12.1 percent, and the average length of state service for those who left state employment in 2011 was 9.8 years.

State workforce has dropped 1,842 jobs since January of 2008…

JFAC is holding a special hearing this morning on state workforce budget issues. Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith has been detailing the way the state accounts for its employees, which is complicated and varies by funding type and other issues. Bottom line: The “FTP” or “full-time position” count usually used in budgeting doesn't necessarily line up with the number of “active employees,” as tallied by the state controller's office annual “rainbow report” that includes stats on state employees. That “active employees” number was 26,040 in January of 2008; it's 24,198 today, after years of cutbacks. That's a drop of 1,842 employees. Also scheduled this morning is a report from the state Division of Human Resources on employee compensation and benefits.

Sen. McGee: ‘My bad decision-making led to all this’

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, spoke with the Idaho Press-Tribune on the eve of a closed-door Senate GOP caucus to discuss whether he'll continue in his Senate leadership post, as majority caucus chairman, after the bizarre Father's Day incident in which he was arrested for DUI after jackknifing a stranger's SUV on a neighbor's front lawn. McGee told the newspaper that his drinking after a golf tournament led to the events, most of which he doesn't remember; he also said he's undecided about whether to seek a fifth term in the Senate in what had been considered a promising political career. You can read the Press-Tribune story here. Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet in caucus at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday.

Simpson names campaign finance chairs

2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson has announced four regional finance chairmen for his re-election campaign; they are: Kirk Sullivan, Damond Watkins, Doug Sayer and Mitch Watkins. You can read his full announcement here. Simpson, a Republican, is a seven-term congressman and a former speaker of the Idaho House.

AP: For leverage, Dems threaten voting with GOP right

As the 61st Idaho Legislature's second regular session lurches into gear, AP reporter John Miller reports today on an odd prospect: That the most-liberal members of the House Democratic caucus could vote with the most-conservative Republicans against creating a state-run health insurance exchange. Click below for Miller's full report.

Lawmakers learn that Otter’s budget wouldn’t restore cuts

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's budget proposal for next year wouldn't restore any of the steep budget cuts Idaho's made in the past three years of economic downturn, with just one exception: Partial restoration of $750,000 in grant programs at the state Department of Commerce. As state lawmakers began examining the details of Otter's agenda Tuesday, some concerns surfaced about that approach. The one area to have cuts restored: Three Commerce grant programs, the Business and Jobs Development Program, the Rural Initiative, and Small Business Assistance Grants, would split the $750,000, which replaces only a tiny fraction of funds cut from them in the past three years; the Rural Initiative alone has lost $2.6 million from its annual budget.
  

Dems’ State of the State response: ‘Culture of arrogance and entitlement’

Legislative Democrats gave their response to GOP Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State and budget message this morning, and they weren't happy. “The governor has talked about budget, education, taxes, employment and reserves. All of these issues are important, but it is really hard to govern if there is little confidence that government serves their interests,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said of Idahoans. “It is unfortunate that the governor has failed to address the culture of arrogance and entitlement that is pervasive in the Legislature and GOP leadership.”

The minority Democrats noted that they've introduced numerous ethics bills over the years that in many cases were ignored. “We hope this year will be different,” Rusche said.

There already have been signs of that: Shortly before the start of the session, GOP House Speaker Lawerence Denney expressed support for establishing an independent Idaho ethics commission, a measure Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce on Thursday. And GOP Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he'd already contacted Denney about new financial disclosure legislation, though he'd not yet heard back.

Said Rusche, “We invite the majority party to partner with us and show that we are ready to face the ethical issues head-on, and begin to restore the confidence of the people in our state institutions.” The independent ethics commission, he said, would be a “crucial first step,” saying, “People need to feel like they have a voice and complaints don't disappear.”
    
The minority party, which holds just 20 of the Legislature's 105 seats, also differed sharply with Otter on his priorities for the state budget for next year. “He … suggests that a vague, ill-defined tax break costing $45 million is more valuable than defined and focused job development activities,” Rusche said. “We need a tax policy that is stable and fair to all the people, while generating enough to support the vital public structures that we all depend on - schools and colleges, roads, telecommunications, courts and public safety.”

The Democrats said their No. 1 priority is “getting back to work,” and noted the “iJOBS” package of legislation they proposed unsuccessfully two years ago. They have more coming along those lines, they said. One area of the governor's proposals that drew praise: the IGEM proposal, which would fund university research to encourage technology transfer that creates jobs. “We'll likely support that quite strongly, because hey, two years ago it was part of our package,” Rusche said. “I think there is much more.”

While Otter's budget restores none of recent years' budget cuts except for a partial restoration of grant programs at the state Department of Commerce, the Democrats said their priorities are first to restore education funding so that “we're not losing teacher/student contact;” second to restore cuts to services that are actually costing the state or local governments more money, like trimming mental health services while driving up incarceration; and third to look at “the maintenance of the property and buildings the state of Idaho owns,” for which maintenance funds have been trimmed through the recession years. Said Rusche, “I think to say, well, we've got enough money for tax breaks, we have enough money to put into a savings account, but we don't have enough money to restore the services that civilization depends upon, I think is fallacious thinking.”

Despite their small numbers, the Democrats said they expect to work with the majority and influence this year's debate. “I think there's a number of areas here where not only will they want us to work with them, they'll need us to work with them,” Rusche said, “because frankly, in the House that 36th vote is going to be hard to come by.”

Commerce grants are the only budget cut restored under guv’s 2013 budget plan

Among the questions legislative budget writers have had this morning about the governor's budget proposal:

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise,  asked if cuts to mental health and substance abuse services that are becoming a problem for law enforcement and local governments will be restored; Wayne Hammon, the governor's budget chief, said no. “In the governor's recommendation, those reductions that have been made by this committee and the Legislature over the last few years have not been restored, with the exception of those grants at the Department of Commerce,” he said.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked why the governor planned for one-time, conditional bonuses for state employees rather than permanent pay raises. Hammon responded, “The governor's just not comfortable spending every dime that's in the forecast.” He said Gov. Butch Otter would like to grant permanent raises, but is worried about state revenues; if they come in higher than projections, he said, there might well be a proposal next year to make the pay boosts permanent. Jaquet responded, “It makes sense. … It doesn't feel quite good.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked why the governor capped general-fund spending growth for state agencies at 5 percent, when counties have a limit on their property tax budget growth of 3 percent.  “With the revenue forecast provided to us, we believe that this level of additional spending at 5 percent is affordable and the right thing to do,” Hammon said. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that with the governor's proposal for $45 million in tax cuts, “that equals a 2 percent reduction. … The governor in essence has a 3 percent budget plan. Is that not an appropriate way to think of it?” Hammon said, “You're right, it's very close.” LeFavour noted that the state has cut its budget sharply in the last few years, “which is something local governments generally don't do.”

Cameron asked how the governor's budget treats salary-based apportionment and the salary grid in the public school budget. Hammon said it makes no change from existing law, meaning the “Students Come First” law's requirement to shift funds out of the salary funds into technology boosts and merit-pay programs stands. The $31.6 million increase for public schools in the governor's budget proposal includes $11.2 million for student population growth, and virtually all the rest goes for requirements of the Students Come First law, which phases in laptop computers for every high school student, a new focus on online learning, and teacher merit pay.

Guv’s budget tries to reduce reliance on one-time funding for ongoing programs

Gov. Butch Otter's budget is aimed at reducing the amount of one-time money that's targeted at ongoing needs, Wayne Hammon, Otter's budget chief, told lawmakers on JFAC this morning. His budget anticipates a $103.5 million balance at the end of fiscal year 2012. That one-time surplus then is mostly spent in his 2013 proposal on one-time spending, including the $60 million in deposits into the various state rainy-day accounts.

The governor's budget for next year still includes $36 million in Medicaid provider assessments that could be viewed as one-time money going to ongoing needs, Hammon said; the administration hopes to  reduce that with some excess funds from the Division of Veterans Services, but no agreement has yet been reached on that.

Hammon said this year's state budget included $74.6 million in one-time money directed to ongoing needs, so Otter's proposal halves that for next year, with the hope of getting it down to zero in fiscal year 2014.

Hammon: University research VPs at work on IGEM legislation

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, is presenting the governor's proposal to JFAC this morning, but JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that Hammon's wife is expecting a baby at any time, their second; with that warning, lawmakers will know why if he abruptly exits.

Among the details emerging so far from his presentation: The $2 million for new university research initiatives under IGEM would be distributed through the Higher Education Research Council, or HERC. Hammon said the details of IGEM are being laid out in legislation that's being “worked on right now by the research vice presidents at the state universities.” He said the administration hopes to have a bill ready for lawmakers “in the very near future.”

In addition to IGEM, the governor's budget includes $750,000 to restore existing grant programs that have been cut at the state Department of Commerce; that's not enough to bring them all back, but Hammon said it's a start. Otter's budget identifies three items toward his priority of creating jobs and advancing economic development: IGEM, the Commerce grants restoration, and $45 million in unspecified tax cuts.
  

Guv lays out agenda, now it’s lawmakers’ turn

Here's a link to my story in today's Spokesman-Review on Gov. Butch Otter's agenda, as laid out to lawmakers yesterday. Today, the legislative session is under way; the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is meeting this morning to begin digging into the governor's budget proposals.

Lawmakers react, Otter sticks by his budget figures

Reaction from lawmakers has been mostly positive to Gov. Butch Otter's budget proposal today, but that's with a big “if” - if they buy his revenue forecast, which lowers this year's state tax revenue growth from 6.4 percent down to 4.4 percent, and then forecasts next year's general-fund tax revenues to grow 5.8 percent over the lowered total for this year. “That still remains to be seen, as to whether we can hit that number in 2013,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Cameron said, “Obviously I'd love to see tax relief, and will advocate for tax relief, provided we've restored our agencies, we've paid our bills, we've taken care of public education … restored some of our reserves.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she appreciated the governor following through on his commitment to restore some of the funding cut from public schools. As for tax cuts, she said, “I need to see what the numbers look like.” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I think all in all it was a good outline. I'm just hoping we have the funding and the revenues to support that.”

Asked what he'd give up from his agenda if lawmakers don't buy his revenue figures - tax cuts? pay boosts for state workers? deposits to reserve funds? - Otter, speaking at a media availability in his office after today's State of the State message, declined to say. “We have a great deal of confidence in the numbers that came out this morning,” the governor said. “We feel very comfortable. … So I'm not putting anything on the gallows.” He added, “This is one of the most pleasant State of the States since '07 that I've had the opportunity to give,” with the economy improving. “I think we're seeing some real successes.”

He called his $5 million IGEM proposal an “extraordinary” thing for the state to be doing, “during this tough time, to put a $5 million bet” on job creation.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said of the governor's agenda, “It could be worse,” but he questioned cutting taxes without restoring deep cuts to programs such as mental health and substance abuse, which he said are pressuring local governments and communities. “Does it make sense to give a $45 million tax cut when we don't know who it's going to, what it's going to do, but at the same time we're going to dump this extra cost and extra hardship on Idaho families and local governments?” Rusche asked. He also criticized the focus on funding the “Students Come First” reform initiative in the school budget, saying, “A significant part of that money is going to be siphoned off for out-of-state for-profit companies, not to support teachers and the communities as it would have otherwise.” Legislative Democrats have scheduled a press conference for tomorrow morning to respond to Otter's agenda.

Guv: ‘Let’s go to work’

Gov. Butch Otter concluded his message, “My thanks to you, God speed, let's go to work.” His speech lasted 35 minutes; it was reportedly 28 minutes without applause, so the difference reflects the interruptions for applause from lawmakers. You can read the full text of the governor's speech here.

Otter says he’s taking Coach Pete’s advice on seeking success

In his State of the State message, Gov. Butch Otter said he and his staff visited with BSU's Coach Pete last summer to talk about success. “We asked how he's been able to build a national reputation for excellence with what's considered limited resources by today's college football standards,” Otter said. “What I took away from his answer was this: Focus.” That includes, he said, focusing on the challenges at hand; on leveraging strengths; on improving every day; and focusing on what can be controlled, along with “focus on helping individual players understand how they can help achieve team goals while reaching their own academic and athletic potential. That's a pretty good formula for success,” Otter said.

Lawmakers recognize Manning

Gov. Butch Otter recognized Darrell Manning, who has just retired as chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. Manning, a former member of both houses, has served in numerous state positions over the years. “We applaud your work for the people of Idaho,” Otter said to Manning. He also announced that Region 3 transportation board member Jerry Whitehead will be the new board chairman, starting in February.

Lawmakers responded with a sustained standing ovation for Manning, seen here.

Raises for state workers would be one-time, conditioned on revenues…

Discussing his proposal for $41 million in conditional, one-time pay boosts for state employees including teachers if state revenues meet projections, Gov. Butch Otter said it should “reward our most deserving employees.” But he said it should be “structured in such a way that it gives management as much flexibility as possible. It also should be in the form of one-time payments, and it should be conditioned on tax revenues meeting our projections.”

Otter calls for $45 million in unspecified tax cuts

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter says his budget proposal for next year calls for $45 million for some form of tax relief. He's making no specific proposal. “There remains a wide diversity of opinion on how best to target tax relief,” the governor told lawmakers. “I look forward to hearing your proposals.”
  

Otter restrained on health insurance exchange…

Given that Gov. Butch Otter has been speaking out strongly on the consequences if Idaho fails to set up a state-run health insurance exchange - and allows the federal government to instead step in and run one for Idaho - his comments in his State of the State message on the issue today are remarkably restrained. Otter isn't proposing spending authority for the $20.3 million in federal grant funds Idaho has received to set up the exchange, instead leaving that question open as lawmakers convene. He noted that Idaho was looking into an exchange before the feds required it.

 “My decision to allow the application to be submitted simply preserved the opportunity for you and all Idahoans to discuss our options and decide what's best for our citizens,” he said. “In the next few weeks we will continue to have those discussions, weighing all our options and the potential outcomes associated with each of them.” He noted that Idaho is among the states challenging the federal health care reform law. “My goal is to collaborate with you today on a principled path forward, so we're prepared for the health care environment that we'll have tomorrow,” he told lawmakers.
  

Otter jabs at feds, but praises Idaho’s D.C. delegation

Gov. Butch Otter offered a jab at Washington, D.C., saying it doesn't offer the kind of fiscal responsibility Idaho's showing. But he did single out Idaho's congressional delegation for praise, noting Congressman Mike Simpson's work to get wolves back under state management. “It helps that Mike was a former speaker of this House,” Otter said. “With that experience, and his growing influence in Congress, he knows what it takes to get things done that reflect the priorities and needs of the people back here at home.” The governor also said he's “proud” that all four members of Idaho's current delegation in D.C. are former members of the Idaho Legislature, who “served with distinction in this building.”
  

Refilling ‘rainy-day funds’…

Idaho has drained $381 million from its various reserve funds in the past four years, as the economic downturn crimped the state budget and the money had to plug holes in the state budget. Now, Gov. Butch Otter is proposing starting to refill the accounts, to the tune of $60 million next year. Of that, $9.5 million would be from a statutorily-required transfer to the Budget Stabilization Account. Otter also wants to deposit an additional $16.5 million into that account; $29 million into the Public Education Stabilization Fund; and $4.98 million into the new Higher Ed Stabilization Fund, which would be that fund's first general-fund appropriation; it now contains $365,000 from tuition interest.

“That will help us maintain the kind of fiscal stability, certainty and responsibility that Idahoans deserve and employers look for in their state government,” Otter told lawmakers. “And that's what Idaho citizens will keep getting under my administration, with your help and continuing support.”
  

Higher ed: Guv proposes a turnaround from years of cuts

Idaho's colleges and universities have lost large portions of their state funding in the past few years. For the coming year, the governor is proposing an increase: $16.9 million in state general funds for colleges and universities, or an 8.1 percent increase from last year, and $4.4 million for community colleges, a 19 percent increase from last year. The university increase includes $4 million for the new IGEM research initiative. Otter said he's calling for fully funding the universities' top two budget requests: The enrollment workload adjustment and occupancy costs for new campus buildings. Those requests, which are tied directly to swelling student populations, haven't been fully funded in the past four years.

He particularly lauded North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho for agreeing to forego their shares of $1 million in proposed additional funding so that money can go to the fast-growing College of Western Idaho. “With gratitude for their selflessness and appreciating their foresight, I'm honoring that request in my budget recommendation,” Otter told lawmakers.

Otter on school funding…

In his budget proposal for public schools for next year, Gov. Butch Otter is calling for a $31.7 million increase in general funds, or 2.6 percent. That's less than the 5 percent sought by state schools Supt. Tom Luna, but Otter also would parcel out another $26 million to schools for one-time pay boosts if state revenues meet their forecast, as part of an overall proposal to grant state employees one-time pay boosts on the same basis. For both state employees and public school employees, Otter would set aside money equal to merit-based raises of 3 percent, $41 million, though they'd be both conditional and one-time - employees would get the first half July 1 if the current fiscal year ends with revenue projections met or exceeded, and the second half Jan. 1, 2013 if revenues are still on target.

Otter told lawmakers his proposed budget for public schools, which have seen unprecedented cuts in recent years, is a “modest but targeted and responsible general fund increase.” He also lauded the “Students Come First” reform program and said it'll be fully funded in his budget, including performance pay and technology boosts.

Otter unveils ‘IGEM’ program: What it is…

The governor is unveiling his new “IGEM” jobs initiative, which stands for Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission. It's a $5 million program that includes permanent, ongoing state funding for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, or CAES, at $2 million within the higher ed budget; another $2 million for new research initiatives at Idaho universities, also in the higher ed budget; and $1 million in the state Commerce Department budget for grants or loans to companies to help bring those research initiatives to market. Professors at the universities would partner with companies in their research, with the idea that the end result will be new “knowledge-based economy jobs.”

Said Otter, “Our agriculture industry has had similar programs in place for years. We're just perfecting it for our universities, our communities, and more of our Idaho businesses.”

Guv lauds Idaho entrepreneurs…

Gov. Butch Otter named a string of Idaho employers as examples of “Idaho's entrepreneurs stepping up and expressing confidence in our future.” Among them: The new Chobani Greek yogurt plant being built in Twin Falls; Idaho's dairy industry; ON Semiconductor in Pocatello; the new Allstate regional customer service center in Chubbuck; Ground Force Manufacturing in Post Falls; Scentsy and other businesses in the “CORE” development in Meridian; MetaGeek in Boise; Dynamis in Eagle; and PNW Arms in Potlatch.

Otter: ‘Our new normal’

Gov. Butch Otter says when he first was elected, he had “three broad priorities,” and they haven't changed: “Encourage economic opportunity, ensure responsible government, and empower Idahoans to be the architects of their own destiny.” He said circumstances, including the economic downturn, have raised the stakes, requiring “efficiency and prudent frugality.” Steps toward those goals, he said, “have  become standard procedure” over the past three years. “What we had to do then will become our new normal going forward.” Otter said that means the state must put more emphasis on public-private partnerships “that leverage our limited resources toward advancing and achieving our shared goals.”

Otter: Priorities are jobs and education

With the state facing a budget surplus for the first time since the recession hit, Gov. Butch Otter says he wants to see “an Idaho focused not on scarcity or what we lack, but on a more prosperous and hopeful future for all of us.” He said, “It's with that Idaho in mind that I set my top two budget and policy priorities for 2012 and this legislative session. And the reality is, those two priorities are inseparable - jobs and education. Almost everything we do this year will have an impact on those two priorities.”

Otter's budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 is based on two key assumptions: A drop in forecast revenue growth for the current fiscal year from 6.4 percent to 4.4 percent, and then a forecast for next year's general-fund tax revenues to grow 5.8 percent over the lowered total for this year. He's then capping overall general-fund spending growth in his proposed budget at 5 percent, for a spending level slightly below the forecast.

Otter calls for ‘Hire One Vet’ effort

Gov. Butch Otter is calling for a “Hire One Vet” effort, echoing the name of his tax-incentive bill last year that was dubbed the “Hire One Act.” Though he offered no details, he said it'll be a collaboration of the state departments of Labor, Veterans Services, Military Division, Commerce and Education. “It is our responsibility to ensure that our troops have the tools they need to resume their productive civilian lives,” Otter said.
  

Otter pays tribute to troops, those lost

The governor is paying tribute to Idaho's military members, including the Idaho National Guard's 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team and the Army Reserve's 391st Engineer Company. He noted those who died in 2011: Nathan Beyers and Nicholas Newby of the 116th; and from other military divisions, Robert Dyas, Devin Daniels and Ryan Sharp. “They were our sons and our fathers, our brothers and our teachers, our students and our friends,” Gov. Otter said. “They each will be sorely missed.” He also took note of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, who remains a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “I know you join me in continuing to pray for his safe release and speedy return home,” Otter said.

Otter: ‘Sounds promising already’

Gov. Butch Otter was greeted with a standing ovation as he entered the House chamber, shaking hands with lawmakers as he went. House Speaker Lawerence Denney told Otter, “The House and the Senate have both agreed that this will be a very short session.” Responded Otter, “Sounds promising already.”

Beginning his sixth State of the State message since first being elected governor in 2006, Otter told lawmakers, “It is my pleasure to report that Idaho, having been tested by the Great Recession, now is emerging leaner, stronger, more resilient and better prepared to compete, prosper and prevail in the years to come.”

Joint session under way…

Senators are now seated in the House chamber, and the joint session is under way; still to arrive are dignitaries including the state's top judges, and Gov. Butch Otter, who will be escorted into the chamber shortly to give his sixth State of the State and budget message.

Both houses have convened, preparing for governor’s speech…

Both houses have now convened and taken care of formalities in advance of the governor's State of the State and budget address, which is set to start at 1 p.m. Mountain time.