ADVERTISEMENT
Advertise Here
Archive

Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2013

Senate panel passes statewide heavy-truck expansion bill on 5-4 vote

After an hours-long hearing, the Senate Transportation Committee has voted 5-4 in favor of SB 1117, despite much testimony against it, including from North Idaho elected officials. Those voting in favor were Sens. Brackett, Johnson, Rice, Nonini and Hagedorn. Those voting against were Sens. Keough, Winder, Bock and Buckner-Webb. The bill now moves to the full Senate. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

First heavy-trucks bill passes, to extend southern Idaho pilot project

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, moved to send SB 1064 – the bill to extend the heavy-trucks pilot project in southern Idaho – to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I commend the group, the 'Right Truck for Idaho,' and Mr. Smyser and Mr. Eiguren for the work that they’ve done. In my time, my 17 years here, I think we got a heavy-truck bill every other year.” She commended the two lobbyists for “doing this in the right way – they built a coalition,” and worked with communities and industries “from top to bottom and bottom to top.” She said, “They also at the same time understood the needs in the north, and so I’ll be supporting this motion.”

 The motion then passed on a voice vote.

Testimony: ‘Somebody’s got to pay for that study’

As the heavy-trucks hearing continues:

Stuart Davis, executive director of the Idaho Association of Highway Districts, spoke in favor “unequivocally” of SB 1064, regarding making the southern Idaho heavy-trucks pilot project permanent. “We do oppose SB 1117,” he said. “There is not enough data to support extending those routes up north. There is not a pilot project.”

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked Davis if SB 1117 would create costs for local highway districts. “Of course there would be,” Davis responded. “If you’re going to ask ITD or the local system to perform an engineering study to decide whether a road can withstand that additional weight, somebody’s got to pay for that study.”

Jerry Deckard, lobbyist for Associated Logging Contractors of Idaho, spoke against any “proposal to put oversize trucks on North Idaho highways.” He cited safety, geography, climate and access. “There is a significant difference in these conditions from southern to northern Idaho,” he said.

Testimony: ‘Extra weight causes more damage - my knees tell me that’

More testimony from the heavy-trucks hearing:

Skip Smyser, lobbyist for the Idaho Trucking Association, said, “We have studied this and studied this.” He urged the Senate Transportation Committee to pass SB 1064, to make southern Idaho pilot routes for extra-heavy trucks permanent. He disputed testimony from AAA Idaho that truckers underpay for roads, saying car drivers do too. Asked where he stands on SB 1117, Smyser said, “I have no position.”

Bruce Mills, deputy director of the Ada County Highway District and a licensed engineer, spoke against SB 1117. “Extra weight just causes more damage – my knees tell me that,” Mills said. “Yes, you can spread more weight out over many axles, but the fact is, you’re still putting more axles on the road that way. … You’re still increasing the weight that’s going across the road by 20 percent.” He questioned the bill’s treatment of local vs. state jurisdiction on permitting extra-heavy trucks. “Our roads are certainly not built, and our bridges, for that kind of load,” he said.

Steve Thomas, lobbyist for BNSF Railway, said he has no position on SB 1064, but opposes SB 1117. “Why jump so quickly in putting big trucks up north?” he asked. Despite the 10-year pilot project in southern Idaho, he said, “As I see it, there has been no study at all up north.”

Testimony: ‘Would not pursue any routes north of Riggins’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked Milk Producers of Idaho lobbyist Brent Olmstead how he can support SB 1117, which opens up North Idaho routes to extra-heavy trucks, when he signed a letter several years ago offering an “unequivocal pledge” not to seek routes in North Idaho for extra-heavy trucks “in future sessions of the Legislature.” Olmstead acknowledged that he signed the letter on behalf of MPI. “At this point we feel that there are additional routes in southern Idaho,” he said. “There are, I believe, three dairies located north of Riggins, one owned by the University of Idaho.” None of those produce enough milk to need the extra-large trucks, he said. “So I would stand behind the statement that Milk Producers of Idaho would not pursue any routes north of Riggins.”

Heavy trucks up north: ‘You’d better hope their brakes work’

Phil Lampert, Benewah County commissioner, told the Senate Transportation Committee, “We’ve heard everybody talk about the pilot projects in south Idaho. But if this is expanded in North Idaho, there’s been no pilot project up there. … The terrain is quite a bit different up there… We feel it’s a real safety issue.”

 Lampert said, “We, all the five northern counties express our concerns … on some of the issues within this SB 1117.” He said with “ITD setting the stands for local roads … I’m really struggling to see where we fit in.” He said, “Our main concern is just the terrain is so much different in North Idaho, vs. the pilot projects you’ve had in south Idaho.” Lampert said, “The 105,500 pounds on our local roads, we feel that’s the max, given the terrain and topography.” Describing parts of U.S. Highway 95, he said, “Going downhill, you’d better hope their brakes work.”

Testimony: ‘We would be able to reduce one out of every 5 loads’

In continued testimony at the heavy-trucks hearing:

Gary Halverson, transportation manager for Glanbia Foods, spoke in favor of both heavy-trucks bills. His company processes almost a third of the milk in Idaho, and hauls almost 11 million pounds of milk and whey daily, he said. “We see the economic advantages. … We would be able to reduce one out of every five loads by hauling the heavier weights.” Under questioning from senators on the committee, Halverson said his company operates from Kuna to Oakley, and doesn’t operate north of Lewiston.

Dave Carlson, spokesman for AAA of Idaho, spoke against both bills. “We have a $543 million annual shortfall in this state for transportation road funding,” he said. “A cost allocation study that was requested by the governor concluded that trucks are underpaying their fair share by $11 million a year.” He disputed an ITD report that found that the 10-year pilot project allowing extra-heavy trucks on designated routes in southern Idaho had no impact on roads, saying other studies show higher road and bridge maintenance costs will be incurred due to increased weights.

Mike Brassey, lobbyist for Union Pacific Railroad, spoke against SB 1117, saying as written, the bill lacks procedures, rule-making and funding. “We think that there will probably be significant impacts on the property taxes in local taxing districts that have to maintain those roads,” he said. “There’s simply no new funding for a new burden at the local level.”

Dennis Tanikuni, lobbyist for the Idaho Farm Bureau, spoke in support of SB 1064, the bill to make the southern Idaho heavy-truck pilot project permanent. “We are very, very interested in keeping and maintaining those routes,” he said. The Farm Bureau has no position on SB 1117, he said.

Heavy-trucks debate: ‘It scares me to death’

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, grilled Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer and Idaho Transportation Department official Alan Frew about whether either agency would spend more state money to review and analyze possible new routes for extra-heavy trucks, should SB 1117 pass. Both said no. “We know our roads, we know our bridges,” Frew told the Senate Transportation Committee.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked how ITD could “take care of highway districts and counties and cities and their routes that might be suggested for heavier trucks as well.” Frew responded, “We would do this in conjunction with the local jurisdictions having authority over those highways. We anticipate that those jurisdictions know their highways, know their bridges. … We don’t anticipate having additional costs, personnel costs, or costs for analysis to complete this.”

Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, said, “I just think about riding up a narrow road right up next-side to one of them big trucks, and it scares me to death. … Inclement weather, stopping distances… I get concerned about some safety issues. And I will say that I’ve had a number of emails and letters from folks saying they’re worried about stopping distances, the number of brakes on them and all that kind of thing. Can you help me feel a little bit more comfortable about this?”

Frew responded, “We don’t allow their operation on narrow, winding roads, because they have a tendency to cross the center line or cross the fog line.”

Heavy-trucks hearing: ‘There are geological differences across the state’

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, asked ITD Deputy Director Scott Stokes about differences in climate and other issues between northern and southern Idaho that affect roads. “The precipitation in northern Idaho is a particular challenge,” said Stokes, who for many years was ITD’s chief engineer in Coeur d’Alene. “So in ITD’s case, we do our best to design the roads, the bridges and the infrastructure according to the circumstances. … But I would agree with the senator, there are geological differences across the state.”

Heavy-trucks testimony: ‘All the roads are short on money,’ ‘An extremely competitive industry’

First up from the public to testify on the heavy-truck legislation today was Randy Curless, mayor of Dover. “I oppose SB 1117,” he told the Senate Transportation Committee. “And most of it has to do with geological problems. In the bridges I’ve worked on that we’ve built, the soils have been quite unstable.” That’s because of the geologic history and soil composition of the region in North Idaho, he said. “It scoured everything down to bedrock, and then, over the years, it has come in and silted in.” As a result, he said, some of the roads suffer “an enormous amount of flexion with weight on that – that is a definite concern to me.” He said, “With this silt, once you get a large amount of water in it, then it basically is more or less a quicksand. The more weight you put on one spot, it’s going to redistribute that someplace else.”

Curless said, “I have a concern over the tax dollars we’re seeing in a small city. I believe it to be unfair of ITD to come up with regulations that they look at these projects without adequate funding, and I think all the roads are short on adequate funding. Locally, I don’t think we can come up with the money.”

Next up was Matt Van Vleet, vice president for communication and public affairs for Clearwater Paper Corp. in Lewiston. “I ask your vote in support of 1117,” he told the senators. He said his company employs 1,270 people in Lewiston. “Transportation costs are extremely important to us,” he said. “Clearwater Paper in Lewiston is in an extremely competitive industry. … One of our biggest competitors is China. … Idaho is not the lowest-cost place to run a pulp and paper business. … We have limited rail service, limited truck weights, limited candidate hiring pools and a limited fiber supply. However, we do have some great opportunities. Because our production volumes are huge, even small changes make us more competitive.”

Van Vleet said, “Clearwater Paper is a high-volume manufacturer.” It counts its products in “tons of pulp and paperboard and tens of millions of cases of finished tissue products,” he said. If the company could run heavier trucks and reduce its trucking costs, he said, it could make a big difference.

Senators challenge fiscal note on statewide heavy-truck bill…

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, challenged the fiscal note on SB 1117, the bill to allow heavy trucks statewide; the fiscal note says there would be no cost to the state general fund. But Keough said the bill anticipates activity by the state Department of Commerce, which is funded from the state general fund, and from the Idaho Transportation Department. Jim Riley, the bill’s lead backer, said, “The question about the Department of Commerce is very specific, to say ‘using available grant funding,’ so we would not obligate additional general funds.” Plus, he said, “As you all know, the ITD is not funded through the general fund but through dedicated fund. … Whether this creates an additional fiscal impact on them … I’d have to defer to them.”

Keough said, “Under our rules, much more is required, and this fiscal note is inadequate. And I would officially challenge it.” Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, asked for unanimous consent to request a new fiscal note for the bill, but Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene objected. Rice then moved for a new fiscal note and the motion passed with only Nonini objecting. Nonini said the Legislature routinely accepts fiscal notes that don’t acknowledge fiscal impacts outside the general fund, and said the committee shouldn’t “pick on this piece of legislation.”

Committee Chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said the committee can still consider the bill; but if it passes, a new fiscal note would need to be prepared.

Lots of lobbyists turn out for hearing on two bills on extra-heavy trucks…

The audience at the Senate Transportation Committee this afternoon is a sea of lobbyists wearing green badges, as two bills regarding extra-heavy trucks are up for hearings. The first, SB 1064, would remove the expiration date from a pilot program that has allowed the heavier trucks – weighing up to 129,000 pounds, instead of the usual 105,000 pounds – on 35 designated southern Idaho routes, allowing the heavier trucks to run there permanently. The second, SB 1117, would allow use of the heavier trucks to expand statewide, wherever the local highway authority decides they should be allowed, based on road conditions.

Backers, including representatives of Amalgamated Sugar and U.S. Ecology, say the larger, typically triple-trailer trucks, with more axles, put fewer pounds of pressure on roads per square inch; they also save the companies money, because bigger loads mean fewer trucks.

Jim Riley, representing Idaho Forest Group, told the committee, “Properly configured higher capacity trucks can be operated on roads … without compromising public safety.” He said the result would be “more efficient trucking.”

Opponents of the bills include AAA of Idaho, which maintains that the heavier trucks can damage already stressed bridges, and that their longer lengths can endanger motorists on twisting roads like those in North Idaho.

House votes 68-0 to create new enhanced concealed weapons permit

The House has voted unanimously in favor of creating a new, enhanced concealed weapons permit in Idaho that would require a higher level of training than a regular permit. “Right now in the state of Idaho, we have one level of concealed weapons permits,” said Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, the bill’s sponsor. “It is the easier one to get. … Idaho kind of has a reputation for having a very simple way to get a concealed weapon.”

The bill, HB 192, would create an alternative permit that Idahoans could apply for that would require eight hours of class time and a minimum of 98 rounds of live fire training. “This is just getting people more well-trained to be able to handle weapons,” Palmer said. “This is supported by the NRA and the FOP, and I haven’t had any opposition to this bill. I’ve had lots of letters from people throughout the state, throughout other states that appreciate this.” Palmer said the stronger training requirements would allow the permits to be recognized by other states, “up to 40 states currently;” it would be optional for Idahoans, who could apply for the existing or the new, enhanced permit. To become law, the bill still needs Senate passage and the governor’s signature.

Teen driver cell-phone use bill pulled in House, back to committee

HB 155, the bill backed by AAA of Idaho to keep teen drivers-in-training off the phone while they drive during a six-month practice period, has been pulled back to the House Transportation Committee at the request of the committee chairman, Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian. Palmer said a question has come up about a possible problem with the wording of the penalty section in the bill.

House panel weighs in against limiting demonstrations around the Capitol

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Those hoping to speak their mind at the Capitol won't likely be under the thumb of strict new limits that sought to limit where they could exercise First Amendment rights. The House State Affairs Committee Thursday approved a plan to allow gatherings 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at most locations. Following the semi-permanent Occupy Boise vigil of 2011-2012, Department of Administration director Teresa Luna sought to limit protests on the Capitol Mall. But that initial draft drew ire from House and Senate members as potentially unconstitutional. Consequently, Luna had to rewrite her agency's proposal, which she now says won't limit use of loudspeakers and won't confine Capitol gatherings to merely steps on the south side of the building. Under the new rules, camping would still be prohibited.

Senate passes cursive resolution but doesn’t wax eloquent

When the Senate took up HCR 3, the cursive writing resolution, this morning, Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, warned, “I hope you’re not expecting for my debate … to be as eloquent as the good House sponsor from across the rotunda.” Nonini told the Senate he had seven pages of hand-written cursive notes from that House sponsor, Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, regarding the resolution, which calls on the state Board of Education to include cursive writing in Idaho’s Common Core standards for what children should learn in school. “We heard the evidence presented to us that this is good information, it helps with brain development,” Nonini told the Senate.

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, compared learning cursive to learning music, saying it “really promotes thinking in our children.” He said, “It’s one of those things that I have tried to improve. I wasn’t good at it, and my parents asked me to work at it, and it’s something that I’ve continued to work on through the years.”

The Senate approved the resolution on a voice vote.

House Ed votes down amendment to charter funding bill, approves it as-is

Several House Education Committee members expressed concerns about other amendments being offered to HB 206, the charter school facilities funding bill, if it goes to the House’s amending order. “When it’s on general orders, it’s fair game,” said committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

Tamara Baysinger of the state charter school commission said at least five Idaho charter schools wouldn’t qualify for the funds next year under the amendment, and that two have failed in their first year in the past for financial reasons.

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, made a substitute motion to pass the bill as-is, and not amend it. “It sounds like … the only times there were failures … were when finances were an issue,” he said. “So this would actually restrict a little bit. It was finances in those first two years that was causing a problem. … They would need those funds particularly … if we’re to foster this experimentation.”

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, spoke in favor of the original motion and amendment. “I’ve heard all the arguments – I think this is a good compromise, because we are holding these new schools to a good academic standard,” she said. “My concern is about doing no harm to our existing schools. And two years is a pretty short time period. … I don’t think we’re going to cause a lot of harm by asking to see these schools … settle themselves in and prove that they … need to be building school buildings or what not.”

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “We have an awful lot of work that goes into creation of a charter school to begin with.” He said, “Why shouldn’t the money follow the student, even in the first year?” He said when Idaho school districts were first formed they didn’t have to prove they met academic standards. “Why are we going to impose that on them now?” he said. “If you don’t do this, you’re in a sense saying to mom and dad that want their kids to go to charter school, ‘You’re gonna pay double.’”

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, spoke against the amendment, noting that the bill also requires charter schools to pay “authorizer fees” to the entities that charter them; for a school of 200 students, that'd be about $13,000. If the schools have to pay those fees but don’t get the facilities money, he said, they’d come out behind in the deal.

DeMordaunt then called for a voice vote on the substitute motion. “They ayes have it,” he said. So now the bill will go back to the full House as-is.

Amendment proposed for charter school facilities funding bill

Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, has proposed sending HB 206, the charter school facilities funding bill, to the House’s amending order, with a committee amendment attached to limit the funds to charter schools that have been in existence for two years and meet state academic standards. “I know that there are some charter schools that have failed within a year’s time,” Ward-Engelking said. “Some charter schools fail. It’s an experiment in innovation and creativity and they don’t always succeed. Two years gives them a chance to get up and running. They usually, by that time, if they’re successful, they’re growing and they need that additional facilities money. That’s the reason for putting this in, just a little more accountability and transparency, because our public school districts certainly do have to do that when they go to the voter.”

She added, “My original goal in offering an amendment was just to ensure that all students in Idaho would receive facilities money from the state. However, it is not economically feasible at this time to do that.”

Blackfoot school superintendent urges lawmakers to address funding for all schools, not just charters

The House Education Committee is taking back up HB 206 this morning, the charter school facilities funding bill. Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, explained that when the committee passed the bill on Tuesday and a committee member inquired about possibly amending the bill, “Maybe I wasn’t as clear as I could have been,” so he chose to pull the bill back for further consideration.

Mark Gabrylczyk, superintendent of the Snake River School District in Blackfoot, spoke against the bill. “I’m currently in the financial condition that I’m going to have to cut $800,000 from our school budget,” he told the committee. “That is a very significant cut for our school district. Our school district is actually dying on the vine because of lack of funding.” It’s also ranked as the lowest market-value district in Idaho, he said; now, it’s relying on a tax levy bid to avoid the cut. “If I don’t pass my levy, we will have major layoffs in our school district. Activities will be cut. And I would hope that this body would start working on a funding mechanism that works for all of our schools, including charter schools,” Gabrylczyk told lawmakers.

“As you consider 206, I would like you to even the playing field,” he told the committee. “I don’t believe that we should be giving an extra stipend to charter schools to help them with the levy and bond issues that they have, because I have a levy myself. … In addition, if you decide to go with the stipend to the charter schools, I would ask you to go ahead and let them levy and bond just like I do.”

He said, “Charter schools are about choice. … If it is about choice for patrons, we need to make a choice for all of our community on whether or not I do levy or bond for charter schools or for the public school system.”

Idaho tops in number of horses per capita

Little-known fact: “Our state has the highest per-capita horse population to people of any place in the world.” That’s according to Ed McMillis of the Idaho Horse Council, who was among those testifying in favor of HB 220 in the House State Affairs Committee this morning. The bill permits pari-mutuel betting on “historical horse races,” a type of simulcast betting that’s becoming popular nationally that involves replays of old but unidentified races. McMillis and others from the horse industry in Idaho told lawmakers the move could help save an industry that’s struggling financially; he said Idaho’s equine industry is a $1.2 billion industry.

The committee backed the bill and sent it to the full House for debate. It would allow spectators at tracks in Boise, Idaho Falls and Coeur d'Alene to wager on unidentified races run in the past, via terminals loaded with tens of thousands of historical races.

Dems blame ‘failed GOP policies’ for state’s top ranking for minimum-wage workers

Larry Kenck, the new chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party, has issued a statement blaming “years of failed GOP policies” for Idaho’s ranking as the state with the highest percentage of workers earning the minimum wage. “Idaho has suffered from decades of GOP policies that do very little to encourage high-paying businesses to relocate to Idaho or to stay in Idaho,” Kenck declared; you can read his full statement here.

House, Senate chambers reopen to visitors

Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that the House and Senate chambers will return to normal visiting hours today, after security video of an armed man in the House chamber prompted restrictions earlier. “I think it’s just time,” House Speaker Scott Bedke told Davlin. After the incident, in which the man rifled through House members’ desks and trash bins and photographed documents with his phone during a tour, visitors were barred from the chambers after 6 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends. You can read Davlin’s full report here.

Liquor division budget clears JFAC, 17-2

Legislative budget writers set a budget for the state Liquor Division this morning that’s virtually identical to Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation; it reflects a 1.2 percent increase in funding, but the division gets no state general tax funds. Proposals from the division approved in the budget include relocating and expanding five existing state liquor stores, in Idaho Falls, Chubbuck, Kuna, Burley and Weiser; expanding hours to include Sunday hours or evenings until 9:30 at six stores, including four in Boise and two in North Idaho, at Stateline and Kellogg; covering costs for battery backups for the point-of-sale systems and computers in all state stores, allowing tills to continue to function in case of power outages; and $15,000 to cover the cost of developing a new website.

Rep George Eskridge, R-Dover, who in the past has objected to expanding evening hours at state liquor stores, said, “The information I’m getting is that has been a positive impact.” Eskridge also noted the bump in sales North Idaho stores have received as neighboring Washington privatized its state liquor sales and prices there shot up. “That’s substantially increased our sales on our side of the border. So I want to express my appreciation to Washington state,” Eskridge said.

Rep. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, told the joint committee, “I like to drink and I enjoy a drink once or twice. As far as the budget, I just want to say that the department’s mission is to control this and also to … promote temperance. … Does this really fit with their mission, of relocating and growing the size of the stores, does it with increasing their hours of operation, with the website costing $15,000 for party planning and recipes? … I am certainly not against drinking, I enjoy a drink or two. But I just don’t think that goes with their mission, and I don’t think government should be involved in this type of business, so I’m going to vote against this.”

The budget then was approved on a 17-2 vote in JFAC, with just Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, joining Nuxoll in opposing it.

A sign that Labrador won’t challenge Otter after all?

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports today that 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador had been scheduled to appear at two eastern Idaho county GOP “Lincoln Day” events last weekend, but instead canceled. That suggests he may be backing off from the idea of challenging Gov. Butch Otter in 2014; Labrador has said he's mulling that but hasn't decided.

“If he was trying to do everything he could to challenge Gov. Butch Otter in the May 2014 primary, he would have been on the stump rather than with his family in Eagle,” Popkey writes; the eastern Idaho GOP events offered a chance for exposure in the 2nd Congressional District, where Labrador isn't as well known as in his own 1st District. “Coupled with Labrador's co-hosting of a fundraiser for Otter's re-election campaign Monday in Washington, D.C., the cancellations signal that he might be shying from the risk of facing a well-funded, well-liked governor who has been in statewide or congressional office continuously since 1987,” Popkey writes; you can read his full report here.
  

Keeping teen drivers-in-training off the phone…

Teens who are learning to drive would be banned from talking on cell phones while they drive during the six-month driving practice period prescribed under Idaho’s graduated drivers license law, under a bill that cleared the House Transportation Committee yesterday on a 9-7 vote; the measure, HB 155, now heads to the full House. AAA of Idaho, which backed the bill, conducted a statewide poll in November that found 88 percent of Idaho voters backed banning the use of cell phones by drivers 18 and younger. Under the measure, teen drivers-in-training who violate the ban would have to repeat their six-month practice period before they could qualify for an unrestricted driver’s license. You can read AAA’s full news release here about the measure.

Otter tells Congress state could improve on federal forest management

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter says giving Idaho management control of some federal land in the state would make forests healthier and potentially reduce the size and intensity of wildfires. Otter testified Tuesday in Washington D.C., urging a House subcommittee to create a pilot project giving the state control over 2 million of the more than 20 million acres of national forest in Idaho. Otter said the land would be managed by a trust board focused on increasing revenue and improving management. The hearing hosted by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. The Idaho Statesman reports (http://bit.ly/Y13KNj ) the committee is looking at forest trust programs in 22 states. Republican Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah argued that it's time for a paradigm shift for national forests.

Bill streamlines, localizes behavioral health services offered through H&W

The Senate Health & Welfare Committee has endorsed legislation designed to localize and streamline behavioral health services offered through the state Department of Health & Welfare, reports Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin, who noted that committee Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, called the measure “a wonderful bill.” SB 1114 now moves to the full Senate for debate. Ross Edmunds, administrator for the Division of Behavioral Health, told the committee the idea behind the bill is to localize control of the services as much as possible; the measure is slightly changed from an earlier version that was introduced this year. You can read Davlin’s full report here.

Idaho ranks No. 1 for minimum-wage jobs

Idaho had the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers in the nation in 2012, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. The department announced today that new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 31,000 of Idaho’s 404,000 hourly workers – 7.7 percent - were paid the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or less, last year. That’s a big jump from 2011, when 12,000, or 5 percent of hourly workers, made minimum wage; that ranked 30thin the nation. Idaho’s 2012 percentage of 7.7 percent compares to a national average of just 4.7 percent; the percentage of workers making minimum wage or less was dropping nationally, while it rose in Idaho. You can read the department’s full news release here.

House Ed chairman pulls charter facilities bill back on procedural issue

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, just asked for and received unanimous consent from the House to return HB 206, the charter school facilities funding bill, to the House Education Committee. “There were some procedural questions on this bill in committee,” DeMordaunt told the House. “Just to make sure that there are not any issues in regards to that, I would request that it be returned to committee so that those procedural processes could be rectified.”

The bill was voted out of the committee yesterday and had just been filed for the 2nd Reading Calendar in the House.

Senator wants to amend state Constitution to bring all adults into state militia

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers fearful the U.S. Supreme Court might one day reverse itself on the issue of individual gun rights aim to change the Idaho Constitution's definition of a militia to include all the state's adults. That way, argued Sen. Jim Rice of Caldwell Wednesday in the Senate State Affairs Committee, the federal government could never swoop in and disarm residents. Rice wants to put the amendment before voters in the November 2014 election, calling it an important “backstop” to existing protections of individual gun rights. For now, however, he just wants to get people talking about the issue. He says it's surpassed all other matters before the 2013 Idaho Legislature — including the insurance exchange and proposed personal property tax repeal — based on opinions of people who have contacted him.

Federal land transfer issue may go to interim committee

Legislation seeking to transfer federal lands into state ownership likely won't be ready this year, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence reports; he reports that House Resources Chairman Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, now is looking to an interim legislative committee to draft such a bill. Click below for Spence's full report, via the AP.

House votes 40-28 to extend emergency surcharge on offenders to fund courts

The House has voted 40-28 in favor of HB 123, the bill from the state’s court system to remove the “sunset,” or expiration date, from the emergency surcharge that was added to infraction, misdemeanor and felony offenses in 2010 to keep courts operating despite the state’s budget crunch. The surcharge is expected to raise $4.1 million of the courts’ funding next year; they are requesting that it continue, rather than that the state replace that money from its general tax funds. The bill now moves to the Senate side. 

Caldwell Night Rodeo liquor license bill passes Senate, 27-8

SB 1074, the bill to allow a special liquor license for the Caldwell Night Rodeo, has passed the Senate on a 27-8 vote. It expands a 1984 law that crafted a special liquor license for the Lewiston Roundup, by adjusting the acreage and city-limits rules so that it matches the Caldwell event as well. “What it does is make sure that they are in compliance always with liquor laws, and not at the mercy of a caterer,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said, “Literally, the difference is whether there will be a profit that goes to a caterer, or whether all of the money will end up being used for charitable purposes in Caldwell and in Canyon County. That’s what we’re voting on. That’s the effect of this bill. It’s not whether we’ll start having alcohol, because we’ll continue to have alcohol at the CNR. All the effect of the bill is where the money goes, and so I would urge you to support this bill.” The measure now heads to the House side.

Sixth-grader wins over lawmakers with her pitch for offical state amphibian

The House State Affairs Committee was bowled over today by one of the most persuasive pitches for a bill so far this legislative session – and it came from a 12-year-old. “Idaho is home to many amazing amphibians,” sixth-grader Ilah Hickman told the committee. “One should be selected to represent our great state.” She proposed the Idaho giant salamander as Idaho’s state amphibian. “It bears the name of Idaho, and I think that the skin on it looks like the topographical map of our Bitterroot mountain range,” Ilah told the committee. “A lot of states have reptiles and amphibians, but Idaho doesn’t,” she noted. “Many have frogs and newts and salamanders.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

She’s been working on the proposal since she learned about state symbols in the 4th grade, and she got a class assignment  to write a mock letter creating a new state symbol. Ilah decided to do a real one, and has been working diligently on that ever since. Last year, she worked with Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, but wasn’t able to get her bill printed. This year, Rep. Janie Ward Engelking, D-Boise, brought Ilah to the committee herself to make the pitch. “I knew she could do it,” said Ward-Engelking, who taught school for 33 years. “She didn’t need me.”

Ilah told the committee, “If you’re going to vote against this proposal, I’m taking suggestions of what I can do to get more support.” She added, “I’ve polled my class and 26 out of 32 said that they would really like it.” Asked by lawmakers why some opposed it, Ilah explained they were just busy. “They were working on their homework when I asked.”

Existing Idaho state symbols include the state flower, the syringa; the state fruit, the huckleberry; and the state insect, the monarch butterfly. Ilah said Idaho has so many great lakes and ponds that it should recognize a state amphibian too. The committee voted unanimously, and enthusiastically, to introduce the bill. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told Ilah that clears the way for a full hearing. “Maybe members of your class would like to come and testify,” he said.

Lori Hickman, Ilah’s mom, said afterward that Ilah came home with the homework assignment two years ago and announced that she planned to make it into a real state symbol proposal. “She had done all this research,” her mom marveled. The young woman told the committee that last summer, the Idaho Conservation League contacted her and interviewed her about her proposal, and then decided to support it.

Nonini brings back private-school scholarship tax credit bill

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, is proposing a new version of his unsuccessful bill from last year to grant a tax credit for donations to scholarships for Idaho students to attend to private schools, saying the move will save money by having fewer students enroll in Idaho public schools. “This particular piece of legislation has a projected state savings of $3.3 million, and a projected local savings of $2.49 million, for a total overall savings of $5.8 million dollars,” Nonini told the House Rev & Tax Committee this morning.

The committee voted to introduce the bill, with Democratic Reps. Grant Burgoyne and Mat Erpelding dissenting. Nonini’s bill would grant tax credits of up to $10 million a year to individuals or corporations.

More tight agency budgets set…

More tight state agency budgets were set this morning for the department of Juvenile Corrections and the Idaho State Police. Approved on unanimous votes in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee,, the budgets generally match Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendations. For juvenile corrections, legislative budget writers approved the governor’s plan to add seven direct care staffers at the St. Anthony juvenile lockup, half of the department’s request; the department’s budget for next year would show a 2 percent increase in state general funds. For ISP, due to shifts between various funds from which the state’s been borrowing during its years of budget cuts, there’s a 26.5 percent boost in state general funds, but a cut in other funds, for a total decline of 0.9 percent in overall funding.

The ISP budget pays back the “Project Choice” fund that comes from a $3 surcharge on vehicle registration fees and was supposed to fund a career ladder and salary increases for state troopers, but doesn’t authorize any boosts along those lines next year. ISP can use any salary savings in its budget for raises, said JFAC Vice Chair Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. “We’re treating ‘em just like any other agency.” The ISP budget does cover replacement costs for 76 vehicles, after cutbacks in recent years have left some state police vehicles on the road with more than 100,000 miles on them.

Budgets cover raises for governor, state legislators

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set budgets this morning for the governor’s office and the legislative branch, and due to statutory requirements, both of those include salary boosts for elected officials. Specifically, the governor’s salary was required by law to rise from $115,348 to $117,000 on Jan. 1, 2013, and to rise another 1.7 percent on Jan. 1, 2014 to $119,000. The approved budget covers that increase. For state legislators, a citizens committee voted in June to recommend a 2 percent raise, from $16,116 a year to $16,438. That raise took effect in December, and became permanent when the Legislature hadn’t acted to reject it by the 25thday of this year’s legislative session; today is the 52nd day.

The cost of the lawmakers’ base pay increase is $322 per legislator, or $33,810 total. It’s the first raise state lawmakers have gotten since 2007; in 2009, they rejected the citizens committee recommendation for a 5 percent raise. Two years ago, the panel didn’t recommend raises for lawmakers. This year, committee members said the 2 percent boost was warranted; it followed lawmakers’ decision last year to grant 2 percent raises to state employees, their first in four years. For next year, however, Gov. Butch Otter hasn’t recommended funding raises for state employees; JFAC has called on state agencies to find salary savings in their existing budgets to give workers boosts if possible.

The budget that JFAC approved for the Legislature this morning calls for a general-fund transfer of $6.15 million for next year, an increase of 5.2 percent or $303,000 over this year. That's enough to cover the raises and benefit cost increases. It's still 9 percent below the statutorily authorized level for funding the Legislature; it’s up from a 13 percent cut lawmakers imposed several years back.

Spectator hit by foul ball at Boise Hawks game can sue, Idaho Supreme Court says

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A man who lost an eye after being hit by a foul ball at a baseball game can seek damages from a minor league team in Idaho. The Idaho Supreme Court decided not to impose the “Baseball Rule” of liability in the lawsuit brought by Bud Rountree, instead choosing to let a jury decide if watching baseball is an inherently dangerous activity done at the spectator's own risk. Rountree was struck by a ball while watching the Boise Hawks, a Chicago Cubs farm team. Loyola Law Sports Institute Director Daniel Lazaroff says the ruling was a rare strikeout for the Baseball Rule, which has been adopted by courts in Massachusetts, New York, Michigan and elsewhere. Lazaroff says the Idaho court made the right call in finding the Legislature should be the body to decide if stadium owners deserve special legal protections.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Chairman’s bill killed by his committee

Well, that was a little weird. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, proposed legislation to amend an existing law that requires those under 18 to prove they’re attending school, or have graduated, or are in job training or are being home-schooled, in order to get a driver’s license; his bill added that they’d have to prove “satisfactory academic progress.” Goedde’s committee killed the bill, SB 1087, on a 4-5 vote. Several committee members said they didn’t feel that strongly about it, but saw potential problems with the bill, including the fact that no definition was given for “satisfactory academic progress.” Goedde said he wanted to leave that up to local school districts to define.

After the vote, he said he only drafted the bill because it was suggested by a driver’s training instructor at a “listening session” the committee held earlier this year. “It was just one more enticement for students to stay in school,” he said.

Open-negotiations bill approved in rare moment of unanimity on ed issues

There was a rare moment of unanimity on education issues this afternoon, as the Idaho Education Association and the Idaho School Boards Association joined to back SB 1098, legislation to reinstate a provision of the voter-rejected Proposition 1 requiring that all school district-teacher negotiations take place in public. “SB 1098 comes from many meetings between the various parties, the stakeholders, and the education chairmen,” Robin Nettinga, executive director of the IEA, told the Senate Education Committee. Karen Echeverria, executive director of the ISBA, told the committee, “Like the IEA, we agree that negotiations … should be held in public where any patron can attend.” The bill was approved unanimously by the committee, and sent to the full Senate.

Senate panel OK’s special license plate designed to recognize volunteer EMTs, not raise funds

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll proposed a different kind of specialty license plate bill today – one not designed to raise money for a particular program or cause, but instead to provide recognition and encouragement to Idaho’s volunteer Emergency Medical Services providers. Half of Idaho’s EMS providers are volunteers, Nuxoll told the Senate Transportation Committee, and the number of volunteers has dropped from 2,688 in 2002 to 2,135 in 2012. At meetings around the state, recognition in their communities  - like something they could put on their cars – was something volunteer EMS workers suggested as a spur for recruiting and retention.

“We have these volunteers, and we need to help support them,” Nuxoll said. “I know the (specialty) license plates are controversial. They are to me, too. But if there’s ever a good cause, this is one time.”

Nuxoll’s bill was backed by Bill Spencer, who’s been with Syringa Hospital Ambulance in Grangeville for 34 years. Spencer said, “We’re finding it more and more difficult in rural EMS … to recruit and retain EMS people.” He said volunteers will appreciate both the recognition they get by running the special plate, and the ability to signal authorities quickly as to who they are when they arrive at an accident scene. “All of those things will definitely get us on the right track and help us promote rural EMS and volunteerism throughout rural Idaho,” he said.

People would have to prove they’re volunteer EMS workers, and prove it again each time they renew, to get the special plate; they’d pay a one-time fee of $13 above registration fees to cover the cost of the plate, but wouldn’t have to pay that fee again with renewals. The Emergency Medical Services Fund would cover the $3,000 programming cost at ITD to set up the new plate.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, moved to kill the bill, saying, “Every single one of the license plate bills that we have are for good causes, and the list is growing longer and longer. I’ve made a commitment myself that I would never vote for another license plate bill, and I am simply honoring my commitment to do that.” But his motion failed, with just Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, joining him in backing it. The committee then approved the bill, SB 1082, sending it to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

Other special Idaho license plates tout everything from Corvette ownership to mountain biking to the Special Olympics. Earlier today, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of SB 1083, a bill from Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, saying that people who buy specialty plates that then are discontinued for lack of adequate sales will be allowed to keep them for up to seven years. Annual fees they pay after the plate program is discontinued would go into the state highway account; that bill now moves to the House.

Senate backs repeal of early retirement incentive for teachers

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill ending a retirement incentives program for teachers has passed in the Idaho Senate. The measure approved on a 29-6 vote Tuesday would eliminate early retirement benefits for teachers nearing the end of their career. That program was dumped under the 2011 “Students Come First” laws, but reinstated when voters repealed those measures in November. Boise Republican Sen. Cliff Bayer said the program is intended to save the state money, but data shows many teachers retire early regardless of the extra benefits. Boise Democrat Sen. Branden Durst countered with competing research showing that replacing veteran, high salaried teachers with cheaper recent college graduates has saved the state millions of dollars in the last decade. The proposal now moves to the House for debate.

The six “no” votes came from Democratic Sens. Les Bock, Cherie Buckner-Webb, Durst, Michelle Stennett, and Eliot Werk; and GOP Sen. Fred Martin.
  

Senate passes ‘Health Care Sharing Ministries’ bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Nonprofit religious organizations that help members share medical costs are closer to being exempted from Idaho insurance laws. The Senate voted Tuesday 34-1 to back SB 1100, removing Health Care Sharing Ministries from the state's definition of an insurance company. The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll of Grangeville, fears what she calls overzealous insurance regulators who try to subject these ministries to the same requirements as insurers, essentially putting them out of business. About 20 other states have already taken similar steps to remove such ministries from regulatory oversight. These groups amount to cost-sharing agreements between members, to care for each other according to principles found in the Bible. GOP Sen. Patti Anne Lodge compared the spirit fostered by these groups to old-time barnraisings. The bill now heads to the House.

House approves Nez Perce liquor license bill

The House has voted 51-19 – with no debate – to pass HB 159, the bill to allow the Nez Perce Tribe to get a special liquor license for its new convention center. The measure now moves to the Senate side for consideration.

Charter school facilities funding bill clears House Ed on party-line vote

A party-line vote in the House Education Committee today sent HB 206, the charter school facilities funding bill, to the full House today with a recommendation that it “do pass.” The committee’s three minority Democrats voted against the bill, after a long hearing that saw several charter school heads plead their case for more funding, while others, including the state’s teachers union, objected to shifting the funds from Idaho’s regular public schools.

Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, said the measure was developed by a group that’s been meeting since June, and included representatives of school boards, school administrators, the state charter school commission, a network of charter school families, and the state Department of Education.  Hancock explained the complex bill to the committee, which would amend Idaho’s public school funding distribution formula to take money off the top for two items: A per-student allocation to charter schools that have school buildings, and a reimbursement to virtual charter schools for 50 percent of their actual building costs. Hancock said those likely won’t be high, since they’re mainly just for offices or testing centers; those schools rely on students learning at home by use of school-provided computers and Internet connections. Of Idaho's 18,152 charter school students, more than 5,000 are in those virtual schools. The state has 266,831 students in regular, non-charter public schools.

The per-student allocation to charter schools would come to a total of $1.4 million next year, and then would rise to $2.1 million the following year. After that, it would rise in 10 percent increments whenever the state’s school budget rose by 3 percent, or decrease if the school budget decreases. For regular public schools, Idaho now requires school districts to ask local voters to raise their property taxes to fund buildings, though approved bond levies can qualify for some limited state matching funds. Charter schools don’t have that taxing authority.

The bill also requires charter schools to pay an “authorizer fee” to the entity that charters them; a separate bill also introduced in the same committee this morning would expand those who could authorize charters from the current state charter commission and local school districts, to also include public or private universities and non-profit corporations.

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said, “This obviously has a cost, and it’s going to come out of the existing appropriation or we appropriate more funds.” Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, moved to approve the bill, saying Idaho’s charter schools are in a wide range of facilities, from “gleaming” buildings with hardwood trim to “a bunch of trailer houses jacked up on cinder blocks.”  He said that raises concerns about uniformity.

Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said, “This is a real dilemma for me, because I support charter schools, but I know the state has a real responsibility to fund schools. This facilities money does not go through a voting process. … I want charter school students funded adequately so they have good facilities, and I want public school students funded. And I don’t see this doing it for both groups, and that’s bothering me.” Engelking said she’d like to see the per-student funding go to all schools, not just charter schools, and asked the committee chairman, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, if she could offer an amendment. “We cannot amend in this body,” he responded. “You certainly could bring other legislation. … Once it is introduced, it cannot be amended in this committee.”

Clow said one upside to the legislation might be that parents of charter school children would be more likely to support their local school districts' bonds or levies, whereas now they get nothing from those. “I would like to see more funding for education as well,” he said. “I don’t think we can go to the extent that Rep. Ward-Engelking is suggesting, but this is a move in the right direction and I support it.”

Lawmakers send governor bill to add 3 more state district judges

The Senate has voted unanimously, 35-0, to approve House-passed legislation to add three more district judges to the state court system, sending HB 29 to the governor’s desk. “This bill is a top priority of the court,” Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, told the Senate. “It is a bill that will greatly benefit the citizens of Idaho. It is one that will also help us fill a continual obligation that we share with the 3rdbranch of government, and that obligation is to provide access to justice for every person through timely, fair and impartial resolution of cases.”

The three new judges, with chambers in Canyon, Ada and Jefferson counties, would start work on Oct. 1, 2013. Lodge said Idaho has 42 district judges, and has added only three since 2000, a 7 percent increase, though the state’s population grew by more than 23 percent since then. “The volume and complexity of cases has increased at least as much,” she said.

Lodge said the Idaho court system has deferred requests for additional judges for the past five years due to the state’s budget crunch, leaving the courts to rely on senior judges to help keep up with the caseload. Now, she said, it’s time to “fulfill the constitutional obligation.” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “The need is real.”

Senate honors Kristin Armstrong

The Senate this morning is honoring Olympic cyclist Kristin Armstrong, approving HCR 4, a resolution that earlier passed the House. “It’s a real honor to present HCR 4 for debate this morning honoring Boise’s own Kristin Armstrong,” said Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise. “We’re commending her not only for her athletic accomplishments … but for her tenacity, spirit, superior attitude, work ethic, focus, sportsmanship and exemplary conduct that have served as an inspiration to all Idahoans and to all Americans.”

Armstrong, the oldest rider to ever win an Olympic time trial gold medal and a two-time gold medalist, has brought “immense honor and pride to Idaho,” Werk said. He called her “a great Idahoan and a great American.” The Senate approved the resolution with a loud vote of approval; after the vote, Armstrong and her husband Joe, who were in the gallery, were welcomed with an ovation.

JFAC backs gov on 5 new WWAMI seats for rural areas, also adds small boost to residency programs

In the budget for health education programs, JFAC has gone along with the governor’s recommendation to add five new first-year medical seats in the WWAMI TRUST, or Targeted Rural and Underserved Track, program, and also approved two other tiny boosts to medical education programs: A $68,400 increase to the family medical residency program, and a $10,000 increase for the psychiatry residency program, which has jumped from four to 11 students.  Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician who graduated from the WWAMI program, said the new seats will connect the newly trained doctors to rural areas in Idaho, but the boost to the residency programs also is key. “The best way to ensure medial students returning to a community is residency training,” he said. “In my opinion, this is a great investment for the state of Idaho.”

The motion was approved in the joint committee on a 12-8 vote; it reflects a 4.3 percent increase in state general funds for health education programs, while the governor had recommended 3.6 percent.

Divided budget committee OKs small boost for employment programs for disabled

A divided Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning approved a $170,000 boost to the Community Supported Employment program in the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which includes sheltered workshops and other employment services for people with severe disabilities; the program has been cut by more than half a million dollars since 2008. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I think it’s time that we put just a teeny bit back into this program.”

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, offered a substitute motion to set the budget at the governor’s recommended level, just maintaining its base and not adding the boost. “This is a tough budget,” he said. “My understanding is that we don't have that money.”

Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said lawmakers sometimes argue more about tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in budgets than tens of millions, but “sometimes these tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands have a huge impact.” He said, “I think it’s very important for these budgets to be properly scrutinized … but I think it’s also important to keep these things in perspective in the grand budgeting arena.” He said he’d support Mortimer’s motion, with the funding boost.

The program currently has more than 360 people on its waiting list, Mortimer said, with some waiting for up to three years to get in. Of the $170,000 budget boost, $64,000 would go to reduce the waiting list, $91,000 would provide a 3 percent increase in provider payments, the first in four years, and $15,000 would go to indirect costs. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that an array of service providers aren’t getting rate increases in the agency budgets the joint committee is setting this year, nor is funding being provided for state employee raises. “I understand the argument for increasing capacity and reducing the client (waiting) list,” he said. “That would be easier for me to swallow than spending money for a 3 percent increase, given the nature of this year’s budget and everything else that’s going on,” he said.

Thompson’s motion was defeated on a 7-13 vote, with just Sens. Cameron and Keough and Reps. Bell, Eskridge, Thompson, Gibbs and Miller supporting it; Mortimer’s then passed on a 19-1 vote.

Fed judge to consider whether then-Sen. Craig was on official business during ‘07 airport restroom arrest

The question of whether then-Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was on official business when he was arrested in a Minneapolis airport men's room in 2007 will be taken up by a federal judge this week, McClatchy Newspapers reporter Michael Doyle reports, in a case with far-reaching implications about how campaign dollars can be spent. Craig spent more than $216,000 in campaign funds to pay attorneys, after being charged with disorderly conduct; his attorneys insist he was on official business and so could tap his campaign treasury. Click below for Doyle's full report, via McClathy and the AP.

Pro-cursive resolution clears Senate Ed, heads to full Senate

HCR 3, the resolution urging the State Board of Education to include cursive writing when it enacts the Common Core standards for what Idaho students should learn in school, has cleared the Senate Education Committee; it earlier passed the House. Those national standards don’t include cursive, but states can choose to add it, and several have. The Senate committee approved the measure on a unanimous voice vote, after hearing several people testify in favor of it. The resolution now moves to the full Senate.

House panel kills felony bill for attacks on health care workers, on 8-8 tie vote

Kootenai Medical Center says its workers are being violently assaulted more and more frequently - to the point that it wants to make any attack on a health care worker in Idaho a felony.  “We’ve seen an increasing number of individuals who come in through the emergency room who are exhibiting very violent behavior,” David Lehman, lobbyist for KMC, told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. Many are seeking prescription drugs.

But legislation to make any assault or battery against an Idaho health care worker a felony carrying a 25-year prison term was rejected on a tied vote by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday.  “There are tools on the books – I’m not convinced they’re being used,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise. Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I’m concerned about the broad brush here.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, sponsor of HB 126, was disappointed. “I guess we’ll try and bring it back again next year,” he said. Under current law, such attacks are misdemeanors carrying up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. But Luker noted that the worst attacks could be charged as aggravated assaults, which are felonies with up to five years in prison.

Said Luker, “At some point we need to use the tools we have first.” The bill initially won the committee’s approval on a 9-7 vote, but then Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, changed his vote from yes to no, killing the bill on an 8-8 tie. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Snow hits, Bogus Basin extends season pass sale thru Thursday…

It’s snowing again, and Bogus Basin has extended its season pass sale through Thursday at the $229 price.  The week-long sale that had been scheduled to end last night at midnight saw a dramatic change once snow hit the mountain late last week, general manager Alan Moore reports; last Monday, pass sales were about half of normal, but as the week progressed and 9 inches of new snow fell, that turned around to where sales were above normal on the sale’s final day. “As we all know, snow changes everything for Bogus,” Moore said. “We just want to make sure that no one is left out that would have bought a pass with the changed conditions.” The low-priced season passes allow skiers to ski right away, plus all through next season; it only takes five trips to the mountain to break even on buying a pass. Click below for Bogus’ full announcement.

Bill says shepherds who leave post could be charged with a crime

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Sheepherders who abandon their animals on the open range could soon be guilty of a misdemeanor, according to a livestock-industry proposal that seeks to enlist the state to help enforce conditions of employment. The Senate State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce the bill Monday seeking to charge sheepherders with a misdemeanor for going on the lam. Aiding or abetting somebody leaving their sheep would also be a crime. Idaho Wool Growers Association director Stan Boyd says foreign workers who leave sheep unattended on the open range have become a big problem. Even so, some lawmakers were skeptical. Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk of Boise asked Boyd if he knew of any other job in Idaho where workers could be charged with a crime just for quitting. Boyd didn't know of any.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller, headlined “Bill would punish shepherds who go on the lam.”

Senate backs ‘primacy’ declaration on endangered, threatened species

The Senate has voted 30-4 in favor of SB 1061 declaring that the state asserts primacy over the management of its fish and wildlife and that it’s against state policy for any threatened or endangered species to be introduced or reintroduced into the state without the state’s approval. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, spoke against the measure, saying, “We already have this language in statute.” She said she requested and received an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion that led her to believe the bill’s fiscal note, saying it would incur no cost for the state, was wrong. “By doing this we may put ourselves at risk in a lawsuit,” Stennett said. “It is not responsible for us to set ourselves up for litigation … out of taxpayers’ dollars.” Only four Democrats opposed the bill, however; in addition to Stennett, they were Sens. Bock, Buckner-Webb, and Werk.

Senate takes time out for both parties to caucus after marijuana votes

After its vote on the two anti-marijuana resolutions, the Senate went at ease and members milled around for some time; then the Senate reconvened and immediately went at ease again for a majority party caucus. GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said the topic was the two just-voted-on marijuana resolutions. “What we wanted to do was make sure everyone understood the two different bills,” he said, “because to the casual observer, it looked like we disagreed with ourselves.” Fulcher said GOP leaders wanted to stress that the majority party opposes legalization of marijuana, which was reflected in its strong vote in favor of SCR 112; its objections to the second measure, SJM 101, centered on states’ rights, not marijuana. That second measure was killed on a 13-21 vote.

Senate Democrats also went into caucus, just for “general discussion.” Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the minority had planned a caucus discussion today anyway, and just took advantage of the time the majority was in caucus to hold closed-door discussions of its own.

Bipartisan move to boost library Internet services funding falls short in JFAC

A bipartisan group of JFAC members tried to add in $110,400 to the Commission for Libraries budget for next year to fund a quarter of its requested increase to expand Internet access services in libraries across the state, but the move fell short on a 7-13 vote. The libraries had requested a $445,400 boost to the program next year, on top of its $900,000 in base funding; Gov. Butch Otter didn’t recommend any increased funding.

“I think what we have is a demonstrated need for increased capacity for the services provided,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I saw first-hand the value of this … program, and it’s extremely valuable. … I would highly recommend supporting the additional $110,000.” JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “It is a good program.” But he didn’t join the group voting for the extra state general funds. Those supporting the motion were Sens. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, and Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello; and Reps. Thompson, Ringo, Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, and Phylis King, D-Boise, who made the motion.

The Commission for Libraries reports that 41 percent of Idaho’s rural population lacks broadband service at home, ranking Idaho 43rd among the 50 states and making libraries a critical source of Internet access for those residents. Among the big uses residents make of their local library Internet services are job-hunting and homework help.

Bill would make Idaho cops guilty of a crime if they confiscate gun under fed law

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho law enforcement officers who help the federal government confiscate newly-banned firearms or ammunition would be guilty of a crime. That's according to a measure introduced Monday in the House State Affairs Committee seeking to interfere with attempts by President Obama and Congress to ban semiautomatic weapons or other firearms following the massacre of Connecticut elementary school students. Government employees in Idaho who help enforce new federal firearms restrictions or registration requirements would be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable with jail and a $1,000 fine. Rep. Mark Patterson of Boise said he seeks to ensure Idaho residents' “inalienable God-given rights to defend themselves” are forever protected. A second bill, also introduced Monday, strengthens existing Idaho law that aims to ban federal regulation of Idaho-made weapons that never leave the state.

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

How they voted…

Here’s how Idaho senators voted on SJM 101, the memorial to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice calling for the federal government to enforce federal drug laws in all states – including those that have voted to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. The measure was defeated on a 13-21 vote; one senator, Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, was absent.

Voting yes: Sens. Bair, Brackett, Cameron, Davis, Fulcher, Guthrie, Heider, Hill, Lakey, Lodge, Martin, Tippets and Winder.

Voting no: Sens. Bayer, Bock, Buckner-Webb, Durst, Hagedorn, Johnson, Keough, Lacey, McKenzie, Mortimer, Nonini, Nuxoll, Patrick, Pearce, Rice, Schmidt, Siddoway, Stennett, Thayn, Vick and Werk.

During the roll call, Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, rose to explain his vote. “The hypocrisy and inconsistency in this bill we’re considering right now just astounds me,” he said.

Senate defeats measure calling for fed crackdown against pot in other states

The second anti-marijuana resolution, calling on the feds to crack down and enforce federal drug laws in states that have moved to decriminalize marijuana, has been defeated in the Senate on a 13-21 vote; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“This is a different issue, obviously, than the first one,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, the measure’s sponsor. “There is an appropriate place for the federal government, and it is to enforce interstate trafficking, it is to protect those areas that say they don’t want to have illegal drugs available in those areas, to be protected from others that would come across the state line to do that.” He said, “Idaho cannot go into any other state and enforce Idaho law there. We are looking to the federal government.”

Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, said, “We have to be careful what we ask for. I think we’re showing a great lack of consistency with this joint memorial. Much of our time last Thursdays was spent talking about how we didn’t want the federal government to be involved in our state rights. Now we’re asking big brother to be involved in the other states.”

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said he’s “absolutely opposed to marijuana use in every sense,” but also backs states’ rights. “For us to ask the federal government to destroy someone else’s state’s rights, I’ll have to disagree with it,” he said.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said, “What we are asking the federal government to do by this is to impose its federal will on a sister state.” He said Idaho wouldn’t like it if it took a stand against the feds, and another state called on the federal government to come into Idaho and crack down.

Senate passes anti-marijuana resolution on 29-5 vote

The Senate has voted 29-5 in favor of SCR 112, the resolution stating that it’s the policy of the Legislature that Idaho should never legalize marijuana, for any purpose. “If you legalize marijuana, then will the next argument be that our jails are full of people who distribute cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines?” asked Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, the measure’s sponsor. “How far do you lower the bar? … I think we do want to protect our kids, we want to protect our citizens.”

The only “no” votes came from five Democrats, Sens. Durst, Stennett, Werk, Buckner-Webb, and Schmidt. Two GOP senators, Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, initially voted no, then changed their votes to yes. Cameron said he misunderstood the vote; Nonini didn’t explain.

Senate debate: ‘It’s not something that’s safe for our youth or adults’

In the Senate debate on SCR 112, the anti-marijuana resolution:

Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said this is an issue with a generational divide, and his generation backs loosening laws against marijuana. “Is this the right fight to pick?” he asked. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, questioned how a war on drugs relates to the proper role of government. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said, “WE have a kind of an ax kind of approach here, when we could have a more surgical approach.”

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said, “Suddenly we’re supposed to say, well, everybody’s doing it so it must be OK, and we’re supposed to ignore some of the other problems, like increased mental illness problems, both temporary and long-term. We’re supposed to ignore studies that show that it increases the risk of cancer. … It’s a problem. It’s not something that’s safe for our youth or adults.”

Senate begins debate on anti-marijuana resolutions…

The Senate has begun debate on SCR 112, the resolution from Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, to declare that it’s the policy of the Legislature that Idaho should never legalize marijuana for any purpose. “What’s happened as all of you are aware, the state of Washington has legalized or in the process of legalizing medical marijuana as well as recreational marijuana,” Winder told the Senate. “Oregon still has medical marijuana.” Idaho has seen increasing marijuana busts on its interstate freeways, Winder said. “It’s impacting our communities, it’s impacting citizens of Idaho, it’s impacting our children.”

He said, “It’s a significant problem. There is an effort nationally going on to legalize marijuana, not only for medical purposes, but for recreational purposes, and Idaho is one of those targeted states.” He urged the Senate “to basically stand up for our state, say that we don’t want legalized marijuana.”

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, noted that the Republican Party in her district successfully pushed three pro-marijuana city initiatives, but they’ve not taken effect because marijuana remains illegal. “SCR 112 chases ghosts that haven’t appeared yet, in anticipation that they might,” Stennett said. “The part that disturbs me with this resolution is its overreach.” She said it dismisses the concerns of cancer patients who find immediate relief from the nausea of chemotherapy treatment from smoking marijuana, enabling them to eat and avoid malnutrition. “Please do not dismiss this,” she said.

 

Inflation cuts into gains in economic activity in rural Idaho

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show that inflation is eroding gross product gains in rural Idaho. The Idaho Department of Labor released the numbers Monday for the total value of goods and services produced in the state. Economic activity picked up in Idaho's 33 rural counties during 2011, with the counties producing just under $17.5 billion worth of goods and services. That's a 5.1 percent increase compared to a year earlier. But the Department of Labor says that increase was lost to inflation. Once inflation is taken into account, rural counties saw gross state product actually decline 0.6 percent.

JFAC dissenters fail in move to ‘send message’ by slashing Medicaid matching funds

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is starting into some segments of the Health & Welfare budget this morning, the complex agency that is the state’s largest department. As part of that, the Indirect Support Services division was up for budget-setting; it includes the Medicaid Readiness project under which Idaho must revise computer systems and eligibility programs to comply with federal laws. Within that was $200,000 for remaining IT changes, with all but $20,000 of that in federal funds; and $1.7 million for ongoing operation of those computer system changes, including 24/7 operation; of that, $225,900 is a state match, and the remaining $1.46 million is federal funds.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, led a move to cut out the $225,900 in state funds. Along with Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, Thayn proposed a budget motion slicing out that state money, saying, “This is something that’s required by the federal government. I think this is $225,000 that we could be using in other areas. Since it’s their policy, I think we should be using their money.”

However, by failing to provide the state match, Idaho could lose the entire $1.46 million in federal funds, putting it into a position of non-compliance with the federal law. “I respect what your feelings are, I understand that,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. But she raised concerns about “leaving a state agency upside down going home, and not knowing what the penalties, the ramifications are when we leave town.” Those potentially could include a loss of even more federal matching funds for Idaho’s existing Medicaid program. “We don’t know what could happen to all the other parts,” Bell said, questioning whether under Thayn’s proposal, “they have the tools they need to obey that law that’s in place.”

Thayn said his intent was that the Department of Health & Welfare sit down and negotiate with the federal government to see if it could get out of providing the state match. “The intent is to send a message to our federal partners,” he said. “It’s the federal government’s policy, and … Idaho funds should be reserved for Idaho policies.” However, there’s been no indication from the federal government that the required state match is negotiable.

Part of the reason the eligibility system is being required to go to 24/7 operation is because it will be accessed online in the future, including through insurance exchanges. The system currently is up and running only during business hours.

Vick said, “I wonder personally when is the time to say the irresponsible spending that they do in Washington, D.C., how much of that can they force on us.” He said, “It shows we’re not really that much of an independent legislative body, we’re just an administrative branch of the federal government. … It’s part of a deeper frustration.”

The joint committee voted down the Thayn/Nuxoll/Vick proposal on a 5-15 vote, with just Sens. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, joining the three sponsors in supporting it. It then passed the original budget motion for the division, crafted by Bell, Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, and Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, on a 15-5 vote. It comes in slightly below the governor’s recommendation, because it removes another $271,500 expenditure for expansion of the welfare fraud staff. Schmidt said that program is in the midst of a “significant transition,” and the “timing of this investment may not be the wisest.”

Push by Admin to amend Public Records Law prompted by gun-carrying Meridian man

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports this morning that the state Department of Administration's push to amend Idaho's public records law to exempt security surveillance video from disclosure has its roots in a Jan. 27, 2012 public records request from Bryan Carter of Meridian, the same gun-carrying man whose actions on the floor of the House, where he rifled through trash cans and took pictures with his phone of documents on lawmakers' desks after joining a Boy Scout tour of the chamber, prompted a temporary closure of public access to House and Senate chambers on nights and weekends. Carter requested almost 95 hours of November 2011 Capitol security video in that request; he didn't get it, because it had already been erased and reused at that point, but he did get other videos. You can read Popkey's full report here.

 

“It just made us recognize that we need to clarify the language,” state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told Popkey. “All we're trying to do is make it clear we can exempt records if release would jeopardize public safety.” However, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said a new bill must not be overly broad. “We're all about the public's business,” Loertscher told Popkey. “I really think you need to be open about what you're doing. The exemptions to the Public Records Act ought to be pretty darn infrequent.”

Without reforms, Idaho continues to look case-by-case at liquor license laws

Five years ago, Gov. Butch Otter urged lawmakers to stop approving special liquor licenses and instead reform Idaho's system that requires anyone seeking to sell liquor by the drink outside city limits, or outside a strict population formula inside cities, to come to the Legislature for a special law. Lawmakers rejected his reform plan, however, and the system remained the same. This year, there are three special liquor license bills pending: One for the Caldwell Night Rodeo, one for the Nez Perce Tribe's new convention center, and one for the resort town of Driggs, which gets only two liquor licenses under the formula. AP reporter John Miller takes a look at the dilemma the situation poses for Otter; click below for his full report.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Melissa Davlin and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature, including Thursday’s marathon Senate debate on the health insurance exchange legislation. Plus, Aaron Kunz talks with Dan Chadwick and Alex LaBeau about the personal property tax on business equipment; and Greg interviews freshman Rep. Holli Woodings. The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.

Senators say state Tax Commission is too hard on Idaho taxpayers

The Senate has voted 18-16 in favor of SB 1103, a $200,000 supplemental appropriation for staff in the audits and collections program and the revenue operations division of the state Tax Commission, barely passing the bill and sending it to the House. Several senators said they wanted to send a message to the Tax Commission that it’s too hard on Idaho taxpayers; Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said he heard from a constituent that the Tax Commission treated him far worse than the IRS when the constituent had a dispute with both. Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, an attorney who formerly practiced tax law, agreed with Pearce. “I’d pick the IRS any time,” he said. “I think the tendency toward rigidity and strong-arming is much more pronounced in the Idaho State Tax Commission.”

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said, “This is a long-standing problem. … They need to be more responsive, and we need to have this discussion, and we need to let them know that we’re serious about the discussion.”

Senators voting against the supplemental appropriation bill were Sens. Bock, Fulcher, Guthrie, Hill, Patrick, Pearce, Rice, Siddoway, Winder, Goedde, Hagedorn, Lakey, Nonini, Vick, Nuxoll and Durst. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller, including reaction from the agency, which said it was “totally blindsided” by the Senate criticism.

Staggered food stamp distribution bill pulled back to Senate committee

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, has asked the Senate to return SB 1053, the bill to stagger Idaho food stamp distributions over 10 days rather than doing them all on the 1st of the month, to the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, “for looking at again.” Asked to explain, Heider said, “We would like to make sure that the fiscal note is correct.” The Senate agreed unanimously to return the bill to the committee; it had been on the 3rd Reading Calendar for debate in the full Senate.

Analysis: Personal property tax phaseout plan ‘devastating’ to Idaho schools

The draft bill released last week by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to phase out the state’s personal property tax on business equipment would have a “devastating” impact on the state’s public schools, according to a new analysis by Mike Ferguson, the former longtime chief state economist who now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy; you can read it here. “Other state programs (colleges and universities, health and human services, public safety, etc.) would be adversely impacted, but none to the degree of public schools,” Ferguson writes.

The reason: The bill would give partial replacement funding for the lost property tax revenue to most local governments and taxing entities on a permanent basis, but schools would get replacement money only until their current voter-approved levies expire. A growing number of Idaho school districts now rely on supplemental levies, which last only one or two years, for basic operating expenses. Even if voters renew those levies or new ones are passed, there’d be no replacement funds for any approved after 2012.

“Public schools end up the big loser in what amounts to a three-pronged hit,” Ferguson writes. First, $90.5 million would be removed from the state’s general fund, roughly half of which now goes to public schools. Second, up to $41.2 million in property taxes would be shifted from business equipment to real property, including people’s homes and businesses; that would make school levies for the same dollar amounts more expensive for property taxpayers, and thus less likely to pass. Third, the lack of replacement money would cut into school districts’ property tax bases in future years, with some districts losing more than 50 percent.

Overall, Ferguson says the draft bill is “notable for the adverse impact it will have on Idaho’s ability to provide funds for public education.”

Bill would let extra-heavy trucks roll statewide, if local highway districts approve

With legislation already pending to make a decade-old extra-heavy trucks pilot project permanent, new legislation was introduced today to expand the use of 129,000-pound semi-trucks statewide, at the discretion of local highway districts. They’d make the call based on road and bridge structural integrity standards and public safety, according to the bill. It was introduced this morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee at the request of the Idaho Forest Group, and will be referred to the Transportation Committee for a possible hearing. Already pending in the Transportation Committee is SB 1064, backed by the “Right Truck for Idaho Coalition,” to allow the heavier rigs permanently on the 35 designated southern Idaho routes where they’ve been allowed for the past 10 years as a pilot project. Idaho truck weights otherwise are limited to 105,000 pounds.

Hearing on House freshmen’s exchange bill delayed; the two exchange bills could be combined…

The hearing that had been set for Monday on a trailer bill proposed by 16 House GOP freshmen to require more legislative oversight in the state insurance exchange legislation has been put on hold, reports Melissa Davlin of the Times-News. House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, told Davlin that leadership had asked him to hold off on the hearing on HB 179 for “a day or two.” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told Davlin the bill isn’t dead – the House just wants to examine whether it and SB 1042, the governor’s exchange bill that passed the Senate yesterday, should be combined into one, or left separate. You can read her full post here.

Making little cuts…

As lawmakers set the budget for the Department of Fish & Game this morning, they were faced with an extensive budget that includes no state general tax funds, but has an array of projects funded from licenses, fees and federal funds, from hatchery operations to big game management, all recommended by Gov. Butch Otter. The bottom line shows a drop in overall spending of 4.3 percent. A group of four JFAC members crafted the successful budget motion; it matches the governor’s, with one exception: It cuts out 10 of the 78 vehicles proposed for replacement as part of the department’s fleet management program, saving $260,000. “We wanted, I guess, to demonstrate the fact that we were indeed looking,” said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace. “It wasn’t just rubber-stamping.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “There are some vehicles there with pretty low mileage, in the 80,000 range.”

Asked about the cuts in relatively small items like cars and office chairs that JFAC members are making in some state agency budgets as they set them for next year, committee Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “They’re trying so hard to be thorough, and about the only thing that is available … is replacement items.” Before beginning its agency budget-setting this year, JFAC voted to include no inflationary increases; and for agencies with 100 or more employees, benefit cost increases are being funded at 95 percent rather than 100 percent to account for turnover. Plus, the joint committee set a 3 percent ceiling overall for its general fund appropriations to state agencies.

State agency budgets already have been squeezed by years of budget cuts. Requests for replacement items show up as one-time funding requests needed to maintain services at their current level. Said Bell, “It’s the only place to go.”

JFAC sets more tight budgets…

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is continuing to set very tight budgets for state agencies this morning. At the Industrial Commission, which receives no state general tax funds, the budget set for next year shows a 1.3 percent increase. The state Department of Insurance, which also gets no general funds, shows a 4.7 percent increase, but that’s largely because of a $257,500 increase in costs for contract examiners. Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, proposed an alternative budget cutting that amount by half and making several other trims in the department’s budget, including eliminating replacement items including 10 chairs, and one truck from the state fire marshal, but the other plan, from Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, passed on a 14-6 vote.

Thayn said the Department of Insurance has reverted funds from its budget each year for several years, so it could cover the costs; his budget proposal showed just a 2.7 percent overall increase. “So you’re going to penalize them from turning money back, that’s what you’re saying,” commented JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, noted that the department has numerous employees whose salaries fall below state policy levels. “I recognize that the director and those that work for the Department of Insurance have been extremely frugal and have worked diligently to keep costs and expenses down, and I think they are to be commended for that,” he said. But Mortimer said he’s concerned about pay levels; Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, added that turnover costs may be higher than the costs of bringing employee pay up to competitive levels.

“Intent language” that the joint committee earlier approved is being added to every state agency budget, encouraging raises or bonuses from any available personnel cost savings. Mortimer encouraged Insurance to take advantage of that.

The budget set for the state Department of Labor showed a startling bottom-line increase of 202 percent, but that’s only because of an accounting change. “This huge increase is strictly due to bringing the Unemployment Insurance Penalty and Interest Fund and the Special Administration Fund on-budget,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. Those funds previously fell under state Board of Examiners approval, rather than being included in the legislative appropriation. The change is being made in the interest of transparency. The Department of Labor gets only a tiny portion of its funding from state general funds; those will fall next year by 31 percent, as a result of the fourth year of a four-year phaseout of state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, which is shifting to dedicated funds within the department.

Lawmaker wants concealed knives legalized after his son was cited

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A southern Idaho representative is frustrated his son was cited for illegally carrying a concealed dangerous weapon without a permit — because he had a four-inch knife under his car seat. Republican Rep. Pete Nielsen of Mountain Home said Thursday his son ended up paying $300 to remedy the situation after the traffic stop. As a result, Nielsen aims to change Idaho's concealed weapon law, so it no longer applies to knives with blades four inches or less. Nielsen said he's got the approval of Idaho police on his measure. He actually wanted to allow longer knives be concealed without a permit. But law enforcement agents told him four inches was their limit. Nielsen is still working on his bill; the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday sent it back to him for changes rather than introduce the measure.

Bill taps public school budget to fund charter school buildings

Controversial legislation introduced in the House Education Committee on Thursday would siphon off a share of the state’s public school budget to pay for school buildings at Idaho charter schools. Idaho traditionally has relied on local voters to raise their own property taxes to fund school buildings. Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reports that the funding measure is one of two major charter school bills in the works, with the second designed to change how charters schools are formed and governed in Idaho; it’s likely to be introduced next week. You can read his full report here.

Admin wants state surveillance videos withheld from public, introduces bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's Department of Administration wants to add an exemption to the state's public records law that would bar people from obtaining surveillance recordings made by systems meant to protect public buildings. At a hearing Thursday, Administration employee Ric Johnson told the House State Affairs Committee his agency already thinks it has power to exempt recordings. But after a man in January 2012 made a request for recordings from the Capitol, the agency began worrying. That's because it isn't spelled out explicitly in Idaho code. The House panel agreed to introduce Administration's bill. But Rep. John Gannon of Boise told Johnson he's concerned the agency's proposal could make it tougher for the public to get hold of important recordings like those from Idaho prisons that recently highlighted problems with inmate violence.

Measure calls Frank Church wilderness ‘disaster area’ to spur trail work

A non-binding resolution unanimously endorsed by the House Resources Committee on Thursday seeks to declare the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness a “disaster area,” to recognize damage to trails from wildfires, weather and neglect and prompt the U.S. Forest Service to launch improvements, the AP reports. At more than 2.3 million acres, it's the second biggest protected wilderness area in the nation and the largest in the lower 48 states.”This really just brings attention to the problems that are there,” said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, the resolution's lead sponsor; click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Bill would double fees on sex offenders for statewide electronic registry

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill that doubles the fees charged to sex offenders and creates a statewide electronic offender registry has cleared a House committee. The House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee voted Thursday to send the measure to the House floor. It would boost sex offenders' annual registry fee from $40 to $80 and raise about $150,000 annually. Those dollars would be used to fund an electronic network designed to track sex offenders' addresses as they move to new communities across the state. Some of Idaho's biggest counties are already plugged into an electronic registry that tracks offenders, but many smaller counties still track movement on paper. Boise resident Mark Snowball, a registered sex offender, said the measure would create a financial burden for recently released or unemployed offenders.

House pays tribute to cancer patients, including wife of speaker

While the Senate was engulfed in its six-hour debate yesterday on the insurance exchange legislation, the House came together for an emotional tribute to cancer patients, including Sarah Bedke, wife of House Speaker Scott Bedke, who is currently undergoing treatment. Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, organized the tribute; his wife, Linda, died of cancer in November, just days after Miller won election to the House. Many House members wore pink in honor of the event; you can read Davlin’s full report here at her “Capitol Confidential” blog.

Idaho Senate backs Otter on exchange after marathon six-hour debate

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how, after a marathon six-hour debate, the Idaho Senate voted 23-12 today in favor of Gov. Butch Otter’s state health insurance exchange bill, marking a key victory for the GOP governor and sending his signature proposal of the legislative session to the House.

Senate passes SB 1042, 23-12

The Senate has voted 23-12 in favor of SB 1042, the governor's state health insurance exchange bill. The measure now moves to the House side. Here's how the senators voted:

Voting yes:  Sens. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; Les Bock, D-Boise; Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson; Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls; John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls; Brent Hill, R-Rexburg; Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Fred Martin, R-Boise; Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; Jim Rice, R-Caldwell; Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; John Tippets, R-Montpelier; and Elliot Werk, D-Boise.

Voting no:  Sens. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise; Branden Durst, D-Boise; Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian; Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls; Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene; Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood; Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth; Steven Thayn, R-Emmett; Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; and Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

Closing debate…

“I thoroughly believe that the state is going to be able to do a much better job of administering a program like this than the federal government,” Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, told the Senate in his closing debate on SB 1042, the state insurance exchange bill. It’s been six hours since this debate began this morning. He stressed that participation in the exchange would be voluntary; no one would be required to participate. He also noted that requirements for contraceptive coverage would be the same under a state or federally run exchange.

“The facts are that the federal law says that we will have an exchange of some type,” Tippets told the Senate. “I think most of us have come to that realization.” He said, “I believe to ignore the … laws of this nation would be to start down the road to anarchy.”

Debate: ‘The bottom line is we just differ’

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, debating for the first time, told the Senate, “I debated on whether I would debate, and I promise my remarks will be brief.” He said, “We all know in chambers this will be a split vote. … I believe if we were to debate for another 5 minutes or another 5 hours, I doubt the needle would be appreciably moved on this issue.” Guthrie said, “I would like to talk about the common ground. … I think we recognize the troubling nature of this federal policy.” The “real issue,” he said, is “how do we work together to mitigate that federal law. … The bottom line is we just differ on what the best solutions are, and there are no easy answers.”

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said, “I for one will not abdicate my responsibility as an officer of this state, a member of this Senate body , to anyone else other than myself, so I will be voting in favor of the legislation to set up a state exchange for the citizens of Idaho in accordance with the laws of Idaho and the freedoms and autonomy that we enjoy.”

With that, debate finally was over; Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, is now giving his closing debate.

Opponents begin debating for 2nd time, one reads from ‘Gulag Archipelago’

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, debating for a second time against SB 1042, read at length from “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about resistance. “That speaks volumes to me,” he said.

Next up to debate for a second time is Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. “I know that we all agree that Obamacre … is an extremely unjust law,” she said. “We are setting up actually a national health insurance. We're setting up socialized medicine. This is the most important vote that I think I will ever make.”

Nuxoll asked, “Well, are we a state or not? Do we want our businesses running to other states because we’re setting  up this exchange and they want to avoid all the regulations and all the penalties?”

Debate: Riding a pig ‘with spurs on’

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “All I can bring to the table is my experience in the Navy and my experience in the private sector. … This is probably one of the hardest decisions that I’ve had to make in this legislative body.” Hagedorn said, “Our choice is a federal exchange or a state exchange. I can’t ride this pig if it’s a federal exchange. I can ride it with spurs on if it’s a state exchange.” He said, “I select the one that I have at least the ability to spur once in a while.”

At the close of his debate, the Senate briefly went at ease again, and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, announced that the 3 p.m. Senate Education Committee meeting will be canceled. Sen. Jeff Siddoway made a similar announcement for the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee meeting that was scheduled for 3 p. m.; Sen. Lee Heider had already announced the cancellation of the 3 p.m. Senate Health & Welfare Committee meeting.

Senate debate has now been going for close to five hours…

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene,  just told the Senate that he thinks the debate will continue for several more hours. Everyone looked at each other. That seems fairly unlikely at this point; the Senate has been debating now for just under five hours.

Nonini read extensively from various sources to back up his arguments against the bill and his belief that it will increase rather than decrease costs. “I could go on and on,  Mr. Chairman,” he said, “I think I’ll have that opportunity, as many of us will be debating the bill for a second time.” He urged senators, who appear to be leaning in favor of the bill by a comfortable majority, to vote against it “if there is a reasonable doubt in your minds.” Nonini said his questions haven't been answered. “I'm not ready to jump off that cliff,” he said.

Back to the debate on exchange bill…

The Senate is now back to debate on SB 1042. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “If we opt for a federal exchange, there’s only two choices. … They only have to provide two, and you can bet your bottom dollar neither one of those two will be an Idaho company.” Goedde, who disclosed for the record that he’s a licensed insurance agent, said, “We’re not here to debate Obamacare. We’re here to debate exchanges.” He said when Idaho joined other states to challenge the national health care law in the U.S. Supreme Court, “That was our best chance. … And guess what? We lost.” Goedde compared the argument that other states are refusing to set up exchanges to when, as a child, he used the “everyone else is doing it” argument with his parents; his father just passed away this week. “My father couldn’t swim, so appreciate the significance of what he told me,” he said, his voice breaking. “He said, ‘If everyone went and jumped in the lake, would you follow them?’” Goedde said he admires Gov. Butch Otter “for taking a stand and staying dry.”

Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, told the Senate, “This bill isn't perfect. … It is my view that we have a responsibility as senators to protect the consumer at all costs. … I feel as if we've missed that boat … becuase this bill lacks legislative oversight. And with all due respect to our friends across the rotunda, the trailer bill that's coming doesn't fix it either.”

The debate has now stretched for well over four hours.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “We’ve been told here today that if we don’t have a state exchange, we cede our authority to the federal government, and we don’t want to go there. … I say whether we pass a state exchange or we don’t pass a state exchange, we have ceded our authority to the federal government.” He said, “We don’t really know what we’re doing. … There are many things that we do not know. … When they can’t convince you with the facts, they convince you with urgency. I’m voting to wait. I’m voting no.”

Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said, “I don’t apologize for my strong feelings on this issue. … I don’t like the way it was pushed through, I think it’s bad policy and a bad decision. … But again, we’re not debating Obamacare today.” He said the vast majority of the businesses in his district support a state exchange, not a federal one, noting that participation would be voluntary and it would receive no state funds. “Ultimately for me this is about dealing with reality,” Lakey said, saying there’s a “strong desire to not be a choiceless victim.” He said, “The federal government does not operate programs that are more responsive to the citizens of Idaho. To me, the worst option is the federal exchange.”

Motion to amend also fails, 11-24

The motion to send the insurance exchange bill to the amending order has failed on the same, 11-24 vote.

Substitute motion killed, 11-24

The Senate has defeated the motion to send SB 1042, the insurance exchange bill, back to committee on an 11-24 vote. Now it's having closing debate on Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll's motion to send the bill to the 14th Order for amendment.

Bayer, Nonini push to send SB 1042 back to committee

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, spoke against amending SB 1042, the health insurance exchange bill. “Frankly, this red-shirt freshman stands with the other freshmen on the other side of the rotunda,” he said, who have proposed a trailer bill to add more legislative oversight. “We can go to the amending order, or we can run trailer bills,” he said. “Because I am a proponent of public input and public interest, I think it’s best to run a trailer bill or to improve this bill through the process of a committee where the work of the people truly can be done and nefarious things cannot happen. … I think we have to have better public input on any changes we do.” In the amending order, there not only is no public testimony; there are no recorded votes.

At that point, Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, made a substitute motion to return the bill to committee instead, and Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, seconded the motion. Bayer said, “There are shortcomings in the language.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, noted that the committee to which the bill would return is a non-privileged committee, meaning it's past the deadline for it to introduce any new legislation. That means the bill, if it's not to go the amending order, would die there. “That would be the effect,” Davis said. He urged the Senate to defeat the motion and get back to debating the merits of the bill. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, then asked for the Senate to be placed at ease.

Senate back in, debating motion…

When the Senate returned from its break, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I want to withdraw my question.” He said, “I recognize that this is a very, very difficult bill, it’s a very emotional bill. And certainly everything that’s tied around the Affordable Care Act is emotional and personal. … But I’m going to ask you not to send this to the 14thOrder. … That is not a very thoughtful process in ways to develop legislation. The more thoughtful process is to run it through committees … where members of the public can come and testify and can come and express their concerns.”

Cameron read from letters from pro-life groups saying that Idaho has prohibited abortion coverage in its insurance exchange legislation, and lauding the state for the move; state law would have the same restriction under either a federal or state-run exchange, he said. He also read from an Attorney General's opinion about the two drugs to which Nuxoll referred, stating that they are FDA approved only as contraceptives, not as abortifascients. “That's a federal problem,” Cameron said. “No state law will trump federal law. No state provision will cause that to be changed in any way, shape or form.”

Senate at ease…

Before debating on Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll’s motion to move SB 1042, the insurance exchange bill, to the amending order, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, made an inquiry of Nuxoll. “Are you aware of the position of the … Catholic diocese on the Plan B and Ella issue that you have bought before this body?” he asked. Nuxoll responded, “Yes, I am aware,” but Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked that the Senate be placed at ease, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill smacked the gavel. While leaders pulled several senators into a back office, other senators gratefully rushed from the chamber to grab a snack or hit the restroom.

Nuxoll, Durst push to amend SB 1042

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwodd, said, “I will have no choice with the exchange. If I buy insurance, I’m paying for abortion. If I don’t buy insurance, I’m paying a penalty, I’m still paying for abortion. … Forcing us to buy insurance through a state exchange is an attack on our religious freedom and conscience rights.” Then she moved to send the bill, SB 1042, to the Senate’s 14thOrder for amendment. Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, seconded the motion.

The Senate is now debating the motion to move the bill to the amending order. Among those who have spoken in favor of the motion are Sens. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who said the bill should be amended to “protect life,” and Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, who said he can think of a lot of other amendments the bill should have, including some regarding legislative oversight and separation of powers.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said his heart is in the same place as Nuxoll's on the abortion issue, but he opposes the motion. “I think the good senator from 30 just demonstrarted why this bill shouldn't go to the amending order,” he said of Mortimer. The Senate's amending order is not the place for complex and major changes to legislation, Davis said; it lacks public input.

Debate: ‘Another voice,’ ‘Gun to our head,’ ‘In fact an abortion’

More from the Senate's debate on the governor's insurance exchange bill, now stretching toward the end of its third hour:

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, “I want this state and I want this country to know that in the state of Idaho there is another voice, and that voice is a voice in support of Obamacare, in support of our president. This bill, the Obamacare Affordable Health Care Act, may not have been the best possible solution, but it was the one solution that was possible.” Bock said, “I would have loved to see a single-payer system, but we didn’t get that. We got what was possible. … It is a credit to the president, it is a credit to this nation that we have actively tried to find solutions for people in the middle class or poor who could not otherwise get health care. So I’m here to tell you as another voice, I support my president, I support Obamacare.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said he respects Gov. Butch Otter’s efforts. “I think it is a sincere opinion. I just happen to disagree with it,” Winder said. “I feel like we have a gun to our head – if you don’t do something, we’re going to do something to you that may even be worse. … This isn't about just an exchange or access to the market, this is about a whole bunch of other stuff.” He said, “They're using threats against our businesses, that if you don't support a state exchange, you're going to lose your right to be a vendor and provide services.” Winder said, “We're getting on a ship that's got so many big holes in it. … We have worked so hard for the past five years to keep our state financially sound and prepared for the future. … We run the risk of our state going down and being part of that ship.” He said, “My heart tells me it isn't right.”

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, said, “I understand that most of us do not like the Affordable Care Act, most of us, anyhow. … I've been concerned about the state insurance exchange and the abortifacient issue. .. Under Obamacare there's a mandate for health insurance to cover contraception including Ella and Plan B. … I asked the Attorney General for his opinion, and the general consensus from the Attorney General and the pro-life groups … is that the abortion opt-out language … will only protect surgical abortion and RU486. … So in other words, the opinion states that our insurance companies … would be required to provide for Plan B and Ella. Plan B and Ella are potential abortifacients. … But because the woman is not known to be pregnant when she takes this emergency contraception, an abortion could not be definitively proven.” She said, “This is preventing implementation of the fertilized egg which is in fact an abortion … causing the death of a newly conceived human child.”

Debate: ‘Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,’ ‘Room for shenanigans’

More from the Senate debate on SB 1042, the insurance exchange bill:

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “Thomas Jefferson said every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. … To those opposed to the bill, principally I agree with you, but there are other factors that guide me personally to a different conclusion.” Davis said he opposed the national health care reform law. “This expansion of federal powers is inconsistent with what I believe are correct constitutional principles,” he said. “I also worked and hoped for a new president and Congress to repeal what I believed to be a dreadful law. Well, that did not happen.” He said, “If Idaho does nothing, federal regulators will exclusively build Idaho’s health care system. I worry what federally imposed insurance rates will be.”

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, told the Senate, “Supporters of SB 1042 have indicated that they want to resist Obamacare. So have I. … In my opinion, what that says is we’re going to resist by complying, or we’re going to resist by doing what they tell us to do. I would suggest a different path. I oppose the exchange because it is the implementation of this,” he said, holding up a thick binder. “This is the Affordable Care Act. And there are ramifications for voluntarily complying with this bill, and taking the money to voluntarily comply.” Fulcher said he thought the state would be in better legal position to challenge the law if it resists it, and said he believes there’s “room for shenanigans” with people’s personal medical information. “We’re giving up legislative oversight here, and we’re giving up that oversight to some quasi-governmental board,” he said. “I fear that we’re going to pass this bill, and we’re going to rationalize it by trying to convince ourselves that something worse is going to happen if we don’t.”

Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said, “I’ve heard far more conjecture and opinion than fact.” He called that poor lawmaking. He disputed statements from backers of the bill that doing nothing is a vote for a federal exchange. “If there was an act or … a violation that is inevitable upon my neighbor and I am not willing to conduct that act or facilitate it or implement it, that does not mean that I condone others conducting that act or violation,” Bayer said. “I don’t think that that is a fair analogy whatsoever.” He said, “I believe that the process has to hit the reset button.”

Cameron: ‘You do not weaken the feds by defaulting to them, you make them stronger’

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, disclosed under Senate Rule 39 that he makes his living as an insurance agent. He referred to Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, saying Siddoway “has great passion when he talks about wolves. I have a similar passion when it comes to talking about insurance.” Said Cameron, “There’s an analogy that says when it comes to breakfast, a chicken is dedicated, a pig is fully committed. I am the pig in this case.”

Cameron noted that he’s co-chaired the Legislature’s joint Health Care Task Force, and over the years, that panel has worked hard to lower health insurance costs in Idaho through an array of initiatives. “We have been successful,” he said. “We have one of the lowest costs in the nation. … That didn’t happen by accident. … It happened by good leadership, good planning and good decisions by this body.”

Cameron said he opposed the national health care reform law, like most Idaho lawmakers, and has sympathy for the views of opponents of SB 1042. But he said Idaho really has only two choices: A state exchange, or a federal one. One colleague, he said, told him of a third choice: “He said rebellion. That’s not a choice. That’s not a choice for us.”

Cameron called it “really hard to swallow” the idea that somehow insurance agents “don’t know what they’re talking about here.” He said, “All of the insurance industry, all of the small business people that I talk to, all of the individuals, a number of them are saying, ‘We want a state-based exchange. We trust the state better. We want to deal with the state.’ It’s clear, it’s evident, that by refusing to act we default to the federal government.”

He said, “We have the lowest rates in the nation, and the most at risk should we go to a federal exchange. … There is no doubt … that it will cost Idaho consumers less under a state insurance exchange than it will under a federal exchange.”

“You do not weaken the federal government by defaulting to them,” Cameron said. “You do not weaken the federal government by abandoning the field of battle. … You make them stronger.”

Debate: ‘The exchange piece isn’t where we can fight that’

More from the insurance exchange debate in the Senate:

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said he’d start with Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court. Rice, a lawyer, said he has great respect for the courts, but said of Roberts, “He is a supreme court justice and needs to act like it.” He called Roberts’ ruling on the health reform law “ridiculous.” Rice said, “There will be an exchange administering the subsidies, with insurance policies, whether we pass this bill or reject this bill. … It’s the exact same one, with the exact same authority, powers and consequences. There is a difference. The difference is we can control the cost to Idaho taxpayers. We can control and have some ability to affect in a positive way how much is taken off their dinner tables to pay for something that’s a bad idea. I don’t like the Affordable Care Act. It’s horrible public policy. It doesn’t make health care more affordable for anybody. … But the exchange piece isn’t where we can fight that.” He said the state exchange also would allow Idaho to protect the state’s insurance industry. “I support this act because this is an area where we have no ability to win, but we have some ability to defend our citizens,” Rice said. “And they elected us to defend them.”

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, asked a series of questions first of Rice, and then of Sen. John Tippets, the floor sponsor of SB 1042.

Pearce: ‘You guys, this is Idaho’

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told the Senate, “I know there’s a lot of work that has gone into this.” But, he said, “Sovereignty is supreme power, supremacy. So when we’re told that states are supreme, I ask the question: What are we doing?” He read from the law Idaho passed three years ago, the Idaho Health Freedom Act, calling for a legal challenge of the national health care reform law, and said, “I guess my question is, what’s changed in three years?” He said, “States are not agents of the federal government. We created the federal government basically to be our servant, not our master.” He said, “This is our role – we are the final voice in regulation.”

“The states are separate and independent sovereigns - sometimes they have to act like it,” Pearce said. “You guys, this is Idaho.”

He said, “We ought to wait and see what the rules are. … Here we are at the edge of a steep, dangerous pass and we're going to go ahead and charge on through the dark? No, I think it's wise that we wait. … Why would we bring the feds in, and invite them to come into our state and run health care?” Said Pearce, ”I think we should wait. I think we should wait and see what develops.” He added, “I have heard from many, many, many citizens in my district, and I’ve only had insurance agents say please pass it, and one doctor. Everyone else said don’t do it.”

Senators pepper bill’s sponsor with questions, but don’t debate the bill…

Sens. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, have, like Sen. Dean Mortimer before them, asked a series of questions of Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, the floor sponsor of the health insurance exchange bill, without actually debating the bill.

When the questions began, Tippets offered this comment: “I’ve been notified that there may be many questions asked, and I just want to remind the Senate the purpose of asking the questions is to obtain information that one doesn’t have. It’s not to be used as a debate strategy, nor in an attempt to interject debate into the discussion.” He said he’d be happy to yield to questions, with that caveat.

Now, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, is asking a series of questions of Tippets. Brackett then offered this debate: “I understand and I share your concern about the whole issue that we’re facing. I guess I do not see the difference between two years ago and today.”

Debate: ‘We don’t really have any oversight,’ ‘Duty to resist’

Here’s some of the debate in the Senate so far on SB 1042, the governor’s state health insurance exchange bill:

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said if Idaho wants to resist the federal government, “I would maintain that this is not the bill.” He said, “What I see in this bill is a lot of promises, and a lot of things that I would like to believe. … I am not convinced in the body of this bill that any of those intents are able to be fulfilled.” He added, “As I read it, we don’t really have any oversight. We’ve made an independent board.”

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said the thinks the governor and state officials are “making the best of a bad situation, trying to keep down costs for Idaho citizens and to obtain local control of this.” But, he said, “I cannot go along with that. I didn’t reach this decision lightly or easily. I thought about this extensively. But I think when the federal government oversteps its bounds, I have a duty to resist that within the constitutional powers that I have. … I just can’t be a part of it.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, asked a long series of questions of Tippets, the bill's floor sponsor, including whether the employees of the exchange would be state employees - the answer was no - and whether the exchange would promulgate administrative rules that would be reviewed by the Legislature. The answer to that also was no, as the exchange would not be a state agency. He also asked if the $20 million federal startup grant for the exchange would have to be repaid to the feds by the state, under any circumstances; Tippets said no. Mortimer asked what would happen to excess fees collected by the exchange. If that were to happen, Tippets said, “We would expect them then to adjust the rates. I don't know of any other use that those could be put to.”

Tippets: ‘This legislation creates an open market’

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, opening debate on the health insurance exchange bill, said, “Senators, here we are. We’re going to vote today, at least I hope we’re going to vote today, on an issue that we’ve been debating for … months.” He said, “If we had an ability to opt out, most of us would. But we don’t have that option. Given the options we do have, I believe that a state-based exchange is a better option than a federal exchange for Idaho.”

He read from the bill, which includes this statement of legislative intent: “It is the public policy of the state of Idaho to actively resist federal actions that would limit or override state sovereignty under the 10th amendment of the United States constitution. Through this legislation, the state of Idaho asserts its sovereignty by refusing to surrender decision-making authority over health care issues, which are matters appropriately left to states and individual citizens. The purpose of this chapter is to establish a state-created, market-driven health insurance exchange that will facilitate the selection and purchase of individual and employer health benefit plans. The creation of a state-based health insurance exchange will provide an Idaho-specific solution that fits the unique needs of the state of Idaho. Participation in the exchange is voluntary in that no Idaho citizen or employer shall be required by this chapter to purchase a health benefit plan through the exchange. Creation of the exchange and its operation is deemed a public purpose intended to enhance Idaho residents' choice regarding options and access to health insurance.”

He noted, “The exchange must be financially self-supporting.” It could have been created as a state agency, Tippets said, but Gov. Butch Otter didn’t want to grow the state government. Because the state is prohibited from creating a corporation, the bill sets the exchange up as an independent body corporate and politic, a quasi-governmental agency, like the Idaho Housing and Finance Agency or the State Insurance Fund.

“This legislation creates an open market,” Tippets said. “Anyone can offer a product for sale as long as they’re willing to meet the requirements. The Department of Insurance anticipates there will be dozens, dozens of plans offered through the exchange. That may not be the case with a federal exchange.” 

Tippets said he disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the national health care reform law. But, he said, “The U.S. Constitution gives the Supreme Court the ability to determine the legality of the actions of Congress, and not me.” He said, “If we do not create a state exchange, they will create a federal exchange for us – they will create a federal exchange for us. They’re already working on it.”

Said Tippets, “We will have an exchange on Jan. 1st of next year. The only question is whether it will be a federal exchange, a state-based exchange, or some combination of the two.” When Idahoans are informed that the state will have either a federal exchange or a state exchange, he said, 74 percent in a recent statewide survey backed moving ahead with a state plan. He said, “I choose a state exchange because I believe it would best serve the citizens of the state of Idaho.”

Senate convenes, exchange debate on tap

The Senate has convened this morning, with SB 1042, the governor’s state health insurance exchange bill, atop its calendar for debate. A debate of several hours is expected; the Senate previously announced that it won’t take a break today until it’s finished debating and voting on the bill.

Meanwhile, the House Education Committee, after much debate, has agreed to introduce a controversial charter school funding bill this morning that would shift part of the state public schools budget to pay for school buildings for charter schools; regular Idaho school districts have to ask local property taxpayers to vote to raise their own taxes in order to fund buildings. Also, the House State Affairs Committee, at the request of the state Department of Administration, has introduced a sweeping new public records exemption bill that would prevent the public from seeing state security videos; the bill was introduced at the request of the state Department of Administration.

More tight budgets set for Attorney General, state public defender’s office

Though Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden had requested a 9 percent increase in state general funds for his office next year, and 5.3 percent overall, the budget set this morning by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee shows just a 5.4 percent increase in general funds and 0.7 percent overall. That’s partly because of various shifts that lawmakers are making in how funds are accounted for that state agencies pay to one another, including agencies that pay the Attorney General for legal billings. The bottom line is that the Attorney General’s office will be able to add one deputy attorney general for the Idaho Transportation Department, funded by that agency’s dedicated funds; another for the Idaho State Police funded by the Alcohol Beverage Control fund; and a paralegal for the Idaho State Tax Commission, which is a general-fund agency. Not included are additional attorneys for the special prosecutions unit, but if a separate bill, SB 1080, passes addressing that unit and adding another deputy attorney general and an investigator, JFAC would have to address the funding for that later in a trailer bill.

Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, noted that Wasden told JFAC that the state is spending far more to contract for outside attorneys than it would spend to add lawyers in his office. “I think we need to encourage review … to see if there are perhaps some savings that could be attained there,” Miller said, estimating that the state could add 26 deputy attorneys general and save $140,000 per lawyer, compared to what it’s spending for outside attorneys. “I think a review of this would be a good thing,” Miller said.

The budget then was approved on a unanimous vote, as was every agency budget considered this morning. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “This can be an ongoing discussion we have with the Attorney General. … They didn’t get to this overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight. Frankly, if we had more general funds, maybe we’d look at a different approach.”

The joint committee also set a budget for the State Appellate Public Defender for next year at $2.1 million, matching the governor’s recommendation and showing just a 1 percent increase. Like Gov. Butch Otter, legislative budget writers OK’d the hiring of one more attorney there, but rather than provide additional funds, shifted money within the agency’s budget from operating expenditures to cover the new hire.

Professional-Tech ed budget set with just tiny increase

The Legislature’s joint budget committee set another bare-bones budget this morning for the Division of Professional-Technical Education, coming in just below the governor’s recommendation at a 1.4 percent increase in state general tax funds. It includes small, specific expenditures for equipment replacement at the state’s three community colleges and at Eastern Idaho Technical College and Lewis-Clark State College, all recommended by the governor.

Ag Research Extension gets 3.5% budget boost, still far below ‘09 level

For the Agricultural Research and Extension Service, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning approved a budget plan matching the governor’s recommendation for next year, including a $1 million boost in state general funds to replace one-time funds that have been exhausted and cover costs at the state’s 12 research and extension centers including heating and cooling of greenhouses, irrigation water, and purchasing fuel, fertilizer and seed. Overall, that’s a 3.5 percent increase from the current year, and leaves the service far below its 2009 funding level. The general fund budget for next year was set at $24.4 million; in 2009, it was $28.3 million. The service also now has 70 fewer employees than it had then.

“I think this is a minimum budget for this organization,” said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace. Said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, “I look at this as an economic investment for the state of Idaho.”

Tax protester gets 3 years in prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) ― A 71-year-old tax protester from northern Idaho has been ordered to spend 36 months in a federal prison for collecting a tax refund based on a fraudulent tax return. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Wednesday also ordered Gary Raymond Harvey of Peck to pay more than $85,000 in restitution. Peck pleaded guilty in November to 10 counts of making false claims to collect an IRS refund. During his trial, federal prosecutors offered evidence showing Peck filed returns on behalf of The Organic Assembly of Circle JB seeking refunds for tax years 2002 through 2010. But Peck admitted under questioning he knew he was not entitled to the refunds, which ranged from as low as $8,800 to a high of $54,000.
  

JFAC sets a series of tight agency budgets, all at or below gov’s recommendation

Budgets were set by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning for another batch of state agencies, including public health districts, the Veterans Services Division, state medical boards, the Division of Human Resources, PERSI, the Commission on the Arts, state treasurer, lieutenant governor, and State Independent Living Council; all were set at or below Gov. Butch Otter’s budget recommendations.

The joint committee approved pay raises for certain positions at the medical boards, including the executive director of the Board of Nursing, the associated director of the Board of Medicine, and staffers at the Board of Veterinary Medicine; none of those use any state general tax funds, and other trims in the boards' budget request offset the increase. The committee urged the Division of Veterans Services to fund pay increases from personnel savings within the division, without a budget boost, in line with statewide intent language adopted a day earlier; it didn’t fund a series of requests from the division for increased funding to allow for salary increases. The budget for the lieutenant governor’s office included a pay raise that’s already required by state law for state elected officials. None of the other agency budgets include funding for raises.

JFAC also added “intent language” to the state treasurer’s budget, requiring that no more than $10,000 from the general fund can be spent for activities relating to conferences; and that no dedicated funds from the budget can be used for conference expenses unless specifically authorized by law. State Treasurer Ron Crane was dinged in an audit report last year for spending state general funds to support the “Smart Women, Smart Money” conference in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, though the conference was not specifically authorized by statute.

On Thursday, budgets up for setting include those for the Idaho Attorney General’s office and the State Appellate Public Defender.

Annual ‘Buy Idaho’ show fills Statehouse with crowds, Idaho products

Today is the annual “Buy Idaho” show, when a huge array of Idaho products and businesses fill the first, second and third floor rotunda of the state Capitol to display their products and services – and hand out lots of free samples.

Among this year’s highlights: Castle Ranch Steakhouse’s samples of its delicately sauced flank steak on a cracker; Sweet Hope Inc.’s “Spud Fudge,” a creamy chocolate fudge in which potatoes replace a third of the sugar; and lots, lots more. The annual show is open to the public.

House panel rejects DUI memorials bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho already has plenty of informal memorials to highway fatalities, erected by grieving family members. But the state isn't slated to get an official, state-sponsored program to honor those killed by drunk drivers, after a House panel rejected the proposal on Wednesday. Democratic Rep. Shirley Ringo of Moscow brought the plan to the House State Affairs Committee, saying erecting signs to remember victims could warn people about the dangers of driving while drunk. Ringo was asked to promote the bill on behalf of former Rep. Rep. Tom Trail, who lost a family member in such an accident. But committee members including Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake worried a proliferation of signs, especially on rural highways where drivers are already on the lookout for wildlife, could be a dangerous distraction.

More Idaho high school students taking, passing AP exams

More Idaho high school students are taking Advanced Placement exams and scoring high enough to earn college credit, the College Board and the state Department of Education announced today. In 2012, 18.4 percent of Idaho’s public high school graduates had taken at least one AP exam, up from 15.3 percent in 2007 and 11.3 percent in 2002. For the same 2012 graduating class, 12.3 percent had scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam, qualifying for college credit; the comparable figure in 2007 was 9.8 percent and in 2002, 7.3 percent.

Among Idaho’s public high school graduating class of 2012, 3,150 students had taken an AP exam, and 2,115 had scored a 3 or higher.

Nez Perce Tribe’s liquor license bill squeaks through House State Affairs

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Nez Perce tribe's effort to win a liquor license for its new convention center on the Clearwater River squeaked through a committee to win a chance for a vote in the full House. Wednesday's State Affairs Committee vote was 9-7 for the plan to allow the tribe to sell cocktails to guests at its casino, convention center and 50-room hotel six miles upstream from Lewiston in northcentral Idaho. The tribe needs an exemption, under Idaho's strict, decades-old liquor laws meant to promote temperance and sobriety.Bill proponents including business groups from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley cited the convention center project's economic development benefits to the region — and the expectation among guests from elsewhere to be able to relax with an adult beverage. Foes worried issuing another liquor license exemption could devalue existing liquor licenses.

Malek bill restricting urban renewal districts’ inspection powers passes House, 69-0

Freshman Rep. Luke Malek’s bill to remove authority for urban renewal districts to enter into any property, including private homes, within the districts to make inspections has passed the House unanimously, 69-0, with no debate. “I don’t know that it’s ever been used, but it’s certainly antithetical to our view of private property rights in Idaho,” Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the House. The bill, HB 137, now moves to the Senate side for consideration.

House, Senate Dems decry bill making initiatives, referenda tougher

House and Senate Democrats came out strongly against SB 1108 today, the bill proposed by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation to make it tougher to qualify an initiative or referendum measure for the Idaho ballot. “This bill is part of a troubling trend that makes it easier for lawmakers and government officials to ignore the will of the people,” Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, the Senate minority leader, declared at a Statehouse press conference this morning. “Today, we call on Idahoans of all political affiliations to speak out against Senate Bill 1108.”

Ironically, the Senate bill shares the same bill number as the controversial 2011 bill, SB 1108, that sought to roll back Idaho teachers’ collective bargaining rights and make a series of other changes; that measure was rejected by Idaho voters in November in the referendum vote on Proposition 1.

The Democratic lawmakers noted that more than half a dozen bills already have been introduced this session to revive portions of the voter-rejected Proposition 1 law. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, the Senate assistant minority leader, said, “Not only is this legislature ignoring the people, but SB 1108 seeks to restrict the people's ability to reject bad legislation, such as the Luna Laws.” He said, “Idaho Democrats will dedicate our efforts to defeating these pieces of legislation and assure that the voice of the people is not stifled. But we cannot do this alone. We call on every citizen of our state to contact your legislators.”

Meanwhile,the Democrats noted that most of their “VOTE Initiative” package of bills designed to make voting easier in Idaho have languished without moving forward in this year’s session. You can read the Democrats’ full statement here.

Senate panel passes both anti-marijuana measures

The Senate State Affairs Committee has approved both SCR 112 and SJM 101 on voice votes, sending them to the full Senate for debate. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, was the only one to ask to be recorded as voting “no” on SCR 112, and he audibly voted no on SJM 101. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, noted that a city in her district has passed three measures supporting decriminalizing marijuana use, but those conflict with state and federal law. “So the conversation then is the crux,” she said. “How far do we go where we aren’t putting people at risk or encouraging more use, and still being able to provide the medical uses that we’re talking about here? … I do not want to … dismiss the importance of that.” She spoke emotionally about having family members suffer from the effects of cancer treatment, including nausea caused by chemotherapy. “These people need relief, and we need to be able to feed them, and they need nutrients,” she said. “I hope we keep that in mind when we have this conversation.”

Stennett joined the majority in voting to pass the measures to the full Senate, but the vote was considerably louder on the first measure than the second, SJM 101, which calls on the feds to go into states that have legalized marijuana for medical or other uses and enforce federal law. Only a few senators audibly voted “yes.” “They weren’t enthusiastic about it,” committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, who didn’t vote, said afterward. “I think there will be members that will vote ‘no’ on the floor.” McKenzie said senators are concerned about issues of state sovereignty. “ I’m keeping my powder dry until we get on the floor, but I think that’s an issue,” McKenzie said.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, lead sponsor of both measures, said, “I think there’s a difference here. … It’s impacting our state because it started in Washington, it started in Oregon, it started in California. Now it’s in Colorado, so it’s spreading out.” Winder said of his two resolutions, “It doesn’t change any law. It just makes a statement on behalf of the Legislature.”

Testimony: ‘Out of hands of criminals,’ ‘An impairing substance,’ ‘Ecology is economy’

In testimony on the anti-marijuana resolutions this morning:

Coty Ternes of Compassionate Idaho told the committee that drug dealers don’t ask kids for I.D. when they sell them marijuana. “Get this out of the black markets,” he said, “get the money out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of legitimate businesses. … Let’s use this money that is going toward fighting it to help out the struggling schools.”

Cpl. Casey Hancuff of the Boise Police Department told the senators, “I come from a viewpoint, a perspective of trying to keep the incidence of impaired driving to a minimum and pushed down as far as can be possibly achieved. Marijuana itself, as everybody I think in this room understands, is an intoxicant. It’s an impairing substance.” He said California saw a jump in fatal rashes after legalizing medical marijuana. “There is going to be a long-term detriment to our roadway safety if marijuana is legalized,” Hancuff said. He said marijuana still can affect people even three weeks after use.

Christine Taylor, owner of Indie HempWorks, said cannabis plants including marijuana and hemp are a valuable resource. “The proposed policies stand in the way of freedom, progress, innovation, welfare and prosperity of the people of this state,” she said. “As a native Idahoan I have founded a business on the principles that ecology is economy.”

Derek Atchison told the senators, “I don’t smoke marijuana.” He said he opposes the measures because a young relative is seriously ill and he believes medical marijuana could help her. “She’s 12 years old, she weighs 63 pounds, she’s dying,” he said. “It’s her future too. She should be allowed to live. She shouldn’t have to die at 15.”

Peyton Rebholz, a 17-year-old member of Drug-Free Idaho and Idaho Drug-Free Youth, said, “Idaho does not need another thing to impair drivers. … Marijuana is already an issue for the youth of Idaho. … Why make it more accessible?”

Testimony: ‘It’s our kids’ future,’ ‘Look beyond stereotypes,’ ‘Everything boils down to choice’

More of the testimony this morning at the hearing on the two anti-marijuana measures:

Nick Chaffin, a 16-year-old from Idaho Falls, said he’s concerned that celebrities are promoting marijuana use. “We are getting mixed messages as teenagers. We don’t understand if it’s good or bad,” he said. “Marijuana is not the answer. It wouldn’t be the answer to anything. There’s other medicine out there. One last note, it’s our future, it’s our kids’ future, and it’s our grandkids’ future. How do you want it to look?”

Tim Teater said, “For many thousands of years, human perception of cannabis … was sacramental as a medicine and mild intoxicant. … Today in 2013 many of us still have the mindset of reefer madness. … I’d ask you to look beyond stereotypes, half-truths … and misinformation.”

Matt Wilcox, a massage therapist, said his professional knowledge of the human body suggests that marijuana is not a gateway drug. “I find it actually ridiculous that we’re even here today at all when millions of people are starting to stand out and agree nationwide that it should be legalized, decriminalized, recreationally and medically as well,” he said. “There are hundreds of beneficial reasons to its existence and how it can benefit humanity as a whole. … Ultimately everything boils down to choice.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, told Wilcox she was going to ask him “the hard question.” She asked, “Have you used marijuana?” Wilcox answered, “Yes.” Then she asked him, “Have you encouraged others to use marijuana?” Wilcox said no, that he’s encouraged people to make their own decisions. Then she asked him if he felt his professional knowledge exceeded that of Dr. David McClusky, a Twin Falls physician who testified on the other side of the issue earlier this morning and whom Lodge described as a “noted surgeon.” Wilcox said no.

David Benjamin Hall, a former candidate for mayor of Boise, told the senators, “Currently I am facing a charge for marijuana. And I’m not ashamed to say that I use marijuana. I’m 44 years old and I have used marijuana for 30 years of my  life, because I have a very deadly disease called depression.” He said, “I think this is a personal attack against me and my right to decide for myself how I’m going to live my life, how I’m going to treat my illness.”

Testimony: ‘Reduces initiative and ambition,’ ‘Black market puts in the hands of kids,’ ‘Costly to employers’

Testimony is continuing in the Capitol Auditorium this morning on two anti-marijuana resolutions. Among those testifying:

Darin Taylor, mayor of Middleton, spoke in favor of SCR 112 and SJM 101. “The source of my information is former recreational marijuana users,” he told the Senate State Affairs Committee. “Marijuana use is dangerous because it is subtle, its consequences are subtle. … Marijuana is a feel-good drug. It artificially relaxes the mind and body beyond what is normal. … It also reduces initiative and ambition and increases … laziness. …. It naturally trends to an unproductive individual, group of friends and community.” He said, “As a society we cannot afford less productive individuals and workforce.” He said moves against marijuana are “desired by a majority of Idaho residents, it is in the best interest of a majority of Idaho residents.”

Theresa Knox, who used a cane to walk to the podium, said, “It is the black market that puts marijuana in the hands of kids every day. … Regulating marijuana is the best way of keeping our kids off of it, while ensuring that responsible adults have the option for safer medication (and) recreation.” Knox said, “It does not cause cancer, but kills it.” She said patients should be able to use medical marijuana, or recreationists to choose it over alcohol or tobacco, “without running the risk of losing our children for using a plant.”

Marianne King, director of Drug Free Idaho, said, “Imagine a workplace where employees show up high on marijuana and there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the concern we hear.” She said, “Finding someone that can pass a pre-employment drug test is getting harder and harder – some say impossible. … The effects are costly, both to our employers and to our community. … Drug-using employees simply are not as safe.”

Another 50 people sign up to testify on anti-pot measures, most opposed

More than 50 additional people have now signed up to testify at this morning's hearing on two anti-marijuana measures, most of them opposed to the two resolutions. Among the testimony so far:

Gari DeBoard told the committee, “I am a terminally ill patient. I will die.” Her condition includes permanent nerve damage that flares up, causing paralysis from the neck down, she said, and a feeling that she’s “on fire.” DeBoard said, “Yes, I can take a heavy-duty amount of pain pills, but I will die from those pain pills, too. They will eventually kill me, they will shut my body down. … For marijuana there are no deaths. Never are you going to see someone in your emergency room because they have overdosed from marijuana.”

Dr. David McClusky of Twin Falls told the senators, “There’s no legitimacy for legalizing marijuana because it is very harmful from a medical standpoint. It is an addictive drug along with nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin and meth. It also will be another gateway drug for our youth along with tobacco and alcohol.” McCluskey said he doesn’t want to see “another politically correct law that’s going to cause harm and death to my patients;” he spoke in favor of the two resolutions. McClusky added, “I do use it on my cancer patients, but I use it as a pill. … there is a proper use for it, just like there is a proper use for all the drugs that I do use.”

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the Idaho ACLU, urged a no vote on both measures. “Idaho should be allowed to decide our own drug policy without interference from the federal government,” she said, “and we should focus on appropriate law enforcement priorities.” She said Prohibition didn’t succeed in doing away with drunkenness. “Enforcement of marijuana laws for low-level, non-violent offenders causes high incarceration rates … and they break up families for no public safety risk.”

 

Winder: Association of Idaho Cities requested anti-marijuana measures

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the anti-marijuana measures were “brought to me at the request of the Association of Idaho Cities,” in line with a resolution that the cities association passed at its convention several weeks ago. “It’s patterned after the Association of Idaho Cities resolution that they adopted,” Winder said. He yielded his introduction to John Evans, mayor of Garden City, current president of the AIC.

“Legalization of marijuana in any form is a threat to our communities, on our roads, in the workplace and in the classroom,” Evans told the Senate State Affairs Committee. “It is just as important to discuss what message we are sending to our youth. The young adults in this room need to hear from you that smoking marijuana is not OK.”

Elisha Figueroa, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Drug Policy, told the committee, “Let me be clear: Marijuana is a crude street drug containing hundreds of chemicals. … It has been found to have no accepted medical use, is addictive and can’t be used safely even under a physician’s care. … We also know from various credible studies that it’s been linked to mental illness.”

Katie Snell told the panel, “As a high school student I see drug use across Meridian, and I would like to share my thoughts on the subject in order to ensure that the place I call home stays safe and drug-free.”

Anti-marijuana measures draw proponents, opponents to Statehouse hearing

The Senate State Affairs Committee is meeting in the Capitol Auditorium this morning, where there’s a fairly large turnout from backers of two anti-marijuana measures, including teens from the Meridian Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council. Only about 10 people have signed up to speak against the two measures, proposed by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise. One, SCR 112, would oppose legalizing marijuana in Idaho for any reason, ever. The second, SJM 101, is a non-binding memorial to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice calling on the feds to enforce federal drug laws against marijuana in all states – including those where the states and their voters have opted to legalize it.

Lawmaker: Relax liquor rules for resort towns

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An eastern Idaho lawmaker says many restaurants in tiny resort cities like Driggs are suffering because they can't sell cocktails. Republican Rep. Marc Gibbs of Grace began his bid to change that Tuesday, convincing the House State Affairs Committee to at least consider his bill to loosen up alcohol rules governing eateries in tourist towns. Currently, Idaho allows just two liquor licenses in the 1,600-soul Driggs, below the Grand Targhee ski resort. According to Gibbs' bill, restaurants in Driggs and other Idaho resort towns that derive 60 percent of revenue from food could get a license allowing them to sell margaritas and other cocktails, but only when meals are served. Gibbs acknowledges his bill faces stiff resistance in temperance minded-Idaho, where many lawmakers worry about increasing the availability of alcohol.

Idaho Court of Appeals overturns driver’s ‘absurd’ conviction in slide-off

It was an icy morning in 2009 when Richard W. Wright slid off a North Idaho road and hit a speed limit sign. But the retired Florida police officer and then-Kootenai County coffee shop owner didn’t expect to be charged with the misdemeanor crime of leaving the scene of an accident for proceeding on to work.

Wright, who represented himself in court, received a withheld judgment, paid a $200 fine, served two days on a county work program and had his license suspended for a year – all for an accident that only damaged a piece of plastic door molding on his own car and a roadside sign that cost about $200 to fix; Wright paid for that. Today, the Idaho Court of Appeals overturned Wright’s conviction, saying the leaving-the-scene crime applies to multi-car accidents, requiring drivers not to leave before exchanging information – not to a single car bumping into a sign.

Judge Karen Lansing, writing for a unanimous court, wrote, “In the case of a single-car accident, without injuries to a third party, there is no other person to whom the driver could provide information at the scene. A requirement that a driver stop and remain at the scene absent any person with whom to exchange information would be absurd.”

Wright’s attorney, Richard Kuck of Coeur d’Alene, said, “Given the way this all went down, I hope that means that people like Mr. Wright won’t be charged with this offense in single-vehicle collisions again. It’s good to have that cleaned up in Idaho.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Ranchers slated to join Idaho firefighting efforts

Even as Gov. Butch Otter pushes to help create new state-funded rancher groups to fight wildfires in this year's legislative session, one such existing group in Idaho is under scrutiny by federal safety investigators following a fatal firefighting accident last summer, Associated Press reporter John Miller reports. Today, the House Resources Committee approved a measure governing how these new rancher-led organizations are established. Idaho's new associations will be volunteer, formed by ranchers who have long sought permission to use their farm equipment to help corral range fires, Miller reports; in some instances, ranchers say they can act more quickly than BLM crews can respond. The legislation sets standards for the groups including requiring state review of their training plans and liability insurance; click below for Miller's full report.

Senate Ed votes along party lines to end teacher early-retirement incentive

The Senate Education Committee has voted 6-2 in favor of SB 1089, to eliminate the early retirement incentive program for Idaho teachers. Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said doing away with the incentive will save the state money. “Please, committee, realize the implications to the budget if action is not taken,” he said.

Robin Nettinga of the Idaho Education Association told the committee that 71 percent of teachers who retired between 1996 and 2009 used the program, and said the incentive saved the state money by replacing higher-paid teachers who were ready to retire early with lower-paid, starting teachers, years before that switch otherwise would have been made. Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said, “I have concerns that this legislation may end up costing the state more money than is purported.” But only he and the committee’s other minority member, Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, voted against the bill, which now moves to the full Senate. Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, who made the motion to approve the bill, said, “We don’t offer this for other state employees.”

Idaho jurors could get first raise since 1968

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — After 45 years of paying jurors no more than $10 daily, Idahoans called for jury duty could soon be paid up to $50 for each day they serve in court. The House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee voted unanimously to advance legislation Tuesday that gives county commissioners the option to boost juror pay. People who serve a half day would get up to $25, up from $5 under current law. Coeur d'Alene Republican Rep. Kathy Sims said many counties have trouble attracting jurors at current rates, which she said hardly covers the cost of gas for people driving from rural areas to court. She said the measure gives counties flexibility to make the change if they have room in their budgets. Sims is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise; the measure now moves to the full House for debate.

Crapo, Simpson both expect sequester cuts to kick in as scheduled March 1

Idaho’s senior senator and congressman both said today that they expect the automatic federal budget cuts required by sequestration to kick in as scheduled on March 1, forcing devastating cuts. “The one thing I’ve discovered is for every complex problem, there is a simple solution that doesn’t work,” said 2ndDistrict Congressman Mike Simpson. “I think sequestration is going to kick into effect, because I don’t see the will on either side of the aisle to try to address what are painfully stupid cuts – it’s a meat ax.”

The cuts, both in the military and in other discretionary federal spending, would be across the board, Simpson said. “They can’t prioritize.” Plus, he said, “It’s an $85 billion hit only on the discretionary side of the budget. It doesn’t address what is driving our debt, and what is driving our debt is the increases in mandatory spending. And that’s what we’ve got to get at.”

Sen. Mike Crapo said, “I agree with Mike, I think that we will go into the sequestration. It will begin implementing.” Before that happens, he said, both sides likely will put forth alternatives that the other side will shoot down. Said Simpson, “In the end, it’s got to be a solution that can be both bicameral and bipartisan, if it’s going to be adopted. But our big question has been: How do you get the American people to understand the seriousness of the problem?”

An event tonight at which both Crapo and Simpson will take part is aimed at that question. From 8-10 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium, Simpson and Crapo will join Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, retired Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, for a symposium on which the panel will discuss the federal fiscal crisis and answer questions. Tickets for the free event are sold out, but there will be overflow rooms for viewing at the Capitol, and it also will be video-streamed live by Idaho Public Television. Tonight’s symposium is sponsored by the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research; Greg Hahn of Idaho Public TV will be the moderator.

Crapo said there’s budget pain coming. “The pain is increased taxes, the pain is changes in the structure and operation of the entitlement system, the pain is the reduction in defense spending and in other discretionary spending programs, and the fact that we just don’t have the ability to continue to sustain borrowing money to continue to stimulate the economy.”

Asked if Idaho lawmakers should anticipate extending their legislative session to deal with the budget fallout from Washington, D.C. this spring, both Crapo and Simpson said no. “I don’t think they need to be in town months longer,” Simpson said. “There will be some impacts that affect the states.” Said Crapo, “The Legislature doesn’t need to stay in town any longer, but what it needs to do is to recognize that it is going to be dealing with a different budget picture from the federal government. We don’t know yet exactly what that budget picture is, but we do know that it will be much more austerity than has been there in the past.”

You can watch tonight’s event live here; click on “Auditorium.”

 

Game plan shapes up for insurance exchange debate

The chess pieces have kind of been all over the board on the health insurance exchange issue, but now they’re moving into formation and the game plan is becoming more clear: The Senate announced today that it will take up SB 1042, the governor’s state insurance exchange bill, on Thursday morning. The Senate will convene early that day, at 9:30, and won’t break until it’s completed its debate and vote on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he believes there’s “enough pent-up frustration … with the federal government” that senators will need some time to express it.

Last week, Davis said on Idaho Public TV’s “Idaho Reports” that he hoped to wait for a Senate vote on the exchange bill until a “trailer” bill proposed by 16 House freshmen, requiring additional legislative oversight in the exchange, had passed the House and reached the Senate, so the two could be debated together. However, he said today that that turned out to be too difficult timing-wise; the House bill, HB 179, has been introduced, but is still awaiting its House committee hearing.

“I’ve had several meetings with the speaker on it,” Davis said. “We just wanted to make sure we understood what their process was.” He said, “Should they send us the trailer bill, and frankly I hope they do, I am confident that it will be well-received in our committee and then postured for debate and consideration thereafter.” The measure would go to the Senate Commerce Committee, the same committee that voted 8-1 in favor of SB 1042.

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said HB 179 will have its House committee hearing on Monday. Malek will be gone Thursday and Friday for a work trip to Washington, D.C.; he said he pushed for quicker consideration, but House leaders wanted to allow sufficient time for the freshmen’s bill to be “vetted” before the hearing. “The Senate’s procedure isn’t going to impact our bill,” Malek said. “As long as the governor signs both into law, 1042 and then 179, we’ll be fine.”

He added, “I asked to have it moved up in terms of, can we vote on it now? They said, well, it’s not an emergency situation. Be patient, basically, is what they told me.”

Malek said, “The group that I’m involved with, we’ve made it clear that we’re not going to vote on 1042 until 179 has passed both houses.” He added, “I’ve certainly received a lot of support for what we’ve done. I’m excited to see how it all works out. I really do feel like what we’ve done provides a lot of protection for our constituents throughout the state.”

Senate backs new oil, gas commission

The Senate has voted 35-0 in favor of SB 1049, legislation to set up a new governor-appointed oil and gas commission; that role currently is filled by the members of the state Land Board, who are the state’s top five elected officials. Under the bill, which now moves to the House side for consideration, the new five-member commission would include one person knowledgeable in gas and oil, one in geology, one in water, one land owner with surface and mineral rights in the area where oil and gas exploration is being conducted, and one land owner without such rights.

Interestingly, Montana’s Board of Oil and Gas Conservation has identical membership requirements, but with two additional members representing the public, and with a requirement that one board member be an attorney.

Idaho has had little oil and gas development until just the last few years, prompting the state’s move to update its regulatory laws, including controversial changes passed last year in which the state limited local counties’ role in regulating the industry. Prior to the Senate’s vote today, Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told senators, “I just rise to announce I may have a conflict of interest. I have an oil and gas lease.” That disclosure was noted for the record.

After much debate, House passes Medicaid readiness bill

The House debated hard over HB 180, the supplemental appropriation bill for the next phase of “Medicaid readiness,” or federally required changes to Idaho’s existing Medicaid program. Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “We’re opening the door for Medicaid expansion, which can be a dangerous element in this state.” He said, “I really fear for Idaho financially to go down this road.”

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “I hate to debate in favor of this bill, because as all of you know, I have restated my entire time in the Legislature any expansion of Medicaid. But I think you have to realize here that this is not the expansion piece. … That is not what we’re doing here.”

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, told the House, “I don’t care if you guys think it’s the law. I suppose it is up to a point. … We don’t have to abide by it as a sovereign state if we don’t want to.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, “This is the time to send a message, if you want to send a message, and so I’m going to vote no.”

JFAC Vice Chair Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said if the required changes aren’t made, Idaho’s Medicaid match rate from the federal government would suffer, costing the state more. And JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “We have agencies who have to abide by the law, and it is the law. … This in no way puts policy in place for an expansion.” The bill then passed the House on a 48-21 vote; it now moves to the Senate.

No debate, unanimous vote in House to restore $30M to this year’s school budget

HB 65, the bill to restore the $30 million to the current year’s public school budget that was put in limbo when voters repealed the “Students Come First” laws in November, has passed the House unanimously on a 69-0 vote – with no debate. “I would suggest that it’s impossible to define what the voters meant,” House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told the House. “The bottom line is we don’t know. Let me tell you what we do know, though. We do know that each one of us in this body as well as the body across the rotunda were elected to try to improve our state, and by extension to try to improve our education system.”

DeMordaunt said the funds were expected by school districts when they set their budgets for the current year. “Really all we’re doing is just meeting the expectations that were set,” he said. The bill now moves to the Senate side.

JFAC wrestles with lack of raises for state employees

After setting the first seven agency budgets this morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unanimously agreed to urge state agencies to grant raises to employees if they can find the money through salary savings. “The Legislature finds that investing in state employee compensation should remain a high priority even in tough economic times,” the joint committee’s statement says; it will be written into every state agency budget bill.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said that wasn’t enough. “After setting the 3 percent spending limit, at the time we did it, I felt that I needed to look further into what the numbers might allow,” Ringo said. “If we were simply to take all of the agencies and move them a fourth of the way from where they are to 90 percent of policy, that amount that that would cost is almost exactly the same as a 1 percent change in CEC, and only … 2/10 of a percent of the total amount that we’re budgeting. So I feel that we definitely have room to do this.”

She added, “I feel that we’ve made public employees feel that they’re kind of at the bottom of our priority list recently.” She read from state law that requires lawmakers to prioritize employee compensation, even in tough budget times – and even if it requires raising additional revenue or changing priorities. “What I’m asking the committee to do here is consistent with code, and it’s asking that we prioritize,” Ringo said. She moved to reconsider last Friday’s committee vote to write in zero for CEC, or Change in Employee Compensation, in state agency budgets. That reconsideration would require a two-thirds vote. But it failed on a 4-14 party-line vote, ending that discussion, and wrapping up the committee’s work for the day.

Move to boost DEQ workers pay falls short on party-line vote

A budget for the state Department of Environmental Quality that generally matches the governor’s recommendation – including the addition of $300,000 for a fish consumption study to stave off potentially more stringent water pollution rules from the EPA – has won JFAC approval, though Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, expressed concern. “I sure do feel like we’re not only being held over a barrel by the EPA in that regard, but now we’re being asked to use general fund taxpayer dollars to navigate that,” he said. However, Bayer ended up supporting the motion.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, proposed an alternative budget plan that would add in a quarter of the amount necessary to move to move the department’s salaries closer to state policy levels. It would cost $830,000 to bring the department up to 90 percent of policy levels for its staff salaries; she proposed adding in $207,000 in state general funds. “This particular agency has been a poster child in the past for turnover rates that deal with the inability to have competitive pay, particularly for the more highly skilled positions,” Ringo said. “But in general, if we look at the report that was recently released by the Office of Performance Evaluations, this agency is one of the more troubled ones with low compa-ratio; it’s in the neighborhood of 81 to 82 percent. I think it is something that merits our attention.”

She noted that Idaho law requires lawmakers to make public employee compensation a top priority. “Our public employees have certainly helped us during the economic downturn to balance our budget,” Ringo said, noting that collectively, state workers took $12 million in pay reductions through furloughs.

A retired math teacher, Ringo said, “I’m not ignoring our obligation that we took last Friday to limit our spending to 3 percent.” She said her approach would spend just “a small percent of what our target is.” Ringo said, “I think it’s something that realistically we can look at doing, and I think we should do it.”

Ringo’s motion, however, failed on a 4-14 party-line vote, with only the joint committee's four Democrats supporting it. The original motion then passed on a 16-2 vote, with just Sens. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, and Sheryl Nuxoll R-Cottonwood, objecting.

JFAC trims one chair, two desks, six computers from PUC budget…

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, proposed a budget for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, which gets no state general funds, that largely matches the governor’s recommendation, but Eskridge trimmed out funding for six of 18 computers planned to be replaced, and for one chair and two desks. “I reduced the replacement items slightly, just slightly,” Eskridge said, “recognizing that the computers were a little bit ahead of their normal replacement scheduled … and those other items I left out … still had good serviceable life and seemed to be appropriate to keep.” Overall, the budget rises by 4.3 percent next year, mainly because of the addition of a pipeline safety inspector, funded largely by federal Department of Transportation funds.

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, proposed an alternative budget motion leaving the computers and furniture items in. “May I remind the committee this is all dedicated and federal funds,” King said, adding that the cost of the chair, for example, “seems to me that that’s a minimal amount.” Eskridge, defending his proposal, said, “This is still ratepayer money. … I think we need to be prudent in determining when those replacement items actually need to be replaced.”

King’s motion was defeated on a 5-15 vote; Eskridge’s then passed unanimously.

Unanimous votes on several agency budgets…

There were unanimous votes in JFAC this morning on the budgets for the Division of Building Safety, state lottery, and endowment fund investment board; none include any state general funds, and none added funding for raises for state employees. In the building safety budget, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, proposed the successful budget motion that marks a 2.5 percent decrease; he said he worked with the division, and cut $500,000 and 10 positions that currently aren’t being used, to bring the appropriation more in line with what the agency actually is spending.

A similar proposal passed unanimously for the Office of Energy Resources, which is seeing a 46 percent cut in its overall funding, largely because of the end of federal stimulus funds the office had been spending. “The lack of a stable ongoing source of revenue is an issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who made the successful budget motion. It matches the governor’s recommendation. However, when it came to Eskridge's proposal to allow the office to carry over the final $20,000 to $30,000 in stimulus funds to finish up those projects in fiscal year 2014, two JFAC members objected; that move then passed on an 18-2 vote, with Sens. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, and Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, objecting.

First agency budget includes raises to bring low-paid workers up to par, but no general funds

The first budget up for consideration in JFAC this morning was the Department of Finance, which receives no state general tax funds; it operates entirely with fees on the industries it supervises. Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, who noted that he is a banker – an industry overseen by the department – proposed a motion that includes an item above the governor’s recommendation: To spend $196,600 to move 19 staff in the department from below 80 percent of policy levels in their salaries, up to 93 percent of policy. That would be partly offset by cutting $53,000 from the department’s requested replacement items.

“Being in the industry, I just felt it was important that we look at these salary increases,” Youngblood said. “In this department, it’s easy to lose its people. These employees … are well-trained professionals. It’s easy to lose ‘em to the industry.” The change would amount to roughly a 4 percent increase. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, called the change “appropriate.” But Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “I just have a concern about the precedent that this might set, and I’ll be voting no.” The budget proposal then was approved on a 15-5 vote; the five “no” votes came from Vick and Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, and Cliff Bayer, R-Boise; and Reps. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls; and Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston.

All state agency budgets are being built with zero funding for raises for state employees, unless JFAC members propose raises on a case-by-case basis. The votes today come after dozens of state employees filled a Capitol hearing room yesterday to tell lawmakers their pay is falling far short, and they see little opportunity for advancement without changing jobs.

CAT fund returns $6M in current year budget, due to savings from fed PCIP program

Today is the first day of agency budget-setting for the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, with the PUC and Department of Environmental Quality among those on the agenda. First, though, the joint committee is considering a final supplemental appropriation request, this one a negative. The Catastrophic Health Care Program, based on its recently revised projections for the current fiscal year, has determined that available resources exceed the needs for this year by about $6 million, largely because the program has diverted a large number of its high-cost cases to the federal Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, or PCIP. So Gov. Butch Otter has proposed a recission, or return of state funding, from the CAT program in the amount of $6 million for the current year.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, moved to approve the change, with $2.4 million of that determined to be one-time, and $3.6 million ongoing. The committee agreed unanimously.

Rev&Tax chair on Girl Scout cookie tax: ‘I’m just weighing it’

House Rev & Tax Chairman Gary Collins, R-Nampa, hasn’t set a date yet for a print hearing on the bill to remove Idaho’s sales tax from Girl Scout cookies, which would allow the bill to be introduced.  He said he’s worried about the state budget being tight next year.

“I’m not saying that the Girl Scout cookies isn’t a good cause and all that, but there are a lot of good causes out there,” Collins said. His committee already has approved a sales tax exemption this session for anti-abortion pregnancy resource centers; that bill has passed the full House. But Collins noted its estimated fiscal impact was only $10,000 a year, compared to the $140,000 fiscal impact of the Girl Scout bill.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, the bill’s lead sponsor, said, “I honestly did not know, along with most of my colleagues … that we were taxing the cookies the way we are.” He said, “It’s more than worthy to have a conversation on. I would like to see it passed and signed into law.”

Collins said, “I’m sympathetic with what they’re talking about. I’m just weighing it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Change to staggered food stamp distribution clears Senate committee

Instead of flooding grocery stores with food stamp recipients on the 1st of every month, Idaho would stagger the issuance of food stamps over the first 10 days of each month, under legislation that cleared the Senate Health & Welfare Committee this afternoon on a 6-3 vote. Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said she was prompted to sponsor SB 1053 by her own experience going grocery shopping - and encountering huge crowds on the 1st of the month. Anti-hunger activists testified that the state's current single-day distribution leads to food going to waste when shoppers face long lines and abandon their carts of food, including easily spoiled food like frozen items that can't be re-shelved. A similar bill passed the House last year, but failed in the Senate committee.

Crowd turns out to tell lawmakers about state employee pay issues

There are about 65 people in room EW 41 of the state Capitol this afternoon for a “listening session” on state employee compensation; six Democratic lawmakers are assembled to hear the testimony. In the audience, House Commerce Chairman Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, and Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, also are listening in.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who is chairing the session along with Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said this is the fifth straight year that Idaho lawmakers haven’t held a “CEC” hearing, which stands for “Change in Employee Compensation,” and is the mechanism through which the Legislature previously heard annually from state workers about pay and compensation issues before making decisions on whether to grant raises. “Now we’re working on the 2014 budget and the governor has recommended a zero percent change again,” Ringo said. “I think it’s high time that we did get together and listen to you and hear what your notions are relative to compensation.”

The state’s official study shows that state workers’ pay now is 18.9 percent below market levels.

The first to testify at this afternoon’s hearing was Michelle Doane, an auditor with the Idaho Transportation Department. “Six years ago, I left private industry to come to work for the state,” she told the six lawmakers, who in addition to Ringo and King include Reps. Hy Kloc, Janie Ward-Engleking, and John Gannon, all D-Boise. “I didn’t leave for the pay or benefits. I came because I wanted to serve.” She said her pay is “below that of my peers in private industry,” and opportunities for advancement are limited. “In order to receive more pay, I must get promoted rather than improve my skills,” Doane said. “It is very disheartening when we learned that there would be no CEC this year, and yet we are paying more for Social Security, health insurance and our PERSI. What does that say to the employees who serve this great state?” She said, “Holding back on our pay is a short-term solution causing long-term harm.”

Said Janet French, a technical records specialist for ITD, “We’re living paycheck to paycheck.” She said she’s worked for the state for more than 10 years and has advanced education, but her pay leaves her turning to Goodwill to shop for clothes, including the sweater and skirt she wore to the hearing. Ringo told her, “You look great, by the way,” and the audience gave French a round of applause. Scott Witzel, an ITD snowplow driver for the past five years, said the state's pay rates are “embarrassing” compared to those in neighboring states.

Shelly Doty, a 22-year state employee, drew a round of applause when she said, “To me, having pay grades for an average family that falls into the poverty level is appalling.” She said, “In a sense, we’re providing our own customers for Health & Welfare.”

Steve Seale, a 32-year state employee, said, “Maybe we could have an employee compensation commission that takes it out of the hands of the Legislature.”

Cities, counties, school boards all come out against draft personal property bill

The associations representing Idaho cities, counties and school boards all have come out against the initial draft bill the governor’s office released last week to phase out the personal property tax on business equipment, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. “The legislation will result in a significant shift in property tax burden to homeowners, farms, and small businesses,” the heads of the three associations wrote in a letter to Gov. Butch Otter on Friday; you can read Richert’s full report here, and read the letter here. Click below for a report from AP reporter John Miller.

Idaho one of just 2 states that tax Girl Scout cookies; scouts aim to change that

As Girl Scouts fan out across the state for their annual cookie sale, under current law, 22 cents of every $3.75 box they sell will go to the state of Idaho, rather than to Girl Scout programs. The Girl Scouts of the Silver Sage Council aim to change that, so they’re pushing for legislation this year to end Idaho’s distinction as one of just two states – Hawaii is the other – that still taxes Girl Scout cookies.

Removing Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax from the fundraiser cookies would cost the state roughly $140,000 a year, according to legislation being sponsored by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, and co-sponsored by Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. But the Girl Scouts say the money goes to a great cause: 23 percent of Silver Sage girl scouts are on scholarship, and the money to pay for their membership fees, badges, sashes and for camp comes from the cookie sale. Plus, Girl Scouts sponsor anti-bullying and STEM education programs among other good works; and their results speak for themselves: 80 percent of Girl Scouts go on to earn bachelor’s degrees; 80 percent of U.S. women business owners are former Girl Scouts; every female astronaut who’s flown in space is former Girl Scout; and 70 percent of the women in the U.S. Congress are former Girl Scouts.

“The state shouldn’t be balancing its budgets on the backs of Brownies,” declares Julie Hart, a lobbyist who’s representing the Girl Scouts free of charge, and who’s also the mother of a 9-year-old Brownie, Ella Marcum-Hart. She’s among about 30 Girl Scouts who came to the state Capitol today to press the case for their program and their tax bill, which currently is awaiting a hearing date for possible introduction in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. The scouts distributed cards to every lawmaker about their cookie program, including how it helps the girls learn money management, business ethics, goal setting and people skills. They’re set up in the 1st floor rotunda of the state Capitol today, where lawmakers can meet them, hear about their legislation and exchange their cards for a free box of Girl Scout cookies.

Burgoyne, a former Boy Scout who stopped by to chat with Hart today, said, “I was very impressed with the analysis I read about how many successful women in the United States were Girl Scouts.” Nearby, Ella demonstrated a goal-setting bracelet and other crafts to Reps. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, and Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, shown here. Her mom, a lobbyist who’s taken on this client pro-bono, said she’s gotten overwhelmingly positive response from legislators so far – except from the Rev & Tax Committee, where her bill awaits action. She’s hoping to get an introductory hearing date soon; Ella already is working on her speech in favor of the bill. Said Hart, “I am trying my hardest to get this passed for them.”

Anti-takings bill echoes unsuccessful 2006 ballot initiative

Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker reports that new legislation from Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, on regulatory takings echoes a 2006 initiative, Proposition 2, that Idaho voters rejected by a large margin, 76 percent no to 24 percent yes. Morse’s bill, HB 160, seeks to expand Idaho’s 2003 regulatory takings act to require that if a regulatory action cuts a property owner’s market value by 50 percent, the government would have to pay the owner or rescind the law or regulation; HB 160 is pending in the House State Affairs Committee. You can read Barker’s full post here.

 

Legislation to restrict teen tanning is back

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill that would ban teens younger than 16 from using tanning beds is back in the Idaho Legislature. On Monday, the House Health and Welfare committee introduced the measure, which would also require parental consent for 16 and 17-year-olds. Idaho Medical Association lobbyist Ken McClure says artificial tanning poses a serious health concern to young people and heightens risk for skin cancer. Under the bill, violators would be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $100. A similar proposal that barred anyone under 15 from tanning and required parental consent for older teens died in the Senate last year. That legislation had support from medical professionals but was panned by tanning industry representatives who argued parents — not the government — should regulate their children's behavior.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Hannah Furfaro.

Mentally ill juveniles could be detained for 24 hours, under bill

Mentally unstable teens who pose a serious threat to themselves or others could be ordered into temporary protective custody by their doctor for up to 24 hours, under a bill introduced in the House Health & Welfare Committee this morning, the AP reports; under existing law, only law enforcement officials can detain juveniles. Ken McClure, lobbyist for the Idaho Medical Association, said the measure would bring laws regarding treatment of mentally ill juveniles in line with those for adults, and give health providers a tool to help them deal with emergencies. The committee vote clears the way for a full public hearing on the bill.

New bill would create new class of concealed weapon permits

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho residents with concealed weapons permits could soon carry their guns in more states, under a plan to allow them to get additional training. Currently, most states don't recognize Idaho concealed weapons permits, because they require little instruction. Rep. Joe Palmer of Caldwell aims for Idaho to offer a new, voluntary enhanced permit that includes an eight-hour class with live fire training. The Republican lawmaker says holders of one of these new permits would likely be eligible to carry a concealed weapon in about three dozen states. Rep. Judy Boyle, a Midvale Republican, said last week she's also hopeful an enhanced permit like Palmer proposes could convince Idaho school boards to allow people to carry concealed weapons in schools. Palmer's bill won introduction in the House State Affairs Committee Monday.

Senate, House memorialize past members

Today is the day that both the House and the Senate hold their memorial services to remember those former members who have died in the past year. In the Senate this morning, formers Sens.  Larry Craig and Denton Darrington returned to take part in the ceremony; here, Craig is recalling the late Sen. Lyle Cobbs of Ada County. Those former senators being memorialized this year are Dean Van Engelen,Cassia and Minidoka counties; Clyde Boatright, Kootenai and Bonner counties; Cobbs; and Perry Swisher, Bannock County; in the House, former representatives being memorialized include Swisher and Cobbs, who both also served in the House, along with Jack Barraclough, Bonneville County; Beth Fitzwater, Ada County; Jim Jones, Elmore and Owyhee counties; and Karl E. Koch Sr., who represented Camas, Elmore, Gooding and Twin Falls counties.

Rev & Tax unanimously backs bill to clarify that counties can’t tax tribal lands on reservations

There was no opposition, and the House Revenue & Taxation Committee was unanimous this morning in backing HB 140, the bill to clarify that tribe-owned land within Idaho Indian reservations is not subject to local county property taxation. Such lands hadn’t been taxed in Idaho for a century due to the state Constitution’s provision declaring that the state “forever disclaim(s) all right and title” to tribal lands, but some counties around the state started sending tax bills to tribes in 2006.

“This is something the tribes need and the counties need … for clarity,” Helo Hancock, legislative director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, told the committee. “It certainly is consistent and reaffirms the Constitution.” The bill adds tribes to the section of state law noting that government property isn’t subject to local property tax.

On Friday, the Kootenai County Commission voted unanimously to cancel the back property taxes it had assessed against the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s lands. “The tribe is certainly a government,” Hancock told the committee. “It’s required to provide essential services,” from police, courts and fire to road and social service programs. He noted that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe also has donated $10 million to taxing districts in its area.  

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, said, “We’re talking about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, who I think are a progressive, generous group of people. But it’s my understanding this law will apply to all Indian tribes in the state of Idaho,” including those, he said, that might not be as “magnanimous.” Hancock responded that the Kootenai Tribe donates 10 to 20 times the amount to its surrounding community that would be generated if its lands were taxed. At the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in eastern Idaho, he said, 98 percent of the property is tribal trust land, and the amount in dispute over county property taxes is only about $3,000. Total statewide property tax bills that have been sent to tribes come to just over $300,000 a year, much of that on the Coeur d’Alene reservation; much of the land targeted was opened up for non-tribal homesteading at one point in history, then later reacquired by the tribe.

The bill now moves to the full House; to become law, it must pass both there and in the Senate and receive the governor’s signature.

Great view above the city; tricky road up requires patience…

This was the view up at Bogus Basin yesterday as the sun slanted through the clouds. Despite a thin snow cover so far this year, the local non-profit ski resort delivered an outstanding weekend of skiing, with warm, sunny, spring-like conditions on Saturday and a more wintry feel on Sunday complete with crisp air and new snow.

The new snow, which fell overnight Saturday night, left the resort’s access road very slick Sunday morning, but it had cleared off nicely by the afternoon, rendering all the more inexplicable the fatal accident in which a 50-year-old Boisean in a blue Porsche careened off a 400-foot embankment and was killed. It’s a narrow and winding road, and buses and other slow vehicles sometimes slow down traffic, but with a little patience, everyone usually gets down safely. Be careful out there.

Senate panel OKs special liquor license for Caldwell Night Rodeo

The Senate State Affairs Committee has approved SB 1074, legislation from Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, to allow a special liquor license for the Caldwell Night Rodeo. The rodeo has long had a beer and wine license and has sold liquor through a catering permit from a local restaurant, but this year, the state Alcohol Beverage Control office advised it that that was not proper procedure. State law already permits a special liquor license to be issued to a professional “equestrian facility” of 40 acres outside a city, with at least 6,000 seats and at least three days a year of professionally sanctioned rodeo; the bill modifies that to 25 acres inside or outside a city.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “I’ve attended many a rodeo there, particularly at the old fairgrounds. … I do remember when there were some times with people drinking and fighting. … But that still doesn’t take away from I think what is a tradition in their community, what is a wonderful contribution to their economy.” He said, “Even though I’m not a real fan of the issues of public drinking and the social costs of those, I probably am going to support this for the benefit of the community.”

The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration; it would provide the Caldwell Night Rodeo with the same type of non-transferable liquor license state law allows for golf courses and ski resorts. The law also provides for an array of other types of special licenses; otherwise, liquor licenses in Idaho are available only inside cities through a formula based on population. Other special licenses cover airport restaurants, convention centers, historic bars, certain lakefront bed-and-breakfast facilities, and gondola resort complexes. Several years ago, Gov. Butch Otter proposed a sweeping reform of Idaho's system for allocating liquor-by-the-drink licenses, but lawmakers rejected it.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Rocky Barker, Jim Weatherby, Bill Spence and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature, from the new personal property tax proposal to the Senate’s historic rejection of the governor’s Fish & Game nominee to the unprecedented way 16 House GOP freshmen have stepped forward to become a factor in the fate of a state health insurance exchange. Plus, Greg talks with Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and interviews freshman Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow; and there’s another installment of the virtual tour of the restored Capitol.  The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.

McClure Center offers free symposium on federal fiscal mess Tues. at Capitol Auditorium

The University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research is inviting the public to a Symposium on Federal Fiscal Issues on Tuesday evening, with panelists including Sen. Mike Crapo, Congressman Mike Simpson, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, retired Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The free symposium will take place from 8-10 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium and will be streamed live online; those who would like to attend are asked to reserve their free tickets at www.uirsvp.com.

Senate backs expanding program to reward kids who graduate early with scholarships

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — More gifted Idaho high school students are one step closer to having an expedited path to one of the state's public universities under a bill approved by the Senate. The Senate signed off on a bipartisan bill Friday that makes permanent a pilot program offering high-achieving students college scholarships equal to about $1,400 if they graduate early from high school. That bill will now move to the House. Republican Sen. Steve Thayn, of Emmett, said over $40,000 in scholarships was dispersed last year. He said Idaho saved $150,000 that year because the state's cost of educating one student annually is higher than the average award. Thayn said the measure also benefits local districts by providing them a portion of the state's savings to use for other expenses.

New bill would clarify tax status of ‘cloud computing’ services

At the request of Idaho’s high-tech businesses, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee agreed this morning to introduce legislation to clarify that “cloud computing” services delivered over the Internet are services – not tangible goods subject to the sales tax. That’s been an issue for a growing number of Idaho high-tech firms since the Idaho State Tax Commission in October issued a bulletin about how interprets the state’s 1993 law saying software is taxable property regardless of how it’s delivered to the customer; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Jay Larsen, head of the Idaho Technology Council, told the committee he’s not talking about purchases of software. Instead, cloud computing essentially involves people renting computing power, electronic storage space and other services over the Internet through subscriptions. “This legislation will help set the foundation to continue to show that we have the right infrastructure from a public policy standpoint to support tech companies and software companies as they grow and develop,” Larsen told the committee.

In recent months, he said, a number of high-tech firms have been audited by the state Tax Commission and told they have to pay large amounts of back sales taxes. “This tax has caused a lot of people to consider moving their operations out of the state so they would not have to pay that tax,” Larsen said. “It says if your servers are in the state of Idaho, you pay 6 percent more than if your server is in the state of Oregon.” He urged the lawmakers to “make it so it’s more competitive for the industry here in the state of Idaho.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “You’re not an owner of this property, because you can’t dispense it, you can’t modify it, you can’t change it. So actually, what you’re doing is just renting it. You’re renting it from the provider. … Is that correct?”

Larsen said yes. “You went right to the heart of the matter,” he said. Several other committee members had questions, including about the difference between subscribing to a cloud-computing service and downloading software online.

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “I can see in this committee there’s a considerable amount of interest in what you’ve brought to us, so I think probably we ought to explore it further.” She moved to introduce the bill, and her motion passed unanimously, clearing the way for a full hearing on the measure.

Larsen said the Idaho Technology Council is an industry organization “focused on growing technology and innovation in the state of Idaho and the region.” Its membership consists of nearly 200 Idaho businesses.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Idaho is one of six states since 2009, including Washington, that have moved to apply sales taxes to cloud services in some form; while six other states, including Kansas and Nebraska, have reached the opposite conclusion in the same time period, deciding that cloud services should be exempt from sales taxes.

House passes $3M ‘Idaho Opportunity Fund’ bill for state Dept. of Commerce

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho cities could have an additional $3 million in tools to attract businesses to their communities through a bill approved by the House. The Idaho Opportunity Fund passed through the House on a 59-8 vote Friday and will now go to the Senate. Under the legislation, towns would be eligible for money to use on infrastructure projects, like new roads, that companies looking to relocate in Idaho might require. The proposal requires local governments to match any state grants. Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Jeff Thompson said it also includes oversight measures meant to hold businesses accountable. Companies promising an economic windfall are required to prove their benefits before they get state funds. Rep. Pete Nielsen, of Mountain Home, said Idaho should focus on mandatory services instead of creating new grants.

Dem lawmakers schedule their own state worker pay hearing, say needs not being met

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she didn’t object in JFAC this morning to a budget-setting framework for state agency budgets that doesn’t include raises for state employees because “the number that the committee agreed to budget to didn’t have any room for CEC,” or change in employee compensation. Yet, Ringo said, state law requires the state to address state worker compensation and move workers to policy pay levels, a standard from which it’s falling far short. “I have a bill prepared to generate the revenue that would then be able to support that,” Ringo said. “I’m still talking to the chair of Rev & Tax about when that bill will be heard. Our problem is revenue. I’m hoping that the people on this committee get a real picture as to how some of these revenue decisions we make, such as the $35 million tax cut last year, affect our ability to meet our obligations. CEC increases are in Idaho code. We’ve been totally ignoring that.”

In fact, in past years, the Legislature held hearings each year in the House and Senate Commerce & Human Resources committees to hear from state employees on compensation issues and decide about CEC each year; they don’t any longer. As a result, Ringo and Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, have scheduled their own hearing for Monday, from 4-6 p.m. in room EW 42, and are inviting state workers and the public to comment on issues ranging from wages, workload and training to the condition of state buildings and the adequacy of technology.

Ringo said she’s drafted legislation for a 5 percent surcharge on income tax for those with taxable incomes of more than $50,000 a year, which is roughly equivalent to gross income of $75,000 a year or more. That would raise about $44 million a year, enough for a 2 percent CEC next year plus moving all state employees to 90 percent of the policy-level pay for their position, and leave some left over. Ringo said the revenue could also go to such items as deferred maintenance on state buildings. “I think the bottom line is we have some needs,” she said. “I think we have an incredible need for some additional revenue.”

Otter’s zero-raises recommendation for state workers to be built into all budgets

One of Gov. Butch Otter’s most controversial proposals in his budget – to provide zero funding for raises for state employees – has been endorsed by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, for purposes of building its budgets for each state agency. Otter recommended increases only to comply with statutorily required boosts for statewide elected officials and for certain military division employees due to federal pay schedule changes; state employee pay, though it remains far below market levels according to state studies, wouldn’t change.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, asked whether JFAC members could still consider including raises in state agency budgets on a case by case basis, and JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said yes; today’s decision wouldn’t preclude JFAC members from making such proposals.

JFAC will start setting agency budgets on Tuesday morning; that will also be the start of the joint committee's early-morning, 7 a.m. work sessions prior to its 8 a.m. budget setting.  

More budget decisions: Replacement items only on case-by-case basis

The joint budget committee is now debating a series of items that will play into every agency budget it sets for next year: Benefit changes, inflationary items, replacement items and more. So far, JFAC has agreed unanimously to include the governor’s recommendation for benefit cost changes for state employees in all agency budgets, but not to include either his recommendations for inflationary adjustments or his recommendations for replacement items – a big budget chunk. Instead, when JFAC members propose budget motions, they’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to include any of those inflationary adjustments or replacement items.

JFAC sets budget target for next year at 3% over this year, matching gov’s recommendation

JFAC has voted unanimously, 20-0, to set a target for its appropriations for next year, fiscal year 2014, that’s 3 percent above 2013 appropriations, matching Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendations. That puts the total general fund spending target for next year at $2,783,010,200. “This is a ceiling,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who made the successful motion. “It cannot be any more – it can be less. But we need it in place to go forth.”

The Otter Administration forecasts that state general fund tax revenue next year will rise by 5.3 percent, but recommended spending just 3 percent. Bell said, “I believe that this is prudent. This will keep the core responsibilities of the state government in place, and it will not put us in a position where budgeting 18 months out like we do, that the (governor)… is going to be in a position about August to have to cut further.”

The figure takes into account several changes since the start of the legislative session, including the passage of the IRS conformity bill, which costs the state budget $6 million in the current year and $3 million in fiscal year 2014, and the “Hire One More Employee” act, which has passed the House and has a $10.4 million fiscal impact for next year. It also reflects decisions already made on supplemental appropriations for the current budget year.

Farm Bureau brings new version of bill to make it tougher for initiatives, referenda to make ballot

The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation has brought in a new version of its bill to make it tougher to get initiatives or referenda on the Idaho ballot, this time requiring signatures to come from 6 percent of residents of 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, rather than from 22 of the 35  legislative districts. The new bill is otherwise identical to the group’s earlier measure. The Senate State Affairs Committee voted this morning to introduce the new version, but only after Sen. Elliiot Werk, D-Boise, said he’s heard from his constituents “a deep-seated anger with these kinds of attempts to lessen the ability of the people to petition us,” and Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, noted that a 9th Circuit court decision cited by the Farm Bureau doesn’t indicate the courts would uphold such a restriction, which likely would land the state back in court. “I have some confidence that there’ll be a judicial opportunity for review should the Legislature adopt this approach,” Davis said.

Proposed personal property tax cut bill would cut funding from urban renewal districts

Under the proposed legislation to eliminate the personal property tax on business equipment, urban renewal districts in Lewiston and Moscow would lose as much as 39 percent of their annual property tax revenues, reports reporter Bill Spence of the Lewiston Tribune. “If we don't generate enough revenue to pay our bills, we're absolutely stuck,” Lewiston Community Development Director Laura Von Tersch told Spence; click below for his full report. The draft legislation specifically excludes urban renewal districts from receiving any state replacement funds to offset the tax cut for businesses.

Gov. Otter floats personal property tax cut plan

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The measure everybody has been waiting for — personal property tax relief — is finally in play, after Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter released a draft proposal for review by counties, cities, schools, business groups and lawmakers. Otter's plan, released on Thursday, would eliminate the $140 million tax on business equipment over six years. Under the proposal, Idaho's taxpayer-supported general fund would replace some of the money that cities, counties and other local governments stand to lose under the repeal. Local governments could replace the rest, by shifting the burden to real property. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry has been working feverishly for repeal, to help members including Idaho Power Co. and Micron Technology Inc. that contend the tax is unfair. Otter's chief of staff, David Hensley, expects modifications.

Also, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence has a post on the proposal at his Political Theater blog here.

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

Valentine’s Day rally against sexual, domestic violence draws dancing crowd to Statehouse

On this Valentine’s Day, dance rallies were held as part of an international event protesting violence against women and girls dubbed “One Billion Rising,” and it happened in Boise, too, on the Statehouse steps. The Boise Weekly reports that hundreds danced in front of the Capitol today as part of the local event, sponsored by the Idaho Council Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. You can see the Weekly’s post and pictures here.

The One Billion Rising organization is based on the idea that one in three women on the planet will be attacked in her lifetime, with the saying, “One billion women violated is an atrocity; one billion women dancing is a revolution.” This year is the 15th that the event has been held.

Bill to curb urban renewal killed after committee hears extensive opposition

After nearly two hours of testimony, the House Local Government Committee has overwhelmingly rejected HB 135, a proposal from Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, to require a city-wide or county-wide vote before any urban renewal agency could establish a new revenue allocation area within its district; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Urban renewal officials from Boise, Twin Falls and elsewhere spoke out against the bill, saying it posed serious legal and functional problems for urban renewal districts in their operations. Lobbyist Ken McClure told the committee, “This is the kind of thing that will severely impact the ability to attract the next Chobani.” McClure said, “I think HB 135, in many cases, will be the exact reverse of the incentive you are looking for for building a vibrant business community in Idaho.”

The Idaho Chamber Alliance was among those testifying against the bill; the onlye group speaking in favor was the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said, “When I ran for office, people asked me what I wanted to accomplish, and I said one of those things is to not make bad law. And I think this is bad law.”

The bill was killed on a 4-9 vote; the only committee members supporting it were Sims and Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Steven Harris, R-Meridian; and Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, the committee’s chairman. Barrett asked, “Why do you not want to vote? Is that not what America is all about?”

Barbieri said, “I understand that urban renewal allocation districts is one of the few tools, but it has become primarily used to avoid the vote that’s otherwise necessary for bonding of cities.” He made the unsuccessful motion to pass the bill to the full House.

After the vote, the committee agreed at Barbieri’s request to hold his bill, HB 136, in committee; it had been next up on the agenda. The move kills the bill for this legislative session. That measure would have made extensive changes to Idaho’s local land-use planning laws, including requiring any comprehensive plan changes to be approved by voters; making the state’s land-use planning law apply only in cities and counties that opt in to use it; and requiring, in those cases, that a property rights council be established to review all planning and zoning decisions.

The panel then voted unanimously, with no debate, to pass HB 137, Rep. Luke Malek’s bill to remove an obscure clause from existing law that allows an urban renewal district to enter private homes within the district to make inspections.

Hearing set for next week on two anti-marijuana measures

Two controversial measures dealing with marijuana have been scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee next Wednesday morning, and committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, is trying something new: He’s letting people sign up in advance to testify. “I think it would make it a little easier for people to sign up and avoid so much confusion that morning,” McKenzie said. He said he’ll also offer people the opportunity to sign up to testify that morning.

Senate State Affairs meets at 8 a.m.; the hearing is scheduled Wednesday for the Capitol Auditorium. The two measures are SCR 112, which would state the Idaho Legislature’s firm opposition to legalizing marijuana in the state for any purpose; and SJM 101, a non-binding memorial calling on the federal government to enforce federal anti-drug laws in all states, including those, like Idaho’s neighbor Washington, that have legalized marijuana. “Legalizing this substance is a threat to all states and citizens, not just to the few states that have opted to violate federal law,” the measure states. Both measures are sponsored by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

McKenzie said those wishing to sign up in advance to testify can do so by email to the committee secretary at sstaf@senate.idaho.gov.

OSHA proposes $14,000 in fines over Idaho firefighter’s death

A fire management organization has been cited by OSHA and fined $14,000 for serious safety violations that inspectors say led to the death of U.S. Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth last summer, the AP reports. Click below for the full report; the citation, dated Feb. 7, said the initial attack team of the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association on the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino last August violated eight of 10 standing firefighting orders on the fire.

Gun-rights bills coming forward…

Fearful that President Barack Obama will move aggressively to limit firearms, a Republican lawmaker said Thursday at least two bills meant to bolster gun rights will begin their journey through the Idaho Legislature starting early next week, the AP reports. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, is encouraging proponents of firearms-related legislation to come forward with proposals quickly, AP reporter John MIller reports, so lawmakers have a chance to adequately vet them.”It's time to start moving bills,” Bedke said, estimating that the 2013 session is about half over. Click below for Miller's full report.

House votes 62-7 for governor’s “HOME” jobs tax credit bill

The House has voted 62-7 in favor of HB 88, the governor’s “Hire One More Employee” or HOME tax credit bill, sending it across the rotunda to the Senate side. The measure revises the existing “Hire One” new jobs credit, adding an extra $1,000 credit if the new employee is a veteran, and revising the amounts and qualifications for the credit. “It makes it simpler,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the bill’s House sponsor. “A new job is a benefit to the state of Idaho.” The bill’s estimated cost is $10.4 million a year.

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “I think we’ve got to look at it from a business sense, that if you can spend a little money to create business, it will profit the state.” Said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, “I think it’s an investment in our future.”

Opponents included Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, who called the bill “government meddling in the free-enterprise system.” She said, “If we’re going to do tax breaks, let’s do tax breaks for everybody.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “What we’re doing is we’re handing out taxpayer money to folks who are probably going to hire somebody anyway.”

In the vote, those opposing the bill were Barrett, Luker, and Reps. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome; Steven Harris, R-Meridian; Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton; John Rusche, D-Lewiston; and Ed Morse, R-Hayden.

Siddoway: Personal property tax talks ‘alive,’ but not ‘well’

Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, used his presentation to JFAC to report on talks on repealing or reducing the personal property tax on business equipment. “I wish I could stand here today and report to you that all is well, but unfortunately that is not the case,” he said. Discussions are ongoing, he said, but are stuck in part on whether they should include exempting operating property, such as utility lines, railroad tracks and pipelines. He said there’s been recent discussion of using tax shifts as a way to cope with the cost of reducing the tax: For example, he said, a school levy might cost a typical homeowner more, because personal property wouldn’t be included in the base taxed for the levy. “That makes it harder to pass that levy,” Siddoway told JFAC. “But with that shift, the voters have an opportunity to say yea or nay on it. So that’s one way some of the moneys could be shifted.”

Siddoway said discussions are continuing. “The proposal is still alive,” he said. “I don’t know how well it is, but it’s still alive.” He added that any plan likely would look at a multi-year phaseout, and might not exempt all personal property from tax.

Click below for comments from other committee chairs addressing JFAC this morning.

Rep. Wood on Medicaid: ‘I don’t see how you’re going to reduce it any more’

Among the committee chairs presenting budget recommendations for their subject areas to JFAC this morning was Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, chairman of the Health & Welfare Committee. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, questioned why Medicaid costs have seen such large swings over the years, sometimes requiring big supplemental appropriations, and other times, like this year, turning back millions; Wood said the history of the program for the past 15 years has been tumultuous, between federal funding changes, budget downturns, major updates to operating systems and more. Now, he said, it’s a more efficient system where it’s easier to see where the money goes. “I think we’ve tightened that down as far as we could get it,” he said.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the Senate co-chair of JFAC, asked Wood, “Nobody knows more about the Health & Welfare budget in this room than you do, you’ve worked that budget inside and out and helped us thru some difficult times. … I hear rumors around in the halls once in a while now that we’re going to try and take another $32 million out of Medicaid. Do you think that that’s possible?”

Wood, who worked on the H&W budget for six years as a JFAC member before taking on the H&W committee chairmanship, said the budget when he first arrived had been increasing steeply, but that’s slowed, with increases the last six years at just over 3 percent. “I think we’ve bent that cost curve, under the current program, down about as far as we can,” he said. “I can’t see how you’re going to reduce it any more. … Until you get a good managed care program in place, I don’t think you’re going to reduce that. Because what you’re talking about now is reducing it by 7 or 8 percent. … I don’t know where you’re going to get that.” He noted that two years ago in HB 260, “We took $35 million out of that system, but that severely impacted it. … The following year we had to go back and put money in, because we truly impacted some individuals beyond the point of good care for the citizens, so I worry about doing that, I truly do.”

House Ed approves bill that restores current-year school funding

The House Education Committee has approved HB 65, the bill sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, to restore funding for the current year back to the public school budget despite program eliminations due to the defeat of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 in the November election. “I put this before you at this point in time to allow our school districts to have the funds they need in order to meet the expectations that we already set for them,” DeMordaunt told the committee.

The bill is complex, restoring some items but not others; the bottom line is a small increase for schools this year rather than a potential loss of $30 million. Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “I ‘m a little bit surprised that we don’t have some people coming in here and saying thank you.”

Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said, “This bill was necessary. … There were unintended consequences, and there always are. … We really needed to come in and do these things to hold our school districts, make them whole. Because there were some really tough things – well, impossible things if that money was not put back. … They can’t meet their obligations, and we can’t do that to them.”

Among other provisions, the bill restores funding for additional math and science teachers added this year; covers costs for students already enrolled in dual courses; shifts $2.5 million tabbed for laptop computers into technology-related professional development for teachers; and restores funding for payments to teachers who achieve national board certification. The bill now moves to the full House for debate. Without it, those funds would have sat unallocated in the school budget, and flowed, at the end of the year, into the public education stabilization fund, a savings account for schools.

Millennium Fund panel divided over tobacco-prevention funding for next year

The Joint Millenium Fund Committee presented its funding recommendations to JFAC this morning, detailing how it’s voted to spend next year’s distributions from earnings on the trust fund Idaho created with its proceeds from a national tobacco settlement. The fund has $10.7 million available to distribute next year, but Gov. Butch Otter recommended distributing just $6.34 million in grants, with the biggest recipient the Department of Correction’s community-based substance abuse treatment services, at $1.9 million; followed by the Department of Health & Welfare’s “Project Filter” smoking cessation services at $2 million. The committee’s recommendation came in just under the governor’s, at $6.31 million. It recommended the remaining funds revert to the corpus of the trust fund.

The committee’s plan would give the same amount the governor recommended to Corrections for the community drug treatment, while reallocating the Project Filter funds, to give $1.5 million to tobacco cessation, and $500,000 to the project’s anti-tobacco counter-marketing campaign. H&W had requested $1 million for counter-marketing, but the governor hadn’t recommended any funding.

The only other change from the governor’s recommendation in the committee’s list is that it rejected $30,000 the governor had allocated to Health & Welfare for a cancer data registry. Both recommendations include $270,000 from the Millenium Fund next year for the Idaho Meth Project; both rejected a group of other grant applications, including a $2 million one from the American Lung Association and other groups for an anti-tobacco program.

A minority report from the 10-member committee’s four Democratic members noted that the panel’s final meeting was held when two of them couldn’t attend, and decried the decision to return $4 million in available grant funds to the permanent trust. “This is counter to the intent of the Tobacco Master Settlement,” the Democrats wrote. “The purpose of the settlement was to prevent the use of tobacco, to fund cessation activities, and to mitigate the cost of tobacco related illnesses to the states.” They called for more funding for preventive programs. The final decisions are up to JFAC as it sets agency budgets that plug in the amounts from the fund.

Committee chairs begin reports to JFAC in prep for agency budget-setting…

Today, the chairs of germane committees in both houses are beginning their presentations of recommendations to JFAC as the joint committee prepares to begin setting state agency budgets. First up this morning were the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees.

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, about funding levels for public schools for next year. “The governor’s proposal is for a 2 percent increase to public schools; that’s in line with his 3 percent budget,” Cameron said. “The superintendent proposed a 3 percent increase to public schools, about $13 million more, which doesn’t fit in with the 3 percent budget, unless we can somehow magically find $13 million in some other place. Did the committee or do you have a personal feeling as to which direction you would like to see this committee head?”

Goedde responded, “I don’t think there was anybody on the committee who would say we need less money for education. There are ways to spend 3 percent very effectively. And we did not focus on the revenue side, we only focused on the expenditure side.”

To the same question, House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, responded, “We really did not focus on the revenue aspect. It was more of a discussion on the concepts, programs and ideas.” DeMordaunt called for pilot programs in technology at Idaho schools, with proposals from school districts to be reviewed by the state Department of Education; and also called for eliminating an early-retirement incentive program for teachers. “This has been ineffective, it has not achieved the desired results,” he said. Both called for the $33.9 million tabbed in both the governor’s and superintendent’s budget proposals to stay in the school budget, for such uses as professional development for the new Common Core standards; DeMordaunt also suggested using part of that for teacher pay for performance at the direction of local school districts.

Goedde called for funding improvements in administrative evaluation of teachers, and said, “Technology money needs to be sent to districts, for computer devices, wireless networks and professional development.”

The two committee chairmen hosted two open “listening sessions” in the Capitol Auditorium in the past few weeks on education issues that drew hundreds of people, and much testimony focusing on shortfalls in funding for charter schools and traditional Idaho school districts, and opposition to reviving labor provisions from voter-rejected Proposition 1, some of which are now pending in both committees. Though both weighed in on their committee’s views on a series of budget lines from the superintendent’s proposed budget, neither chairman mentioned the testimony in his presentation to JFAC.

Cross-border liquor sales: ‘Their mistake is our gain’

Idaho’s seen big boosts in sales in its state liquor division from Washington residents, division Director Jeff Anderson told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today. “Sales along the border there are up probably 20 to 30 percent,” Anderson said. “With the addition of the Stateline store, combined Post Falls/Stateline is tracking about plus-70 percent.”

The sales got a boost when Washington’s liquor prices spiked after the state’s voters decided to privatize their state liquor system, but to keep all state taxes and fees in place. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, asked, “As consumers in Washington get used to the convenience, I guess, of buying it out of the store, even though it’s got a higher price, my question is, will we continue having the same advantage? Or will the Washington consumers adapt to their prices and elect to stay home?”

“It’s difficult to predict,” Anderson responded. “I can tell you we monitor about 13 stores along the border, from Lewiston up to Oldtown.”

He said, “There are moves in the Washington Legislature, on the part of Costco and others, to try and repeal portions of how that whole system was implemented. But for the time being, we anticipate to continue to have additional business.”

An example is the “super premium” Patron brand of tequila, Anderson said. “It sells for around $50. In Idaho, out the door, that’s about $53. Pre-1183 (the Washington initiative), Washington state might have been maybe $56. So there was really no reason for a super-premium consumer to drive to try and find it at a lower price. Now, that same product in Washington can sell for as much as $75 to $80, when you add in all the taxes and fees. So when you think about the difference  between $53 and $75, that’s really what’s driving this, is the premium/super-premium categories.”

Eskridge responded, “We’ve got something good going here. We’ve got cheaper liquor prices, cheaper gas prices, cheaper tobacco prices. We need to keep on that trend and maybe we’ll continue improving our revenue situation in relation to Washington state. Their mistake is our gain, so let’s continue that.”

Shakeup of state oil & gas board wins Senate panel’s support

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's oil and natural gas industry is a step closer to getting new regulators after a Senate panel approved a shakeup of the state's Oil and Natural Gas Commission. Currently, the Idaho Land Board, with Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the attorney general, secretary of state, controller and public schools superintendent, regulates the industry. A newly constituted panel, approved unanimously by the Senate Resources and Environment Committee on Wednesday, would have five governor-appointed members. One person would have knowledge of drilling, another with geology experience and another technical expertise in water issues. There would also be two landowners, one with and one without mineral leases.The idea is to put decision-making in the hands of people with deeper knowledge of the issues, while reducing elected officials' conflicts of interest.

Idaho business profits have rebounded, while wages still lag pre-recession levels

Idaho’s wages are still short of their pre-recession peak, state Department of Labor Director Roger Madsen reported to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, but profits for Idaho businesses have rebounded, passing their pre-recession high in the spring of 2011 and growing by another 8.3 percent last summer. “While slow growth in wages is a concern, the importance of business profits in Idaho’s economy cannot be overlooked,” Madsen told lawmakers. “Over the past decade, business profits have been responsible for an increasing share of the gross state product. Since 2003, business profits have grown from 36.5 percent of gross state product to over 42 percent in 2010. With limited wage growth and profits rising significantly, that shift will likely continue.”

Madsen said overall, “Growth is slow, but is strengthening.”

Nearly all of the Idaho Department of Labor’s funding comes from federal funds; its $302,400 request for state general funds for next year reflects a 30 percent drop, due to the fourth year of the four-year phaseout of state general funds for the Idaho Human Rights Commission. That move cuts the last $140,000 in state funding for the commission, which now operates within the department largely with dedicated or federal funds.

Former Sen. Broadsword quits county commission for H&W job

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: SANDPOINT, Idaho (AP) — Former state Sen. Joyce Broadsword has decided to step away from her seat on the Bonner County Commission to take an administrative position with a state agency.Broadsword announced Tuesday plans to resign from the commission, less than one month after being sworn into office. The Bonner County Daily Bee reports (http://bit.ly/VgfNcv ) that she has accepted a position as regional director with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The regional office covers 10 northern Idaho counties. Broadsword served four terms in the Idaho Senate and ascended to vice chair of the chamber's Health and Welfare Committee. She decided not to seek re-election last year, opting instead to run for county commissioner. Broadsword knocked off incumbent Cornel Rasor in the Republican primary then beat independent Steve Johnson in November.

Click below for the full announcement from the state Department of Health & Welfare.

Bill would limit overseas voters

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Voters who once lived in Idaho but now reside overseas could be barred from casting ballots in local elections, under legislation introduced in a House committee Wednesday at the urging of Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene. The House State Affairs committee agreed to introduce the legislation to keep former Idahoans who live abroad indefinitely from voting in city council or other municipal elections. Federal absentee laws would allow those citizens to vote in national elections. The bill would not bar military personnel from voting in local races. Sims says the goal is to prevent voter fraud. In a neck-and-neck 2009 city council race, at least four Canadians cast ballots. A lawsuit on that case was ultimately decided by the Idaho Supreme Court. Sims introduced a similar bill last year to tighten standards for absentee ballots, but it bill died on the House floor.

Substitute Sen. Quane Kenyon: ‘I thought I knew where everything was’

Former longtime Associated Press reporter Quane Kenyon covered many an Idaho legislative session, but his role in the Capitol today is a different one – he’s a substitute senator, filling in today through Friday for Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise. Martin is off to Atlanta with his wife to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

As the Senate’s floor session concluded today, Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said to smiles, “It is wonderful to have a member of the press, even if a retired member of the press, sitting with us Republicans.”

Kenyon said afterward, “I thought I knew where everything was, because I prowled these halls for 26 years. So I get down here, and everything’s moved.”

Counting regular sessions, organizational sessions and special sessions, Kenyon said he covered 40 sessions of the Idaho Legislature for the Associated Press; he also covered the Michigan legislature. While he’s subbing for Martin, Kenyon said, “I hope to avoid making any really hard decisions, since I’m just a caretaker.”

Senate holds Lincoln commemoration

After a two-day delay due to an over-long floor debate on Monday, the Idaho Senate held its annual Lincoln Day ceremony today, with teen Senate pages taking center stage, both singing and offering inspiring quotes. That was the idea of freshman Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, who had been scheduled to give the ceremony's closing comments, but was gone today.

House freshmen band together for clout

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how 16 Idaho GOP House freshmen have banded together on the health insurance exchange bill, saying if their changes pass, they’ll back Gov. Butch Otter’s state exchange. That’s close to enough votes to put the governor’s controversial measure, SB 1042, over the top in the highly conservative Idaho House; the bill is now pending in the Senate, after clearing a Senate committee last week on an 8-1 vote.

Among the reaction to the freshman reps’ move: House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “We’ll be talking about this bill in our caucus. … I think this is good work from good legislators who are saying … we want to have our voice heard, so we’re going to find a way to make it louder.” Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said the freshman lawmakers’ move wouldn’t sway his group from its vocal stand against Otter’s bill. “It’s still very, very bad,” Hoffman said. “We’re still opposed.”

Another interesting note: The 16 freshmen said they may weigh in, en masse, on other issues in the Legislature as well.

House votes 65-5 in favor of phone companies’ bill to revise ‘do not call’ rules

There was no debate at all in the House this morning as HB 55, making changes to the rules for Idaho’s “do not call list,” passed on a 65-5 vote. The measure would lift the current ban on telephone companies, cellular or cable companies making solicitation calls to their existing customers if they’re on the list; under the bill, those companies could call those customers, but if the customers ask them to stop, they must, or they face penalties including a $500 fine. The bill extends that requirement to all businesses that make solicitation calls to their existing customers who have chosen to be on the “do not call” list.

“A telephone corporation, unlike all other businesses, may not call its existing customers to let them know about new services or products that are available in the customer’s area,” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, told the House. “This bill removes the discriminatory provision.”

The bill was sought by two phone companies, Frontier Communications and Century Link. It’s opposed by the Idaho Attorney General’s office, which operates the current “do-not-call” program, and reported that Idahoans are asking for fewer telephone solicitations at their homes, not more. All House members backed the bill except for Reps. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome; Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; Sue Chew, D-Boise; Donna Pence, D-Gooding; and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. The measure now heads to the Senate side for consideration.

Heider pulls bill to ban kids with criminal records from public schools

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The sponsor of a bill intended to keep convicted felons out of Idaho's public schools has pulled the legislation. Republican Sen. Lee Heider of Twin Falls said Wednesday he decided to remove the bill from the Senate Education Committee after realizing it may have unintended consequences for young people who get into trouble. The bill would require school boards to deny enrollment to anyone convicted of a violent felony. Heider says felons are more likely to be involved in gangs or peddle drugs than their peers. But he said Wednesday the bill's current language could result in punishing students who aren't criminals, but simply get involved school fights. Heider says he's not sure if he will seek amendments to the bill or drop it altogether for this year.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Hannah Furfaro.

Sixteen House GOP freshmen say they’ll back gov’s exchange bill if their trailer bill passes

Sixteen House GOP freshmen gathered in a Statehouse press conference this morning to announce that if the trailer bill introduced this morning by freshman Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, passes, they will support the governor’s state health insurance exchange bill, SB 1042. “That’s why we’re here,” said Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, to nods all around.

 The group formed after hallway conversations, the freshmen said, over how they oppose the national health care reform law, but don’t like the idea of just letting the federal government do as it wishes and run a federal exchange in Idaho. Malek said, “The Legislature needs information that will allow us to decide whether our state exchange is providing us a seat at the table or forcing us merely to be a puppet for the federal government.”

“We’re freshmen,” said Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa. “I think everybody here recognizes the fact that individually we have no influence. … Let’s stand together.”

Malek said he’s “honored” to work with the group of freshman lawmakers, saying, “We have spent a lot of time together.” Malek said, “They have shown passion, integrity. … Their mission is to protect individual rights and state sovereignty.”

Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, said, “Legislation is a complicated process. … None of us liked the choices that we were given. None of us felt the protections in the existing bill were adequate. So we formed this group. We can pretty well say no state act will pass without our support, and the current bills did not garner our support. So this is an attempt, we believe, to end up with more assurances, better protections, and represent our constituents.”

House panel votes to introduce freshman reps’ insurance exchange ‘trailer bill’

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the House Health & Welfare Committee this morning, “This is a trailer bill that will attach to what most of you probably know as SB 1042 over on the Senate side. This is a legislative oversight bill meant to protect individual rights and state sovereignty.”

Malek said his bill will add two legislators as non-voting members of the new health insurance exchange board, and will add additional oversight requirements.  “It will keep the Legislature and the public informed of each change that comes down from the federal government,” Malek told the committee. “It forces the federal government to pay for their mandate. It forces each move of the board into the public eye.” Malek said the measure also ensures the state can act immediately if the mandate to have an exchange goes away.

Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell, said, “I think most people in the state don’t want to see PPACA coming down to where it’s at today, but I think this is a very good provision that we’ve put together in making sure that Idaho has some good say over what we have to do. … These are some good provisions. I’m going to support this motion.”

Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, said, “I would certainly echo Rep. Hixon’s comments. I commend Rep. Malek, and I urge the committee to vote in support of introduction and printing of this bill as additional conditions before I think a state exchange could be considered over here on this side of the House.”

The committee then voted overwhelmingly to introduce the bill; only Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, dissented. He said he was worried about process, in moving forward a trailer bill before the original bill has passed at least one house. Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he had the same concern, but checked with Legislative Services, and no rule forbids such a move. After the meeting, Vander Woude said, “I'm against a state exchange. Why would I vote for something that helps create it?”

Malek, Morse and Hixon all are House freshmen. In a few minutes, Malek and other House freshmen are holding a press conference on the issue in the 4th floor House majority caucus room.

Idaho per-capita liquor sales remain low, despite boost from Washington buyers

Idaho’s per-capita liquor consumption remains low, state Liquor Division director Jeff Anderson told legislative budget writers this morning. “We’re well below the national averages, despite the Washington state effect that has had an impact on sales at the border.” He said Washington’s move to privatize liquor sales – in a state that already had the nation’s highest liquor prices, adding a private profit margin to those prices to keep state revenues whole – resulted in “a significant price advantage for us at the border.” If sales to Washington residents are extracted, Anderson said, Idaho’s per-capita liquor sales are “even below the control-state average.”

The liquor division has added 18 stores since 1995, but its current focus is to “get more out of the stores we have as opposed to adding more stores.” The one exception: A new store in Stateline, at the Washington state line, added in 2012, due to pressure on the Post Falls store from cross-border sales. “It’s quickly becoming our No. 1 store,” Anderson said.

The liquor division’s budget request for next year is a “maintenance of service” request, Anderson said, with no new state liquor stores proposed; it does, however, propose remodels or locations for five existing stores. The division's distribution of proceeds to the state this year was $63 million; in the next 10 years, Anderson said forecasts show the division should bring the state $700 million in distributions.

Otter praises Malek exchange bill, said it would ‘complement’ his by increasing legislative oversight

Gov. Butch Otter isn’t opposing the new health insurance exchange bill that Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, will propose in House Health & Welfare this morning at 9 – in fact, he’s praising it. “I think he understands what they’re trying to do and appreciates their effort,” said Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley. “Rep. Malek presented that information to our office, so we had a chance to review it.”

One of the concerns raised at the Senate committee hearing on the governor’s exchange bill, SB 1042, was about legislative oversight, though the Senate panel approved the governor’s bill on an 8-1 vote. Malek’s bill proposes more legislative oversight, including adding two legislators to the exchange board, chosen by the speaker and pro-tem, and providing for additional legislative oversight in the process, including of rates the board would set.

“The governor believes that it complements SB 1042, thinks there are some good ideas represented in that RS,” Hensley said.

Why it was tougher than usual to find a parking spot near the Capitol the past two days…

It was harder than usual to find a parking spot on the streets near the Capitol for the past two days, the Boise Weekly reports, as the Right Truck for Idaho Coalition parked big rigs and a demonstration trailer containing a truck driving simulator outside the Capitol on 6th Street, taking up much of both sides of the street and numerous parking spaces. The coalition is pushing for lawmakers to approve SB 1064, to permanently allow heavier trucks on Idaho roads on 35 designated routes, raising the allowed truck weight from 105,000 pounds to 129,000 pounds. A pilot project has allowed the heavier rigs on a growing number of specified routes for the past decade. You can read the Boise Weekly’s full report here.

New health insurance exchange bill set for consideration in House committee

The House Health & Welfare Committee has a new bill dealing with a health insurance exchange on its agenda for Wednesday morning, sponsored by freshman Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene. Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reported that the measure is aimed at capturing votes for Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed state exchange; the governor’s bill, SB 1042, already has cleared a Senate committee on an 8-1 vote, but won’t come up for Senate debate this week, Popkey reports. It’s not clear whether Malek’s bill is a replacement for the governor’s bill or a companion measure; Malek declined to say. You can read Popkey’s full post here.

Anti-animal torture bill clears House Ag committee

Legislation to make a third-time offense of torture of a companion animal, like a pet cat or dog, a felony has cleared the House Agriculture Committee, with three members objecting in the voice vote. It’s now headed to General Orders in the House, for addition of a technical amendment.

Committee Chairman Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, sponsor of HB 111, said, “If you do it three times you are a felon.  You can be charged with a felony. Under this bill you can be convicted of a felony.” The bill wouldn’t apply to livestock production, only to pets.

Lisa Kauffman of the Humane Society of the United States cited a litany of horrific animal abuse cases from across the country, from kittens intentionally drowned on video to puppies skinned and decapitated; she included a few abuse cases from Idaho. “It just gives you an idea, it happens – it’s out there,” she said, her voice breaking.

Rep. Gail Batt, R-Wilder, said she thought the anti-animal torture bill went too far in that similar actions against children could, in some cases, just be misdemeanors. “ I think it’s wrong that we’re trying to move public policy to where … we’re going to have stronger stands for Idaho’s animals than we do child abuse laws here in the state of Idaho,” she said.

Brent Olmstead, executive director of Milk Producers of Idaho, told the committee he’s in the rare position – for the first time ever – of taking a position neither in support nor opposed to the bill. “I do want to be on the record for down the road when another bill comes up similar to this that includes production animals, and it will happen,” he said. “This bill provides a consternation for Milk Producers of Idaho, in that things keep happening in small pieces.”

Andrus, a rancher, said if the Legislature doesn’t stiffen penalties for animal torture, animal welfare groups will propose more far-reaching legislation through a ballot initiative. “I feel we don’t have time – we need to be proactive,” he said. “Without doing something, I don’t think we can defend ourselves from a ballot initiative.” Joining Batt in opposing the bill were Reps. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree.

Senate Dems shun school boards lunch over Prop 1 revival bills

Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, just announced on Twitter that the Senate Democratic Caucus boycotted today's Idaho School Boards Association legislative luncheon “as a sign of solidarity with voters and teachers.” The ISBA introduced three bills this morning to revive parts of voter-rejected Proposition 1 limiting teacher contract rights, along with three more yesterday.

Freedom Foundation money pitch to lawmakers raises ethics concern

When the Idaho Freedom Foundation distributed its “2013 Idaho Report on Government Waste” to every lawmaker, complete with a color drawing of a cigar-smoking pig in sunglasses raking in gambling-table winnings labeled “TAXES” on the cover, it had a little extra tucked inside: A pitch for money. A donation envelope invited recipients to “support Idaho Freedom Foundation in its quest for limited, accountable government and individual freedom” by making a gift of $5,000 $1,000, $500, or $100, with the $100 level identified as a one-time payment that would make the giver a “Friend of Freedom.” There was also a space to list the lawmaker-donor’s credit card information.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, who noted that House members received the booklet and donations pitch in their legislative mailboxes, said, “The mailing privileges that we have should not be used for fundraising in any way, shape or form.” He said, “I don’t think there’s a rule that addresses that,” but said, “I think as a general rule of thumb that it is inappropriate.” Bedke said he planned to speak to the group about the issue.

“It was a solicitation for money attached to it,” he said, adding, “It was brought to my attention.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, was among those concerned about the pitch for donations. “They grade us at the end of the year based on the votes that we make,” he said. “At the same time we get this book, we have an opportunity to donate to the Freedom Foundation. You could almost read into it, we all get graded. So is there some kind of an undercurrent there, some kind of a pressure, that we should donate to them in recognition that we get graded by them? It’s a little disturbing.”

Eskridge said, “As a general practice, I don’t take contributions to my campaign during the session. … I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. We’re voting on bills, we’re doing legislation. This kind of hits me the same way. It may be legal, but is it really appropriate?”

Bedke said, “Fundraising activities during the session have fallen out of favor, I guess, for good reason.” Legislative campaign fundraising isn’t prohibited during the session, but Bedke said it’s become less common as lawmakers focus more on ethics. This year, all lawmakers went through a half day of mandatory ethics training during the first week of the legislative session.  “The different caucuses have sponsored fundraisers during the session, but we don’t now,” Bedke said. “My goal is to get everybody to step back and take a look at what they’re doing.”

Cursive resolution passes House, 68-2

Rep. Linden Batemen, R-Idaho Falls, spoke passionately in support of his pro-cursive resolution, HCR 3, before the House voted 68-2 in favor of it this morning. “If we do not teach cursive, the day will come when we will not be able to read cursive handwriting … old documents, inscriptions of any kind. … That will happen. I’m seeing it happen now,” he said. The resolution calls on the State Board of Education to include cursive handwriting in the new “Common Core” standards for what children should learn in school.

“We should not be clones of every other state when it comes to Common Core,” Bateman declared. “We should be able to customize it and make room for cursive. … For example, we might delay the keyboarding in the 3rd grade.” He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a renaissance, a rebirth of elegant handwriting. … Let’s not let this elegant art form vanish.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said when he was in school long ago, the focus was on the basics: Reading, writing and arithmetic. “How far we have strayed from those basics,” he said. “Writing is one of the basics.” Last fall, he said, at his potato harvest, he had 47 employees, and 26 were high school seniors. Each had to fill out a W4 form for him. “And I’ll bet a third of them, maybe more, I had to call their mother and find out how to spell their name,” Raybould said. “They couldn’t write. Many of ‘em didn’t write at all , they printed, and I couldn’t read the printing. … I think we need to get our schools back to the idea that that is a basic part of our education, that is something that is required for you to be successful throughout your life.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “I do think there is a bigger principle here, and that is the degree to which the Legislature should be involved in setting the curriculum for our schools.” He said he’d support the bill today because Bateman said it’s backed by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. But, he said, “I feel that we need to be very careful about turning curriculum issues into a matter of legislative debate.” The only no votes came from Reps. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, and Holli Woodings, D-Boise. The resolution now moves to the Senate.

House votes 58-12 for tax break for anti-abortion groups’ resource clinics

HB 62, the bill to provide a sales tax exemption to anti-abortion pregnancy resource clinics like Brandi Swindell’s Stanton Healthcare in Boise, has passed the House on a 58-12 vote, with only Democrats opposing the bill. Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, said she opposes abortion in most cases, but feels that only a tiny number occur because of risk to the life of the mother or sexual assault. “To me, the choice should be made at or before conception, not at an abortion clinic door,” she said.

She said Stanton Healthcare had to pay $6,000 in back sales taxes and penalties because it mistakenly thought it was exempt from sales tax when it purchased an ultrasound machine. The organization is the one that sponsored live ultrasound demonstrations on pregnant women in the state Capitol last year, as part of an unsuccessful push for legislation to require any Idaho woman seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound.

Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, asked Packer, “I have a little bit of concern about the definition of a pregnancy care clinic, as somebody who’s pregnant presently. I don’t see a natural definition. Has there been anything about how that definition would apply to other clinics?” Woodings said by her reading, the bill also would extend the tax exemption to midwifery clinics and other facilities.

Packer said the bill would limit the exemption to clinics that are 501c3 nonprofits, whose services are supervised by a licensed physician, and “it would be limited to those facilities that do not terminate life at their clinics.” Woodings said she’d oppose the bill, because it could cost the state far more than the estimated $10,000 a year, due to the definitions used.

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, R-Boise, said he is pro-choice. “I do not feel that as a matter of tax policy we ought to essentially be making a decision on the abortion issue,” he told the House.

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “Just a comment back to the objections: There’s nothing that would stop them from bringing an RS (bill) and doing in that RS what they’re talking about. This is good legislation and they have the opportunity to do that.” The only House Democrat to vote for the bill was Rep. Carolyn Meline, D-Pocatello; every House Republican voted in favor of it. The bill now moves to the Senate side for consideration.

Idaho tribe’s bid for liquor license draws foes

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Some Idaho lawmakers say an Indian tribe's historic struggle with alcoholism is reason enough to block it from getting a liquor license for a new $16 million convention center. The Nez Perce tribe near Lewiston has a beer and wine license, but wants a license to sell cocktails to visitors at the facility as part of its economic development plans. The measure is now due a public hearing after introduction Tuesday in the House State Affairs Committee. But Republican Rep. Brent Crane of Nampa says the tribe has struggled with alcoholism and he doesn't think this will help. Democratic Rep. John Gannon of Boise countered alcohol problems aren't confined to Indian reservations — and said it's easy to observe people struggling with substance abuse on weekend nights in Idaho's capital.

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

House marks Lincoln Day with constitutional lecture, music

The House is holding its Lincoln Day program this morning, with its usual calendar of bills to debate delayed for about a half-hour for the ceremony. Here, Scott Yenor, chairman of the Department of Political Science, addresses the House on, “The 13thAmendment and Constitutional Liberty.”

“The removal of slavery would help to complete the American political order by bringing its practice in line with its promise,” he told the House. He noted that the 13thAmendment, which ended slavery, still needed the 14th, addressing equal protection and applying the Bill of Rights to the states.  “The federal form of the 13thand the 14thamendment has much to recommend it today,” he said. “Lincoln’s new birth of freedom was an extension of the old.”

The ceremony also included the showing of the trailer to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” movie in the House chamber; and several musical presentations, including singing by Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon.

Defeated lawmaker returns to House as GOP caucus staffer

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A former Idaho representative beaten in the 2012 election is back in the House — not as an elected official, but as a hired hand for the Republican caucus. Former Republican Rep. Julie Ellsworth of Boise was hired by the House GOP to prepare talking points for representatives on issues to be considered during the session. Ellsworth served six terms in the House on two occasions but was defeated in November by Democratic Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking in Boise's District 18. House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vanderwoude said the caucus hired Ellsworth because she's a former majority caucus chairwoman and will be a quick study. Vander Woude says she's being paid with GOP caucus funds. Ellsworth said she'll handle internal House GOP communications, so she's unlikely to have much contact with Ward-Engelking.

Three more bills introduced to revive pieces of voter-rejected Prop 1

The House Education Committee introduced three new bills from the Idaho School Boards Association this morning, all with emergency clauses; like the three introduced in Senate Education yesterday, all revive portions of the voter-rejected Proposition 1 that sought to roll back teacher collective bargaining rights.

The new bills introduced today are:

* One, introduced on a party-line vote with the panel’s three Democrats objecting, to both require that teacher negotiations be held publicly, and to require that if an agreement isn’t ratified by the teachers union by a June deadline, the district can impose contract terms unilaterally.

* A second, also introduced on a party-line vote, allows school districts more flexibility to lay off teachers, including longtime teachers; seniority could be considered only if all other factors, including performance, certifications and endorsements, student and school needs, course offerings and shifting student populations, are equal; and hearing requirements would be waived.

* A third, introduced unanimously, allows electronic delivery of teacher contracts as a money-saving move, and resets time limits and expiration dates.

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, told the large crowd at this morning's meeting that the bills will come up for public hearings and that will be their chance to comment on them. “All have emergency clauses, so you need to be here to explain your view pro or con on these issues,” Nielsen said, “because when it's done, it's done.” Emergency clauses mean the bills take effect upon passage, when the governor signs them into law, rather than waiting until July 1 when most new laws take effect.

Tax Commish: State ‘not even close’ to collecting all unpaid taxes due

During the Idaho State Tax Commission’s budget hearing this morning, Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, questioned the years-long initiative Idaho has been carrying out to add tax auditors to help close the “tax gap” between taxes owed and those collected. Vick said he’s concerned about a point of “diminishing returns,” saying, “I’m concerned about how many auditors do we have before the taxpayers of Idaho start to feel harassed by the Tax Commission.”

Rich Jackson, Tax Commission chairman, responded, “We haven’t reached to where we’re harassing, but we’ve tried to build to the level that we could. … The law of diminishing returns will more come from the state of the economy than what we’re doing.” He added, “We’ve got quite a few audits out there that we’d like to do that we don’t get to.” Vick pressed, “ But you don’t think you’re anywhere near that point yet?” Jackson responded, “We aren’t even close.”

He said, “We would know when we got there when we were totally caught up on our backlog of audits, and when we did all of the discovery for the out-of-state returns and non-compliance audits, and when we had reached the point where our audits were not realizing any funds.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “It’s been my experience in constituent work that sometimes the money expended in the audits doesn’t pick up anything. I just hope that you keep that in mind as well.”

New ‘Opportunity Fund’ at Commerce means more accountability, but not budget boost

More information emerged this morning in JFAC about the governor’s one-time request for $3 million for a new “Idaho Opportunity Fund” to help secure new jobs, both at existing and new businesses, through funding local community infrastructure projects, like sewer lines and broadband extensions. The new fund would replace the “director’s fund,” or the “business and jobs development fund,” to which several million dollars have been appropriated over the years, starting with an initial $3 million in 2007, and including a $400,000 ongoing appropriation approved last year. But the director’s fund was used “literally at the director’s discretion,” Commerce Director Jeff Sayer told legislative budget writers. “We’re asking for a formal fund that has sideboards, that has increased transparency.” Along with that, HB 100 is being proposed to formalize the rules for the fund; it cleared the House Business Committee yesterday on a unanimous vote.

It includes requiring a community match to all grants, in some form, from cash contributions to a small town contributing a front-end loader and operator to dig a ditch for a sewer line; requiring negotiated agreements, where the department, the community and the business all are at the table; and using performance measures. “That simply says we’re not going to write out a check until they meet those obligations,” Sayer said, such as creating certain numbers of jobs and the like. “That’s significantly different from what we’re doing now. Right now we’re the first money in, in a lot of cases. What we’re asking is a chance to be the last money in when they deliver.” In economic development circles, Sayer said, it’ll be what’s known as a “deal-closing fund.”

Reports would be required quarterly and annually on grants made from the fund.

“This $3 million … would be not only carefully used to extend our economy, but it’d be carefully used to make sure that we’re bringing a return to the state,” Sayer said. The request comes as grant funding through the Department of Commerce has just started to rebound after deep cuts during the recession; it’s currently well below 2009 levels.

The governor’s budget recommends the $3 million transfer from the general fund come from the department’s existing budget, so there’s no corresponding increase in the department’s general fund budget, which is proposed to grow next year by just 0.6 percent.

Measure urges cleanup of wilderness trails damaged by fire

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― A House Committee has agreed to debate a resolution urging the federal government to take steps to clean up networks of trails damaged by years of wildfires in a wilderness area in eastern and central Idaho. The House Resources and Conservation Committee introduced a resolution Monday focused on Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness' trail system. Republican Rep. Marc Gibbs of Grace says the message to the U.S. Forest Service is simple: Take steps to repair trails or let Idaho volunteers do the job. Gibbs says hundreds of miles of trails have been damaged, blocked or declared unsafe because of wildfires. While Gibbs says he understands the agency's financial strains, he contends trail neglect has taken an economic toll in the region through a decline in hiking, hunting and outfitting.

ITD chief: Time to start looking at more money for roads

Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence reports that when Brian Ness was hired to run the ITD in 2010, he promised never to ask for more money until he could prove it would be spent wisely. Now, Ness says that day has come, Spence reports: After three years focusing on internal efficiencies, it's time for lawmakers to look for additional revenue and address the growing shortfall in highway maintenance funding. “I want to stress, the governor's office and ITD don't have a legislative proposal to address that this year, but we agree it's time to start having the discussion,” Ness told JFAC. Click below for Spence's full report via AP/MCT.

Listening session wraps up after 33 testified, 65+ had signed up to speak

After 33 people testified at today’s education “listening session,” House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said, “Well, folks, it is that time 6 o’clock. I apologize, we have not gotten to evbody who wanted to testify today.” More than 65 people had signed up to testify. “We certainly heard some great thoughts and suggestions today, and certainly some themes and ideas that have come to us, and we appreciate it,” DeMordaunt said. He encouraged those who didn’t get a chance to speak to submit their comments in writing. 

More than 350 have turned out for ed listening session, filling two overflow rooms

More than 350 people have turned out for this afternoon’s “listening session” on education with the House and Senate education committees; in addition to a full Capitol Auditorium, two additional committee rooms across the hall, where the hearing is being broadcast, are close to full.

Testimony: ‘A real, live financial crisis for local school districts’

Among the testimony at this afternoon's education “listening session”:

Scott Rogers, superintendent of the Minidoka school district, said, “We desperately need an increase in operational funding from the state of Idaho. What we’re facing is a real, live financial crisis for local school districts.” He said, “Now, I am no farmer, but this much I do know: If you starve a pig, it will die.”

Karen Pyron, superintendent of the Mackay schools, told lawmakers “Small rural schools are simply crumbling. It is time for reform.”

Gail Chumbley, a longtime teacher at Eagle High School, said she’s retiring at the end of this school year. “I can’t do what I know is needed, and I cannot lower my standards,” she said.

Ron Perrenoud, superintendent of the Ririe School District near Idaho Falls, said, “For the first time since the district began in 1932, the Ririe School District has to look at trying to pass a supplemental levy to just take care of our operational costs.” He said, “Please make the tough decisions to provide adequate and thorough funding for all students and educators.”

Testimony: Charters hurting, Trustee ‘tired’ of union, Teacher sees Prop 1 revival as ‘insult’

Those testifying so far at this afternoon’s listening session have included two charter school representatives, both of whom appealed for more funding for charters; several school district administrators, who appealed for resources and more attention to teacher recruitment and retention; a school board chairman who asked for enactment of the Idaho School Boards Association’s proposals to revive voter-rejected limits on teacher collective bargaining; and an elementary school teacher who spoke against doing that.

“If not for the federal stimulus money that we had over three years, our doors would be closed,” Dan Nicklay, principal of Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy told the House and Senate Education committees.

Brian Duncan, chairman of the Minidoka School Board, said, “I’m tired of being told I’m not listening to voters. … I’m tired of sitting on committees with the union and being subjected to their stonewalling and delay tactics.” He said the new teacher contract bills from the Idaho School Boards Association are “good management practices,” saying that school board members “put in countless hours of unpaid time – we do it because we love our kids.”

Sandy Merrick, an elementary school teacher from Boise with 20 years experience, said her classroom was up to 32 students last year, but dropped to 28 this year because local voters passed a tax override. “Idaho school districts should not have to resort to supplemental property tax levies to make up the deficit in public school funding from the state,” she said. She added, “Resurrecting parts of Prop 1 just months after 57 percent of voters said ‘no’ to it insults teachers and undermines the democratic process.”

Ed listening session kicks off with big crowd

The Capitol Auditorium is full and overflowing as the second “listening session” on education of this year’s legislative session kicks off this afternoon. House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt said first the joint House and Senate education committees will hear from representatives of stakeholders – Robin Nettinga of the IEA, Anne Ritter, president of the Idaho School Boards Association, and Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

Nettinga told lawmakers, “The IEA and our members respect and value the legislative process, however, given the results of the last election, the comments of the governor in his State of the State addresss,” and the convening of an education stakeholders task force, “We are frustrated with the process.” She said the public sees no difference between the stakeholders task force and the pending legislation, including measures seeking to revive portions of the voter-rejected Proposition 1, which limited teacher collective bargaining rights. “Without public buy-in, change will not be embraced, and … the entire process risks failure,” she said.

The first member of the public to be called up was Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby. “I feel very comfortable speaking to all of you, but I’m really intimidated with what’s behind me,” she said to laughter from the big audience behind her. Wood said she wanted to speak for small, rural schools. “Our very small school has suffered for many reasons; one of them is remoteness,” she said. Wood said she was disappointed when Proposition 3, requiring a big new tech boost, failed, because she felt it was her rural school's chance at “equality.” “Maybe we can do a pilot project,” she said. You can watch live here.

No discussion, 14 education bills introduced in committee

The agenda for this afternoon’s Senate Education Committee has swelled to 14 RS’s, which stands for “routing slip” and refers to a proposed bill before it’s introduced. There’s a deadline today  for non-privileged committees to introduce bills, so there’s a slew of these on various committee agendas today. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, made an unusual move: He asked for unanimous consent to introduce all 14 of the measures, and since no one on the committee objected, that was the decision. None of the measures was discussed at all. The move clears the way for full committee hearings on the bills.

Among those introduced in that batch: Three from the Idaho School Boards Association, regarding one-year and two-year employment agreements for teachers, majority representation in teacher negotiations, and employee leaves of absence, a measure that also allows school boards to reduce teacher salaries from one year to the next; two from Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, on math and science teachers and fees for out-of-state students; two from Robin Nettinga of the Idaho Education Association on financial emergency and reductions in force and on open teacher negotiations; and two from Goedde, one on driver’s education requirements and another on funding for school transportation. There also are five from other senators.

The Senate will reconvene at 4 p.m. today to read the newly introduced bills, from all committees, across the desk in time for the deadline. That means that they should show up shortly after on the Legislature’s website, with bill numbers.

Unanimous House Business Committee endorse ‘Idaho Opportunity Fund’ bill over Freedom Foundation objections

The House Business Committee has voted unanimously in favor of HB 100, the Otter Administration’s “Idaho Opportunity Fund” bill, pitched by Otter’s state Commerce director, Jeff Sayer. The bill sets up the fund “to assist in securing commitments for the retention and expansion of existing businesses and recruitment of new businesses.” Though there’s no funding as yet, Gov. Butch Otter is recommending a one-time, $3 million transfer to the fund next year. The money would go directly to local governments for construction of water, sewer or utility improvements, flood mitigation or other infrastructure projects directly related to specific job creation or expansion projects.

Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation testified against the bill, decrying it as “crony capitalism” and “picking winners and losers” in the economy. Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said, “Normally I would say I’m opposed to one company receiving a benefit over another, whether it brings in new jobs or not.” However, he said, “My understanding of this particular bill is that it’s for infrastructure, and that is more of a benefit directly to the communities to be able to create an environment for businesses to be successful. … In my opinion, this bill has been set up that it does provide the appropriate sideboards, so that we’re not giving specific companies benefits over others, and I will be voting in favor of this.”

The bill now moves to the full House.

Ed panels hold open ‘listening session’ today from 4-6 p.m.

The House and Senate Education committees have scheduled a joint “listening session” in the Capitol Auditorium from 4 to 6 p.m. today; anyone who would like to testify is asked to limit their comments to 3 minutes, and to submit a written copy for the record. A similar session was held Feb. 1 from 8-10:30 a.m. and drew 200 people to comment to lawmakers on education issues, with most focusing on charter school funding and attempts to limit teacher collective bargaining. The second session was scheduled, according to House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, to accommodate those who couldn't attend the early-morning session, including teachers.

Last time Senate rejected a governor’s F&G nominee: 1974

The last time an Idaho governor’s appointee to the Fish & Game Commission was rejected by the Senate was in 1974, when Robert Thomas of Coeur d’Alene, who had been appointed by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, was voted down as senators labeled him an “extreme environmentalist.” Every appointee since then – in nearly four decades – has been confirmed. 

Senate rejects Hurlock confirmation

The Senate has voted 16-19 on the motion confirm Joan Hurlock to the Idaho Fish & Game Commission, after a debate that ran for nearly two hours and pushed back both the Senate’s scheduled Lincoln Day ceremony and the lunch hour. That rejects that motion; it then voted by the opposite vote, 19-16, in favor of Sen. Lee Heider’s original motion to reject the nomination. It's an extremely rare move, rejecting a governor's appointee; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Those senators voting to reject the nomination were Sens. Bair, Bayer, Cameron, Davis, Fulcher, Goedde, Guthrie, Hagedorn, Heider, Hill, McKenzie, Mortimer, Nonini, Nuxoll, Pearce, Siddoway, Thayn, Vick and Winder.

Those backing Hurlock's nomination were Sens. Bock, Brackett, Buckner-Webb, Durst, Johnson, Keough, Lacey, Lakey, Lodge, Martin, Patrick, Rice, Schmidt, Stennett, Tippets, and Werk.

Brackett: ‘We need more recruits, we need more youth getting involved’

As the Senate prepares to vote on Joan Hurlock’s confirmation to the Fish & Game Commission,  in his closing debate, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson said, “I would submit, as far as qualifications, it’s not more qualified, it’s not most qualified – it’s qualified.” Responding to Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, Brackett said, “The good senator from 35, he is passionate, but that is not listed in the qualifications.” Said Brackett, “We need more recruits, we need more youth getting involved. This nominee, Joan Hurlock, is committed to that. I think it would be a very welcome addition to the commission to have that commitment. For the survival of hunting as we know it, we’re going to have to get more youth involved sooner.”
  

Pearce: ‘Just trust us’

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, chairman of the Resources Committee, said, “I haven’t wanted to bring it here, I apologize to you that it is here.” He said, “I’ve gone to the attorney general and offered to put it in my drawer so it didn’t show up here. I’ve been to leadership” But that wasn’t permitted by the process, he said. “You know, this is the process, senators, whether we like it or not.” Pearce said he’d met with Hurlock and couldn’t say all he knows. “Just trust us,” he told the Senate. “There’s a fear of some environmentalism here. The sportsmen are worried. … We represent the people and that’s who I’m getting the word from.”

“There is a difference between knowledge and experience,” said Sen. Steven Bair, R-Blackfoot. “Ms. Hurlock has knowledge. It's the experience portion that I'm worried about.” Bair was among the Resources Committee members who opposed Joan Hurlock's confirmation in that panel's 5-4 vote.

Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, said, “She has the passion for bringing the youth to the table. I think she has the passion for our wildlife. … Based upon the statute she is very well qualified.”

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said, “In our form of government, we have three branches for a reason. That system of checks and balances is very, very important to the process.” He said without those checks and balances, the governor could appoint whoever he wanted. The Fish & Game Commission, he said, needs “people who have been in the mountains, people who have experienced fishing and hunting first-hand.”

At this point, the Senate is an hour past the time it was supposed to hold its Lincoln Day ceremony, and has run through much of the lunch hour.

Senate debate: ‘It’s about bringing a new perspective’

As the debate over confirmation of embattled Fish & Game Commissioner Joan Hurlock continues in the Senate, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston said, “It’s not about having a hunting or fishing license. It’s about bringing a new perspective to that seven-member commission.” She said, “This is about bringing a person to the commission who does not have a personal agenda, except to get young people involved in the out-of-doors.”

Said Lodge, “You know, not everyone in this state is a catcher or a shooter, but they appreciate excellent management of our wildlife.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, acknowledged that the Senate doesn’t normally reject the governor’s appointees. “We don’t normally do that,” he said. “It has to take some level of concern to go there. I have seen it done a time or two.” Cameron, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate Resources Committee earlier to oppose the nomination, said of the Fish & Game Commission, “It’s one of the most controversial, difficult positions to serve in.”

He said, “To be candid with you, I’ve struggled with this decision. … It’s not our job to rubber-stamp the process.” Cameron said he participated in the Republican convention meeting with Hurlock last summer that Sen. Jeff Siddoway described earlier, and said he didn’t feel then that she had the necessary grasp of Fish & Game issues. “It was obvious that at that point you could not say that she was well-informed on the issues surrounding wolves,” he said.

Senate debate: ‘There’s more to it’

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said much attention has been focused on a gap between 2002 and later in the 2000s when F&G commissioner nominee Joan Hurlock didn’t have hunting and fishing licenses, though she held them from 1999 to 2002. During that time, Stennett said, her husband died, leaving her with two young children; she was hospitalized for meningitis during hunting season; her second husband had back surgery and then contracted West Nile virus; and she had foot surgery that temporarily confined her to a wheelchair. “Life throws us curveballs and our normal routines get interrupted,” Stennett said, “and we all have those experiences.”

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “I’m a co-founder of Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife, and I am very disappointed in how they have handled this appointment.” But, he said, “The reality is sportsmen are split, and we’re selecting someone for sportsmen, not for us. We’re selecting someone to represent sportsmen. My vote is not against Ms. Hurlock, y vote is to start this process again and get someone that can bring sportsmen together.”

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said, “I know a fella that has a real passion for hunting and fishing, and I wouldn’t want him on the Fish & Game Commission under any circumstances. His passion for hunting is such that he’s received a lifetime ban, because his passion leads him to violate court orders telling him not to hunt. That’s not the basis on which we select commissioners.” Instead, Rice, suggested, the standard should be the appointee’s passion for protecting hunting and fishing rights for everyone. “There’s more to it than just whether the person likes to hunt or fish.”

Senate debate: Does fishing and hunting, by itself, qualify a F&G commissioner?

Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, debated in favor of Joan Hurlock’s confirmation to the Fish & Game Commission. “This candidate is from my district,” he said. “I have people both for and against, and so I have to look at this in one way: Was process followed or not? There were eight people on the commission that chose a person. All eight did support her. So, if she was not capable, why would all eight support her? And the current commission that she’s served with for six months supports her. Said Patrick, “I think of her as a breath of fresh air, in being a little different. She does support the youth. I think she can bring youth into the hunting and fishing mold.”

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said it’s not the Senate’s job to ensure that the governor has selected the best candidate for a position, because that would require senators to interview all the candidates. Instead, he said, “I think our responsibility is to deny confirmation if the appointment was made for inappropriate reasons,” or if a candidate is clearly not qualified.  “I think she has an impressive resume and that she’s well-qualified for the position,” he said. “In fact, she brings some very unique qualifications to the position.” He noted that she’s a lifetime NRA member, a past member of Ducks Unlimited, and an advocate of youth hunting and fishing who’s taken her children fishing for years. Tippets said to be a good Fish & Game commissioner, “I don’t think a lifetime of hunting and fishing necessarily qualifies you” by itself.

Siddoway: ‘This lady is not qualified’

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, told the Senate, “I didn’t know Joan Hurlock from Adam until last summer at the Republican convention when I was standing in a lunch line.” He said he met Hurlock, and “I said, so what do you think about wolves? Her reply was, ‘They have their place.’ Fine. I said, so are you a hunter? She said no. I let it go. So I said, are you a fisherman? She said no.”

Siddoway said he then met with Lt. Gov. Brad Little and demanded to know, “What the heck is going on here? This lady is not qualified.” He said, “All I wanted to hear from her was her experience in hunting and fishing.“

Siddoway said Hurlock is now much better informed about Fish & Game issues, but said she lacks “the passion, the passion that a hunter and fisherman has – the love that draws you out there,” that makes you want to leave family for weeks at a time to pursue hunting and fishing. “This is an intelligent woman, she is well-informed, she is a quick study,” Siddoway said. “Her passion for hunting and fishing I submit to you is not there.”

Brackett: Hurlock has ideas on how to get youth involved in hunting, fishing

“Tag sales are decreasing, age is increasing,” Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson. “Joan Hurlock has some ideas on how to address this problem.” He quoted from her application to be on the Fish & Game Commission, in which she wrote, “Idaho’s legacy of fishing, hunting and trapping needs to be preserved. The future of hunting and our wildlife depends on our youth and doing a better job of getting them involved.”

Brackett also read from a transcript of Gov. Butch Otter’s comments to the Idaho Press Club on Friday, at which Otter said he told Hurlock, “Look, this is not going to be pretty, but I think you’re qualified. I think you would be a good Fish & Game Commissioner, if you want to stay in this, I’m with you,” and added, “So whatever rumors are going around that I had asked her to step down, that is not true.”

Heider: ‘She has no experience in the field,’ Brackett: ‘Sour grapes’

After Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, opened debate against confirming Joan Hurlock to the Fish & Game Commission, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, offered a substitute motion, to approve her nomination. Heider contended Hurlock should not be confirmed because she’s not an avid hunter. “She has no experience in the field,” he told the Senate. “I think that experience is extremely important to being appointed to a commission to represent the values and views that hunters in our region experience.” He compared it to a nominee for the Commission for the Blind & Visually Impaired who has experience living as a blind person. “Without that experience, I don’t know how we make those decisions, because they’re based primarily upon our experiences in life, so if you haven’t shared the experiences, I don’t think you can make the correct decisions,” he said.

Brackett told the Senate, “Process matters,” and detailed the process by which Hurlock was nominated. All candidates were interviewed and screened by a committee, which forwarded three names to Gov. Butch Otter; he selected Hurlock. He read from a flier from “Shafted Sportsmen” opposing Hurlock’s confirmation. “Senators, these are very strong statements, and they are untrue in many respects,” Brackett said.

“I submit there has been an attempt to skew the confirmation process. It started with the flier. … Many of the calls and emails have been sour grapes.” The statute, he said, requires commissioners to be “well informed upon and interested in the subject of wildlife conservation and restoration.”

Said Brackett, “Many want to hold Joan Hurlock to a higher standard or to a different standard. If we want to do that, we should change the statute. A lot of this has been driven by a vocal minority who did not get their guy appointed.”

Senate takes up Hurlock confirmation

The Senate is  now taking up the confirmation of Joan Hurlock to the Idaho Fish & Game Commission, the confirmation that its Senate Resources Committee voted 5-4 to oppose.

Bill would clarify that counties can’t charge property tax on tribal land within reservations

Tribe-owned lands on Indian reservations haven’t been charged property taxes by surrounding counties since statehood; the Idaho Constitution prohibits it. But in 2006, an array of counties in Idaho started sending tax bills to Indian tribes for tribal-owned properties. This year, Idaho’s five Indian tribes received a total of just over $300,000 in property tax bills for tribe-owned properties on reservations. Some of the tribes have paid the bills; some have paid under protest; some have entered into talks with their local counties. But Helo Hancock, legislative director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, told the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning that Idaho should clarify the issue in state law; Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana already have done so.

Hancock said the tribes have made presentations about the issue to both the Idaho Association of Counties and the Idaho State Tax Commission. “They haven’t raised any opposition,” he said. “I think the counties need this clarity just as much as the tribes do.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “Apparently we have not been doing that, but suddenly everybody’s starving to death and so we’re going to go for taxes. … I think at least in my personal opinion that we should not tax those lands, and I’m really sorry that we’re all so desperate that we’ve got to find little pockets of money anywhere we can.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, moved to introduce Hancock’s proposed bill, which would recognize that tribal government properties on reservations are exempt from taxation as are other government properties, and the motion passed unanimously. That clears the way for a full hearing on it in the committee.

Asked why the tribes decided to propose legislation rather than sue under the provisions of the state Constitution, Hancock said, “We’ve tried to approach this in a more amicable way. … We’re hoping that rather than going to court on this, this is something we can resolve through a public policy decision.”

ITD warns of possible future big drop in federal highway funding to state…

Idaho could lose a third of its federal funding for highways - $100 million – in the fall of 2014 if Congress doesn’t take action, Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness told legislative budget writers this morning. The problem, he said, is that the federal highway funding bill, which runs for two years, expires on Sept. 30, 2014. “My concern is the fact that we’re borrowing $12 billion to fund transportation nationwide … from the federal general fund,” Ness said. “So if new revenues aren’t raised, in all likelihood, they won’t continue that borrowing. That $12 billion is about a third of transportation funding nationwide.”

The shortfall at the federal level is related to how the nation – and Idaho – traditionally have funded highways, Ness said, relying on gas taxes. As cars become more fuel-efficient and gas prices go up, prompting people to change their driving habits, that raises less money per mile driven.  In Idaho, state transportation funds have held fairly steady, Ness said, but that’s been largely due to an increasing population.

Ness said more revenue will be needed in the future to maintain Idaho’s highway system, much more, but he’s not proposing anything this year. “This year, while I would like to be way out in front running with a revenue package, you have a lot of things on your plate, running from school reform to personal property tax to health care, all those things,” Ness said. Also, he said if Idahoans are going to be asked to pay more, he wants to make it clear what return they’ll get. “At this point we’ll get through the session and see where we go from there,” Ness said. “This is the year to start discussion about revenue. We have no specific proposals.”

One other note from this morning’s ITD budget hearing: Idaho highway fatalities are now at their lowest level since the 1950s. Ness credits highway safety initiatives for the drop; other factors include safer cars and better-engineered roads.

20 percent of Idaho lawmakers speak a foreign language

At least 21 legislators, or 20 percent of 105 senators and representatives, speak a language other than English, reports AP reporter John Miller, belying the image some might have of Idaho as a isolated hinterland whose residents pay little mind to what happens beyond their borders. A big reason: Idaho's population is 27 percent Mormon, and least 16 legislators, all men, learned second languages — German, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and Maori — in preparation for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission. Nearly all of them say having a second language in their linguistic arsenal helps them in their work as lawmakers. Click below for Miller's full report on Idaho lawmakers' foreign language skills.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, David Adler, Aaron Kunz and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature. Plus, Greg has a lively interview with Sens. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, on the health insurance exchange issue; it’s not to be missed.  Theshow airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.

Greg also has an announcement: He’ll become associate vice president for communications and marketing at Boise State University on March 5. He’ll continue to host Idaho Reports for a transitional period after he starts at BSU.

Ed task force won’t make recommendations to 2013 Legislature, leaves $34M in limbo…

The governor’s education stakeholders task force, which is meeting all day today, has announced that it won’t make recommendations to the 2013 Legislature, leaving $34 million that both the governor and state Superintendent Tom Luna earmarked in their budget recommendations in limbo, Idaho Education News reports. Otter told the Idaho Press Club this morning, “Outside the task force, we have a lot of recommendations for what to do with the $34 million.” Idaho EdNews reports that both Senate Education Chairman John Goedde and House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt are calling for the money to stay in the  public school budget, not be diverted elsewhere; you can read Swindell’s full report here.

Testimony at H&W listening session: Mental health services, dental coverage, Medicaid expansion

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Increased mental health services, improved dental care coverage and Medicaid expansion topped the list of priorities presented to Idaho lawmakers during a hearing on health and welfare issues. About three dozen people testified at the joint Senate and House Health and Welfare committee hearing Friday morning, many focusing on what they said is a dire need for increased access to mental health care. Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson told lawmakers his department responds to an average of 20 calls each day for residents experiencing a mental crisis, and Boise loses an average of one person a day to mental illness. He says the state needs to treat people with mental illnesses early instead of waiting for them to reach a crisis.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Otter: ‘I don’t hope anybody but me runs for governor’

When Gov. Butch Otter addressed the Idaho Press Club this morning, he was asked about the possibility of his going up against GOP Congressman Raul Labrador in a bid for the governorship in 2014. “I don’t hope anybody but me runs for governor,” Otter said, when Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey asked him whether he’d relish a run against Labrador after Labrador notably opposed Otter on everything from his 2009 gas tax proposal to this year’s health insurance exchange issue.

Popkey details Otter’s comments on his blog here, including a story from Otter’s days in Congress that involves then-President George W. Bush. Otter indicated today that he’ll be running again, but he’s not ready to make his formal announcement. “It’s not backing away,” he said. “I’m just not going to be pushed into a calendar. I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind right now. You know, I just, I am planning on it; I am fundraising; I’m doing those things that I can at the same time I’m trying to govern the state of Idaho.”

Senate committee introduces anti-marijuana resolution

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho legislators are pushing back against measures in Western states where voters recently relaxed marijuana laws. The Senate's State Affairs Committee unanimously voted in favor Friday of introducing a resolution opposing marijuana use in any form, clearing the way for a full hearing. The resolution also urges President Barack Obama and the Justice Department to enforce existing federal marijuana laws. Republican Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise said the statement is a response to the growing acceptance of marijuana use in neighboring states. Winder said law enforcement along Idaho's western border are dealing with an influx of drug trafficking after Washington voters approved of recreational use and the medical use of marijuana in Oregon and Montana. Winder said he hopes the federal government takes steps to oppose Washington's law and help states battle illegal trafficking of the drug.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Hannah Furfaro.

Rev & Tax overwhelmingly backs governor’s HOME tax credit revisions

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted overwhelmingly in favor of HB 88, the governor’s bill to revise and expand the Hire One More Employee (HOME) tax credit. Only Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, opposed the move, which sends the bill to the full House for debate. There was extensive testimony in favor of the bill, and just one person speaking against it, Parrish Miller of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, who read a statement from the group’s head, Wayne Hoffman, objecting that the bill creates “winners and losers.”

Among other changes, the tax credit bill adds an additional $1,000 credit if the new employee is a veteran; removes a requirement for employer-provided health insurance for the new job to qualify for the credit; changes the amounts and wage levels; and removes ties to the employer’s rating with the state Department of Labor for use of the unemployment insurance program.

Rev & Tax members had lots of questions; the Otter Administration responded by bringing in extensive financial information about the credit, including detailed charts. “We had some good, positive testimony,” said Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, Rev & Tax chairman.

Judge sides with conservationists in megaloads lawsuit in federal court

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has sided with environmentalists and ruled the U.S. Forest Service erred by not exercising its regulatory authority when the state allowed huge trucks to haul giant oil refinery equipment along U.S. Highway 12. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued a decision Thursday that handed Idaho Rivers United a victory in the case. The group sued the government in 2011 after the state allowed ExxonMobil's Canadian unit to ship hundreds of so-called mega-loads from Idaho's Port of Lewiston along the two-lane highway. The roadway runs through a scenic corridor protected by the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. IRU claimed the forest service neglected its duty by not getting involved in the decision-making process. Winmill agreed, saying the agency has the authority to intervene in such cases.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

A piece of Idaho history on display…

As the Idaho State Historical Society began its budget presentation this morning, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told director Janet Gallimore, “I never know quite what you’re going to bring, but it gets better every year.” The Historical Society was founded in 1881 and established as a state agency in 1907; it’s busy this year with the Idaho Territorial Sesquicentennial, the 150th  anniversary of the creation of Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863.

In line with that, Gallimore brought a rare and significant historical document to display to the committee. “This piece is the actual document of Lincoln’s appointment of William Wallace as our first territorial governor,” she told the committee. “I think that this document speaks volumes. It’s an amazing piece.”

The document is two-sided; on one side is the formal appointment, signed by President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward; on the other, Wallace certifies that he’s not affiliated with the confederate states.

Gallimore said Wallace treasured the document and kept it after his service as Idaho’s territorial governor; it remained in his family for many years, but in 1982, his descendants in Virginia donated it to the state of Idaho for preservation by the Historical Society. Wallace selected Lewiston as Idaho’s first capital in 1863; that note prompted Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, to inquire as to when the state seal would be returning there. At that point, Bell adjourned the JFAC meeting, and lawmakers gathered around for a close-up view of the historic document.

Displays highlight programs that serve people with disabilities

The fourth-floor rotunda of the Capitol this morning is filled with displays highlighting organizations that serve people with disabilities. Meanwhile, many of those same services are being discussed downstairs in the Capitol Auditorium, where a “listening session” held by the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees has drawn a big crowd.

Otter ‘grateful’ for 8-1 vote in favor of his health exchange bill

Of yesterday’s 8-1 vote in favor of his state health insurance exchange bill, Gov. Butch Otter said this morning, “I was grateful yesterday to see the vote come out of the Senate committee.” He noted that every Republican on the panel voted in favor of the bill. “I can’t tell you how difficult of a position I’m in,” Otter said. “I wanted nothing to do with Obamacare. I was proud of the fact, and bragged about it … the fact that Idaho was the first to sue, to pass legislation to initiate a suit against Obamacare. … We exhausted all of those remedies from court.”

Otter said that early on, “I made a promise that unlike a lot of other states, I would not use … an executive order to do that. The Legislature would, and they wanted to be, part of the process.”

Otter stands behind Hurlock for F&G commissioner, says she’s qualfied and choice was ‘a no-brainer for me’

Gov. Butch Otter told the Idaho Press Club this morning that he’s met with several senators who opposed the confirmation of his latest Fish & Game commissioner appointee, Joan Hurlock; the Senate Resources Committee voted 5-4 to recommend she not be confirmed. “I think the process worked,” Otter said. “I think the (selection) committee did a great job of vetting all the candidates, including Joan. … And in talking to some of the committee members, one of the things that impressed them the most about Joan was her desire to get kids involved with the Fish & Game. And that’s been a goal of mine since I made every agency director read ‘Last Child in the Woods,’ which I thought was a tremendous book, and I tried it out on my own grandkids and it works, it gets ‘em away from the TV, it gets ‘em away from the game boy, and they’re actually out looking at life.” Otter said the choice of Hurlock for the commission was “a no-brainer for me.”

He said, “That’s now in the hands of the Senate, where I’m grateful that it is, and that’s where it should be.” He said he told Hurlock, “This is not going to be pretty, but I think you’re qualified. … I think you’d be a good Fish & Game commissioner, if you want to stay in this, I’m with you.”

Otter: Revision of 2008 law possible route on personal property tax phaseout…

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told the Idaho Press Club this morning that the personal property tax issue “takes up probably at least 50 percent of every Thursday morning leadership meeting,” when he meets with legislative leaders, “where we discuss the what-ifs and the where-ats, how are we going to get our arms around that.” He said, “I see potentially maybe four or five still unfleshed-out directions that we’re going to take.”

Otter said he’s sticking to his “do no harm” mantra for local governments, which stand to lose $141 milllion a year from their local property tax funding base. Among the possibilities, Otter said, is “maybe going back and revisiting Marv Hagedorn’s bill from a couple of years ago, where if you recall, we had a trigger on growth and a trigger on income … and exempting the first X number of dollars. … What would that cost us in the long run? I see that as a potential.”

H&W committees invite public testimony at ‘listening session’

There's a lot going on today for a Friday. This morning from 8-10 in the Capitol Auditorium, the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees are taking public testimony in an open “listening session.” It's being streamed online; you can watch live here.

Also this morning, Gov. Butch Otter has his annual on-the-record confab with the Idaho Press Club; I'll be reporting on what he says. JFAC is holding budget hearings on the state Department of Administration, the Permanent Building Fund, and the state Historical Society starting at 8; the House Rev & Tax Committee has its hearing on HB 88, the governor's “Hire One More Employee” Act, at 9; and a slew of legislation is up for introduction in the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning at 8, including Sen. Chuck Winder's bill to oppose legalizing marijuana in Idaho for any purpose. Another batch of bills is up for introduction in the House Local Government Committee this afternoon at 1:30, including several dealing with land use and urban renewal. The House goes into session at 11, and the Senate at 11:15.

Senate panel backs Otter on insurance exchange

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s controversial state health insurance exchange legislation won near-unanimous support from a Senate committee Thursday after two days of hearings, a key victory for the GOP governor; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.          

Opponents wearing swatches of bright pink tape filled the Capitol Auditorium for the second day of hearings on Thursday, with many saying they opposed both a state exchange and a federal exchange – the alternative if the state doesn’t set up its own. Tom Munds of Caldwell told the senators, “The simple fact that Idaho would even consider a monster like this scares me. If the people truly prefer a form of government foreign to our Constitution, then they do so at their own ignorance.”

But the senators said they couldn’t choose no exchange at all. “I despise Obamacare, and that’s actually an understatement,” said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa. “But I have to look at … the reality of the way it stands now. I don’t believe that if we don’t do a state exchange, that the federal government will not be able to make it happen. … The reality we’re facing is either the federal government exchange, which I think is the worst option, or the state exchange.”

January tax revenues slightly ahead of forecast

Idaho’s general fund state tax revenues for the month of January came in $0.9 million ahead of forecast, or 0.3 percent ahead, according to the latest general fund revenue report, which is out today. You can read the full report here from the governor’s Division of Financial Management. Total tax collections for the month were $281.4 million, ahead of the $280.5 million forecast. For the fiscal year to date, collections are 0.2 percent below the forecast.

‘This is twitter, not an article’ - ?

There’s an interesting online dustup today in which a reporter for the IdahoReporter.com site disparaged the Senate’s senior member in Twitter posts while the senator spoke at a packed public hearing, and then, when called on it by another reporter on Twitter, responded, “This is twitter, not an article being written.” Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey writes about the exchange on his blog; you can read his post here.

Interestingly, this comes just after Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador fired his spokesman, Phil Hardy, for a racy Super Bowl tweet that Hardy accidentally and briefly posted from Labrador's congressional Twitter account.

ISBA’s teacher contract bills all headed for a rewrite

It’s back to the drawing board for a series of controversial bills to limit Idaho teachers’ collective bargaining rights, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. “All the bills from the school boards are being redrafted,” Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, told Richert this afternoon. The Idaho School Boards Association has introduced seven bills so far this session, with most of them reviving pieces of the voter-rejected Proposition 1, the piece of the “Students Come First” school reform laws that sought to roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Bill would impose stiff penalties for attacks on health care workers

Idaho already has a law providing stiff felony penalties – up to 25 years in prison – for assault and battery on certain official personnel, including judges, police officers, prosecutors, bailiffs, prison or jail guards, parole officers, social workers, firefighters, Tax Commission agents, and Emergency Medical Services workers. Today, freshman Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, introduced legislation to expand that to any health care worker.

“Given increased drug abuse problems and mental health issues, there’s an increased risk to individuals who are mandated to provide care,” said Malek, a former deputy Kootenai County prosecutor. He said he hopes the measure “acts … as a deterrent.”

The measure adds to the list “any person licensed, certified or registered by the state of Idaho to provide health care, an employee of a hospital, medical clinic or medical practice.” In addition to providing for up to 25 years in prison for battery with intent to commit a serious felony against anyone on the list, the existing law provides for doubling the punishment for other violent attacks on the listed people. Malek persuaded the House Judiciary Committee to vote to introduce the bill this afternoon, though members had lots of questions, including whether the bill would lead to harsh penalties against mentally ill people. Malek said it would apply only to acts with criminal intent. It’s the freshman lawmaker’s first bill.

Senate Commerce votes 8-1 in favor of governor’s exchange bill

The Senate Commerce Committee has voted 8-1 in favor of SB 1042, the governor’s health insurance exchange bill. The only “no” vote came from Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who said he was concerned about the lack of legislative oversight in the exchange as proposed.

Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said, “I can’t stand there and let the federal government do it to us. I feel obligated to try to exercise some discretion at the state level.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I wish I had another choice. The only choice I see is for us to follow what I think was the lead of Gov. Otter, and I think he should be commended, not criticized. He’s trying to protect our rights, he’s trying to protect our sovereignty.”

The bill now moves to the full Senate; to become law, it needs passage both there and in the House and the governor's signature.

Last to testify: Former Rep. McGeachin

Last to testify from the public this afternoon, speaking 15th, is Janice McGeachin, who until this year chaired the House Health & Welfare Committee. McGeachin said she opposes a state exchange – and she opposes a federal exchange as well. “I think that some legitimate concerns have been raised about legislative oversight,” McGeachin told the senators.

Asked if she believes the state could pass on both a state exchange and a federal exchange, McGeachin said, “I haven’t found much distinction between the two.”

Testimony: ‘Mr. Otter now owns Obamacare,’ ‘Keep millions in Idaho,’ ‘Liberty in jeopardy,’ ‘Law of the land’

Among those testifying this afternoon on SB 1042, the governor’s state insurance exchange bill:

Joe Rohner said, “I am a free-market capitalist in every sense of the term. … From this day forth, Mr. Otter owns Obamacare, which shall now be known statewide as Ottercare.” He said the national health care reform law “is in fact a massive transfer of wealth to the insurance companies.”

Steve Thomas of the Idaho Association of Health Plans told the senators, “Let’s keep it simple. 1042 isn’t that hard. Idaho can do this more efficiently and less expensively than the federal government, even Mr. Hoffman conceded that in his testimony Tuesday. Meanwhile, 1042 keeps millions of dollars in Idaho and in our citizens’ pockets, while also maximizing local control.”

Tony Snesko of Boise, a former aide to Congressman Duncan Hunter in Washington, D.C., said, “I believe I speak for most of my fellow veterans who have fought, and many died, for our freedoms. One of our freedoms that we fought for, one of our many rights, is in jeopardy today – liberty, liberty. We firmly believe that Obamacare and Gov. Otter-care would go bankrupt if they didn’t have the power to increasingly raise fees and tax Idaho citizens to … keep it afloat.” Snesko said Idahoans will become “indentured servants to either the state exchange or the federal health care systems.” He said, “Think about the people that died for this country, for their freedom.”

Tom Shores said, “I represent first myself as a citizen of Idaho, a father and a grandfather. … Sometimes the loudest opinion that’s being expressed is not necessarily the best one. I’m also an insurance agent.” He also heads an organization of health insurance agents and served on the governor’s exchange task force. “This is the law of the land,” Shores said. “It’s something we will need to work with.”

Testimony: ‘Best path forward,’ ‘At their own ignorance,’ ‘Reduce the complexity’

Peggy Munson, a retired geriatric nurse and the state volunteer president of the AARP, was the first person called to testify at this afternoon’s insurance exchange hearing. She said while some are saying Idaho should do nothing to comply with health care reform, “These are not choices we have.” Munson said , “Please make no mistake, whether Idaho chooses a state-based health exchange or defaults to a federal exchange, the fact of the matter is there will be a health exchange in Idaho whether we like it or not. Therefore, we respectfully urge your support of this bill so that Idaho will have the opportunity … to control its own insurance marketplace.” She said, “A state-based exchange managed by Idahoans for Idahoans is the best path forward.”

Tom Munds of Caldwell said he was “representing the constitutional republic of the state of Idaho.” He told the committee, “As Americans it’s our duty to challenge government authority whenever necessary.” He said he has “a genuine concern” about “the constant increasing barrage of assaults on our personal liberties … and the forceful submission to blind mandates.” He said of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices who upheld the national health care reform law, “They are nothing more than nine tyrants or nine King Georges in black robes,” and called the exchange a “monstrosity.” Said Munds, “The simple fact that Idaho would even consider a monster like this scares me. If the people truly prefer a form of government foreign to our Constitution, then they do so at their own ignorance.”

Jeanne Brandone told the senators, “I’m here to speak on behalf of Idaho’s small-business owners.” She said, “A vote for a state-run exchange is a vote to reduce the complexity of shopping for health insurance, saving our residents time and money. … It gives our Idaho insurance brokers a fighting chance to maintain current best practices.”

Terry Yohn noted that more than two dozen other states are opting against a state exchange. “Has in fact our Congress, have they looked at the other states, what they based this do-nothing decision on? I have no information on that,” he said. “I guess I have to say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe there is other alternatives out there that we know nothing about. … I’m not the only concerned citizen that would like to have more information.”

Testimony to alternate between pro, con

Many in the crowd at the health insurance exchange hearing today are wearing swatches of pink tape; Senate Commerce Chairman John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said they’re doing so to indicate they are opposing the state-based exchange bill, SB 1042. He thanked them for finding a way to make that point that’s both respectful and not disruptive to the proceedings. People will be limited to three minutes in today’s testimony, Tippets said; and the committee will alternate between pro and con in calling people up to testify.

Big crowd again for insurance exchange hearing; vote expected today

The Capitol Auditorium is filling up once again this afternoon for the Senate Commerce Committee’s continued hearing on the governor’s proposal for a state-based health insurance exchange. The committee is scheduled to vote today at the end of its 90-minute meeting, regardless of how many have gotten to speak; so far, more than 95 people have signed up to testify. Just over a half-dozen testified on Tuesday.

JFAC approves start-up funding for Youth Challenge in Pierce

Start-up funding of $1.39 million for the National Guard Youth Challenge program in Pierce won unanimous approval from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, the Lewiston Tribune reports, all from private donations and federal grants; Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, made the successful motion. The Youth Challenge is a boot camp-style program for high school dropouts age 16 to 18. You can read the Tribune’s full report here from reporter Bill Spence.

House panel rejects bill to make courts out anonymous commenters

The House State Affairs Committee this morning rejected a proposal from Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, to create a “rebuttable presumption” that the identity of an online commenter must be disclosed when there’s a defamation or slander suit. Just two committee members, Reps. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, and Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, opposed the motion to reject the bill and not introduce it.

“Anonymity in the Internet age gives a great deal of privacy to the blogger,” Hartgen told the committee. “It expands the concept of privacy in a way that had never really been used in anonymous comments before. But it leaves the object of the comment, the person that is being blogged about, with almost no recourse except to wince and snarl. … What was said about them lies out there in the blogosphere more or less forever.”

But committee members, including three lawyers on the committee, raised concerns about Hartgen’s bill, which he said was in response to a case in which a judge ordered The Spokesman-Review to reveal identifying information about an anonymous commenter, whose quickly-deleted comment suggested a local GOP official had acted improperly. “The judge in this case has made a decision rightly within the correct parameters – why are we trying to codify this?” asked Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, asked, “It seems to me that if the process worked appropriately, why do we need a bill that gets into the rules within the judicial system?” Hartgen responded, “This ruling only applies in the 1stJudicial District. … It is simply a narrow ruling. … This is an area of the law which has evolved to the point where anonymous blog comments are part of our daily life.”

His bill required disclosure except in cases where a judge rules that disclosure wouldn’t be in the public interest; committee members questioned that wording as well, saying judges already weigh that. Hartgen said, “This would not allow a fishing expedition for somebody who said, ‘Well, they said something mean about me on KTVB’s blog,’ or whatever.” But Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said, “I don’t think this soup is ready yet.”

Senate backs three-year licenses for hunting, fishing

The Senate has voted unanimously in favor of SB 1004, to allow Idaho Fish & Game to sell three-year hunting, fishing or combination licenses to both residents and non-residents, rather than just annual licenses. The department has proposed the move to try to draw in more sales from sportsmen who buy licenses some years but not others; the bill now moves to the House side.

House opposes Turkish firm’s move to ‘pilfer’ the name ‘IDAHO’ for its ag products

The Idaho House has loudly and unanimously endorsed SCR 102, the resolution objecting to a Turkish firm’s application to trademark the word “IDAHO” for its agricultural products in its country and abroad, after House Ag Chairman Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, told the House the foreign firm wants to “pilfer that and use it to themselves for their financial gain.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, asked, “Why do they want to do that?” Andrus responded that he understands that initially, Beta Agriculture and Trade Co. wants to use the “IDAHO” name on its sugar beet seeds. “But if they can get this patent … it would not be limited to sugar beet seed, it would be any product,” Andrus said. “I assume their purpose is because they realize the prominence and the significance of that label, IDAHO, and realize that it means something to people around the world.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “The name IDAHO is trademarked – it is a trademark of the Idaho Potato Commission. … Our trademark is legal within the United States, but other countries throughout the world, if they want to infringe on our reputation, they’re trying to do that. We have a good association with Canada, with Mexico, and other countries here in the Americas, but this is the first time that anyone in a foreign country has tried to infringe on this trademark of the Idaho Potato Commission.”

The resolution, which has now unanimously passed both houses, will be part of the state’s formal response objecting to the Turkish patent application, to be filed with the Turkish Patent Institute.

Cursive crusade advances

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A measure directing the State Board of Education to require cursive handwriting in Idaho schools is headed for a full House vote after unanimously passing the chamber's Education Committee. Bill sponsor Rep. Linden Bateman made an impassioned case for his resolution on Wednesday, citing tradition — and numerous handwritten letters supporting the legislation. Boise State University communications professor Peter Wollheim said research shows cursive handwriting improves students' motor and composition skills. Committee chairman Reed DeMordaunt said his son with a learning disability uses cursive to write. But not everyone gave the bill thumbs up. Former Democratic House candidate Steve Berch from Boise said schools should focus on adding art and music classes before cursive instruction. Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said education officials would tentatively get behind the measure.

You can read a full report here from Idaho Education News.

House State Affairs unanimously endorses relaxing do-not-call law for phone companies calling customers

The House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously in favor of HB 55, to let phone companies and other telecoms call their customers to pitch products, even if those customers are on the “do-not-call” list. Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said people have more options these days to not pick up their phones when such calls come in. “I think given the equities here, we should eliminate this restriction for telephone companies,” he said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The bill adds a new clause to Idaho’s do-not-call law saying that if a business calls an existing customer and the customer asks them not to call again, they have to comply, and there’s a $500 fine for violations.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said, “I think the telephone solicitations, particularly that I get at my business, are a pain in the neck. I have a small law office and I get them all the time. I also think some of the political calls that we get during the election season, especially the robo calls, are a pain in the neck. … I would like to see some legislation brought to restrict more calls, particularly to business, and not legislation broadening it.” Idaho’s current do-not-call law doesn’t cover calls to businesses or charitable or political calls, just commercial solicitations.

“At the same time, you can’t treat one company different than others,” Gannon said, “and you do have this safety valve in this legislation, that if I tell them ‘don’t call me again,’ which I will do, Century Link, even though I’m a customer, I’m gonna tell you, do not call me, and I will look at that $500 penalty in there if I get called, because they are a pain in the neck. But at this point, this legislation is a minor tweak that appears to be something just to have a level playing field, with the caveat that we can say no.” He added, “I might also point out that we have competition now that we didn’t have 10 years ago. That has changed the dynamics in the telephone industry.”

The bill now moves to the full House.

Former Rep. Clark returns to Legislature to lobby for easing do-not-call law

Former longtime North Idaho state Rep. Jim Clark is back before a legislative committee this morning, this time as a lobbyist for Frontier Communications, which, along with Century Link, is proposing HB 55 to drop a restriction from Idaho’s do-not-call law that now prevents phone, cable and cellular companies from cold-calling their customers to sell them new products. “The company that I represent in northern Idaho, Frontier Communications, is spending an awful lot of money doing high-speed Internet, and they cannot tell their Idaho customers on the phone that they’re actually doing that,” Clark told the House State Affairs Committee.

Among those opposing the bill is the Idaho Attorney General’s office, which operates the do-not-call list. Brett DeLange, head of the office’s Consumer Protection Bureau, said the list is based on “what is commonly called the right to be left alone.” More than a million phone numbers are on the list now, he said, indicating “the overwhelming desire of Idaho citizens to be left alone while they’re trying to eat dinner, while they’re trying to do their homework, they’re trying to have family time.”

While other businesses with existing relationships can call their customers even if they’re on the do-not-call list, DeLange said, Idaho’s 2000 law excluded phone and other telecom companies because “we’re all their customers.”

He said no one on the do-not-call list has ever called the Attorney General’s office to complain that “they’re not receiving calls from solicitors, or that they’re missing calls that they want to receive.”

Bill Roden, lobbyist for Century Link, which is co-sponsoring the bill with Frontier, said the bill would treat all businesses equally.

Prisons propose cutting back on inmate disease testing to save money

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho corrections officials in a bid to save money are asking lawmakers to relax mandatory disease testing for inmates slated for release. The law now requires that inmates be tested for diseases like HIV and Chlamydia when they enter and exit the state's prison system. The Idaho Department of Correction officials made their case for legislation Wednesday to make the tests optional for offenders exiting the system. Agency Division Chief for Education, Treatment and Reentry Shane Evans told the Senate Judiciary and Rules committee the costs of staff time and supplies add up. He said the program costs the agency about $360,000 per year. The savings from making testing voluntary would be significant. Evans estimates testing just 5 percent of the 4,000 inmates released annually would cost $7,700.

JFAC approves H&W supplemental appropriations for Medicaid readiness

Two supplemental appropriations to the state Department of Welfare related to “Medicaid readiness,” covering fund transfers to deal with programming changes and so forth as federal Medicaid rules change, caused a bit of dust-up in JFAC last week, with several members raising concerns that approving the requests would be bowing to Obamacare and possible expansion of Medicaid. Today, both requests were approved on unanimous votes, and those concerns had evaporated. A statement of legislative intent was added clarifying that the funding moves don’t relate to the optional Medicaid expansion on which Idaho lawmakers have not yet weighed in.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “The concerns I had on this particular budget item have been addressed for now. There are some deeper ones, but for this particular budget item I don’t have any particular concerns.”

Said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, “Just a comment and expression of gratitude to our staff, and to also the department staff for their work and for all of the effort that they put in to bring us along and make sure that we understood the issues. Thank you so much.” The two requests involve mostly transfers of federal funds within programs and make no bottom-line difference in the department’s current-year budget; Gov. Butch Otter had recommended approval of both.

Decision pending in megaloads case in federal court…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge appeared sympathetic to an environmental group's contention that the U.S. Forest Service can intervene to protect U.S. Highway 12's scenic characteristics from impacts of giant oil-equipment shipments. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill told lawyers for Idaho Rivers United and the Forest Service Wednesday he'll issue a decision quickly, likely by week's end. Idaho Rivers United argues the Forest Service should have intervened in 2011 when the Idaho Transportation Department allowed ExxonMobil to haul loads between Lewiston and the Kearl Oil Sands projects in southern Alberta. Meanwhile, a Forest Service lawyer argues the case should be dismissed, in large part because the ExxonMobil loads have been completed via alternate routes. Even so, the Idaho Transportation Department continues to issue permits for so-called “megaloads,” as recently as last month.

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

County GOP official tells lawmakers Idaho school textbook is ‘liberal indoctrination’

An Adams County Republican precinct committeewoman regaled the House Education Committee this morning with her views that an American government textbook used at her local high school was “a liberal Democrat’s dream of indoctrination,” reports Bill Spence of the Lewiston Tribune.

 “Among the things it recommends kids do to get politically active: 'Attend a climate change rally,'” Anita VanGrunsven told the committee. “A climate change rally! Excuse me? … Where is the foundational concept of limited government? It's not here. Where is the concept of individual responsibility? It's gone. Is this what you want the future leaders of Idaho to be taught? Am I talking to any Republicans here?” 

You can read Spence’s full account at his Political Theater blog here.