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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2013

Senator sees future for unmanned aerial drones in Idaho

A Boise lawmaker wants Idaho to be a player in the market for unmanned aerial drones, reports Bill Spence of the Lewiston Tribune; Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, introduced two measures Thursday dealing with drones: One to encourage the state Department of Commerce to work with the U of I, BSU and others to compete to make the Gem State one of six unmanned aerial vehicle test sites; and another to prohibit surveillance or evidence-gathering by drones without landowner permission or a court order.

The second measure, Winder told the Senate Transportation Committee, is to address privacy concerns accompanying the use of drones, and “will restrict gathering of evidence, use of any type of aircraft, unmanned aircraft for gathering this information without  proper legal cause or without a warrant, and if they do gather the information, that it can’t be used in a court of law against them unless it met those tests.” Both measures were introduced, clearing the way for full hearings; you can read Spence's full post here at his “Political Theater” blog.

Lawmakers to re-examine food stamp distribution schedule

Lawmakers have agreed to take another crack at changing how often food stamps are released to needy Idahoans each month, the AP reports. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee agreed Thursday to debate a bill that would release benefits on as many as 10 different days each month as opposed to the current rules that peg the release to the first day of each month. The House approved a similar bill last year, but the measure never made it out of the same Senate committee that agreed Wednesday to revisit the idea again in coming weeks; click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

House panel approves revised ethics rule

The House Judiciary Committee has approved HR 2, the resolution to change the House’s ethics rule, Rule 76, to add a standing ethics committee and make other revisions. “We shared this with the minority and we had some very helpful, constructive things that we incorporated into this rule,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who presented the rule change resolution; it now moves to the full House for a vote.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, questioned why the new five-member standing committee would have three members from the majority and two from the minority, with a four-fifths vote required. “It seems like it might be possible to have equal representation, and just say it takes a majority,” she said. Luker said, “We did think about that quite a bit, and in fact the 3-2 split is still a greater proportion for the minority party than currently exists. … The four-fifths is actually a protection for the minority party, so that the majority party cannot railroad something through affecting the minority party.”

The new standing ethics committee, with its members elected by the minority and majority caucuses, would be formed within 12 days after the full House passed the resolution, HR 2; the resolution now heads to the full House for debate. It also adds more specific categories and definitions of ethical misconduct; clarifies that sanctions include reprimand, censure with or without conditions, and expulsion; and provides that the new commission would meet behind closed doors to review an ethics complaint, and if it found probable cause that a violation occurred, the complaint would become public and a public hearing would be held.

No one could serve on the ethics committee if he or she had previously been sanctioned by the House for an ethical violation. If a complaint is filed against a member of the committee, an alternative would step in for that member.

Child immunization registry change draws opponents

Opponents of childhood immunizations packed a Senate Health & Welfare Committee hearing yesterday on proposed changes to Idaho’s immunization registry, and after much testimony both for and against, the committee put off a vote on the first bill it was to take up and didn’t get to a second. Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that the first proposal, SB 1012, would allow the voluntary registry to retain the name and date of birth of those who opt out of the registry, to make sure medical professionals don’t accidentally enter information of those who don’t want their information in the database. But opponents expressed concern that the government would retain that information and use it against them in the future; others said they didn’t want their names associated with a database they opted out of. Those testifying against the bill ranged from passionate immunization opponents to Idaho Freedom Foundation executive director Wayne Hoffman and “Pro-Life,” the perennial political candidate who legally changed his name from Marvin Richardson. You can read Davlin’s full report here at magicvalley.com. 

Turkish ag group wants to use ‘IDAHO’ as its trademark, lawmakers object

Believe it or not, an ag group in Turkey has applied to the Turkish Patent Institute to trademark the word “IDAHO” for its agricultural, plant and animal products – and the Idaho Potato Commission doesn’t take too kindly to that idea. Neither did the Senate Agriculture Committee, which this morning not only introduced a resolution proposed by the Potato Commission, but put it on a fast track to the full Senate, which is scheduled to suspend its rules and take up the measure this morning.

“If that office grants them that authority to use IDAHO as their trademark, they can both sell and market products both in Turkey and internationally using the Idaho name,” said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, Senate Ag chairman. “I guess we take exception to that. This is not intended to poke our finger into Turkey’s eye, but they need to understand that we treasure the Idaho name.” If others can use it on their products, he said, “We lose the ability to regulate the quality of Idaho’s products.”

The Turkish agency has a public comment period on the application open through Feb. 12; that’s why the Senate resolution is being rushed through. “We need to get it done so the governor can get a letter drafted,” Bair said. The Potato Commission already has hired a Turkish attorney and she’s provided advice on how to proceed.

Bair, a retired potato farmer, said, “I really feel bad, because … I think we have a great relationship with Turkey. We do a bit of trade with them. This is not intended to damage that.” But, he said, “We need to protect our intellectual property. If anybody on the face of the earth has done a good job with trademarks, it’s the Potato Commission with ‘Famous Potatoes.’”

The resolution urges the governor to “review the matter and take all necessary steps to oppose the application,” and also directs that an official copy of the approved resolution “be distributed to the Republican of Turkey, the Turkish Patent Institute and the congressional delegation representing the State of Idaho in the Congress of the United States.”

Rep. Barrett: ‘We find out there’s no Wizard of Oz after all’

Here’s the final comment from Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, at this morning’s House Rev & Tax Committee meeting on Gov. Butch Otter’s legislation to revise and expand his “Hire One More Employee,” or HOME, tax credit; the famously outspoken lawmaker acidly objected to introducing the bill:

“We’ve been down this road before, with our subsidies, our helps and our whatever it is we think we need to do to make some profit or keep the state in business. I’m sitting here thinking Henry Ford, all the people that used to get out there and work and produce and make a profit, and they did it without professional economic advisers. They wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t see the profit. So I just feel like we take these big trips to the Emerald City and then when we get there, we find out there’s no Wizard of Oz after all, and all Dorothy had to do to get back to Kansas was click her heels three times. … I don’t see this kind of stimulus as being productive, so I won’t support the bill.”

Rev & Tax members grill Otter aide over expansion of tax credit for new workers

Members of the House Revenue & Taxation Committee grilled Gov. Butch Otter’s communications director and senior special assistant Mark Warbis for half an hour this morning, before agreeing, on a divided voice vote, to introduce Otter’s bill to revise and expand the HOME, or Hire One More Employee, tax credit. Otter’s proposing a series of changes, including adding an additional $1,000 credit if the new employee is a veteran; removing a requirement for employer-provided health insurance for the new job to qualify; changing the amounts and wage levels; and removing ties to the employer’s rating with the state Department of Labor for use of the unemployment insurance program.

“We found after the 2011 bill passed, we hoped that it would be a better economic development tool than it ended up being,” Warbis told the committee. He said the state doesn’t really know yet how well it worked, because the first tax returns from employers that would show that won’t come in until this spring. “But we heard loud and clear from employers … that it was too onerous, too complicated … for them to use. … So it became less of an effective tool. So we went back to the drawing board.”

The new version of the tax credit would be retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year, and would last for five years.

Rep. Carolyn Meline, D-Pocatello, spoke against removing the requirement for employer-provided health insurance.  “I’d prefer companies to take care of their employees,” she said. Warbis said the national health care reform law has made that issue “moot” by requiring most people to purchase health insurance.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “We’ve been through this before. We don’t have any records yet if it worked the first time, so let’s make it easier. … Why can’t we leave this to the market, which we have in the past, which is the basis for capitalism?” Warbis responded, “We do not want to interfere with the marketplace, we want to help the marketplace along any way we can on the margins. … It’s not something that’s going to cause an employer to go swim upstream in a market that’s not working for their widget.”

Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, said, “It seems like if we wait a few months we’re going to have hard data or at least some data that we can predicate a decision on. … To do so now is a forecast and a guess as I’m reading this, am I correct?” Warbis responded, “Virtually everything in economics is a forecast and a guess. I would tell you that if we didn’t do this, then the existing law would stay in place. We’ve been told quite clearly by employers that it’s not something that they like, not something that is workable for them, not something that in many cases … is worth their trouble.”

Today’s vote to introduce the bill clears the way for a full hearing on the measure in the Rev & Tax Committee.

Of fire sprinklers over a swimming pool, a spin brella and mushroom maze…

Little bit of an odd one in the list of supplemental appropriations being voted on by JFAC this morning: Pool toys and a disinfection system for the new kiddie pool at Lava Hot Springs. It’s not state tax money; it’s dedicated funds that come from the operation itself, which is operated by a foundation that falls under the state Department of Parks & Recreation. The explanation is even odder: The pool toys and ultraviolet light disinfection system were included in the original appropriation for the $1.4 million project approved by lawmakers last session, but then the state fire marshal required the project to add a fire sprinkler system. Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, said a sprinkler system wasn’t originally included “because it’s over water.” But at the direction of the fire marshal, “They had to take the money from the pool toys … to put a sprinkler system in over a swimming pool.”

The $140,000 supplemental appropriation will cover the disinfection system to protect against cryptosporidium and other parasitic outbreaks, along with wading pool toys including a hydro slide, spin brella, spinning tray, vortex cascade, mushroom maze, water flower, geyerino and deck jets. “This will just greatly enhance the pool’s opportunity for children,” said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace. “It’ll be a great addition to the community, and these are dedicated funds.”

JFAC makes first budget decisions, covering bills from past year…

This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is taking its first votes to spend money in the state budget: For deficiency warrants and certain supplemental appropriations, the largest of which is the bill for the wildfire season, $6 million. Because those bills are paid after the fact, the amount covers bills as of June 30, 2012.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, declared a possible conflict of interest for the record before the vote, because his daughter fought fires for the state Department of Lands. JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, encouraged him to still vote after making the disclosure, which was noted for the record.

After the payment was approved on a unanimous, 20-0 vote, Bell said, “We may look back on this amount when we do this again next year and have fond thoughts, because I think probably the fires your daughter fought are going to be more costly.”

When the agricultural pest deficiency warrants from the state Department of Agriculture came up for payment, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, asked, “Which was the most predominant pest, for which we spent the most money?” The answer: The potato cyst nematode in eastern Idaho.

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, then announced, “Under the rules of full disclosure, I am a potato grower.” Bell asked him, “Did you have nematodes?” Gibbs’ response: “Absolutely not.” That deficiency warrant, too, was approved on a unanimous, 20-0 vote.

Senate panel endorses bill for 3-year fishing, hunting licenses

A bill that would allow the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to begin selling licenses good for three years to resident and out-of-state hunters and anglers sailed through a Senate committee Wednesday, the AP reports. Agency officials, citing research, say multiyear permits for sportsmen of all ages are popular and have the potential to generate more revenue. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

New OPE report: Low pay contributing to state employee turnover

A new report released this afternoon by the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations points out “discrepancies between the intent of state compensation policies and their actual implementation,” noting that 90 percent of the state’s classified employees are paid less than the benchmark rate, and 45 percent are paid 20 percent or more below that benchmark rate.

The report also found “a strong link” between compensation and turnover. “We learned that poor pay followed by a lack of opportunities for career advancement are two top reasons that contribute to an employee’s intention to leave state employment,” the report said.

The study was requested last year by four members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, after concerns they heard from state agencies at their budget hearings that they were losing highly skilled workers and having difficulty recruiting qualified candidates because pay rates weren’t competitive. It’s being presented this afternoon to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee.

The report also found that the Change in Employee Compensation, or CEC, amounts approved by the Legislature over the past years have been less than inflation. More than 17,000 state employees were surveyed, and more than 11,000 responded; compensation was “by far” the No. 1 reason they cited for considering leaving state employment.

“Consistent changes in employee compensation may be the most effective way to reduce turnover,” the report found, even if pay remains below benchmark rates. The full report is posted online here.

Idaho senator compares health insurance exchange to Holocaust

As the debate over Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's proposed state health insurance exchange heats up, a North Idaho senator has sent out a mass email and posted a message on Twitter comparing the role of insurance companies to “the Jews boarding the trains to concentration camps,” saying the federal government is using private insurers and in the future will “pull the trigger” on them.

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, defends her analogy. “I just want people to hear the truth and to be aware that what is being presented before us is a socialistic program,” Nuxoll said Wednesday.  “There is no disrespect for any group or people with the analogy. … I just want people to know the truth.” Nuxoll sent the email out Jan. 23 to more than 120 email addresses, and also posted the message on Twitter.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill R-Rexburg, said he doesn’t fault her. “This is a very emotional issue for a lot of people,” Hill said. “There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ going around, a lot of information, a lot of viewpoints being expressed. As we get closer to making that decision, the rhetoric’s going to get more dramatic.” He added, “I don’t think this is exclusive to Sen. Nuxoll.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho would get gov-appointed Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, under new bill

The Senate Resources Committee has introduced legislation endorsed by the state Land Board to change the membership of the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from the Land Board members themselves to five gubernatorial appointees, who will serve staggered, four-year terms. They’d include one member “knowledgeable in oil and gas matters,” one with knowledge of geologic matters, one with knowledge of water matters, one private land owner with surface and mineral rights in an area with oil and gas exploration activity, and one private land owner without mineral rights.  State Lands Director Tom Schultz told the committee, “We would anticipate probably between one and four meetings a year.”

The new commission could designate hearing officers, establish advisory committees, and “otherwise perform duties related to oil and gas in Idaho.” Committee Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “I might at this time mention I have a ranch with some oil and gas leases on it. I will be voting, but … there might be the appearance of a conflict.” After his disclosure, the panel voted unanimously to introduce the bill; Pearce said a hearing on it will be scheduled.

Anti-milfoil efforts lauded; invasive weed kept from moving south in state

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, a leading advocate for addressing the state’s milfoil problem – he pushed so hard to fight the invasive aquatic weed in the 2006 legislative session that he nicknamed himself “Rep. Morty Milfoil” - said the state’s efforts have been highly successful. “The biggest success is that we’ve held it to 14 or 15 counties,” he said. “It’s never expanded. It was certainly moving south - it was going to be in the Snake River. But we’ve checked it.”

Anderson said the amount of invasive Eurasian water milfoil in Idaho’s waterways is “way down” from a few years ago. “I think that Ag has done a really tremendous job,” he said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Rep. Bateman to House: ‘Oh, how we love Idaho’

“Oh, how we love Idaho,” declared Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, as he began presenting HCR 5 in the House this morning, his resolution to name the Capitol Auditorium the “Abraham Lincoln Auditorium,” and marking March 4, 2013 as the 150thanniversary of the creation of Idaho Territory by President Lincoln.

Bateman, a retired history teacher and a Lincoln buff, told of how a reporter asked Ernest Hemingway why he loved Idaho, and the author responded, “It’s the only place they haven’t changed.” He shared Idaho experiences from seeing a flock of bluebirds burst out of a patch of blue lupin flowers, to watching a bald eagle soar over the Boise River in the heart of the capital city. And he told of how Lincoln created Idaho, and his close friendship with the state’s first governor, William Wallace, whom he nicknamed, “Old Idaho,” and who always regretted turning down an invitation to Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated, thinking perhaps if he’d been there, he could have saved the president’s life.

Bateman’s resolution says, “Idaho Territorial Sesquicentennial is a once in a lifetime  opportunity to educate individuals and communities across our state about  their heritage and to commemorate this 150th milestone.” You can read his full resolution here. House Speaker Scott Bedke thanked Bateman for his words, saying, “That was eloquent, and we're proud to have you as a spokesman for our state.” The resolution then passed the House unanimously.

A legislative session highlight: It’s Pie Day at the Capitol

It’s Pie Day at the state Capitol today, the day when the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators brings home-schooled students to the Capitol to show off their skills and projects to lawmakers, and also hands out lots and lots of delectable homemade pie. Pecan reportedly is the most popular flavor among lawmakers this year, but a maple cream also is getting rave reviews.

Substitute rep lost election but gets to serve 5 days - including seat on JFAC

With 12 members of JFAC new to the committee this year, or at least not having served last year, there was an even newer face among the group for the last five days: Acting Rep. Charles “Lee” Barron, R-Corral, who was filling in for freshman Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield. Barron actually ran for the Legislature unsuccessfully this year, challenging Rep. Donna Pence, R-Gooding. “She and I have sat together side by side in several committees without acrimony,” Barron said. He noted that he served a term in the Legislature 40 years ago, adding, “I was retired by popular acclaim.”

Idaho allows lawmakers to appoint substitutes when they’ll be gone for more than a day or two; the subs aren’t paid, but can cast votes on behalf of the district just like the representative. Barron said Miller is “the first person from Camas County to be in the Legislature in 40 years – I was the last.”

The town of Corral, Idaho, from which he hails, has a population of three people and seven dogs. “I’m a suburbanite,” Barron chuckled. He’s also a third-generation lawmaker; his grandfather, Charles C. Barron, served in the Senate in 1931, and his father, Lloyd F. Barron, served in both the House and Senate on and off  from the late ‘30s to the early ‘60s.

Barron, whose last day filling in for Miller is today, said, “They may be your political opponents, but in my experience with the Legislature, they’re all very decent people and loyal Idahoans. It’s a great honor to serve with these people.”

DEQ seeks ‘maintenance’ budget, highlights successes on lead, arsenic…

Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Director Curt Fransen is making his first budget presentation to JFAC this morning, so he introduced himself, noting that he was appointed by the governor last February after serving five years as deputy director under then-Director Toni Hardesty. “I think I’m missing her today,” Fransen said, drawing a laugh from lawmakers. He also noted that prior to that, he worked nearly 25 years as a deputy Idaho attorney general, representing DEQ and other agencies, and was stationed in Coeur d’Alene for the last 10 years of that.

DEQ is proposing “basically a maintenance budget,” Fransen told legislative budget writers. He noted concerns about cuts in federal funds that go to DEQ’s underground storage tank monitoring program. “To date, we’ve eliminated one position and drastically reduced our operating budget in this area,” he said. “We can at present manage this program and maintain state primacy. However, in the event of any further federal cuts in this program, we may need to identify additional funding sources or consider turning it back to EPA.”

There are also concerns about federal funding levels for drinking and wastewater programs, he noted. “None of these potential decreases are to the point where we need to bring specific proposals to the Legislature,” Fransen said. “However, we will continue to monitor the national situation … and keep this committee apprised.” Fransen highlighted successes in DEQ efforts in recent years along with his agency’s budget request; click below to read more.

Idaho Ag officials: Herbicide best way to go after milfoil in lakes

Herbicides are the most cost-effective way to control invasive Eurasian water milfoil in Idaho waters including North Idaho lakes, state Department of Agriculture officials told lawmakers this morning. “To us, today, it’s still our best tool available, to utilize herbicide first,” Lloyd Knight, administrator of the Division of Plant Industries of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Under questioning from North Idaho lawmakers, Knight said, “In some of our smaller populations, we have utilized divers to hand-pull.” That includes some of the smaller milfoil infestations in Priest Lake, around marinas in Lake Pend d’Oreille, and some areas around Cocolalla, he said. “What that allows us to do is survey and pull at the same time with divers. It can be fairly expensive, but it can be a useful tool with some of the smaller populations.”

Knight said the department hasn’t seen research showing “a high level of success” with biological tools to fight milfoil. Plus, some of those approaches involve “moving populations of milfoil back and forth, in and out of the river system. … The way our noxious weed law works, that’s a no-no. … We’d rather you weren’t transporting noxious weeds at all.”

Knight said some areas are proving resistant to any sort of treatment, including under railroad and Highway 95 bridges outside Sandpoint. Due to high water flows there, herbicides don’t work, he said, and it’s not a safe location for divers. Plus, the milfoil is located so far underwater that biological tools don’t work well. “We’re realizing we’re going to have some areas … where treatment is not going to be effective,” he said.

Agriculture is requesting $900,000 for milfoil eradication in next year’s budget, the same amount it’s been spending each year, but it’s always been allocated on a one-time basis, requiring another appropriation from lawmakers each year. Sen. Steve Vick R-Dalton Gardens, said, “It’s my understanding that there really is no end in sight for that program. Do you think that’s true, and do you think it should be part of your base budget if it’s going to be ongoing?”

State Ag Director Celia Gould responded, “Certainly I believe it’s going to be an ongoing effort. There are some opportunities for us to eradicate in certain water bodies. Certainly in other water bodies where there’s a swifter flow of water, the population is more dense … we’re going to have to control through chemical means, hand-pull, whatever suits that particular water body.”

Gould’s department requested this year that the funding next year be ongoing; it covers a comprehensive survey effort, installation and maintenance of boat check stations to identify and decontaminate watercraft contaminated with milfoil, and treatment and eradication for water bodies. However, Gov. Butch Otter recommended another one-time allocation next year.

Gould said, “We always defer to the executive branch and the legislative branch to determine how best to appropriate the money to us. We’ll get the job done however you get the money to us.”

Bill would give disabled vets an edge for state jobs

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill that would give disabled veterans an edge when applying for a job with the state is headed for debate in the Idaho Senate. Democratic Sen. Brandon Durst of Boise is the lead backer of legislation that would give the state agencies the option to hire qualified disabled veterans without going through the competitive hiring process. The Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to introduce the bill. Durst — whose district includes the Gowen Field Air National Guard base — says it's a way for the state to appreciate and help veterans reintegrate back into the working world. The bill requires that candidates show proof of military service and disability, and that they meet minimum job requirements before the state can forgo the competitive hiring procedure.


  

Armed man in video ID’d, says he’s sorry

The armed man rifling through lawmakers' desks in a Jan. 10 security video taken on the House floor has been identified, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey; Brian Carter, 47, of Meridian says he didn't mean any harm. You can read Popkey's full report here.

A tale of dueling petitions…

Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports today on two dueling petitions, as Gov. Butch Otter yesterday posted a petition in favor of a state-based insurance exchange on his website for Idahoans to sign, and Idaho Freedom Foundation executive director Wayne Hoffman posted his own anti-exchange petition in direct response to the governor's. Otter's petition had 464 signatures by 7 p.m. Tuesday, Davlin reports; Hoffman's signature numbers aren't public, but he told Davlin he'd collected about 200 in three hours. 

However, Davlin then learned that online pranksters were signing Hoffman's petition with names like “Ben Dover” and “Seymour Butts.” She checked back with Hoffman, who said five or six of his signatures were phony, and charged that Otter's signatures included “bureaucrats or lobbyists paid to promote the exchange.” You can read Davlin's full post here; it's highly entertaining.

‘Kitchen Table Economics’ session set for Capitol Auditorium

A coalition of labor groups is sponsoring a public session in the Capitol Auditorium on Wednesday evening entitled, “Kitchen Table Economics: The Status of Working Families in Idaho,” featuring economist Stephen Cooke on the effect of a repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment, and BSU Professor Robert McCarl on Idaho wages. The presentation will run from 6-8 p.m. and is open to the public.

Expert: Repealing personal property tax for schools would mean automatic tax shift to real property taxpayers

The Senate Education Committee heard a presentation this afternoon from Alan Dornfest, property tax policy supervisor for the Idaho State Tax Commission, on the impact of a possible repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment on Idaho school districts. The upshot: With only a couple of exceptions involving two charter school districts in Lewiston and Boise with rate-based levies and for certain capped emergency levies, there would be an automatic tax shift to real property to make up the $38.6 million a year that’s now going to schools from the personal property tax on business equipment. That’s unless lawmakers opted to provide replacement funds from the state.

“Generally, the default is tax shifting,” Dornfest explained to the committee. That means while businesses got a break from the removal of the tax on equipment, everyone else in the district would make up the difference in their regular property tax bills, except for those few rate-based and capped levies. In those cases, the schools would get less money.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, told Dornfest, “If I’m hearing you right, in the case of school districts, if the personal property tax base was eliminated, the taxes collected would just be collected on a reduced base, so the rate would go up and it would be basically the real property?” Dornfest responded, “In a nutshell, yes.”

Otter issues ‘Call to Action’ to Idahoans on state-based insurance exchange

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has issued a “Call to Action,” calling on Idahoans to support his push for a state-based health insurance exchange, rather than ceding to a federally operated exchange.  “Today I submitted legislation to create a state-based health insurance exchange. I learned that your state legislators are hearing from constituents who would rather cede all control to the federal government to make decisions about your health care coverage,” Otter wrote in a newsletter he sent out today; the bold-face emphasis is his.

“It's time for Idahoans to tell their elected officials that they want Idaho to be actively engaged in the decision-making process by taking a seat at the table,” the governor wrote. “The Affordable Care Act requires states to make a decision between a state or federal exchange; and I choose Idaho. But I need your help to ensure Idahoans will continue to be the architects of our own destiny and determine how health care insurance coverage options will look in our state.”

He then laid out “three things you can do to protect Idaho's seat at the table,” including signing a petition, calling legislators and emailing legislators. You can see his full newsletter here.

 

Idaho state employee pay lags 18.9% below market, total compensation also lags

State law requires a study and report to the governor and Legislature each year on how Idaho’s state employee compensation stacks up compared to the market. The result this year: Idaho’s classified employee salaries are 18.9 percent below market. That’s compared to comparable jobs in both the public and private sector. Furthermore, Idaho’s state employee pay is 10.7 percent below eight surrounding states, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The report is being presented this afternoon to the House Commerce Committee; you can listen live here, and you can see the full report here.

The report found Idaho had a 12.9 percent turnover rate among classified employees in 2012, down from 12.1 percent in 2011. The top reason employees left in 2012 was to retire, followed by moves to another job for better pay. The majority of those who left for another job went to the private sector.

Analysts for the Hay Group who are addressing the House committee this afternoon reported that Idaho’s benefits are at or above the market, largely due to health care and retirement benefits, but total compensation, including both pay and benefits, is well below the market average for both the public and private sectors. “These positives on the benefit side don't offset all of the deficits on the salary side,” said Malinda Riley of the Hay Group. “This is really important in attracting your workforce of the future.” She recommended “strategic” pay increases, saying a 3 percent boost would be a good place to start. Gov. Butch Otter hasn't recommended any state employee pay boost in his budget proposal for next year; last year, state workers got 2 percent merit raises, their first increases since fiscal year 2009.

Otter’s health exchange legislation introduced on unanimous vote

David Hensley, chief of staff for Gov. Butch Otter, said the governor’s proposal for a state health care exchange is “really straightforward.” He said, “We are exercising our state sovereignty and maintaining as much decision making authority as possible.”

The exchange would be a quasi-governmental entity, an “independent body corporate and politic.” That’s comparable to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, for example. It would be governed by a 16-member board, with two ex-officio members being the directors of the state departments of Insurance and Health & Welfare. Of the 14 voting members, three would represent health carriers; two would represent producers; three would represent individual consumer interests; four would represent employers of specified sizes; and two would represent health care providers. Neither the board nor anyone working for it or providing services would be a state employee; the exchange would get no state funds.

All meetings of the board would be subject to the Idaho Open Meeting Law, and the board would be required to contract for an independent audit each year. The board also would adopt and implement procurement policies and guidelines, and would be required to report to the governor, the director and the Legislature beginning in January of 2014 and every year thereafter.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, moved to introduce the bill, and Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, seconded the motion; it passed unanimously. Before making his motion, Cameron disclosed for the record that he makes his living from insurance, and said, “Even though the passage of any exchange in my opinion would result in less revenue to my business, I need to disclose that.”

The bill is just five pages long; it includes an emergency clause, making it effective upon passage. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

‘I feel like a warm-up act for some big band’

“I feel a bit like a warm-up act for some big band,” said Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, as he stepped forward to introduce his proposed bill in Senate Commerce this afternoon on state hiring of disabled veterans. Next up after his proposal is Gov. Butch Otter’s legislation on a state health insurance exchange; that’s what’s drawn a big crowd.

Big crowd for Senate Commerce today; insurance exchange bill on tap…

There’s a pretty full house in the Senate Commerce Committee this afternoon, where the governor’s long-awaited health insurance exchange legislation is scheduled to be introduced. It’s the third item on the agenda; it’s not a public hearing, just a bill introduction.

House, Senate Dems propose voting rights bills

House and Senate Democrats unveiled a five-bill package of legislation this morning aimed at enhancing voting rights, from allowing online voter registration – something they said 15 states already have – to, like most other states, adopting a “Motor Voter” law requiring voter registration materials  to be provided to anyone 18 or older who does business at the Department of Motor Vehicles. “The purpose of these bills is to ensure that every Idahoan has the opportunity to vote, and to move Idaho’s election process into the 21stCentury by taking advantage of technology to improve access to the ballot while protecting the integrity of the elections,” said Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise.

However, even as the Democrats gathered at a Statehouse press conference to announce the bills, the House State Affairs Committee was rejecting one of them. The panel refused to introduce the “Voter Convenience Act,” which was presented by Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and would have required Idaho counties to set up at least one full-service polling place that allows election-day voting and voter registration for any voter in the county. Republicans on the panel expressed concerns about security, said Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise,  “that voters weren’t able to vote twice, that was the main concern.” The bill sought to allow voters the option of voting near their workplace, at a centralized voting location, if they can’t make it to their polling place during voting hours on Election Day.

One of the measures, HB 59, would require a political party to pay election costs if its election is only open to party members. “We don't believe that the taxpayers should be paying for an election that they aren't invited to participate in,” Werk said.

Werk said voting rights aren’t a partisan issue. “We invite our Republican colleagues … to work with us for the general welfare of the people of the state of Idaho,” he said. “The rights and priveleges granted to us in the United States and Idaho constitutions are not partisan, they belong to the people.”

Click below for a list of the five bills the Dems are proposing.

Rep. Nielsen notes Prop 1 didn’t fail statewide; but it did fail in 36 of 44 counties…

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, asked Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, whether Proposition 1 actually passed “throughout the state.” Said Nielsen, “Throughout the state, was there districts or precincts or whatever you want to say that actually support Prop  1, so it wasn’t a state that said no throughout the whole state in every area, there was some support, was there not?”

The measure was rejected by 57.1 percent of voters statewide. Echeverria responded, “ISBA as a whole took a position in support of Prop 1. And then after the props went down, again we had this resolution come through our business session at our convention, it was voted on by all of the members, all of the school districts, and it was supported 3-1 by the school districts in our state.”

But statewide, the proposition was voted down in 36 of Idaho’s 44 counties, according to official election results compiled by the Idaho Secretary of State's office, and in the eight where it passed – Adams, Boise, Cassia, Fremont, Jefferson, Lemhi, Madison and Owyhee – the margin was extremely small. In Adams County, for example, there were 1,040 votes in favor of Prop 1, and 1,029 against it.

House panel votes along party lines to revive more provisions from voter-rejected Prop 1

The House Education Committee has voted 12-3 along party lines to introduce legislation reinstating two more provisions from the voter-rejected Proposition 1: Requiring that teacher contract negotiations be conducted in public, and allowing school districts to unilaterally impose contract terms if an agreement isn’t reached in negotiations with local teachers unions by a June 10 deadline. The panel's three Democrats opposed the move.

Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said, “It bothers me that this particular bill was basically on the ballot and our constituents, voters spoke about this. I don’t think I had a real problem with the public negotiations. But it seems to me that when you’re negotiating and one side can enforce the last best offer at a given point, it kind of puts all the marbles on that person’s side.” She asked Idaho School Boards Association Executive Director Karen Echeverria, “So, could you just talk about that? What’s the incentive for both sides to give and compromise when one group knows that at the end of this time, their offer will be accepted?”

Echeverria responded, “Both parties have to negotiate in good faith, and good faith is defined. … You indicate that all the marbles seem to be in one place here. I go back again to these are locally elected officials, and it is their statutory responsibility to manage the district, and that includes the finances of the district. So it ultimately rests on their shoulders to make that decision, if no agreement can be reached.”

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I have some feeling about printing RS’s involving a law that was just turned down by the voters. But as you all know, these laws contained various elements, and it’s hard to tell exactly what reason people voted against these various measures. … I think as a Legislature, we have a responsibility to sort through these laws and pick out the good parts, so I think it’s appropriate that we do this.”

Two other  bills that Echeverria proposed were introduced on unanimous votes in the committee; they deal with criteria for the return of teacher contracts each year, including allowing them to be sent by email; and with teacher layoffs, specifying that other factors must be considered before seniority is taken into account. Those are revised versions of features of the voter-repealed Proposition 1. Today’s introduction clears the way for full hearings in the committee on the measures.

Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, House Education chairman, said, “I appreciate the work of the School Boards Association in bringing this to us, and look forward to further discussion on these issues.”

Drop in sales of hunting, fishing licenses to non-residents crimps revenue at Idaho Fish & Game

Non-resident deer and elk tags from Idaho Fish & Game used to sell out, but they don’t now, F&G Director Virgil Moore told legislative budget writers this morning. “We had a quota, so they would sell out early each year and we had that revenue in the bank … because we were a premier destination.” As of the end of 2012, Moore said, unsold non-resident deer and elk tags have added up to $9.3 million – about $2.3 million a year – compared to their height in 2008.

“A decade ago … our non-resident license and tag sales were 54 percent of all license revenue, with the remainder, 46 percent, from residents,” Moore said. “Today, due to the great recession, perception of wolf impacts on our big game, and the non-resident fee increase in 2009, non-resident sales have declined since ’08 and now the split is closer to 50-50.”

He noted, “Remember, non-residents comprise only 30 percent of license buyers. Non-resident hunters are 6 percent of license buyers, but provide 37 percent of all license revenue.”

In 2009, Fish & Game proposed a fee increase that would charge more for the most popular hunts, but lawmakers instead approved an increase only on out-of-state residents.

Overall, Fish & Game is concerned about young Idahoans becoming hunters and anglers in the future, Moore said. Young people seem more interested in electronic devices than getting out into nature. “This is a trend that’s continued for some time,” Moore said. “Over the past 20 years, our population has increased by 57 percent or 600,000. Our license sales, however, have only increased by 7.5 percent or 46,000.” That’s even though Idaho has kept the cost of fishing and hunting down for residents; the state is the second-cheapest among its 11 neighbors for deer and elk, and it’s the cheapest for fishing.

To cope with tight revenues, Fish & Game has taken measures include holding vacant positions open for six months to save money, Moore said. It’s stepping up nationwide marketing, reaching out to sportsmen, and developing new elk management and predation management plans. The agency also has determined that is customer base is 2.5 times greater than those who purchase a license each year, so it’s proposing legislation this year to allow for three-year fishing, hunting or combination licenses, in an effort to “reduce the churn of sportsmen each year.”

Moore said an economic benefit study showed direct spending in Idaho related to fishing activities contributed nearly $500 million to Idaho’s economy – more than $11 million of that related to Lake Coeur d’Alene alone. Hunting expenditures added up to a similar amount, about $477 million. Idaho ranks No. 10 in the nation for the amount of money spent by non-residents on hunting in the state; it ranks third for spending by non-residents on fishing.

Goedde: Pay cuts beat teacher layoffs, focus on successes to build teacher morale

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he backs new legislation allowing school boards to cut the salaries of experienced teachers because it beats laying off teachers. “When you’re given X number of dollars to employ teachers, either you employ less teachers and increase class size,” or reduce salaries, he said. “To me, from the standpoint of the students, it’s best to have a stable classroom.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Asked if he expects more cuts in school funding in Idaho like the unprecedented cuts of the past few years, Goedde said yes – particularly if federal funding is cut as part of national deficit reduction efforts. For next year, however, Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a 2 percent increase in state funding for Idaho schools, and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has called for a 3 percent increase.

Goedde disputed the recent Office of Performance Evaluations report that surveyed 2,486 Idaho teachers and found a “strong undercurrent of despair” and a climate that “disparages their efforts and belittles their contributions.” Said Goedde, “If I walk into this building on Monday morning feeling good, and everybody I talk to says ‘you’re looking bad,’ maybe I start feeling bad. I think despair is contagious, as is enthusiasm – it’s a state of mind.”

Goedde said he believes the best way to improve teacher morale in Idaho is, “We need to focus on successes.” Toward that end, he said he’s asked the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association, and the Idaho School Administrators Association to each bring forward examples of successes in Idaho schools. “We’ll hear them in this committee,” Goedde said. “If we can focus on positive things that are happening in education, everybody is going to be happier.”

IEA chief: ‘This is the Luna Laws all over again’

Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr is disputing Idaho School Boards Association chief Karen Echeverria’s assertion that the IEA only had problems with two portions of Proposition 1, regarding continuing contract rights and limiting teacher negotiations to just salary and benefits. “Frankly, everything in Proposition 1 is of concern to IEA and our members,” Cyr said. “It’s not just the IEA that had problems with Proposition 1. It was all of the voters who voted almost 58 percent to repeal that law.”

The measure, repealed by voters in November, sought to roll back Idaho teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Cyr, who said her group wasn’t “asked to the table” to discuss the ISBA’s new bills, said, “It’s very baffling that the Idaho School Boards Association didn’t hear the voters, and Ms. Echeverria’s comments are contrary to what the public said. This is the same thing, déjà vu. This is the Luna Laws all over again.”

Asked about the bill the ISBA proposed to repeal a longstanding Idaho law giving experienced teachers with continuing contract rights the right to renew their contracts at at least the same salary the next year, Cyr said, “It seems to negate the continuing contract law. It’s very clearly giving carte blanche to school boards to decide what salary to pay teachers, from any given year, how long their contracts are, etc. And that is what a continuing contract is about.” She said, “There’s all these back-room deals going on again, like happened before. We think legislators need to listen to the public, listen to the people who voted, and take heed.”

Of ‘tenure,’ continuing contracts, and what would and wouldn’t change…

Before she proposed her four pieces of new legislation this afternoon, Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said she thought the Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union, really only objected to two parts of the voter-rejected Proposition 1: Banning teachers from negotiating any issues other than salary or benefits, and “the protection of their tenure and continuing contracts.” She said, “The ISBA will not be bringing any legislation on those two issues.”

However, the bill she proposed today to repeal a law about teacher salaries dropping from one year to the next strikes at the heart of Idaho’s continuing contract law, the closest thing the state has to tenure for public school teachers. Under the law, which official state records show has been on the books in Idaho since at least 1963 before being briefly repealed by “Students Come First,” teachers with at least three years on the job who are granted continuing contract rights are eligible to have their contracts automatically renewed “for the same length as the term stated in the current contract and at a salary no lower than that specified therein, to which shall be added such increments as may be determined by the statutory or regulatory rights of such employee by reason of training or service.”

The law also requires that before a school district can decide to renew a teacher’s contract at a reduced salary due to performance issues, the teacher is entitled to a probationary period. Echeverria’s bill repeals that clause as well.

The new language on contract renewals for teachers with continuing contract rights, under the bill, would specify that automatically renewable contracts “may be renewed for a shorter term, longer term or the same length of term as stated in the current contract and at a greater, lesser or equal salary as that stated in the current contract.”

Durst: ‘I’m wondering how this improves teacher morale’

Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, asked Idaho School Boards Association Executive Director Karen Echeverria about the recent Office of Performance Evaluations report that found a sense of “despair” among Idaho’s school teachers, and how the legislation she’s proposing to bring back parts of the “Students Come First” laws to limit teacher contract rights will affect that. After Echeverria described her association’s bill to repeal a state law that now prevents experienced teachers’ salaries from falling from one year to the next, Durst asked her, “I’m wondering how this improves teacher morale.”

“We certainly are not trying to defeat teacher morale,” Echeverria responded. “The school board members … really appreciate all the teachers that work in those districts. This is really about a management issue for the teachers, for those school board members.”

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, asked Echeverria, “Could you explain why you would run into problems if teachers’ salaries can’t be reduced, or why they need to be reduced from time to time?”

Echeverria responded, “This is about long-term, prudent fiscal management for the school district. … If a supplemental levy were to fail, those sorts of things, they may not have enough money to actually pay the teacher on the grid that they have at the local school district.”

Four bills introduced to reinstate parts of voter-rejected ‘Students Come First’ laws

Four new bills proposed by the Idaho School Boards Association were introduced on party-line votes this afternoon in the Senate Education Committee to roll back collective bargaining rights for Idaho teachers, echoing some of the provisions in the voter-repealed Proposition 1. On all four, the panel's two Democrats, Sens. Branden Durst and Cherie Buckner-Webb of Boise, cast the only “no” votes. “They’re all toned-down parts of what we saw in Students Come First,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who said he supports the measures.

The four bills would:

- Limit all teacher contract provisions to one year.

- Require local teachers unions to prove every year that they have the support of 50 percent plus one of the local teachers, before they’re allowed to bargain on their behalf, and require proof of ratification of contracts by both sides.

- Repeal a state law that now requires that experienced teachers' salaries not be reduced from one year to the next. The voter-repealed “Students Come First” laws repealed that law; the November referendum vote reinstated it. Under the new bill, teacher pay, contract length and terms could be adjusted up or down at the will of the local school board each year. This bill also would permit school districts to place teachers on leave without pay if a criminal order prevents them from fulfilling their contracts.

- Require courts to consider rulings from hearing examiners when they take up issues from teacher termination hearings.

All those provisions except the last two, on termination hearings and leave without pay, reinstate parts of the “Students Come First” laws. Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said she’ll be introducing three more bills tomorrow in the House Education Committee.

Senate unanimously confirms state Controller Brandon Woolf

Idaho State Controller Brandon Woolf has been unanimously confirmed by the state Senate; he was appointed to the post after elected Controller Donna Jones stepped down to focus on recovering from injuries suffered in an auto accident. “It’s not often that we have a vacancy in one of the statewide elected offices,” Sen. Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa, told the Senate. “We had one here in our controller’s office.” He noted that many legislators know Jones, a former lawmaker herself. “We’re saddened by the tragedy that struck her, the accident that she was in which left her unable to continue in that role. One of the important things that came out of that was a need to have continuity within that office.”

Jones requested Gov. Butch Otter to appoint Woolf, her chief deputy, to succeed her; Woolf plans to seek election in his own right after serving out her term.

Before the Senate’s unanimous vote, after extolling Woolf’s qualifications, McKenzie said, “I think he is our only statewide official that is both an Eagle Scout and is also fluent in Dutch.” He added, “I urge your support for the confirmation. I think it’s a good thing for the state of Idaho and also a good thing for the controller’s office.”

Idaho House honors Olympic medalist Kristin Armstrong

The House has voted unanimously to honor Kristin Armstrong, the two-time Olympic gold medal cyclist from Boise. “In my estimation, Kristin Armstrong has grit and courage and determination – she doesn’t give up,” said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “And she reminds us that the Idaho character is strong and equal to any challenge that we face.” Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, said Armstrong “enhances the image of Idaho as a state with a vibrant and active outdoor culture.” The resolution honoring Armstrong, HCR 4, now moves to the Senate.

Bad fire year statewide, not so bad on state-protected lands…

 State Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz distributed a laminated card to lawmakers showing the acreage burned in wildfires in Idaho from 1983 to 2012, plus in the catastrophic fire year of 1910. 2012, at 1.75 million acres burned, was almost as high as 1910, but the highest ever was in 2007, when the number of acres that burned exceeded 2 million. 2000 was another really big year, matching 2012 in acres burned.

However, when it came to the 6.2 million acres of land on which the Idaho Department of Lands provides fire protection, 2012 wasn’t a bad year at all, with 4,755 acres burned and 187 fires, both well below the five-year average. In 2007, by comparison, state-protected lands saw 349 fires that burned 68,674 acres.

In 2012, 57 percent of the fires on state-protected lands were human-caused, while 43 percent were lightning-caused.

Asked why state lands fared better than others in 2012, Schultz said, “It’s a lot of things. I think part of it is we actively manage our lands. We harvest timber, we have roads that are accessible.” But, he said, “The rest of it is luck – where the weather is.” Federal land managers have different objectives in managing federal wildlands than the state, Schultz noted. “It kinds of depends on where the starts are and how you deal with it.”

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will begin voting on a series of supplemental appropriations and deficiency warrants on Thursday, including the $6 million in bills that have been run up for fire suppression.

Due to lower prices, record timber harvest didn’t mean boost in state revenue…

Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz, who is making his budget pitch to lawmakers, got lots of questions from members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, including why, when the state is reaping record timber harvests, its  timber revenue has dropped; see this chart here.

Schultz responded, “We sell standing trees.” Prices in 2008 were about $380 per thousand board-feet, Schultz said. Now, they’re only about $200. “So our price for our commodity almost dropped in half. … We still haven’t seen that recovery in prices yet.”

A chart that Schultz showed the committee showed timber harvests rising sharply each year from 2009 to 2012 in volume harvested, but revenues, both gross and net, falling from ’09 to ’10, coming up in ’11, and dropping again in 2012 to just over $50 million gross and just over $30 million net. Timber revenues from state lands hit a high in 2007 of well over $60 million gross and just under $50 million net.

Session gears up: Teacher collective bargaining bills, gov’s insurance exchange bill in works

Things are gearing up, as the Legislature heads into the fourth week of its session. This afternoon, the Senate Education Committee is scheduled consider four bills from the Idaho School Boards Association to limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights, some of them restoring changes that voters rejected in Proposition 1 in the November election. Tomorrow, Gov. Butch Otter’s health insurance exchange legislation is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate Commerce Committee. On Wednesday, an Office of Performance Evaluations report on state employee  compensation and turnover is due out at 4:30 p.m. And on Friday morning, the House and Senate education committees will hold a “listening session” to hear from the public in the Capitol Auditorium.

State parks credit volunteers for survival, keeping all parks open…

Idaho’s state parks department, which now gets only $1.3 million a year in state funding, is making its budget pitch to lawmakers this morning. “We are very proud to say we’ve been able to keep all 30 of our state parks open,” state Parks Director Nancy Merrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Much of this is due to our great volunteers.” Volunteers gave the parks 86,000 hours of free work in the past year, Merrill said. Meanwhile, overnight occupancy at state parks increased by 2.69 percent, and revenue from all sources was up by 7.45 percent. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The total budget for the parks this year is $32.4 million; the vast majority of it comes from dedicated funds, including entry fees, RV registration fees and the like; federal funds account for about $5 million of this year’s budget. “It has been a cumulative agency effort to do the best with what we have,” Merrill said.

Merrill said the new program to sell “Passports” to all state parks along with motor vehicle registration has gotten off to a strong, though quiet, start. “Without much advertising we began selling those passports in October,” Merrill said. “We have sold $232,000 the first three months without advertising,” which means 18,400 passports have been sold. Merrill said last year at this time, parks passports, which carry season-long admission to all state parks, had generated just $10,890; the passports previously cost $40 apiece instead of $10 and weren’t as widely available.

Merrill said the current sales figures include both one- and two-year passports. The department is counting on the passports as a key future funding source for state parks.

For next year, the parks department is requesting $2.8 million in state funding, which would more than double its state funds for a 9.7 percent increase overall, but Gov. Butch Otter has recommended just $1.35 million, a 2 percent increase in state funds and overall a 2.7 percent increase. The difference is largely due to a request for $1.4 million in replacement items that Otter didn’t recommend funding.

Merrill outlined a major change that's in the works for the registration system for 270,000 boats, snowmobiles, ATVs and other recreational vehicles in Idaho; it will include moving the system to the Idaho Transportation Department and standardizing it. That'll mean nearly all those registrations will be handled through ITD in the future; 77 percent of people already handle them through their DMV, but 23 percent use vendors around the state. The change means the vendor system will end, except for non-resident snowmobile registrations. Invasive species sticker sales for non-motorized boats and non-residents will move to Fish & Game, as Parks will no longer have a registration system. Legislation is in the works to make the changes.

Capitol security could change after armed man rifled through lawmakers’ desks

The intrusion of an armed open-carry advocate who blended in with an evening Cub Scout tour of the Idaho House and then used the opportunity to rifle through lawmakers desks in the House chamber, go through trash cans and photograph papers has state lawmakers considering tougher security measures in the state Capitol, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports. “Events like that should disturb all Idahoans,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “It certainly disturbed me.” You can see Popkey’s full report here, including a link to video of the incident.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, John Freemuth and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature; the program also includes Hahn’s 30-minute interview with Gov. Butch Otter on everything from the First and Second Amendments to federal lands and the personal property tax;  a report from Aaron Kunz on the LINE commission; and Hahn’s interview with freshman Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene. 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.

‘Deferred maintenance’ means some aging, crumbling buildings at Idaho colleges, universities…

While a professor lectures to a classroom full of University of Idaho students, above the students’ heads, brown water marks stand out on the classroom ceiling. Window frames are rotting. A corroded and leaking boiler heats a building at Idaho State University, and sidewalks are cracked and crumbling.

All these pictures and more were part of a presentation that legislative budget writers viewed this morning on deferred maintenance at Idaho’s four-year state colleges and universities. Altogether, UI, ISU, BSU and LCSC reported roughly $700 million worth of deferred maintenance needs; they’ve requested $53.6 million next year for everything from roof replacements to complete building renovations. Typically, however, the four institutions combined have gotten less than $9 million a year from the state’s Permanent Building Fund for alteration or repair projects.

Asked about the UI classroom, Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I think I know the room.” He said, “The question that’s before us is: If these buildings serve your purpose, maintain them. If not, it’s time to let ‘em go. I think it’s an important investment.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I believe that we have some unmet needs in our buildings and we need to look at them, we need to prioritize them, we need to see if we can find any additional money to fund them.” He added, “Whether we have the ability to do a lot about it is really where we’ve got to go to work.”

 Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair, said the issue came up during the joint committee’s summer tour, and members asked for more information. “It’s an issue that the committee members need to be aware of,” he said. “We’d love to be able to address it.” But numerous state buildings have deferred pressing maintenance during the years of the recession and state budget cuts. “Obviously there’s a lot of things at play there,” Cameron said. “We still feel an obligation to share the problem with the committee.”

Milk Producers back governor’s state-based insurance exchange proposal

The Milk Producers of Idaho have come out in favor of Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for a state-based health insurance exchange in Idaho. “The board strongly felt that it is important to have decisions regarding health insurance coverage in Idaho to be determined by Idahoans and not federal bureaucrats,” said Brent Olmstead, the group’s executive director. “Whether we like it or not, the Supreme Court has upheld the PPACA. It is the law and simply ignoring it is not a viable option.” You can read the dairy group’s full announcement here.

New bill from House, Senate ed chairs restores all school funding for this year

The House Education Committee today voted unanimously to introduce a bill sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, to restore funding left in limbo by the November defeat of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 back into the public schools budget for this year. Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News reports that DeMordaunt told the committee, “These are funds that our districts budgeted on when they set their budgets last June or July. There were certain laws that were in place, and they budgeted based on those laws.” You can read Corbin’s full report here.

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, also is co-sponsoring the legislation, which rolls the $2.5 million that had been tabbed for laptop computers this year under the voter-repealed “Students Come First” laws back into Idaho school districts’ allocation this year for technology and professional development. The bill also restores funding for the rest of the year for dual-credit courses for high school students; restores the “use it or lose it flexibility” granted to districts in this year’s public schools budget; and restores education credits in the teacher salary grid; the repeal had moved the law back to the previous year’s version, which had frozen those. The bill doesn’t restore the 1.67 percent cut from state teacher salary funds as part of the “Students Come First” laws this year; state schools Superintendent Tom Luna yesterday proposed restoring those funds in next year’s budget.

The various laws repealed by the voters’ rejection of Props 1, 2 and 3 left $30.6 million unallocated in this year’s public school budget. Under the bill, all of that would be restored, plus $111,000. However, because the repealed laws had various impacts, both negative and postive, on that total, not all items are rolled back to their pre-Students Come First level under the bill; for example, an early retirement incentive program for teachers wasn't restored, but a program funding more math and science teachers was. The bill won't show up on the Legislature's website or get a bill number until Monday, because the committee met after the House had adjourned this morning after its brief, 8 a.m. Friday floor session.

Ed stakeholder group meeting today, you can watch live online

The governor’s Task Force for Improving Education is meeting today from 10-3, at the Yanke Family Research Park, Room 207, 202. E. Parkcenter Blvd. in Boise. The morning portion of the meeting is being streamed live here, though the afternoon work session won't be streamed; you can see the agenda here.

IPTV marks achievements for ‘lean and mean’ system

Idaho Public Television has been named the No. 1 most-viewed PBS station in the country, based on Nielsen ratings, IPTV general manager Peter Morrill told lawmakers this morning.”This is news,” he said to appreciative murmurs from lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. It means a higher percentage of the population watches IPTV, and watches it more, than that in the viewing area of any other public TV station.  IPTV won 53 national and regional awards in 2012, Morrill said, including an Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and compared to its peers, it has a higher percentage of donors per capita – 1.1 percent vs. 0.5 percent – and a higher average gift amount, at $72, compared to $52.

Also, he said, “Antiques Road Show is coming to Idaho on June 29. Now why is this important? Antiques Road Show is a monster of a program,” with a huge following, both in Idaho and across the nation. “They will be taping three one-hour programs from Idaho and will be airing about a year from now.” That, he said, will be a “big thing for the state,” not only bringing publicity, but “there’ll be some economic development going on too.”

IPTV has a “highly efficient design and infrastructure,” Morrill told lawmakers. “The business model is lean to provide high value.” Its staffing is at half the level of comparable statewide public TV systems around the nation. “We are very, very lean and mean,” he said. “It does require support from the general fund to sustain the rural statewide infrastructure.”

Said Morrill, “We have a very efficient statewide delivery system,” but he added, “We have some aging equipment,” bringing big maintenance challenges. For next year, Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a 2.6 percent increase in state funding for IPTV to $1.6 million. The agency’s request, largely because it included more equipment replacement items, was for a 78.2 percent boost to $2.8 million. Morrill described IPTV's maintenance challenges as a “whack-a-mole situation.”

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, complimented Morrill on the “InSession” service IPTV provides that live-streams legislative proceedings out to the public over the Internet. “When I think about what you’ve done since we came back in this building and the way it’s wire, and the way everything flows and how transparent it is, we are truly grateful for what you have done,” Bell said. “It’s a nice thing for the citizens.”

IPTV’s total budget figures are changing for next year because, through a joint effort between the agency, the Division of Financial Management and the Legislature, donated funds and federal grant funds, which make up the majority of IPTV’s funding, are now being included in the total appropriation. That means the total-appropriation figure will show a big jump, to $7.7 million, but Morrill cautioned that it’s not new money, it just reflects what already was coming in from donations and grants. 

Idaho college scholarships lag behind other states, program being revamped…

Idaho’s state scholarship programs for college students lag far behind most states in the region, Mike Rush, director of the Office of the State Board of Education, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning.  “Idaho has, I think, the second-lowest amount of need-based scholarship money in WICHE’s western 15 states,” Rush said, in response to a question from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, about how Idaho’s scholarships stack up. Idaho grants about $30 per FTE, or full-time student, Rush said. The state of Washington’s comparable figure is about $800. “So we’ve got a long ways to go.”

But an analysis by an ad hoc committee appointed by the State Board of Education “said even the way you’re spending the money you have isn’t very effective,” Rush told JFAC. “So they urged us to take a look at the entire system and to revamp that. And once we get that revamped, we’re also building in some data collection procedures so we can measure the effectiveness of how that’s working. Hopefully, when we get that whole package put together, we’ll be in a lot better position to ask for money and know what kind of results we’re expecting.”

The State Board’s committee, chaired by First Lady Lori Otter and former state Board Chairman Curtis Eaton of Twin Falls, was appointed last spring and gave its final recommendations to the board this fall; it was prompted by findings in a 2012 Office of Performance Evaluations report on reducing barriers to higher education in Idaho. Now, the board has introduced SB 1027 to revamp the state’s scholarship programs; the bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee next Wednesday.

Bill: Name Capitol Auditorium for Lincoln

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — President Abraham Lincoln signed the paperwork creating the Idaho Territory in 1863. Lincoln was also close friends with Idaho's first territorial governor William Wallace. So considering Lincoln's important ties to Idaho's earliest days, Rep. Linden Bateman of Idaho Falls says it's fitting to name the 400-seat auditorium in the Capitol after the nation's 16th president. Bateman is a former history teacher and self-described Lincoln devotee. On Thursday, he spoke to the House State Affairs Committee for 15 minutes of the virtues of Lincoln and the president's important role in Idaho's formation as a territory and state. Bateman says naming it after Lincoln would also be appropriate to mark the 150th anniversary of the Idaho Territory. The committee unanimously approved the resolution and sent it straight to the House.

Bill aims to ensure role for Idaho insurance brokers in exchange

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill intended to give Idaho insurance brokers an opportunity to help clients shop for health insurance is headed for debate in a House committee. The measure introduced in the House State Affairs Committee Thursday would give brokers access to customers looking for coverage through the health insurance exchange. The exchanges — a byproduct of the federal health care overhaul — will be set up like an online marketplace for insurance products for individuals and small businesses. In coming weeks, lawmakers will debate whether to move forward with a state-built exchange or a federal version. Republican Rep. Lynn Luker of Boise says the rules for both exchanges leave hundreds of Idaho insurance brokers in limbo and unable to help clients, so he proposed the bill; it was advanced to the House Business Committee for review.


  

Luna: Keep investing in teacher pay and classroom tech, regardless of how it’s done

A humbled Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna told state lawmakers today that regardless of how it’s done, he wants Idaho to keep investing in teacher pay and classroom technology. Luna, whose ambitious “Students Come First” school reform laws were roundly rejected by voters in November, including plans to supply every Idaho high school student with a  laptop computer, said he’s OK with the money being spent differently – but he wants it spent on schools; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. 

“We made tremendous progress on getting monies for technology and for teacher compensation thorough the legislation that was passed in 2011,” Luna said. “Now, I understand that for any number of reasons, those laws were overturned. But I don’t think anybody voted against those laws because they wanted us to spend less money on education this year or any year going forward.”

 Luna called for a 3 percent increase in state funding for schools in Idaho next year, exceeding the 2 percent increase already backed by Gov. Butch Otter. And he staked out a strong position against a raid on the school budget to take away the reform funds, including the money for the laptops, and shift it to other uses like a tax cut for Idaho businesses.

 

Otter declares ‘BSU Day’ today

There were cheerleaders. There were students. There was Buster Bronco. There was Gov. Butch Otter signing a proclamation declaring today to be “Boise State University Day.” And there was the band belting out the BSU fight song. All this filled the first-floor rotunda of the state Capitol this morning to mark BSU Day at the state Capitol.

Crapo pushes for reauthorizing Violence Against Women Act

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo joined a bipartisan group of senators this week to reintroduce the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, sponsored by Crapo and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.  “I am a longtime champion of preventing domestic violence, because I have seen the impact of this firsthand in Idaho,” Crapo declared. “This month alone, there have been four deaths in Idaho as a result of domestic violence. These tragic events serve as a reminder that we are far from ending abuse, though we have made great progress and will continue to make great progress.”

The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005, each time with bipartisan support, but it expired in September of 2011. The Leahy-Crapo bill would reauthorize it for five years. You can read Crapo’s full announcement here.

Ketchum becomes third Idaho city to ban discrimination for sexual orientation

Ketchum’s city council voted unanimously this week to enact protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations, Boise State Public Radio reports. The city’s move follows the enactment of similar ordinances this year in Sandpoint and Boise – and the state Legislature’s refusal, for six straight years, to consider the “Add the Words” bill to add the words sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act, to prohibit such discrimination statewide. You can read Boise State Public Radio’s full post here, and the Idaho Mountain Express report here; Pride Foundation has a report here.

House, Senate Health & Welfare panels set joint listening hearing Feb. 8

The House and Senate Health & Welfare committees have announced a joint listening hearing Feb. 8 from 8-10 a.m. in the Capitol Auditorium, at the request of the House speaker and the Senate president pro-tem. The House and Senate committee chairmen said in a statement that they “consider it a privilege to hear from citizens … and value the public’s input.” Click here for their full announcement.

The listening hearing follows another scheduled for Feb. 1 by the House and Senate Education committees, which will run from 8-10:30 a.m., also in the Capitol Auditorium. The speaker and pro-tem requested the committees to hold the sessions after asking the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget, not to hold such listening sessions this year, and instead to have those sessions held by the germane subject-matter committees.

Former worker sues Idaho Corrections, charges gender discrimination

A former Idaho probation and parole employee is suing the state Department of Correction, charging gender discrminiation and creation of a hostile work environment after her brief relationship with a co-worker turned violent, the AP reports. The lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court; click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Committee introduces bill on cold calls from phone companies

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House committee has agreed to debate a bill to lift the ban placed on the ability of telephone companies to make customer cold calls. The House State Affairs Committee introduced the bill Thursday and sent it to the Business Committee for review. The bill is being pushed by Minnesota-based Frontier Communications and Louisiana-based Century Link Inc. The companies say a 2000 law to end cold calls to customers and create a “Do Not Call” list hampers their ability to market new services to customers. Lobbyist and former Idaho Rep. Jim Clark says the bill gives customers the ability to opt-out from solicitation calls. Pioneer is a land-line company with more than 100,000 customers in northern Idaho that is trying to break into the high-speed Internet market.

State of Judiciary: Doing more with limited resources

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick gave his annual “State of the Judiciary” address to both houses of the Legislature today, telling lawmakers, “I bring greetings from Idaho’s judiciary, who handled over 436,000 filed cases and 655 filed appeals in 2012.” Among the efforts the courts are making to cope with their increasing caseloads: “Our magistrate and district judges traveled over 309,000 miles last year to preside over hearings in courthouses across the state,” Burdick told lawmakers. “By the use of advanced technology, mileage costs and travel time will be significantly reduced and attendant cost savings to law enforcement will be realized.” He sad, “We will embrace this new technology and look for the efficiencies it will provide.”

Idaho’s courts have completed an in-depth assessment of their existing systems and developed a plan for technological upgrades that will “affect Idaho’s judiciary for decades,” Burdick said. That will include a move to electronic filing of all court papers, a move that the courts anticipate will be funded by court users and bring significant savings to counties and the state.

Burdick also said the judiciary is having increasing trouble recruiting district judges, noting that Idaho ranks 46thin compensation for its general jurisdiction judges. He said the courts will provide more information about the judge-recruiting challenges to lawmakers this year.

The courts also are asking lawmakers to repeal the sunset, or expiration, clause of the 2010 legislation imposing a surcharge on offenders. “The emergency surcharge has kept the courthouse doors open in each of your counties,” Burdick told lawmakers, and he said the state can’t afford to replace the $4 million a year that courts would lose if the charge is allowed to expire. “The repeal of the sunset provision is vital to the judiciary’s constitutional role to solve people’s disputes and keep our communities safe.”

Also recognized in the chief justice’s address: Patti Tobias, the court system’s administrative director, who this year received the Warren E. Burger award for excellence in court administration from the National Center for State Courts. Burdick noted that that’s the highest award given for that type of work, and the House honored Tobias with an ovation.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who is presiding over the House today and tomorrow while Speaker Scott Bedke is at a new speakers’ training session in Texas, told the chief justice, “We appreciate all the hard work the courts do with limited resources, and we thank you for that.” 

Luna: Keep funding classroom technology with ‘no interruption’

As legislative budget writers wrapped up their questions for state schools Supt. Tom Luna this morning, JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told state schools Supt. Tom Luna, “I know that we still have a lot of issues to work through, but we’ll work through them together.”

Luna noted that the reason he’s proposing $10.4 million in funding for classroom technology in the school budget for next year is “to make sure there’s no interruption” in those efforts, even as a stakeholders task force looks into possible school improvements. Those could require changing how those tech dollars are spent, Luna said, adding that he’s open to that. Luna said he wants the state to continue, without interruption, to fund technology for schools. “We’ve been doing it since 1995, except for one year,” he said.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who asked several questions, said afterward that she agreed with Luna that the $10.4 million in technology funding should be included in the budget. “Whatever the debate over technology, we know that the schools are using it,” she said. “We really need to have that support in there.”

Luna budget departs from statutory requirements…

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, asked state schools Supt. Tom Luna about the seven or so places in his budget where his proposals depart from statutory requirements – which would mean either the laws must be changed, or JFAC would have to write in “notwithstanding” language to its budget, which she said is “the last thing we ever want to do.” Those range from a statutory requirement to fund the safe and drug-free schools program to a transportation funding formula from which Luna departs, as the state did this year, cutting millions; both of those account for big differences between Luna’s budget proposal and Gov. Butch Otter’s, as Otter stuck to the statutes. Bell asked, “Where are you with the policy committees on these law changes, and will they be in place by the time we go to work on this budget?”

Luna said, “That’s definitely my goal, is that the necessary laws and statutes would come to the germane committees and be well on their way … possibly to the governor’s signature before you set budgets, but I don’t drive that timeline.” Luna said one provision on which he doesn’t see that as necessary is the building maintenance match, because he’s proposing phasing back to the statutory level over two years. That would make the use of “notwithstanding” language in the budget appropriate for one more year on that item, he said.

David Hahn, a budget analyst for Gov. Otter's Division of Financial Management, noted that the governor's budget is essentially a budget based on the statutory requirements, plus the $33 million for stakeholder recommendations.

Without $33.9M for stakeholder reforms, Luna’s budget for next year would be flat

JFAC members are beginning an hour-long question-and-answer session with state schools Supt. Tom Luna. The first question, from Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, was about the $33.9 million that Gov. Butch Otter included in his budget for possible proposals from his stakeholders group on school improvement. Luna responded, “I include that same amount.” He added, “If that money goes away, then my budget basically would be a flat budget.”

In total funds, Luna's budget for next year comes to $1.6 billion, a $40.6 million increase over this year, but that includes his proposal for $5.8 million to accommodate increased student enrollment.

Luna would restore 1.67% to teacher base pay, but not increase it

State schools Supt. Tom Luna told lawmakers he’s proposing a 1.67 percent increase in base salaries for teachers, and a $500 increase in the minimum teacher salary to $31,000. That 1.67 percent is the amount that was removed from state funds for teacher pay by the “Students Come First” laws, to reroute it to the reform programs; this proposal restores the funds back  to teacher pay. Luna said restoring that puts pressure on the minimum salary, thus his proposed $500 increase.

Idaho’s minimum teacher salary has been cut along with school budgets in recent years; in2008-09,it peaked at $31,750, so this boost still doesn’t bring it back up to that level.

Luna said last year’s school budget included “an unprecedented increase in overall teacher compensation,” though most of it came in the now-discontinued teacher merit pay bonus plan that was included in the voter-rejected “Students Come First” reforms. “The fact is that every penny went to Idaho’s teachers and educators,” Luna said.

“As state superintendent, I believe it must remain in compensation for Idaho’s teachers,” he said. He noted that even “in good economic times,” lawmakers approved only a 3 percent teacher pay increase in 2008 and 2 percent in 2009. “Even in the best of times, we never saw the 5.8 percent increase in total compensation that we saw last year through a combination of salary grid, minimum salary and statewide differentiated compensation plan,” Luna said.  “I’m still convinced the only way we can continue to see this unprecedented amount of funding going to teacher compensation is if the state develops a differentiated compensation plan for teacher educators, similar to what other agencies have in place today.” He said he’s looking toward “not only paying Idaho’s teachers better, but paying them differently.”

Whatever that plan may be, it’ll be different than the one voters repealed, Luna said. “I’m comfortable with that,” he said. “I’m comfortable working with the members of the task force and the Legislature … so that we can work together to make sure every penny continues to go to educators.”

He said, “In reality it all comes down to this, this one thing: How many of our children will be ready to prosper when they are adults?” He said when it comes to improving schools, “Some insist more money’s the answer, others insist it’s more accountability. I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle.”

He said, “If a leader is not willing to risk his or her political future on bold ideas, they will never bring forth the solutions that will solve he most important issues of our day. The most important issue of our day for our children is will they or won’t they be prepared when they leave high school for the world that awaits them.” 

Differences between Luna, Otter budget proposals for schools…

Among the differences between state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s budget proposal for Idaho’s public schools next year and Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal: Otter called for $9.6 million for the Idaho Digital Learning Academy next year, as required by the pre-Props 1, 2 and 3 funding formula; Luna is proposing $6.45 million. Otter proposed no funding for increased classroom technology, additional math and science teachers or administrative evaluations, all items Luna wants to fund. Otter called for restoring funding for an early retirement incentive program and $4.7 million for safe and drug-free schools, both restored by the rejection of the propositions; Luna didn’t. Both call for setting aside $33.9 million for possible education reforms recommended by the governor’s stakeholder task force.

Otter's budget proposal calls for adding back in $29 million to bring discretionary funds to school districts next year back up to the same level they're at this year, after the various funding formula changes dues to the failure of the propositions. Luna adds to that to add a 1.5 percent boost to discretionary funds, which have been cut substantially in recent years and still wouldn't come up to previous years' levels.

Luna to lawmakers: ‘Tech is not a silver bullet,’ but must be funded, ‘like a utility’

In his newly revised public school budget request for next year, state schools Superintendent Tom Luna is proposing $1.31 million in state general funds, a 3 percent increase from this year; and $1.6 billion in total funds, a 2.6 percent increase from this year. He’s requesting $5.8 million to accommodate growth in student enrollment; $4.85 million to continue this year’s push to add math and science instructors; a $300,000 increase for school administrator evaluations; $250,000 for dual-credit classes for high school students; continuing to pay for the SAT for all high school grads; and $10.4 million for classroom technology.

“In the 21stcentury classroom, technology is not a silver bullet or an end-all, be-all,” Luna told JFAC. “It’s also not a one-time capital expenditure. We need to treat technology like a utility.”

 He’s also proposing $2.5 million for district information technology staffing; $3.7 million for professional development related to Idaho core standards, $150,000 for a safe schools task force; $10 million for facilities; and a 1.5 percent increase in discretionary funding for school districts. The governor’s budget proposal didn’t include any increase in discretionary funding.

Luna: There’s broad, bipartisan support to stick to current year school budget, not remove any funds

State lawmakers should stick to the funding total that they promised schools for the current year, despite voters’ rejection of Propositions 1, 2 and 3, state schools Supt. Tom Luna told JFAC this morning. “It is important and necessary that districts and schools receive the money that they were expecting,” he said. “Even in the deepest part of the great recession, our generations are seeing this legislature never cut our public schools in the middle of the school year. Not restoring these funds now would amount to that, and I see no justification to cut schools in the middle of the school year either.”

Luna said there’s broad bipartisan support to stick to the 2013 budget total and not move any of those funds away from schools, and he lauded lawmakers for that. Those funds include $4.85 million for additional math and science teachers, $842,000 for dual-credit courses for high school students, $24.6 million in “use it or lose it” flexibility, $4 million to unfreeze education credits on the salary schedule for teachers, and $13.6 million for classroom technology and professional development.

Luna wants 3% increase for schools next year; Otter recommended 2%

State Schools Supt. Tom Luna is requesting a 3 percent increase in state funding for public schools next year, in his newly revised budget request. Gov. Butch Otter recommended a 2 percent increase in state general funds.

Luna: What hasn’t changed: Idaho has good schools, but faces challenges

Beginning his public schools budget pitch, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that much has changed since he first submitted a budget request in September – namely, the repeal of the “Students Come First” laws. “At the same time we recognize that many of the things have not changed,” he said. “The data has stated the same, and what the data tells us is that in Idaho, we have good schools.” Sixty percent of Idaho  schools met AYP, or federal adequate yearly progress, standards last year;  58 percent were rated as “four- or five-star schools” under Idaho’s new rating system, and students in just eight states outperformed Idaho 8thgraders in reading, while just 11 states edged 8th  graders in math.

“So by any number of measures, it’s obvious that Idaho has good schools, and we’re blessed to live and raise our families here,” Luna said. “The same data also tells us that we still face many challenges.”

Idaho continues to have a high graduation rate, he said, “which is a good thing. Yet far too many of our students do not go on to education after high school. Of those who do go on, too many are unprepared for the rigors they’ll face once they get there.”

State Dept. of Ed laid off three after voters rejected Props 1, 2 and 3

After Propositions 1, 2 and 3, the “Students Come First” school reforms, were rejected by voters in November, the state Department of Education laid off three employees, state schools Superintendent Tom Luna told lawmakers this morning, in response to questions about the number of positions in his department. “There were three FTP’s (full-time positions) that we had to lay off as a result of the November election,” Luna said. “They were specific to programs in Students Come First. When the law and the funding went away, those positions were eliminated.”

He said the department is not asking for them back.

Luna: ‘A lot has changed since September’

When state schools Superintendent Tom Luna stepped to the microphone in the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee this morning after a harrowing trip in on the icy roads from Nampa, he got a laugh when he commented, “I was anticipating when I listened to the school closures, that since this was education, that maybe we’d postpone this event as well.”

First up this morning is the budget for the state Department of Education. “A lot has occurred since I stood before you a year ago,” Luna told lawmakers. He put forth a budget proposal in September, but, “A lot has changed since September, and it changed quickly.”

Still, he said, “My request for the agency budget has not changed.” It’s for $35.76 million in total funds, $8.6 million in state general tax funds. That’s a 4 percent increase in general funds, but a 22.9 percent decrease in total funds. The difference largely reflects the inclusion of $11.6 million grant funds from the Albertson Foundation in the current year’s budget. Luna is requesting spending authority for next year to spend the final $4.5 million of the Albertson grant for development of an instructional management system.

The single new position requested is for an Indian education coordinator, a position Luna committed to in 2007 and has until now funded from within his budget. Luna said five years later, after “significant budget decreases,” the department can no longer continue to fund the position from existing resources.

Public school budget hearing to start, after hazardous trip to Capitol for all…

As the 18thday of this year’s legislative session opens this morning, the roads in Boise have some of the worst travel conditions I’ve seen in my quarter-century-plus here. The ice was an inch thick at my house; several of my neighbors had collided at the bottom of our steep hill. The freeway is closed in both directions from Boise to Glenns Ferry. It’s a big day at the Legislature: The public school budget hearing is up, and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna was scheduled to start speaking at 8 a.m. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, just made an announcement: He won’t be calling the meeting to order just yet. “The superintendent is on his way – he’s been on the road for over an hour,” Cameron said. So they’ll wait.

Just moments later, Luna arrived, only 5 minutes late.

Idaho lawmakers don’t need concealed weapon permits; they’re exempt

With Idaho state lawmakers fired up to protect gun rights, more attention is being focused on an Idaho law that’s been on the books since 1990 permitting any elected official in the state, including legislators, to carry a hidden firearm without a concealed weapons permit. A 2011 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed no other state with such an exemption; most states exempt only peace officers, retired peace officers, military members, and in some cases, judges and prosecutors. Earlier this week, a three-hour evening training class offered in the state Capitol on carrying a concealed weapon drew more than two dozen lawmakers and their spouses. “I learned quite a bit,” said Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, “and I’ve had guns all my life.”

Idaho law allows sheriffs to require those applying for concealed weapons permits to go through a training course, ranging from a hunter education class to a firearms safety class, and most sheriffs require those, according to the Idaho Sheriffs Association. It also requires fingerprints and a criminal background check. But none of that applies for elected officials.

“We have the trust of our constituents,” said Lacey. “I think that’s why we’re here. As part of that trust, we should be responsible with our guns.” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, agreed. “I would say that their election to this body has been a pretty thorough background check,” he said.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said he thinks the exemption is a good idea. “The world is increasingly dangerous, and the ability for anyone to be allowed to protect themselves and their loved ones should be a fundamental right,” he said. “We’re just citizen legislators, but we have a higher visibility, and I know here, in an open capitol, we have higher vulnerability as well.” As he spoke from his seat on the floor of the Idaho House chamber, Barbieri gestured to the open public gallery above. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

AAA: Ban kids from talking on cell phones while driving

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An automobile group says Idaho should consider banning cell phone use by drivers 18 and under, on grounds it will make the state's roads safer. AAA of Idaho's Dave Carlson made the pitch Wednesday after his group surveyed Idaho residents. Carlson argues that protections for teens are necessary because they are overrepresented in fatal and injury crash statistics. It's been not quite a year since the 2012 Legislature banned texting while driving for everyone. But Carlson says most people would support adding a restriction for talking for drivers who are 18 and under. Washington and Nevada are among 10 states bans all use of cell phones, requiring that people talk on hands-free devices. More than 30 other states have restrictions on the use of cell phones by novice drivers.

Displays highlight National Guard, Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security

Lawmakers are getting a look at equipment and personnel from the Idaho National Guard and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, at displays today from 11-2:30 in the second-floor rotunda of the Capitol and outside on the Statehouse steps. Those represented also include the Civil Air Patrol and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve; communications and transportation equipment is on display inside and out, and staffers are answering questions about their use and their roles.

Median business personal property tax bill in 2011: $89

StateImpact Idaho is doing some analysis of state Tax Commission data on the personal property tax on business equipment, the $141 million a year tax that the state's largest businesses are pushing hard to repeal. Among the points: Among the 53,227 Idaho companies that paid the tax in 2011, the median payment was $89.64. And 6.904 companies paid less than $5 in 2011. You can see StateImpact’s full post here.

Idaho flu deaths climb to 15 for season

Fifteen people have now died of flu in Idaho since Oct. 1, the state Department of Health & Welfare reports, all of them over age 50. “Our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones because of complications from the flu,” said Dr. Leslie Tengelsen, deputy state epidemiologist. “Influenza activity is still high, and as long as the virus is circulating in our communities, the best protection for you and your family is to get the vaccine.” Click below for the full announcement from H&W.

Idaho has just one psychiatrist per 20,000 people

Idaho has only one psychiatrist per 20,000 people in the state, Jeralyn Jones of the University of Washington Psychiatric Residency, a four-year program, told legislative budget writers this morning. At the same time, in 2012, more U.S. veterans died from suicide than died in combat, she said. “That’s a really sad statistic,” Jones said, and one that shows the need for mental health care and more psychiatrists.  She said the residency program is making a difference, attracting bright young psychiatrists to train in Idaho. “I’m proud of our state for doing something about this,” she said. “We’re the envy of Wyoming, the envy of Montana.”

Health education programs including WWAMI, family medical residencies and psychiatric residencies were up for budget hearings in JFAC this morning. Dr. Ted Epperly of the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho told JFAC that getting young doctors to do their residency training in the state is a prime way to attract them to settle and practice here. Showing a photo of Idaho scenery, Epperly said, “If we can get people to come to Idaho, we’ve got a better than average chance of keeping them in our state.”

Nellis: Top UI faculty being recruited by other state universities that pay more…

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis told JFAC this morning that his top priority is to boost faculty pay to avoid losing top professors to competing universities.However, Gov. Butch Otter hasn’t recommended any funding for that effort next year. UI’s faculty pay is less than 90 percent of what peer institutions pay, Nellis said, and UI has to compete with them.

Top faculty are being recruited by other colleges, Nellis warned lawmakers this morning. “Some of these faculty are very marketable with their expertise, and universities know about them and want to recruit them,” he said. “So that’s our No. 1 priority this year.” In the past two years, Nellis said, the UI lost its top wheat breeder to Oregon, and a top professor of the philosophy of science to Michigan State. “We made a counter offer to try to keep both of those people,” Nellis said after addressing lawmakers, but the UI didn’t have the resources to match those other state universities’ offers.

Nellis said he was disappointed that Otter didn’t recommend that or the university’s request to add a second-year law program in Boise next year. “I made that pitch to him directly,” he said.

Nellis was upbeat about his reception this morning in JFAC, in which half the members are on the budget-writing panel for the first time. “I think they understand how important our role is, as a research engine in our state,” he said.  This photo is of the displays that are filling the fourth-floor rotunda this morning, highlighting UI programs; before this morning's budget hearing, the fourth floor was shoulder-to-shoulder with lawmakers, UI students and officials and others perusing the exhibits.

Legislature to honor Kristin Armstrong

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's two-time Olympic gold medalist cyclist Kristin Armstrong is due to be honored by the state Legislature. Armstrong is coming off a big win in the time trial in the 2012 London Olympics last summer.The Boise resident also won time-trial gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.On Wednesday, Boise Rep. Hy Kloc introduced a measure lauding Armstrong's dedication to her sport in the face of adversity. The resolution is now headed for a vote in the full House. Kloc cited Armstrong's diagnosis of osteoarthritis that ended her triathlon career a dozen years ago, but got her started on the path to becoming the most-successful U.S. professional women's cyclist ever. She retired following her win on the streets of London and lives in Boise with her husband and young son.

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey has a report here; Armstrong didn't appear in the committee this morning, but told Popkey she hopes to appear at the Capitol later in the process.

Holding down seats for public legal education a ‘hidden tax on Idaho’

The first questions from JFAC members for UI President Duane Nellis this morning were about the law school program in Boise, which has had two 30-student classes of third-year law students go through. “The focus here has been on business law, corporate law, intellectual property, with links to government law,” Nellis said. “The opportunity for externships, the opportunity for placements has been tremendous.”

He said the proposal to add a second-year program in Boise would add 40 second-year students each year, plus expand the third-year program to 40 students. “We believe there’s capacity now at the Water Center to house those students,” Nellis said. “There’s demand for those students here in the Treasure Valley. We have a shortage – you may not necessarily agree with this – but we actually import lawyers from other states because we don’t have enough, we’re not supplying enough for the state of Idaho. And they contribute tremendously to our business success.”

Nellis added, “We’d like … to eventually have all three years here. … There’s a lot of interest here in the Treasure Valley in having a public law school that provides support to businesses here in our state, something that's financially viable for students who may be place-bound here in the Treasure Valley but also may be attractive to students who would like to live in a metropolitan area like Boise.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked the UI’s law school dean, Don Burnett, about national reports that new lawyers are having trouble finding jobs. “It’s true that applications to law schools are down this year, they have been the last two years,” Burnett replied. But he said that’s because private law school graduates now average more than $125,000 in debt when they graduate, which on top of their undergrad student loan debt, doesn’t fit well with the pay at entry-level lawyer jobs, particularly in Idaho. “That’s why public legal education continues to be very important,” he said. “Our students come out with five-figure debts not six-figure debts, and they can manage them and they can stay in Idaho. … They can represent communities, they can be public defenders, they can be prosecutors.”

Idaho ranks 49thin the nation for its number of lawyers per capita, Burnett said. “Roughly 26 percent of new lawyers in Idaho are UI graduates; about three-quarters come in from outside Idaho.” He declared, “Holding down the number of seats in public legal education does not hold down the number of lawyers. It only means that they come in with a higher debt … and then they have to charge their clients more, and that’s a hidden tax on Idaho.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

UI makes its budget pitch to lawmakers

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis is making his budget presentation to lawmakers in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, and in the 4th floor rotunda, UI displays and a legislative breakfast are drawing crowds. Nellis told JFAC, “The University of Idaho is a nationally recognized research institution committed to student success and academic excellence. And we deliver one of the best educational values in the Pacific Northwest.” He cited the UI’s “numerous national rankings,” and said, “Through your investments, the University of Idaho is providing vital innovation to our state’s economy.”

“Recently we were recognized nationally as one of the top veteran-friendly campuses,” Nellis said. “We have a long and distinguished history of educating national leaders in a wide range of fields.” He highlighted research advances and discoveries at the UI, displaying a wood product and passing around screw coated with tiny, high-tech springs that’s a promising development for medical research. Nellis said the UI has attracted nearly $100 million in competitive research funding. Its WWAMI cooperative medical education program with the University of Washington, to which the governor wants to add five seats next year, has supplied nearly 400 doctors who practice in the state, at least one in every Idaho county; Nellis noted that they include Sen. Dan Schmidt, a JFAC member and Moscow physician. The UI was ranked among the top 15 percent of colleges and universities by the Princeton Review, among the “100 best buy colleges” by Forbes and ranked 65thin the nation by Washington Monthly, Nellis said.

Gov. Butch Otter is recommending a 5 percent increase in state general fund support for colleges and universities next year, but the colleges have requested 17.1 percent. Otter’s calling for funding $2.5 million in occupancy costs for new buildings at UI, BSU and ISU; and half the funding, $3.4 million, for a new performance-based funding initiative for all the colleges and universities. Among the budget requests he’s not recommending funding: The $400,000 to add a second year to the UI’s law school program in Boise, which now offers just the third year of law school.

Nellis told lawmakers the third-year Boise program has been “highly successful,” and “better prepares students for their professional interests,” linking them to businesses and government agencies in the Treasure Valley.

ACLU disavows armed man who rifled through lawmakers’ desks, says was ‘abhorrent’

After state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna showed a video to the House State Affairs Committee this morning of an armed man rifling through lawmakers’ desks and trash cans on the floor of the House – and noted that the man had attended an ACLU “Know Your Rights at the Capitol” training session before joining a Boy Scout tour of the House chamber that day – the Idaho ACLU has sent out a statement noting that it finds the man’s behavior “abhorrent” and that it was in no way related to the group’s training session.

“His action had nothing to do with the First Amendment,” said Monica Hopkins, ACLU of Idaho executive director. “In no way at all would the ACLU condone that behavior, much less train someone on that behavior.”

Hopkins said the training session was open to the public, and the ACLU hasn’t been able to identify the man. “We did have a signup sheet, but not everybody signed up,” she said.

Hopkins disputed Luna’s comment this morning that without the proposed new usage rules for the Capitol grounds, the state couldn’t stop the armed man. “Right now, because there are no rules, our only recourse in dealing with this gentleman is just to politely ask him to stop what he is doing,” Luna told lawmakers this morning. The proposed new rules, however, don't cover the interior of the state Capitol.

Said Hopkins, “The Department of Administration obviously has a videotape, and obviously has law enforcement on it. I would say they do have the tools in order to deal with this. … I would leave it to law enforcement officials to decide whether or not that is the commission of a crime. That obviously is not constitutionally protected First Amendment action.”

NIC’s reliance on Kootenai County property taxes draws questions

Lawmakers brought up a longtime sore spot during North Idaho College’s budget hearing at the state Legislature this morning: Why does the Coeur d’Alene community college get so much of its funding from property tax, compared to the state's other two community colleges, and why do only Kootenai County residents pay that tax, when NIC serves all five of the North Idaho Panhandle counties? Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint – who is from Bonner County - said, “That’s been an ongoing question from Kootenai County legislators for a long time.”

The College of Western Idaho charges property taxes in Ada and Canyon counties, but its service area also includes all or part of eight other counties. The College of Southern Idaho gets property taxes from Twin Falls and Jerome counties, but also serves all or part of eight others. NIC President Joe Dunlap said the 1982 formula that distributes liquor tax funds from the non-property tax counties to community colleges based on enrollment from those counties' residents is due for an update; the state’s community colleges are working with the Idaho Association of Counties on possible changes. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Inmates: CCA falsifying staff logs to hide chronic understaffing

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attorneys for inmates at Idaho's largest private prison say Corrections Corporation of America is falsifying staff logs to hide chronic understaffing. The allegation was raised Friday in an amended federal lawsuit. Attorneys for CCA have not yet responded, and a CCA spokesman didn't immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press. Officials with the Idaho Department Correction also didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. CCA operates the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise for the state, and the company was required to increase staffing as part of a settlement ending a different lawsuit in 2011. In the new lawsuit, inmates claim CCA is secretly violating its state contract by listing employees on staff shift logs even if they didn't work that day or only worked a half-hour.

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

Former rep returns as lobbyist amid spat over phone company cold-calls

Former Idaho state Rep. Jim Clark of Hayden is back in the halls of the Statehouse, this time as a lobbyist, the Associated Press reports; AP reporter John Miller reports that Clark’s been hired by Frontier Communications, a Minnesota-based phone company, to help push for a revamp of Idaho’s 2000 law regarding telephone solicitation. Frontier and Louisiana-based Century Link Inc. say the law banning them from cold-calling existing customers is crippling their ability to market high-speed Internet, and things have changed since the days when the law was enacted 13 years ago.

But Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office has raised concerns that consumers won't be happy to see long-held privacy protections pared back. There are about a million numbers on Idaho's “Do Not Call” list, said Brett DeLange, chief of the attorney general's consumer protection bureau that helps enforce phone solicitation laws. “Of those million numbers, our office has never had one person call us and say, 'We'd like to be called some more,'” DeLange told the AP. “People didn't take the time to sign up on the 'Do Not Call' list to have the phone company now call them during their dinner hour.” Click below for Miller’s full report.

New law proposed to delete old, unused law

No controversy in this one: The House Transportation Committee introduced a bill this afternoon at the request of the state Department of Parks & Recreation having to do with cross-country skiing, but it actually doesn’t do anything. The department, as part of its “zero-based budgeting” effort, has been reviewing all of its statutes. In that process, said Deputy Director Tamara Humiston, it identified a law as obsolete, allowing for boards of county commissioners to appoint three-person advisory committees to address matters related to establishment and maintenance of winter recreation parking. The law was enacted in 1979; only one county set up such a committee, and it was disbanded in 1993. The purpose of the bill: Delete the now-unused clause from state law.

Senator wants to cap ‘ridiculous’ interest rates charged for payday loans

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, is planning to introduce legislation to regulate payday loan companies, the Twin Falls Times-News reports. Heider joined members of the Idaho Community Action Network for a press conference yesterday to announce the push, which would cap loan interest rates at 36 percent, and force full transparency on the terms of the loan. Heider said rates now can inflate to as high as 500 percent. “That’s absolutely, totally ridiculous,” he said. Heider said he learned of the problem when one of his employees struggled after taking out a high-interest payday loan; you can read the full report here from Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin. Idaho currently caps payday loans at $1,000, but doesn’t regulate interest rates, she reports.

When it’s 10 degrees and the heat goes out…

It is a chilly 10 degrees out in Boise, and Idaho Fish & Game reports that the heat is out at its headquarters on Walnut Street. As a result, they’ve closed their license desk for the day and are encouraging customers to visit vendors instead, or go the F&G regional office in Nampa. “We expect to be open for business tomorrow,” said F&G Deputy Director Sharon Kiefer. “Our apologies to license buyers!”

Bateman: Kids must be taught cursive in school, or they and society will lose

Idaho’s public school students shouldn’t lose the ability to read cursive, warns Rep. Linden Bateman, R- Idaho Falls, a retired history teacher. “What will that do to historical research?” he asked. “Family research? Geneology? Our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence – kids will not be able to read those documents in the original. It disconnects kids from their past – weakens the connection.”

Bateman this morning introduced a concurrent resolution calling on the State Board of Education to include cursive handwriting in the new “Common Core” standards for what children should learn in school. Several other states, including California, Massachusetts and Georgia, already have made that move, Bateman said.  It comes as kids have less and less cause for cursive writing, often using computers or other devices instead.

“We need to have balance in our system,” Bateman declared. “We just can’t go with technology in every corner of our lives. … We’ve got to retain beauty in our lives.” Plus, he said there’s lots of scientific research, much of it very recent, showing big benefits for children of cursive writing. “It’s good for kids’ brains,” Bateman said. “Cursive handwriting involves more areas of the brain than when you touch keyboards.” It also develops’ kids’ fine motor skills, he said, along with retention, composition and other skills.

Bateman said, “If you don’t teach cursive, the time will come when people will not be able to read cursive.” The House Education Committee agreed unanimously this morning to introduce Bateman’s resolution; that clears the way for a full hearing on the measure. “We’re going to get people to testify – experts, I hope,” Bateman said.

Community colleges growing, want to offer expanded programs…

Jerry Beck, president of the College of Southern Idaho, told legislative budget writers this morning that community college enrollment in Idaho is running six times ahead of the overall growth in the state. He also noted that the state general fund spends $1,915 per full-time community college student, vs. $5,545 per full-time student in the state’s four-year colleges and universities.

College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon said that college has swelled to a total headcount enrollment of 18,628. That includes 9,107 credit students this fall, and 9,521 non-credit students, including adult basic education and workforce development classes.

North Idaho College President Joe Dunlap said a recent economic impact study of the Coeur d’Alene community college found that it has an economic impact on the region of $164.5 million. “That’s a $1.50 return for every dollar invested in our students,” he said, including both state and local government funding. Dunlap said NIC is working with the Idaho Association of Counties to re-examine the 1982 formula that divides up liquor proceeds to pay a portion of out-of-county Idaho residents’ tuition at the community colleges; Dunlap said the formula no longer reflects current conditions. “That has become a significant issue with the community colleges in the state,” he said.

Gov. Butch Otter has recommended an 8.9 percent increase in the state general fund budget for community colleges next year, to $30.2 million, but the colleges have requested a 41.2 percent increase to $39.2 million. An array of budget requests from the colleges went unfunded in the governor’s budget, from $580,500 for nursing program support at CWI to $191,500 for CSI’s Idaho Falls Outreach Center to $302,300 to expand NIC’s Sandpoint Outreach Center. CSI wanted $178,100 for a STEM initiative; CWI wanted $4.2 million to add instructors and improve pay for adjunct faculty; and NIC wanted $353,200 to increase dual credit course offerings for high school students in the region. None were recommended for funding  by the governor.

House State Affairs votes unanimously to hold grounds use rules for now

The House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously in favor of one of the three dockets of rules, the one regarding the interior of the buildings in the Capitol Mall, but that wasn’t the controversial one. The other two dockets, regarding use of the exterior grounds, both will be held for at least a few days. “I think there are still some questions to be answered with respect to what the Senate did, the pending litigation,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who made the motion to hold off on voting on either of the other two dockets. Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, spoke in favor of Crane’s motion. “I know that I have some questions regarding the lawsuit, accepting or rejecting, to see the implications, and I would like to seek some advice from legal counsel before I make a decision,” she said.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said he has concerns over a number of the provisions and their impact on freedom of speech, along with concerns over how financial liability provisions are written.

The vote was unanimous. After the vote, Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona,said, “It will be done,” and he thanked the members of the public who came to testify today. The rules will come back up at a time chosen by the chairman.

Rep. Batt: Should state even be looking at rules when lawsuit is pending?

Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, who is chairing the House State Affairs Committee’s hearing on Capitol grounds use this morning, asked whether the committee should even be having this conversation about proposed new rules, when there’s a pending lawsuit in federal court on the same topic. Julie Weaver, deputy attorney general for the state Department of Administration, said, “There are two parallel processes that occur at the same time. One doesn’t necessarily take precedence over the other, in my view.”

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, asked ACLU Legal Director Richard Eppink if the ACLU would drop its lawsuit if the rules were rejected. He responded that a portion of the dispute would become moot, and likely be suspended or withdrawn, but that would depend on issues including what happened next and how the parties in the case wanted to proceed.

Testimony: ‘We care about the work you do here, we want to be involved’

At this morning’s hearing on proposed new Capitol grounds use rules, former Boise City Councilwoman Anne Hausrath told the House State Affairs Committee, “I have a great deal of respect for the work that you do here. … We Idahoans really care about government, we care about the work that you do here. We think it matters. We want to be involved. … Please do not try to stifle all voices with these clumsily written rules.”

Hausrath said, “I’m a bit confused about the videos that you were shown, because my understanding is that the rules actually don’t deal with the interior of the Capitol, and they also don’t deal with firearms.” She said, “These rules were written in haste. … They appear to target the very freedoms guarded by the U.S and the Idaho constitutions. If approved, these rules would restrict all voices, not just the voices of Occupy Boise last spring, but the voices of all of Idaho.”

Barbara Kemp told the lawmakers, “I literally tremble for the future of the state of Idaho if these rules go forward. … They’re an answer in great and confusing detail, I think, for the wrong question. … They answer the question, ‘How can we micromanage citizens’ behavior with a list of ‘don’ts’ that is exhaustive, confusing and even insulting enough to ensure that those wishing to engage their representatives can never again, or will never again, take the trouble to engage their representatives in an effective way?'”

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, told the committee, “On behalf of our over 1,400 members, I’m here to express our concerns and opposition.” She said, “The ACLU opposes these rules because they are an extreme and unnecessary approach to regulating Idahoans’ individual freedoms. As Rep. Gannon pointed out, the problem in these rules is they create confusion and a chilling effect on free speech, mainly in some of the definitions, as pointed out by Rep. Luker. The rules define an ‘event’ as a gathering of two or more people.”

She added, “’Graphic display,’ listed under the types of exhibits, have caused confusion that we’ve heard about in our office as well. The 1stAmendment has always protected symbolic speech, including graphic displays of buttons, T-shirts, red ribbons or knitted hats. This type of restriction … goes beyond what the courts have allowed.”

Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, has stepped out and left Vice Chair Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, to preside over much of the hearing.
  

Testimony: ‘Hey, Louie, turn on the sprinklers,’ there’s a protest on the grass…

The first member of the public to testify at this morning’s House State Affairs hearing on rules for use of the Capitol grounds was Gene Bray, a 25-year resident of Meridian. He said the way he reads the sound amplification section, “My hearing aids may not be allowed, because I do have sound amplification.” He also raised an issue not in the proposed new rules – open carry of firearms is allowed in the Statehouse, and last Saturday, there were numerous weapons in the Capitol as part of a gun rally, but at the Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day celebration yesterday, school children were being stopped from bringing their signs into the Statehouse because they were on sticks. “And so having firearms in the buildings and not permitting sticks is just sort of incongruous.”

Bray objected to the rules making grounds maintenance a higher priority than protests or free speech. That, he said, “Potentially allows these activities to be used as harassment against assembly, speech and protest, like, ‘Hey, Louie, turn on the sprinklers – they’re over there on the grass.” Said Bray, “I’m personally convinced that the cumulative effect … is to discourage the exercise of free speech and assembly. This set of rules should be rejected.”

House State Affairs members have questions about proposed Capitol grounds use rules

So far this morning, House State Affairs members have had a series of questions about the new rules. Among them: Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, asked how lay people will understand the complicated and lengthy new rules. Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna said the rules are available to the public, and said, “Our first effort is always to inform the citizen of which rule or guideline that they’re breaking and inform them to stop. … Eventually we would have to call in the ISP and they would be ticketed, and I think it’s an infraction.”

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, noted that the rules permit people to walk through the grounds on the way somewhere and permit recreational use, but said, “I don’t see anything in there that would allow just a normal protest carrying a sign … nothing in terms of speech. … Am I prohibited from walking through the grounds with a placard?”

Luna responded, “The short answer is no,” then referred questions to the department’s attorney, who said it would depend on the hour – walking through the grounds carrying a placard after 6 p.m., depending on the time of year, would be prohibited. That applies to state office buildings in Lewiston, Idaho Falls and elsewhere, as well as the Capitol Mall. Luker said the definition of “exhibit” is extremely broad. “That’s what I’m struggling with,” he said.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, asked, “If someone wants to protest or have a gathering at 6:30, why are we shutting them off at 6 o’clock?” Luna responded that there’s no lighting in areas around many state buildings. “It’s a security and a safety issue for us,” she said.

Video shows armed man burglarizing desks on House floor, Admin chief says without new rules state can’t stop him

State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna showed two video clips to the House State Affairs Committee this morning, one of a man dressed in white and openly carrying a sidearm rifling through lawmakers’ desks on the House floor during a public tour on Jan. 10, and one of a woman dressed as a clown demanding to know precisely what rule prevented her from hanging a banner from the rotunda railing. Luna said the man dressed in white had attended an ACLU “Know Your Rights at the Capitol” meeting, then joined a Boy Scout tour of the house. “This man begins to go through desks,” Luna said, as the video played. “He takes things out of the trash.” He uses his cell phone to photograph documents. She said, “Right now, because there are no rules, our only recourse in dealing with this gentleman is just to politely ask him to stop what he is doing.”

Then she showed video of a rally in which people dressed as clowns and carrying protest signs entered the rotunda, with an extended exchange between the woman and security guards. “What’s the rule that says I can’t do that?” the woman asks the guard. “Can you tell me the exact rule?” She continues hanging her banner.

Luna said, “So, Mr. Chairman, I think that shows you what we are dealing with. We are facing that behavior, whether it’s inside the Capitol, outside the Capitol, other Capitol Mall properties, interior and exterior. That is becoming a normal behavior. While we used to go up and say, ‘Please don’t hang things on the rotunda railings, we don’t allow that,’ and people would politely stop what they’re doing, that is now just not the case. … Rules are the only thing we have that carries the force of law.”

Committee members were quiet after viewing the videos. Then, they asked Luna to address the rules , and began asking questions about some of their details.

The new rules are in three dockets, but none of them affect the interior of the state Capitol. They deal only with the exterior of the Capitol Mall; the interior of buildings on the Capitol Mall other than the state Capitol; and the Capitol exterior, including the steps.

Colleges give budget pitches, capitol grounds use hearing opens

This morning, the House State Affairs Committee is holding a public hearing on proposed new rules for use of the Capitol grounds, including for gatherings and protests; the Senate State Affairs Committee earlier approved the rules but rejected some of their main portions, with limits on time and place of events and exhibits and on sound amplification. Also this morning, Education Week hearings continue in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, where Lewis-Clark State College is up first for its budget hearing, followed by the College of Western Idaho, College of Southern Idaho and North Idaho College.

J. Anthony Fernandez, LCSC president, told JFAC, “We have students from all over the state and across the nation.” LCSC has 4,525 students in total head count, a 25 percent increase from fall of 2007.

Otter targets insurance exchange ‘myths’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter believes there’s been “a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding” about his proposal for a state-based health insurance exchange, so he’s sent out a memo on health insurance exchange “myths” and “facts” to all legislators. “There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding as to what the governor is doing and what he isn’t doing and why he’s doing it,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “We’ve encountered that a lot during the course of this discussion.”

An example: Hanian said people are calling in to the governor’s office and saying “that if the governor just says ‘no’ to a health insurance exchange, we can keep Obamacare out of Idaho.” That’s Myth No. 1 in the memo. “The question is not whether Idaho will have an exchange, but rather who will build and administer the system – the federal government or the state,” the memo says. “Ignoring the law would invite increased federal involvement in our state affairs through regulation of our insurance markets , forfeiting the creation of jobs in Idaho to other states, adding to the enlargement of the federal bureaucracy and incurring federal fees for operating costs associated with running a federal exchange.”

Hanian said the question “gives you pause to realize that there’s a little bit of a learning curve associated with some of this. So in an effort to clear up and dispel some of the myths and misinformation that was out there, this was provided.” You can read the full memo here.

Hanian said the governor’s office may still send out more information to lawmakers before it introduces its insurance exchange legislation this year. Asked when the bill is likely to emerge, he said, “I know that we’re very close.”

A first: Ringo takes the gavel, chairs legislative panel

Rep. Shirley Ringo is serving her seventh term in the state House – but today marked a first for her: She chaired a legislative committee. “It’s the first time, and it’s something that I never expected to have the opportunity to do,” said Ringo, a Moscow Democrat, after this afternoon’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. “So it’s a landmark day for me. It just shows if you stay around long enough, that about anything is possible.”

The Idaho Legislature and its standing committee chairmanships have long been controlled by Republicans. But JLOC has two co-chairs, one from each party; this year, it’s co-chaired by Ringo and Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Ringo said, “I think we all appreciate JLOC’s role to look at policy and potential changes in policy.” The joint committee directs the Office of Performance Evaluations to study and report on issues involving state government and how it functions; she noted that recommendations from today’s report on improving contract management could save the state money as well as make programs work better. “I’m very interested in the next one we’re getting, to look at public employee pay,” Ringo said. “We all know that we have been remiss in our dedication to bring those to policy levels.” That report is due out Jan. 30.

Denney: Legislation in works to fight feds over public lands

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho could be the next western state to engage in a public lands fight with the federal government. Last year, Utah and Arizona passed legislation demanding the federal government turn over control of millions of acres of public acreage in those states. Utah's governor signed the bill, while Arizona's was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. On Monday, the Utah legislator who led passage of that state's bill urged Idaho lawmakers take the same step toward managing public land in its borders. The Utah bill sets a 2014 deadline for the federal government to yield control of nearly 30 million acres. That total does not include national parks and monuments and wilderness. House Resources and Conservation Committee Chairman Lawerence Denney says he expects to introduce similar legislation in coming weeks.

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

Report: Idaho’s contract monitoring falls short, more training, monitoring needed

Idaho’s management of contracts with the state – including multimillion-dollar deals – falls short in two key areas, according to a performance evaluation released this afternoon by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee: Training and monitoring. The report lays out a series of recommendations, including a checklist for best practices to be developed by the Division of Purchasing for all agencies; having the Legislature consider bringing all agencies under the oversight of the Purchasing Division for large or high-risk contract awards and monitoring; and updating state laws and administrative rules regarding contract awards and oversight to make them more “user-friendly.”

A survey of agency staff who are involved with contracts throughout the state found that they find Idaho’s rules and laws regarding contracting unclear, not useful and challenging to comply with. The report also found that there’s no overall requirement to monitor all contracts after they’re awarded.

“Agencies are not necessarily properly trained,” analyst Amy Lorenzo told the lawmakers on JLOC.  “They’re still responsible for the management of that contract, even if they have not had any training.” That puts them at risk, she said. The report’s recommendations include creating new training programs and adding a new full-time position at the Division of Purchasing specifically to provide statewide training. More training for agencies is the “single biggest way” Idaho could improve its contracting process, Lorenzo said. The full report will be posted online here Tuesday morning.

Senator: Idaho Constitution says corporate personal property tax ‘shall never be relinquished or suspended’

As the Idaho Legislature this year looks into proposals to repeal or phase out the personal property tax on business equipment, Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, is pointing to Article VII, Section 9 of the Idaho Constitution, which says, “Corporate property must be taxed. The power to tax corporations or corporate property, both real and personal, shall never be relinquished or suspended, and all corporations in this state or doing business therein, shall be subject to taxation for state, county, school, municipal, and other purposes, on real and personal property owned or used by them, and not by this constitution exempted from taxation within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax.”

Schmidt, a physician and second-term senator, said, “I’ve asked a bunch of lawyers, the Attorney General, the Tax Commission, constitutional lawyers. They all say, nope, it doesn’t say that, even though it clearly says that to me, in clear language.” He said, “They cite the discussion that was had around that, as well as subsequent decisions  that have been made.” But Schmidt said as lawmakers consider proposals to do away with the $141 million annual tax – proceeds from which now go to local governments and schools – they should consider why the framers of the Constitution included that section. “They were saying something I think we should pay attention to,” he said.

Schmidt wrote about the issue on his blog, where he also recalls being billed for $1.25 a year in personal property tax when he first came to Moscow to practice medicine, to cover his equipment used in business – his medical school books and two stethoscopes. “Over the years I kept getting those bills but my valuation of the books diminished, and when the payment became less than the postage, they stopped,” he wrote. “Back then I was annoyed by this silly tax. … But as I now reflect, I think these are fair costs a citizen and businessman should pay to be in our state, our civic duty.” You can read his full post here.

Feds file motion seeking immediate foreclosure on former Rep. Hart’s home

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Government attorneys are asking a judge to rule in their favor in a federal tax case against ex-state Rep. Phil Hart and allow them to immediately foreclose on his northern Idaho log home. In a motion for summary judgment filed in federal court Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Keneally said there are no disputes over the facts concerning 6 of the 13 years for which the government believes Hart owes back taxes, and so U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge should rule in the government's favor for that portion of the lawsuit. Hart stopped filing federal income tax returns in 1996 while he while he unsuccessfully sued over the constitutionality of the federal income tax. The Internal Revenue Service is seeking to collect more than $500,000 in taxes, penalties and interest. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

House panel introduces revised ethics rule, includes standing Ethics Committee

The House Judiciary, Rules & Administration Committee has voted unanimously to introduce legislation amending the House’s ethics rule, Rule 76, to establish a permanent, standing Ethics Committee, rather than just have one appointed when a complaint is made. The new rule was developed behind closed doors in the House Majority Caucus, but Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said GOP lawmakers came to the minority caucus for their comments and suggestions as well. He congratulated Reps. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, and Fred Wood, R-Burley, for “what I regard as a fair and productive process” to develop the new rule. Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, chairman of the committee, responded, “I think that's very important.”

The rule, which now will be scheduled for a full hearing in the committee, would establish a five-member ethics committee, to be elected by the majority and minority caucuses; the majority would get three members, the minority two, and the speaker of the House would designate the chairman. Committee members would serve for a term of two years. The rule also adjusts possible penalties against House members accused of ethics violations to include censure both with and without conditions, which Luker said will provide more flexibility to the new committee in settling on appropriate sanctions. Complaints would be confidential until the committee agrees that hearings are merited; then they’d become public. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Trumpets resound, crowd fills rotunda for MLK Day commemoration…

Trumpets resounded in the Capitol rotunda, as hundreds gathered both inside and outside to mark Idaho’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day today. The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins of Spokane, shown here, gave his rendition of King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Lt. Gov. Brad Little read a proclamation declaring the day. “Improving the quality of life for all members of society is everyone’s responsibility,” he declared.

Inside the rotunda, the crowd was a diverse one, with old and young,  black and white, Native American and Hispanic, casually dressed and more formally attired. Boise State University students marched from their campus to the Capitol, and a crowd of Native American tribal members assembled on the steps for an “Idle No More” event dubbed a “flash mob for human rights.”

Around the 2ndfloor rotunda, tables were manned by the Idaho Human Rights Education Center, Americorps, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, which was handing out an assortment of free cookies – including square ones with yellow frosting touted as “sticky note-shaped.” That was an allusion to “Add the Words” campaign, in which hundreds of colorful sticky notes were posted at the Capitol last year as part of an unsuccessful campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act.

Little compared Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Lincoln, who signed the papers creating the state of Idaho, and also signed the emancipation proclamation.

“It is an honor to be here today to … make a connection between these two great human rights advocates,” he said.

Watkins told the crowd, “If Martin Luther King was here right now, he would tell each of you: Work to make a difference, until making a difference don’t make no difference no more.” The rotunda erupted in applause.

House and Senate Ed panels schedule ‘listening hearing’ on day of canceled JFAC hearing

The House and Senate Education committees are now planning to hold a “joint listening hearing” on Feb. 1, the day of the first canceled JFAC public hearing on the state budget this year, at the request of House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill. The hearing will take place, like the JFAC one would have, in the Capitol Auditorium.

“We want to invite all citizens to attend and share their thoughts on how our education system can be improved,” said Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, chairman of the House Education Committee. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, added, “We believe that listening sessions like these, in conjunction with the Governor’s Task Force, can provide ideas to better educate Idaho’s students. In addition we want to encourage our citizens to attend the regularly scheduled Education Committee meetings where public testimony on proposed legislation is always appreciated.”

Legislative leaders asked JFAC to cancel its two scheduled public hearings on the state budget this year for fear of the joint budget committee getting ahead of the education committees on issues related to the voters’ rejection of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 in November, repealing state schools Supt. Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” school reform laws. Those hearings the last two years have drawn nearly 2,000 Idahoans from across the state to the Statehouse to give their input on state spending.

Bedke said legislative leaders are asking the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees to hold a similar session the following week, and others may follow. “This was always my intention,” Bedke said. “We ought to have more listening sessions in the future, not less.”

Albertson Foundation threatens to withhold $4.5M in program funding

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation is threatening to withhold $4.5 million it's promised to Idaho next year for a computer program to track student progress. The foundation in Boise says the money now won't be paid unless Idaho restores taxpayer funding for teacher professional development — money put in jeopardy when voters rejected public schools chief Tom Luna's Students Come First overhaul Nov. 6. The Albertson Foundation promised $21 million in 2011 for student-performance-monitoring software from SchoolNet Inc., a New York company. According to a letter from the foundation to Idaho budget writers, however, the final $4.5 million won't be paid “unless the professional development funds are secured.” Melissa McGrath, Luna's spokeswoman, said Friday he'll announce a remedy for the potential loss of funding next week.

BSU sees shift in student composition, more pressure on upper division

Boise State University has seen a shift in its student composition since the opening of the College of Western Idaho community college, BSU President Bob Kustra told JFAC this morning. Now, Boise State has more juniors and seniors, and fewer freshmen and sophomores, and that’s putting more pressure on the need for additional full-time faculty to teach upper-division courses, a need already exacerbated by funding equity issues and a lack of enrollment workload funding in past years, something Kustra called a “double whammy.”

“It’s new sections that are the issue at Boise State,” Kustra told lawmakers, creating a “bottleneck” for juniors as they need to take specific upper-division courses for their majors. “That’s the crisis that we have. … How do we figure out a way to bring the number of sections up so that we can bring students through?” That’s particularly an issue in the most popular majors, he said.

At the same time, BSU has had an increase in out-of-state enrollment from California, because that state has announced that, due to budget cuts, it’ll take students five and a half years to graduate. “We do have a finish-in-four program,” Kustra said. “If a student wants to get out in four years, and they’re willing to take only one major, not change a major … we’ll get ‘em out in four years.”
  

Kustra said BSU has seen a 47 percent increase in degrees granted since 2006, and just an 8 percent increase in faculty appointments over the same time period. “We have reached a point where we will be pressed to accommodate growth without additional resources, especially as we have more students taking upper division coursework,” he said in his presentation.

Up where the air is clear…

While we shiver and sniffle in the frigid temperatures of the inversion-plagued Boise valley, there's a whole different world just 16 miles to the north at Bogus Basin. This view from the top of Chair 1 yesterday afternoon snows the smog-filled valley below in which the city is hidden. The non-profit ski resort's snow cover may be a bit thin, but it is just gorgeous up there. Yesterday, it hit better than 45 degrees with deep blue skies, bright sunshine and fresh, clean air. There were people skiing in sunglasses and no hats; everyone was shedding layers, unzipping coats and slathering on the sunscreen. Rock skis still are in order, and there are few runs they're now able to groom, but the terrain park is open on frontside to the joy of a whole lot of kids, and the snow is holding up beautifully in the Superior and Triangle areas on the back side, especially for those who enjoy skiing bumps. Best of all is the weather - it was really hard to leave yesterday and head back down the hill…

Bill would make it harder for initiatives, referenda to qualify for Idaho ballot

Idaho would make it harder to collect enough signatures to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot, under legislation introduced this morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee at the request of lobbyist Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau; the bill’s sponsor is the committee’s chairman, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Idaho lawmakers amended the initiative and referendum law in 1997 to require signatures equal to at least 6 percent of the registered voters in at least 22 counties, in an attempt to ensure that such measures couldn’t qualify solely with signatures from Idaho’s biggest cities. That was overturned as unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court, however, saying it unconstitutionally gave more say to rural residents than urban ones. In 2003, the 9thCircuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

The new legislation points out that while the 9thCircuit’s opinion rejected the “minimum number of counties” standard, it left open the possibility of using a different geographic distribution requirement, such as legislative districts. The bill requires signatures from at least 6 percent of registered voters in at least 22 Idaho legislative districts; Idaho has 44 counties and 35 legislative districts. The total number of signatures still would have to equal 6 percent of the registered voters in the state.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said he had “grave concerns” about the change, which nonetheless was introduced on a unanimous voice vote; that opens the way for a full hearing on the measure in the committee.

‘Ed Week’ hearings open in JFAC, Legislature is in session despite holiday…

Idaho State Board of Education President Ken Edmunds is opening “Education Week” in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, with a presentation from the state board; he’ll be followed this morning by ISU President Arthur Vailas and then BSU President Bob Kustra. Edmunds told lawmakers that in Idaho, 92 percent of students graduate from high school, just 46 percent go on to some kind of additional education after that, and the post-secondary graduation rate is just 34 percent. The state board’s goal is that by 2002, 60 percent of Idaho’s citizens age 25-34 will have at least a one-year post-secondary credential. Currently, about 35 percent of Idahoans in that age group have an associate’s degree or higher. “We as Idaho are falling behind our global competition, and we have to find a way to deal with that,” Edmunds told JFAC.

He also noted that rates of unemployment in Idaho decline significantly with more education, and earnings go up significantly.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, a state holiday, but the Legislature doesn’t take holidays – it’s in session today as usual. However, that will include the annual state commemoration of the holiday at noon today in the Capitol rotunda.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Dan Popkey, Melissa Davlin and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature and Idaho politics. Plus, Greg interviews two physician-lawmakers, Sen. Dan Schmidt and Rep. Fred Wood, on health care, Medicaid expansion, insurance exchange issues and more; and there’s a report on water issues and a tour of the “garden level” of the Statehouse. 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.

JFAC members speak out on cancellation of public hearings…

Here are some reactions from JFAC members to today’s announcement that public hearings on the state budget scheduled for Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 have been canceled, and the joint committee won’t take public testimony this year on the state budget:

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens: “I’m pretty disappointed that we’re not having public testimony on the budgets. If it was up to me, we’d have public testimony on every budget. I think it’s important to hear from the clients, the people  who pay for the services as well as those who provide the services. And we had public testimony on all the budgets when I was in the legislature in Montana. It seemed to work fine.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow: “I think that the public has every right to have access to every part of the process we can possibly arrange, and frankly the referendum issue that came up, came up because of decisions being made without that open process. Now, I agree there are some things that appropriately do go through the germane committees, and JFAC probably wouldn’t be making those decisions anyhow, but I think people greatly appreciated that opportunity, so I would expect some pushback on the part of the public. … I do think it’s way too bad.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of JFAC: “I think it was wise. I was a little uncomfortable, but I just was not sure that we could control those people who would come to testify concerning education, because it’s been such a big issue. And obviously we had a lot of other topics and a lot of other things in the budget, but after what happened in November, and the task force going on … I was just concerned. Had there not been a task force, it would have been a different story.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chair of JFAC: “I thought this year it would have been critical, with so many new members, for them to see the face of the handicapped child or the teacher. … I thought  it was important for the new members to see that and feel that, because in my opinion, those were  life-changing events. And I guess I’m really in favor of the openness, of transparency. All that pays off. … Why be mysterious? We’re trying to do the best we can with limited resources. … Given the size of the pie, it’s our job to try to decide how to divide that pie out and how to do that fairly.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of JFAC: “I’m perplexed by the decision. I believe the co-chairs have been leaders in trying to respond to the criticism we get on that committee on not being open and inclusive as other committees are, and I thought we were going in the right direction and it seemed to be well-received by legislators and public alike. So I’m surprised. … I think it’s unfortunate that we’re going this direction. I hope that we think about it and try again in another year, perhaps.”

Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise: “I was not on JFAC the years that they had those quote unquote public hearings. They were listening hearings. You don’t get an opportunity to engage.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover: “I’m OK with it, and the reason I’m OK with it is I know that there’s going to be some work, especially in the area of Health & Welfare and education. We’ve got the insurance exchange thing, the expansion of Medicaid issues as well as the response to losing all three propositions last year on education reform. Given that that leaves money available in the 2013 budget, in the area of schools, I think it’s justified that we let the germane committees deal with that issue before we start dealing with it in JFAC. It’s kind of a policy call, not a JFAC call.”

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls: “The hearings that will be taking place will be from the germane committees, as in the House and Senate education committees, that’s my understanding, and that’s where policy is made, where JFAC’s the budget committee. … My understanding is that the chairmen of those committees will be holding hearings on that legislation that they have.”

When JFAC held public hearings…

This photo is from the big public hearing that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held on Jan. 28, 2011 on the Health & Welfare budget, which drew nearly a thousand people who spilled out of a packed Capitol Auditorium into five separate overflow rooms. Today, JFAC announced that it’s canceling the public hearings on the state budget that had been scheduled this year for Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 at the direction of legislative leaders, who don’t want the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to get out ahead of the House and Senate education committees as they consider the results of voters’ rejection of the “Students Come First” school reform referenda.

Nearly 2,000 people traveled from all parts of the state to Boise for the hearings over the past two years; prior to that, JFAC, which sets the entire state budget, was the only legislative committee that didn’t take any public testimony – a status it regains with today’s announcement.

2011 marked JFAC’s first-ever public hearings; a Jan. 21 hearing on the public schools budget drew more than 500 people, nearly 80 testified, and another 400 submitted written comments. Among them was Matt Barkley, a school band director from Post Falls, who said it was worth it to travel 400 miles to give his input. “I was a little nervous with the large crowds here,” Barkley said after he spoke. “I came down at 6 in the morning to get in line. It was worth it - I heard a lot of compelling testimony, and I hope that the committee heard that, too.” A week later, the hearing on the Health & Welfare budget drew even more people.

Last year, JFAC held a single public hearing on Feb. 3; more than 200 people attended and more than 60 testified. More than 40 addressed concerns, often very personal ones, about funding for Medicaid and Health & Welfare programs; more than half a dozen spoke out for establishing a state suicide prevention hotline, including parents who’d lost children to suicide; nearly as many spoke about education funding; and several expressed concerns about state employee compensation. All those concerns later were addressed when JFAC set the state budget for the year.

At the close of the 2012 hearing, JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said quietly, “We thank you for coming and participating, and we have heard your message.” From the audience, a woman called out, “Thank you!”

PNWER working to open thousands of oil sands jobs to Idaho workers…

There are more than 100,000 unfilled jobs in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, and thousands more in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, according to a Canadian official who visited the Idaho Legislature this week as part of a delegation from the Pacific Northwest Economic Region – and if a PNWER effort gets off the ground, Idaho workers could have a crack at some of them. Lyle Stewart, pictured here, minister of agriculture for Saskatchewan and president of PNWER, said the idea is to find skilled American workers – particularly targeting returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan – to head up to the oil sands for temporary work.

Due to recent regulatory changes in Canada, Stewart said, “A U.S. worker can work temporarily in Canada for up to four years.” PNWER has launched a pilot project, first targeting the Puget Sound area, where there’s a large pool of unemployed skilled workers. Canadian companies have been recruiting there. “There will be follow-up to that,” he said. “Depending on the success of that, we foresee that it will spread to other jurisdictions, specifically Idaho.”

The jobs are for heavy equipment operators, welders, steamfitters, pipe fitters, electricians, construction trades and more. “We hope to expand it across the PNWER region,” Stewart said. PNWER is a public-private partnership that includes five states and five Canadian provinces; it works for regional and bi-national cooperation, particularly on economic development and environmental issues. Click below to read more.

Senators hear from F&G commissioners, who say ‘wolves are getting smarter’

Randy Budge, chairman of the Idaho Fish & Game Commission, told the Senate Resources Committee this afternoon that a key to the future of hunting in Idaho is involving youngsters. “Our generation is getting a little grayer,” Budge said; he's speaking, here, and is joined by the other commissioners to meet with the Senate panel. He also noted that Idaho is lagging behind other states in dealing with wildlife mortality through overpasses, underpasses and high fencing.

Tony McDermott, the North Idaho Panhandle member of he commission, told the senators, “I go off in May. It's been an interesting eight years. I can tell you that there's never been a dull moment, and it's come from all directions.” He also addressed wolves. “Predators have to be managed, or you have problems,” he told the senators. That goes for fish too, he said, as in Lake Pend Oreille. “We have saved that trophy rainbow trout fishery through the management of predators,” McDermott said.

He said the elk population in the Lolo Zone is around 2,000, down from 15,000 in the 1990s. “The only way we're going to be able to deal with predators in that area is through predator control measures,” he said. “Hunters understand the problem. They're readily buying wolf tags.” But less than 1.5 percent of those who get tags actually take a wolf, he said, adding, “Trapping has made a difference.” McDermott said wolf hunters in Idaho took 136 wolves in 2009, 173 in 2011, and 137 in 2012. “So we're about 20 percent off of where we were last year,” he said. “Wolves are getting smarter.”

At the end of the meeting, Budge told committee Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, that the commission would appreciate as much advance notice as possible if a new hearing date is set for confirmation of the appointment of Commissioner Joan Horlock of Buhl, so they can get to Boise for the hearing. Pearce simply responded, “Thank you.” Asked afterward, he said he hasn't set a hearing date.

Enjoying the view…

These Senate pages, at the suggestion of a legislative staffer, are enjoying the best view in the Statehouse - the view straight up from the middle of the rotunda. Amid the ornate concentric circles of the Capitol's center, the young legislative aides were counting the stars that decorate the ceiling of the dome.

Idaho firefighters to perform at Obama inauguration

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A collection of firefighters from around the state is getting ready to perform during President Obama's inauguration day parade in the nation's capital next week. A pipes and drums band made up of firefighters from Boise, Meridian, Lewiston and Coeur d'Alene will perform “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” Pipe Major Michael Menlove told KTVB-TV in Boise (http://bit.ly/Vaxyft ) the group came together at the last minute. The group has been practicing as much as possible to get ready for Monday's parade event in Washington, D.C. celebrating Obama's second term in office.

Lawmakers prepping for firearms debate

Plenty of Idaho lawmakers want to introduce legislation dealing with guns or school safety - mostly to promote gun rights in the wake of President Obama's proposed restrictions. So House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, has asked Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, to corral the various proposals; Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, is heading up a similar effort in the Senate. “I don't want a bunch of redundant bills,” Bedke told the Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/Ydv29d). “I want the common themes consolidated into individual bills. Put the ideas in the arena, let's do the research and let's have the debate.” Click below for a full report from the AP and the Idaho Statesman.

F&G commissioner stresses his experience as sportsman at confirmation hearing

The Senate Resources Committee is holding its confirmation hearing for Fish & Game Commissioner Will Naillon of Challis this afternoon. The first question from Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth: Noting that Naillon is a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, he asked how many trophy heads Naillon has listed. Naillon answered none – yet. The club keeps record books on big game trophy heads and horns.  Asked by Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, why he wants to be on the Fish & Game Commission, Naillon said, “I feel like I’ve been training for this position my whole life, with all the sporting activities that I do. … I haven’t always agreed with the Fish & Game. … I was asked to put in for the position. … I decided to give it a go.”

In the audience was Idaho’s other new Fish & Game commissioner, Joan Hurlock of Buhl; a confirmation hearing for her appointment hasn’t yet been scheduled, amid concerns raised by some sportsmen about her experience and knowledge of hunting, fishing and wildlife management. Hurlock is the second woman ever to serve on the commission.

Naillon stressed his experience as a sportsman in his comments to the committee; lawmakers also grilled him about wolves, and about landowner and big game issues in Custer and Lemhi counties, among other topics. Under questioning, Naillon acknowledged he has no formal degree or certification in wildlife management, but he said his life experience and his six months on the commission have given him the necessary experience to serve. Fish & Game commissioners are required by state law to be “well informed upon, and interested in, the subject of wildlife conservation and restoration.”

The panel also has a visit with the whole commission scheduled during this afternoon’s meeting.

Bedke on canceling public hearings for JFAC: This year it’s about policy issues

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said issues surrounding the defeat of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 prompted him to press for canceling big public hearings on the state budget this year by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, hearings that in the past two years have drawn nearly 2,000 people from all over the state to the Capitol Auditorium to testify about the state budget. “With the defeat of the propositions, the budget was not what was struck down or changed, it was policy,” Bedke said. “So I feel much more comfortable with the policy committees being the clearinghouse for all the good ideas that come, because there is an expectation that JFAC can do something on those things, and it’s got to be the policy committees that makes the changes.” He added, “I would urge the co-chairs of education to conduct listening sessions based on the policy.”

JFAC’s first-ever public hearings were in 2011, when nearly a thousand people turned out to give their input on the Health & Welfare budget; the crowd spilled out of the auditorium and filled five overflow rooms. That year on Jan. 21, a hearing on the public schools budget drew more than 500 people, nearly 80 testified, and another 400 submitted written comments. Last year, JFAC held a single public hearing on Feb. 3; more than 200 people attended and more than 60 testified.

Bedke said, “Certainly the Legislature collectively needs to always be listening. The problems that we have … are problems that only the policy committees can fix.”  He added, “There’s always a dynamic in the Legislature, of what drives policy. Does the budget drive policy, or does policy drive the budget?” He noted that he’s an alumnus of JFAC. “That is a workhorse committee,” Bedke said. “Those are committed members and they do good work.” But, he said, “The issues that we’re talking about this year are policy.”

Asked how the decision fits with Bedke’s pledge to promote inclusiveness as the new House speaker, he said, “It includes the ones that are directly responsible for the decisions. It in no way diminishes JFAC … it elevates the other committees.” He said he’d support joint listening hearings by all the germane committees, from Education to Health & Welfare to others. He added, “I heard some frustration from some members of JFAC that they listened to all these things, and they were powerless to change it.”

At urging of House leadership, JFAC cancels its popular big public hearings

There was a surprise announcement at the end of this morning’s JFAC meeting: Both public hearings that had been scheduled for this year on the state budget have been canceled, largely at the urging of House leadership. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the committee, “There comes times in life where we sometimes have to do things that we don’t particularly care to do, and this happens to be one of the times, for me at least.”

He said, “Two years ago, our committee embarked on a process by which we would start holding public hearings. And those public hearings were, in my judgment, very successful. We got to hear from the public as to the concerns about how we spent money, we got ot see how the changes that we were having to make would have an impact on their lives and on those programs, and frankly, this committee did a great job of listening and mitigating some of the issues that were naturally there. And those hearings proved to be very useful.”

“Unfortunately, and we had scheduled two of those hearings this session, the first one to be held on Feb. 1 and then I believe Feb. 8, unfortunately, we have been instructed and asked not to hold those hearings, so that we’re not out in front of some of the germane committees with some of the issues that they will be dealing with. So we will do as instructed.”

The past two years’ unprecedented JFAC public hearings drew hundreds of Idahoans from across the state to the Capitol Auditorium to comment on the state budget; the joint budget committee, until then, was the only committee in the Legislature that didn’t hold public hearings or take testimony from the public, though it makes among the weightiest decisions.

”We would certainly encourage the public to continue to communicate, and we’ll certainly continue to listen, and we would encourage the public to continue to communicate through the traditional means,” Cameron said, “and hopefully at some future stage, we’ll be able to hold public hearings again. So just be aware that your schedule  will need to be adjusted, and we will not be holding  those hearings on Feb. 1.”

Idaho’s fast-growing Hispanic population shows education gains

Hispanics are Idaho’s largest minority group, at 11.9 percent of the population in 2011, and that population is growing fast. From 2000 to 2010, Idaho’s Hispanic population increased by 73 percent, or more than 74,000, Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs Director Margie Gonzalez told JFAC this morning. The growth rate for non-Hispanics in Idaho in the same decade was 17 percent.

In 2010, 45 percent of Idaho’s Hispanics were 19 or younger, compared to 28 percent for non-Hispanics. Among the implications of that: Idaho’s Hispanic student population in its public schools has almost doubled from 2003, when it was 26,966, to 2011-12, when it hit 45,805. “Education ranks high in our priorities,” Gonzales told lawmakers. “Idaho’s Hispanics have lower levels of educational attainment than any other group. This is particularly troubling.” She said, “Experts say the state’s economic health depends on fixing ethnic achievement gaps.”

Gonzalez said the commission is working with the state Department of Education on efforts to reduce that gap and cut dropout rates. Some significant results have been seen: The Hispanic student dropout rate has dropped significantly, from 8.2 percent in 2000-01 and 12.7 percent in 1993-94 to just 1.72 percent in 2009-10. Also, Idaho Hispanic students have made big gains in vocabulary tests, eclipsing gains in other states, and the state is seeing record enrollment of Hispanics in higher education.

Wait list for Voc Rehab job program for disabled swells to 400, wait time is year and a half

Idaho’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation now has 400 people on a waiting list for extended employment services for the disabled, with the average wait time about a year and a half. These are people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. “They can get work and work in the community, but they just need some supports so they can keep their job,” said Don Alveshere, division administrator. In the past year, 615 people on the program had jobs in the community, a 12 percent increase from the previous year, and 444 worked at sheltered workshops, down slightly from 480 the previous year.

Alveshere, who presented his division’s budget request to JFAC this morning, didn’t dwell on the agency’s request for a $170,000 boost to the100 percent state-funded program next year, as Gov. Butch Otter didn’t recommend funding for the request. It would have allowed the program to serve another 50 to 75 people now on the waiting list, plus provided the first rate increase in four years to providers in the program. “This is a long-term commitment to these folks,” Alveshere explained. The extended employment services, depending on the level of disability, may be needed for life.

The program provides up to 10 hours a week of services to participants. “Only when we get more funding or some people pass away or leave the system can we … get new people,” Alveshere said.

Asked about the size of the waiting list, Alveshere said it includes some people who previously qualified for employment services under Medicaid, but lost those through recent Medicaid budget cuts. “These are people who, when they’re not receiving these employment services, are almost always receiving some other form of Health & Welfare related services,” Alveshere said, such as adult day care. “So there is a cost to the state by them not being a part of the program.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC co-chair, said, “I know that it continues to be a topic of discussion. I think that we'll end up looking at it as we start to work on the numerous budgets in Medicaid, and I know that we'll be interested in hearing from the germane committees what their recommendations are.”

JFAC members questioned why Voc Rehab returned $1.6 million of its federal grant funds in 2012, which go to other programs in the division besides extended employment services. The answer: It didn't have enough state or local funds to match that portion of its $15.4 million grant.

Otter also didn't recommend a request from the division for a $236,000 boost in state funding for its vocational rehabilitation services, including increasing outreach to businesses and transitioning clients from high school. That would have redirected funds from the former renal disease program, which has been eliminated, and allowed the state to leverage another $333,333 in federal grant funds for those services. The governor did recommend funding for a $16,500 request for additional interpreting services for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Idaho unemployment rate falls to 6.6 percent in December, lowest in 4 years

Idaho’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell in December to 6.6 percent, the lowest rate in nearly four years and two-tenths of a percentage down from November, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. This time, the improved numbers weren’t just due to people giving up on looking for work: The state’s labor force expanded for the first time since last May. Labor reports that the December figures reflect 300 new entrants to the workforce and 1,500 unemployed Idahoans who found jobs. You can read their full announcement here.

The Conference Board estimates there are still slightly more than two workers for every job posted in Idaho, but that’s way down from nearly five for every job opening during the worst of the recession in late 2009. Labor reports that the number of counties with double-digit jobless rates fell to five in December, all in northern and north-central Idaho, down from six in November and 13 in December of 2011.

The five were Adams, 15.4%; Clearwater, 12.2%; Valley, 11.9%; Benewah, 10.8%; and Shoshone, 10.6%. The county with the lowest unemployment rate in December was Oneida County, at 4.0 percent; followed by Bear Lake, 4.2%; and Franklin, 4.3%. Ada County was at 5.6 percent; Canyon, 7.3%; and Kootenai, 7.4%.

Second-ever female F&G commissioner faces confirmation fight in Senate

Controversy over Gov. Butch Otter’s appointment of Joan Hurlock of Buhl to the Idaho Fish & Game Commission is delaying the Senate confirmation hearing on the appointment, with Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, scheduling a hearing tomorrow for Otter’s other June 2012 appointee, Will Naillon of Challis, but not for Hurlock. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“At this point, I’d rather not talk about it,” Pearce said this afternoon. “Give us a little time. … We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s up in the air still.”

Hurlock, a former forensic chemist for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms explosives and arson unit and a former member of the U.S. Capitol Police, is the owner of the Body Works fitness center in Buhl and the daughter of a California game warden. She’s been active in civic and sportsman groups in the Magic Valley, according to Otter’s office. When she was appointed to the commission in June, she said in a statement, “I’m now looking forward to being an advocate for getting our youth more involved in hunting, fishing and the great outdoors in Idaho.”

But some Magic Valley sportsmen’s groups have been organizing against her confirmation, saying they favored two other candidates who they see as more experienced and avid hunters and fishermen.

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said, “It’s been a six-month ordeal and I’m kinda right in the middle of it. I really would rather not get into personalities and reasons. We’ve all been in and talked with the governor.” Said Heider, “I think that Sen. Pearce will hold the appointment at his desk,” preventing it from reaching the full Senate.

But Pearce said he’s looked into it, and he doesn’t have that option. “I’m told that I can’t put it in my drawer,” Pearce said. “It really belongs to the committee of the whole of the Senate, so one way or another, it will come before the Senate.”

Pearce said both the governor and the Legislature have roles in the appointment process. “I’ve got the Constitution out and read it,” he said. “It’s a check and balance in the system.”

Hurlock, who has been serving on the commission since July 1, is only the second woman ever to serve on Idaho’s Fish & Game Commission, which was created in 1938 by the first citizen initiative passed in the state. Nancy Hadley of Sandpoint was the first; she served from 1997 to 2005.

Jack Oyler of Filer, a board member of Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife, was a member of the panel that interviewed the candidates for the two commission openings this year, and he’s opposing Hurlock’s confirmation. He said he had several long conversations with her a month before the interviews, and concluded that she had little knowledge or experience with hunting, fishing and wildlife management policy. “This is not a woman thing with me, it’s qualifications,” he said.

Hurlock said, “My dad was a Fish & Game officer, so I’ve been involved with Fish & Game issues pretty much my entire life.” She said she got her first Idaho hunting license in 2002, and has had both fishing and hunting licenses over the years, though not every year. She learned about the commission opening when she was out helping with habitat restoration, planting bitterbrush in the King Hill area after a wildfire. “I have a thorough knowledge of all of the various wildlife management plans,” Hurlock said. She accompanied her 13-year-old son on his first hunt this fall, in which he got a deer; she said enhancing hunting and fishing opportunities for youth is among her top priorities. “That’s why I live in this state,” she said. “And I do know that I have the full support of the other commissioners.”

Bonnie Butler, a top aide to Otter who also served on the interview panel, said, “The governor’s office is fully behind Joan Hurlock. She was chosen just like Will Naillon, through the process. He’s talked with her and he’s told her he supports her fully, and as long as she wants to be a commissioner, he supports her.”

This afternoon, Hurlock met with Pearce in his Senate office; afterward, she said, “I don’t think it will be tomorrow, but he did agree that I can have a hearing, and he will be in touch with me as to when that will be.” She added, “I actually have a lot of support in my region for my appointment. But it’s usually the loud minority that gets heard and not the silent majority, I guess.”

Said Hurlock: “I just would really like the opportunity to have a hearing, so I can go and present my qualifications before the committee, and just be heard and given a fair hearing one way or the other.”

Judge Lodge: No closed courtroom for Duncan hearing testimony

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has rejected a request that the courtroom be closed for part of a convicted murderer's mental competency hearing. The Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/ts2JbV) reported U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge made the ruling Thursday morning in the competency hearing of Joseph Edward Duncan III. An appellate court ordered the hearing to help Lodge determine if Duncan was mentally competent back in 2008, when he gave up his right to appeal his death sentence for the 2005 kidnapping of two northern Idaho children and the murder of one of them. Duncan's attorneys wanted some testimony from Duncan's former lawyers kept secret, saying it could harm the attorney-client relationship they have with Duncan and scare off current and future clients.

Groups serving deaf, hard of hearing greet lawmakers in 4th floor rotunda

Groups that serve the deaf and hard of hearing across Idaho have displays in the 4th  floor rotunda of the state Capitol until noon today as part of a legislative breakfast sponsored by the state Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Steven Snow, executive director of the council, said there's been an encouraging turnout today, with at least 20 legislators stopping by to visit and see the displays. “We have 150,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in our state,” Snow said through a sign-language interpreter. “We are typically the invisible disabled - unless you see hearing aids, you wouldn't know that I was deaf.”

Groups represented include Elks Hearing and Balance Center, Caption Call, Idaho Association of the Deaf, Idaho Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the Living Independence Network Corp., and Hands and Voices, a support group for parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Lorna Irwin, a volunteer and secretary for Hands and Voices, said when parents have a deaf or hard of hearing child, “It just happens to them. Most of us are hearing So we're kind of lost in the beginning.” Her group supports families “regardless of what their choices are, as far as communicating with their children,” she said. “Time was, you joined the sign language camp or the oral camp.” Now, she said, “The child leads the way. It's communication that's important.”

Nuxoll: Soldiers are being wrongly accused for acts in line of duty

After Col. David Brasuell presented the budget request to JFAC this morning for the Idaho Division of Veterans Services, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, asked about the division’s excess funds, for which Brasuell had outlined an evaluation process the department is working through to determine the best way to spend those for the benefit of veterans. “In the union, a lot of soldiers are coming home and some of them are being accused in the line of duty and facing trials, in which, at least it looks to me, like they’re being judged wrong,” Nuxoll said. She asked if that could be an issue for any Idaho soldiers, and wondered “if that’s an option to save funds for legal defenses.”

Today’s news included a Marine who pleaded guilty yesterday to urinating on the corpse of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan who likely will be demoted one rank under a plea agreement; and reports than an Army staff sergeant who allegedly went on a rampage and killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes, had suffered a traumatic brain injury during earlier service.

Nuxoll said later that she's received letters in the mail from mothers or wives of active-duty soldiers who they believe have been wrongly accused. “I get a lot of them,” she said, though she said she hasn't gotten any from Idaho. “They're not from any particular state.”

Brasuell responded, “I don’t know of a program in that area. We do, as I mentioned here, all the veterans’ services.” That includes service officers around the state who assist veterans involved in mental health and drug courts, he noted. “But as far as a fund for legal defense, I don’t know of one.”

Brasuell reported that ongoing excess revenues have occurred because of the division's budget restraint, its lack of control over federal reimbursement rates, and a federal law that prevents Veterans Administration per diem payments from being offset by Medicare or Medicaid. Possibilities currently under study for existing fund balances include establishing a Veterans Endowment Fund; building a fourth veterans home and/or second veterans cemetery; renovating existing veterans homes to cope with an expected increase and changes in the veteran population; and conducting a statewide needs assessment to identify gaps in services. The division also is looking at increasing below-market pay for critical nurses and increasing direct care staffing hours in veterans homes. Only 3.9 percent of the division's budget comes from state general funds, down from 12.8 percent in fiscal year 2003.

Legislative leaders rethink archiving video stream, after lobbying group starts its own archive

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports today that just two months after legislative leaders affirmed their decision to remain among 17 states that don’t archive video of floor proceedings and make the footage available to the public, they’re now rethinking that decision. Idaho Public Television, which streams the video live on the Internet, has proposed an archive for several years. Last week, IdahoReporter.com, the online news arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, began posting the floor sessions on the Web, prompting concern among some lawmakers that the only source of a video archive is a private group that could manipulate the video. “My personal feeling is we need an official archive, one that is accessible by everyone without being filtered through some outside organization,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who, along with other GOP legislative leaders, met with IFF Executive Director Wayne Hoffman late Wednesday.

Another move by IFF’s three Statehouse reporters also has caused a stir, Popkey reports. Hoffman, a former Idaho Statesman reporter, has his staff wearing brown name tags of the same style used by credentialed reporters. The name tags are worn by 70 reporters with floor access and other privileges conferred by the Capitol Correspondents Association. But Hoffman’s staff was denied credentials by the association under the Legislature’s joint rules, because IFF’s advocacy and lobbying are disqualifying under Correspondents Association bylaws. Hoffman told Popkey, “They’re reporters. They wear brown tags.” But House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “Everybody on the playground knows that’s not right. I expected better of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.”

17.2% of Idaho adults smoke, 14.3% of youth; most say they want to quit

Idaho has the 16th lowest smoking rate in the nation, the head of the Division of Public Health at the state Department of Health & Welfare told lawmakers yesterday. “However, we still have 17.2 percent of our adult population smoking,” Elke Shaw-Tulloch told JFAC. And Idaho’s youth smoking rate is 14.3 percent. “Seventy percent of our Idaho adult smokers … say that they want to quit,” Shaw-Tulloch said. “And we want to make sure that we are there for them when they want to do so.”

The division’s budget request for next year calls for spending $2 million from Idaho’s Millenium Fund, which comes from a nationwide tobacco settlement, on tobacco control, including $1.5 million for free nicotine replacement therapy, a four-week program; and $500,000 for counter-marketing, including an anti-smoking media campaign, event sponsorship and more. The department had actually requested $2 million for “Project Filter” tobacco-cessation services and $1 million for the counter-marketing effort, but Gov. Butch Otter recommended just a total of $2 million from the Millenium Fund.

Otter also is recommending turning to the Millenium Fund, rather than state general fund, for two other division requests: $30,000 to keep Idaho’s Cancer Data Registry going in the face of declining cigarette tax funding; and $245,000 for the Women’s Health Check program, which provides breast and cervical cancer screening for low-income women. He recommended no funding for the division’s STD Prevention Project, which had requested $126,000 in state funding to replace federal funding that will expire Dec. 31, 2013. That program currently covers screening, testing, treatment, partner notification, prevention, and counseling services for sexually transmitted disease for high-risk individuals.

Otter did recommend $558,000 in one-time state general funds to cover the cost of vaccines for children who are on the military’s Tricare health insurance program; Otter’s also recommended a $441,400, one-time supplemental appropriation in the current year for the same thing. That’s because the federal government notified Idaho in August that as of this past Oct. 1, the federal vaccine grant funding the state was using to purchase vaccines for Tricare kids was no longer an eligible funding source; that meant 7,700 children were at risk of losing immunization coverage. Otter and the department are working with the federal government on a long-term solution.

IEA releases ‘Education Excellence’ report from teachers on how to improve schools

The Idaho Education Association has released a report on its recommendations to improve public schools in Idaho, a year in the making from the IEA’s Education Excellence Task Force, which included a dozen top teachers from around the state. The recommendations range from making preschool universally available to low-income families in Idaho and moving to full-day kindergarten to an end to social promotion; from a streamlined dismissal process for underperforming teachers to a“state clearinghouse of quality online courses developed and taught by Idaho teachers.”

“We believe that there’s something here for everyone,” said IEA president Penni Cyr. “We understand that not all of these ideas may be immediately embraced, and we’re confident many other good ideas will come out of the (governor’s education stakeholder) task force, but we believe we’ve offered a useful framework for addressing the different areas of our school system where meaningful change is not only possible but could pay significant dividends for our children, our workforce, and our state.”

You can read the IEA’s full report here. IEA spokeswoman Whitney Rearick said, “Everybody’s asking us what are our ideas and thoughts. Now we’ve come out with it.”

Idaho sees an incident of domestic violence every 88 minutes…

Idaho’s Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance, which is funded almost entirely by a $3.6 million federal grant, worked with 21,631 victims in 2012. Director Luann Dettman said, “Violence is preventable when we act.” Idaho saw 22 people die in domestic violence incidents in 2011, she said. In that same year, there were 5,715 incidents of violence between spouses, ex-spouses and those in dating relationships in Idaho – one every 88 minutes. “Keep in mind these are only the reported stats,” Dettman told lawmakers. “There are many that go unreported.”

Lawmakers on the joint committee seemed a bit stunned by the stats, and had no questions. The two independent councils that fall under the Department of Health & Welfare, the domestic violence council and the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, both are requesting maintenance budgets for next year, with no new initiatives.

JFAC wants agencies to address all open audit findings…

JFAC this morning is continuing its full week of health and human services budget hearings; up first this morning was the Indirect Support Services division of the state Department of Health & Welfare. Budget writers quizzed H&W Deputy Director David Taylor about past years’ audit findings regarding use of federal funds in the division. “You know that part of our responsibility, whether it’s federal dollars or state, is to see that it’s spent appropriate,” said JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “Some of these findings are clear back in 2011, that’s true, but that seems ample enough time to have resolved some of ‘em or more. So I would encourage you to focus on it. We’re going to pay closer attention to it as well, and rightfully so.” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, said the joint committee will look at open audit findings from all agencies as they come in for their budget hearings.

The division won a national award for its Women, Infants and Children Information Systems, or WISPr program, in the past year. It’s seeing rising fees for criminal background checks; is working on required modernization to Medicaid information systems to comply with federal laws; and is requesting four new staffers for its welfare fraud investigation unit, which Gov. Butch Otter has recommended. Its Medicaid Program Integrity Unit hasn’t met its target to save $1.18 million to the general fund for the current year, but it’s saved $600,000, and providers owe another $4.9 million; some are paying over time.

Also up this morning: Independent councils, the Commission on Aging, public health districts, Veterans Services and the Office of Drug Policy.

‘Quiet wave of kindness’ sweeping Statehouse

Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that a “quiet wave of kindness” is sweeping through Idaho’s Capitol. The reason: Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, is asking friends and colleagues to do 37 small acts of kindness in memory of his son, Ritchie Hill. Ritchie, who had just turned 28 when he died in 2004, would have turned 37 on Jan. 27 this year. Hill told the Times-News that his family has commemorated his birthday each year, often with acts of service. “Ritchie was known for helping others and loved reaching out to those in need,” Hill wrote in a Facebook post. “It would be a great way to celebrate a life worth celebrating.”

Ritchie Hill was a nonsmoker who succumbed to lung cancer. His illness helped prompt his father to propose 2004’s successful legislation to ban smoking in many Idaho public places, including restaurants, to protect Idahoans from the dangers of second-hand smoke. You can read Davlin’s full report here. She reports that people replied to Hill’s online request with service ideas of their own. One person donated coats, and another shoveled a neighbor’s driveway; numerous legislators commented on or “liked” the post.

House leader says Mendive comment poor choice, ACLU commends him for attending event

House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, said freshman Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, made a poor comparison when he linked prostitution to abortion, saying both are “a woman’s choice.” Said Vander Woude, “Rarely when a woman becomes a prostitute, is it because of a choice. The example, in my opinion, was a very poor choice.”

This incident marks the second time inside of a year in which an Idaho lawmaker has gained attention from comments he's made about abortion. Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise, the Senate assistant majority leader, made comments during the 2012 session in debate over a bill to require a woman to get an ultrasound before an abortion. “I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by a rape,” Winder told the Senate last March.

Winder later said he was misunderstood and never meant to cast doubt on the truthfulness of a woman's claim of rape.

Meanwhile, ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins said she was glad Mendive was among 15 or 20 state lawmakers who attended the ACLU’s breakfast event Wednesday morning where he made the comment; he was the first one there. The presentation covered an overview of the group, and then focused mostly on criminal justice reform. “The interesting thing about the ACLU is you may not agree with us on one issue, but a lot of times we can find common ground on other issues,” she said. “I actually commend him for coming to the breakfast and learning a little more about us.” You can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

Rep. Mendive: ‘I’ll stand up for right’

Freshman Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, was surprised to learn that there’s a news story out about a question he asked this morning regarding abortion and prostitution – and that it’s going viral. He attended an ACLU breakfast presentation in the Capitol this morning, and when  it was opened up for questions and answers at the end, Mendive said his question was prompted by the group placing women’s reproductive rights among its high priorities. So he asked whether the ACLU supports prostitution along with abortion, because it’s also “a woman’s choice.” The Associated Press reported that there were “audible gasps” in the room at his question, and ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins responded that abortion rights are constitutionally protected, while prostitution is illegal; and that prostitution is not always a choice, as in human trafficking cases.

“Was there a reporter in the room?” Mendive asked when told about the story. “I am anti-abortion, so that’s why I brought up that question,” he said.

Mendive said, “Actually I grew up in Kellogg, and the reality is there used to be brothels in Wallace. That was a career choice – no one forced them into that.” He said he didn’t mean that he thought prostitution should be legal. “I think that there’s kind of a double standard,” he said. “With abortion there are two beating hearts, and prostitution, there’s just one. If a woman were going to make a choice to be a prostitute, that’s her decision as to what to do with her body.”

He said in his view, it’s comparable to someone deciding to use illegal drugs. “I don’t support that either,” he said. “Those were just examples.”

Mendive said he didn’t feel like his question was answered. “She changed the topic,” he said of Hopkins, who noted that anti-human trafficking legislation may be introduced this year.  “Human trafficking is a real serious problem in this country,” Mendive said.

Asked about making the news like this when he’s just been serving in the Legislature for a week and a half, Mendive said, “I guess that’s life. There’s right and there’s wrong. I’ll stand up for right.” You can read the full story here at spokesman.com.

North Idaho lawmaker compares abortion to prostitution

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawmaker from northern Idaho drew audible gasps when he asked representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho if their pro-abortion rights stance also means that they support prostitution. Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d'Alene, made the comparison Wednesday morning during a legislative breakfast presentation held by the ACLU on criminal justice reform and other issues. Mendive asked the organization's executive director, Monica Hopkins, if she felt the ALCU should support prostitution since it supports a woman's right to choose abortion. Mendive then said that prostitution is also “a woman's choice.” Hopkins said a woman's right to reproductive health care is constitutionally protected, while prostitution is illegal. She also reminded Mendive that prostitution is not always a choice, noting that legislation targeting human trafficking may be presented during the legislative session.

Buchanan appointed 1st District judge

Bonner County Magistrate Judge Barbara Buchanan has been appointed a district judge by Gov. Butch Otter, making her the first woman to be appointed to the 1st Judicial District bench. Buchanan, a Sandpoint resident and Moscow native, will be the only district judge serving Bonner and Boundary counties; she replaces Judge Steve Verby, who is moving to senior status. “The Idaho court system is in a period of change,” Buchanan said in a statement. “We are embarking on an innovative new program to deliver justice more quickly, efficiently and effectivel.I am excited to be part of that process.”

She has served as a magistrate judge for 18 years and holds law and bachelor's degrees from the University of Idaho; click below for Otter's full announcement.

Senate panel rejects part of new capitol grounds use rules, cites free speech concerns

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted to accept new rules for the state Capitol grounds and surrounding areas, but to reject sections limiting events and exhibits to certain hours and locations, along with a section limiting amplified sound. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, made the motion, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, seconded it. The committee’s two minority Democrats offered an alternative motion to reject the rules in their entirety, but it was voted down.

“In the past we haven’t had mass confusion and disaster on the state Capitol grounds based on the fact that the policies and rules and guidelines weren’t in effect,” said Sen. Eliot Werk, D-Boise, who argued that the rules go too far to restrict free speech and public gatherings. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “Just because we don’t philosophically or by definition agree with what a group does, we promulgate rules. I think that’s the crux of the problem here.”

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “These rules are going to apply to every group that comes here. I think that’s important, that they’re administered fairly and evenly across the board, and that’s certainly the intent. … We did find out that by not having them last year we did have some misunderstandings, we did have some oh, I wouldn’t call it chaos, but we had some challenges that we need to deal with.” Last year’s “Occupy Boise” encampment across the street from the state Capitol prompted the new rules. Said Winder, “These rules apply to everybody no matter what the group is. So it’s not trying to single out a particular group or political philosophy.”

Hill said, “We have to have these kinds of rules because there are people who are disrespectful of the public’s property. … We have to continue to look at each rule to make sure … the innocent, the responsible citizen is in no way going to be hurt by this, or have some of their rights or privileges compromised in any way.”

Davis said, “It does stick in my mind that we did ask for accelerated rule-making, and that wasn’t fair to the department. It did put them in a difficult spot. With hindsight, I wished we had done that differently and allowed the department the time it needed to participate in a more deliberative process,  and very candidly, it’s remarkable that they’ve been able to do what they have in that limited period of time. But I believe that in this area, this is one that we should invite our department to revisit at least those three sections.” While they do that, he said, if they find they need to modify other parts of the rule “to encourage the exercise of free speech rights, that they know that the Legislature is committed to them wanting to do that.” The motion adopts the rule with the exceptions of sections 201, 313, and all but section E of 302. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Senators considering rejecting part of Capitol grounds use rules…

After an hour and a half of questions, the Senate State Affairs Committee has now voted unanimously in favor of one of the three rules dockets before it, the one that deals with rules for use of the interior of buildings in the Capitol Mall, except for the state Capitol. Members are now debating rejecting several portions of the proposed rules for public gatherings on the exterior grounds around the Capitol, amid concerns about how they affect public gatherings.

State hospitals: ‘Ground zero’ in care of the mentally ill

Psychiatric hospitalization, which includes community hospitalization for individuals committed to state custody but not yet placed in state hospitals along with State Hospital South and State Hospital North, is recommended for a 2.5 percent funding increase next year by Gov. Butch Otter, to $30.9 million, including $19.3 million in state general funds; the majority of that is for operating State Hospital South, which has 110 psychiatric beds in three units plus a 26-bed nursing facility. State Hospital North has 50 beds. “State hospitals are ground zero, that’s ground zero when it comes to the care of the mentally ill,” H&W official Ross Edmunds told JFAC this morning. “These are the sickest in our state, very challenging.” If they weren’t in the hospitals, he said, “It’s likely many of them wouldn’t be alive.”

More Idaho residents are being committed to the state's psychiatric hospitals, but the length of time they spend in the hospitals is dropping, Edmunds reported. In the current year, the state Department of Health & Welfare expects 818 commitments to state hospitals; the comparable figure in fiscal year 2008 was 473. Mental health admissions to community hospitals also has been on the rise; it rose from 1,019 in fiscal year 2010 to 1,230 in fiscal year 2012. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Edmunds didn't elaborate on what is behind the icnrease in mental health hospitalizations, but it came as the state's budget for community mental health treatment has suffered major cuts in recent years.

State hospitals provide both short- and long-term, 24-hour residential care for people who can’t remain safely in the community. After funding was provided last year to correct critical staff and patient safety concerns, Health & Welfare is projecting a 39 percent reduction in staff injury from results this year compared to last year, and a 33 percent reduction in the use of restraints and seclusion on patients. Both state hospitals still are reporting difficulty recruiting psychiatrists.

JFAC reviews state’s ‘transforming’ community mental health system

Legislative budget writers, continuing their hearings this week on Health & Welfare division budgets, are looking this morning at mental health, substance abuse treatment and related topics. Mental health services, including both adult and children’s mental health, is recommended by Gov. Butch Otter for $32.9 million in total funding next year, including $23 million in state general funds. That goes 62.5 percent for adult mental health services, delivered primarily through seven regional, state-operated community mental health centers; and 37.5 percent to children’s mental health, which provides assessment and evaluation, clinical case management, hospitalization,residential treatment, and therapeutic foster care for children with serious emotional disturbances.

Next year’s budget request, in total funds, is for a 5.2 percent increase. But funding in this area in Idaho has dropped sharply in recent years. In fiscal year 2007 the total appropriation for mental health services was $42 million. It’s dropped by a quarter since then.

Ross Edmunds, administrator of the Division of Behavioral Health for Health & Welfare, said the state has been transforming its community mental health system to focus on local input and influence, integrated treatment, and eliminating gaps in services. It’s moving to a managed-care model for behavioral health benefits, which he called “a huge transformative step in moving the system forward.” Atthe same time, the national health care reform law will soon require that all insurance cover mental illness just as it covers physical illness. Though most states have long required such “parity,” Idaho hasn’t in the past.

Edmunds said, “I don’t know exactly what that increased coverage will be like … there’s several decisions before the Legislature this year. … But certainly we expect more individuals to have insurance coverage, and the requirement is that those insurance plans have a behavioral health benefit included. So when I look at the system, I really think the majority of people will have insurance, and that they will receive the clinical treatment services that they require through their insurance services. But there’s a big gap, there’s a big piece missing … and that’s what I call recovery support services.”

Many of those who receive the services through the state are homeless, he said. “They often have very few resources, and it’s a real challenge, because if they don’t have those basic life needs met – shelter, food, clothing and relationships, we’re really not setting them up for success. We’re setting them up to perpetuate the cycle and stay in our system.”

The budget request this year includes $466,900 in one-time “seed money” for new regional behavioral health boards in each of seven regions of the state. There also will be legislation proposed, Edmunds said, to “create a system … in which those recovery support services are administered at a local level.” He said, “Benefits … will be controlled by insurance … but what we can do is present them with an opportunity to look at those recovery support services and how best to administer those on a local level.”

Senators grill ACLU attorney over constitution, Capitol grounds use rules…

Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee, including Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, an attorney, are grilling ACLU attorney Richie Eppink this morning about constitutional questions with the state’s proposed new Capitol grounds use rules. Under the rules, Eppink said, “Two people gathered for any reason conceivably is an event. Likewise with an exhibit … this is an extremely broad definition of exhibit … that as far as I understand it would include a single person with a sign, or even a single person with a T-shirt … or button.”

Under questioning from Davis, Eppink said the constitutional problem is not with the definitions themselves, but how the definitions then are treated in restrictions, including on hours and locations. The question is how far the restrictions go, he said, and whether they meet the government’s “extraordinary” burden on restricting the rights to free speech and assembly. Eppink said the limits on durations of events and exhibits in the rules “crosses the line already.” He said, “The state’s interest, particularly in public open spaces of the kind we have around the Capitol and on the Capitol Mall, has generally been limited to regulating competing uses.”

Idaho’s Medicaid program stabilizes, but changes coming…

After years of relentless growth, Idaho lawmakers received a budget request for the state’s Medicaid program Tuesday that’s nearly flat in state funds, and just a 7.6 percent increase overall - even though the program is expected to add roughly 70,000 new recipients next year due to changes in federal laws. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. The slower growth is mainly because Idaho’s caseload numbers in the health care program for the poor and disabled have stopped climbing so quickly as the state’s come out of the recession; it’s also because federal funds are up, meaning the state can spend less. Idaho’s federal matching rate for next year is going up, to the tune of $11.8 million.

It also in part reflects an overfunding of the program last year, when more growth was anticipated than actually came through. That prompted the program to turn back $46 million to the state general fund unused; officials say a new claims system is now allowing more accurate forecasts.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, welcomed the slowing in the program’s growth, but cautioned, “The devil’s always in the details.” She said, “My focus tends to be less on the numbers, and more on the delivery of services to those who need it.”

CCA wants lawsuit dismissed that charges it uses inmate gangs to help run Idaho prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attorneys for the nation's largest private prison company have asked a federal judge in Idaho to throw out a lawsuit from inmates who say the company uses gangs to run a Boise-area prison. Attorneys for Corrections Corporation of America said in the motion filed Monday that a lawsuit brought by eight inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center fails to meet legal standards and should be tossed out of court. The inmates sued in November, contending the company is working with a few powerful prison gangs to control the facility south of Boise. The inmates say that CCA is able to save money on staffing by essentially allowing the gangs to run the prison, and that as a result some inmates are forced to join gangs or risk being attacked.

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

Adler on Labrador: ‘Not a promising path to legislative success’

1s tDistrict Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador was scheduled to meet with House Speaker John Boehner today, but Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports that both are mum about what was said – or if the meeting even happened as planned. Meanwhile, Boise State University political scientist David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy, says in a new essay that the feud between Labrador and 2ndDistrict Congressman Mike Simpson over Labrador’s support of an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the speaker shines light on the style and effectiveness of both lawmakers: Simpson’s style is similar to that of the effective deal-making of McClure and Andrus, Adler says, while Labrador’s approach is “more ideological and reflective of an insurgency mentality,” and therefore, “one that is likely to win attention, particularly media attention (which he has received), and designed to win primaries and elections in a safe district, but is not a promising path to legislative success.” You can read Popkey’s full post here, including Adler’s full essay.

Twin Falls, Lewiston ban city workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — Add Twin Falls and Lewiston to the list of Idaho cities to ban discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation. City councils in both cities voted Monday night for language adding sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies. The Lewiston City Council voted 5-2 to outlaw discrimination in hiring of city jobs. Leaders in Twin Falls voted 5-2 to add sexual orientation to the anti-harassment and discrimination policy for city employees. Lewiston and Twin Falls now join Boise, Sandpoint, Moscow and Caldwell in taking the official step to prohibit discrimination on hiring for city jobs based on a person's sexual preference or orientation. In addition, Sandpoint and Boise have banned such discrimination in jobs, housing and public accommodations citywide, and Pocatello is considering such an ordinance. The votes also come nearly a year after state lawmakers rejected a bill for a statewide ban on workplace and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

What if Legislature alternated one short session, one long one?

What if Idaho’s Legislature only met for a short, maximum 60-day session in even-numbered years, to set a budget, and then held longer sessions of up to 150 days every other year? That’s the proposal from new Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who introduced a resolution today calling for the change. “I wanted to basically mimic what they’ve done in Washington state,” Durst said. “The reason is because we’re dealing with some pretty complicated issues, and we’re all citizen legislators.” In the alternate years when there were longer sessions, he said, lawmakers would have more chance to learn about and fully debate the issues, and they wouldn’t be doing so during an election year. “We could come to a more informed decision, which is better for the state,” Durst said.

Durst, who turned 33 today, said it’d also be better for those lawmakers who are employed, to know for certain how long they’d be gone from work for lawmaking duties. “It’s very frustrating for an employer not to have the certainty,” he said. Durst said he was employed the year he served in the House during the near-record 117-day session in 2009, but “I wasn’t employed the next session.” His firm let him go in December of that year. “They didn’t want to go through that again,” he said.

Durst also gave the opening prayer in the Senate chamber today. “Our chaplain’s gone for the week,” he explained. “Two members of the majority have offered the last two. They said, ‘Does anybody want to?’ and I was glad to volunteer.”

Durst also introduced another personal bill today, a measure that would require legislative authorization before the State Board of Education could pass rules requiring online classes for high school graduation.  The reason: When the State Board repealed the last online course graduation rule, after voters rejected the “Students Come First” school reform laws, several board members said they still thought online classes should be required, and that they should revisit the issue in a few months. “My opinion is they’re tone-deaf,” Durst said. He said voters were clear on that issue when they rejected Proposition 3 on Nov. 6 by a two-thirds margin.

MLK/Idaho Human Rights Day festivities set for rotunda on Monday

Idaho's annual Martin Luther King Jr.-Idaho Human Rights Day celebration in the state Capitol on Monday will feature the Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane, as keynote speaker; he'll perform his rendition of King's “I Have a Dream” speech, which will be followed by a trumpet solo by Boise State University Director of Bands Marcellus Brown. Lt. Gov. Brad Little will read a proclamation, and there will be musical performances, a color guard, exhibits and a Boise Peace Quilt display. The annual event is set for the 2nd floor rotunda of the Capitol at noon on Monday; click below for more information from the event's sponsor, the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

Demonstration project has moved 64 Medicaid patients out of institutions

The first-year experience for the Department of Health & Welfare’s “Money Follows the Person” program to move patients from institutional care to home and community care, where appropriate, has resulted in 64 patients making such moves, Paul Leary, Medicaid administrator, told JFAC this morning. Sixteen moved from intermediate care facilities to the state’s developmentally disabled waiver program; 47 moved out of nursing homes and went on the aged and disabled waiver program in the community; and one moved out of a facility and now just gets the state’s enhanced Medicaid benefit.  These are all patients who are aged, blind or disabled; it’s a grant-funded demonstration project. Next year will be the third year of the five-year demonstration grant, which provides transitional services and supports as patients make the moves. Next year's grant funds total $555,300.

“I think so far we’re very encouraged,” Leary said. For a patient in an intermediate care facility, Medicaid spends $94,063 a year; in a nursing home, $72,350 a year; on the DD waiver in the community, $55,382; and on the aged and disabled waiver in the community, $22,814.

Speaker Bedke: ‘If we’re going to spend money, we probably oughta have a public hearing’

The first bill to come out of committee and hit the House floor this session has stalled. HB 1, the annual IRS tax code conformity bill, was voted out of the House Revenue & Taxation Committee last Thursday and sent directly to the 2ndReading Calendar of the House without the usual step of holding a public hearing on the measure in committee. Idaho passes a bill each year to adjust its tax provisions to match IRS codes to avoid making taxpayers recalculate things between their state and federal returns, but sometimes the measures are controversial, and sometimes the state chooses not to match all the IRS provisions. This year’s bill has a fiscal impact of $6 million on the state general fund, meaning the state will collect that much less after conforming its tax provisions.

The bill is being “held at the desk” in the House, which means that the speaker has halted it. Asked about the move, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “It came straight to the 2nd reading, and it expends money. … If we’re going to spend money, we probably oughta have a public hearing.” Bedke said he’s probably going to send the bill back to the committee for a hearing.

Later in the day, when the House convened, Bedke did just that. He said afterward that other House members had questions about the bill. “The new people were paying attention, and they had some questions,” he said. “I think it's best we get in the habit of, we have a hearing. We've got time.”

Medicaid budget request for next year flat in state funds, as caseload growth slows

Overall, Gov. Butch Otter is recommending $476.7 million in state general funds for Medical Assistance Services, or Medicaid, next year, which is nearly flat - just a 0.5 percent increase from this year. Total funds, at $2.0667 billion, reflect a 7.6 percent increase, largely because of increased federal funds. The total number of positions requested for the program actually falls by three from the current year, from 208 to 205; they’re down from 269 last year. In total, the governor’s recommendation for the entire Department of Health & Welfare, including Medicaid, is for 2,886 positions next year, up from 2,863 this year; that’s an overall increase of just 23 positions, or a 0.8 percent staffing increase.

The Medicaid program returned $46.3 million from its budget to the general fund this year, mainly because caseload growth, which was over 10 percent at times during the recession years, has been dropping, and is now predicted at less than 2 percent for next year.

Idaho’s Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP – the rate at which the feds match state expenditures in the Medicaid program – will rise by part of a percentage in federal fiscal year 2014, which starts Oct. 1. Because the numbers are so big, that’s very significant. Idaho’s matching rate will go from 71.00 percent to 71.64 percent on Oct. 1. For next year, that means Idaho will get $11,786,200 more in federal funds for Medicaid, and will spend $11,786,200 less in state funds on the program. States with lower incomes get higher FMAP rates.

96.4% of Idaho’s total Medicaid budget goes to providers for services to patients

Idaho’s Medicaid program adds up to a total of $2.06 billion, between state and federal funds, Medicaid division administrator Paul Leary told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. It takes up 81.4 percent of the Department of Health & Welfare budget. But 96.4 percent of the total Medicaid budget goes to trustee and benefit payments. “These are services provided to our participants by community providers,” Leary said. Only 0.7 percent of the total goes to personnel, and 2.9 percent to operating expenses.

Among those on the Medicaid program, 63 percent are children, but they account for only 19.15 percent of the costs. “A small percentage of the Medicaid population encompasses the largest percentages of our costs,” Leary said.

Questions, questions as lawmakers dig into Health & Welfare budgets…

Again this morning, the half of JFAC members who are first-timers on the joint budget panel have lots of questions about the budgets they’re being presented. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, asked, “What is the child support program? What is its purpose?” H&W officials explained that the program enforces collection of child support orders from the non-custodial parent to the custodial one, to lessen the need for public assistance.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “On food stamps you mentioned they must be a citizen or a legal immigrant. It’ my understanding from my work on the Health & Welfare Committee that that’s not true for a child.” Welfare Division Administrator Russ Barron responded, “That’s not correct. Everyone eligible for food stamps must be a citizen or a legal immigrant. … Only the ones who are citizens or are here legally will receive a benefit.”

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, had a different kind of question: Why did Barron tell JFAC this morning that Medicaid is likely to grow by about 60,000 people in Idaho, when yesterday, the joint committee heard that the figure was likely to be 70,320? “Are we talking about two different numbers and we don’t really know what the real number is - 60,000 today, 70,340 yesterday?” Gibbs asked.

Barron smiled. “Now you have some sense of what we have been going through,” he said. The larger, 70,320 figure is correct, he said. “The number is 70 as far as individuals who are eligible because of these changes. The reason I’m using 60, is there are 60,000 absolutely totally new people that today are not in the system,” as far as the eligibility system overseen by Barron’s division. “In the 70,000 number, it represents about 10,000 individuals in the CHIP programs that we already have. Now, there’s some work to convert them, but it’s not quite the same as those who have never been on before. The total number that we’re looking at is the 70.”

New fed requirements not exactly gifts of the MAGI…

Idaho Division of Welfare Administrator Russ Barron explained the MAGI, or Modified Adjusted Gross Income calculations, that Idaho must comply with under changes in the national health care reform law. Those change the way eligibility is calculated for the existing Medicaid program, and likely will result in about 25,000 more Idahoans qualifying for Medicaid, Barron said. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, commented, “I’m a little troubled by the acronym MAGI, I don’t exactly see the gold in there or the gifting of it.”

Between those mandatory changes and the “woodwork effect” that Idaho anticipates when more people become aware that they’re already qualified for Medicaid, another 35,000 or so additional Medicaid recipients could come in. To handle those increased eligibility determinations for 60,000 potential new enrollees, Barron said the division first estimated it’d need 88 more full-time positions. Then it revised that downward, and downward again, and again. Now, it’s at 22 positions. “I assure you that 22 positions is the absolute minimum amount needed to determine Medicaid eligibility” for the expanded program, he said. Without those positions, “Performance across all programs will diminish.”

Gov. Butch Otter has recommended funding the 22 positions. Overall, the Division of Welfare’s budget request for next year reflects a 6.4 percent increase in state general funds, to $2.4 million; in total funds, it’s a 4.4 percent increase to $6.08 million.

H&W wants five positions back to enforce child support against food stamp recipients

Idaho is one of just five states that requires all food stamp recipients to comply with its child support program, which enforces child support orders against non-custodial parents, to reduce the need for public support. But budget holdbacks in 2010 that cut 12 positions have ended that push, and Health & Welfare wants to bring it back. “Idaho’s child support program is the 9th most cost-effective in the nation,” Division of Welfare Administrator Russ Barron told JFAC this morning. “We would like to start doing this again for children receiving food assistance.” Barron said the division now believes it can bring that function back with just five of the 12 lost positions; they’re requesting funding for that next year, at $146,800 in state funds, with an equal amount of matching federal funds.

The Division of Welfare is up for its budget hearing this morning; the division touches one in three Idahoans, including 331,000 on food stamps, 300,000 in the child support program, and 298,000 in Medicaid, and numerous other programs. The division handles eligibility determinations for an array of programs including Medicaid; the Medicaid budget is up for review next this morning.

Idaho looks at boosting low pay for foster care

Conservative North Idaho Sen. Steve Vick has only been on the Legislature’s joint committee for a week, but on Monday, he said he saw a budget request that he views as more justified than others: Slightly raising Idaho’s low-ranking foster care reimbursements. “It seems to be one of those that’s more justified in my mind,” said Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who once looked into becoming a foster parent himself.

He’s one of 10 first-time members on the Idaho Legislature’s 20-member budget-setting committee this year, a group that includes several who, like Vick, are suspicious of most increases in government spending. The panel on Monday began a week of budget hearings on state Health and Welfare programs, starting with child welfare. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Capitol protest rules: Security vs. free speech…

Click below for AP reporter John Miller's full report on how lawmakers in both the House and Senate balked today at voting on proposed new rules for use of the state Capitol grounds and surrounding areas, aimed at restricting public protests. The 39 pages of rules outline numerous restrictions, from hours to locations to types of activities and displays. “They micromanage behavior down to excruciating detail,” Barbara Pinkerton, a Boise resident and Occupy Boise supporter, told a House subcommittee. “It is extremely chilling on our free-speech amendment rights.”

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, was worried that after-hours protests such as those that surrounded the Capitol in 2011 and targeted an education overhaul would fall victim to such limits. “The human chain around the Capitol, for lack of a better word, was intended to be symbolic,” Davis said. “I'm having a hard time understanding why we think it's appropriate for them to exercise their rights up to midnight on the front of the Capitol but we think it's inappropriate for them to express those speech rights on the east, west and north sides of the Capitol.” State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna said security concerns had much to do with the time limitations. She also said the 2011 protests were extraordinary.

The rules stemmed from state efforts last year to restrict the Occupy Boise protest across the street from the state Capitol, which resulted in an ongoing lawsuit in federal court.

‘Community Conversation’ set tomorrow night on future of Idaho’s schools

Boise State Public Radio is hosting a “Community Conversation  About the Future of Idaho’s Schools” Tuesday night at Salt Tears Noshery, 4714 W. State St. in Boise, starting at 6 tonight. Reporter Adam Cotterell and Morning Edition host Scott Graf will lead an informal community discussion; they’ll be joined by a panel including former state Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise; current House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle; and BSU College of Education Professor Jennifer Snow. The public is invited to the free event, but those who are attending are asked to RSVP; there’s more info here.

Labrador says he’ll decide early this year whether to run for Idaho guv

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador says he's waiting to see what happens in Congress and efforts to reform immigration before deciding whether to run for Idaho governor. Labrador is among several Republicans who have been contemplating a bid to be the state's next chief executive. Labrador told the Idaho Statesman his top priority is getting something done on changing the nation's immigration system and laws. The second-term congressman says he is likely to make a decision early this year whether to run for governor in 2014. Labrador says contrary to what many people may think, he hasn't made up his mind on running for the state's highest office. Meanwhile, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has said he intends to seek a third term, though Otter has not yet made a formal announcement.

Feud between Simpson, Labrador the talk of Idaho political circles today…

The feud that's broken out into the open between Idaho GOP Congressmen Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador - detailed in a Sunday story in the Idaho Statesman by reporter Dan Popkey - is the top political news of the day in Idaho. Click below for Popkey's full report, via the Associated Press. Simpson told Popkey that Labrador has forever undermined his effectiveness in Congress by plotting to overthrow Speaker John Boehner and publicly refusing to vote for his re-election on Jan. 3; consequences could include Idaho getting punished when Labrador pushes legislation, with the state the ultimate loser. In response, Labrador called Simpson a “bully” and “an old-school legislator that went to Washington, D.C., to compromise,” Popkey reported.

“That's how you get to a $1 trillion deficit, by just tinkering around the edges,” Labrador said. “But I think we live in a new world where we have some very serious fiscal issues in America, and you need to have people who are willing to say 'no' to a lot of things — things that are very popular back home — and that are willing to put their political careers on the line.”

Popkey has an update here today on his blog, entitled, “Just how much do these guys dislike each other?”

House panel votes for full public hearing on Capitol grounds use rules

The House State Affairs subcommittee on rules of the state Department of Administration, chaired by Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, took public testimony this morning on the proposed new rules for use of the Capitol grounds, and then voted to refer the rules to the full House State Affairs Committee for a hearing with public testimony, “with respect to the chilling effect of the First Amendment,” in Barbieri’s words. Monica Hopkins, attorney with the Idaho ACLU, told the lawmakers that the rules “violate the right of everyday Idahoans to peaceably assemble,” and also violate the First Amendment. Several other members of the public also spoke out against the rules, including former Boise City Councilwoman Anne Hausrath.

“Everyone who visits our state Capitol is affected by these rules,” Hausrath said, urging a full public hearing before any enactment.  “Certainly we have rights under the U.S. Constitution. We also have extended rights under the Idaho Constitution, basically to consult for the common good and to instruct our representatives.” Others expressed concerns that the rules would be confusing for citizens to know what they can do or say where and when, and that they limit basic rights to do things like turn out at the Capitol for a candlelight vigil to mourn a tragedy.

Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, moved to refer the rules to the full committee for a public hearing, and Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, spoke in favor of the motion. “I’m comfortable with these rules, but there is a lot of concern that constitutional rights are being stepped on,” he said. “And I don’t think that, whether these rules are acceptable or not acceptable, we ought to take the approach to fast-forward them and prohibit the public from being engaged and involved. So I think it’s a good idea to have a hearing on these so people can express their concerns.”

Idaho’s largest department, Health & Welfare, copes with big changes…

Idaho’s Department of Health & Welfare, the state’s largest agency, has faced record caseloads, reduced workforce and cuts in benefits in recent years, Director Dick Armstrong told JFAC this morning as he gave an overview of H&W division budget hearings to come. Two-thirds of department’s funding comes from the federal government, and about a quarter from the state, he said. For next year, Health & Welfare is requesting $617 million in state general funds, a $7.3 million, or 1.2 percent, increase from last year. In total funds, it’s a 6.8 percent increase.

Armstrong noted that while most attention with regard to the national health care reform law has focused on state decisions on a health insurance exchange and expansion of Medicaid, aside from those issues, the law also makes a series of mandatory changes affecting all states that in Idaho will have the effect of increasing the state’s number of people eligible for Medicaid by approximately 70,000. “We are now gearing up, we are all hands on deck, to prepare for this huge increase of medically eligible participants,” Armstrong said. It'll mean a 30 percent caseload increase.

Idaho could lose huge amounts of its funding for its current Medicaid program if it didn’t comply with the changed rules, he noted. “We have to comply with the mandatory requirements that the ACA makes to Medicaid. The stakes are huge if we don’t.”

Another big change coming is that the ACA requires mental health parity for health insurance coverage in 2014, Armstrong said. That means almost everyone will have coverage for mental health treatment. But a gap remains at the community level, he said, because while treatment works, recovery depends on community support. “Our vision is to help communities develop the infrastructure and programs necessary to support the wellness of their residents who have mental illness,” he said.

Said Armstrong: “With almost everyone theoretically having mental health coverage in 2014, we have an unprecedented opportunity for improving the overall mental health system. We have been working on mental health transformation for over a decade, and this provides the best opportunity to make significant improvements if we approach it right.”  

Senate State Affairs won’t vote today on Capitol grounds use rules

Amid many questions, the Senate State Affairs Committee has wrapped up its hearing this morning on proposed new use rules for the Capitol and its grounds without a vote, postponing that until its next meeting on Wednesday. Chairman Curt McKenzie said before voting, he’d like to hear from Monica Hopkins, ACLU executive director, on the lawsuit between Occupy Boise and the state over the rules and other issues. Also, several committee members needed to leave, but still have more questions. A subcommittee of the House State Affairs Committee is scheduled to consider the same rules this morning at 10.

You can read the rules here, which are in three dockets; they are on pages 7 through 46 of the 83-page PDF document. They don't apply to the interior of the state Capitol, but do apply to the exterior Capitol grounds and the interior and exterior of the rest of the Capitol mall.

Siddoway: Admin abdicated responsibility by not negotiating rules…

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, questioned state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna as to why the department didn't conduct negotiated rulemaking on its controversial new capitol grounds use rules. “That to me seems like an abdication of the responsibility of the agency,” Siddoway said.

Luna responded, “We worked with Occupy Boise during mediation” involving the court case. She said the department's proposals were met with “much disdain. We did not feel that there was any hope whatsoever of coming to any sort of negotiated rulemaking with this process.” Siddoway said, “Is that legal, for an agency to not take on that responsibility?” Luna responded, “Mr. Chairman, it is, yes.”

Other senators on the Senate State Affairs Committee have had numerous questions this morning about details of the rules, including questions about restrictions on speech rights. 

Mental health cases have pushed spike in CAT program

Trends in Idaho’s catastrophic health care fund show a big jump in reported cases in 2012, CAT fund Director Roger Christensen told JFAC this morning. The new case load was 4,363 cases in fiscal year 2010, 4,590 in 2011 and 6,491 in 2012. Mental health cases were a big driver of the 2012 spike, he said.

In fiscal year 2012, the county with the highest number of new cases was Ada with 1,610; Twin Falls was second with 1,366; Canyon was third with 906; and Kootenai was fourth with 817. (Note: Earlier, lower numbers that were posted here reflected only those county cases that crossed the $11,000-per-case threshold for state funding help; those below the threshold are entirely county-paid.)

New members of JFAC have lots of questions about the program, from who defines “medically necessary” services that are covered (it’d defined in law) to why caseloads are expected to go up (temporary programs that have covered some of the cases are expiring).

Idaho’s CAT program, which is 100 percent funded by state general tax funds and county property taxes, would likely go away if Idaho exercised its option to expand its Medicaid program almost entirely with federal funds. A working group appointed by Gov. Butch Otter studied that issue over the summer and unanimously recommended the Medicaid expansion to replace the CAT program, but Otter, in his State of the State address, said there’s no deadline, and he’d like to wait until next year before any expansion to allow time for study on how to reform Idaho’s Medicaid program.

McKenzie: No testimony to be taken on capitol grounds use rules

Idaho Senate State Affairs Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, says there are several people who have signed up to testify on the capitol grounds use rules this morning, but he doesn't plan to allow any testimony. “Typically when we do rules review, we do not take testimony,” McKenzie said. “It's not the intent to take testimony on these, other than if the committee has questions, for either the presenter or someone else in the audience.”

State Department of Administrator Director Teresa Luna has now begun presenting the rules to the committee. In the rules, the department stated, “Negotiated rulemaking was not conducted because these rules incorporate public comment submitted on the original temporary rules and because further consensus between interested parties on the content of the rules is improbable.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, asked Luna, “Have you looked at the constitutionality of the provisions here?” Luna deferred to the department’s deputy attorney general, Julie Weaver, who said there’s currently ongoing litigation over the constitutionality of the rules. “But I’m confident that we did the best that we could,” she told the committee.

CAT fund, H&W, capitol grounds use rules all on tap this morning…

JFAC has opened this morning with its hearing on the Catastrophic Health Care fund, the program that pays for catastrophic medical bills for Idahoans who can't pay. “We're getting affected by the local economic conditions, because we are the safety net, as this is designed,” Director Roger Christensen told lawmakers. For next year, the fund is requesting $38.2 million in state general funds, about a $2 million increase; the remainder of the roughly $60 million-a-year program is funded by local property taxpayers. In 2012, Christensen, a Bonneville County commissioner, said, counties actually spent more than the state on the program. Also this morning, JFAC is scheduled to begin its budget hearings on the mammoth state Department of Health & Welfare.

Meanwhile, both the Senate and House State Affairs Committees are scheduled to hear new rules this morning for use of the state Capitol and surrounding grounds and facilities, proposed by the state Department of Administration. The Senate panel started meeting at 8 a.m. in room WW55, and will take up the rules after hearing a presentation from the Criminal Justice Committee; a subcommittee of the House committee meets at 10 a.m. in room EW 40.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Emilie Ritter Saunders, Aaron Kunz and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature. Plus, Greg reports on efforts to head off Idaho’s looming doctor shortage; interviews House and Senate  Democratic leaders John Rusche and Michelle Stennett; and begins a series of conversations with legislative newcomers with an interview of freshman Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. 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.

Stakeholder task force begins exploring education issues, panel’s scope…

At the first meeting today of the governor’s 31-member education stakeholders task force, members spent some time hearing about the fiscal impact on the current year’s budget of the failure of Propositions 1, 2, and 3, and the ongoing programs in school districts for which funds are left unallocated because of the measures’ failure; that includes adjustments in the “use it or lose it” funding provisions for school districts and funding for additional math and science teachers. However, some members thought the task force shouldn’t wade into the legislative debate over how to reallocate the fiscal year 2013 school budget.

At one point, task force Chairman Richard Westerberg, a state Board of Education member, said, “I guess I’m just a little puzzled. When everybody around the table agrees that these four or five budget items for 2013 oughta be funded, why the heck can’t we just say so?” The panel finally decided, in the words of facilitator Mike Rush, executive director of the office of the State Board, that “the message this committee is sending is not that they’re opposed to that. … We just don’t feel like it is in our purview.”

Another area determined to be outside the group’s purview: Labor issues, including those addressed in the voter-rejected Proposition 1 regarding rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights. “We’re not here to talk labor issues,” said Ken Edmunds, president of the State Board. He said, “The issue is educational improvement and what do we do about it.”

The group threw out ideas and filled up numerous big sheets of paper with suggestions ranging from “not one size fits all” to “teacher preparation.”

“We need consistent, ongoing professional development, not one-day workshops,” said Idaho Teacher of the Year Katie Pemberton, from Canfield Middle School in Coeur d’Alene. “I think we should ask the question of why high school graduates are not pursuing some form of post-secondary education,” said Mike Lanza, a Boise parent and co-chair of the successful campaign to defeat the propositions. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “There’s no differentiation between a really good teacher and one that’s just hanging on day by day. If we’re going to effectively use the dollars we’ve got, we’ve got to figure out a good way to differentiate between those teachers and how they’re compensated.” Said Laurie Boeckel of the Idaho PTA, “We need to define what equity is.”

Edmunds noted that Gov. Butch Otter included $33.9 million in his 2014 budget proposal for possible improvements agreed upon by the stakeholder group and legislators, though he also said he wasn’t seeking legislation this year, and instead would consider any major changes next year. Edmunds said of the $33.9 million, “This is a recommendation, and that’s where the politics start.” But, he said, “There’s so many ideas, so many things floating out there. … The nice part is somebody’s actually holding a carrot out there and saying you have the potential to affect approximately $33 million of the budget.”

The stakeholder group is scheduled to meet again Jan. 25 and Feb. 8.

Otter names Jackson Tax Commission chair

Gov. Butch Otter today named Rich Jackson chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission, replacing David Langhorst, who will continue to serve on the commission. Langhorst is a Democrat; Jackson a Republican. “David has done a great job of calming the waters, restoring public trust in the Tax Commission’s processes, improving the morale of employees and ensuring the quality and integrity of the work they do,” Otter said. “I appreciate what he’s done and what he’s continuing to do as a commissioner. Rich has been a big part of that process. He knows Idaho, and he knows Idaho’s tax policy, our history and our priorities. I look forward to seeing continued progress during his tenure as chairman.” Click below for Otter's full announcement.

Now gracing Statehouse grounds: Snowman

As Idaho lawmakers head back to their districts for the weekend, some face perilous driving conditions across the state, bad enough that a few are deciding to spend the weekend in Boise. Meanwhile, enough snow has fallen around the state Capitol to allow construction of this stylish snowman with leafy arms, which is standing proudly on the Statehouse lawn near 8th and Jefferson streets.

Sen. Winder kicks off his annual weekly prayer group for senators

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, has launched his weekly prayer group for senators, which will start meeting Tuesday at 7 a.m. in the majority caucus room. “It’s a time to encourage one another,” said Winder, who’s had the weekly prayer meetings since he first joined the Senate four years ago. “It’s a bipartisan effort, and it crosses the spectrum of different denominations and religions.” This year, Winder said new Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, has suggested expanding the group to also include House members.

The group gathers for about 15 to 20 minutes. “Someone will share a devotional kind of thought for the day,” Winder said, followed by a scripture reading. “We share our prayer needs,” he said, including praying for family members who are ill. Winder, who is Presbyterian, said, “We can come from different denominations and different faith backgrounds, yet prayer is important to all the faith groups of the world.” In the past, he said, turnout has ranged from no one to “probably as many as seven or eight.” 

Education stakeholders group holds first meeting today

Gov. Butch Otter’s education stakeholders’ group has its first meeting today, running from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Yanke Family Research Park at 220 E. Parkcenter Blvd. The group has 31 members and is chaired by state Board of Education member Richard Westerburg. You can see today’s agenda and the full list of members online here. Today’s agenda is mostly about identifying and prioritizing issues; the panel also will hear a presentation on the fiscal impact of the repeal of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 from legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee; and an overview of education initiatives in Idaho from state board member Rod Lewis.

You can watch the meeting on a live video stream here.

Bogus opens Superior for night skiing

Now here's some news: Bogus Basin has announced that having received more than 9 inches of snow over the last few days, it now has enough to open the No. 3 Superior chair for night skiing. That high-speed chairlift, on the back side of the mountain, has previously only been open for daytime skiing; click below for the full announcement from Bogus.

Lieutenant gov tells JFAC how he gets by on slim budget

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little felt at home at the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee when he came to present his budget this morning. “I started here in 1976,” he told the committee. “I interned in this committee in college in 1976.” He later went on to serve on the panel. Little said the JFAC structure is a vast improvement over how most state legislatures handle the budget process, because it’s transparent, bipartisan and bicameral. “For a small state, we have a very sophisticated budget process,” he said.

Little’s budget presentation was short: “My request is for $142,800 and lump-sum authority. Any questions?” he said. Sen. Dean Mortimer questioned how Little’s “austere budget” covers his expenses. “You do a significant amount of travel and your operating expenses are extremely modest,” Mortimer said, asking Little how he does it. Little said his travel budget is about $400 a month, and “that’s one ride on the state plane with the governor.” So he combines trips and rides along with other state officials whenever possible. He has one full-time employee and one part-timer, and typically turns back 7 to 10 percent of his budget to the general fund unspent at the end of each year.

Woolf: State will need to invest millions in future for new accounting, payroll systems

State Controller Brandon Woolf is presenting his budget request to JFAC this morning, and he highlighted the “Transparent Idaho” government transparency site that he and Gov. Butch Otter unveiled yesterday. “Historically, the greatest impediment to building a transparency site was the cost,” Woolf said in his presentation. “When we’ve scoped this project before, the estimated cost came in as high as $250,000, due mainly to software licensing.”

Staff in the controller’s office found ways to enable their existing technology  to “bring the first phase of the website online without having to license new software, expensive software,” Woolf told JFAC. “It features easy to read charts and graphs and allows users to download raw data so they can do their own analysis. … Right now we’re on the right road toward improving Idaho’s financial transparency. I’m proud of the staff’s work to build Transparent Idaho within our existing IT infrastructure. This is a good step and more will follow.”

Woolf’s budget request for next year requests an 18.5 percent boost in general funds, but 80 percent of the increase is due to a one-time, $896,000 request to retire the mainframe computer and convert the state’s accounting and payroll applications to open systems. “Re-platforming these applications preserves the value of the investments the state has already made, extends their useful lives, and delays the need to spend millions on new systems until the economy improves,” Woolf said. “I won’t sugar-coat this. There will come a day when we will need to invest millions of dollars into new accounting and payroll systems. Like you, I want to extend this day as far out as I can.” Gov. Butch Otter included full funding for the request in his budget recommendation.

JFAC votes unanimously to accept revenue committee’s report, which adopts gov’s figures

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted unanimously this morning to accept the report of the Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee, which adopted Gov. Butch Otter’s revenue forecast of $2.7991 billion for fiscal year 2014, a 5.3 percent increase. The committee report says the figure “is a reasonable forecast for revenues.” Co-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, told JFAC the panel concluded the figure “is also reasonable for the purpose of beginning the general fund budgeting process. We recognize that it’s early in the session, we’re in the first week of the session, and this is a snapshot in time. Although the governor’s projection is a little more than the committee median, we felt at this point in time it was a good place to start.”

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “It is customary for us to accept the committee report. That does not mean that we are budgeting to any number, it just means that we are accepting it, and then we’ll proceed. You will have another opportunity to select a number by which we will set a budget to, based on the information we have at that time, based on this report, based on other information. So with that in mind, I move that we accept the committee report.”

School lawsuit hearing reset to March

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A pre-trial hearing on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of fees public schools charge for sports and other activities has been reset. On Thursday, 4th District Judge Lynn Norton scheduled a hearing for March 13 on a motion by the state to dismiss the lawsuit filed by former Nampa school superintendent Russell Joki. Joki contends that fees assessed for classes, supplies and activities violate Idaho's constitutional promise of a free public education. The lawsuit names The Department of Education, the Idaho Legislature and all 115 of Idaho's public school districts. But logistical snags are bogging down the case. For now, the biggest hurdle is getting the lawsuit served to all of the school districts.Norton said it's not fair to move forward until each district has a chance to respond.

Staff’s ‘hard work and smart ideas’ credited for new Idaho transparency site

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s launch of an Idaho government transparency website, unveiled by Gov. Butch Otter and state Controller Brandon Woolf. “We’ve always provided our public information whenever it’s requested, but this allows the citizens to quickly get to it without having to come through the office,” said Woolf, who at 40 is the youngest statewide official in Idaho. “They get right to the data.” The transparency site was set up within the controller’s existing budget, with no appropriation of state funds; other state have spent millions on such sites.

 

Woolf credits his staff and their “hard work and smart ideas.” They found new ways to use the Controller’s office’s existing technology for the transparency site, which automatically updates every night. Check it out here.

Lawmakers offer Otter an olive branch…

This year’s Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee process had a much different dynamic than recent years, in which lawmakers have sharply undercut the governor’s economic forecast, forcing much larger budget cuts. Instead, this year brought an extension by legislative leaders of an olive branch to Gov. Butch Otter, accepting his numbers, opening the way for discussion of his proposals, and signifying perhaps a different, more productive working relationship between lawmakers and Otter as this year’s legislative session begins.

Fourteen of the committee’s 18 members went along with the Hill-Bedke motion to adopt the governor’s numbers, with caveats that things could change later in the session when more actual revenue figures are in. Hill said, “I really think that the number is reasonable.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who chaired the joint committee today, said, “My support for the motion today was in recognition that we’re still way early in the session – we’re in the first week.” She said, “I think it gives us a window of opportunity.” 

Bedke said, “The governor’s the leader of our party, and so we are not about picking fights at this point. That’s not to say that we don’t have a deep respect for the balance of powers and all of the principles embodied in that phrase. … But we have the luxury of time here.”

Lawmakers adopt Gov. Otter’s revenue forecast on 14-4 vote

The motion to adopt the governor’s revenue forecast – made by Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill and seconded by House Speaker Scott Bedke – has been approved on a 14-4 vote. The only “no” votes came from Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls; and Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls.

Lawmakers debate state revenue outlook…

“What my forecast reflects is a recovering economy,” Gov. Butch Otter’s economist, Derek Santos, told lawmakers on the joint revenue committee. “Gradually speeding up – now nothing extraordinary, but growth nonetheless, and acceleration nonetheless.”

After a series of questions, Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, moved to adopt the governor’s revenue figures, and Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, seconded the motion.  “I feel very comfortable with the explanations we’ve gotten from the governor’s economist, and it seems to me to be a very prudent move,” Schmidt said.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, then moved a figure very close to the committee’s median forecast, $2.741 billion in fiscal year 2014, 3.1 percent growth, and Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, seconded that motion. Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, called the governor’s figures “very, very aggressive.”

Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, disagreed. “The committee median I think is a little too bearish on Idaho’s economy,” he said. “I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies. … If we want to be optimistic and have a positive view, we’re going to have a positive outcome.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, then said, “I’m going to think out loud here for a second. … It’s Jan. 10th, and we haven’t got all of the numbers in, and I appreciate the governor’s optimism, and I appreciate the sentiments that have been expressed by the makers of the original motion.”  Bedke said low-balling the figure too much could foreclose discussion on a number of fronts. “If we get out in front of this and tighten the number down too much, then I think that will stymie some discussions with regard to personal property tax and its replacement, etc.,” Bedke said. “I think the longer we wait, the more information we have, and that issue and others will be framed better. … So at this time, at this date, I don’t see anything wrong with the governor’s more optimistic number,” as long as the committee recognizes that JFAC could alter it based on information that comes in later.

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, then said, “At this point in time maybe there’s nothing wrong with being cautiously optimistic.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “I’m not saying that’s where my number came up, but I don’t feel it’s unreasonable.” He suggested adopting the governor’s numbers, with the caveat that “on this date we find the governor’s number is reasonable to begin the fiscal year 2014 budgeting process … something to that nature.” Hill then proposed that as a motion, and Bedke seconded it. 

Lawmakers’ revenue forecasts fall below state economists…

The Legislature’s Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee has convened to set the revenue estimate it will recommend. If adopted by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, that figure would form the basis for next year’s state budget. After two days of hearings on the state’s economic outlook before the legislative session started, each member of the joint committee has set his or her estimate of state tax  revenue for this year, next year, and the year after. The median from the committee members’ estimates came in at 3.1 percent growth next year, to $2.7410 billion, in fiscal year 2014. That compares to the 5.3 percent growth, to $2.7991 billion, Gov. Butch Otter’s economists have forecast.

Otter’s proposed budget sets spending for next year’s budget at a 3.1 percent growth level , but not counted into that are the $20 million he wants to use to offset a move to eliminate the personal property tax on business equipment, or the $35 million he wants to pump into the state’s main rainy-day fund. If lawmakers opted to go with the committee’s median figure, they’d potentially set themselves up for a situation where the governor’s budget could be funded but not those two items. Of course, lawmakers can depart from the governor’s budget plan when they draw up their own, but it’s something of a starting point.

In the committee members' estimates, Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, was lowest, predicting 2 percent growth next year to $2.6800 billion; Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, was highest at 4.7 percent growth in fiscal year 2014, to $2.8124 billion.

Otter appoints Twin Falls doctor to Board of Correction

Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Dr. David McClusky of Twin Falls to the state Board of Correction, to fill the seat formerly held by Jay Nielsen of Twin Falls, whose term expired. McCluskey is a surgeon who previously served on the State Board of Medicine and the State Board of Pharmacy; click below for Otter's full announcement.

Woolf, Otter launch new state government transparency site

Idaho State Controller Brandon Woolf and Gov. Butch Otter today unveiled a new state transparency website, “Transparent Idaho,” with extensive financial information about state government that’s automatically updated every night. The site features myriad charts and graphs, tons of detail to dig into, and is searchable by cross-tabs including agency, county and more.

Otter called the new website – developed by Woolf’s office from within his existing budget – “a very important big step in transparency in state government.” Said the governor, “People all over the state, anywhere they are, if they have access, they’ll be able to go online and say where are we spending money and what are we spending money on in one of the agencies of the state?”

The governor said by putting so much data “just a click away” the new site should help reduce the need for Idahoans to file public records requests to get financial information about state government; they can just go online and find it at hand.

Woolf said the site was made possible because “we’ve been able to enable the existing technology that we have in our office, namely the Idaho Business Intelligence System, which is our data warehouse.” He said, “This is the citizens’ government and it’s the citizens’ money and this website will help provide so that the citizens can identify and know how that money’s being spent.”

Woolf said the site is somewhat limited at this point, but he sees it as just a first step. Eventually, he’d like to have a searchable electronic version of the state’s checkbook online, so people could search, for example, to see how much an agency paid to a particular company. Getting to that point, however, likely would require an additional investment; Woolf said he may request funds next year. The site can be accessed here.

Psychologist: Duncan paranoid, but competent

Condemned killer Joseph Duncan scored high on a test measuring paranoia, but was still legally competent to serve as his own attorney when he waived his right to appeal his death sentence, a forensic psychologist testified in federal court in Boise yesterday. Dr. Robert Engle was the lead expert witness for federal prosecutors, who are arguing that Duncan was competent, as ruled by the court at the time. His lawyers say he wasn’t, so his waiver of appeals shouldn’t stand. You can read a full report here from AP reporter Rebecca Boone; the retrospective competency hearing on Duncan continues today in federal court, and is expected to last several weeks.

TimesNews: Blaine GOP urges marijuana legalization

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — The Blaine County Republican Central Committee has passed a resolution supporting the legalization of marijuana in Idaho. The committee approved the resolution 6-2 earlier this week. Committee member Mike Connor told the Times-News (http://bit.ly/VivjVI ) the resolution is not an endorsement for doing drugs, but an acknowledgement that the War on Drugs is costly and producing few results. It's a rare stance for any committee affiliated with Idaho's dominant political party, and Connor admits the resolution is not likely to gain much political momentum. Idaho Republican Party Executive Director Joshua Whitworth says county central committees pass resolutions frequently, but this is the first one he's seen take a stance to legalize marijuana. Last year, former Republican Rep. Tom Trail of Moscow failed to get a bill approved to legalize medical marijuana.

State pension plans ‘coming back to where Idaho has always been’

Don Drum, director of the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, told JFAC this morning that PERSI is among the best-funded state pension systems nationwide; it’s among a dozen states that are 80 percent or better funded. As of Jan. 3, it was 87.7 percent funded. That was after the PERSI board lowered its expected returns out of concern over market conditions and a possible recession due to the fiscal cliff issue; without that change, it would be over 90 percent.

“Forty-two states have made changes to their pension plans,” Drum said. “Most of those systems are coming back to where Idaho has always been and we’ve elected to stay. We’re still on the conservative side of the benefit structure, and I think that’s where we want to stay.”

Nevertheless, PERSI will have a rate increase this year; it was actually first approved back in 2009 during the downturn, but was delayed twice as agencies struggled with budget cuts. No action by the PERSI board is required for the scheduled rate increase; its first phase, a 1.5 percent hike, kicks in July 1, 2013; that includes 0.58 percent for employees and 0.92 percent for employers, which include state and local government agencies and school districts. The state general-fund impact is about $9 million. Another 1.5 percent increase is scheduled to hit in 2014, and the final 2.31 percent in 2015. Other than the 1 percent annual cost-of-living increase required by law, the board has not approved any additional COLA for retirees for the past four years, nor is it proposing one for next year.

Agency budget hearings begin; budget staff same level as 25 years ago

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is diving right into its agency budget hearings this morning, with six relatively small agencies on the docket. First up is the Legislative Services Office. LSO Director Jeff Youtz told JFAC that Idaho’s legislative staffing is far below the national average. “It’s 0.8, less than one person per legislator support in Idaho,” he said. The national mean is close to 3.

The legislative budget office has the same staffing level it had 25 years ago, Youtz said. That’s been possible partly because of technology, he said, but added, “The people keep getting better and better, and they’ve been rising to the occasion.” The largest division, the audit staff, has 28 people; 25 years ago it had 30. “We’re making things fit and addressing responsibilities without growing staff,” Youtz said. In some cases, he said, he’s cut positions in order to maintain pay levels for staffers. Statewide, Idaho state employee pay lags 18.9 percent below market rates, but Youtz said as a result of his efforts, that’s not the case at LSO.

The budget request for LSO for next year is for a maintenance-level budget; due to benefit cost increases, it shows a slight increase of just over 1 percent. The budget totals $4.4 million in state general funds, $5.9 million total, which includes dedicated funds in the form of audit billings from other agencies. LSO has 64 full-time positions, plus seven seasonal positions for the legislative session.

Also up for hearings today: The governor’s Division of Financial Management; the Executive Office of the Governor; PERSI; the Endowment Fund Investment Board; and the Commission on the Arts.

Kane: ‘Always err on the side of disclosure’

Last year, Idaho Senate members disclosed conflicts of interest 36 times, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said during the legislative ethics training session this afternoon; House members made 50 such disclosures plus five requests to be excused from voting. Kane said while that might sound like a lot, 342 bills were enacted last session. That means there were 11,970 opportunities for disclosure in the Senate, and nearly 24,000 opportunities in the House. Kane said the numbers show it’s not a big burden. “Always err on the side of disclosure,” he said. “We’re here to try to promote confidence in government.”

Kane defined conflict of interest as “any private interest affecting your ability to act in the public interest.” He said, “If you have an influence that you naturally are going to lean toward,” disclose it.

Kane said too much disclosure has never led to the convening of an ethics committee in the Idaho Legislature. Click below for  full report from AP reporter John Miller on today's unprecedented ethics training session for state lawmakers.

Monsanto opts out of push for personal property tax cut, concerned for county services

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — One of Idaho's biggest companies, Monsanto, isn't pushing to eliminate the personal property tax, on grounds such a move could undermine services in its home county. Monsanto government affairs director Trent Clark said Tuesday the St. Louis-based maker of Round-up herbicide believes there are problems with the tax, whose repeal Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter named as a 2013 session priority. However, local governments and schools in Caribou County, where Monsanto has phosphate mining and refining operations, depend on the business-equipment tax for more than 40 percent of their revenue, to fix roads, educate kids and provide law enforcement protection. Clark said the potential that repeal could send local officials scrambling to preserve those services — or shift costs to others — convinced Monsanto to refrain from joining the legislative fight.

Ethics expert: ‘Why would we not hear good ideas just because of who brought it to the table?’

Ethics expert Scott Raecker shared a story at the legislative ethics training session this afternoon about proposing a bill as a new lawmaker, and being told bills with sponsorship only from minority-party lawmakers don’t get public hearings. He had brought together various stakeholders behind the bill, and pressed his point – and the bill both was heard and passed. “Why would we not hear good ideas just because of who brought it to the table?” Raecker asked. Sometimes, he said, the Legislature’s culture needs to change, in order to create a values-based ethical culture. He said, “We shape the culture, and the culture shapes the character.”

Said Raecker, “It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice, and I would urge you to continue to choose wisely in Idaho.”

Lots of attentive lawmakers at this afternoon’s ethics training session…

Ethics expert Scott Raecker, a longtime Iowa state lawmaker and executive director of Character Counts in Iowa at Drake University, has a big crowd of lawmakers from both houses at the ethics training session this afternoon in the Capitol Auditorium. Raecker shared his favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Sir, I am going to treat you as a gentleman not because you are one, but because I am one.” Said Raecker, “I challenge all of us to raise the bar higher – raise the bar higher and do what Jefferson said.”

He outlined the “six pillars of character:” Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.  “We care deeply about what we’re doing in public service,” Raecker said. “Our passions run very, very high. We need self discipline. … Our language is important and our actions are important.”

Raecker is a certified corporate ethics trainer with the Josephson Institute of Ethics, and served 14 years in the Iowa Legislature, including chairing the House Appropriations Committee and the Ethics Committee.

This afternoon’s legislative ethics training also includes sessions on conflicts of interest, the public trust and the law, led by Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane; on money and campaigns; led by Kane and Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; and on communications, led by Kane, from the public records law and use of official letterhead to distinctions between official, personal and campaign business. At the close of today’s program, from 4:30 to 5, the group will break into House and Senate groups for a Q-&-A session.

City Club forum: ‘It was a slap, but it was a love slap’

Today was the City Club of Boise’s annual Pundits Forum, in which I joined Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman and John Miller of the Associated Press, along with moderator Jim Weatherby, to discuss the upcoming legislative session. There was a huge, record crowd of nearly 700 people, including lots of lawmakers. I think my favorite moment was when I realized why a large group of legislators in the audience, including legislative leaders, rose and left the forum about 5 minutes after 1, though it wasn’t over yet. The reason: Legislative ethics training started at 1:15, and attendance was mandatory.

In fact, this morning House Speaker Scott Bedke announced that plainly on the floor of the House, telling members, “The attendance in the ethics training is not optional.”

There were some laughs and some good questions at the City Club forum, which will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio Saturday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday at 7 p.m. At one point, a questioner from the audience asked what we made of the fact that Idaho voters rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3 at the same time that they re-elected the same lawmakers who’d passed those laws. Popkey said it was because they like their local teachers, but they also like their local lawmakers. “It was a slap, but it was a love slap,” he said.

Moving ‘Students Come First’ money out of school budget would require 2/3 vote of JFAC

As the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee went over its complicated rules this morning, Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith highlighted JFAC Rule 13 – To reopen a budget, either to put more money in – a supplemental appropriation – or to take money out – a negative supplemental – requires a two-thirds vote of the joint committee.

That matters for the next issue the joint committee is now reviewing: The fiscal impact of the failure of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 on this year’s public school budget. Here’s why: The various changes in law caused by voter rejection of the three propositions leave $30.6 million unallocated in this year’s public school budget. Lawmakers have a number of options, including no action, which would cause the money to flow at the end of the year into the Public Education Stabilization Fund; redirecting those funds within the public school budget, which would take a simple majority vote of JFAC; or redirecting those funds to some other purposes outside the public school budget. Because of Rule 13, that would require a 2/3 vote of the 20-member joint committee.

The reason redistributions within the budget wouldn't require reopening the budget and a two-thirds vote is because the public school budget has what’s called “lump-sum authority” written into it, permitting movement of funds within the total. The large budget always has that authority, explains JFAC budget analyst Paul Headlee, “because it’s built on so many estimates.”

The question of what happens to the now-unallocated money is a major one. “It’s the No. 1 question I had all year – what happens to the money,” Headlee said.“The answer is really in the hands of the Legislature.”

Committees start meeting, ethics training today for all lawmakers

Committees are meeting around the Statehouse this morning, though few have substantive business as yet. The House Health & Welfare Committee meeting is packed this morning, between Health & Welfare staffers, lobbyists, reporters and citizens, as it hears an overview of the programs at the Department of Health & Welfare. In the House Education Committee, new Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, leading an organizational meeting, encouraged his members to use their computers to look at bills and so forth, drawing, amid laughter, concerns from Rep. Pete Nielsen, who said he generally asks his grandkids to help when he has to do something on a computer.

JFAC is mostly going over rules and how the committee works this morning, but later this morning, it’s scheduled to hear a presentation on the impact of the failure of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 on the current year’s public school budget.

In the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, a full slate of state Tax Commission rules is up for review this morning New Rep. Mark Patterson, R-Boise, asked repeated, sharp questions of the presenter, McClean Russell. Rev & Tax Chairman Gary Collins, R-Nampa, cautioned him, “Please go through the chair,” but Patterson just kept on questioning Russell. Collins just smiled. No Senate committees other than JFAC have scheduled meetings today.

This afternoon from 1:15 to 5, all legislators will go through a full session of ethics training in the Capitol Auditorium; the session will be streamed live for all those who want to watch. You can see the agenda here.

Idaho teacher workforce OPE report: ‘Strong undercurrent of despair’

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee is meeting this afternoon, and has just released a new performance evaluation report entitled “Workforce Issues Affecting Public School Teachers.” Rakesh Mohan, director of the Office of Performance Evaluations, said, “In light of current interest in public education reform, I think you’ll find this report to be a good resource for all policy makers and educational stakeholders to inform their policy discussions.” He noted, “Not only we analyzed the data that was available to us … but we also surveyed all teachers, all superintendents and all public school principals. As a result, we had more than 2,800 responses that we analyzed in this report.” The State Department of Education and State Board of Education also participated.

The report found that Idaho’s average class size is 24 students to one teacher; though there are wide variations, the average didn’t vary by level, with an average of 23 in elementary school, 25 in junior high and 23 in high school. The average teacher salary in Idaho was found to be $43,000, but the report found that teachers in all sizes of school districts typically don’t top $40,000 a year until they’ve been teaching for at least 11 years; you can read the full report here.

Survey respondents reported concerns about increasing class sizes; 64.3 percent of superintendents surveyed said class size is a concern, as did 79.9 percent of principals. The report also identified “a strong undercurrent of despair” among teachers, who said they perceive a climate that “disparages their effort and belittles their contribution,” said OPE analyst Lance McCleve.

School officials reported trouble recruiting teachers, particularly for hard-to-fill positions including science, math and special education. Salary was cited overwhelmingly as the top barrier to recruitment; 76.2 percent of superintendents and 66.7 percent of principals pointed to salary. In addition, 81 percent of superintendents and 59.9 percent of principals said they’re concerned about their ability to retain their current teachers; even larger numbers said their teachers are taking on additional duties due to a loss of support staff.

The report suggested there may have been a reporting error in the figures collected by the State Department of Education about teacher departures over the last three years. “We conclude that a mass teacher exodus has not occurred, but that fears about such an exodus occurring in the future may not be totally unfounded,” the report said. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

State treasurer revamps expense accounting after audit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane has revamped how he documents some of his office's expenses, after concerns raised by state auditors last year. A 2012 audit of Crane's office determined expenses from his annual bond-rating trips to New York, including limousine transportation, weren't properly reported. Auditors also questioned Crane's use of a state credit card to buy $8,000 in gas for his personal car, and his office's funding of a women's financial conference. In a report released Tuesday, auditors say Crane buttressed record-keeping for the New York trips, requiring employees to document specific expenses. He now tracks gas purchases, reimbursing Idaho for personal trips. And while auditors contend Crane is still inappropriately funding the women's conference, he has revamped its nonprofit board — to distance its leaders from the treasurer's office.

Former Rep. Bert Stevenson named to Idaho Water Resource Board

Former eight-term lawmakers and House Resources Committee Chairman Bert Stevenson was appointed to the Idaho Water Resource Board by Gov. Butch Otter today, along with Boise water attorney Al Barker. He also reappointed former Democratic state representative and Pocatello mayor Roger Chase and Vince Alberdi of Kimberly to new four-year terms on the board. “We’ve always been fortunate in Idaho to have a deep and talented pool of individuals ready and willing to continue Idaho’s tradition of actively and wisely managing the most important of all our natural resources – water,” Otter said in a statement. “Bert and Al are the latest to take on that mantle, and I’m confident their service will be consistent with the tradition of conscientious oversight that has been the hallmark of the Water Board.” Click below for Otter's full announcement.

Court hearing: Duncan targeted Spokane boy before settling on his Idaho victims

Before Joseph Duncan murdered a 9-year-old North Idaho boy in 2005, he set his sights on a Spokane child, posing as a prospective renter and touring a Spokane duplex with the boy’s mother while ogling the child. That news emerged in federal court in Boise this morning, where a judge is trying to determine if Duncan was mentally competent in 2008 when he waived all appeals of his triple death sentence. Among the evidence being presented is hours of interviews between Duncan and two FBI agents, in which he talked about his crimes, his reasons for waiving his appeals and more.

In the interviews, Duncan corrected the FBI agents about some things in their investigation that they’d gotten wrong, including concluding that he’d targeted a Spokane preschool music program as a possible target for his crimes, before settling on the Groene family in North Idaho to attack. Actually, Duncan said, his target in Spokane was a shirtless young boy who was adjusting a for-rent sign at a duplex down an alley from the site; Duncan said he posed as a prospective renter and toured the home with the child’s mother and the youngster. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Dems respond to State of the State

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Democrats are open to a $141 million personal property tax cut proposed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, provided there's something in it for local governments. The minority party Tuesday offered its annual response to Otter's State of the State speech, when the Republican governor announced he favored local option taxes to help replace money cities, counties and schools stand to lose from elimination of the tax on business equipment. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said local governments must be shielded from cuts to critical services.House Minority Leader John Rusche said it's too early to declare a caucus position, adding his members want to be players in the debate. In addition, Democrats say they'll push again for an independent ethics panel, election reforms and help disabled veterans find jobs.

Click below for the House and Senate Democrats' full statement.

Digging into gov’s budget…

As members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee began digging through Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal this morning, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, questioned how Otter can say the budget is structurally balanced when it doesn’t address state employee pay that lags behind market rates and a backlog of deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs, including aging highway bridges.

Jani Revier, the governor’s new budget chief, told JFAC that the governor’s budget targets one-time funds to “critical replacement and capital needs,” including computers and cars. You can see her PowerPoint presentation here.

DFM staffer David Fulkerson said, “The governor is still committed to state employees, but we just didn’t get there this year on that item.” The governor’s chief economist, Derek Santos, said, “Our forecast … is based on the economy recovering gradually.”

Duncan back in Idaho court, Legislature off and running for session…

Condemned multiple murderer Joseph Duncan will be back in an Idaho federal courtroom today, for a retrospective competency hearing, to determine if he was mentally competent in November of 2008 when he waived his appeals. If he’s ruled competent, Duncan will go back to federal Death Row in Terre Haute, Ind., to await execution. If not, more court proceedings would ensue – possibly including a replay of his whole death penalty sentencing trial. You can read my full story here from today’s Spokesman-Review.

Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature is off and running for its session. JFAC is meeting this morning and will begin sorting through the governor’s proposed budget for next year. House and Senate Democrats will give their response to yesterday’s State of the State message at 10 a.m., and this afternoon at 4, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee will meet in the Capitol Auditorium and release a report on workforce issues affecting public school teachers in Idaho.

New BSU ed news outlet hires Corbin from Post Register, Richert from Statesman

In a fairly big shakeup in Idaho media circles, the new Idaho Education News has announced that it’s hired Idaho Falls Post Register Statehouse reporter Clark Corbin and Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert as its two new staffers who will cover education news at the Legislature for the online news outlet. Jennifer Swindell, a former Statesman staffer, is the editor of idahoednews.org, a Boise State University project funded by a grant from the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

The news outlet is the newest venture for the Idaho Leads Project, which up to now has focused on finding and highlighting “best practices” at Idaho school districts. The project, which is under BSU’s Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies, received an 18-month $3.85 million grant from the Albertson Foundation, according to its website. Its goals are to “support and enhance the advancement of educational improvement and reform in Idaho, and second, to share, in an easily accessible manner, best practices to all interested districts, schools and charters.”

In a news release about the two new hires, Swindell said the website’s articles are “free to all users and available for distribution on other platforms or websites so long as proper attribution is included.” Richert has a farewell blog post here at the Statesman's website.

Idaho libraries launch ‘citizen tools’ portal

The Idaho Commission for Libraries has launched a new “citizen tools portal” to help people access, track and participate in state government in Idaho. It includes information on following the legislative process, accessing the courts, and finding and verifying news online. You can access the new “Resources for Idaho Citizens” online here; read the commission’s full announcement here.

Justice Dept. sues Jerome sheriff over violating Guard member’s employment rights

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the Jerome County Sheriff’s office, saying it violated the employment rights of an Army National Guard member. Mervin Jones, a corporal for the sheriff’s office, suffered a knee injury while deployed to Iraq in 2004, and later aggravated it during Guard training in 2008. The sheriff’s department is accused of refusing to accommodate him as he recovered from knee injuries in 2009, and then firing him.

“Members of the Army National Guard sacrifice time away from their jobs to serve their country,” said U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson. “USERRA (the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994) ensures that they are not discriminated against after they have returned and their employment rights are protected. We are committed to vigorously enforcing USERRA’s protections.” You can read the U.S. Attorney’s full announcement here.

Otter offers upbeat message after years struggling through downturn

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter took an upbeat tone in his sixth State of the State message to lawmakers today, urging them to start where they all agree and get things done for the state – including his proposal for Idaho to run its own health insurance exchange. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

While proposing no base pay increases for state employees or teachers, and proposing a 3.1 percent spending increase next year though his economists expect 5.3 percent growth, Otter expressed optimism about the state’s economic outlook. “People have been hearing for four years about what we can’t do,” he said after his speech. “Let’s talk about what we can do.”

“At least he’s keeping his conservative perspective on increases for the state budget,” said an approving Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens – though Barbieri remains adamantly opposed to a state-based insurance exchange. Said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, “We’ve got our job cut out for us.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, praised Otter for making a structurally balanced budget a top priority, after years of filling in budget holes with one-time funds as Idaho struggled through the recession. “Idaho has done what the United States has yet to do, i.e. live within the taxpayers’ means,” he said.

Otter: Start where all agree

As he closed his “State of the State” message, Gov. Butch Otter noted Idaho’s recent ranking of second in the nation for volunteering. That’s “in our DNA,” he said. “It’s who we are. It’s who you are, and I’m proud to join you in pressing ahead toward an ever brighter and more hopeful future for us all.”

He then departed again from his prepared remarks, urging lawmakers to start from where all agree, as they move forward to do what’s best for Idaho. House Speaker Scott Bedke responded, “Governor, on behalf of the joint session, we thank you for your remarks and we will try to put those into action.”

Otter recalls lost firefighter, calls for more fire protection associations

Gov. Butch Otter recalled Anne Veseth, the 20-year-old college student and seasonal firefighter who was killed in August while fighting a fire in Clearwater County. “We owe her and thousans like her a fighting chance while protecting our forests and rangelands,” Otter said. “That’s why my budget includes a $400,000 request to help create four more volunteer fire protection associations,” like one formed last summer by ranchers in the Mountain Home area. Otter said such groups could help fight and prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Idaho roadless rule upheld in court

Gov. Butch Otter departed from his prepared remarks, just as he was highlighting “the damage that federal court rulings can do to our traditional industries and our Idaho lifestyle.” The governor told lawmakers, “In fact we learned just this morning that Idaho won its case on our roadless rule … because we stayed at the table, because we continued to force the merits of our arguments. The 9thCircuit Court ruled this morning 3-0 that we were right.” Loud applause greeted the announcement. Click below for an announcement from Sen. Jim Risch.

Gov proposes new secure mental facility at state prison complex

Idaho would build a new 579-bed secure mental health facility at the prison complex south of Boise, under a $70 million bond plan that Gov. Butch Otter is proposing to lawmakers. “More than a quarter of the inmates in our state prison system have some level of mental illness,” the governor said. “Many can be housed safely within appropriate settings in our existing facilities. But others need higher levels of care, more treatment and more intensive intervention for their own safety and that of others.” He said, “No one likes spending money on prisons or inmates. But public safety is increasingly compromised by our inability to provide secure housing and appropriate treatment for mentally ill offenders.”

Though they didn't perhaps look happy about it, lawmakers applauded the proposal.

Five more med school seats, more residencies to fight doc shortage

Gov. Butch Otter has called for adding five more seats to the WWAMI collaborative medical school program that allows Idaho students to attend med school at the University of Washington, with the seats targeted to a program aimed at rural areas. He also is calling for more residency programs at the Boise VA Medical center; both moves are aimed at addressing the state’s physician shortage, and the aging of its physician workforce. “Like the rest of my budget, both these requests deserve your strong support,” Otter told lawmakers, grinning as they responded with a round of applause.

He’s also touting his administration’s Medical Home Collaborative, which is aimed at moving Medicaid to a “patient-centered model of care” in which patients and their primary physicians work more closely together.

Gov: No Medicaid expansion, at least for now - study for next year

A perhaps surprising announcement from Gov. Butch Otter: At least for now, he’s opposing expansion of Idaho’s Medicaid program largely at federal expense, though a working group he convened to study the issue called for the expansion. “There’s a lot more work to do, and we face no immediate federal deadline,” the governor said. “We have time to do it and to do it right, and there's a broad agreement that the existing Medicaid program is broken. So I’m seeking no expansion of those benefits. Instead, I’m asking Director (Dick) Armstrong (of Health & Welfare) to lead an effort to flesh out a plan for changing Idaho’s system with an eye toward the potential costs, savings and economic impact. I hope to return in 2014 with specific proposals based on that work, and I encourage all Idahoans to get involved with this process.”

Idaho’s current Catastrophic Health Care fund pays for indigents’ catastrophic medical expenses 100 percent with state tax funds and local property tax funds, to the tune of $60 million a year.

Otter pitches state insurance exchange, says it’s a ‘matter of states rights’

Gov. Butch Otter defended his support for a state-based health insurance exchange. “Rejecting the opportunity to assert ourselves will result in an unresponsive, one-size-fits-all federal exchange wreaking havoc on some of America’s most reasonable costs of coverage,” Otter declared. “At its core, this is a matter of states’ rights.”

He told lawmakers, “I soon will be introducing legislation affirming my decision.”

He said, “You all know how I feel about Obamacare. … But the fact remains that for now and for the foreseeable future, it is the law. And as responsible elected officials, we’re sworn to uphold the rule of law, not just those laws that we support.” That final statement drew a round of applause from the crowded legislative chamber, in which both senators and representatives are assembled.

Local-option tax to offset personal property tax cut?

The personal property tax on business equipment, which Idaho’s largest businesses are pushing hard to repeal this year, is something “nearly everyone agrees is an unfair drag on our economy,” Gov. Butch Otter told lawmakers in his State of the State message. He said, “Whether the tax is eliminated all at once or phased out over a few years is less important to me than an exit strategy that considers our counties’ financial stability.”

He said, “That isn’t necessarily about using state revenues to make counties ‘whole.’ In fact, my preference is granting local-option taxing authority that enables county voters to decide for themselves how to address their most pressing needs.”

Otter added, “However, I also have set aside $20 million in my budget for easing counties’ transition. I look forward to hearing your debate and considering your alternatives.”

Otter pitches ‘Hire One Hero’ program

A legislative initiative Gov. Butch Otter is outlining is an expansion of the “Hire One Act” that he successfully pushed for in 2011. The new legislation would clarify the existing tax credit for new employees, plus add $1,000 to the employer’s credit if the new worker is a veteran. The governor is calling it the “Hire One Hero” program. “My new legislation is intended to provide one more reason for employers to consider veterans, besides their skills, training and work ethic,” the governor said. It’s unclear at this point what the cost of the changes will be, but it could be as much as $11 million per year.

Otter touts business collaborations with colleges, CdA teacher of year…

Gov. Butch Otter is highlighting university-business collaborations in the state and  efforts at Idaho’s community colleges to address workforce development issues. He’s also paying tribute to Katie Pemberton of Canfield Middle School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho’s 2013 teacher of the year.  “She’s earned that recognition in part by making technology a cornerstone of her math classes at Canfield,” Otter said. He also got a quick but loud round of applause when he acknowledged the Albertson Foundation for its support of education in Idaho, including a $5 million grant for innovative teacher training at the U of I and Northwest Nazarene University.

Governor: No school reform legislation this year…

Education policy in the wake of the voter-rejected “Students Come First” laws is a hot-button issue as this year’s legislative session convenes, and Gov. Butch Otter had some strong things to say about it in his State of the State message. “I do NOT seek to simply revisit issues related to school improvement that were raised in the recent election,” he declared. “Instead, I’ve asked the State Board of Education to assemble a broad cross-section of stakeholders to study the message voters sent us and identify elements of school improvement on which there is broad agreement.”

He said, “I’m convinced that acting too quickly or without due deliberation will generate needless distraction from our goals of improving efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and accountability in our education system.”

Said the governor, “There was no electoral mandate for the changes we proposed on Nov. 6. But I also heard no clarion call for the status quo. What I heard was dissatisfaction with the process and a plea for more collaborative leadership. We must respond with appropriate sensitivity and care.”

Interestingly, the governor’s budget contains an expenditure directly related to this: $33.9 million in ongoing money in the public school budget to enact recommendations that that stakeholder group and lawmakers agree on in budget for the coming year, which starts July 1.

“Let me say it again, I am neither calling for nor expecting major school improvement measures this year,” Otter told lawmakers. “But I believe there are areas in which we can make progress, and I encourage you and all citizens to engage in that public discussion.”

Otter’s budget: A 3.1% increase

Otter’s first hint about the state budget he’s proposing for next year: He doesn’t want state government to grow as fast as “our economy and the people’s ability to pay for it.” Therefore, he said, his budget will call for a 3.1 percent increase in state general fund spending, though state economists are predicting a 5.3 percent increase in general fund tax revenue next year. Otter said that move reflects “our continuing need for caution and prudence in the collection and expenditure of the people’s hard-earned dollars.”

Details in the budget itself show that Otter is proposing a $2.786 billion general fund budget for fiscal year 2014, up $84 million from the original appropriation for the current year, 2013, of $2.702 billion. He’s proposing to add another $35 million to the state’s main rainy-day fund, the budget stabilization fund; set aside $20 million toward a phaseout or repeal of the personal property tax on business equipment; and a 2 percent, $25.6 million increase in the general fund budget for public schools.

The budget includes no base pay increase for state employees or teachers, other than for a small number of military division workers. 

Otter welcomes weather, Batt, crowd, begins address

Gov. Butch Otter has begun his “State of the State” message to a joint session of the Idaho Legislature, and as he began, he noted the snowy weather outside. “I consider it an omen, that if God’ll help us with this and our watershed, He certainly ought to help us here with the rest of our endeavors for the year,” Otter said to applause.

He also paused to “welcome back to the chamber” former Gov. Phil Batt, who’s in the gallery. After a sustained standing ovation for Batt – which he acknowledged by rising once, then, grudgingly, again – Otter said to laughter, “Gov. Batt always used to complain about standing ovations until one time we didn’t stand to give him an ovation, and then he complained about our disrespect.”

Otter started out his speech paying tribute to retiring Idaho State Police Director Col. Jerry Russell and to former state Controller Donna Jones, who stepped down from her elected post this year to focus on recovering from serious injuries in a car accident. “They have my sincere thanks and deep regard for their years of dedicated service to the people of Idaho,” the governor said.

Legislature convenes, State of State on tap

The House and Senate have now convened, in advance of Gov. Butch Otter's annual “State of the State” and budget message to a joint session of the Legislature, which will occur in the House chambers. The governor's speech, laying out his agenda for the legislative session that starts today, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Mountain time (noon Pacific). Here, senators file into the House chamber for the joint session.

I will be attempting to llive-blog the speech, but there are serious problems with the public WiFi system in the Statehouse today that may make that effort more difficult; I'll play it by ear. A note on the time stamps on these blog posts: They are in Pacific time, where my newspaper's servers are located. So, despite what the time stamps show, these items will not be posted an hour before they happen; the time just shows an hour earlier than the local Mountain time in Boise. You can watch the speech live here.

A test of leadership for Gov. Otter…

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter faces a major leadership test when Idaho lawmakers convene their legislative session on Monday: convincing many from his own party that it’s in the state’s best interest to run its own health insurance exchange, when many want no part of “Obamacare.” Otter’s tried before to convince recalcitrant fellow Republicans to do something they didn’t want to do, notably failing in 2009 to get them to raise state taxes to fund major road improvements. He tried vetoes. He tried arm-twisting. But his own party didn’t budge.

Otter said Friday that he’s committed to creating the exchange, which would provide Idahoans an online place to shop for health insurance plans and access government subsidies, only with legislative support. “I think it is a states’ rights issue, that we should be at the table,” the governor declared. “I thought that with the wolves or the grizzly bears, I thought that with the caribou, I thought that with the sage hen and almost every other issue that has come up. If we stay at the table, I think we can make a difference. We did make a difference in most of those negotiations.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Labrador mum on speaker vote abstention

 Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador not only abstained from the vote to re-elect John Boehner as speaker of the U.S. House, he collected a vote himself for the post. Ohio GOP Rep. Justin Amash, who’s at odds with his party leadership and recently was stripped of his committee assignments, sent out this tweet about his decision to vote for Labrador instead of Boehner: “Proud 2 vote 4 @raul_labrador 4 Spkr. Raul would defend liberty & work honestly w/Ds on debt reduction. We must act now 4 sake of next gen.”

Only 12 House Republicans didn’t support Boehner’s re-election bid as speaker; he won with 220 votes, six more than were required. Labrador had no comment about why he abstained. “He’s not saying anything,” spokesman Phil Hardy said. You can read my full Sunday column here.

Implications of personal property tax repeal…

Click below for a report from AP reporter John Miller on the potential repeal of the personal property tax on business property. Gov. Butch Otter said Friday that he'll promote a repeal plan in his State of the State address to lawmakers on Monday, provided it can be accomplished without harming local government in Idaho. But there are wide-ranging implications, including tax shifts.

Looking ahead to the session…

On the first episode of “Idaho Reports” this week on Idaho Public TV, host Greg Hahn interviews new House Speaker Scott Bedke, and I join Jim Weatherby, Bill Spence, Dan Popkey and Greg to discuss the issues coming up as Idaho prepares for the legislative session that kicks off Monday. The show airs Friday nights at 8, it re-airs Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 a.m. Pacific; and it's on Boise State Public Radio Sundays at 7 p.m. You can also watch it online here any time.

Crapo: ‘I’m swearing off alcohol’

“I'm swearing off alcohol and I am not going to continue to drink,” Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo told reporters today in a conference call after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in Alexandria, Va. Crapo said he believes public officials should be held to higher standards, the AP reported, and he believes his constituents are disappointed by his conduct. But he said he doesn't think the arrest will derail his political career, and he hopes that by giving a full explanation of the circumstances, he can regain the public trust.

“I fully intend to continue to try to make a contribution in the United States Senate,” Crapo said, adding that he expects to run for the office again in 2016.

He said he'll walk to work, take a taxi or make other transportation arrangements while his license is suspended over the next year, the AP reported. As long as he remains on good behavior, Crapo won't have to serve a 180-day suspended jail sentence. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped a charge of failing to obey a traffic signal; click below for a full report from AP reporters Rebecca Boone in Boise and Matthew Barakat in Alexandria, Va.

Repealing personal property tax: ‘A reason to come to Idaho’ or ‘misguided public policy’

Only eight states have no personal property tax on business property, attorney and CPA Rick Smith of Hawley Troxel said at today’s AP Legislative Preview. Still, he urged its repeal in Idaho. “It gives Idaho an opportunity to get out in front on this issue,” Smith said. “Here is a reason to come to Idaho.”

Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, said, “I don’t think there’s any question that the personal property tax is a lousy tax, it’s hard to administer.” But, he said, “It’s the cards we’ve been dealt.” The tax is a significant source of the funding that provides public services in many Idaho counties, he said. “Caribou County stands to lose $2.1 million out of their budget,” if the tax is repealed, he said. “That’s a small county and that’s a large chunk of their operating budget,” about 40 percent. “We’d have to find a way to replace those dollars. It is not going to work, simply to say ‘figure this out.’”

Former longtime chief state economist Mike Ferguson offered a different view: He noted that the personal property tax is in the Idaho Constitution, it’s been part of the taxing structure in which Idaho’s economy has thrived for many decades, and he said repealing it would be “a misguided public policy decision and wrong for Idaho.” Ferguson noted that Idaho’s school districts would lose $38.6 million in funding – nearly as much as the $38.9 million counties would lose. School districts would see their property tax bases shrink by between 20 and 50 percent, making it that much harder for them to persuade local voters to pass property tax overrides – because it would take higher tax rates to raise the same amount of money.

Ferguson also noted that a few large companies would be the main beneficiaries; Idaho Power, for example, accounts for a third of all the operating property subject to the personal property tax in the state; operating property, such as utility lines and pipelines, is a significant chunk of the value on which personal property tax now is collected.

Legislative leaders clash over taking away reform money from Idaho schools

Things got a little heated at the end of the legislative leaders panel this morning at the AP Legislative Preview, when House Speaker Scott Bedke said the $44 million in the school budget that was allocated to the voter-repealed “Students Come First” reform laws might not stay with schools, now that those programs have been repealed. “There are people that are eyeing that,” he said, for purposes including eliminating the personal property tax on business property.

“Our caucus would be adamantly opposed to that,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, responded. “The schools need that money. It makes sense to reappropriate that in a manner that allows them to use it. I think the outrage over taking money for public schools and putting it to pay off a personal property tax that basically would go to the largest companies in the state is something that not only our caucus would find objectionable.”

Bedke said, “But don’t keep telling me then that we ought to do nothing because the voters have spoken.” He said if the Legislature were to do nothing on education policy because of voters’ rejection of Props 1, 2 and 3 in November, school districts would be left without that money this year. Asked if he personally supports taking the money away from schools, Bedke said he’s the speaker now, not just an individual lawmaker. “I’ve got 57 perfectly good Republican caucus members, all of which have got great ideas,” he said. “I want to hear what they have to say.”

After the panel discussion, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he doesn’t support shifting the school money to pay for personal property tax relief. But he noted that all state agencies and programs took funding hits during the recession. “Is it fair that education keep all the money?” he asked. “It needs to go back to the appropriations committee, and they need to divvy it up in an appropriate way.”

Crapo pleads guilty to DUI, apologizes

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo pleaded guilty to a charge of driving while intoxicated in Alexandria, Va. today, and apologized for his actions. Crapo was ordered to pay a $250 fine, complete and alcohol safety program and have his driver's license suspended for 12 months. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press. Outside the courtroom, Crapo said he had been drinking vodka and tonic at his Washington home on the night of Dec. 22, became restless, couldn't sleep and went out for a drive. He had been driving for about 30 minutes when he realized he was in no condition to drive and started to return home, he said. It was then that he ran a red light and was pulled over in the D.C. suburb of Alexandria, in the early morning hours of Dec. 23.

“I am grateful, truly grateful, that no one was injured,” Crapo said. He said he has, in the past year or so, been drinking alcohol on occasion, in violation of his LDS religious beliefs; he apologized for that as well, and said he'll “carry through on appropriate measures for forgiveness and repentance in my church.”

Working on ethics issues…

When a questioner noted that lawmakers will be working on ethics issues next week – all legislators will go through an unprecedented half-day of ethics training - Senate President Pro-tem Brent Hill said, “We’re always working on ethics issues.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke said a draft revised ethics rule is circulating in the House and likely will be addressed early in the session. “It would include a formal standing ethics committee,” he said, along with provisions regarding “how they would carry out their responsibilities.”

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Idaho is one of the few states without an independent ethics committee to oversee lawmakers’ conduct, and it should establish one.

Hill: Exchange issue will go to Commerce in Senate, not Health & Welfare

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the health insurance exchange issue won’t go to the Health & Welfare Committee in the Senate this year – it’ll go to the Commerce Committee. “That’s an insurance issue,” Hill said, explaining his thinking.

Dem leaders: Listen to voters

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “We are going to have to face some real monumental issues.” He said the minority party has been out talking with voters, and is bringing back some messages. “They want a Legislature and government that’s open, honest, and focused on the constituents’ needs, on their families and their future opportunities,” he said.

Addressing reporters at today's AP Legislative Preview, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “I think what we need to do here … is to keep in mind that the voters have spoken, and to try to do the best we can to honor the message that they’re sending to us. .. It’s obvious that we need to have evidence-based recommendations for education,” and for teachers and parents and education professionals to be involved in that, she said. “They don’t want us politicians necessarily in the center of all that, and we have to hear that.”

Bedke promises ‘some interesting times’ in upcoming session

House and Senate leaders are speaking now at this morning’s AP Legislative Preview. Said new House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, “Every other person, nearly, in the House of Representatives is new. And there’s a lot of new chairmen. There’s been a lot of shuffling around. We can talk about these issues, but that’s going to shape the legislative session in a major way on the House side.”

Said Bedke, “I’m very encouraged and excited to work with these new people. This is a very accomplished group, broad spectrum, very diverse life experiences. They’re smart, they’re eager to be here and eager to be involved, and there’s some energy that I haven’t noticed before. And I’m looking forward to really incorporating these new people and their ideas into some of these old problems, and we’ll see what comes of it.” He promised “some interesting times.”

Otter: ‘We are not going to become the dumping ground for nuclear waste’

Gov. Butch Otter, asked about the question of nuclear waste in Idaho, declared, “We are not going to become the dumping ground for nuclear waste.” He said, “I have no disagreement with Gov. Batt’s 1995 agreement. I thought it was great when he got the agreement, I thought it was great when we established a ‘get out of Idaho by 2035,’ and I see no reason to change that. What I do see is the failure of the federal government and a potential conflict with them, because of their failure to open Yucca Mountain on time or at all maybe.”

Otter on Simplot mansion: ‘Remember there are only 2 bedrooms in that house’

Asked about Idaho’s vacant governor’s mansion – which is costing the state nearly $180,000 a year in upkeep - Gov. Butch Otter said it’s not up to him what the state does with the home of his late former father-in-law. “What you could do with $180,000 a year in the classroom, that would make a pretty good difference,” Otter said. “But on the other hand, what if a person gets elected governor, say six or eight years from now, that has a family, and actually comes from northern Idaho or eastern Idaho … and has a large family? Remember there are only two bedrooms in that house.”

Otter on exchange: ‘If we stay at the table, I think we can make a difference’

Here’s what Gov. Butch Otter had to say this morning on the issue of a state-run health insurance exchange: “Let me just say from the outset on that, I see nothing wrong, or nothing liberal, or maybe even nothing conservative, about preserving all of our options,” he said, “and to back away from the table and just say ’you folks come in and set your own up’, I don’t think really that establishes for me an idea of sovereignty of the state of Idaho. I think it is a states’ rights issue, that we should be at the table.”

He added, “ I thought that with the wolves or the grizzly bears, I thought that with the caribou, I thought that with the sage hen and almost every other issue that has come up. If we stay at the table, I think we can make a difference. We did make a difference in most of those negotiations.”

Otter praises legislative ethics training

Gov. Butch Otter praised state legislative leaders for setting up extensive ethics training for lawmakers next week. “I think sometimes we cross an ethical barrier because we simply don’t know the rules,” he said, “so I see great advantage for leadership to step up.”

Ed reforms need consensus, Otter says

Gov. Butch Otter told reporters this morning that education reform must be arrived at collaboratively and with consensus, saying the process that led to the voter-rejected “Students Come First” laws, which he championed, was badly flawed. “It’s pretty hard to establish consensus if you’re only talking to yourself on a matter of public policy,” Otter said.

Otter: Address personal property tax without harm to local government

Gov. Butch Otter is here at the Statehouse to speak to the press this morning at the annual AP legislative preview – though it’s First Lady Lori Otter’s birthday. There’s an overflow crowd.

“I will tell you that the state of the state is in pretty good shape,” Otter said, particularly compared to other states. “I hear horror stories about them not being able to meet the mandates of a balanced budget, their unemployment rates,” Otter said.

He said he’ll propose a balanced budget on Monday that will be structurally sound, a goal he’s long had – to bring Idaho’s state budget into structural balance by 2014. He also said he’ll have a lot to say in his State of the State message about repeal of the personal property tax. “I will tell you that I think there is a growing consensus amongst folks that the personal property tax is one of the drags on our economy and that we need to do something about it, and the question is what and how fast,” Otter said. He said another part of the question is “how do we do what we would like to do … without doing … harm to the local units of government. So those will all be debated and re-debated.”

Gov to speak, you can watch live…

This morning’s AP legislative preview will be streamed live online by Idaho Public Television; you can watch live here. It starts with Gov. Butch Otter at 9 a.m., legislative leaders from both parties speaking at 10, and a panel discussion at 11 on the possible repeal of the personal property tax.

Gearing up for the legislative session…

It isn’t usually a part of how I gear up for a legislative session, but this morning I underwent a root canal. On the good side: It should be all downhill from here.

Tomorrow morning, the governor and legislative leaders will speak to reporters as part of the annual AP Legislative Preview; tomorrow evening is the first episode of Idaho Public TV’s “Idaho Reports” program, and the legislative session starts on Monday, with Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message to a joint session of the House and Senate set for 1 p.m.

StateImpact Idaho has posted a guide to the upcoming session here; Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, offers a look ahead here; and the Legislature’s website here is ground zero for tracking bills, agendas and more. Also, watch this space. I’ll tell you all about it.

HHS gives Idaho ‘conditional approval’ to run state-based insurance exchange

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was notified today that the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has “conditionally approved” Idaho’s plan to operate a state-based health care exchange. “We got a phone call from HHS informing us of that decision,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary; the call came yesterday afternoon, and was followed by a letter today  from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to Otter. “It shows that despite an extremely difficult timeline, staff did a pretty good job of pulling all the various required components together,” Hanian said. “If we get approval from the Legislature, then we have HHS’s approval to go ahead and move forward with the plans we submitted. … It means that we’d eventually probably have their full approval for running it on our own, which is what the governor identified as the reason we’re doing this.”

Otter convened a working group that studied the issue for months, before overwhelmingly recommending that Idaho opt for a state-based exchange to enable residents to shop for health insurance plans and access government subsidies, rather than let the federal government run Idaho’s exchange. The exchanges are required under the national health care reform law, but Idaho had been exploring the idea well before the law passed.

Sibelius, in a news release today announcing conditional approval for state exchanges in Idaho, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Vermont and Utah, said, “States across the country are working to implement the health care law and build a marketplace that works for their residents.” Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have now been conditionally approved to partially or fully run their own exchanges.

Economic outlook: ‘Subdued and stumbling growth’

Bob Maynard, chief investment officer for the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, told lawmakers this morning the coming year’s economy is widely expected to be similar to this past year: “Subdued and stumbling growth, good equity markets, flat bond markets.” He said, “2012 was pretty close to forecast. Basically the world economies muddled through. … Next year is expected to be more of the same.” For example, he said, in 2012 the S&P 500 was up 15 percent, compared to an expected 12 percent. “That’s pretty much a bullseye given the pessimism of last year,” Maynard said. “Markets again expect about 12 percent equity yields and flat bond markets.” He added, “Right now, bonds are tremendously unattractive.”

Maynard said, “The capital markets run off of expectations, not current conditions. And the current economic expectations are moderate.”

He’s among an array of economic experts and business representatives addressing the Legislature’s Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee today and tomorrow, as lawmakers begin mulling where to set the revenue estimate on which the state budget for next year will be based. After hearings today and tomorrow, the panel will reconvene on Jan. 10 to finalize its report to the Legislature.

Lawmakers look at economic outlook, watch live on newly upgraded streaming site…

Idaho Public TV’s new live streaming site is up for the 2013 legislative session, which kicks off Monday. The old links still work through a redirect, but the new address is www.idahoptv.org/insession. Upgrades mean that the service will now stream easily to Macs, PCs, iOS devices and most Androids; that means easier access to live video streaming from House and Senate floor sessions and hearings in the Capitol Auditorium, audio from all standing committee hearings, Idaho Supreme Court oral arguments at their Boise chambers, some press conferences from the governor’s office and more.

Today, the Legislature’s joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee is meeting all day, and you can watch live at the new streaming site. Today, the joint committee is hearing from bankers, builders, Realtors, retailers and more; tomorrow, it’ll hear from hospitals, university economists and the INL. The whole process is aimed at evaluating the outlook for Idaho’s economy to help in setting the revenue estimate on which the state budget for the coming year will be set; you can see the full agenda here, along with background information and links to presentations.

6,300+ jobless Idahoans get reprieve, under fiscal cliff legislation

More than 6,300 unemployed Idahoans won’t lose their federal extended unemployment benefits this week after all, the Idaho Department of Labor says, under the newly passed legislation to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Instead, those on extended benefits will continue to receive them, though possibly not for long. Due to drops in Idaho’s unemployment rate, the length of federal extended benefits has been cut back three times in 2012; it’s now at a maximum of 37 weeks beyond the standard state benefit of 10 to 26 weeks; that could drop to a maximum of 28 weeks the second week of February, if unemployment holds steady or continues to fall. At their peak, federal extended benefits lasted for up to 73 weeks. Click below for the full announcement from the Idaho Department of Labor.

Idaho, Utah rank tops for volunteerism, Nevada not so much…

Idaho ranks 2ndin the nation for its volunteer rates, according to a new study from the Corporation for National and Community Service, behind only Utah, which ranked 1stamong the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Our neighboring states mostly ranked relatively high as well, with Washington 9thin the nation, Oregon 8th, Montana 18thand Wyoming 17th. An exception: Nevada ranked 48th. Lowest-ranking was Louisiana, at 51st, with just 19.4 percent of its residents volunteering their time to help out their communities. Idaho’s figure was 38.8 percent; Utah’s was 40.9 percent.

Nationally, the study found, 26.8 percent of Americans volunteered in 2011, and 65.1 percent did favors for their neighbors. Click below for a report from AP and the Idaho Falls Post Register on volunteerism in Idaho.

Labrador calls fiscal cliff bill ‘worse than no deal at all,’ rest of delegation backs it

Three-fourths of Idaho’s congressional delegation has voted in favor of the last-minute compromise bill to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” with just 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador voting no. Labrador said, “This was a difficult vote, but as far as I am concerned the Biden-McConnell deal is worse than no deal at all.” You can read his full statement here.

2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson joined the majority in supporting the bill. “While I remain a strong proponent of a more comprehensive approach to solving our nation’s long-term fiscal crisis, this bill is a critical piece of legislation that lowers taxes for nearly every taxpayer,” Simpson said. “The unfortunate reality is that under current law every taxpayer was hit today with a tax increase. The bill we passed blocks those tax increases for nearly all Americans.” You can read his full statement here.

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both voted in favor of the measure; they issued this joint statement: “The compromise that we supported protects 99 percent of all Idahoans from a tax increase and also protects the vast majority of our farm families from a permanent tax increase. This is a victory for working Idahoans, but we must now be very aggressive in finding appropriate spending reductions.”

The bill passed the Senate on an 89-8 vote just after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, while it passed the House 257-167 around 11 p.m. on New Year’s Day. Click below for a full report from the AP in Washington, D.C.

Up above the fog…

Even though I know it'll be there, there's something startling about coming up out of a frigid, foggy inversion, with snowflakes