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Eye On Boise

Archive for February 2014

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Dan Popkey, Emilie Ritter Saunders and host Melissa Davlin for a discussion of the legislative events of the week, from today’s lengthy guns-on-campus hearing to Idaho’s image. Also, Davlin and Ritter Saunders interview Rep. Wendy Horman about education, and go over tax policy issues with a BSU economist, an analyst and a business representative, along with Rep. Mat Erpelding, interviewed by Ritter Saunders, and Sen. Jim Rice, interviewed by Davlin. 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.

 

Melba superintendent Andy Grover joins crowded GOP race for state schools chief

Andy Grover, superintendent of the Melba School District, announced his candidacy today for state superintendent of schools, joining an already crowded GOP primary race. Idaho Education News reports that Grover’s Statehouse announcement drew a crowd of nearly 100 that included Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, Garden Valley Superintendent Randy Schrader and many others.

If elected, Grover said his priority would be to implement the 20 recommendations from the governor’s education improvement task force. “That will require serious leadership and I’m the person who can lead this effort,” he said; click here for the full Idaho EdNews report from reporter Jennifer Swindell. Already in the GOP race are middle school principal Randy Jensen of American Falls; school administrator Sherri Ybarra of Mountain Home, and teacher John Eynon of Cottonwood; Jana Jones of Idaho Falls, former chief deputy to then-state Supt. Marilyn Howard, is the only announced Democratic candidate thus far.

House backs bill to shift cig tax money to water recharge, roads

Millions in tax revenue from Idaho's cigarette sales is closer to flowing toward the state's scarred-up highway asphalt and its drought-depleted aquifers, the AP reports, after the House voted 63-4 today to redirect cash from the state's 56 cent-per-pack tax — it has totaled about $35 million to $40 million annually — that's currently being used to retire bonds for the $130 million Idaho Capitol renovation, as well as funding cancer programs, state buildings and juvenile probation. The bill now moves to the Senate side. With the Capitol bonds nearly paid off, there's been a scramble this session for the money that's no longer needed. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said these two priorities — water, the lifeblood of Idaho's enormous agriculture industry, and roads, the means by which products are delivered to markets — merit the additional cash; click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

After 7-hour hearing, overwhelming opposition, House panel passes guns-on-campus bill

After a more than seven-hour hearing today, the House State Affairs Committee has voted 11-3 in favor of SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, sending it to the full House for debate and possible final passage. Close to 50 people testified on the bill today, the overwhelming majority opposing it, including university presidents, police chiefs and more.

The only “no” votes came from the panel’s three Democrats, Reps. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, John Gannon, D-Boise, and Holli Woodings, D-Boise. Those voting in favor included GOP Reps. Loertscher, Batt, Andrus, Crane, Palmer, Sims, Barbieri, Holtzclaw, McMillan, Monks and Packer.

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, moved to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.” Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, said, “Concealed carry is available everywhere else, and we don’t see people openly carrying all through town. … Chaos will not ensue once this is passed.”

Woodings said, “It’s not because I don’t support people’s rights under the 2nd Amendment, I certainly do. I believe this is the second time this week where this committee has been asked to referee an issue where all parties haven’t been brought to the table in the construction of legislation, and frankly, I don’t like it.”

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I’ve listened, and I’ve heard what you said, but I know that changing this bill, it will or it could change the resulting statutes, but we still have to know that it’s the Idaho Constitution that trumps, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

Guns-on-campus hearing enters seventh hour…

As the guns-on-campus hearing continues this afternoon, Boise State University President Bob Kustra was among those testifying, speaking strongly against the bill. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told Kustra, “Currently the way the Constitution reads, I think open carry is allowed on your campus and currently you should not even be restricting open carry on your campus.” Kustra responded, “We simply don’t agree with that. My legal counsel tells me that’s not the case.”

Former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, now director of government relations for BSU said, “Instead of ramming this through, invite the stakeholders in. … Let’s sit down and figure out a bill that everybody’s comfortable with. … That’s how you do this kind of thing.”

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, in his closing comments, said, “It’s a policy that protects the liberty of individuals. It’s been represented to you that this bill is not about liberty, but I would submit to you that it’s exactly what it’s about.” As far as the open-carry question, he said, “As Rep. Crane pointed out and others have pointed out, whatever is currently allowed with regard to open carry within the parameters of Article 1 Section 11 is still allowed after this.” The vote is near.

Gov. Otter signs so-called ‘ag gag’ bill, to outlaw dairy spying

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a bill threatening people who secretly film animal abuse at Idaho's agricultural facilities with jail and fines. Otter inked the new law Friday, two days after it cleared its final hurdle in the House. Otter, a rancher, said the measure promoted by the dairy industry “is about agriculture producers being secure in their property and their livelihood.” The bill came in response to videos released by Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal rights group Mercy for Animals showing workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping and sexually abusing cows in 2012. Idaho's $2.5 billion dairy industry complained the group used its videos not to curb abuse, but to unfairly hurt Bettencourt's business. Those caught surreptitiously filming agricultural operations face a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

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

Testimony so far on guns-on-campus bill: Seven for the bill, 24 against

Kevin Satterlee, vice president and general counsel at Boise State University, was the first called to testify on the guns-on-campus bill after the lunch break. He said Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane’s answer on the question about open carry and the bill was “essentially a dodge of the question about whether or not open carry is addressed by this legislation.” He said, “Essentially, what you have at best is the bill is ambiguous on that point. It will put the universities into litigation to resolve.”

“Forcing us into a court challenge to resolve what can’t be resolved here I don’t think is the right answer,” he said. Satterlee said the way the bill is written sets the universities up for lawsuits on numerous counts.

Among others testifying so far this afternoon:

Tony Snesko, founder of Idaho Carry, said, “We need to be able to defend ourselves against the bad guys.”

Marissa Jenks told the committee, “I walk through a dark parking lot on my way home to my husband and my five children. Currently I must give up my right to defend myself from a would-be attacker prowling the halls or the parking lots of my school, in order to obtain my desired education.”

John Uda, director of campus security at BSU, said it will be costly to transition campus security to comply with the bill, including “enhanced access control,” metal detectors and the like for those areas where guns aren't allowed by the bill, and training and arming security to deal with armed people, some of whom are authorized to have guns on campus and some not. The estimated bill, he said, is “pretty staggering.” Currently, violations of campus gun rules are just policy violations, Uda said, but under the bill, they would be laws the campus must enforce.

Thus far today, 31 people have testified. Of those, seven spoke in favor of the bill, 24 against.

 

Business tax incentive legislation clears House panel

Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer’s new business incentive legislation cleared the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning, with just one “no” vote, from Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, and now moves to the full House for debate. Patterned after a Utah law, the bill would allow the state to consider rebating up to 30 percent of a company’s corporate income tax, sales tax and payroll tax if it brings in certain numbers of high-paying new jobs. The credit would be available to existing as well as new companies, and projects would qualify only if they bring a minimum of 20 new jobs to a rural area or 50 to an urban area; and if the new jobs pay higher than the typical wage in the county.

Testimony in favor of the bill, HB 546, came from IACI, the Idaho Chamber Alliance, and economic development groups. The lone opponent was Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “We’re excited about the support we’re getting and the momentum that’s building,” Sayer said after the meeting. “We think it’s standing up under scrutiny.”

 

Concealed carry? Open carry? The legal ins and outs of SB 1254…

Near the end of this morning’s portion of the guns-on-campus hearing, Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, asked Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to respond to a question, and asked him if SB 1254 would allow open carrying of firearms on Idaho public college campuses. Kane said his reading of the legislation is that colleges could still restrict that. “My reading of this legislation is that the universities have the authority to enact firearms regulation to the broadest extent, except for within those two categories,” he said. “The only exception” would be “the ones specifically enumerated within this legislation,” which are for those with enhanced concealed weapon permits and retired law enforcement officers.

That interpretation differs from that of some high-level lawyers, including interim University of Idaho President Don Burnett, former dean of the UI law school and a former Court of Appeals judge, and state Board of Education member Rod Lewis, general counsel for Micron Technology.

Queried afterward about his conclusion, Kane acknowledged that the wording of the bill could be challenged in court. “We analyze it for what’s the most likely interpretation” a court would take, he said.

The bill says public colleges and universities can regulate guns on campus except when it comes to two areas: Retired law-enforcement officers, who are entitled by Idaho law to carry concealed weapons; and holders of the state’s new enhanced concealed weapons permit. It says, “Notwithstanding any other provision of state law, this authority shall not extend to regulating or prohibiting the otherwise lawful possession, carrying or transporting of firearms or ammunition by persons licensed under section 18-3302H or 18-3302K, Idaho Code.” Those are those two sections.

Then, it says, “However, a person issued a license under the provisions of section 18-3302H or 18-3302K, Idaho Code, shall not carry a concealed weapon: (i) Within a student dormitory or residence hall; or (ii) Within any building of a public entertainment facility. …” That sentence doesn’t say those licensed people can’t carry openly, and Burnett noted that the concealed weapons permit laws entitle people to conceal weapons, but don't require them to conceal them.

Kane said lawyers looking for problems in the law certainly could read it that way, but he said a court would likely look at what the Legislature intended overall with the measure, and conclude that it wanted to restrict guns from those venues, not open them up. If someone arrived at Bronco Stadium for a football game openly carrying a weapon, Kane said, “If I were the attorney for those venues, my recommendation would be don’t let them in.” Then, the armed person could press his case in court, and the judge would make the final call.

Asked if it wouldn’t be better to amend the bill, perhaps to eliminate the word “concealed” in the section about dorms or arenas, or add it to the preceding section, Kane said he thought that wording was copied from other parts of the law. The question about whether open carrying of guns is actually allowed anywhere in Idaho, without exception, under the provisions of the Idaho Constitution is “an open question in Idaho,” he said, and one that hasn't generated much case law. “That’s a broad provision.”

Chobani founder asks Otter to veto ‘ag gag bill’

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The founder of Greek yogurt maker Chobani is asking Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to veto a bill that jails for up to a year people who secretly film animal abuse at Idaho's agricultural facilities. Hamdi Ulukaya in a statement on Friday says the law would limit transparency, could cause general public concern, and conflicts with the company's views and values. The company has a $450 million plant in Twin Falls in the heart of south-central Idaho's dairy region. The bill, promoted heavily by Idaho's dairy industry, comes after videos released by Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal rights group Mercy for Animals showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping and sexually abusing cows in 2012. An activist secretly filmed the abuse after getting a job at the dairy.

Guns-on-campus hearing takes break ‘til 1 p.m.

House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “We're needed on the floor,” and called a recess in today's guns-on-campus hearing. “We will need to come back here at 1 p.m.,” he said. “We still have 19 people who are signed up to testify.”

Testimony: ‘Create a commitment to bring it back,’ ‘Firearms are a health hazard’

More of the testimony from today’s guns-on-campus hearing:

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson presented the House State Affairs Committee with a letter from the Idaho Chiefs of Police opposing SB 1254, the guns on campus bill, and asked the lawmakers not to pass the bill this session. Instead, he said, “Create a commitment to bring it back next session, involving your law enforcement leaders, teachers, students, and yes, even the NRA.”

Ashley Morehouse, a senior at the University of Idaho, said if the bill had been passed when she was a freshman or sophomore, “I would not finish my education in Idaho.”

Dr. Vincent Serio, a physician at the BSU student health center, said he believes the bill has “two major flaws.” First, he said, it ignores studies, including a Harvard study he cited, that show “having a firearm on campus is actually associated with more harm than good.” Secondly, he said, “There is nothing in the bill to prohibit guns from being brought into health care facilities on our campuses.” He said, “Firearms are a health hazard, especially in areas where people are volatile.”

Testimony: ‘Places for learning, not for killing,’ ‘We have not been made part of the process’

In continuing testimony on SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill this morning:

Claude Spinosa, a BSU professor emeritus of geosciences who now lives in Sandpoint, told the committee, “Guns are for killing, and I’ve done my share of killing. … The last thing I want on campus is things that kill people. The campuses are places for learning, not for killing. Don’t put guns on campus now.”

Stan Bastian, former state senator and board chairman at the College of Western Idaho, said, “We feel that we have not been consulted, we have not been made part of the process of developing this bill.”

Among others testifying, all against the bill: Chet Herbst, vice president of Lewis-Clark State College; Steve Albiston, president of Eastern Idaho Technical College; Jeff Fox, president of the College of Southern Idaho; Jeff Gunther, police chief for the city of Hailey; and BSU professor Clyde Moneyhun, who said, “I'm asking you to listen to your police - they're trying to tell you something.”

Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, told the next person up to testify, BSU Associate Dean Kirk Smith, to be quick, saying there are about 40 people left to testify and only 20 minutes left.

State Board calls guns-on-campus bill an ‘unfunded mandate’ that could cost colleges up to $8M

The State Board of Education has sent a letter opposing SB 1254 to all members of the House State Affairs Committee; you can read it here. Among the concerns raised in the letter: “The bill would allow open carry on public campuses anywhere, including open display in classrooms. The bill would allow open carry in dormitories and event centers. The bill bans only concealed carry in those venues. The institutions would be unable to determine whether a person with a weapon is properly authorized to possess that weapon.” The letter calls the bill an “unfunded mandate” that would cost Idaho’s colleges and universities up to $8 million.

Testimony: ‘Bad law,’ ‘Universities keep moving the goalposts,’ ‘Bill is not as advertised’

In continuing testimony on SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill today:

Tony Fernandez, president of Lewis-Clark State College, said, “The rate of murder and manslaughter on college campuses is 40 times less than that observed in the general population.” Idaho’s college campuses are very safe, he said, and, “SB 1254 would be bad law.” He said lawmakers and the public “should seriously question if it will make our safe campuses any safer.”

Erik Simpson, former Republican state representative from Idaho Falls, said a 2008 law that he supported “didn’t give universities carte blanche authority to regulate firearms.” He maintained that universities can’t ban guns now, saying, “The universities keep moving the goalposts – that’s what’s happening here.”

Max Cowan, president of the Associated Students of the University of Idaho, said there’s been a lively debate on his campus about the bill. While people have differing opinions about guns on campus, he said, “We know we have the capacity to make these decisions for ourselves. We value local control. … This bill removes our power to be parties with our institution in setting our own policies.” Cowan told the committee, “I ask that you vote against this bill and trust in us to make decisions for ourselves.”

Rod Lewis, member of the State Board of Education, said, “The problems with SB 1254 are numerous. It has not been well thought out. … It was drafted with no consultation with stakeholders. … This bill is not as advertised. It is not a concealed-weapons bill. … It is an open-carry bill. With all due respect, Sen. McKenzie is incorrect. Open carry is allowed.” Lewis, general counsel for Micron Technology, asked what would happen if a student came into a classroom, laid a gun on the desk and began fiddling with it. “Most likely, a number of the students in the classroom would leave out of concern for their safety,” Lewis said, and the professor might do the same. He called the bill “completely opposite to what has been advertised and communicated,” and said, “Either this bill has been poorly drafted or this bill has been falsely advertised. … Passage of this bill would set our institutions back significantly, and perhaps irreparably.”

Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, asked Lewis if he'd support the bill it were changed to address the open-carry question. He said, “Not necessarily,” saying, “What I support is a dialogue” between all affected parties about how best to promote safety on the state's college campuses. “Let's listen to leaders on the ground - that is always good policy,” he said.

BSU prof’s New York Times op-ed piece asks, ‘When May I Shoot a Student?’

An op-ed piece in the New York Times by a BSU professor about SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, is drawing attention across the country; it was published yesterday. The article by Greg Hampikian is entitled, “When May I Shoot a Student?” In it, Hampikian, tongue in cheek, tells the Idaho Legislature, “I am sure that it has not escaped your attention that the library would make an excellent shooting range, and the bookstore could do with fewer books and more ammo choices.” You can read the article here.

Testimony: ‘Don’t want it in this special setting,’ ‘Local control,’ ‘More appealing to criminals’

In continuing testimony on SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, this morning:

Cassie Sullivan, vice president of the BSU Associated Students, said students oppose the bill; she delivered petitions with 2,500 signatures against it. “Every constituent that this affects has spoken to you and said that they are opposed to it,” she said. “People who are proud of our 2nd Amendment rights and want to support it, don’t want it in this special setting.”

Kent Nelson, general counsel for the University of Idaho, said, “We think this bill is bad policy and there are some challenges to the drafting. … The proposed law would introduce weapons on campus, without the ability to determine if the weapons are there properly or not.” He also said the wording would allow open carrying of guns on campus, saying, “The concealed carry permit is simply permission to conceal, it is not a requirement to do so.” Plus, he said, it would restrict campuses from their current discretion to authorize some people to carry guns.

Mark Browning, vice president of North Idaho College, said community colleges are “a unique creation in this state.” He said, “The people who lead those community colleges are five citizens, just like yourselves, elected, just like yourselves, by friends and neighbors. This bill … would significantly erode their ability to effectively govern and manage those campuses. … Local control and local authority is at stake here.”

Bryan Lovell, president of the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police and a sergeant with the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Department, spoke in favor of the bill. “Currently there’s nothing in place to stop a gunman or someone with a weapon or someone intent on breaking the law from entering a campus,” he said. “We believe … drawing a line that says no firearms” makes a place “more appealing to criminal intent.”

Testimony: ‘I would rather die,’ ‘Not about safety,’ ‘Common sense’

In testimony at the guns-on-campus hearing this morning, the first called to testify was BSU student Kelby Monks, a criminal justice major and the son of Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian. He spoke in favor of the bill, SB 1254, saying, “I would rather sacrifice myself and I would rather die and be shot by a police officer than have an entire audience of my classmates killed and murdered,” he said, adding, “If it’s good enough to have concealed carry or even open carry in here, I think it’s plenty reasonable that we can have one on a campus. … I personally know plenty of people that actually carry on campus … so guns are already on campus whether universities like it or not.” Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, congratulated Monks on his “courage” for speaking out in favor of a bill that his university opposes.

Callie Sands, a part-time teacher from McCall, spoke passionately about her belief that carrying a concealed weapon keeps her safer and protects those around her as well. “Where do the lunatics go? They go to the soft targets,” she said.

David Duke, chief of police for the city of Moscow, spoke against the bill. “We regularly respond to fights in and around the Kibbie Dome,” he said. “Inserting a firearm into this confrontation,” he said, would lead to injuries and deaths among those involved and innocent bystanders. Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, asked Duke how police handle the issue elsewhere, of distinguishing “who the good person is and who the bad person is” when people are shooting. He said they don’t know. He noted that when an armed student tried to respond to a shooting incident in Moscow several years ago, he was immediately shot by the perpetrator, and said if police had arrived and seen him, he likely would have been shot by police mistaking him for the perpetrator.

Don Soltman, president of the State Board of Education, said, “This bill is not about safety. Campuses are extraordinarily safe places. It is not about the 2nd Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled there are places where the right to bear arms can be regulated.”

University of Idaho interim President Don Burnett said, “The one thing that is clear is that the teaching and learning environment would be affected.” He said he’s a native Idahoan, he owns guns, served in the military and been a judge. “My experience and common sense tells me that putting loaded, at-the-ready firearms in our classrooms, laboratories and campus venues is simply not a good idea.”

Guns on campus hearing begins, McKenzie presents bill this time

The hearing on SB 1254, the guns on campus bill, has opened in the Lincoln Auditorium this morning before the House State Affairs Committee. This time, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, is presenting his bill himself; at the earlier Senate committee hearing, he deferred to National Rifle Association lobbyist Dakota Moore to present the bill.

McKenzie is going through the various objections raised about his bill by Idaho university presidents, police chiefs and others, using a Powerpoint presentation similar to the one Moore used earlier. On each slide, there's a quote about “lies,” from such figures as Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte and Mark Twain. McKenzie asked the committee, “Would you rather that no one be armed but the murderer?”

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, told McKenzie, “One of the primary concerns that I have is whether your bill is allowing open carry of weapons on campus. .. Is there any public university that allows open carry on campus?” McKenzie responded, “I do not know.”

Gannon noted that the bill forbids any regulation of guns by public universities in Idaho, except for restrictions on concealed carrying of weapons as outlined in the bill: Only those with enhanced concealed carry permits or retired law enforcement officers could carry on campus, and even they couldn’t carry in dormitories or auditoriums that hold more than 1,000 people. “But there is nothing that addresses open carry,” Gannon said. “Wouldn’t that imply that there is no prohibition on open carry?” McKenzie, who like Gannon is an attorney, said the bill amends existing law that allows guns to be banned in courthouses and schools, and said, “Those have always been applied to restrict carry, both open and concealed. If you believe that they don’t, that’s something you can test with the courts, but our tradition would suggest otherwise.”

Gannon responded, “As a lawyer you know that tradition isn’t what we’re doing here, we’re doing the bill, and the bill says, ‘Notwithstanding any other provision of state law.’”

There are more than a hundred people in the audience watching the hearing.

Senate votes unanimously in favor of justice reinvestment bill

The Idaho Senate has voted unanimously in favor of the justice reinvestment bill, sending it to the House side. The 35-0 vote on SB 1357 followed enthusiastic debate in favor of the measure, which would invest in reforms to the state’s probation and parole system and community treatment programs, while moving to prioritize prison space for more-violent offenders. The aim is to reduce Idaho’s overly high recidivism rate, promote public safety and save money – a lot of money, if it succeeds in its goal of heading off the construction of an otherwise needed $288 million new prison in the coming years.

“It’ll slow the growth of the prison population between 2015 and 2019,” Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, told the Senate. “And these policies will help Idaho avoid $288 million in spending that would otherwise be needed to accommodate the forecasted growth. If we invest $33 million in probation and parole officer training, risk-reduction services for people on supervision and implementation of quality assurance measures, we can achieve that savings.”

Ten months of research went into the bill, with the help of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Trusts. Idaho has one of the nation’s lowest crime rates, the project found, but one of the fastest-growing prison populations – and non-violent offenders spend twice as long behind bars in Idaho as in the rest of the nation.

“This legislation is a consensus bill – all three branches of government were involved in it,” Lodge said, including “prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, other law enforcement.” She said, “Good senators, it was a lot of work but well worth it, and we will work hard during this next year to make sure that these strategies are implemented and that we can achieve the savings that we’re outlining for you today.” The bill carries a price tag of just under $3 million, but additional amounts are being tagged in the budget for the state Department of Correction to fund the full first year of the five-year, phased-in $33 million investment, which comes to $5.5 million for fiscal year 2015. The bill now heads to the House side; House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, is co-sponsoring the measure with Lodge.

Forty-six ‘Add the Words’ protesters shackled, taken to jail…

Forty-six “Add the Words” protesters, including one juvenile, one man in a wheelchair, and three others who use walkers or other assistive devices to get around, were arrested this afternoon after blockading the Senate garden-level hallway that leads to all Senate committee hearing rooms, closing off access and forcing the cancellation of two 1:30 p.m. committee hearings. The protesters were taken to a ground-floor Capitol visitor room for processing, where they were searched and their wrists bound with large plastic zip ties, and their belongings placed in plastic bags. Then they were led out to a bus waiting in front of the Capitol for the ride to jail, where they may post bond.

After the arrest and removal of the blockading protesters, some of whom already were arrested in earlier protests as well, two 3 p.m. Senate committee meetings went forward as scheduled. The protesters want Idaho to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the types of discrimination forbidden by Idaho's Human Rights Act, which now bans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of race, religion and the like. The change has been proposed every year for the past eight years, but has never gotten a full committee hearing.

Arrests are under way, bus is out front…

Arrests of “Add the Words” protesters are under way in the Senate garden level hallway. Idaho State Police troopers are leading the protesters quietly, in small groups, to a ground-floor Capitol visitors room for processing, as they did during the last protest that resulted in arrests; also like last time, a large bus is parked in front of the Capitol, waiting to take those arrested to jail.

Two Senate committee meetings canceled

Two Senate committee meetings that had been scheduled for 1:30 today have been canceled, the Commerce Committee meeting and the Transportation Committee meeting. Both had started to assemble in House committee hearing rooms because their regular Senate meeting rooms were blocked by an “Add the Word” protesters blockade, but the chairmen were trapped in their office suites by the blockade. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “The meetings will be rescheduled.”

A fairly large crowd had assembled for the Commerce meeting, which had two high-interest bills, one regarding limiting payday loans and one regarding workers compensation for firefighters, up for hearings this afternoon. Winder announced to the crowd that the meeting would be rescheduled, and that “people that had traveled long distances to testify could either return or they could submit their testimony in writing,” he said; he had been in touch with the committee chairman to confirm that.

No arrests have occurred as of yet. “Our policy is not to be confrontational with them,” Winder said of the protesters, who are holding photos of two gay teens from Pocatello who committed suicide, one last week and one in 2011.

Committees relocated, but not called to order yet…

The Senate Commerce Committee has temporarily relocated to room EW 20, and the Senate Transportation Committee to Room EW 40, but neither meeting has been called to order. Among the reasons: The chairmen of both panels are blockaded in their offices by “Add the Words” protesters, who also are blocking their regular hearings rooms. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “It's my understanding that we have a white bus en route.” That's the type of vehicle the police used for the last protest that ended in arrests, to transport protesters who refused to leave to jail.

‘Add the Words’ protesters blockade Senate committee hearing rooms, meetings being moved…

“Add the Words” protesters are blockading the Senate garden-level hallway where committee hearing rooms are located, blocking access at both ends plus standing outside the hearing rooms themselves. Senators, lobbyists, and people waiting to attend afternoon committee hearings – including citizen activists hoping to testify on a bill to restrict payday lending – are milling around the hallway as Senate officials try to identify House hearing rooms where they can move the 1:30 committee meetings, because it could take up to an hour for the protesters to be arrested and removed.

Students, faculty rally against guns-on-campus bill…

Despite the rain, roughly 230 college students, faculty members and supporters gathered on the Statehouse steps during the noon hour to rally against SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, while a knot of about 20 counter-protesters stood off to one side and tried to out-shout them. “As far as we can see, every major stakeholder in Idaho is against this bill,” organizer Emily Walton told the crowd. Clyde Moneyhun, an associate professor of English who said he grew up with lots of guns and has shot every kind, said, “Being pro-gun doesn’t mean voting yes on every lame-brained gun rights bill that comes down the pike.” The crowd cheered.

The protesters huddled under umbrellas and raincoat hoods, holding signs with slogans including, “No to guns on my campus,” and “Listen to our school and police leaders.” Counter-protesters held signs including, “Defend our Gun Rights” and “Criminals Target Gun-Free Zones.”

Alex Ridgeway, a junior history and poli sci major who wore a bright-blue BSU Broncos jacket and held a sign saying, “Not in My Class!” said, “I adamantly oppose the bill. I just wanted to show my support – I even skipped a class to be here.” Monte Wilson, a retired professor who taught geology at BSU for 29 years, said, “This is just loony-tunes.” He said, “I’ve dealt with a lot of students over the years, and I’ve dealt with a few of ‘em who were mentally unstable.” He said he wouldn’t want a disgruntled student confronting him over a grade to pull out a gun.

Bob Mayer, who wore a dark-brown trenchcoat with a gun strapped on his hip and waved a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, said he works at the kinesiology department at BSU twice a week. “I have a concealed weapon permit in Idaho and three other states,” he said. He said across the nation, “The police are usually about 30 minutes late to every incident … while people are being murdered.”

After the rally broke up, small knots of people gathered around the steps, with some arguing over everything from the Constitution to the Bible.

House panel clears measure to protect innocent ex-spouses from tax liabilities

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Unsuspecting spouses saddled with tax liabilities from their former significant others are about to get a break. The House Revenue and Taxation Committee agreed unanimously Thursday it's unfair to require people who signed a tax return but who didn't get any benefit from income to have to pay the Idaho State Tax Commission. The Senate has already supported the so-called “Innocent Spouse” measure, 35-0. Now, the House is up. Sen. Les Bock, a Boise tax attorney and Democrat, is pushing the measure after a pair of instances he encountered where this situation arose. One involved a woman, the other a man going through divorces. They were each, at least initially, held liable for taxes on income they never benefited from. Turning the tables, Bock said, is “a matter of fairness.”

Senate passes health worker battery bill that it killed last year on tie vote

Legislation to impose felony penalties on patients who violently attack health care workers has passed the Senate, 27-8. A similar bill died in the Senate last year on a 17-17 tied vote after passing the House; this year’s bill, put forth by the Idaho Medical Association, has a number of changes designed to address senators’ concerns. Among them: The maximum penalty was lowered from five years to three, and the health worker provisions were separated from existing laws about attacks on EMTs and police officers.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, asked sponsor Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, repeated questions about individual examples of attacks, asking whether each of them could have already been charged as felonies under existing laws. Lakey, an attorney, responded to each, saying some of them could have, and some not; and in one specific example involving an attack on nurses and other workers at Kootenai Medical Center, he said the attacker was charged with misdemeanor battery.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said, “If we pass this, it will put more people in prison, and it will be used to use technical violations of this to induce pleas that will put people into prison. Effectively what we’re doing is we’re setting an extremely low standard for a felony. … We’re saying it’s going to be a felony under this category for an unwanted touching.”

Lakey said, “Senators, the current misdemeanor approach is not working. … It’s aimed at purposely violent individuals and repeat offenders. … It seeks to make violence against health care professionals a higher priority within our community.” He said, “This is a clean bill, it responds to a real need, and it helps decrease violence against those who serve and are victimized because of that service.” The bill now moves to a House committee.

House passes bill to remove lawmaker exemption from concealed weapons permit law

The House has voted 62-7 in favor of HB 514, legislation to remove state lawmakers' and other elected officials' special exemption from having to have a concealed weapons permit to carry a hidden gun. “We don't stand above our citizens,” said Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa. The bill also makes several other changes to concealed weapons laws, including clarifying that disassembled or unloaded guns can be concealed in a car without a concealed weapons permit, and that people can carry concealed weapons without a permit outside city limits; current law allows that only when “engaged in lawful hunting, fishing, trapping or other lawful outdoor activity.” The measure now moves to a Senate committee.

Senate backs new ‘Idaho Day’ holiday, sends bill to governor’s desk

After a lengthy “sheepherder’s” retelling of Idaho history from Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, the Senate, like the House before it, has voted unanimously in favor of HB 378, legislation from Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, to establish a new “Idaho Day” holiday each year on March 4. It wouldn’t be a paid holiday or a day to close government offices; just a day to highlight Idaho’s history and heritage. On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional act creating Idaho Territory. After 27 years as a territory, President Benjamin Harrison signed a congressional act on July 3, 1890 establishing Idaho as the 43rd state. HB 378 now moves to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.

Democratic lawmakers ask FBI to investigate CCA wrongdoing at Idaho prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's top Democratic lawmakers have asked the FBI to investigate private prison company Corrections Corporation of America for possible criminal wrongdoing at the state's largest prison. The letter sent to Boise FBI Agent Ernie Weyand on Thursday says the lawmakers are concerned that the Idaho State Police lacks both the manpower and expertise needed to properly investigate the Nashville, Tenn.-based company's activities in Idaho. The lawmakers also say the investigation may cross state lines, putting it under federal jurisdiction. CCA acknowledged last year that it understaffed the Idaho Correctional Center by thousands of hours in violation of the state contract and that employees falsified state reports to cover up the vacancies. The Idaho Department of Correction is currently in the process of taking over the prison south of Boise.

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

Rev & Tax backs income tax cut bill that Senate chairman says he won’t hear

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has approved HB 548, Majority Leader Mike Moyle’s $126 million tax cut bill, after voting down motions both to hold the bill and to amend it. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, proposed amendments, saying if the goal is really to get Idaho’s corporate income tax rate down to Montana’s level of 6.9 percent, that could be done in a single year for less than $10 million – without changing individual income tax rates. The bill would lower both corporate and individual rates a tenth of a percentage point a year for the next six years, to get both down from the current 7.4 percent to 6.8 percent by 2020.

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, noted that income tax rates are just a piece of the total tax burden, and the state Tax Commission published a study in the fall comparing Idaho’s total tax burden. He asked how Idaho compares to other states on that, but Michael Chakarun, tax policy manager for the state Tax Commission, said the author of that report wasn’t present so he couldn’t address it. That prompted Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, to move to table the bill because the Tax Commission couldn’t answer the question, but he got only four votes for that motion.

That Tax Burden Study, posted on the commission’s website in October, is based on 2011 tax rates and shows that Idaho’s overall per-person tax burden ranks 49th nationally out of 51, and 11th regionally among 11 western states, both rankings that were unchanged from the previous year.

Matt Hunter, president and CEO of the Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce, urged passage of the bill, saying, “I think it will help us to recruit companies to the state and bring more revenue to the state.” He said the tax cuts would “help us bring companies out of places like California and Oregon and places where we’re working to bring ‘em from.”

Donna Yule, executive director of the Idaho Public Employees Association, said, “For the last few decades, Idaho legislators have operated under the philosophy that cutting taxes will cause great prosperity and businesses will flock to Idaho, and the facts tell a very different story.” Instead, she noted, Idaho now has the highest percentage of minimum-wage earners in the country. “At the beginning of the recession, Idaho ranked 43rd for median income. We now rank dead last,” she said. “Tax cuts do not benefit the economy, and they only further devastate the public services that we all depend on.”

Christine Tiddens of Catholic Charities of Idaho spoke against the bill, saying a family of four earning $30,000 a year would get just a tiny tax break, while a family earning $300,000 a year would get more than $1,600 in benefits. Moyle acknowledged that low-income earners would get far less under the bill than higher-income earners, but said, “Remember, they don’t pay very much either. … They pay less of the burden.”

 The bill now moves to the full House – but Senate Local Government & Taxation Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, has already said he won’t give it a hearing if it arrives at his panel. Siddoway told the AP the only tax-cut bill he favors this year is one to fully remove the property tax on business equipment, which lawmakers eliminated last year for most Idaho businesses.

House Rev & Tax takes up Rep. Moyle’s income tax cut bill

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee is holding its hearing this morning on HB 548, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle’s bill to cut state individual and corporate income tax rates, in all brackets, by a tenth of a percent each year for the next six years, at a total cost by the end to the state general fund of $126 million. The bill includes “triggers,” saying that if in any year the state’s general fund revenue doesn’t rise by at least 3 percent, the next increment wouldn’t be imposed.

“It’s pretty simple, it’s a fair tax,” Moyle told the committee. By “lowering all the bands” the bill would benefit all income levels, Moyle said. “We’re not punishing one group over another, it doesn’t pit anybody against anybody.” Idaho’s last state income tax cut was only for the highest earners.

John Watts, lobbyist for the Idaho Chamber Alliance, is now presenting details on the bill; you can listen live here. Both he and Moyle said the aim is to get Idaho's top rate down from the current 7.4 percent to 6.8 percent by the end of the cuts, lower than Montana's 6.9 percent rate.

Guns-on-campus opponents plan big Statehouse rally today at 12:30

Opponents of SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, are planning a big Statehouse rally today at 12:30 in front of the Capitol. Boise State University Student Body President Bryan Vlok said, “There isn’t one major stakeholder in Idaho who supports SB 1254. From the Idaho State Board of Education to the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association, Idahoans have made it clear they don’t want this bill passed.” Vlok is part of a coalition that also includes student leaders from the University of Idaho, North Idaho College, Lewis-Clark State College, and has dubbed itself the “Coalition to Keep Guns off Campus.” Every Idaho public college or university president has come out against the bill, as have faculty and police groups; click below for the coalition's full announcement.

The bill already has passed the Senate; it's up for a House committee hearing tomorrow morning.

Ways & Means to hold first meeting of the session today

The House Ways & Means Committee, the leadership panel that often plays a late-session role in swiftly moving legislation, has scheduled its first meeting of the year for this afternoon, either at 1:30 or on adjournment of the House. The agenda includes possible introduction of six proposed bills: Two from House Speaker Scott Bedke regarding irrigation districts and eminent domain; two regarding urban renewal from Reps. Youngblood and Malek; one from Rep. Brent Crane on renewing administrative rules; and one from lobbyist and former Rep. Kris Ellis on behalf of First American Title on closing protections.

The meeting will be in the JFAC room, C310.

Land Board accepts new cabin-site appraisals, lessees protest

In a special meeting today, Idaho’s state Land Board, which consists of the five top elected state officials and is chaired by Gov. Butch Otter, voted to accept new values for state-owned cabin sites at Priest and Payette lakes on which renters have built and own their own cabins. New appraisals were done on 361 Priest Lake cabin sites and 16 at Payette Lake.

“As we’re all painfully aware, the 2013 valuations came in 84.9 percent higher than IDL’s 2012 valuations,” Denny Christenson, president of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, told the board. “Lessees were astounded to see their values increase by that much during a time when their other real estate investments were declining in value.” But the new appraisals, he said, are 79 percent higher than the 2012 appraisals. That’s left lessees, he said, “with the same question they asked last year – how can these values be 79 percent higher than 2012 in a down market?”

The 2014 values vary considerably, and Christenson said the appraisers’ qualifications were much better this time around. Still, he said, “A large number of lessees continue to believe the appraised values are much too high and would not be supported on the open market.” Many will appeal, he said.

The values matter because they’re the basis for calculating rent on the land, and also are a starting point for auctions or other transactions in which cabin owners – or others – could have the opportunity to buy the land under the cabins from the state. The state has been working for several years to get out of the cabin-site renting business, in favor of other land investments that bring greater earnings to the beneficiaries of Idaho’s state endowment, the largest of which is the state’s public schools.

Lands official Patrick Hodges said based on the results of a meeting between the department and the Priest Lake lessees, “We’ve opened a two-week window after the appraisal numbers are approved by this board, to allow lessees to submit factual corrections.” That will be for errors in measurements and the like, he said, and such corrections will be made without having to go through a full appeal process.

Former Gov. Batt: ‘Somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words’

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, author of the 1969 Idaho Human Rights Act, has distributed a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers calling on lawmakers to “Add the Words” and extend anti-discrimination protections under the law to include gays. In the article, Batt reviews the history of human rights issues in Idaho that he dealt with in his long public career, and tells of his sorrow that a gay grandson has left the state for California, as has the young man's sister. “These young folks love Idaho and I wish they lived here so that I could see them more,” Batt writers. “However, they will never make this their home again as long as we maintain our disdain for people who are different than most of us.”

“I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals,” Batt writers. “Or, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers.” Click below for his full piece.

Kustra says SB 1254 would permit open carrying of guns in BSU dorms, arenas

Boise State University President Bob Kustra has sent out a statement on SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho college campuses, strongly objecting the measure. He contends that by removing Idaho public universities’ ability to regulate guns on campus, the measure opens his campus up not just to concealed carrying of guns by those authorized in the bill, but to open carrying of firearms on campus by anyone who has a concealed weapons permit, including openly bringing guns into dorms, football games or other areas where the bill restricts concealed guns.  “Of the handful of states that allow concealed carry on public campuses, none allow open carry of weapons as this bill allows,” he writes.

Kustra also says his campus will face millions of dollars in needed security upgrades if the bill becomes law, with no state funding; you can read his full statement here.
  

 

Bill to address child deaths from faith healing won’t get hearing

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — House leaders ruled out a hearing on a bill meant to curb the number of children who die because their parents choose faith healing and not medical assistance for religious reasons. Judiciary Committee Chairman Rich Wills said Wednesday he's been told by House Speaker Scott Bedke there's no room in this Legislature for debate on the measure. Boise Democratic Rep. John Gannon had proposed changes after learning about the deaths of numerous children of members of the Followers of Christ group in southwestern Idaho from treatable conditions, including pneumonia and food poisoning. Many children are buried at a cemetery overlooking the Snake River. Bedke didn't immediately say why he opted against debating the measure. However, some lawmakers feared an emotionally charged hearing pitting religious freedom against values like child welfare.

KBOI2 News has a full report here, including footage of the cemetery.

Former ENA staffer who left firm in September now Otter’s campaign finance chief

Gov. Butch Otter’s campaign finance director is a former Education Networks of America staffer in Boise who left the company in September, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. Martin Bilbao, former Idaho account services manager for Nashville-based ENA, was among staffers the firm touted in its bid for a controversial multi-year WiFi contract with the state it won over the summer, noting his ties to Idaho and to Idaho GOP politics. You can read Richert’s full report here.

 

House votes 56-14 for final passage of ‘ag-gag’ or dairy spying bill, sends to Otter

The House has voted 56-14 in favor of SB 1337, the dairy spying  or “ag-gag” bill, sending it to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. “Threats of the activists and their outlaw justice is real and it’s on the rise,” Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, told the House in her closing debate. “Because actions are escalating, there’s a need to enact additional protections to protect rights of private property owners.”

All but one of the House’s 13 Democrats voted against the bill; the lone exception was Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding. Two Republicans also voted against the bill, Reps. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, and Steven Harris, R-Meridian.

New board would help Crane keep taxpayers’ money safe

Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane may soon be getting help making sure taxpayers' money is safe after auditors rebuked him earlier this year for inappropriately transferring tens of millions of dollars to state accounts where it was lost, the AP reports. The Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday approved a measure to create a new, five-person advisory board to make sure Crane or future treasurers are appropriately managing accounts; click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

House debate: ‘Vigilante activity,’ ‘Caught up in a social dynamic’

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, speaking in favor of SB 1337, the so-called “ag gag” bill, said those opposed to the bill are “extreme activists who wish to contrive issues to get donations for their cause. .. I cannot condone vigilante activity.” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, objected, saying, “He’s ascribing motives without really understanding.” Bateman apologized.

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, speaking against the bill, said, “I think this bill, even though not intended to do so, finds itself caught up in a social dynamic that we cannot control, and puts us on the wrong path when it comes to the perceptions of the people we seek to sell our products to.”

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said, “I believe as a business owner, you have a fundamental right to protect your assets. … This bill doesn’t go any farther than legislation that we have passed in this body … that has become law.”

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said, “I come to you as an extreme activist for the Bill of Rights. … To me this looks and quacks like a restriction on speech.” She said if the bill became law, the jail term for exposing animal abuse would be twice as long as for the abuse itself, and said, “I would ask today that you vote for the Bill of Rights and against SB 1337.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “There’s no interpretation of the 1st Amendment that gives someone the right to enter into a private place with a camera and take photos of things that they find objectionable. … I do think that this is a needed law given our circumstances in the state of Idaho.”

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, noted that an Idaho Attorney General's opinion found the bill doesn't conflict with the 1st Amendment. “There is no 1st Amendment right to gather the news beyond that of a citizen,” he said.

House takes up controversial dairy spying bill

The House has taken up SB 1337, the dairy spying bill. “This bill addresses interference with our agricultural operations,” Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, told the House. “Havoc has been brought on a broad spectrum of agriculture,” she said, decrying “activist groups” that use “extreme” tactics. “Let me be clear, Idaho’s ag industry does not condone abuse, plain and simple,” Batt said.

Earlier today, opponents of the bill delivered petitions with more than 113,000 signatures to Gov. Butch Otter’s office, urging him to veto the measure. It was proposed in the wake of a graphic video of cows being severely abused at a southern Idaho dairy that was taken surreptitiously by an activist who got a job at the dairy; the employees involved in the abuse subsequently were prosecuted.

Two events on steps at same time: Candidate announcement, prayer vigil for GLBT…

In an odd juxtaposition, two events are happening simultaneously on the state Capitol steps this noon hour – fifteen members of the Interfaith Equality Coalition, including members of local clergy, are holding a silent prayer vigil “in solidarity with GLBT citizens,” and William “Breck” Seiniger, a Boise attorney in dark suit and suspenders, is announcing his candidacy for the Idaho Supreme Court to a small gathering of supporters.

The vigil participants, heads bowed, are standing quietly, with a sign saying, “Please join us in prayer.” That follows a silent walk through the lower level of the Statehouse yesterday by more than 100 “Add the Words” supporters who carried photocopied pictures of a gay teen from Idaho who committed suicide.

Seiniger declared, “I will always put principles above politics,” and he talked of court cases, rules and such. “This is what I’m talking about things being too hyper-technical – I think Justice Jones had it right,” he said at one point. Seiniger said he’s not saying yet which of the two court seats he’ll seek – the one now held by Justice Joel Horton, or the one now held by Justice Warren Jones, both of which are up in May. The May primary election is actually the general election for Idaho’s nonpartisan Supreme Court positions.

Note: Click the comments below for Seiniger's comment on sharing the steps with the vigil.

Idaho Senate passes state amphibian bill, 33-2

The Idaho Senate has voted 33-2 in favor of SB 1271, the bill to declare the Idaho giant salamander the state amphibian. The bill now moves to the House side. The two “no” votes came from Sens. Siddoway and McKenzie; the bill was proposed by 7th grader Ilah Hickman, who's been working on it for four years and has generated support from around the state.

Capitol internet down, House recesses…

The state Capitol’s internet has gone down, prompting the House to recess to 1 p.m., and the Senate to get paper copies of bills distributed; it plans to take up the bill to designate the Idaho giant salamander now.

65-2 House vote backs removing lawmakers’ special exemption from wage garnishment

The Idaho House has voted 65-2 in favor of HB 510, which would remove a special exemption dating back to 1939 that protects elected officials and legislators from having their wages garnished due to state court rulings. “Elective officials should not enjoy any rights to avoid paying any debts or their taxes,” said Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, the bill’s sponsor. “We can debate whether or not public officials should be held to a higher standard, or to the same standard as private citizens.” But he said it’s clear that the existing law grants them special privileges.

The only votes against the bill came from Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton. The elected official exemption kept tax-protesting former state Rep. Phil Hart’s legislative wages from being garnished for back state taxes, but the exemption didn’t apply to federal garnishments, and the IRS garnished Hart’s entire legislative paycheck. The bill now moves to the Senate side.

District judge’s ruling allows Syringa lawsuit against state to continue

4th District Judge Patrick Owen has issued a ruling on several motions in the Syringa Networks lawsuit against the state Department of Administration over the award of the contract for the Idaho Education Network, and the outcome allows the case to continue to proceed. Syringa had sought to expand its case to include a charge against former state Admin Director Mike Gwartney, and Owen rejected that move; but like the Idaho Supreme Court last March, he ruled that the case can go forward on its key point: Whether or not the contract award violated Idaho state purchasing laws.

Owen’s decision includes a quote from the Supreme Court decision, noting that “All contracts made in violation of [Idaho Code 67-5718] are void and any money advanced by the State in consideration of such contracts must be repaid.” That’s the concern that the FCC has identified in holding up federal e-rate funds that were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the IEN's cost; those funds have been on hold since last March’s Supreme Court decision.

Blindfolded protesters decry dairy spying bill

Dozens of protesters in black blindfolds, some with black tape over their mouths, gathered on the Statehouse steps yesterday to protest SB 1337, the so-called “ag gag” bill that would criminalize taking surreptitious video of photos of agricultural operations. Mercy For Animals, the group behind a graphic covert video taken at a southern Idaho dairy that led to criminal charges against employees for abuse of cows, organized the protest; participants carried signs with slogans including, “Punish Animal Abusers, Not Whistleblowers” and “Idaho: Safe haven for animal abuse.” KTBV-TV has a report here on the protest, including photos.

The bill creates a new crime of “interference with agricultural production,” with a penalty of up to one year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines. Violators also would have to pay double damages in restitution. The new crime would cover recording anything at an ag production operation without permission; intentionally damaging an ag operation, including crops, animals or equipment; misrepresenting oneself in seeking employment at an ag operation; or obtaining records of an ag operation by  “force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass.” It’s on the 3rd reading calendar in the House, and could come up for debate and a vote as soon as today.

Senator’s bill would limit homeowners association’s fining powers

A lawmaker who says homeowner associations too often levy unfair and excessive fines against their residents pushed back Tuesday with a bill that limits these neighborhood groups' power to hand out penalties, the AP reports. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said he has received multiple complaints from people who believe their HOAs were acting unfairly; click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

JFAC trims Otter’s proposal for ISP

Though the chief of the Idaho State Police is warning that understaffing at ISP is creating safety concerns for both officers and the public, JFAC approved a budget for ISP this morning that’s about a million dollars less than Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation. ISP requested 33 new positions next year, including 15 patrol officers and six detectives; it lost six detectives two years ago to budget cuts. Otter recommended 15 new positions, including six patrol officers and four detectives; JFAC voted for 13 new positions, including six patrol officers and two detectives. The budget bill also trims back the $3.9 million Otter had recommended for replacement items, including ballistic vests and vehicles, to $3.1 million, while leaving it up to ISP which items it prioritizes.

“We’ve been spending a little bit more than we have revenues for, and we’ve got to be able to make that budget balance at the end of the day,” said JFAC Vice-Chair Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, who crafted the budget bill. “We’ve been passing out some extras here.”

Bolz noted, “The House voted the other day to give $2.19 million to the counties,” by raising the rate the state pays counties for housing state inmates in local jails. “Where’s that money going to come from? We just keep getting all these surprises, and it’s just killing us.”

He noted that the budget bill still reflects a 5.8 percent increase in state general funds for ISP next year; Otter had recommended an 11.7 percent boost. Asked about JFAC’s decision yesterday to grant a more than half-million-dollar increase to agriculture education funding, compared to today’s ISP budget, Bolz said, “I support ag education from the standpoint that agriculture is one of the major contributors to the economy in the state, and I think it’s important that we continue along that line.” He noted that the motion he supported on that actually spent $140,000 less than the competing budget motion, which would have granted a uniform increase to all high school professional-technical education programs. Overall, he said, “I’m very concerned about revenue. When I see this drought hitting, I just hope it’s there.”

Sen. Nonini pushes bill to require verification of legislative subs’ district residence

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, introduced legislation this morning to require verification that any substitute for a legislator is “a qualified person residing in that legislative district.” Nonini told the Senate State Affairs Committee that he was prompted by Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, naming a sub for the first three weeks of this year’s session who then turned out to live 180 feet over the line into the neighboring legislative district.

Nonini told the senators his bill doesn’t include a penalty. “I think if there were punishment to be given, it might be by the voters in that district, because they’re the ones who brought the issue to my attention at a town hall meeting … after we realized in our legislative district that the substitute did not live in the district.” He said “the feeling was” that for those three weeks, District 3 has just two legislators, one senator (himself) and one representative, while the neighboring district had four.

“No one checked on it,” Nonini said. “No one really knew the situation because no one really verified it.” The Senate State Affairs Committee, after asking Nonini several questions about how his bill was crafted, agreed to introduce the measure.

Budget writers endorse $1M transfer to Constitutional Defense Fund

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is setting budgets this morning, and it’s getting into what Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, calls “the heavy lifting.” The biggest budgets up this morning are for the Idaho State Police and the Department of Juvenile Corrections. Also on today’s schedule are budgets for the governor’s office, the division of financial management, and the legislative branch. Those are all pretty much just maintenance budgets, but the budget for the Legislature includes a line item: A $1 million transfer from the general fund to the Constitutional Defense Fund. Gov. Butch Otter recommended the transfer, and JFAC members endorsed it on a 17-2 vote, with Reps. Phylis King, D-Boise, and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, objecting.

The Constitutional Defense Fund, by law, can be spent “to examine and challenge, by legal action or legislation, federal mandates, court rulings, and authority of the federal government, or any activity that threatens the sovereignty and authority of the state and the well-being of its citizens.”

IEN contract extended to 2019, lawmakers weren’t informed

Idaho lawmakers who agreed under pressure this week to pay $6.6 million to a broadband contractor say they were dismayed and alarmed to learn that the state last year extended the contract through 2019 – without informing lawmakers. The contract extension with Nashville, Tenn.-based Education Networks of America to operate the Idaho Education Network through 2019 is worth $10 million. The original five-year contract wasn’t up for renewal until January of this year, but last year, in January of 2013, the state Department of Administration opted to renew it early.

“We’ve got something terribly wrong – we’re on the hook for millions of dollars,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee. “It’s really a mess.” State law puts an advisory council that includes four members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in charge of procurement of telecommunications services and equipment for the IEN. But minutes of that council for the past year and a half show it was never consulted about the contract extension or informed of the missing federal funds.

Keough, who serves on the council, said, “We’re supposed to have oversight, and the first I had heard about it was in January.” Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who also serves on the council, said he, too, never knew until January. “I feel kind of like a mushroom, and you know the rest of that,” Goedde told Eye on Boise. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

‘Add the Words’ protesters return for solemn commemoration of gay teens who took own lives

More than 100 “Add the Words” protesters, covering their mouths with their hands and carrying photocopied pictures of Ryan Zicha, a young gay Pocatello man who committed suicide in 2011 after being bullied at school, filed solemnly in two rows through the lower level of the state Capitol this afternoon. The protesters said they wanted lawmakers to see them; they paused and stood silently outside the hearing rooms where Senate committees are meeting this afternoon, before filing back through to the House side. On Feb. 18, another teen from Pocatello, Maddie Beard, 15, committed suicide after being bullied at school because she was gay.

Click below for a report from AP reporter John Miller.

Goedde: Dump WiFi contract, send the money to school districts for own WiFi systems

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, wants the state to cut off a five- to 15-year sole-source contract with Education Networks of America to set up WiFi networks in every Idaho high school, and instead send the $2.25 million a year in funding out to school districts to contract for their own WiFi networks. “That was a multi-year contract signed with one year’s funding,” Goedde said. “I’m really comfortable with a non-appropriation on that, and then I would like to see the money sent down to school districts with a standard, saying the money is theirs to invest in wireless. Anything left over after they meet that standard, they could use for other technology.”

Like all state contracts, the WiFi contract that state schools Superintendent Tom Luna signed with ENA in August includes a clause saying if the Legislature doesn’t appropriate funds, the contract is void.

Goedde said he has talked with Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members and other lawmakers about the change of course, and plans to pursue it both through JFAC action and through legislation in his Senate Education Committee. “The non-appropriation I think would be through the budget committee,” Goedde said. “The reallocation, from my perspective, would be a policy decision,” so the Senate and House education committees could consider legislation on that.

Goedde said the contract that Luna signed last summer – based on a one-year, $2.25 million appropriation for high school wireless networks that JFAC had included in the public school budget for this year – is installing equipment throughout the state that doesn’t meet a new WiFi standard that just went into effect in January. “And that equipment’s going to be in place for five years, under the contract,” he said.

“I believe that there are districts in this state that have the technological expertise and could deploy the wireless equipment on their own, not need the help-desk service, and probably could buy the equipment for less than they’re leasing it for,” through the ENA contract.

Other smaller districts may need a full-service package like ENA’s, he said, but ENA is not their only option. “There may be other businesses locally that could provide a comparable package and have it competitively bid,” Goedde said. “It’s very possible that they could save money … and employ more Idaho people.”

Goedde said a key part of his plan is to include a WiFi standard that all the districts would have to meet when they spend the state funds. That would ensure quality service, he said, without a need for a statewide, sole-source contract.

ENA is based in Nashville, Tenn., and also has a Boise office; ENA officials at both locations didn’t respond to calls today from a reporter seeking comment.

Senate backs mental health crisis centers, after long debate

The Senate debated long and hard before passing SB 1352 today, to establish three behavioral health community crisis centers next year around the state. Supporters said the initiative, which Gov. Butch Otter highlighted in his State of the State message to lawmakers this year, will provide a better option than jails or hospital emergency rooms for people suffering from mental health crises.

“It helps law enforcement do the right thing and what they want to do,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, “and … maybe most importantly, it helps the person who’s having the mental health crisis, to get the help they need and get past their crisis in a safe manner.” Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, reacting to concerns from opponents about competing with the private sector, said, “There are private options out there, but those costs are extensive and the beds are limited. This is a component of a better system. … The real competition here is the emergency room and the jails. This system really isn’t working, and those aren’t the best options.” The bill passed, 28-6.

Those voting no: Sens. Bayer, Fulcher, Mortimer, Nonini, Nuxoll and Pearce. SB 1352 now moves to the House side.

Bill to make ski areas immune from claims over terrain parks, in-bounds avalanches passes House

After much debate, the House has voted 61-8 in favor of HB 462, legislation from the Idaho Ski Areas Association that sponsor Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said would update a ski area liability statute that hasn’t been updated since 1979 – including snowboarders, terrain parks and the like – but that opponents said would sharply limit ski areas’ liability for skiers’ and snowboarders’ accidents. “There are no guarantees when it comes to the sport of skiing,” Malek told the House. The bill, he said, “provides more clarity.”

Opponents said the measure would absolve ski area operators of any liability for in-bounds avalanches and for terrain park items like rails or jumps that are incorrectly constructed and collapse. “I don’t agree with that,” said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “There should be an incentive for them to be constructed safely.  And when liability immunity is granted to the ski area operator there is no incentive.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said, “This goes way too far and it exposes our citizens … to risk.”

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, spoke out in favor of the bill, saying, “Let’s let some things happen and not keep trying to take care of everyone.” Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said, “If you want to come and play, you do take some inherent risks on yourself.” The bill now moves to a Senate committee.

Senate backs 80 mph top speed for rural interstate stretches that ITD picks

The Senate has voted 30-4 in favor of legislation to let the Idaho Transportation Department increase the top speed limit on some rural stretches of interstate to 80 mph. The bill, SB 1284a, also would let top speeds rise on some sections of state highway from 65 to 70 mph. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said ITD would have to do engineering and traffic studies, and its board would have to find the change in the public interest to raise those top speeds on any section of road. The bill still needs House passage and the governor’s signature to become law.

Davis said a three-year experiment in Utah found that when some segments in that state were raised to 80 mph, safety didn’t suffer and actual traffic speeds didn’t change much. “There are safeguards in this bill,” said Senate Transportation Chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson. “I would hope that we could speed this bill along.”

Utah is the only state with 80 mph as its maximum speed, though Texas sets it even higher, at 85 mph. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “I’m going to support this bill because I think it’s important to realize that we really haven’t changed any speed limits. It’s still up to the board, still up to the department … before any of this changes. I think it’ll add to safety, it’ll add to the traveling convenience of the public.”

Bill advances to remove lawmaker exemption from concealed weapon permit law

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho state officials would no longer be allowed to carry a concealed firearm without a permit under a bill that cleared the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The law came under scrutiny last year when former Republican Rep. Mark Patterson was allowed to carry a concealed weapon even after his permit was revoked. Patterson lost his permit after officials discovered he lied on the application about a 1974 guilty plea to assault with intent to commit rape. He quit the Legislature in January. Rep. Rick Youngblood, a Nampa Republican, said Tuesday ditching the exemption holds lawmakers to the same standards as voters. His bill would also allow concealed carry outside city limits, even if the gun owner doesn't have a permit. It's now headed to the House floor for debate.

After tied vote, JFAC backs big boost to ag education funding

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee split 9-9 this morning, killing a motion to boost funding for professional-technical education equally, by 15 percent, for all high school programs. Instead, the committee then voted 16-2 for a competing motion to give a much bigger boost to ag science programs – 46 percent, or $512,900 – and a smaller increase of 5 percent to all other programs, at $243,500. (Note: The percentage figure, 46 percent, has been corrected from an earlier posting, and it is the accurate one.) Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, pushed for the more uniform increase.

“It is important that we have a degree of fairness,” Mortimer said, noting that overall secondary professional-technical ed programs have seen a 4.1 percent funding decrease over the past 10 years. Ag science programs have risen from 8,963 students in 2004 to 11,951 this year, but overall programs have swelled from 77,997 in 2004 to 84,447 this year. He said that’s why he and a group of JFAC members called for a 15 percent across-the-board increase in secondary PTE program funding. Mortimer added that he’s backing an interim study committee and an Office of Performance Evaluations study to examine the state’s professional-technical education funding and recommend improvements. “This particular secondary schools program has actually had a decrease, and I felt it was important to give them as much as we felt like we could,” he said.

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, noted that under Mortimer’s proposed budget, ag ed programs would get just a $166,500 increase, vs. his proposed $512,900 increase. In the 9-9 tied vote, the committee’s four Democrats joined GOP Reps. Bell, Bolz, Gibbs, Stevenson and Youngblood to oppose Mortimer’s motion. Gibbs’ then passed on a 16-2 vote, with just Mortimer and Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, objecting.

JFAC backs boost in Ag Research & Extension funding, FFA coordinator

Legislative budget writers this morning unanimously approved a boost in the budget for the Agriculture Research & Extension Service, which Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said is “a restoration of funds that we took away.” The 8.2 percent funding increase includes adding back 4.5 positions, bringing back several functions at the 12 research and extension centers across the state, and replacing one-time funds that temporarily patched the budget but have been exhausted. Specific programs restored include research in potato pathology and barley agronomy. Also included in the budget bill is $82,500 to restore funding for a full-time FFA coordinator. Gov. Butch Otter hadn’t recommended that funding, but had backed the other $1.5 million boost.

Siddoway: Business personal property tax break expansion only tax cut he’ll consider

The Senate's tax committee chairman said Monday the only tax cut proposal his panel will likely consider this year is eliminating what remains of Idaho's surcharge on business equipment, the AP reports. Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a Republican from Terreton who heads the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, aims to expand last year's $20 million business-equipment tax cut by completely phasing it out over the next decade. Siddoway told The Associated Press that other tax-cutting proposals — including one from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, to trim Idaho's income tax rates over the next six years — are tempting but require too significant a financial commitment in coming years as lawmakers simultaneously grapple with expensive proposals to bolster public education. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Presentation focuses on how Idaho could boost school funding next year

Retired state chief economist Mike Ferguson and former state schools superintendents Jerry Evans and Marilyn Howard are giving a presentation on Idaho school funding in the Lincoln Auditorium this evening; you can watch live here (click on “Lincoln Auditorium”). There are lots of school trustees in the audience. “We can, as citizens of Idaho, as voting citizens of Idaho, demand better,” Howard told the audience.

Ferguson detailed his proposed alternative state budget, which would reprioritize funds to increase school funding, grant 4 percent raises to state and school employees, and restore cuts to Medicaid services, all with the same revenue. It would put $71.5 million more into public schools next year than Gov. Butch Otter's budget proposal. “There is more than sufficient resources to address these things,” Ferguson said. “What we’ve got is a very, very high priority on reserves, and a very low priority on funding public services. … There is $103.5 million of ongoing fiscal capacity being left unspent in the fiscal year 2015 executive budget. Now, if we take out the $30 million for unspecified tax cuts, that actually grows to 133.5 million.”

Ferguson said Idaho has been cutting its state revenue stream, at the same time it saw a decreasing share of its resources go toward school funding and the state's economic performance fall to among the worst in the nation.

Teacher leadership awards bill clears Senate panel, heads for full Senate

The Senate Education Committee has approved HB 504, the bill to grant $15.8 million in “leadership awards” to teachers next year, bonuses that would go to teachers whose local districts deem them deserving, for anything from mentoring other teachers to teaching advanced or dual-credit courses. The bill has 15 legislative co-sponsors and earlier passed the House on a 62-6 vote. “It’s great to see all three associations supporting this bill,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, referring to the associations representing school board members, school administrators and teachers. “I think it’s indicative of our step forward toward these task force recommendations.”

The bill now moves to the full Senate; to become law, it needs approval there and the governor’s signature.

Justice reinvestment bill clears Senate committee unanimously

After strong support from sheriffs, prosecutors, the courts and more, and lots of questions from lawmakers, the justice reinvestment bill, SB 1357, has won unanimous support from the Senate Judiciary Committee and is headed to the full Senate. The bill, which grew out of a study by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center and the Pew Trusts, is aimed at reducing Idaho's high incarceration and recidivism rates, while maintaining its low crime rates; it includes reforms to probation and parole supervision, more investment in treatment, and other changes. The study found that Idaho keeps non-violent offenders behind bars for twice as long as the rest of the country; by investing in these changes, the hope is to reserve prison space for the most dangerous offenders and help push the less dangerous ones to reform and not reoffend - and save millions by not having to build a new state prison.

There's more information online here.

House backs limiting Idaho cities’ design-review authority, decries ‘planning police’

After a long debate, the House has voted 50-17 in favor of HB 480, the bill to trim Idaho cities’ design-review authority. To become law, the bill still needs Senate passage and the governor’s signature; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“Markets should allow choice,” Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, told the House, opening debate on his bill. “We need jobs and economic development in this state much more than we need the planning police mandating their vision of beauty.”

While making design review requirements voluntary, the bill still would allow cities to impose design requirements in designated historic districts, and for signage, lighting, landscaping and screening. Cities also could still require conditional-use permits for some developments, and the bill allows regulation of surface finishes, though not structures. It also requires that all requirements be “clear, ascertainable and not based on subjective considerations.”

Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, said he’s had emails from cities and architects all over the state opposing the bill. “This bill gives anyone the right to build pretty much anything they want,” he said.

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, said, “These are property rights issues, people. We’d better be careful.”

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said, “I think the remedy, if someone is dissatisfied with a city design review ordinance, is to run for city council. That’s why we have local government.”

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, said in her district, a developer incurred big expenses because regulators made him move a heating unit just for esthetic reasons. It “ended up costing him a fortune,” she said. She said things have gone so far that she’s had “city council trying to tell people what color they’re going to paint the inside of the house.”

Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, said, “I don’t feel this bill goes nearly far enough.”

In the 50-17 vote, all House Democrats voted “no,” as did four House Republicans: Reps. Clow, Hancey, Miller and Raybould. All other House Republicans voted “yes,” except for three who missed the vote.

House debates bill to make city design-review voluntary, Senate panel hears justice reinvestment bill

As this busy day in the Statehouse continues, the House is debating HB 480, Rep. Ed Morse’s bill to make all city design-review requirements voluntary, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding its full hearing on the justice reinvestment bill, SB 1357.

‘There’s not the votes to move those issues’

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the legislative session has seven weeks down and four more to go. “It’s been a less contentious session than I expected, frankly,” he told the Idaho Press Club today. “I thought the state exchange would take a more prominent role,” he said, that Medicaid expansion would be debated more, and that new Idaho core standards “would have a little more resistance.” Hill said, “I thought there would be a few more litmus tests within our own party. That doesn’t mean it’s over, that doesn’t mean it’s done. But I’ve been very proud of the way the legislators conducted themselves this year.”

Asked how he squares that with the hue and cry from large constituencies in Idaho to address major issues that haven’t been addressed this year, from anti-discrimination protections for gays to transportation funding to Medicaid expansion, both Hill and Bedke said those don’t yet have sufficient support to pass. “There’s not the votes to move those issues, is what that boils down to,” Bedke said.

Hill said on the discrimination issue, there “is kind of a loose coalition of people in both parties, people on both sides of the issue that really want solutions, they want solutions more than just attention,” and they’re working toward some solution to both anti-gay discrimination and religious freedom questions. “Maybe something can come out of it – I don’t know,” he said. “I hope we can find some solutions that can protect all people, showing dignity and respect for those who feel threatened either because of their sexual orientation or because of their religious belief.”

Bedke said, “We don’t do that when we’re yelling at each other, we don’t do that when we’re chanting at each other.… That tactic doesn’t work in any other venue where human beings interrelate.”

House narrowly defeats $7.8M tax break for military retirees

The House has narrowly defeated HB 420, the bill from Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, to grant a new state income tax break to military retirees under age 65. Sims said the tax break, estimated to cost the state general fund $7.8 million next year, would draw more young, productive military retirees to move to the state. “I think this is a good welcome home for our military, and I’d ask for your green light,” Sims told the House.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, spoke against the bill. “I feel like I’m throwing a little cold water, and I’m sorry about that,” she said. “I want to remind you what we have chosen, the paths that we’re on this year.” Lawmakers have made the education task force recommendations – estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years – a top priority. “We all assume that’s the right thing to do, it’s what’s best for the schools,” Bell said. Plus, the state is looking to incur new costs to reform its public defender system, and for justice reinvestment reforms that are expected to result in big savings in the long term, but be “costly up front.”

Bell noted all the bills pending in this year’s legislative session that would cost money from the state general fund. “Maybe there’ll come a time when we can all have a little tax break,” she said. “But at this point, that revenue stream with diversions is not going to get to the end of the road. Please consider that when you vote, and think of those things that many of us are working on and have committed to, and we should possibly just take care of those.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “It’s very difficult for me to vote against a veterans bill, I do not like to do it.” But he said the price tag is too high. Sims said the cost estimate is for the highest possible cost. “The numbers can be whatever you want them to be, and I gave you the highest number,” she told the House. But the bill failed on a 31-35 vote.

Bedke: ISU nuke issue ‘not a deal breaker’ for guns on campus bill

Asked about the news that Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas says his schools nuclear research program could be threatened if the guns-on-campus bill passes, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the Idaho Press Club today, “I was on the phone, actually, this morning with President Vailas.” Bedke said he’s still looking into the issue, and noted that other states that allow guns on campus do have nuclear research facilities. “That is not a deal-breaker, the way I understand it,” he said.

However, he said, “I think the point that President Vailas was trying to make is that the security requirements now will be increased, and that that will have a price tag attached.” Bedke said those costs must be taken into account; the bill’s current fiscal note says its cost to the state would be “de minimus,” and would be only for posting signs at large campus entertainment facilities where guns wouldn’t be allowed under the bill.  “We’re getting to the bottom of all these things,” Bedke said. “To the extent that it’s an issue, we’ll take it up.”

Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter, said, “The governor's position hasn't changed, but we are looing into the concerns that were raised by President Vailas.” Otter earlier said he supported the bill, SB 1254.

Legislative leaders back interim study on Medicaid expansion

House Speaker Scott Bedke, right, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, left, are addressing the Idaho Press Club today. Among the news so far: The leaders are looking at an interim committee to study options for Medicaid expansion in Idaho.

Hill said, “I think we’re going to be looking at some kind of working group or interim committee to look at alternatives for Medicaid expansion, so we’ll get here next year, we’ll at least know what our alternatives are and what the possibilities might be there.”

Bedke said lawmakers are trying “to neck down this legislative session,” saying “Our goal is still to be finished sine die by March 21.” As part of that effort, he said, most House committees will soon stop introducing new bills, with any needed new measures funneled through the Ways & Means Committee. “These are not hard and fast rules,” Bedke noted. But he said the March 21 goal is looking do-able. “At this point I don’t see any major reasons why that can’t happen.” He said, “I think that we’re on track to hit that.”

House backs boost in state payments to counties to house state prisoners

The House has voted 47-20 in favor of HB 456, to raise the rate the state pays counties to house state inmates in county jails from $40 a day to $50. Some House members objected to the sharp increase because of its cost - $2.19 million a year to the state general fund. Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, vice-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said he urged the Idaho Sheriffs Association, which proposed the bill, to phase in the increase, but the sheriffs refused.

Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, the bill’s House sponsor, said, “This is a cost savings to our counties and to those taxpayers that have to make up the difference.” The rate hasn’t been raised since 2000; the state now has 600 state prisoners housed in county jails. Trujillo said even the $50 rate doesn’t cover all of counties’ costs to house state prisoners, and it’s below the amount the state pays to house Idaho inmates out of state. The bill now moves to the Senate side.

Senate reconsidering two votes from Friday, including bill that failed on tie

The Idaho Senate has two bills up for possible reconsideration this morning, SB 1306, which died on a 17-17 tied vote on Friday; and SB 1307, which passed unanimously on Friday. SB 1306 amends commercial drivers’ license rules; if it fails, the state stands to lose tens of millions in federal highway funds. Opposition came from those who didn’t want the feds to tell Idaho what to do. SB 1307 deals with driver’s licenses for people working in foreign countries.

With that process, plus the need to go into the amending order on several bills, it appears that the Senate won't get to SB 1284a, the bill to raise Idaho's top speed limit to 80 mph on some sections of rural interstate, today. The Senate doesn't have an afternoon session scheduled today.

Otter: ‘Restore focus on legislative priorities’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has sent out an opinion piece calling for “restoring focus on our legislative priorities,” which he identifies as “education, workforce development, economic opportunity, and responsibly fulfilling the other proper roles of government within the people’s means.” Writes Otter, “We probably won’t see the words added, Medicaid expanded or the minimum wage increased in 2014. But the fact that we’re having those discussions, debates and demonstrations says a lot about the health and vitality of our republic.” Click below for his full article.

Partial payment for IEN shortfall OK’d, after contractors threaten to make school network ‘go black’

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted 20-0 to funnel $6.6 million in state funds right away to Education Networks of America, the contractor running the state’s Idaho Education Network that provides broadband service to Idaho high schools – but no more, for now. The state Department of Administration had requested $14.45 million to fill a giant, unexpected hole in the state budget due to the lack of federal e-rate funds, which were supposed to cover three-fourths of the cost of the IEN, but haven’t arrived since last March.

When state Administration Director Teresa Luna told JFAC about the $14.45 million budget hole on Jan. 30, the lawmakers were thunderstruck. Luna said ENA hasn’t been paid any federal e-rate funds since March of 2013; she reacted by using $550,000 in funds from her own department to “front” the money to the contractor in the meantime. Luna said then that she didn’t know why the federal funds were being held up, but the FCC said it was because the award of the IEN contract was being challenged in court and FCC was looking into whether the contract award violated federal procurement rules.

Luna asked for the $6.6 million for the current year, payback for the $550,000 she’d already spent, and $7.3 million for next year, and said she expected that at some point, the issue would be resolved and the feds would pay up.

“We’re almost a year into when this issue happened, but we’re two months into when we knew about it,” said JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, “and at this point, it’s of the essence that we continue with the year we’re in. This is a vital service, it’s a valuable service to the schools.” Her motion would cover the $6.6 million for this year’s services – most of which already have been rendered. But it doesn’t pay back the Department of Administration for the $550,000, and it leaves the issue of next year’s funding for later consideration.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the Senate co-chair of JFAC, said, “There was significant pressure that we have something passed for 2014 by this week.” Cameron said the contractors, which include ENA and CenturyLink, have threatened to cut off the service to Idaho schools if payment isn’t forthcoming. “The contractors have said if there’s not some payment or indication of a payment, that they would terminate or force the IEN to go black,” he said. “Although we wonder at the legitimacy of that threat,” he said JFAC members want to “take that worry off of school districts.”

As for the $550,000 that the department already spent, Cameron said, “We have essentially said, ‘Look, you made that decision, you have to live with it.’”

The $6.6 million has significant strings tied to it – the state’s contract with ENA must be amended to require immediate notification from ENA to the state if the missing e-rate funds come in, and repayment of the $6.6 million. “We’re essentially doing the minimum step that we have to do right now,” Cameron said.

Asked if the state might want to re-bid the disputed contract before the coming year, he said, “That’s something that’s being discussed,” though he said he doubted a full re-bid could be completed by July 1. “There may be some contingencies for 2015. … This language is pretty tough. I’d expect tough language for 2015.”

JFAC adopts Millennium Fund panel’s plan for distributing tobacco funds

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted 20-0 in favor of the recommendation from another joint legislative committee, the Millennium Fund committee, for distributing tobacco settlement proceeds to various health and anti-substance abuse programs next year. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, had prepared a motion to instead follow Gov. Butch Otter's recommendation plus fund an anti-prescription drug abuse program at ISU next year, while spending less overall and leaving more money in the fund; but decided not to propose his motion after JFAC Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted the significance of the other joint committee's recommendation.

Three JFAC members serve on the Joint Millennium Fund Committee, including Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who noted that the plan for divvying up the money wasn't his plan, but he supported it. The panel had two days of hearings, he noted; it felt the two programs it didn't fund weren't ready for funding, but could be in the future. The largest items funded from the Millennium Fund, a trust fund that holds Idaho's tobacco settlement proceeds, for next year are $2.5 million for the Project Filter tobacco cessation program; $1.9 million for community-based substance abuse treatment through the state Department of Correction; and $1.1 million for youth prevention and cessation programs through the state Department of Juvenile Corrections. The budget also includes $750,000 for public health districts' tobacco cessation programs; $325,000 for the women's health check program; $328,800 for the Boys & Girls Clubs youth empowerment project; and $264,000 for the Idaho Meth Project, along with other, smaller items.

The budget bill still needs approval from both houses and the governor's signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change after they're set by the joint committee.

When House committees meet at 1:30 ‘or on adjournment’…

If you’ve been looking at House committee agendas, you may notice that this afternoon’s House committees that are scheduled to meet both have a contingency on their start times – they’ll meet at 1:30 p.m. “or on adjournment.” What that means: The House is likely to start holding afternoon floor sessions today; the Senate started that last week, to try to move through its calendar more quickly in order to adjourn by the target date of March 21.

Senate afternoon floor sessions typically are later in the afternoon, starting at 4 or 4:30 p.m., when most committees have wrapped up their work. House afternoon sessions start right back up after lunch, forcing afternoon committee meetings to wait until the floor session’s over, whenever that might be. That means a 1:30-or-on-adjournment committee meeting might start at 2, at 2:30, or even later, depending on what happens in the full House.

Agency budget-setting under way in JFAC…

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is setting budgets this morning, with several pieces of the state Department of Health & Welfare budget up first, for indirect support services, independent councils, licensing and certification and public health services. Three JFAC members, Sens. Dan Schmidt and Sheryl Nuxoll and Rep. Thyra Stevenson, worked together on the budgets, which are arousing little controversy. The licensing and certification budget includes a $193,000 pay boost for staffers who survey and inspect nursing homes and other facilities across the state; currently, turnover in those positions due to below-market pay has led to a backlog in inspections. Only $54,000 of that money will come from state general funds; the rest is covered by federal funds. “Facilities are not being inspected in a timely manner, and we run the risk of violating federal performance standards,” Stevenson told JFAC.  The budget motion passed unanimously, 19-0. Those workers were given a one-time pay boost this year from salary savings in the agency; this budget item makes it ongoing.

Up later this morning are the budgets for the Commission on Aging, the Idaho Millennium Fund, the Commission for Libraries, and one that’s drawn more attention than all the others – the budget request to cover millions in unpaid federal e-rate funds for companies that contracted with the state to provide broadband service to Idaho high schools through the Idaho Education Network.

Otter: Guns-on-campus bill could endanger ISU’s nuclear research program

Idaho State University could lose its license to conduct nuclear research from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if a bill to allow concealed weapons on college campuses becomes law, Gov. Butch Otter said Friday, according to the AP and the Idaho State Journal. Otter, in a meeting with about 30 ISU College Republicans, said ISU President Arthur Vailas told him Thursday that the commission has a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons at licensed nuclear research facilities, putting the school's nuclear research efforts at risk if the bill becomes law. “I had never heard that before,” Otter said.

Legislation to allow concealed guns on Idaho's public college and university campuses passed the Senate 25-10 last week, over the objections of all of Idaho's public colleges and its state Board of Education; the House State Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill on Thursday. Otter, who had previously said he supported the bill, said, “I think there's going to be some additional consideration given,” and declined to say whether he would sign or veto the bill should it arrive on his desk. The measure, SB 1254, is scheduled for a House committee hearing on Thursday. Click below for a full report from the AP and State Journal.

Bogus Basin kicks into gear…

Great skiing up at Bogus Basin this weekend, where the mountain is now in excellent shape, opening up favorite spots that hadn’t been accessible all season until now. Paradise was closed for the weekend for the annual Trudi Bolinder Memorial Super-G race, a USSA qualifier in which hundreds of young ski racers 16 and older from several states competed, bringing what looked like our own little slice of the Olympics to town; here’s a view of the start as one young woman pushes off.

Bogus kicked off its sales of season passes for next season over the past week with strong results; though the $229 sale is over, passes still are available for $259, good for the rest of this season plus all next season. And if you have to pay the additional $30 because you didn’t buy by Sunday night, there’s the consolation that the money’s going to a good cause: Boise’s non-profit, community-owned ski area.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Kimberlee Kruesi, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the legislative events of the week, from wolves to protests to justice reform. Also, Davlin interviews Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick; Davlin and Kunz interview Reps. Darrell Bolz and Grant Burgoyne; and the program examines the justice reinvestment effort that’s led to a reform bill introduced this week.

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.

New bill could land violent patients in prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attacks on health care workers could become felonies that land the perpetrator in prison for up to three years under a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday afternoon. Nurses, doctors and other hospital employees flocked to the Statehouse Friday to describe how they and their colleagues have been punched, kicked and spit on by angry or intoxicated patients. A similar bill died in a tie on the Senate floor last year after passing the House. But proponents, who say current laws to protect health workers don't do enough, are confident this year will be different. The committee's vote to advance the bill came over some senators' misgivings about adding a new felony to the books. Now, lawmakers will be able to debate the proposed law on the Senate floor.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

House passes $2 million wolf control bill on 49-16 vote

The House has voted 49-16 in favor of HB 470, the $2 million wolf-control bill, with 11 Democrats and five Republicans opposing the measure; GOP opponents included Reps. Harris, Agidius, Luker, McDonald, and Barrett, who had earlier said she was leaning in favor. Democrats voting “yes” were Reps. Meline and Smith.

“The issue really is we have wolves here, it doesn’t matter whether we wanted ‘em or didn’t want ‘em,” said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, the bill’s sponsor, in his closing debate. “Fish & Game cannot take money from the general fund. That, in fact, is why there’s a new wolf control board. … It’s to isolate general-fund money from being used in the Department of Fish & Game.”

He said, “The population may have tipped over ever so slightly.” But he said Idaho needs to harvest 35 to 40 percent of its wolf population each year “just to maintain the population – we have never achieved a sustained harvest of 35 to 40 percent on gray wolves.” And though wolf numbers have gone down, he said, “Depredation, our animal loss, continues to go up. … We must maintain the pressure we have put on wolves just to maintain the population we do have.” The bill now moves to the Senate side.

Click below for the full House vote breakdown.

Wolf debate: ‘We have created enough boards in this body to build an ark’

In the continuing wolf debate in the House:

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, repeated his call to build a fence around Yellowstone National Park and put all the wolves in there. “We could see how nature takes care of its own, and the more I think about it the more I think we should do this,” he said. “I think it could be funded if we could put the idea out and got the plan. I think we would have donations from all over the United States and the world, to build this fence.”

Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, said, “I too was not too favorable of creating a new control board. But the sportsmen and the cattle industry stepped up. … Idaho now has the responsibility to manage those wolves, since the wolf plan was approved, and since this wolf was taken off the endangered species list.”

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “We have created enough boards in this body to build an ark, and maybe at some point in time, not later than sooner, we will need an ark.” But she said she’s leaning toward supporting the bill because it has a five-year expiration.

Wolf debate: ‘Idaho should not be stuck with this’

In continuing debate in the House on HB 470, the wolf bill:

Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, said, “Forty-three thousand hunters raised $380,000 a year buying hunting tags. … The reality is that sportsmen are already doing their part, $380,000 a year is already doing their part. And to take $2 million … for this … seems to me to be fiscally irresponsible. That’s basically two teachers per school district in Idaho that could be paid for, or we can use it to eradicate somewhere between 300 and 400 wolves.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said, “This bill is a reckless use of taxpayers’ money. I think it’s also an ill-conceived and non-scientific way to manage the state’s wolf population.”

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “We didn’t want them here anyway. … I don’t think the sportsmen should have to pay for this, and I don’t think the cattle people should have to pay for this. I think the United States government who brought it here should pay for it. Now they’ve informed us that they no longer will do that. So we’re in a dilemma. … I don’t like anything about this bill hardly at all, and I’m going to have to vote for it. … I’m really sorry we’re to this state. But I am one of those who is in jeopardy my own self of the continual growth of the wolf in my area, and certainly the people I represent are in jeopardy, and they want me to vote for this bill, so Mr. Speaker, against my feelings of complete disgust, I’m going to have to vote for this bill. But I do want to remind all of you where the problem came from in the first place and that Idaho should not be stuck with this.”

House debate on wolf bill: ‘We have gone from one extreme to the next’

In the House debate on the $2 million wolf control bill, HB 470:

“This bill is not a wolf-management bill,” Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, told the House. “This is a wolf control funding bill.” The measure, HB 470, would set up a new board and pump in $2 million in state general tax funds on a one-time basis, plus contributions from the livestock industry and from hunting license revenues, to focus on “controlling depredating wolves.” The money could not be used to pay livestock owners for losses, Gibbs said.

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, spoke against the bill. “This bill proposes five times the amount that was even requested,” she said. “I don’t think the data backs up that there’s any reason to do this. … Every bit of data that we got from Fish & game shows that the number of wolves we have in the state is dropping … without spending $2 million … based on the hunting and control measures we have right now.”

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, said, “I believe this can be better done without another layer of government and without spending $2 million. … I just think that we have kind of gone from one extreme to the next to try to solve this problem.”

House passes employment supports bill, film tax incentive; takes up wolf bill…

With no debate, the House has unanimously endorsed restoring employment supports through Medicaid for people with developmental disabilities that fell victim to budget cuts in 2011; HB 476 passed on a 63-0 vote, and now moves to the Senate.

The House also passed legislation to extend Idaho’s tax incentive for film productions, though it’s still not funded; it otherwise would have expired in 2014. HB 498 passed on a 49-15 vote with no debate, and also heads to the Senate side.

Now the House is taking up the $2 million wolf control bill, HB 470.

Senate backs bill to allow land exchanges for state-owned cottage sites to resume

The Senate has voted 34-1 in favor of SB 1277a, legislation from Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and nearly a half-dozen others to restore the ability for state-owned cottage sites to be disposed of through land exchanges; all such exchanges were suspended earlier this year due to legal questions. “The purpose of this bill is to try to provide a path forward on land exchanges, all land exchanges,” Keough told the Senate. The bill now moves to the House side. It includes a clause barring exchanges where state endowment lands would be exchanged for land that gets its primary value from buildings or other structures, “unless said buildings or other structures are continually used by a public entity for a public purpose.” The one “no” vote came from Boise Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk.

 

Sayer introduces business incentive bill he says is a ‘game-changer’ for economic development in state

Idaho state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer introduce new business incentive legislation this morning that he called a “game-changer” for economic development in Idaho. Patterned after a Utah law, the bill would allow the state to consider rebating up to 30 percent of a company’s corporate income tax, sales tax and payroll tax if it brings in certain numbers of high-paying new jobs. The credit would be available to existing as well as new companies, and projects would qualify only if they bring a minimum of 20 new jobs to a rural area or 50 to an urban area; and if the new jobs pay higher than the typical wage in the county.

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, clearing the way for a full hearing. Sayer said he’s not requesting any funding for the bill, because it would be “self-funding” – the taxes would be rebated only if they’re first generated and paid in to the state. He estimated that if companies applied next year, the foregone taxes wouldn’t exceed $3 million.

Sayer said the new incentive would work for any industry, unlike Idaho’s current incentives, which focus on paying for infrastructure like roads and sewer lines. That would allow  Idaho to entice “professional service firms, software firms, tech firms – companies that traditionally don’t need infrastructure, he said. “By having a tool like this, Idaho will be able to be at the table and be recognized in deals we’re not even being considered in right now.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

JFAC votes to restore one attorney, two investigators to AG’s office, backs study on reducing use of outside counsel

Lawmakers want to restore funding for one deputy attorney general and two investigators cut from the Idaho Attorney General’s office during the economic downturn, to allow the office to respond to requests from counties to take on cases including those involving public corruption. “We’ve had a number of cases … the attorney general had to turn down because they did not have the staff to do it,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, vice-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Bolz proposed the budget motion in JFAC this morning that would fund the positions, at a cost of $300,200 next year; Gov. Butch Otter hadn’t recommended the funding.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, noted that legislation passed last year to require the attorney general’s office to take such cases, but it was vetoed by the governor at Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s request, after the Legislature didn’t provide any funding. “We supported it last year but didn’t fund it last year,” he said. “To me, it makes sense to fund it this year.”

Bolz’ budget proposal won the joint committee’s support on a 15-5 vote, with Schmidt among those voting no; he was holding out for another motion that included both that funding and another item that Wasden had said is high-priority, for a litigation support assistant. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said without adding that position, “it was indicated the caseload was four times the industry standard.” But because Bolz’ substitute motion passed, the Schmidt-Ringo motion wasn’t taken up.

The budget that JFAC set for the Attorney General’s office reflects a 3.8 percent increase in state general funds next year, up from the governor’s proposal for a 0.2 percent increase. It still needs approval from the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but agency budgets rarely are changed once they’re set by the joint committee.

In his budget pitch to JFAC this year, Wasden said the state is squandering millions by hiring pricey outside attorneys rather than fully staffing his office, and he called for an interim committee to identify opportunities to bring more legal services in-house. JFAC members said they’d like to see the Office of Performance Evaluations conduct a study on how best to do that, and will send a request to the legislative committee that oversees that office.

Senate panel backs bill to designate state amphibian

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted overwhelmingly in favor of SB 1271, the bill from a Boise 13-year-old to make the Idaho giant salamander the state’s official amphibian; the bill now moves to the full Senate. It needs passage both there and in the House and the governor’s signature to become law. Only Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton opposed the bill. He told young Ilah Hickman, “You’ve done a great job on your presentation, but I want you to understand that I’m the guy that had to say no to the Girl Scouts.” Siddoway opposed the scouts’ bill last year for a sales tax exemption for its annual cookie sale.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said since he’s been in the Senate, the state has designated the huckleberry as the state fruit; the potato as the state vegetable; and the peregrine falcon as the state raptor. “In each instance, there is some substantial uniqueness to our state, as is true with this proposal,” he said. “If we find value in having some of these other state symbols, I think a similar argument can be made in favor of the legislation we have.”

Herpetologist Frank Lundburg told the committee, “Our symbols serve as messengers of what is special to Idaho,” from the mountain bluebird to the Hagerman horse. “All say something special about this place.” He said, “While I think we can state that not everyone cares if there is a state amphibian, many in the country do care and will take note. … A few more people might visit the state. A few more scientists might study” it. “School students will have an opportunity to learn more about Idaho, and I think that is self-evident by what is happening here today.”

Herpetologist: ‘Something good about Idaho, something positive we can all agree on’

Ilah Hickman, 13, told the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning that since the print hearing on her bill to make the Idaho giant salamander the designated state amphibian, she’s done additional research at the suggestion of Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis. She catalogued for the committee all 15 amphibians that are native to Idaho, and the reasons why they wouldn’t make as suitable symbols for the state: Five already are symbols for other states, others are common frogs or toad that live in many places, including other countries. “That left the Coeur d’Alene salamander and the Idaho giant salamander,” Ilah said. “The Coeur d’Alene salamander lives equally in Idaho and Montana. … And even though I think Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful city, we’re not the State of Coeur d’Alene. … I decided that the Idaho giant salamander was the best candidate to represent our state.” She said, “It makes its home almost exclusively in Idaho, and in an area where so many Idahoans love to be outdoors.”

Ilah said since the print hearing for the bill, “likes” on her Facebook page for the bill have grown from 365 to 462, and a survey of her fellow earth science students showed a large majority in support of the bill. “I have already learned percentages in math, and according to my calculations, 87 percent of the earth science students are in support of this bill,” she told the senators. She delivered 115 letters from fellow students about the bill to lawmakers.

Davis told Ilah, “I’ve seen a lot of very capable people come with some very compelling legislation. Yours, however, is as well done as I’ve heard, including from professionals.” Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “I wish that you had the opportunity to present this to the floor of the Senate, because I don’t think any of us could adequately do it justice.”

Herpetologist Frank Lundburg told the committee that Ilah’s presentation was right on. “The Idaho giant salamander is unique to Idaho,” he said, and is not threatened or endangered. “It is the largest salamander in Idaho, reaching up to 13 inches in length. … It lives in forests and under rocks and in streams. … It says something good about Idaho, something positive we can all agree on.”

JFAC sharply cuts back gov’s proposal to boost salaries in state public defender’s office

Idaho is likely headed for a lawsuit over inadequacies in its public defender system, lawmakers warned this morning, and they could take a step to improve the system by boosting pay for lawyers in the State Appellate Public Defender’s Office closer to those in the Attorney General’s office – but the move was voted down in JFAC. “My concern and issue is that we’re not doing this for a lot of other agencies,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “It’s been recognized actually in code that the attorneys representing the people should be paid the same amount as those representing the government.”

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I believe that we have a significant issue about public defenders in the state. I think we’re facing a suit coming down the line. I think this could give an indication that we have an intent as a state to address this problem.” But his budget motion, which would have put $351,800 toward salary parity in the office – in line with Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation – failed on a 5-15 vote, with just Sens. Lacey and Keough and Rep. King joining Schmidt and Ringo in backing it. Bolz’s budget bill for the SAPD’s office, which reduces the amount for salary parity to just $50,000, then passed on an 18-2 vote, with just Ringo and King objecting.

 

Youngster returns to statehouse, gets full hearing on her state symbol bill

Ilah Hickman, the young lady who bowled over a House committee last year with her persuasive pitch to make the Idaho giant salamander the state amphibian but didn’t end up getting a full hearing, is back at the Statehouse today, where she has a hearing on her bill in the Senate State Affairs Committee. “Sen. Ward-Engelking says I have a pretty good chance,” an excited Ilah said before the meeting. She noted that since last year, she’s picked up support from Frank Lundburg, a herpetologist who in past years lobbied for such measures as Idaho wildlife license plates. “I think it’s amazing, what she’s done,” Lundberg said.

He said he thinks the youngster’s bill should be a “no-brainer,” but added that people thought that about the bluebird plate, too, but it took some doing. Ilah has been working on the proposal since she learned about state symbols in the 4th grade, and she got a class assignment to write a mock letter creating a new state symbol. Ilah decided to do a real one, and has been working diligently on that ever since; she’s now 13 and in the 7th grade. Last year, she told the House committee the critter is an appropriate state symbol. “It bears the name of Idaho, and I think that the skin on it looks like the topographical map of our Bitterroot mountain range,” she said then. “It lives almost exclusively in Idaho.”

25 ‘Add the Words’ protesters arrested, taken to jail on bus

Twenty-five “Add the Words” protesters were arrested tonight on the third and fourth floors of the state Capitol, outside the Senate chamber and the Senate gallery, where they were blocking the doors; all were brought to a Statehouse basement visitor room for processing, searched, and then led out to board a large white bus in front of the state Capitol, under a light rain, and taken to jail.

“They’re going to be booked into the jail,” said Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker. “We had several people that we cited and released today, and they just kept coming back in and doing the same thing. So we had to take a different stance.” She added, “They’ve been peaceful and cooperative.”

The protesters, all in matching “Add the 4 Words Idaho” shirts, were led out of the Capitol with their hands behind their backs, holding plastic grocery bags containing their possessions; they were searched and the possessions placed in the bags in anticipation of arrival at the jail. Once at the jail, Baker said, the 25 protesters, all charged with trespassing, can arrange for release. “They’ll have to pay a bond,” she said.

The 25 arrests came on top of the seven that occurred mid-day today, also for blocking the entrances to the Senate chamber and gallery, except for one that was for misdemeanor battery. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller, including comments from Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill.

House panel votes 13-1 in favor of SB 1337, so-called ‘ag gag’ bill

After a three-and-a-half-hour hearing, the House Agriculture Committee has voted 13-1 in favor of SB 1337, the bill to criminalize taking surreptitious video or photos of an agricultural operation without the owner’s permission. The only committee member to vote against the bill was Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“We’ve heard a lot of testimony today and I appreciate that,” said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, “and I appreciate everyone’s patience and their politeness for the most part. I believe this is a good piece of legislation to protect agriculture and agri-business, and I hope you will support it.” Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, said, “I think this was well-vetted.”

By my rough tally, 38 people testified during the hearing, 19 for the bill and 19 against the bill. Plus, six more people who were called to testify just said from their seats that they supported the bill.

The bill now moves to the full House. House Agriculture Chairman Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “I would like to congratulate you people in the audience for your courtesy and your decorum today. This is the process that we employ in the state to try and accomplish what we say and feel and hope is the people’s will.”

Afterward, Andrus said he believes Idaho needs to do more to prevent and bring to light incidents of animal abuse; he’s pushed for legislation to make animal torture a felony, but to no avail. “I’ve gotten nowhere with animal torture, and it’s come from the other side,” he said, referring to the Senate. “We’ve got to do more. This is not an end-all, catch-all basket for our problems, and if this legislation were a cover-up for animal cruelty, I could not support it. … We have got to protect private property from spying.”

Tally of ‘Add the Words’ protesters arrested in Capitol today now up to 30

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — More gay rights activists were arrested by Idaho State Police after refusing to lift their peaceful blockade of the Idaho Senate. In all, 30 people were arrested Thursday. That included 23 people who posted themselves outside the Senate chambers for more than six hours but declined to leave when asked by law enforcement about 4 p.m. All 23 were cited for misdemeanor trespassing. Earlier in the day, seven others were arrested, six for trespassing and another person for misdemeanor battery after a Senate official said the demonstrator had pushed through her arms as she sought to block him from descending a staircase. The demonstrators are demanding lawmakers add discrimination protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals to the Idaho Human Rights Act. So far, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and other GOP lawmakers have declined to hold a hearing.

Testimony: ‘They know how to spin a story,’ ‘What do they have to hide?’

Among those testifying on SB 1337, the agriculture security or so-called “ag-gag” bill, this afternoon:

Elham Marder, a corporate attorney representing herself, said, “Businesses should be focused on training and prevention, not passing legislation to keep consumers in the dark.”

Brent Olmstead, executive director of Milk Producers of Idaho, said his members support SB 1337. “You’ve got a room that’s half full of dairymen that came down here,” he told lawmakers. “They came down here for a very simple reason: They’re afraid. … The timber products industry, the mining industry, have been decimated over the years, and part of that reason is activities from well-organized activist organizations. … They know how to take a story, they know how to spin a story, and they use that story against dairymen. … There is an economic attack here.” He said, “The insinuation from these ads … that these actions are common treatment on a dairy is ludicrous – it is not.”

Sara Baugh said, “This bill is narrowly crafted to benefit just agricultural producers, and erodes the public’s trust in industry, including Idaho’s farmers and ranchers, and causes consumers to think, what do they have to hide?” She said, “I’m in favor of protecting consumers’ rights to know how their food is produced.”

Jim Lowe of Food Producers of Idaho, decried “this business of sneaking footage that can be edited and used in a media campaign.” He said, “Idaho agriculture has nothing to hide. … This bill is not about hiding anything. This bill is about honesty, it’s about truth, it’s about due process, and it’s about the right of an individual to control their private property.”

Scott Beckstead, a Humane Society of the United States official who said he was born and raised on a Twin Falls farm, said, “I would submit that this bill poses a greater threat to Idaho agriculture than all the video camera-wielding vegans in the world, because what this bill says is that Idaho agriculture does have something to hide. And when people are trying to make informed choices about their diet, about their food, about where their food comes from, they’re going to look at Idaho and say, ‘Idaho has something to hide.’”

Testimony: ‘Provides the evidence,’ ‘Radical groups engaged in terrorism’

As testimony continues at the hearing this afternoon on SB 1337, the ag security bill regarding surreptitious videotaping, six people who were called to testify just said from their seats that they support the bill. Among those who have testified so far:

Dr. Lance Cheney, a veterinarian from Caldwell, said, “These guys would not be in business if they didn’t take care of their cows, pure and simple. … These guys do a fantastic job, and that’s why they’re profitable, and that’s why they’re generating huge revenue for the state.”

Steve Ballard of Ballard Cheese said, “I do not know any dairymen that would abuse the cattle like what we’ve seen on these tapes, it is just absolutely beyond my comprehension. Believe me, if you treat cows like what you see on TV … they would not produce any milk.”

Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau said, “This is a private property rights issue for our members.” He said those who would take covert video of ag operations are “focused more on generating headlines … than on actually addressing any real or imagined problem.” He said, “In their world, solving problems does not pay. Creating the illusions of problems is what generates their salary.”

Kelly Hogan of Boise spoke against the bill. Audio or video evidence, whether taken openly or covertly, “provides the evidence that it doesn’t continue to happen,” he said, “and it’s a public service to both the industry and to people that have a care and concern for the animals that are involved in the situation. I think that the bill goes beyond just security and privacy. … We remove potentially an added resource to be sure that these things are disclosed.” Rep. Paul Romrell asked Hogan, “So you’re all right with trespass?” Hogan responded, “No, I’m not. I don’t see it as trespass. Let’s say that a person is employed by an agricultural facility under normal pretenses. Over time they see … things that are a violation of law, and they record it with their iPhone. … Then if they disclose that, this bill would make them in violation of law.” Asked what should happen if the person isn’t an employee, Hogan said, “If the person is not an employee and they trespass … I think they should be fined for trespassing laws.”

Tony VanderHulst of Westpoint Farms, current chairman of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said, “This is not about hiding anything. This is about exposing the real agenda of these radical groups that are engaged in terrorism.”

Testimony: ‘A happy cow produces more milk’

House Ag Chairman Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said he has nine signup sheets with 17 lines on each, meaning more than 100 people may want to testify on SB 1337, the agriculture security bill, at this afternoon’s hearing. Andrus said he’ll call people in the order they signed up, and limit testimony to three minutes.

First up to testify was Lou Murgoitio, a lifelong dairyman. “I believe every farm family has a right to reasonable privacy when they’re in their homes or in their operations,” he told lawmakers. “We’ve invested our lives in these operations. … Our industry needs this legislation. And probably most importantly, Idaho farm families have been and still are the single most asset to Idaho’s economy, keep that in mind, just keep that in mind. For all the Microns and the Hewlett-Packards, agriculture has always been at the top. Dairy is the No. 1 commodity now.”

Murgoitio said, “A happy cow produces more milk. … It’s in the best interest of the producers of any animal to take care of ‘em. They’re the economic drivers to make your operation successful.”

Steenson: ‘Extremist groups implement vigilante tactics’

Dan Steenson, attorney for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association and the drafter of SB 1337, told the House Ag Committee this afternoon that “extremist groups implement vigilante tactics” to go after farmers. Steenson said “so-called investigators who masquerade as employees to infiltrate farms” do so in hopes of getting evidence of “what they believe to be animal abuse,” and “publishing edited recordings and advocating that the producer’s customers go elsewhere.”

Said Steenson, “Facing this type of assault in the court of public opinion, farmers have no opportunity to defend themselves.” That’s why farm groups proposed SB 1337, he said.

Sponsor: So-called ‘ag-gag’ bill wouldn’t stop whistleblowing

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, told Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, sponsor of SB 1337, that she’s received lots of emails questioning whether the so-called “ag-gag” bill will block whistleblowers from reporting abuses at agricultural operations. “Nowhere in this legislation does it address whistle-blowing at all,” Batt responded.

She then deferred to Brian Oakey, deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture. “In your view, does this legislation have anything to do with prohibiting a person from reporting animal abuse?” House Ag Chairman Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, asked Oakey. “No,” he responded. “Our role and our job would basically remain the same.” Oakey said the department has a hotline for complaints of animal abuse, and tries to respond to complaints within 24 hours. He said in 2013, the department received 63 complaints, and so far in 2014, it has received 42.

At least seven arrests in today’s ‘Add the Words’ protest…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: Idaho State Police Thursday arrested at least six people for trespassing and another for misdemeanor battery after about three dozen gay rights protesters blocked multiple entrances to the Idaho Senate in a renewed effort to convince majority Republican lawmakers to consider an anti-discrimination bill. The demonstration comes after 44 protesters were arrested Feb. 3 in a similar action and charged with misdemeanor trespassing. Teresa Baker, of the Idaho State Police, confirmed the arrests Thursday, saying the battery charges stemmed from a complaint filed by Senate Sergeant at Arms Sarah Jane McDonald. McDonald was not injured; McDonald didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Senators entered the chamber Thursday and voted on bills, but at least some visitors were barred from leaving the front entrances on the Capitol's third and fourth floors. Some were ushered to a back exit by lawmakers. “I went down the elevator,” said Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, following the Senate session. “They told me the stairs were blocked.” The trespassing arrests, including of former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat who was Idaho's first openly gay lawmaker until retiring in 2012, occurred when demonstrators blocked a rear stairwell, briefly preventing some lawmakers and others from leaving.

LeFavour, who helped organize the demonstration, said activists seek to highlight what she called “the Senate's silence” on updating Idaho's Human Rights Act with workplace and housing protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals. Following her arrest, LeFavour was ushered to the Capitol's main south exit but returned to help coordinate remaining protesters on the third and fourth floors. “I would imagine so,” LeFavour told The Associated Press, when asked if she anticipated additional demonstrators would be detained. “They are committed to stay until there is a hearing on a bill.”

Like the previous Feb. 3 protest, Thursday's demonstrators also wore black-and-white “Add the 4 Words Idaho” T-shirts and covered their mouths with their hands. It is a symbolic gesture intended to call attention their concerns they've been silenced in their bid to add four words _ sexual orientation and gender identity _ to Idaho law that currently bans discrimination based on race, gender or religion.  They've sought unsuccessfully to update the Idaho Human Rights Act for eight years. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she's not surprised the Idaho Capitol has become the scene of serial protests. “All of this conversation has been percolating for quite a while,” said Stennett, who favors updating the Idaho Human Rights Act. “It's everybody's opportunity to promote their agenda. It's the people's house.” Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Hill, R-Rexburg, and other GOP lawmakers have declined to give the anti-discrimination bill a hearing.
  

Crowd turns out for ‘ag-gag’ bill hearing

A big crowd has assembled in the Lincoln Auditorium this afternoon for the hearing on SB 1337, the Senate-passed bill to make it a crime to surreptitiously videotape or photograph an agricultural operation. Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, said the bill “protects our farm families and agricultural operations from extremists who use tactics of threat, force, misrepresentation and trespass to gain access to facilities and gain information.”

The bill was proposed after an animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, made covert video of severe abuse of cows at a southern Idaho dairy that led to criminal charges against the employees involved. It creates a new crime of “interference with agricultural production,” with a penalty of up to one year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines. Violators also would have to pay double damages in restitution. The new crime would cover recording anything at an ag production operation without permission; intentionally damaging an ag operation, including crops, animals or equipment; misrepresenting oneself in seeking employment at an ag operation; and obtaining records of an ag operation by  “force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass.” The bill passed the Senate last week on a 23-10 vote.

No resolution yet on broadband budget mess

Key legislators and Otter administration officials met late Wednesday afternoon to try to sort out the state’s broadband budget mess, reports Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert, but nothing was resolved. Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, said the negotiations are “still in process.” Otter is seeking $14.45 million from lawmakers to keep the Idaho Education Network high school broadband system online, after federal e-rate funds for the network were placed on hold last March. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has not yet set a date for a hearing on the request; you can read Richert’s full report here.

 

Half of protesters move upstairs after two arrests

Half of the 'Add the Words' protesters blocking the main entrance to the Idaho Senate chamber on the 3rd floor of the state capitol have moved upstairs, and are now blocking the 4th floor gallery entrance, after two protesters were arrested on the fourth floor for blocking that entrance. Meanwhile, the formal Idaho State Police ceremony on the 2nd floor to mark the ISP's 75th anniversary has begun, and is resounding through the rotunda.

House passes $15.8M teacher leadership bonuses bill, 62-6

HB 504, legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Lance Clow and Julie VanOrden and a bipartisan group of 13 other lawmakers to grant $15.8 million in leadership bonuses to Idaho teachers next year, has passed the House on a 62-6 vote. “We feel that this addition to our education program will reward teachers and help our students improve,” VanOrden told the House. The bonuses are a piece of a recommendation from the governor’s education improvement task force to create a new career leader that would sharply increase Idaho teacher pay. The career ladder is still in the works. VanOrden said, “We would add the career ladder later. Basically, it’s to keep the momentum going.” She said she didn’t want to “lose the momentum that we have from the task force.”

Local school boards would decide who gets how much, under the bill. The awards would be for such factors as teaching advanced courses and mentoring other teachers. “It would be up to the local trustees to make that decision,” VanOrden said. The bonuses would range from a minimum of $850 to a maximum of 25 percent of the teacher’s base pay, and would be just one-year, one-time awards. School districts would receive the money on a formula based on $850 for each full-time teacher in the district.

“We are attempting very much here to get those task force recommendations moving forward,” Clow said. “We’re trying to take this a piece at a time.” The bill now moves to the Senate side.

House rejects new inattentive driving offense for untreated medical conditions

The House has rejected legislation from Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, to create a new inattentive driving offense for those who knowingly drive with an untreated medical condition. HB 466 failed in the House on a 19-49 vote. In an earlier committee hearing, a constituent of Trujillo's shared the story of how her young daughter was killed in a car crash in Montana, and the driver, whose untreated diabetic condition caused him to crash, wasn't cited.

Senate unanimously backs stocking Epi-Pens in schools for unexpected allergic reactions

The Idaho Senate has voted 35-0 in favor of SB 1327, legislation from Rep. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, to allow schools to stock Epi-Pens or similar items to use in case of unexpected allergic reactions among students or staff, without a specific prescription for the person involved. That's allowed in numerous states now, but Idaho law blocked it; the companies that manufacture Epi-Pen and other epinephrine auto-injectors are making the items available to schools for free. “I don't know why we shouldn't pass this legislation,” Heider told the Senate. “It's free, it saves lives, it's beneficial to students in Idaho and there's no liability.” The bill now moves to the House side.

Protesters allowed to continue to block entrance, Senate in session…

Thus far, the protesters blocking the main entrance to the Senate chamber and the 4th floor gallery entrance haven't been arrested, and the Senate is going on with its session. “We're just standing by,” said ISP Major Steve Richardson, who's down on the 2nd floor, where the state police are preparing for their 75th anniversary celebration at noon. He confirmed that one individual has been cited; that came after allegations of pushing between protesters and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Sarah Jane McDonald, when the protesters entered the outer chamber via a restricted-access internal staircase from the fourth floor, prior to taking up their position outside the third-floor doors.

Earlier, eight pep band members from Sandpoint High School who are in town for a basketball tournament and were visiting the Capitol briefly joined the protest, standing off to the side in the same stance as the protesters, with their hands over their mouths; they're pictured above. “I joined because I agree with it,” said sophomore clarinetist Eric Heil. “It's a good cause, and it's something that should be stated.”

House panel introduces bill to do away with CAT fund, medical indigency program in 2016

The House Health & Welfare Committee has voted unanimously this morning to introduce legislation from Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, to repeal the county medical indigency program and the state catastrophic health care program in 2016. “That’s basically all that it does,” Loertscher told the committee. He said the delay “would give them a chance to get everything wound up before that happens, and also to give the Legislature a chance to come up with a plan to replace it, if that is the desire of the Legislature.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said if the programs are repealed, “The hospitals then would have no recourse other than to pass this along to other insured or paying clients.” Loertscher said, “That’s the reason for the delay in the implementation. That gives us another year to consider how to handle this. I think it’s very important that we do consider this and keep this on the forefront of our discussions for the next year.”

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said, “I think it’s a discussion that we should certainly look at,” so she moved to introduce the bill. Rusche said, “I’m going to support the emotion. I think, though, that this is only half of the question, and to the extent that it focuses our attention on a real issue and a real opportunity for Idaho, it’s certainly well worth the discussion.” Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he “certainly” agreed.

The committee also agreed, after several questions, to introduce a bill from Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, to turn away all those who come to the indigency/CAT fund program but would qualify for subsidies on the state health insurance exchange, and instead direct those patients to the exchange. She estimated the change could save the state general fund $12 million and county property taxpayers $6 million.

‘Add the Words’ protesters block Senate

Twenty-four “Add the Words” protesters are blocking the main entrance to the Idaho Senate chamber on the 3rd floor of the state Capitol this morning. Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the protesters are willing to be arrested rather than leave. It's the fourth protest this session by those who want consideration of legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations; the bill, proposed for each of the past eight years, hasn't been introduced this year. In the first such protest, earlier this month, 44 people were arrested. Like the earlier protesters, today's are wearing matching shirts saying “Add the 4 Words, Idaho” and holding their hands over their mouths.

In a statement, the protesters said just one of those participating today was among the 44 arrested earlier. “We feel we have tried every avenue to get the legislature to hear our stories and see the harm being done to good people’s lives,” the protesters said in the statement. “We feel this demonstration is our only remaining avenue to ensure they hear us and finally, after 8 years, stand up and say that cruelty to gay and transgender people is wrong.”

 

Legislative budget writers target doctor shortage with five new WWAMI seats

With Idaho ranking 49th in the nation for its number of physicians per 100,000 residents – and many of the state’s primary-care physicians nearing retirement – legislative budget writers this morning identified funding for five more WWAMI seats to train future Idaho doctors. The $113,400 request, which Gov. Butch Otter didn’t include in his budget proposal, won unanimous support; the budget bill that includes the money was crafted by six members of the joint committee from both houses and both parties.

Though Idaho has no medical school, it does have several programs that cooperate with schools in other states to train new physicians, including the WWAMI program, which stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, and serves a five-state region. In 2009, the Idaho Board of Education recommended upping Idaho's WWAMI seats from 20 to 40 students per year, but it hasn't gotten there yet.

Five new WWAMI students started last year on a special track for rural and underserved communities; funding is now being requested for the second year of that expansion, at $252,400 in state general funds. Otter recommended that funding but didn't recommend a second request for $113,400 for five more WWAMI seats to bring the program up to 30 first-year students; that’s what JFAC targeted funding to this morning, in addition to the items Otter recommended covering. Also included in the budget bill is $200,000 toward the start of a new family practice residency program in Kootenai County.

“Having a third family practice residency is going to greatly improve primary care in Idaho,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, questioned how many WWAMI students return to practice medicine in Idaho, saying his quick math suggested Idaho would spend $15 million to educate 20 WWAMI students over four years. It turned out he was using figures covering five students, rather than a single student; the actual figure is just under $3 million. The answer: 50 percent of the Idaho WWAMI students return, and Idaho gets 73 percent of all the graduates of the five-state program. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that her daughter graduated from WWAMI and initially started her practice in the Seattle area, but eventually did return to practice in Idaho. Vick said he’d support the bill, but said, “I know there’s been some legislation to provide stronger incentives for those students to come back to Idaho, and I do think that’s something we should continue to investigate.”

The budget bill covers eight health education programs and reflects a 7.5 percent increase in state general funds to a total of $11.4 million. In addition to WWAMI, the programs are the Washington-Idaho Veterinary Education Program, a cooperative agreement between the University of Idaho and Washington State University; the Idaho Dental Education Program, a cooperative agreement between Idaho State University and Creighton University; the University of Utah Medical Education Program; the family medicine residency programs, which currently are located in Boise and Pocatello and provide the final three years of family physician residency training; the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), which offers a professional student exchange program so Idaho students can access programs not available in the state; the Boise Internal Medicine residency program, which focuses on training at rural and underserved sites in Idaho; and the Idaho Psychiatry Residency Program, in which students spend two years at the UW followed by two years in Boise, and then clinical rotations in Idaho.

Both sides seek immediate ruling in challenge to Idaho’s same-sex marriage ban

Four couples suing the state over Idaho's ban on same-sex marriage are asking a federal judge to rule in their favor without a trial, the AP reports, contending the facts of the case and recent federal court rulings elsewhere make it clear that Idaho's marriage laws violate the Constitution. The defendant in the case, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, also is asking the judge for an immediate ruling, contending that states and not the federal government have the right to define marriage and that same-sex marriages would harm Idaho's children. Both sides made their arguments Wednesday in legal briefs filed in Boise's U.S. District Court; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Controversial religious freedom bills are dead for the session

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how controversial legislation to protect those who cite religion as a reason to deny service to others to whom they object was pulled from the Idaho House on Wednesday, and halted for this year’s legislative session. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, the bill’s sponsor, said HB 427 was in response to a New Mexico case in which a wedding photographer was penalized after refusing to photograph a same-sex marriage ceremony. Luker also proposed a companion measure, HB 426, to prevent the state from revoking or suspending occupational licenses for violations that the license-holder commits for religious reasons; that bill never got a committee hearing, and is not expected to advance.

Lawmakers to hear new plan to cut indigent fund

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho lawmakers are gearing up to debate a plan to eliminate the state- and county-backed fund that pays indigent residents' medical costs. Republican Rep. Tom Loertscher of Iona is slated to introduce his measure Thursday in the House Health and Welfare Committee. He wants to dump the Catastrophic Care Fund, which has doubled to $52 million annually over the last decade. Loertscher's bill wouldn't take effect for a couple years, giving lawmakers time, if they choose, to expand eligibility guidelines for Medicaid to cover indigent individuals. So far, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Republican lawmakers are eschewing action on Medicaid. But groups including the Idaho Association of Counties are counting on Loertscher's proposal to at least help put pressure on the Idaho Legislature to tackle the issue by next year.

All sides reach consensus on new version of justice reinvestment bill

All sides, including lawmakers, courts, corrections officials, prosecutors and more, have reached consensus on criminal justice reinvestment legislation, with a new bill that was introduced this afternoon. “This is probably one of the few times when you’ve had all three branches of government working together to try to craft something that will help save lives and change lives,” said Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

The project has been in the works for 10 months, thanks to assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Pew Trusts. But when the bill was introduced last week, several county prosecutors raised concerns. The new version puts those to rest. A key change: Rather than requiring that non-violent offenders be released when they hit 150 percent of their fixed term, the new bill requires the Parole Commission to establish guidelines for reducing the time that property and drug offenders spend behind bars beyond their fixed terms, and submit annual reports to the Legislature on how many are released by 150 percent of their fixed term. Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association lobbyist Holly Koole said that increased discretion for the Parole Commission addressed prosecutors’ concerns.

The research for the project  showed that while Idaho has the third-lowest crime rate in the nation, it has much higher recidivism – reoffense by released prisoners – than the national average, and half of all those released from Idaho’s prisons go back in within three years. “So our prison population became the second-fastest growing in the country,” Lodge said. The project recommends investing $33 million over the next five years in improvements to parole and probation supervision, community treatment, officer training, and quality assurance measures including data tracking. “If this is implemented effectively, this package will slow down Idaho’s prison population and growth, and save $288 million over the next five years because we won’t have to build a prison,” Lodge said.

The project found that non-violent offenders in Idaho spend twice as long behind bars as they do in the rest of the nation, and the state has the nation’s 8th-highest incarceration rate, despite its low crime rate. Some prosecutors said they thought the inclusion of Idaho’s short-term “rider” prison program skewed the figures, but CSG researchers said even if the riders were excluded, Idaho would have the nation’s 12th highest incarceration rate. Because riders are behind bars only for short periods of 30 to 120 days, their inclusion actually skewed the time spent behind bars by non-violent offenders downward, not upward.

Lodge said the modifications to the bill could slightly reduce the savings. “We’re not going to have exactly the same savings that we had before, but we will have savings,” she said, “and if we do all of this, if everyone cooperates together, we will be able to implement a savings of at least $255 million.” She said, “Our goal from the very first was to find an Idaho solution to increase the public safety and control corrections costs.”

Pushing toward March adjournment…

Both the House and Senate debated and passed batches of bills this morning, as they keep up a pace designed to ensure this year’s legislative session ends by March 21. In fact, the way they’ve been pushing this week – with the Senate starting its late-afternoon sessions yesterday and staying on the floor that day until close to 6 p.m. – it looks like they’re trying to get done sooner. “Everyone knows that you need to allow a little time toward the end because of the unexpected,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke.

Here are some of the bills that passed one house or the other today:

HB 398, to authorize the Department of Fish & Game to discount tags and permits, passed the House 61-6 and heads to the Senate side. A planned companion piece to allow fee increases and create an incentive for hunters to buy multi-year licenses to avoid the increases never got introduced, but F&G says it still can make use of the discounting authority.

SB 1335, to allow liquor distillers to give out small free tasting samples, passed the Senate 29-5 and heads to the House side. It would limit the samples to no more than a quarter of an ounce, and no one could get more than three in a 24-hour period.

SB 1275, to boost agriculture education programs, passed the Senate 34-0, and now heads to the House side.

HB 413, legislation from Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, to repeal a no-longer-used section of state law dealing with stumpage districts, passed the House 66-0 and heads for the Senate side.

HB 399, from the Idaho Department of Fish & Game, would lower the minimum age to hunt big game from 12 to 10, but only if the child is accompanied in the field by a licensed adult. “This is a family choice,” said Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly. The bill passed 51-16, and now heads to the Senate side.

Rep. Denney names sub to sit in for him in House for rest of the week

Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, has named Howard Rynearson of Payette as a sub for him in the House through Monday. Rynearson, the current Payette County GOP chairman, is running for Denney’s seat in the May GOP primary; Denney is running for Secretary of State.

Idaho insurance exchange enrollments soaring past goal

Idaho’s state-based health insurance exchange has now enrolled 38,000 people in health insurance, state Department of Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers today. And another 56,000 are “in the queue,” in the process of enrolling. “Our original target was 42,000,” he said, for signups by the end of the open enrollment period at the end of March. “Very rapidly, Idaho’s enrollment … has come up.”

When the exchange opened and faced problems due to computer system hang-ups in Washington, D.C., initial enrollment numbers were very low. “Everybody was just wringing their hands,” Armstrong said. “This is a breath of fresh air, to see that the enrollments are picking up this rapidly.”

Feds receptive to waiver for Idaho to follow ‘private option,’ but no bills proposed thus far…

After his presentation to the House Health & Welfare Committee today on the “private option” for Medicaid expansion funds in Idaho, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said he’s not seen any indication that enabling legislation to accomplish that would be proposed this year. However, committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said the panel will consider legislation tomorrow from Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, to do away with the existing county medical indigency/state catastrophic care program.

Armstrong noted that if the state and counties’ responsibility for addressing indigent medical bills were eliminated, “Some way you have to address what’s going to happen next. If they’re no long paying these bills, it would be bad debt on the hospitals – where else is it going to go?”

He said, “We’re here to respond and react appropriately to whatever policy the Legislature may establish. We would be able to move fairly rapidly if we were so directed.”

So far, he said, the department has been exploring with the Center for Medicaid Services what the state would have to do to get a waiver to allow it to do as several other states have, and accept federal Medicaid expansion funds but use them to purchase private insurance, rather than to enroll the additional patients in Medicaid. Armstrong said CMS has been very receptive. “Frankly, we’ve never seen CMS in a more cooperative mode than they are now.”

Senate passes bill to punish officials who order gun, ammo confiscations

The Senate has voted 34-0 in favor of SB 1332, legislation from Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, to penalize officials who knowingly and willfully order Idaho law enforcement officers to seize guns or ammunition under a federal order or law, in violation of the Idaho Constitution. “Can we do this? Yes,” Vick told the Senate. “We can do this and we should.”

The measure is the latest version of one that failed last year to criminalize Idaho police officers who enforce federal gun laws; this one would go after their supervisors, instead, and would impose a civil penalty on first offense, and misdemeanor penalties for repeat offenses. “It’s a high standard,” said Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa. The bill also includes a clause saying it wouldn’t affect any agreements with federal law enforcement on gangs or drugs. Vick noted that the bill is supported by the National Rifle Association, along with the Fraternal Order of Police, the Idaho Sheriffs Association, and several sheriffs. It now moves to the House side.

House unanimously agrees to send HB 427, religious freedom expansion bill, back to committee

The House has agreed unanimously to return HB 427, Rep. Lynn Luker’s religious freedom expansion bill, to the House State Affairs Committee. Luker told the AP this morning that the bill likely won’t come up again this session. “HB 427 has been on the amending order for some time,” Luker told the House this morning. “The reason for that was it was sent here to respond to concerns that were addressed in the public testimony in the State Affairs Committee. Due to continuing comments, many constructive, it’s appropriate to return it to the committee to see if some of those concerns can be balanced.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “It's not coming back this session.”

The bill sought to protect those who cite religion as a reason to deny service to others to whom they object; Luker said it was in response to a New Mexico case in which a wedding photographer was penalized after refusing to photograph a same-sex marriage ceremony. Luker also proposed HB 426 this year, to prevent the state from revoking or suspending occupational licenses for violations that the license-holder commits for religious reasons; that bill never got a hearing in committee.

Trucking group defends gas-tax hike bill, says it’s a start toward addressing bigger problem

A day after the AAA of Idaho called the Idaho Trucking Association’s proposed three-year, six-cent fuel tax increase a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” saying motorists would bear the brunt rather than truckers, the Trucking Association has responded that a small fuel tax increase is a “start,” and that the group wants to get something moving to address Idaho’s roadwork shortfalls. “Though we believe the small fuel tax increase we have proposed is an excellent first step, our association’s members believe the real value will come in the conversations Idahoans will collectively have about how we solve our transportation problems,” writes Julie Pipal, the association’s president and CEO.  “House Bill 481 is more than a proposed fuel tax increase:  it is a catalyst for solutions.” You can read her full statement here.

H&W chief explains ‘private option’ to lawmakers, would use Medicaid expansion funds

Idaho currently has about 77,000 able-bodied adults who can’t afford health insurance and have no options to help them get it today, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told the House Health & Welfare Committee this morning, and one way to address the problem would be through what he called the “private option” – accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds, but instead of using them to expand Medicaid, use them to buy private insurance for those people, who make too little to be eligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance. “Other states have gone through demonstration waivers and been approved for this approach,” Armstrong said. Arkansas and Iowa have been approved; Pennsylvania is nearing approval. Waivers are good for five years; then they need to be recertified.

Armstrong said the idea is to use the state health insurance exchange, through which the state Department of Health & Welfare would directly pay the insurers. Silver-level plans would be purchased. “We’re looking at a free-market approach that will provide medical coverage to low-income people in Idaho, and it’s using the insurance exchange, the Idaho state-based insurance exchange, as the vehicle for providing these policies to the individuals as opposed to running the coverage through our … Medicaid claim adjudication system,” he said. “So this is truly setting these individuals aside into the private market.”

Advantages include that health care providers would be paid at a higher rate, Armstrong said, so more likely would be interested in participating. That’s because Medicaid pays “roughly 50 cents on the dollar,” while private plans, even with deep discounts, pay 58 to 72 cents. Plus, he said, it would allow Idaho to eliminate its current catastrophic and medically indigent care program, which he said “really is a very dysfunctional product.” That program is funded 100 percent from state general funds and local county property taxes.

Armstrong said the state and counties are spending about $53 million a year on that program now, and it’s expected to rise to $92 million by 2020. “We could save between 90 and 95 percent of the costs,” Armstrong said. “With the private option, we would discontinue the county indigent program altogether.”

Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, noted that the presentation was held in the Lincoln Auditorium this morning to allow people from across the state to watch via video streaming. While raising various questions, Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told Armstrong, “I’d like to congratulate you and your staff for looking at creative ways to provide coverage for this population.”

Annual ‘Buy Idaho’ day showcases products in the Capitol

How about a potato chip topped with chocolate and bacon, with or without blueberry sauce on top?

It's the annual Buy Idaho show in the state Capitol today, with 89 Idaho businesses displaying their products in the first, second and third-floor Statehouse rotunda. They’re describing their services, promoting their innovations, and – of course – offering free samples. The popular show runs all day, and is free and open to the public.

JFAC approves pay boost for Veterans Services, in wake of high nursing turnover at veterans’ homes

Idaho’s veterans’ homes are seeing turnover among nursing staff of nearly 50 percent, Rep. George Eskridge said this morning, largely because pay rates aren’t competitive with other nursing jobs. So when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set the budget for the Veterans Services Division this morning, Eskridge, R-Dover, and Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, proposed an additional boost to the division’s salaries, following a performance-based, agency-wide plan that Eskridge said will focus on the lowest-paid workers. No state general tax funds are involved; the money is available from federal funds for veterans’ care.

The workers would still get the 2 percent average raises that lawmakers are accounting for in all state agency budgets, half of it one-time and half ongoing. “This is in addition to that,” Eskridge said. “The governor didn’t have it in there, so we put it in, and I think it was a good thing to do. We’ve got the funding available. I think it’s the right thing to do, given our turnover.” The boost comes to $356,900 next year, all from federal funds.

When the Legislature’s joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee convened in January for the first time since 2008, among the testimony it received from state workers were tearful statements from veterans’ home nursing assistants who said they were being forced to leave the job they loved – working with veterans – because of the low pay. JFAC voted unanimously in favor of the proposed budget for the agency today; the budget bill still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.

Bill to drop funding for indigent care stalls

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee rejected a plan to dump the program that pays medical bills for uninsured Idaho residents. Republican Sen. Steve Thayn asked the committee to shift money from the Catastrophic Care Fund toward community health centers instead. The CAT fund costs the state and counties over $50 million annually. But the committee killed the bill Tuesday, after expressing concerns about shifting funding to the centers, which aren't meant to care for the seriously injured or chronically ill. Lawmakers also worried that with only 45 of these community health centers in Idaho, communities without such a medical facility would be left out. There's another way Idaho could get rid of the CAT fund_expanding Medicaid eligibility. But Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has rejected such a move.

Rep. Henderson joins former Sens. Hammond, Compton to form new ‘Job Creators PAC’

Idaho Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, has joined with two retired senators from his district to form a new PAC that will interview legislative candidates and endorse and support those with the most skill at economic development. Henderson is joining former GOP Sens. Jim Hammond and Dick Compton in the new political action committee, which they’ve dubbed “Job Creators PAC.” The three are filling its coffers with their leftover campaign funds; Henderson, 91, is retiring after his current term in the House.

“Government does not create jobs, we enable jobs,” said Henderson. “We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and we think we’ll be able to make a good assessment of the potential effectiveness of candidates.” In addition to the three former lawmakers, a dozen other District 3 residents have signed on to help with the effort. Henderson had more than $16,000 left in his campaign fund as of the last reporting period.

Rep. Luker says he’ll pull HB 427 from the House, back to committee

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, has just announced that he plans to pull his religious freedom expansion bill, HB 427, from the House and ask that it be returned to committee. “The intent of the bill was to provide a shield to protect the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment in light of the variety of increasing government mandates,” Luker said in a statement. “However, many misinterpreted the intent to be a sword for discrimination.  I respect the concerns that I heard and therefore want to find the right language to balance those concerns.”

As of now, the bill remains on the amending order in the House; House members submitted a stack of proposed amendments a quarter-inch high, prompting House Speaker Scott Bedke to call for a “thoughtful pause” before taking up any amendments to the controversial measure. The bill would protect those who cite religion as a reason to refuse service to others to whom they object, making religion a defense in those cases; click below for Luker's full statement.

After meeting with Wasden, Otter orders criminal investigation of CCA for understaffing Idaho prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has ordered the state police to conduct a criminal investigation of understaffing and falsified documents at a private prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The governor made the decision Tuesday after meeting with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Otter wrote in a letter to Idaho State Police Col. Ralph Powell that after reviewing the available information, including an audit completed by the forensic auditing firm KPMG, he now believed the public would benefit from a formal criminal investigation. Otter had previously supported Powell's decision not to investigate the company. CCA has operated Idaho's largest prison for more than a decade. The company acknowledged last year that CCA employees falsified documents to hide understaffing at the prison in violation of a $29 million state contract.

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

Land Board votes to suspend all commercial property acquisitions

Idaho’s state Land Board voted unanimously today to suspend commercial property acquisitions for the state’s endowment trust, following the recommendation of a six-member working group chaired by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and including state Controller Brandon Woolf.  “Through this working group the Land Board will be able to develop a new whole-trust management model that is consistent with modern trust management practices and Idaho’s statutes and constitution,” Woolf said in a statement; you can read the board’s full announcement here.

While the board works on its new plan, it will continue to consider acquiring non-commercial properties for the purposes of getting access to current endowment lands or “blocking up” ownership, where endowment ownership is in a checkerboard pattern with other ownership. The working group is planning a “comprehensive review” of the state’s investment strategies for endowment lands.

Bill would make city design review rules voluntary; it clears House committee

City design review rules would all become voluntary, under legislation being pushed by a North Idaho lawmaker, and developers in Idaho couldn’t be told to make structural changes in buildings they’re proposing just for esthetic reasons. “We’ve got to allow participants in a market to act like a market, to reflect choice,” Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, told the House Local Government Committee. His comments followed more than two hours of testimony both for and against the bill, with cities, local planning officials, architects and others opposing the bill, and business interests including the Idaho Retailers Association backing it.

On a divided voice vote, the panel approved the bill, HB 480, and sent it to the full House for debate; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Said Morse, “It’s the same thing as if you’re trying to legislate good art, or anything else that’s highly subjective.”

Cost for veterans’ tax break higher than expected

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A plan to exempt veterans from paying taxes on their retirement benefits is moving forward, even after its sponsor said it may cost the state more than double what she originally envisioned. The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted Monday to send the bill to the full House for debate. Rep. Kathleen Sims, a Republican from Coeur d'Alene, says giving military members a tax break_regardless of their retirement age_could convince skilled veterans to settle in Idaho. But Sims now says that the exemption would reduce Idaho's tax haul by $7.8 million, instead of about $3.5 million as she estimated earlier. She used Department of Defense figures to revise the cost, which Sims says more accurately reflects the “highest estimate.”

Land Board to wait for special meeting next week to vote on new cabin-site appraisals

Idaho’s state Land Board decided today to wait until a special meeting next week to vote to accept new cabin-site appraisals for state-owned cabin sites on Priest and Payette lakes, to allow time for a lessees’ group to meet with state Lands Director Tom Schultz and provide its comments on the new appraisal process, which allows for appeals.

“We’ve gone through quite a process on the appraisals, especially the Priest Lake scenario,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “I feel pretty good about this one.” The key, he said, is that it’s defensible. “Frankly, the last one we did was not. This one I believe will be. … We’ll see what happens. And I’m one who’s always pushing to get it moving and whatever, but the main thing is to get it right.”

He added, “There needs to be a clear path. It’s been the most confusing, convoluted process that I’ve ever seen in my 40 years of working for the state, in what we’ve done in the cottage-site process. … I think we’ve got some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Chuck Lempesis, attorney for the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, said he thought the state’s latest appraisal firm’s credentials were “impeccable.” Noting that 60 percent of the appraisals at Priest Lake went down and 40 percent went up, Lempesis said, “Probably 60 percent of those people may be happy, and 40 percent may be unhappy.” He said, “I think Secretary Ysursa is absolutely correct – I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I think for once it is not a train coming.”

The state is planning to hold auctions on 74 Priest Lake lots at the end of the summer, for those lessees who’ve volunteered to go to auction. That means they can bid to buy the land under the cabins, and others can bid against them; if someone other than the lessee wins the auction, they’d have to pay the existing lessees for their improvements at appraised value. “That number of sales, I think, is going to be very indicative,” Ysursa said. Those who don’t go to auction still could see others bid against them for the right to lease the land.

Senate passes guns-on-campus bill, 25-10

The Senate has voted 25-10 in favor of SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho public college campuses; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. The measure now moves to the House side; to become law, it needs passage there and the governor’s signature.  All seven Senate Democrats by just three Republicans in opposing the bill, Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene; Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; and Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.

During the roll call, Goedde asked for 60 seconds to explain his vote. “I’m really conflicted with this,” he said. “I am in favor of local control, but I also respect the 2nd Amendment.” He noted that a despondent North Idaho College student was recently arrested on campus with a gun and 70 hollow-point rounds of ammunition. “We were just lucky that we didn’t have a problem,” he said.

Johnson raised a number of concerns about the bill in his debate, including that it would permit some college students to carry guns, but not his 19-year-old son, a combat military veteran. The bill only allows those 21 or older to carry on campus. Also, he said Lewis-Clark State College, in his district, told him their gun policies apply to students, not to faculty and staff - meaning the bill would actually restrict faculty gun rights. “We take these rights away from people that we’ve already given them in the past,” Johnson said.

Keough noted that the section of code being amended was actually written in 2008 by some of the same lawmakers backing this year's bill, including Sens. McKenzie, Pearce and Hagedorn. “I supported the bill that the same sponsors brought to us in '08,” she said after the debate, “that gave the colleges and universities the responsibility of governing this on campus. I believe, as a Republican, in local control. … I listened to law enforcement in my district, which was split about evenly. At the end of the day, I believe it was an unnecessary bill that creates a patchwork of gun zones on college campuses that I believe will potentially make it harder for law enforcement, for students and staff, and for the public to know where you can carry and where you can't carry.” Keough said she found it “distressing that the same people who brought this policy to us now are clothing themselves in the 2nd Amendment to take it away.”

Guns-on-campus debate: ‘Wrong reason,’ Stop the shooter, ‘What we want is safety’

Among those debating SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, in the Senate today:

Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, said, “Our university leadership says no. Our local police department says no. Our local sheriff says no.” He said sometimes lawmakers seem to think the Legislature is “all-knowing and powerful, and we are not. …. We need to listen to those who are involved, we need to listen to our presidents and sheriffs.” Said Lacey, “The only thing right about this bill, and I did find something right about it, is its timing. Elections are coming up very quickly. And anyone who votes no on this bill will be tagged as anti-2nd Amendment and anti-gun, and I’m sorry to say that many here will be voting for the very wrong reason. This senator is listening, and I will be voting no.”

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, said she witnessed a shooting in which three people were shot, and wished someone there had had a gun to stop the shooter. “It just seems to me that those who shouldn’t have guns have them, and the ones that should have guns are not permitted to have them on campus,” she said. “So I am supportive of the bill.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said, “We’re all supporters of the 2nd Amendment here. I’d like to ask you one time to bring forward something to support our 2nd Amendment rights that I can actually support. Because … guns on campus, I just can’t support.” Werk said the bill has “something for everyone to hate,” including restrictions on gun rights. “On our college campuses, what we want is safety, and I think we would all agree with that – we don’t want students in harm’s way,” he said. “We don’t want faculty or staff in harm’s way.” Werk also raised concerns about suicides among college students.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said, “We have security in this Capitol. … Most of them are unarmed. We regularly invite in citizens who are armed. They come all the time. It does not make it less safe. The fact that open carry and concealed carry is regularly available in this Capitol while we are in session demonstrates that it is not reasonable to believe that our colleges and universities would be forced to arm 100 percent of their security if a few citizens who have these higher-level concealed carry permits are allowed to carry on campus.  It does not follow. … It’s unnecessary.” He said, “We sometimes think that our duty is to make everyone safe. Our duty under our Constitution is not to make everyone safe. It is to preserve liberty.”

Hagedorn on gun bill: ‘We have this unknown deterrent’

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, told the Senate, “I am my first responder. I would much rather … protect myself.” He noted that he has training and knows how to use and store his firearms, and said he was grateful for that in an incident last year in which a drunken intruder used his hot tub and tried to enter his house, before Hagedorn held him at gunpoint until police arrived.

 “Our Idaho state Constitution clearly says that Idaho has the ability to manage where we allow concealed weapons, and we have done that, and I think we have done that very well,” Hagedorn said. “The people that continuously talk about the woes that this is going to cause also continuously walk about in our malls, our restaurants, stores, cafes, with people that are carrying concealed weapons, and no one has been hurt. But you know what has happened, because Idaho does allow concealed carry, we have this unknown deterrent that continuously walks around. Where bad guys don’t know who’s armed, who’s not armed. Bad guys don’t know who to attack or who not to attack – except they know on campus, that’s a gun-free zone. … If I were a bad guy, I think that’s where I would go.”

Sen. McKenzie refuses to answer question about his guns-on-campus bill

After Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, asked Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa,  several questions about how SB 1254 treats open carrying of firearms – McKenzie said it only addresses concealed weapons, and the Constitution addresses open carrying – Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, asked McKenzie to yield to a question. In a rare move, he refused.

Stennett, taken somewhat aback, said she had hoped to have him define a concealed weapon, but she’d just debate against the bill. “I have received many emails from professors, staff, students and parents who have huge concern about workplace safety,” she told the Senate. “Professors have had escalation of altercations in the classroom already.” Stennett said universities are saying they don’t have the trained staff to deal with guns on campus. “If the state is going to impose this law on them without adequate funding, we’ll have it come down to tuition and again further burden our kids,” she said.

Fiscal note challenged on guns-on-campus bill

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked the guns-on-campus bill sponsor, Sen. Curt McKenzie, if the fiscal note on his bill is accurate, which says there would be only a “de minimus” cost. “Under Joint Rule 18, we are required to have an accurate fiscal note attached to any piece of legislation,” Cameron said.

McKenzie responded, “It probably is overstated. It says that they would have to change signage at buildings, venues, but since they currently don’t allow that, I don’t know that they would need to change that. If the question relates to training, about changing the training, universities are currently saying we’ll take away your liberty right, but you can trust us to provide security for you. But now they’re saying when we allow a very limited number of citizens to carry firearms, that for some reason now we need training to deal with firearms. I don’t think that is a position that makes sense.”

Cameron asked, “Is it your judgment that our universities and college campuses would not have to do further training and would therefore not ask us for an additional appropriation?” McKenzie said, “They probably will ask us for an additional appropriation,” but he said they shouldn’t have to. “If there was training that was required in order to deal with firearms, it should have already been taking place.”

Cameron then said, “With reluctance, I challenge the fiscal note on the Statement of Purpose under Joint Rule 18. I realize that doesn’t do anything, except state it for the record.”

Senate takes up guns-on-campus bill

The Senate is now taking up SB 1254, the controversial guns-on-campus bill, which allows those with enhanced concealed carry permits or retired law enforcement officers to carry guns on Idaho public college and university campuses. All of Idaho's public college presidents and the State Board of Education unanimously oppose the bill.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, told the Senate that every Idaho public college and university currently bans guns, and he doesn't believe they should. “This bill addresses that and tries to do it in a very limited way,” he said. The bill has exemptions for dorms and for large campus venues with seating for 1,000 or more.

“The end result of this is that qualifying faculty or students at our universities will no longer be prevented from exercising a fundamental right to self-defense and constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” said McKenzie, the bill’s lead sponsor. “I don’t think it is going to materially change campus life,” he said. “It is simply the Legislature saying you have a constitutional right,” and you don’t lose it when you “step onto” public college campuses. McKenzie said the university officials’ objections should carry some weight with lawmakers. But, he said, “What should carry more weight with us is the individual liberty right of Idaho citizens, and I think this promotes that in a careful way.”

The Senate's public gallery is close to full for the debate.

Risch: ‘They look at you like you got three heads’

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch are addressing the Senate and House today, and the two – both of whom are former Senate presidents pro-tem – entered the Senate chamber together, rather than separately. “It’s really an honor to be here today, although my remarks can be really short if I’m supposed to give you some of the wisdom from Washington, D.C.,” Crapo said.

He told the Senate, “There are those in Washington who say that because we’ve been able to bring down our deficit … that we have solved our problem. We have not solved our problem,” because the federal debt continues to grow, he said. “The bottom line here is we still need a comprehensive plan.” Crapo called for tax code reforms that broaden the base and reduce rates, “and then major entitlement reform that puts these programs that are now screaming toward insolvency on a pathway to solvency.”

Risch told the Senate, “The financial condition of the country is just awful. … The bad news is there’s really nothing on track to turn this around. I’ve been in public service all my life, and very few things shock me any more, but the cavalier attitude that people have about money back there is just absolutely staggering.” He said when anyone proposes less spending, “They look at you like you got three heads – the only way they’re willing to compromise is if you agree to spend more money to increase programs and what have you, but if you want to start rolling things back, you don’t get a seat at that table.” Risch said, “In the long haul, I am incredibly optimistic for this country. In the short haul, things don’t look very good.”

House panel dumps unconstitutional Capitol protest rules, Admin drops plan to appeal

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House panel ended the state's bid to appeal a federal judge's decision that rules governing protests at the Capitol are unconstitutional. The House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday voted to reject rules that, among other things, had sought to limit protest duration and give special treatment to state events. They were crafted in the wake of the “Occupy Boise” protests of 2011 and 2012. But U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill decided the rules violated constitutional free speech protections last year. Following Tuesday's unanimous committee vote, Idaho Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna says her agency no longer plans to appeal Winmill's decision. She says Winmill's ruling provided guidance on how to craft rules governing Capitol gatherings in a way that doesn't run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

New state cabin-site appraisals went through extensive process…

Steven Hall, of Hall-Widdoss & Co. PC, an appraisal firm based in Missoula, Mont., is briefing the state Land Board this morning on how its new state-owned cabin-site appraisals were calculated. The appraisals defined market value for the lots as a “vacant and unimproved tract.” “Each of these cottage sites was viewed as though no improvements existed – that would be retaining walls, seawalls, docks, decks, structures, garages, patios, that kind of thing,” he said. “We were trying to get it to vacant, unimproved, but not natural state.”

Hall constructed a point system to evaluate the topography of each lot, including steepness, shoreline characteristics, lake depth and more. Every cabin site was inspected and photographed from multiple angles. Cabin site lessees filled out questionnaires. Market conditions, sales in the area, access and other factors were taken into account. “To the degree possible, I believe that the appraisals are error-free,” Hall said. “I believe that the appraisals stand on their merit.”

The values matter because they’re the basis for calculating rents that cabin owners pay for the ground under their cabins, and also for auctions or other steps the state might take to get out of the cabin-site renting business, a path the Land Board has been attempting to pursue. The lakefront lots are part of the state’s permanent land endowment, which is required by the state Constitution to be managed for the maximum long-term return to the endowment’s beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public schools.

Land Board takes up new lake cottage site appraisals…

Idaho’s state Land Board is meeting this morning, and considering new appraisal values for state-owned cabin sites at Priest and Payette lakes. The new values came in about 2.5 percent lower overall than the 2013 values, but individually, they vary considerably, with some as much as 40 percent higher or lower. The previous appraisals showed little change at Payette Lake, but at Priest Lake, they were up more than 80 percent. That prompted disputes and multiple lawsuits; the state then offered cabin site lessees an opportunity to get new appraisals. At Priest Lake, 311 lessees asked for new appraisals, along with 17 at Payette Lake.

AAA calls trucking group’s gas tax hike bill a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’

AAA of Idaho, which advocates for motorists, is calling HB 481, the gas-tax increase bill introduced by the Idaho Trucking Association, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The bill would raise Idaho’s 25 cent per gallon gas tax by two cents a year for three years, to raise $53 million a year more for road work by the end of the three years. “The Idaho Trucking Association pitched this bill as putting its money where its mouth is, but this is a gas tax, paid primarily by motorists,” said Dave Carlson, AAA Idaho public affairs director. “It’s less a solution, and more of a public relations strategy.” You can read AAA’s full statement here.

Moyle proposes income tax cut - $21 million next year, $126M over six years

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, is proposing legislation this morning to cut Idaho’s corporate and individual income tax rates, in all brackets, by a tenth of a percent a year for the next six years. The cost to the state general fund would be roughly $21 million a year for each cut, for a total of $126 million a year by the sixth year. By the end, that would bring Idaho’s top individual and corporate income tax rate down to 6.8 percent from the current 7.4 percent, which Moyle noted is below Montana’s rate of 6.9 percent.

“When you talk to businesses coming to Idaho, the big thing they talk about is your income tax rates are out of whack,” Moyle said. “Compared to surrounding states and the national average, we’re too high. If we want to draw good-paying jobs, we’ve got to be competitive.” He added, “It affects all taxpayers, low-income to high-income.”

Moyle’s bill includes a “trigger” – if state revenue doesn’t grow by at least 3 percent in any of the six years, the cut wouldn’t take effect that year. The bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2015, “not ’14, so we take care of the schools,” Moyle said. He said the price tag is just an estimate. “I hope the impact is more, because that means the economy is going,” he said. “If something goes wrong, we don’t do it.”

JFAC starts agency budget-setting, OKs raise for endowment investment manager

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has begun agency budget-setting this morning, starting with some smaller ones, including the Department of Finance, Industrial Commission, state lottery, the Endowment Fund Investment Board and the Public Utilities Commission. Bigger decisions are up later in the week, including the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Fish & Game on Friday; the public school budget-setting is set for March 3.

One divided vote this morning came on the budget for the Endowment Fund Investment Board, in which Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, proposed granting the board’s request for an $18,400 raise for the board’s investment manager, Larry Johnson. “This is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Ringo said. “This is a very important position, in my opinion, with a great deal of responsibility attached to it.” Similar positions across the country pay a median salary of $220,000, Ringo noted. “That’s almost $83,000 above the pay that this position is currently getting. … It would appear that we’re simply not competitive here.” She noted that a similar increase was approved several years ago for PERSI's investment manager.

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, said she couldn’t support the boost in view of other agencies, like the state Department of Correction, with “correctional officers, how much they need an increase just to make a living.” But the motion passed on a 13-7 vote. Those voting “no” were Nuxoll, Sens. Johnson, Vick and Bayer, and Reps. Thompson, Stevenson and Schmidt.

Unlike the Department of Correction, the Endowment Fund Investment Board receives no state general tax funds. It is instead funded entirely with dedicated funds that come from endowment earnings. The investment manager’s current salary is $137,200, plus $36,100 for benefits. The salary increase includes $15,000 for increased salary and $3,400 for benefits. Gov. Butch Otter didn't recommend funding the raise in his budget proposal.

Taxpayers have spent $18M on private attorneys in 3 years, due to understaffing of AG’s office

Idaho taxpayers have paid private attorneys more than $18 million in the past three years to do the state's legal work, in large part because the Idaho Attorney General's office doesn't have the staff to handle the caseload, the AP reports. The Associated Press obtained the payment information through a public-records request to the Idaho State Controller's office. It shows that Idaho government agencies have paid private law firms more than $18 million since fiscal year 2011, including about $3 million for attorneys who serve as administrative hearing officers. The private law firms charge the state anywhere from $125 to more than $400 an hour, compared to the $54 per hour it costs to have one of the state's staff attorneys do the job. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has either asked lawmakers for permission to add staffers to his department or warned them that the state's legal staff is dangerously underfunded every year since 2005; click below for the full report from AP reporters John Miller and Rebecca Boone.

Note: The figures in this story have been corrected from an earlier version.

Rep. Anderson to leave Legislature next year to focus on efforts against quagga mussels

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, has decided not to seek re-election, so he can spend more time working to keep invasive quagga and zebra mussels out of Idaho waterways. Anderson said he’s already working on that issue “pretty much full-time,” and needs to focus on it. “I feel like my primary job now is on invasive species – I need to do that. I don’t want us go lose our waterways in the Columbia Basin.”

Of his legislative post, Anderson said, “There’s other people out there that can do this and can do it well.” He said, “It’s been an absolute honor to serve for 10 years in District 1. I have enjoyed nearly every day of it.” Anderson, who is chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said he’s particularly enjoyed serving with fellow District 1 lawmakers Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. “We’ve made a good team,” he said.

$2 million wolf control bill clears House committee on 14-4 vote

After two and a half hours of impassioned testimony on both sides, the House Resources Committee has voted 14-4 in favor of HB 470, the $2 million wolf control fund bill. Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said she wasn’t so sure about setting up another board, as “the state has boards up the kabotch.” But, she said, “Right now I have deer in my background, the town of Challis is covered with deer. … They’re there because the wolves have driven them into town.” She said, “All in all, I think we’d better do this.”

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, spoke against the bill. “We only have one pot of money that we pay for everything out of,” she said, noting the number of school districts “that can’t keep the lights on five days a week.” Rubel said she wondered “whether this is really a $2 million problem,” and noted that an advisory committee called for $400,000 in state funding next year. “When we asked why this bill was proposing five times that expenditure, the answer was, hey, we have a surplus this year, so let’s go for it,” Rubel said. “Is this the very best way we can spend that surplus? … The number of wolves has dropped every year since 2009. … Our taxpayer money could be spent much better in other areas.”

Rep JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said the ranchers who want help with wolf depredation are part of the “bedrock economy in our state.” She said, “These people who are asking us for help here are the people who pay the taxes for our schools, and who are wanting to stay in business in our state. … I’m not thrilled about all parts of this legislation, but I don’t think I have anything better to offer.”

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “I just don’t see an end to this. We have people who love the wolves and think nature should take its course. We have people whose private property is being impacted.” Andrus said, “I would rather see this money go toward starting to build a predator-type fence around Yellowstone National Park … and put the wolves in there and let the nature lovers and the people who love wolves, let ‘em do their thing, and I don’t care what happens.”

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said, “I would recommend that JFAC only fund the $400,000 every year instead of the $2 million this year, but I’m not on JFAC.” Vander Woude said after two and a half hours of hearing testimony on the bill, he was ready to support it. The bill, which now moves to the full House, drew opposition from just one Republican on the panel, Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, and all three of the committee’s minority Democrats; all other GOP members supported it.

Teacher of the Year: ‘Reinvest in operational funding’

Idaho Teacher of the Year Jamie Esler, a science teacher at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, strongly urged lawmakers today to restore the operational funding that was cut from the state’s public schools through the recession.

“As the 2014 Idaho Teacher of the Year, I call on you to see the possibilities while acknowledging the current challenges and realities,” Esler told the Senate Education Committee this afternoon. “I call on you to recognize our potential while helping to ease our pain. Success is in the eyes of every single child. And it is in the hands of every single teacher. I see it every day. We, the public education team, are doing all that we possibly can and we are making a difference. You can too. Please join us. Please reinvest in the operational funding for the public education system, the future of the state of Idaho.”

Katie Graupman, an English and journalism teacher at Timberlake High School in Spirit Lake, also addressed the committee today; she’s among the recipients of this year’s Milken Educator Award, which gives top teachers from around the country $25,000 unrestricted awards for excellence. “I stand here before you a proud product of Idaho schools,” she told the lawmakers, having graduated from Priest River-Lamanna High School and the University of Idaho. “Idaho educators need your support,” Graupman said. “We need to … do everything we can to keep the incredible educators we already have in Idaho, and we need to encourage the very best and brightest students to become Idaho educators.” She called for following the 20 recommendations of the governor’s education improvement task force.

Full house for $2 million wolf control bill hearing…

A overflow room has been set up for this afternoon's packed House Resources Committee hearing on HB 470, the $2 million wolf control fund bill, with many waiting to testify.

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, told the committee, “The federal money continues to go down every year. So what this fund is intended to do is be a source to replace that federal money we’re losing, to continue to control depredating wolves just like we have in the past, and this is probably not a new effort but a continuation of the effort we’ve had.” He said, “No one knows, but most people believe that you have to harvest 40 percent of the wolves a year just to maintain the populations.”

Idaho Fish & Game Deputy Director Sharon Kiefer told the committee, “Hunting and trapping are important management tools.” But, she said, “Hunting and trapping will not completely address when we have depredation issues, whether it’s for private domestic animals or for our wildlife. We continue to see some need for wolf depredation control, no matter how creative we may be with hunting and trapping.”

Fish & Game figures show that the number of wolves in Idaho has been dropping, as has the number of breeding pairs, Kiefer said, but the number of packs has gone up. In response to questions from the committee, she noted that some members of the public believe wolf numbers are higher than those reflected in the official reports.

Bill would extend Idaho’s film tax incentive, though it still wouldn’t be funded

The House Business Committee has approved HB 498, to extend Idaho’s law allowing for a tax incentive for movie productions so it will expire in 2020 instead of in 2014. The incentive has never been funded, so it’s not been used yet. But Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer said, “We do see merit on the horizon. … Keep this option open for us by extending the sunset, and we’ll come back with the funding request when we’re ready.”

Sayer said, “We are seeing momentum in this industry. Our state’s a beautiful state, it is something we could put on display. … These folks come in, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in a region in a short period of time.” The bill now moves to the full House.

Brewery bill aims at allowing beer tasting

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Beer enthusiasts could soon have a reason - and a way - to celebrate, thanks to a fledgling bill that aims to clear Idaho breweries to hold beer tastings. The legislation could open up new business opportunities for beer makers that are currently barred from serving alcohol by the glass or bottle on their property. It's almost identical to the state's law governing wine tastings: sample sizes can't exceed an ounce and a half. The companies would be tasked with making sure no minors or visibly intoxicated people get their hands on the samples. Rep. George Eskridge, a Dover Republican, said sponsor Idaho Brewers United as well as Idaho Beer and Wine Distributers Association back the legislation “100 percent.” The bill is now headed for a full hearing in the House State Affairs Committee.

Bedke: ‘I think we’re seeing democracy at work’

With hundreds of cheerful “Add the Words” protesters filling all four levels of the state Capitol today, plus a crowd of 4-H students visiting the Capitol, the annual Idaho Cattle Association lunch for legislators on the fourth floor, and a school-choice rally with Gov. Butch Otter on the Capitol steps, there are tons of people here on this President’s Day. “I think that we’re seeing democracy at work,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Among the protesters’ hand-lettered signs: “Equality for all Idahoans,” “Religious bigotries deny liberties, ally against H427 & 426,” “81% of Idahoans believe it should be illegal to discriminate,” “Idaho is too great for hate” and “Discrimination is unpatriotic.”

The governor answered questions about government from charter school students on the steps. “Sometimes it’s messy, I agree,” he said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating.” Otter told the kids to celebrate the freedom our form of government provides. “The best way to do that is to participate in it,” he said. “Know what your government is – know what a constitutional republic means.” He said he thought the kids’ questions were “right on,” and said, “They’re interested in what goes on in this building.”

Asked about the “Add the Words” protest, Otter said, “That’s what this constitutional republic is all about. That’s what the first 10 amendments are all about.” He added, “I don’t perceive Idaho as anti-gay. I perceive it as pro-marriage in the traditional sense.”

As lawmakers exited their chambers, the protesters placed their hands over their mouths, to symbolize that they’re not being heard. The bill to amend Idaho’s human rights act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has been proposed each of the past eight years, but has never gotten a full committee hearing.

HB 427, the controversial religious freedom expansion bill from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, remains on the amending order in the House, but wasn’t addressed today. Bedke said, “The bill is not ready to advance at this point.”

Hundreds of ‘Add the Words’ protesters ring Capitol rotunda on all four floors

Hundreds of cheerful, chatting “Add the Words” protesters are now ringing the Idaho state Capitol rotunda on all four floors. Many are carrying small, hand-lettered signs saying, “Add the Words,” or other hand-lettered signs decrying discrimination; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Unlike earlier protests, today's protesters aren't wearing matching T-shirts or holding their hands over their mouths to signify that they aren't being heard.

The protesters want the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act, which now forbids discrimination based on race, religion, disability and other factors, but not on those. Some of the protesters also have signs opposing HB 427, the religious freedom expansion bill that's pending in the House, to protect those who deny service to those to whom they object on religious grounds. No action is planned in the House on that bill today; both houses today are holding memorial services for lawmakers who have died in the past year.

Memorials commemorate Kress, Carlson, Shepherd, Cenarrusa, Campbell, Stone, more…

Both the House and Senate are holding their annual memorial services today for members who died in the past year. The Senate has just two: former Sens. Stan Kress, of Bingham County, and Herb Carlson, of Ada County. The House has 10: Former Reps. Cyril Burt, Golden Linford, John Campbell, Mary Lou Shepherd, Pete Cenarrusa, Ralph Steele, Wayne Hall, Ruby Stone, Larry Harris and Gertrude Sutton. In addition to the memorial presentations, musical commemorations will be featured in both houses; the Boise High String Quartet will perform in the Senate, and in the House, the BSU Meistersingers will perform, as will Reps. Thyra Stevenson and Patrick McDonald on the bagpipes.

 

House panel backs restoring employment supports for disabled, cut in ‘11

The House Health & Welfare Committee has voted unanimously in favor of HB 476, to restore employment supports for disabled people that were cut in HB 260 in 2011. As a result of the cut, the number of disabled people getting on-the-job training and support fell from 275 in 2010 to 182 in 2013, as it forced a choice between treatment services and employment supports, rather than allowing for both; many had to stop working. The committee heard extensive testimony about how the employment support services help disabled Idahoans work and remain independent.

“As a fiscal conservative, I think we’ve got to look at what we spend money on, and this program I think returns greatly to the community and to the people that participate in it,” said Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden. “I’ve always felt that the best social program is a job – it keeps people employed, engaged, and … gives them a sense of self-worth, makes them productive members of the society. So I fully support this legislation.”

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, the committee chairman, said, when it’s clear that it’s costing the state more to maintain cuts than to restore them, “then of course we’d be foolish to do it.” He said, “I would just like to thank all of the employers out there who have actually tried to and have successfully found work for our disabled population, because quite frankly, those employees are the most appreciative employees that that employer will ever have.”

The bill now moves to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.” It needs passage both there and in the Senate plus the governor’s signature to become law.

State says ‘Big Ed’ Beckley’s lease for canyon jump is still good…

The Idaho Department of Lands says its lease with Texas daredevil “Big Ed” Beckley is still good despite Beckley's problems securing a launch site for his plan to jump the Snake River Canyon in south-central Idaho, according to the Twin Falls Times-News. “As long as Mr. Beckley continues to display diligent efforts toward securing necessary permissions from a landowner for a launch site — even if it is a private landowner on the south side of the canyon — and he meets all other obligations of the lease, he will remain in good standing,” Department of Lands spokeswoman Emily Callihan told newspaper. Beckley in September paid $943,000 to the department at an auction to lease 1,147 acres on the Snake River Canyon's north rim for a landing site, hoping to launch from the south rim at a site in the city of Twin Falls used by Evel Knievel in his failed attempt 40 years ago; click below for a full report from the Times-News and the Associated Press.

Sen. Vick wants to amend Constitution so Legislature can override post-session vetoes

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, introduced legislation this morning to amend the Idaho Constitution to allow the speaker of the House and the president pro-tem of the Senate to order the governor to call a special session of the Legislature to allow for a veto override, if the governor has vetoed a bill after lawmakers wrap up their session. The Idaho Constitution allows only the governor to call special sessions.

Vick told the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning, “I became aware that we didn’t have that ability. It seemed like to maintain the balance of power between the legislative branch and the executive branch, it’d be a good idea, and so I started working on that.” Vick said Idaho is one of just seven states where lawmakers don’t have a way to override a post-session veto. The majority of states can, he said, “Either because they have full-time legislatures, or the ability to call special sessions, or some way to override a governor’s veto.” Vick previously served in the Montana Legislature, which has a system in which lawmakers are polled, without reconvening, for possible post-session veto overrides.

The committee voted to introduce the bill, clearing the way for a possible full hearing; to amend the Constitution, the measure would need two-thirds support from each house of the Legislature plus majority support from voters at the next general election.

This is the third amendment to the Idaho Constitution that Vick has proposed in his two terms in the Senate. The first, to amend the Constitution to limit legislative sessions to 80 days a year, didn’t get a committee hearing. The second, to require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, cleared the House State Affairs Committee two years ago, but died after failing to receive the required two-thirds support in the full House.

Most state offices closed today, but Legislature is in session…

Yes, today is a holiday – President’s Day – on which most state offices are closed. But the Legislature doesn’t take holidays, and it’s in session today. It is the day on which both houses commemorate past lawmakers who have died during the last year during their floor sessions, which both begin at 10:30; those ceremonies could push back action on more controversial issues, like the guns-on-campus bill, SB 1254, which is on the Senate’s third reading calendar, but the Senate may not get that far down its calendar this morning after the ceremonies.

Sen. Fulcher names legislative sub for the week

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, has named a substitute legislator to fill in for him for the week: Dan Johnson, a real estate agent from Kuna and the Idaho GOP District 22 chairman. “He needed some personal time,” Johnson said this morning. One complication the appointment may pose: The Idaho Senate already has a Dan Johnson, the GOP senator from Lewiston in District 6. Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said that’ll make roll calls in the full Senate a little more complicated this week.

Fulcher, who is challenging Gov. Butch Otter in the GOP primary, has a campaign event scheduled in Post Falls tonight.

Masterson: ‘Why a police leader feels compelled to take his message directly to the people’

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson has sent out a guest opinion, entitled, “Why a police leader feels compelled to take his message directly to the people,” urging Idaho citizens to contact their legislators about SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho's public college campuses, where they're now banned. Masterson says he and three other police chiefs were blocked from testifying at the committee hearing about the bill last week, and he feels they had valuable information lawmakers needed to hear before passing the bill.

“The right idea will survive public debate,” Masterson writes. “Arbitrarily ceasing debate raises suspicion about intent. It also destroys trust and confidence in the people running the process, in this case, the hearing in the state senate. So I take this opportunity to share my comments with you, the people I serve,  and encourage you to share your opinion, whatever it is, with your legislator on this important public safety issue.”

Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, the lead sponsor of the bill, gave over nearly 40 minutes of the hearing to NRA lobbyist Dakota Moore, who presented the bill instead of McKenzie while McKenzie presided over the hearing.  “I think the committee members understood the issue well and did have a complete understanding of the positions for and against it,” McKenzie said Friday. “Within the time that we had, I tried to prioritize those who were from the universities.”

In addition to the police chiefs, university students who signed up to testify also weren't called to speak; McKenzie said only about a third of those who signed up were able to testify. “On difficult social issues like this and others we have in this committee, there isn’t enough time to have every person testify to the length that they would want to,” McKenzie said. Click below for Masterson's full guest opinion article.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Bill Roberts, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the events of the legislative session’s sixth week, focusing on the debate over the guns-on-campus bill. Also, Davlin interviews Gov. Butch Otter; Kunz interviews Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, about efforts to raise Idaho’s minimum wage; and there’s a report on suction dredge mining and the debate it’s prompted in this year’s legislative session.

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.

 

Scramble starts for Idaho’s cigarette tax revenue

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — With Idaho's $120 million Capitol renovation nearly paid off, there's a scramble for $11 million in annual tobacco tax revenue that come 2015 will no longer be needed to finance the improvements. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter wants the cash, from the 56 cent tax paid when somebody buys a pack of smokes, to help pay the state's share of Medicaid. But House Majority Leader Mike Moyle launched his own plan Friday. The Republican says the coveted cigarette-tax revenue to go toward highways and water projects, instead. Otter's say there's ample reason to dedicate cigarette revenue to health insurance for poor people, since many suffer from tobacco-related illnesses. But Moyle says Idaho's roads and drought-plagued agriculture-based economy should take precedent. More ideas could still surface. After all, there are 105 lawmakers.

Click below for a full report from AP reporters John Miller and Rebecca Boone.

Senate passes ag-gag bill 23-10, four Republicans oppose it

The Senate has voted 23-10 in favor of SB 1337, the so-called “ag-gag” bill, which would create a new crime of interfering with agricultural production, and specifically targets anyone who takes and distributes surreptitious video. The new crime would carry up to a year in jail and fines of up to $5,000.

During the debate, which ran through much of the noon hour, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, speaking against the bill, said America has a “proud tradition” of things being exposed that shock people’s sensibilities – and bring about change and end wrongdoing. Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, said, “Senators, this bill is about property rights. This bill is about individual property owners being able to protect their property. … One should have the right to regulate who has access to his business and to his business records.” He decried “agri-terrorism,” which he said is becoming an increasing problem.

Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, the bill’s lead sponsor, said, “You don’t go out to Micron and take pictures. … It’s against the law.” He said, “The problem we have here is you can be tried and convicted in the press or on YouTube, because everything’s so available nowadays.”

The bill now moves to the House side; to become law, it still must pass there and receive the governor’s signature. The 10 “no” votes came from six of the Senate’s seven Democrats (all but Sen. Lacey), plus four Republicans, Sens. Fulcher, Bayer, McKenzie and Keough. Two senators missed the vote, Sens. Siddoway and Johnson.

Twin Falls newspaper sues school district over denial of public records

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — The Times-News has filed a lawsuit against the Gooding County School District after officials denied two public records request. The newspaper reports (http://bit.ly/1jF5z2x) that the lawsuit filed Monday involves requests for copies of separation agreements for Superintendent Heather Williams and Gooding High School Principal Chris Comstock. The school district in January denied the requests, contending the agreements are confidential and not available to the public. The lawsuit contends the school district failed to cite a legal reason for denying the requests. The Times-News publisher Travis Quast says the public has the right to the information because the district is funded by taxpayers. A hearing is set for Feb. 25 in Gooding County District Court.

The Times-News has its full story online here.

UPDATE: Today, the district decided to hand over the records after all.

Senate panel clears measure to punish police supervisors who give orders re fed gun laws

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gun-rights advocates and Idaho law enforcement have resolved differences over a bill that would punish Idaho police and sheriffs who help confiscate federally banned firearms. The measure, which allows lawmakers to trumpet their Second Amendment credibility, cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee Friday. That's a far cry from a year ago, when a similar measure stalled in the panel. Then, there were concerns it might complicate relationships between Idaho police and federal agencies that cooperate on drug investigations. Now, officials representing law-enforcement agencies say they don't object to the revamped measure. Many doubt it will ever be invoked; it would apply only if a police supervisor who issues the order to an officer knowingly and intentionally violates the Idaho Constitution. Though it's meant to address fears President Barack Obama might forbid certain weapons, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Marv Hagedorn, concedes he's heard nothing intimating an imminent ban. Now, the Senate will vote.

Senate debate: ‘Anti-attack the innocent bill,’ Written too broadly, ‘Harsh penalties on whistleblowers’

As the Senate debates SB 1337, the so-called “ag-gag bill,” Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said, “It’s an anti-attack the innocent bill. We want incidents of abuse of production animals reported immediately. That’s why we have policies where we will have an investigator there within 24 hours. … We have veterinarians available immediately to go out and make sure that the animals are cared for. … This bill does not prevent that from happening. It does not punish anyone from legitimately calling the Department of Agriculture and reporting the abuse of production animals in the state of Idaho.”

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said he’s reluctantly opposing the bill because it’s written too broadly. “It’s very broad in language and application,” McKenzie said. “It may go beyond what we intend.” McKenzie said the bill is so broadly worded that it could impose the new crime on someone who unintentionally trespassed onto a site on which some agricultural activities were occurring and took pictures, without any malicious intent. “I don’t think that’s a good way to write criminal code,” McKenzie said.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “We have the Right to Farm Act already. We have numerous trespassing laws in statute. … This bill creates a perception that the industry is hiding animal abuse.” She said it “also imposes harsh penalties on whistleblowers, journalists and others who expose … food safety issues” and other problems, like pollution of a city water supply by an agricultural practice. She said the bill raises 1st Amendment questions, and may violate federal whistleblower laws as well.

Patrick on ‘ag gag’ bill: ‘We’re potentially all at risk’

Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, in his opening debate on SB 1337, the so-called “ag-gag bill,” said, “We’ve seen farm families … intimidated by activists who misrepresent themselves.” Patrick said, “We have many things we do in agriculture that are not agreed upon by all. … We’re potentially all at risk.”

Patrick said when an activist group distributed surreptitious video of severe abuse of cows at a southern Idaho dairyman's operation, “It was no reason, in his mind, other than to destroy his operation.” Patrick, a farmer, said, “These activist groups approach the retail customers and use intimidating and threatening tactics. … We live in the area and we know what goes on, and we know this is not typical at all.”

The bill, sponsored by Patrick and Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, has 25 legislative co-sponsors. It creates a new crime of “interference with agricultural production,” with a penalty of up to one year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines. Violators also would have to pay double damages in restitution. The new crime would cover recording anything at an ag production operation without permission; intentionally damaging an ag operation, including crops, animals or equipment; misrepresenting oneself in seeking employment at an ag operation; and obtaining records of an ag operation by  “force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass.”

After call of the Senate, Sen. Siddoway brought to chamber in handcuffs by ISP

It’s rare that a call of the Senate is issued – which requires that the doors be locked, roll be taken, and any missing, unexcused senators rounded up, even if that requires sending the Idaho State Police or the National Guard to find and arrest them – but one was issued this morning. It was done actually for the benefit of the current class of high school pages, so they’d get to see one before they leave and a new class takes their place since no call has been issued yet this session. When the roll was taken, seven senators were missing from the floor. Six were quickly rounded up, but one remained missing – Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton.

Senators and staffers milled around while he was hunted down; he turned out to be in the basement of the Capitol getting candy. Uniformed Idaho State Police officers delivered Siddoway to the chamber in handcuffs, as his fellow senators snapped photos with their phones. Once he was freed and seated, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis announced, “This may be the first time that this particular senator has ever been arrested for going too slow.”

Amid laughter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little said, “He’s also in violation of Rule 50 for having candy on the floor of the Senate.” Siddoway was clutching a plastic grocery bag.

With that done with, the call was lifted, and the Senate has moved on to its main business today – debate on SB 1337, the bill to make it a crime to take or distribute surreptitious video of photos of a farm operation, as was done last year when abuse of cows was videotaped by activists at a southern Idaho dairy, leading to criminal charges against the employees involved.

JFAC hearing wraps up after all get to testify; 44 speak, with top issues school funding, Medicaid, budget priorities

The JFAC public hearing has wrapped up, after just over two hours of public testimony; everyone who signed up to testify got a chance to speak, with a three-minute limit. By my rough count, 44 people testified, with the highest number - 15 - calling for more funding for Idaho schools. The second-biggest topic was Medicaid and mental health services, with a dozen people addressing it. Six people called on JFAC to consider the alternative budget proposed by former state chief economist Mike Ferguson, which would shift funds from tax cuts and big deposits to reserve accounts into education funding, raises for state workers and restoring cuts to Medicaid. Five school district officials from around the state called for continuing funding for the Idaho Education Network. Three called for increasing funding for ag education; two for increased funding for the Idaho State Police.

“People were respectful and concise, and I think compelling,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chairman. “I was just very impressed.” He noted that close to 80 people attended the hearing, though not all chose to speak. Cameron called the testimony “very impressive and touching.” He said he found the comments from Medicaid recipients “memorable,” and “the kids, the students that spoke to us .. were I thought just very well-spoken and compelling. I was impressed that we had all three of our education associations in unanimity.”

Testimony: Infant-toddler program ‘has come up short,’ school funding, mental health services…

Continued testimony at the JFAC public hearing this morning, at which more than 40 people have now testified:

Kristi Young, mother of a child with cerebral palsy, said, “The infant-toddler program’s budget has come up short, and it’s affecting families.” She said, “This program provides intervention to families regardless of their ability to pay or their income – it’s a blessing.” Early intervention can make all the difference in the life of a child with special needs, she said.

Katherine Hansen’s voice broke as she thanked lawmakers for listening for the past few years, as they restored certain specific cuts in services for the disabled that had been eliminated through budget cuts. She noted that bills moving through this year would restore non-emergency dental services for disabled people on Medicaid, and restore employment supports that allow people with development disabilities to hold down a job. “Consider the responsible alternative to the executive budget,” she said. “In that budget, there actually is an opportunity to begin to rebuild a quality and sustainable community-based service delivery system for people with disabilities. The cuts and changes these past five years, as you know, have impacted agencies and people with disabilities significantly.” The cuts forced a change, she said, “from a community-based model to a segregated, center-based model.” Providers haven’t seen a rate increase since 8 years ago, and that one was for just 1.9 percent, she said.

Earline Worthley, 75, a retired teacher from Weiser, said Idaho needs to commit to funding schools and show its teachers it respects them. Her husband, Steve Worthley, echoed her education funding concerns, and added his opposition to funding the Galloway Dam on the Weiser River, which he called “a boondoggle and a tragedy, and just a waste of money.”

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson backed the three community crisis centers proposed next year for Idaho’s three largest metropolitian areas. “Looking at the issue of mental illness and suicide in our state … this is long overdue, needed, upstream, proactive early intervention best practice effort that myself and law enforcement in the state strongly supports,” he said.

Mike Lanza, a Boise parent, said the amount of funding Gov. Butch Otter has proposed to implement education task force recommendations “would put Idaho behind the 8-ball if this is a 5-year rollout.” He said,  “I hope you will look seriously at the alternative state budget proposed by former state economist Mike Ferguson. … The governor’s budget gives priority to putting money in reserve accounts and giving a tax break for large corporations and top earners. Mr. Ferguson’s alternative budget gives priority to education. … This is economically feasible.”

School boards, administrators, IEA all united, present joint testimony for funding task force plan

Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association said the ISBA, the Idaho School Administrators Association, and the Idaho Education Association, the state teachers union, all have been meeting regularly this legislative session and plan to continue doing so; the three presented a joint statement at the JFAC public hearing today. Echeverria said all three back the 20 recommendations of the governor’s education improvement task force. “We do not support breaking these up and implementing some but not others,” she said.

Robin Nettinga of the IEA said the three groups all want funding for implementing new Idaho core standards, teacher mentoring efforts, and salary improvements for teachers, including a base salary increase next year of at least 1 percent. Rob Winslow of the ISAA said restoration of discretionary funding for school districts is crucial; he also backed increased advanced opportunities, to be funded from the public education stabilization fund; and funding for technology pilot projects.

Testimony details results of funding crunch in Idaho schools…

Two Eagle Rock Middle School students from Idaho Falls just wowed the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the audience with their testimony in favor of improving school funding in Idaho. Shandy Gillman said, “Currently our class sizes are getting bigger and bigger.” Derik Johnson said, “Our textbooks are falling apart at the bindings.” He said laptop computers aren’t suitable replacements, because they take 20 minutes to warm up. “We’re losing our teachers to other states,” he said. Shandy said Idaho spends more to keep a prisoner locked up for a year than it does on students’ education. “Are people in prisons worth more than Idaho’s future?” she asked.

They were among several people testifying this morning about severe problems that a funding crunch has created in Idaho’s schools. “I have dried-up markers and dried-up glue sticks, and I hoard the few things that I have for my classroom,” said Terri Bentley, a teacher at Skyview High School in Nampa. Kim O’Neill, a parent and teacher from Idaho Falls, said, “There’s no funding for remedial classes, so these kids get farther and farther behind. … Our librarians have been cut. … The paraprofessionals, they’ve been leaving the schools, all the good ones.” She said, “Our janitors are really struggling to keep up.” She teachers special-ed job skills, and, she said, “Two days a week we clean the lunchroom.” She said a friend who was teaching in Idaho for $40,000 a year, including coaching, left for a job in Wyoming paying $62,000 a year, without coaching.

Mike Martin, a teacher and FFA advisor from Marsing, said, “I urge you as legislators to adequately fund education, so that the good children of Idaho can have the education they deserve.”

Kris Carte, a Nampa school teacher for 24 years, said, “Students are very perceptive, and they understand: The message that’s being sent right now is that education isn’t important. We need to change that.”

Matthew Allmeier, a senior at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls, said, “I’ve seen … the toll that the lack of money takes on my teachers, my classrooms and me.” He said, “Investing students in pays off, because where there is a student, there’s always going to be a hunger to learn and a teacher to feed it.”

Testimony: Ag education, IEN funding, DD employment supports…

As this morning’s JFAC public hearing continues, three people have now spoken in favor of expanding funding for agricultural education in Idaho, as proposed in a pending bill. The programs now have the same funding they had in 1998, said Brett Wilder, state president of the Idaho FFA Association, and in 1982, the state FFA executive director was cut to half-time. “We are the only state in the nation without a full-time executive director to direct agricultural education,” Wilder said. “It is crucial that we act now. The average age of a farmer is getting near retirement.”

McCall-Donnelly school Superintendent Glen Seymoniak spoke in favor of continuing funding for the Idaho Education Network, as did Patrick Goff, technology director for Horseshoe Bend and Garden Valley schools, who said both small communities have seen big benefits.

Both providers and clients of services for people with developmental disabilities pleaded for improvements in the programs, including restoring employment support services; that’s proposed in a bill now pending in the House. “Having a job would make me feel awesome, knowing that I can earn my own paycheck,” said Becky Woodhead.

Testimony: ‘Continue to support IEN,’ ‘She’ll be toothless’ ‘Get a decent drink in this state’

Some more of the testimony at this morning’s public hearing on state budget issues:

Jerry Reininger of the Meridian School District told JFAC, “I hope in the future you’ll continue to support the IEN.” He said middle school students also need the advanced opportunities that the Idaho Education Network has afforded high school students in our district. “We have two of our high schools where the IEN video conferencing units are being used every day,” he said. “We have students who are taking classes from other schools, receiving classes from other schools, and in the past we’ve provided classes to other districts in the state of Idaho.”

Gerald Lucas of Grangeville spoke in favor of restoring non-emergency dental coverage under Medicaid, noting the case of his wife. “Without help, she’ll be toothless,” he said. “From my own personal experience, I can say that’s no fun. … The state will be money ahead by restoring the dental benefits, because a healthy worker is a productive worker.”

Eric Lecht of Boise said the Idaho State Liquor Division’s special-order system isn’t working, and he hasn’t been able to order specialty scotch from other states. “What’s it going to take to get a decent drink in this state?” he asked. “We’re missing an opportunity.” He said he’s not pleased that the chances of getting pulled over by an ISP trooper are the same as “getting struck by lightning,” and said if Idaho didn’t pass legislation like controversial religious freedom expansion bills HB 426 and HB 426, it could avoid steep legal bills to defend them in court. “Not having to pay for those bills and lawsuits could pay for the ISP’s staffing model,” he said.

Testimony: ‘Put money where our mouth is,’ ‘Lives could be saved,’ ‘We’ve stripped our system bare’

Among those testifying this morning to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on state budget issues:

Donna Yule, executive director of Idaho Public Employees Association, urged JFAC to adopt the “responsible alternative” budget proposed by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, which would shift funds from tax cuts and large deposits to state reserves into education funding, state employee raises, and restoring services cut from Medicaid. She said everyone in the Capitol says education, the state’s workforce and medical care are top priorities. “And yet the spending in these really belies that notion,” she said. “It’s time to start putting our money where our mouth is.”

Frank Monasterio of Mountain Home, with Catholic Charities of Idaho, urged lawmakers to expand Medicaid. “I want to press the importance of accepting the optional federal funds in Medicaid,” he said. “I feel it is my duty as a faithful and active citizen to promote Christian values of justice, compassion and responsibility. … Five hundred lives could be prevented from being prematurely ended if we expand Medicaid. State and local taxpayers would save $479 million over the next 10 years,” and the economy would add hundreds of jobs.

Laura Scuri urged improvement in Idaho’s mental health system. “I want you to know that Optum has reacted well to your directives, the call times are down. But we’ve stripped our system bare,” she said. “We need to step back and develop a system of care that meets the unique needs … in Idaho.”

JFAC opens public hearing…

This morning is JFAC’s public hearing, when people can offer their input on state budget issues. The hearing is in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can watch live here by clicking on “Lincoln Auditorium.” “We will simply be listening today,” said JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “We appreciate your being here.” Meanwhile, the Senate State Affairs Committee, which is meeting across the hall, is taking up a series of bills this morning including legislation to penalize Idaho police officers who enforce federal gun laws.

Rep. Loertscher seeks to hit wind energy companies in the wallet

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Republican legislator who has long fought Idaho's wind energy sector now wants to hit the industry in its pocketbook. Rep. Tom Loertscher of Ione introduced a measure Thursday to trim a tax break that alternative energy companies claiming on their property. Loertscher worries companies whose towering turbines dot Idaho's windy horizons are inappropriately claiming a tax break for property not used directly to produce electricity. In a House tax committee hearing, he charged some companies with claiming breaks on equipment including snow cats they use to access turbines during the snowy winter months. Loertscher called it “a matter of fairness.” The panel agreed to debate his bill, which forbids wind and geothermal energy companies from claiming a break on their business equipment or on structures that don't produce energy.

Crapo, Risch introduce bill to give Idaho a 3rd federal district judge

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have introduced legislation to give Idaho a third federal district judge, which if approved, would be the first addition to Idaho’s federal district bench in 60 years. Idaho is one of only three states with just two federal district judges; the others are North Dakota and Vermont.

“The need for an additional judge in Idaho has been widely recognized for years,” Crapo said.  “The District of Idaho has been working to meet the needs of the district while facing growing personnel and financial challenges.  Advancing this productivity by adding an additional judgeship to the court would help ensure effective access to justice for Idaho’s increasing population.”

2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson has introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House. You can read the full statement from Crapo and Risch online here.

 

Mexican consul to Senate: ‘Something great is happening in Mexico’

Guillermo Ordorica, the consul of Mexico in Boise, addressed the Idaho Senate today, his first such formal presentation. Ordorica took office in June; he previously served as deputy consul in El Paso, Texas, and has held numerous other high-level diplomatic positions in locations including Paris and the Embassy of Mexico to the Holy See.

“Something great is happening in Mexico,” Ordorica told the Senate. He highlighted both economic and political reforms recently enacted in that nation that he said will improve the Mexican economy and trade, including moves to allow exploration for shale gas. “I am sure we will boost our development,” he said. “In Mexico, things are happening. We are reaching agreements and we are optimistic. My country is open to the world.”

He noted the extensive trade ties between the United States and Mexico, and said, “Almost 30,000 jobs in the Gem State depend directly on trade activities with Mexico.” Ordorica said the consulate of Mexico serves Mexicans in the region and promotes trade and other relations between the two nations. “Our main duty is to promote Mexico as an attractive destiny for tourism, business and investments,” he said.

“Mexicans, you know, are good and hard-working people who contribute with their abilities and talents to the benefit of this beautiful and promising region of the United States,” Ordorica told the Senate. He said more than 70 percent of Hispanics in Idaho are U.S. citizens, and 95 percent are of Mexican origin. “Most important, regardless of origin, they are also Idahoans. They are an active part of your community and many of them your constituency.”

Constitutional amendment on legislative review of agency rule-making wins enthusiastic support in House

A proposed constitutional amendment, to enshrine in the Idaho Constitution the Legislature’s ability to review all state agency rules, drew enthusiastic, bipartisan support in the House today. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, who proposed the amendment, said the Legislature currently can do that – uniquely among states – because of a court decision. “We’re making sure that we put this into the Constitution so that we do have this ability into the future,” Loertscher told the House.

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, said, “As a freshman legislator, I think this was the most interesting thing that we were introduced to last year. … We really can make a difference in the lives of our constituents. … It really is the grassroots of lawmaking.” Idaho lawmakers spend roughly the first three weeks of each year’s legislative session reviewing agency rules, which they can accept or reject; that allows them to ensure that the rules match the intent of the legislation that prompted them. Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell, said, “It’s too bad that Washington, D.C. does not follow the same path.”

The House voted 67-0 in favor of HJR 2, easily exceeding the required two-thirds margin. The constitutional amendment still needs two-thirds approval in the Senate and a majority vote of the people at the next general election to take effect.

60 ‘Add the Words’ protesters file into Statehouse, stage silent protest

A line of about 60 silent “Add the Words” protesters marched in single file halfway around the state Capitol and back today, then entered the statehouse on the second floor, filed upstairs, and were refused entrance to both the Senate and House galleries because they were wearing protest T-shirts. Their dark shirts all said, “Add the 4 Words Idaho.” After going to the gallery entrances in both houses on the 4th floor, the protesters silently filed back downstairs to the third floor, where they circled the rotunda, then stood silently, ringing it.

Asked how long they’ll stay, former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “As long as they’re able. They’d like to be seen, they’d like to be heard.” Nothing prevents the protesters from standing in the rotunda, where they’re lined up along the inner railing and not blocking anything. Some of the protesters are among the 44 who were arrested last week for silently blocking all entrances to the Senate chamber.

The group wants the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act, to extend protections against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. The act currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of factors including race, religion, disability and more, but not on those. Legislation to make that change has been proposed each year for the past eight years, but has never gotten a hearing. After the protest, the protesters released a statement; click below to read it.

Bill would remove elected officials’ exemption from wage garnishment; Rep. Barbieri opposes it

Legislators and other elected officials are currently exempt from having their wages garnished for state court judgments, according to Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, who introduced legislation this morning to remove the exemption. Morse said his bill would treat elected officials like anyone else.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, spoke out against the bill and opposed introducing it. “During the Legislature, we are doing the people’s business,” he said, and shouldn’t “be distracted by such things as this.” He asked his fellow lawmakers to “reflect for a moment on how intense this three months is” and the “emotional drain,” and said, “This exception makes a lot of sense to me.”

However, he was outvoted, and the House State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce Morse’s bill. Morse said the exception dates back to 1939, and only bars state court garnishments of elected officials’ pay – not federal. That’s why former state Rep. Phil Hart’s entire legislative salary was able to be garnished by the IRS for his federal income tax debts, but state courts couldn’t do the same.

New bill for $10 million in tax credits aimed at encouraging Idaho students to switch to private schools

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee voted this morning to introduce a new version of last year’s failed legislation to provide a $10 million tax credit for scholarships to entice Idaho students to switch to private schools. Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, who introduced this year’s bill, said it has “some minor changes” from the bill that passed the House but died in the Senate last year. Vander Woude, like Sen. Bob Nonini last year, contended the bill would save the state money. “For every dollar that the state gives up, it saves a dollar,” he said, by not having to pay to educate that child in public schools. The committee’s vote to introduce the bill clears the way for a possible full hearing.

Bill would shift sales tax funds to road work…

Idaho would tap 2 percent of the state sales tax money that flows to the state’s general fund and instead shift it to road maintenance and construction, both at the local and state level, starting in 2016, under legislation proposed this morning by Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer. He said that would shift about $22 million, which is close to the Tax Commission’s estimate of how much of Idaho’s sales tax is charged on tires and automobile accessories. Stores that sell those items wouldn’t have to keep track; the percentage would just come off the top of sales tax collections.

Rep. Thomas Dayley, R-Boise, asked, “The general fund is … allocated now, so where is it going to be taken from, that $22 million?” Kauffman said, “I’m expecting huge growth in the economy, so it’s just the extra – that might be a pipe dream, too. On the other side of that, you could say that the general fund has been taking for years the $20 million from times and accessories and using the highway monies, so we could go back and forth.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, spoke against the bill. “What we’re doing here is we’re not raising money for our roads. What we’re doing is we’re taking from other obligations we have, and we’re making transportation our No. 1 priority.” Burgoyne said while transportation is important, “I can’t put it above education, our prisons and public safety.”

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee voted to introduce the bill, clearing the way for a possible full hearing.

House, Senate Ed committees ask JFAC to fund leadership awards for teachers next year

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has begun hearing reports from the chairs of various House and Senate committees on their panels’ recommendations for budgeting, in preparation for the start of agency budget-setting next week. The chairs of the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees started the process off yesterday; this morning, the chairmen of the House and Senate Education committees were up first.

Both Rep. Reed DeMordaunt and Sen. John Goedde called for funding for recommendations from the governor’s education stakeholders task force, on which both serve. Among them: $15.8 million for leadership awards for teachers, in the form of one-time bonuses next year. The House Education Committee will consider introducing a bill this morning to authorize those.

“They are a specific component of the career ladders recommendations” from the task force, DeMordaunt said. “The career ladders recommendations are still in process; we believe that by this time next year, those will be fully baked and ready for our consideration. But there is an aspect that we believe we can move forward on today, and that is the opportunity to provide a premium or an award or bonus or whatever you want to call it, to educators who serve in areas that are above and beyond their normal responsibility, areas such as mentoring for their peers, teaching dual credit courses, things like that. … In the legislation we’re proposing, we provide a fair bit of flexibility for districts out there.”

Goedde told JFAC, “It should be noted that this is not Lake Woebegone, and not every educator is a leader in the field. We recognize that.” His committee also favors boosting the state’s minimum teacher salary to $32,750, at a cost of $10 million next year, and granting classified employees a 2 percent raise. His committee was divided, he said, with some favoring a base pay increase for teachers, too.

The two chairmen said legislation is coming through their committees on other task force recommendations including strategic planning for school districts and advanced learning opportunities for students. Goedde said his committee supports the $14.45 million supplemental request to fund the Idaho Education Network in the absence of federal e-rate funds; if the federal funds show up later, he said, the panel favors sending them to the public education stabilization fund (PESF), a school reserve account. But, he said, “We have concerns … with the expansion of wireless and fiber to elementary and middle schools until we take care of the existing problem that we’ve got.”

A federal review of whether the state’s award of the IEN contract violated procurement rules has held up three-quarters of the funding for the IEN since March, and could end up in no future e-rate funding and requirements to return millions in past funds awarded under Idaho’s IEN contract with Education Networks of America.

Public invited to have its say on state budget issues Friday morning

The Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing Friday morning on the state budget, and the public is invited to have its say on any state budget issue. The hearing will run from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the Lincoln Auditorium in the lower level of the state Capitol; testimony will be heard on a first-come basis, though if time runs short, the chair may make some exceptions “in consideration of geographic distance and diversity.”

Sign-ups to testify will start at 7 a.m., just outside the auditorium; people must sign in only for themselves. Written testimony also will be accepted, and the hearing will be streamed live online.

CCA trying to get audit of understaffing declared ‘inconclusive’

Corrections Corp. of America is pushing to get a forensic audit declared inconclusive after the auditors found the private prison company understaffed an Idaho prison by more than 26,000 hours, the AP reports. This comes after the prison company agreed to pay the state more than $1 million to settle the understaffing issue; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho ranks 2nd in nation for per-capita health exchange enrollments

Idaho’s state health insurance exchange, YourHealthIdaho.org, reports today that 32,899 Idahoans have now selected a health insurance plan through the exchange, up 65 percent from a month ago. That ranks Idaho second in the nation for per-capita successful enrollments, behind only Vermont.

“We are excited enrollment numbers have reached nearly 33,000 but we still have a lot of work to do by March 31,” said Jody Olson, communications director. To get coverage effective by March 1, 2014, the deadline to enroll is February 15, 2014.  Olson also warned that from noon Mountain time on Feb. 15 to 3 a.m. on Feb. 18, the federal site that handles verification of Social Security numbers and determinations of tax credit eligibility will be down for maintenance work, halting those functions during that time; that means anyone who wants coverage by March 1 needs to apply before noon on the 15th. Click below for a breakdown of the signups thus far.

No vote today on justice reinvestment bill

Today’s justice reinvestment hearing ended without a vote. Afterward, the Senate and House judiciary chairs said they’re not sure yet whether there will be changes to the bill, SB 1331, before it moves forward. “This could go on and on – we had to bring something forward,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. Said Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, “A year’s work is not going to go down the drain because of different opinions. We have to move on.”

During today’s hearing, 4th District Judge Mike Wetherell cautioned that Idaho’s current unified sentencing law, which dates back to 1986, has had good results. “Folks that did this initially back in 1986, they had some good ideas,” Wetherell said. “We shouldn’t abandon ideas easily that resulted in one of the lowest crime rates in the United States.”

Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower said he’s long been part of the justice reinvestment project, and will continue to work on it. But he said Idaho’s current unified sentencing act is what makes sure “what we’re doing in the courtroom will actually come to pass. This piece of legislation is the most significant threat to the unified sentencing act that I’ve observed in 28 years of watching and cooperating with this Legislature.” Idaho’s unified sentencing system has judges set both a fixed and indeterminate term for each sentence, like five to 10 years. The fixed portion must be served. During the indeterminate portion, the Parole Commission decides when an inmate should be released on parole.

But the justice reinvestment project found that the result is that non-violent offenders spend twice as long behind bars in Idaho as they do in the rest of the nation. That’s why the bill includes having non-violent offenders released on parole by the time they’ve served 150 percent of their fixed terms. They still could be returned to prison if they violate their parole.

Wetherell recommended that the Legislature “slow down” on the project and examine how it’s working in other states. “Will our legislature appropriate the necessary funds to hire the added state employees, pay them market wages and benefits and invest the money necessary to maintain their competence to perform the tasks which this shift in emphasis in resources requires?” he asked. “If that is not done, this will not work. What we will have then will be Justice Disinvestment, not Justice Reinvestment.”

He pointed to Oklahoma, where justice reinvestment legislation passed, but wasn’t funded, and nothing was accomplished. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said in that state, term limits removed the speaker who worked on the legislation, “and then politics got in the way, and they didn’t get the funding to carry it on. We have some funding.” She said, “We’ve worked with JFAC to make sure we have this funding.”

Lodge said SB 1331 has been sent out to all of Idaho’s district judges for input; the next hearing date hasn’t yet been set. “We cannot continue to spend money and not change people and change lives,” she said. “The more we’re spending on our prison system, the less we can spend on education.”

Justice reinvestment bill sparks debate, concerns from prosecutors

The criminal justice reinvestment bill – the measure to start the work outlined by an interim study committee and task force that worked with the Justice Center of the Council for State Governments and the Pew Trusts – is up for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. The plan calls for investing $33 million over the next five years to achieve savings of more than $280 million, by beefing up probation and parole programs, moving non-violent offenders more quickly through the system, and reserving prison cells for riskier offenders. The idea is to slow the growth in Idaho’s prison population, reduce recidivism, and save money. This year’s bill, SB 1331, makes the first steps toward that plan; it carries a price tag of just over $2 million, while the five-year plan outlined $5.5 million in costs for the first year. That's because another $2.5 million is allocated in the governor's budget recommendation for the Department of Correction to boost community treatment, plus additional funds for probation and parole officers, bringing the total up to the full amount.

Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor was first up to testify, and he raised concerns that the changes could jeopardize the safety of the public. “I agree completely with putting money and resources into probation and parole,” Taylor told the lawmakers. But he raised questions about the line the bill draws between violent and non-violent offenders. “There’s numerous felonies … that aren’t even constituted as violent offenses under that category,” he said, “stalking offenses, no-contact order violations, injury to children, attempted strangulation, aggravated DUI. … This exposes our community, I think, to great jeopardy in public safety.” He said, “My primary concern is messing around with our current sentencing guidelines, our sentencing structure, which I think this bill does.”

David High spoke next. A retired longtime deputy Idaho attorney general, he said he has a son who became addicted to drugs when he was in the 7th grade, and has been to prison three times in the past 25 years. “We have therefore seen the prison system from a different point of view,” he said. High noted that he and his wife Lindy submitted a proposal to the interim committee that largely tracks with the justice reinvestment plan. “If you can reduce recidivism, that is where you improve public safety – they are one and the same,” High said. “The policies in this bill reduce recidivism, improve public safety. That’s what all the evidence says.”

High said during his career, and for many in law enforcement, “The assumption was that it would not be a good thing to reduce the amount of the fixed portion of a sentence and have more parole. But the national statistics prove the exact opposite. The earlier a person got out after he had completed his educational program, and completed the fixed portion of his sentence, the lower the recidivism, when you do the parole system. These are shocking things, I think, to people in the law enforcement community, but they are the facts, and we must act on the facts.”

Twin Falls Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he agreed with Taylor, and supports many parts of the plan, but not all. Loebs disputed that Idaho really has the nation's 8th highest incarceration rate. “Idaho has a unique system. We have a rider system in this state, which was specifically designed by the Legislature to be an alternative to prison. It is not prison,” he said. “The CSG data puts all of those people in your prison population. If you subtract that … Idaho is not anywhere near 8th. We need to compare apples to apples, and we cannot really do that, because no other state has that system.” Idaho's “rider” system sends offenders to an intensive program behind bars for a short period, and if they pass, they get out on probation; if they fail, they head to prison for their full term. The justice reinvestment study counted only the time that riders are in custody as part of Idaho's incarceration rate, not time they are out on probation. Loebs said he believes SB 1331 will release people who shouldn't be released. “I am alarmed,” he said. “I believe that this is dangerous legislation as written.”

Marley launches run for lieutenant governor

Former Democratic Sen. Bert Marley of McCammon announced today that he’s running for lieutenant governor, running in tandem with Democratic candidate for governor A.J. Balukoff. Marley is a farmer and former long time school teacher who served in both the House and Senate before running unsuccessfully for state superintendent of schools in 2006. Marley said he and Balukoff are promising “leadership that will put the needs of hardworking families and the middle class first instead of rewarding good political connections.” You can read his full statement here.

Current Lt. Gov. Brad Little already has announced he’ll seek re-election. Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik has announced he’ll challenge Little in the GOP primary.

 

Ybarra joins GOP field running for state superintendent

Sherri Ybarra, a school administrator from Mountain Home, announced today that she’ll run for state superintendent of schools as a Republican. Ybarra has been an administrator for six years and previously was a classroom teacher for 10. “Education is my focus and passion, proven through my dedication and experience in the profession,” she said.

You can read her full statement here.

 

Boise police chief: ‘Democracy fails police leaders at state capitol today’

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson, who waited through the nearly three-hour hearing on the guns-on-campus bill expecting to testify, has released a strongly worded statement objecting to how the hearing was handled. Masterson said he arrived early to sign up to testify, but committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, gave over nearly 40 minutes the hearing to NRA lobbyist Dakota Moore. Police chiefs and law enforcement leaders traveled from as far away as Moscow to testify against the bill, Masterson said, but, “None of the police leaders were called.” Masterson asked, “Where is our democracy today when police leaders directly responsible for developing policy and training for your safety are effectively silenced by the chair of a committee who introduced the bill himself?” Click below for his full statement, followed by the prepared testimony he planned to deliver.

Luker bill amendments won’t be taken up this week, as House takes a ‘thoughtful pause’

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said after the House adjourned this morning that amendments to HB 427 won’t be taken up in the House this week. “I think we’re taking a thoughtful pause at this point,” Bedke said. The bill still could come up for amendments, he said. “It could get called back to committee. There could be another bill. There’s a whole bunch of things that could happen.”

Bedke said the decision to hold off today was made by House leadership, in consultation with House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, and Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, the sponsor of the controversial religious freedom expansion bill. Luker, however, said, “I was ready to go.” He said the speaker informed him this morning of the leadership decision to hold off.

Bedke said, “I personally think we have time to address this issue, and I think this issue is a much larger issue than that encompassed in 427. … Obviously, there’s strong emotion on all sides of this issue, and the emotion may be so high that there isn’t a good path forward, but if there is…” He said House Republicans may address the issue in a caucus as soon as tomorrow. Bedke said the delay wasn't because the Lincoln Day ceremonies ran long; it wasn't because new amendments were being prepared; and it wasn't because the gallery was full.

“We’ll have closure to this issue one way or the other,” Bedke said. “I think we need to collect our thoughts. … I’m not offering hope to either side. This is a good, old-fashioned pause.”

House votes unanimously for $15 million in water projects

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told the House that HB 479, which she is sponsoring in the House today, does the crucial water planning work that’s been put off during the recession. The bill makes the $15 million transfer that Gov. Butch Otter called for next year for water projects, but instead of making it next year, makes it with this year’s funds. Bell said there’s a saying that the “best time to plant a fruit tree is 20 years ago. She said, “The second-best time is now.” Said Bell, “There aren’t many times you can work on recharge and on planning and on the water. … There are only windows when you can do this.” The House voted 69-0 in favor of the bill, which now moves to the Senate.

Luker bill amendments put off…

The House has gone into its 3rd reading calendar, which normally precedes the 12th order of business in the House - general orders, where amendments to bills are considered. That was a surprise, as the House was expected to skip over that today to get to its amending order to take up amendments to Rep. Lynn Luker's controversial religious freedom expansion bill, HB 427. However, House Speaker Scott Bedke just indicated that the House will not go into that order today after all.

Rep. Collins appoints wife as sub while he’s out for surgery

Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, has appointed his wife, Ann, to substitute for him in the House while he's out due to surgery to remove his spleen; Ann Collins was formally welcomed to the House this morning.

Bateman talks of Abraham Lincoln’s life, full gallery looks on…

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, is addressing the House on the life of Abraham Lincoln, as part of the Legislature's annual Lincoln Day ceremonies. The public gallery above is full, in part because of what's scheduled to happen next - amendment of Rep. Lynn Luker's controversial religious freedom expansion bill, HB 427. Overflow seating is being offered in the Lincoln Auditorium, to listen to the House action.

Senate panel passes guns-on-campus bill on straight party-line vote

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted 7-2 along party lines, with only the panel’s two Democrats objecting, to approve SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, and recommend to the full Senate that it pass. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said only about a third of those who signed up to testify on the guns on campus bill got to do so. “We’re pushing up against a hard deadline because we have the Lincoln Day presentation,” he said. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, asked that the vote be held off to allow more of those who wanted to testify to do so, including students, law enforcement officials and university officials, but was voted down. Thirteen people testified this morning, six in favor of the bill and seven against. Among all those who signed up to testify, according to sign-in sheets released by the committee, 30 were against, 22 in favor, and six didn't indicate either way.

“This could probably go on for some time,” said Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. “And I too have learned a lot today. So to that end, I’d like to thank those who came to testify today.” He said he’d still like to hear from people on the issue. “But Mr. Chairman,  as I hear the testimony and try to process what we’re contemplating here, the overwhelming issue for me is that the non-law abiding citizens really just don’t care. The restraints that we have only impact those who are a law-abiding citizen. … I don’t know that this bill or any other bill is perfect. But I think we’re better off with it, if it were in place, than the way it is.” So Fulcher moved to pass the bill, and Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, seconded his motion.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she needed more information about the cost concerns that college and university officials brought up, including her local one, CWI President Bert Glandon, who noted that his college has classes being taught in a variety of locations, including leased buildings and high schools. But when the vote was called, she voted in favor.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “This isn’t an easy vote for me. I know for most people in this room, this is what my grandkids call a no-brainer, whichever side you’re on. If it really were a no-brainer, we wouldn’t have so many good people here on opposite sides of the issue. I’m not convinced this bill will always make it safer on our campuses. It depends on the situation.” Hill said based on today’s testimony, the bill would “sacrifice the safety of some for the safety of others,” and said, “If we don’t recognize those things, then we haven’t been listening to one another.” He said the “tie-breaker for me” is his oath of office to support the Constitution. “I love the 2nd Amendment,” he said.

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

Former Speaker Newcomb: ‘Bill is ripe for the political times, but not good public policy’

Former Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb, now director of government relations for Boise State University, spoke out against SB 1254, the guns on campus bill, to the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning. “This is not very well thought-out. It’s a bill that is ripe for the political times,” he said. “But is this good public policy? Absolutely not, in my view, in Boise State’s view.”

He said Boise State students are here to testify against the bill, but haven’t been called, and noted that the associated students and the faculty senate all have voted to oppose the bill. “The fiscal impact I can guarantee is wrong on this bill,” Newcomb said. He said if the bill passes, BSU would need “TSA equipment” for security at its football and basketball games, massively slowing down entrance to games. “With that comes a huge cost,” he said. “We the students would have to subsidize this program.”

“To say that the right to bear arms is inviolate in every situation is wrong, the Supreme Court has already ruled on that,” Newcomb said. He cited Justice Scalia’s decision in the Heller case, that “the right to bear arms is not inviolate when it comes to schools, and by school I mean the smallest school in the woods to an elaborate university in a metropolitan area, or to public buildings.”

Newcomb also noted that concealed weapon permits are exempt from the Idaho public records law in Idaho, so the university wouldn’t even be able to see who on their campus has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He called for rejecting the bill, but said if it goes forward, it needs extensive amendments.

JFAC backs CEC Committee’s recommendation for 2% raises for state workers, half permanent, half one-time

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, after much discussion, voted unanimously in favor of writing in funds for 2 percent raises for state workers as it sets each agency budget, with 1 percent of that permanent and one percent in one-time bonuses. That follows the recommendation from a special joint legislative committee on state employee compensation that convened this year for the first time since 2008. The JFAC motion also follows the recommendation in encouraging additional merit raises or bonuses for high-performing workers from salary savings in the agencies’ budgets.

Testimony: ‘Academic climate affected,’ ‘Give us a chance to save our own lives,’ ‘Great responsibility’

After lots of questions from the Senate State Affairs Committee for NRA lobbyist Dakota Moore, public testimony started on SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, with opponents and proponents alternating. Among those testifying:

University of Idaho interim President Don Burnett, who also heads the council of Idaho public college and university presidents, expressed “grave concern” about the bill. “It is clear that the academic climate for the ordinary student would be affected,” he said. “This proposed bill cannot achieve its avowed purpose of deterring shooters or of enabling individuals to shoot back immediately, unless it results in the carrying of loaded weapons, ready to use within seconds, in our classrooms, laboratories and other gathering places. That is not the kind of teaching and learning environment we should seek to foster.”

Kimberly McAdams, a BSU psychology professor, spoke emotionally, saying she lived in fear of a deranged individual who reportedly was coming to campus to shoot her. “I shudder to think what would have happened in a worst-case scenario, if this individual had snapped a little bit earlier,” she said. “Please give us a chance to be able to save our own lives.” She said her classroom has only one entry or exit door. “Neither myself nor my students are going to be able to escape with our lives,” she said.

Mark Browning, vice president of North Idaho College, said he’s a “fifth generation proud son” of the Browning gun manufacturing family. “My first name is Jonathan after the Jonathan Browning,” he told the committee. “I believe with this great right that we have to carry arms comes great responsibility.” He said there are frequently young children on the NIC campus, including toddlers and infants. “Yesterday, when I left campus to go to the airport I passed buses full of 3rd and 4th graders on campus for a Math Counts competition.” He urged the senators to consider the locally elected trustees who now make the decisions about guns on the Coeur d’Alene campus. “They’re held accountable when they go to the grocery store, when they go to the basketball game, when they go to church. This bill would have a serious impact on their ability to do their job,” he said. He added that though the bill says it wouldn’t have a financial impact, NIC estimates it would cost more than $130,000 to respond, by arming security officers and taking other steps.

Paul Jagosh of the Idaho Fraternal Order of Police said, “You hear stuff about, well, if a kid gets stressed he’s going to shoot a professor. … I hate to break it to you, but guns are allowed on campus right now. There are no preventive measures to prevent a person from bringing a gun on campus.” Questioned by Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, Jagosh said, “There’s a piece of paper that says guns aren’t allowed, but there’s nothing to prevent them. We believe that this will actually make the public safer.” He said, “I’m telling you we will put our lives on our line, we will die for you, while everyone else is running out of the building, we’ll put our lives on the line to protect you. But unfortunately there is going to be delays in our response, and that’s unfortunate. We believe that law-abiding, mentally sound people should have the ability to carry guns.”

JFAC votes 14-6 to adopt governor’s revenue forecast for budgeting

JFAC has voted 14-6 to adopt the revenue figure for the coming year recommended by both Gov. Butch Otter and the joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee. It’s not a target budget, just an acceptance of the revenue forecast. Prior to the vote, two other motions failed, both to set the revenues at lower amounts. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, proposed adopting the median figure from individual EORAC members’ estimates, $2.9377 billion; his motion failed on a 7-13 vote. Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, proposed an even lower figure of $2.89803 billion; his motion failed on a 5-15 vote.

Those voting in favor of Johnson’s motion were Reps. Thyra Stevenson and Sens. Cliff Bayer, Steve Vick and Sheryl Nuxoll. Those voting in favor of Mortimer’s motion were Vick, Nuxoll, Johnson, Bayer, Stevenson, and Sen. Steven Thayn.

In the 14-6 vote to adopt the successful motion, made by JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the “no” votes came from Mortimer, Vick, Nuxoll, Bayer, Thayn and Stevenson.

JFAC begins statewide budgeting decisions…

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is making the statewide budgeting decisions this morning on which it will base budget-setting for all state agency budgets, which starts next week. So far, JFAC has voted unanimously to adopt the governor’s revenue forecast, which also was adopted by the Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee, for 2.1 percent revenue increase in the current budget year, fiscal year 2014, or $2.80822 billion. Then, the joint committee voted, again 20-0, to adopt and display the monthly shortfall toward that projection, which currently stands at $23.9 million. That figure will be adjusted on a month-to-month basis throughout the legislative session.

NRA lobbyist: ‘It’s a broad infringement on constitutional rights’

“It’s a broad infringement on constitutional rights,” Dakota Moore, National Rifle Association lobbyist, told the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning, of the state’s current policy of allowing public colleges and university to regulate guns on campus; all ban them. He contended that Idaho’s colleges and universities misinterpret current law. “It’s currently legal for you to possess a firearm on a college or university campus – the most a college or university can do is ask you to leave and potentially prosecute you under the criminal trespass standard,” Moore said.

He said the idea that a “beer culture” and immaturity among young people on college campuses makes the addition of firearms unwise “a very offensive characterization.” Said Moore, “It doesn’t make it any less safe, based on the statistical numbers.”

Quiet crowd gathered for guns-on-campus hearing; NRA lobbyist presents bill

There’s  a quiet crowd in the Lincoln Auditorium this morning for the hearing on SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho’s public college campuses. Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie said, “We’ll just try to get through as much testimony as we are able to in the time that we have.” The Senate goes on the floor at 10:30; the committee will take up the bill and vote at 10:15.

McKenzie has called Dakota Moore, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, to present the bill this morning. The measure would allow anyone with Idaho's enhanced concealed carry permit or retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed guns on Idaho college campuses. It includes exemptions for dormitories and for indoor public entertainment venues that seat more than 1,000.

Chief: ISP understaffing is causing safety concerns for officers, public

The Idaho State Police is so understaffed that Col. Ralph Powell, ISP director, told legislative budget writers this morning it's causing safety concerns for both officers and the public. A state study that examined the number of miles of state and federal highways the ISP patrols concluded that it needs 94 additional troopers; it also concluded that ISP needs 14 more detective positions just to maintain current caseloads. “In most of our investigations offices, our staffing levels have plummeted, leaving our detectives to have to choose among the most serious investigations while putting other cases on hold,” Powell told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

He related how state troopers tracked a shooting suspect who shot into a vehicle near Boise, then shot at another vehicle east of Mountain Home, and finally was arrested near Wendell. “It was only after traveling 100 miles that he was apprehended,” Powell said. “Our closest trooper was 100 miles away from the incident. During this time the public was at significant risk.” Coverage on Idaho’s roads is so thin, Powell said, that “If you are stopped by one of our troopers, you are, indeed, very fortunate.” Five of the state’s six districts lack 24-hour coverage.

ISP requested 33 new positions next year, including 15 patrol officers and six detectives – it lost six detectives two years ago to budget cuts.  Gov. Butch Otter has recommended 15 new positions, including six patrol officers and four detectives. The governor’s budget reflects an 11.7 percent increase in state funding for ISP, but just 4.4 percent in total funds. That’s in part because some chunks of ISP’s budget that were temporarily shifted onto dedicated funds during the recession would now be shifted back to state funding. The governor’s recommendation also includes $3.9 million for replacement items, from ballistic vests to motorcycles, police cars, and a new Suburban for the executive protection division, costing $48,200 including equipment and installation.

Big day Wednesday: Amendments to Luker bill, guns-on-campus hearing, budget numbers, more…

The House’s complex amending process will be on full display tomorrow, as it takes up multiple and likely conflicting amendments to HB 427, Rep. Lynn Luker’s controversial religious freedom expansion bill. First, though, both houses have their annual Lincoln Day ceremonies scheduled when they convene at 10:30 a.m., commemorating President Abraham Lincoln. If the ceremonies stretch too long, the amending order could be put off, but it’s likely to happen Wednesday. Though two bills are in the order, only HB 427 is scheduled to come up.

Also on Wednesday: JFAC will set the numbers it will budget to for next year, to allow budget-setting to begin next week. And there’s a big public hearing starting at 8 a.m. in the Lincoln Auditorium on SB 1254, the controversial bill to allow guns on Idaho’s public college campuses. That hearing, including public testimony, is scheduled to wrap up by 10:15.

Then, in the afternoon, the House and Senate Judiciary committees will hold a joint hearing, starting at 1:30 in the Lincoln Auditorium, on SB 1331, the justice reinvestment bill. That’s the measure to start phasing in a plan to reform Idaho’s probation and parole system with the aim of lowering prison costs and reducing recidivism.

That’s not all. Among other legislative happenings on this busy day: The Senate Resources Committee, which meets at 1:30, has scheduled a hearing on HB 406, the bill to have the state take over primacy for wastewater permitting from the EPA, as the last item on its lengthy agenda. The Senate Education Committee, which meets at 3, will hold hearings on three bills to extend the “sunsets,” or expirations, on three temporary, one-year bills passed last year to reinstate some of the labor provisions from the voter-rejected Students Come First school reform laws; each would get another one-year extension. And Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, will bring a new version of her bill to repeal the state health insurance exchange before the House State Affairs Committee at 9 a.m.

Chambers won’t run for Henderson’s seat after all - his home is just over the district line

The candidate Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, endorsed to succeed him in office next year has just discovered that his home is 180 feet outside of the legislative district in question – so he’s not running. “I’m disappointed, I’m embarrassed, I’m devastated by this,” said John Chambers, a semi-retired executive with Ground Force Manufacturing in Post Falls.

He actually owns a home in Post Falls right near Henderson’s, but four years ago moved into his current place, which is just over the line into District 2. “Where he lives is 180 feet in the wrong direction,” Henderson said. “If he lived on the other side of the road, he’d be in my district. He doesn’t, so he’s in District 2.”

Henderson said when he first talked with Chambers about running, he asked him who he voted for in the last election, and Chambers said he remembered voting for Bob Nonini, who’s in the same district as Henderson. But now both Chambers and Henderson say that might have been four years ago rather than two years ago – before district lines changed.

“That’s how the mistake got made,” Henderson said. “But as soon as we discovered it was a mistake, then we backed everything up.” He said, “John would have been an excellent legislator, because he had the industrial job-producing background that I was looking for in a candidate, someone that knew how to create jobs, how to help make a company be successful and help the local economy grow, and John had that specific experience. So anyway, we’ll start over.”

Henderson, 91, is a five-term lawmaker and chairman of the House Business Committee; he’s also a former Post Falls mayor and Kootenai County commissioner. “There’s a number of really good people in Post Falls, and you have to find out who’s available, who’s interested, and that’s what I’m starting to do,” he said.

Chambers, who had filed initial forms with the Idaho Secretary of State’s office and brought on a campaign manager and treasurer, said, “I haven’t taken any money or anything. … We did put on the brakes.” State law requires residence in the district for at least one year for a House seat. Asked if he’d consider involvement in Idaho politics in the future, a disappointed Chambers said, “I’d love to, but not right now.”

Speed limit increase bill clears Senate committee

Idaho could follow Utah in raising speed limits on some stretches of rural interstate to 80 mph, under legislation that cleared a Senate committee today. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, proposed the bill, which would let ITD decide which stretches of road it should increase the limit on. For state highways, the bill would let ITD raise speeds from a maximum of 65 to a maximum of 70.

“So how much … will this reduce your driving time from Idaho Falls to Boise?” Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, asked Davis. “Probably not at all,” he replied. “I am one of the people driving home that most cars pass. I still pass semi’s, but I don’t pass a lot of cars.” Davis did ask that his bill be amended, to clarify a section on truck speeds.

Mike Kane, speaking as a lobbyist for the AAA, requested additional amendments, including to delay the bill’s effectiveness for a year. Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, noted that the bill didn’t specify a starting date for the increases; after the bill took effect on July 1, ITD could decide that. “It could be this fall, maybe next year, maybe two or three years from now,” Hagedorn said.

Kane said Utah is the only state that has raised its maximum speed to 80 mph, though Texas is at 85 mph. “It takes an hour and 20 minutes to go 100 miles at 75. At 80, it takes an hour and 15 minutes. So you’re cutting 5 minutes per hundred miles by increasing that – that’s a good thing,” Kane said. AAA just wants to make sure all safety questions are addressed first. “The big issue for AAA is the speed differentials. There are certain trucks that will only go 60, 62 mph because they’re set with governors. So you’re expanding the difference. … What impact will this have on safety?”

Davis said, “Safety is and should always be paramount.” He said, “I do believe, having driven on interstates that have gone to 80 mph, that the speed of the traffic flow doesn’t change remarkably. There’s a certain level where people feel like that’s the speed they feel the most comfortable with. And I doubt that it will have a substantial impact on the rate of speed that people drive.” Instead, he said, for routes suited to high speeds, the bill may just “conform the law to practice.” The Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full Senate for amendments.

Restoration of non-emergency dental coverage for disabled passes House, 62-6

The House has voted 62-6 in favor of HB 395, to restore non-emergency adult dental coverage to poor disabled people on Medicaid, which was eliminated in 2011. Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a physician, said in 2011, “We were trying to respond to a sharp drop in revenue, and HB 260 cut or eliminated many medical services. But some of those services were important in overall health, and eliminating them has proven to have an overall cost.” Emergency room costs for dental-related conditions more than doubled after the coverage was cut; at an earlier committee hearing, Medicaid recipients testified about lost teeth, painful abscesses and infections, and more, all because they couldn’t afford routine dental checkups, fillings and the like.

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, told the House, “I believe that restoring dental benefits will make a significant difference in the lives of the people in my district as well as across the state, as well as being more cost-effective.”

Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, asked Rusche, “You said we cut this benefit because of the financial situation at that time. How much less is the national deficit today than it was then?” House Speaker Scott Bedke warned Shepherd that the question wasn’t germane to the bill. Shepherd then spoke against the bill. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, and in normal times, I probably could vote for it, but I think the more serious problem … is the future of our country when the debt has reached the limit it’s reached. So I think we should vote no.”

Rusche said, “I would submit that the action on this bill will not change the federal debt, nor will it change anybody’s taxes in Idaho. What we do have the opportunity to do, though, is to improve the health of Idahoans, and lower our costs by providing appropriate medical services for the disabled in Idaho who currently qualify for Medicaid. I think it’s a win-win-win.” The bill passed on a 62-6 vote and now moves to the Senate side. Those voting no were Reps. Shepherd, Sims, Barbieri, Barrett, Harris and McMillan.

‘Health Care Transparency’ bill would require hospital data reporting, so consumers can compare costs

Idaho is one of only three states that doesn’t collect data from hospitals about costs and charges for specific procedures, according to Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell. And 36 states have adopted transparency legislation to require hospitals to report that data; again, Idaho’s not among them. So today, Hixon introduced a Health Care Transparency bill, to require such reporting, with the data then to be posted online for consumers to access.

“This legislation is brought forth to empower the people of Idaho with data they can use to make smart, and consumer friendly choices relating to health care purchases,” said Hixon, a freshman lawmaker. The House Health & Welfare Committee agreed this morning to introduce the measure, clearing the way for a full hearing. Hixon said he’s spent months researching the issue, and believes it’s a way to help Idahoans lower their fast-growing health care costs. Click below for his op-ed piece, distributed to Idaho newspapers, on the issue.

A sign that session has intensified…

Here's a sign that we're into the more intense part of this year's legislative session: The House has voted to waive the portion of its Rule 70 that bans beverages from the House floor during sessions. After the vote, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, announced, “Beverages are allowed on the floor - until you spill 'em.”

Senate panel backs SB 1337, to ban surreptitious video of ag operations

The Senate Agriculture Committee has voted in favor of SB 1337 this morning, the bill to outlaw taking or distributing video of agricultural operations without permission, on a voice vote, after a nearly three-hour hearing. “I don’t think there’s one person on this committee that will stand and support any kind of animal abuse,” said Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, cited her own agricultural background. “I support the intent of the bill and I’m equally worried about activists who have an agenda,” she said, “but I think the bill is too broad, and so I will be voting no.”

“This is a property rights issue – do you have the right to control the activities on your own property or not?” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell “That is one of the fundamental things that makes America America. It has made us a beacon to the world.” The bill now moves to the full Senate; it needs passage both there and in the House and the governor’s signature to become law.

Testimony: ‘You will be vilified’

More testimony from the hearing on SB 1337 this morning:

Bob Naerebout of the Idaho Dairy Association told the House Agriculture Committee, “If you vote for this bill, and you vote yes, I can guarantee what’s going to happen. You will be vilified. You will be vilified just like other legislators that are our co-sponsors are vilified, and you will be vilified like Louie Bettencourt, and to me, that’s not bad company to be in.”

Matthew Dominguez of the Humane Society of the United States – which has been running TV commercials during the Olympics against the bill - told the committee, “If this law was in effect in 2012, the investigation at Bettencourt Dairies could not have happened, and still this abuse could be happening to this day and would not have come to light.”

Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, said, “Is this any effort to stop whistleblowers? It absolutely is not. … I know the dairy industry has a policy to encourage whistleblowers. They don’t want employees going in and causing abuse – it hurts the production of the animals.”

Testimony: ‘Employee would have been fired,’ ‘Chills freedom of speech,’ ‘Property rights issue’

Among those testifying at this morning’s hearing on SB 1337:

Brent Olmstead, executive director of Milk Producers of Idaho, said, “The idea that livestock operators routinely abuse animals … is ludicrous. … An abused dairy cow does not produce milk to the quality and quantity that the dairymen require.” He said if the employee who took the video of workers abusing cows at Bettencourt Dairy had instead “gone to Mr. Bettencourt, the exact same result would have happened … the employees would have been fired.”

Monica Hopkins of the ACLU of Idaho said, “This bill is unnecessary as Idaho already has trespassing laws. … A law like this chills the 1st Amendment, chills freedom of speech and makes employees think twice about potentially reporting something that may be a crime.”

Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau said, “This is first and foremost a private property rights issue. … Every landowner does have the right to control who has access to his property, the right to his business records … and that potential employees will not misrepresent their intentions to falsely gain access to the property.”

Marty Durand said the bill would ban employee whistle-blowers from taking photos of things like blocked fire exits. Under questioning from senators on the committee, she acknowledged that the employee could still report the blocked exit, but noted that the bill would ban the worker from photographing it; she said union organizers routinely photograph such job site conditions and the law protects that.

Lou Murgoitio, a lifetime dairy producer, said, “It has been and still is of the utmost importance as a producer to care, feed and take care of my animals. They are the economic drivers to my success over the years, along with the advice of veterinarians, nutritionists, state and federal inspectors and other consultants. I continue to produce a rich, nutritious product for the consumers.”

Courtney Washburn of the Idaho Conservation League said, “I believe this legislation would deter citizens from making complaints regarding agricultural operations.” She said her group is concerned that the bill’s definition of agricultural facilities includes publicly owned lands.

Bill to outlaw surreptitious dairy video draws crowd to hearing

A hearing is continuing this morning – it’s well into its second hour – on SB 1337, the so-called “ag gag” bill to criminalize taking or distributing video or other recordings of agricultural production operations without permission. The bill follows an incident in which an animal rights group distributed a video of serious abuse of cows by employees at a southern Idaho dairy, leading to criminal charges. The hearing is in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can watch live here, click on “Lincoln Auditorium.”

Gov. Butch Otter was asked about the bill this morning. “I think these ‘gotcha’ moments and the opportunity for a ‘gotcha’ moment both are wrong,” he said. “I think that the actions by that group maybe did us a favor. It turned the light on and said, ‘Hey, these things are going on, you’d better get to watching.’”

He said he thought the agricultural associations responded responsibly to the dairy incident. “They understand what those actions did to their image in their association, whether it was in the dairy industry or whatever,” Otter said. “They put together a watch group, they put together an investigation group that my understanding is going to, from time to time, unannounced show up at those operations to make sure that that kind of thing is not happening again.”

Given that, said, “I think what we’re doing is saying listen, if you trespassed under false pretenses, you can be held responsible for that,” he said. Idaho already outlaws trespassing, he acknowleged, but said, “Not specifically like that.”

Signs: ‘Thank you Rep. Luker’

Seventeen backers of Rep. Lynn Luker’s religious freedom expansion bill – the same bill that drew more than 500 opponents to the Capitol last week – lined a Capitol hallway this morning, some of them holding signs saying “Thank you, Rep. Luker.” The sign-holders said they weren’t with any organization, and just wanted to support Luker and the bill, which is now awaiting amendments in the House.

Otter: Holding CCA accountable, won’t speak to ‘Add the Words,’ backs guns on campus

Here are some more of Gov. Butch Otter’s comments from his address to the Idaho Press Club this morning:

On Corrections Corp. of America: “Yes, I do think that they ought to be held accountable, and I think that we are holding them accountable.” He said, “When we asked the state police to get involved and to review and investigate and tell us exactly what to do, Col. Powell did that. At his suggestion, that’s as far as we’re going to go, that’s as far as he felt we needed to go unless we had new information. I don’t know that we have new information yet.” He said he’s not yet met with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who sent him a letter recommending a criminal investigation. “I will talk to Lawrence and see if he’s got some information that we can share with Col. Powell, and … if we go further with that investigation.” Otter dismissed the “quote unquote confusion” about whether the state was or wasn’t doing a criminal investigation. “The fact that law enforcement was involved in the investigation, and it wasn’t the state auditor, I would have assumed … that it was a criminal investigation.”

Asked if Idaho’s refusal to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is hurting efforts to bring employers to the state, Otter said, “I can’t point to one company that I’ve visited with that said … or even suggested that that was a problem. I don’t know that companies look to the political activity, they don’t say, geez, you’re a really red state and that’s why I’m coming here. What they look at is the public policy, they look at tax policy, they look at predictability. They look at the enthusiasm that communities have for bringing them in.” He said, “As far as the ‘Add the Words,’ I’m not going to speak to that because that was brought up during the lawsuit and we’re in the middle of that lawsuit.” He was referring to the lawsuit challenging Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage.

On guns on campus: Otter said he supports the pending bill to allow guns on Idaho public college campuses under certain circumstances. “I am an advocate and always have been for the 2nd Amendment, and I don’t think people lose their rights under the 2nd Amendment, or the 1st Amendment, when they walk on a college campus.”

Otter said he’s holding off on proposing a transportation funding increase because of lessons he learned from the failed “Students Come First” school reform laws, which voters repealed. “I thought we had a good product with Students Come First, but we were failing in our process to actually find out what the people were concerned about.” Otter said he doesn’t want to land another issue on the ballot. “I don’t want to put another group of legislators at risk because they vote for transportation funding,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s important that we find out what” people want, “whatever is acceptable to them, before we put a package together, and then try to put it into place. So that’s why I’ve elected to take the process that I have. … When we do put a package together, we want a certain amount of certainty that it’s going to pass, and that we’re going to be able to project where we’re going in the future with transportation funding.”

Otter: ‘The IEN has proved its value’

Gov. Butch Otter is speaking to the Idaho Press Club this morning, in his annual on-the-record appearance before the group. Asked about the Idaho Education Network and the possibility that the state may have to pay as much as $26 million to replace federal e-rate funds due to problems with the contract award for the network, Otter said, “One thing about it, the IEN has proved its value. It’s proved its value in many ways.”

He said, “Probably the IEN has come closer to accomplishing a uniform system of common schools, because of the fact that we can get those great teachers and those great courses that were denied to rural Idaho before.”

Otter said the feds withholding the millions in e-rate funds “isn’t unusual to happen.”  He said, “There was a very stringent and very narrow authority over that money, so when any question arises … they just stop it.” Otter said, “We were informed of what was going on. We knew all along. The federal government is slow pay. … Usually we go through these cash flow problems, and that’s not unusual.”

He noted that the state has won on “five of the six issues” in the lawsuit over the contract award. However, the sixth issue, the one on which the Idaho Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit to proceed, was whether the contract award violated state purchasing rules.

Asked if he still consults with former Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney on the issue, Otter said, “Once in a while I’ll go back and say, ‘What happened here, what happened there. But Teresa Luna is running the shop now, and I consult with Teresa Luna.”

“We thought by now we would have all of the questions … resolved as we have resolved in the past, and we have then been caught up,” the governor said. “We still anticipate that it’s not going to cost us the $26 million. We still anticipate that we’re going to satisfy, as we have five of the six charges, that we did the right thing, and that we are deserving of those funds.”

Frasure campaign’s Facebook fan page ballooned with likes - from Istanbul, Turkey

Idaho Secretary of State candidate Evan Frasure was “flabbergasted” late Monday when he learned that roughly 2,500 of the 2,859 “likes” on his campaign Facebook fan page were people from Istanbul, Turkey. Pocatello City Councilman Steve Brown, a consultant for Frasure’s campaign, said he didn’t intend to buy overseas “likes” for the fan page.

“We were talking with a group about focusing on Facebook users in Idaho,” Brown said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, let us show you what we can do, we’ll give you a sample.’ And obviously, our demographics were not used in this. So we’re asking them … if we can reverse this, or if we have to delete the page and start over.” Brown added, “Evan’s about ready to bite my head off on this one.”

The big jump in fans for the page happened in the past week and a half, with 18-24 the most common age group and Istanbul, Turkey the most common city among the page’s “likes.” “I don’t want a bunch of names from Turkey, for heaven’s sake – that’s ridiculous,” said Frasure, who said he hadn’t looked at the page in two weeks and admitted he’s “not much of a Facebooker.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Luker brings back new version of bill limiting credit card betting, earlier defeated in House

Less than two weeks after the House killed his bill to ban the use of credit or debit cards to operate “historical horse racing” betting machines on a 36-29 vote, Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, has introduced a new version. The previous, failed bill, HB 380, said, “Historic horse racing terminals shall be operated only by cash or cash vouchers and shall not be operated by use of debit or credit cards or any means of debt accumulate.” The new bill, HB 489, is identical, except that the sentence is cut before “and shall not.”

The House debate before HB 380 was killed focused on government intrusion, with Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, challenging the House, “Do you believe in limited government, or do you not?” She said, “Government does not belong in my pocketbook. It doesn’t belong telling me how I can spend or use a credit card, how I can use a debit card, how I can or even if I should use cash. Those are very personal decisions that should be left up to an individual.”

Fulcher, Bayer want to remove sales tax from groceries

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican lawmakers including Sen. Russ Fulcher aim to eliminate Idaho's 6 percent tax on groceries starting July 1, 2016. Fulcher, a Meridian Republican running against Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter in the May primary, and Boise Rep. Cliff Bayer are promoting the proposed legislation. Currently, Idaho gives nearly all its residents a credit when they file their annual tax returns, to offset surcharges they pay on groceries. This tax credit has been expanded since legislation passed in 2009. Come next year, it's due to be $100 for everyone, and $120 for seniors. Now, Bayer and Fulcher contend it's better to simply do away with taxes on food. The bill, yet to be introduced in the House tax committee, would cost Idaho an additional $25 million to finance, according to lawmakers' estimates.

Minimum wage hike backers switch backing from initiative to bill…

Activist groups are throwing their weight behind a Senate bill to increase Idaho's minimum wage after abandoning an effort to gather enough signatures to put a similar measure before voters next November, the AP reports. The Senate State Affairs Committee agreed today to introduce the bill, but it may not get a hearing. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

Despondent man on meth arrested with gun on North Idaho College campus

While Idaho lawmakers mull a bill to loosen gun bans on college campuses, a student was arrested today at North Idaho College for taking a concealed handgun into a classroom. Another student told authorities the man was upset, has used illegal drugs, had purchased 75 hollow-point rounds for the revolver and had talked about not being afraid to die; you can read the full story here at spokesman.com from Spokesman-Review reporter Scott Maben.

Bill would eliminate catastrophic care program, fund community health centers instead

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two Republican senators want to eliminate Idaho's fund that helps pay the medical bills of indigent people, and instead shift part of the funds to community health centers to provide care. Sens. Steve Thayn of Emmett and Bob Nonini of Coeur d'Alene pitched the legislation on Monday. They sold it to lawmakers on the Health and Welfare Committee as a better way to treat low-income people without insurance than the existing Catastrophic Care Fund. The bill's introduction clears the way for a possible full hearing on the measure. Currently, state and county taxpayers combine to cover indigent people's medical bills. The cost has doubled since 2002, to $53 million annually. According to the senators' measure, it would transfer a portion of the money to community health centers, and counties could do the same, to help patients buy medication, get non-emergency medical services — and to provide volunteers at the centers with medical malpractice insurance.

Rep. McMillan: ‘You have to start somewheres’

Second-term Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, proposed legislation today to order a halt to all water quality enforcement in the state until the Legislature certifies that a sampling survey has been done of the headwaters of every waterway and tributary, starting with the north and south forks of the Coeur d’Alene River; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. “It’s like the lakes and stuff above the water, where they start,” she told the House Environment Committee. Reading from “talking points” she said a constituent prepared for her, McMillan told the panel, “Requiring that discharge is more pure than a natural background level is an undue burden upon businesses and local governments and is beyond the scope and intent of water quality laws.”

Committee members were taken aback. Among their questions: Why the bill also forbade any temperature restrictions from being imposed on water, and why it had no fiscal note about the cost for the surveys it required. “We feel that the EPA has got enough money that they can do it themselves,” McMillan said.

Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, said he’s sympathetic to McMillan’s concerns about “a localized condition that relates to mineralization and water.” But, he asked, “Why is this bill drafted in a manner that suspends all water quality enforcement statewide?” McMillan replied, “Because I took it up to the legislative services, and this is what they gave me.” Morse asked McMillan, “So you feel that discharge requirements that don’t recognize that natural mineralization in the water are unfair as a matter of water quality measurement, is that correct?” “Yes,” she replied. “But that’s not what this bill says, is it?” Morse asked. McMillan said, “In a way it does, because you have to start somewheres. And it does say, of the north and south forks of the Coeur d’Alene River.”

The committee voted overwhelmingly against introducing the bill, instead returning it to McMillan. Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said he favored introducing the measure despite its problems, just to get discussion going at a hearing, but he got little support.

After the meeting, McMillan said a constituent brought the issue to her and wrote up the bill for her. Asked who it was, she said she didn’t have his name. “It’s been on our minds for a long time,” she said. “One of ‘em wrote it up for me and I took it to the Legislature and got it written into a bill.”

Asked why she wanted the bill to suspend all water quality enforcement in the state until the surveys she called for were completed, McMillan said, “I didn’t want it to do that.” When that line in her bill was pointed out, she said, “But if it does that, that’s good. Because the people have the right to where their water is. They have the right to take the water out of their water tap and pour it into the river, if they want.”

Earlier today, McMillan, who suffered a stroke in 2012, was carrying a controversial bill in the House on easing testing requirements for chronic wasting disease on farmed elk. When House members, amid a vigorous debate on the measure, asked her questions about the bill, she couldn’t answer them. House Speaker Scott Bedke suggested that the House Agriculture Committee chairman, Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, field the questions, and he did. After much debate, that bill passed on a 42-27 vote with bipartisan opposition, and now heads to the Senate.

Senate kills nursing board bill to allow fines for license violations

A divided state Senate this morning killed legislation from the state Board of Nursing that would have allowed nurses to be fined for violations of their licenses. Current sanctions include suspension or revocation of licenses, and training or remediation programs. Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, the bill’s floor sponsor, said the proposed fines of up to $1,000 are less than other medical boards already can assess; chiropractors can be assessed up to $2,000 fines, for example, as can optometrists and pharmacists. But Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said the nursing board already can limit or restrict licenses and order training, and employers also can take action if nurses' performance isn't up to standards. “A thousand bucks seems pretty punitive and disciplinary in nature to me,” he said. Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, said, “We’ve looked at similar proposals to this in the past and have previously rejected them.” SB 1262 was rejected on a close, 16-19 vote.

Luna to House Ed: State may have to repay $13.5M even if it wins IEN lawsuit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho may have to repay $13.3 million if federal officials determine the state broke contracting rules on a $60 million education broadband project mired in a lawsuit for nearly as long as it's existed. Department of Administration director Teresa Luna told the House Education Committee this morning that even should Idaho prevail in the legal case, it still could be forced to repay the money that's gone to the Idaho Education Network. The project is already growing far more expensive than Idaho intended. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter now is asking for an additional $14.5 million, to cover funding he'd expected to come from the Federal Communication Commission. The ongoing lawsuit, filed by Idaho-based telecom provider Syringa Networks in 2009, contends then-Department of Administration director Mike Gwartney inappropriately awarded work to Syringa's rivals.

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

‘You are hurting my business - you need to raise my gas tax’

With legislation from the Idaho Trucking Association pending to raise Idaho’s gas tax, Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, asked Deputy Transportation Director Scott Stokes this morning, “If you were to get this 2 cents a year for the next three years, how would you prioritize that money?” Stokes said, “Safety and the commercial economic opportunity of Idaho will be the driving factors. We would have to sit down with the transportation board and carefully prioritize. … Obviously, that is less than what is needed overall to move forward with the goals of the governor’s task force, so we would have to have the board make that decision which way they wanted to invest with that money.”

The bill, HB 481, has been introduced in the House Transportation Committee, but hasn’t had a hearing. It would raise Idaho’s 25 cent per gallon fuel tax by two cents each year in 2014, ’15 and ’16 to 31 cents. By 2017, that would make an additional $52.8 million available to ITD after July 1, 2017. Each penny increase adds up to $8.8 million a year.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said he’s had constituents poke their fingers in his chest and say, “You are hurting my business. You need to raise my gas tax. And these guys are truckers - they’re not Democrats either.” He asked if ITD is examining the economic impact of increased gas taxes in Idaho. Stokes said a study is under way. “We’re anxious to be able to provide this information, probably by the end of the year,” he said.

Future fed cuts could crimp Idaho’s transportation budget…

Scott Stokes, deputy director of the Idaho Transportation Department, is making the department’s budget pitch to lawmakers this morning, as Director Brian Ness is out sick today. ITD receives no state general funds, but its budget, which comes largely from state gas taxes and federal funds, is a significant one. Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for next year calls for a 5.2 percent increase in ITD’s budget; the current year’s budget marked a 5.9 percent decrease. The budget includes $257.7 million in dedicated state funds, largely from fuel taxes, and $259.8 million in federal funds, for a total of $517.4 million.

Because of the reliance on federal funding, Stokes warned that a $12 billion shortfall in the federal highway trust fund is of concern. “Revenue from the federal general fund is currently being used to make up that difference,” he said. Congress will need to either raise revenue to the trust fund – through continuing to dip into the federal general fund or through a tax increase – or cut funding to the states. If the shortfall isn’t made up in the future, Stokes said, Idaho could lose as much as $100 million a year in federal highway funding.

“We don’t know what our future funding will be, but we know that even with the current funding, we must be as efficient as possible,” Stokes said. “We must operate within our means to keep the roads and bridges in good condition.” Idaho’s bridges are designed to last 40 to 60 years. But, Stokes said, “At current funding levels they will have to last 120 years, two to three times their expected life.” He said, “We are working as hard as we can to replace as many as we can with our current funding.”

Idaho’s pavement needs also are big, Stokes said. Pavement conditions are now being examined more closely for preventive maintenance needs. “We have the ability to look forward, and we don’t like what we see,” he said. “On the surface, some of our pavement may look black and shiny, but looks can be deceiving. … Much of the sand and gravel base underneath the pavement is old, it is nearing the end of its life cycle and will soon have to be replaced.”

Stokes said ITD has saved money through major staff realignment, and now has 90 fewer full-time positions. “Even with this significant reduction in workforce, we improved customer services without going backwards in safety,” he said. He also pointed to cost-forecasting improvements that have allowed for an additional $100 million in road projects over five years, and lower construction costs that allowed GARVEE bond funds to cover more road work. GARVEE stands for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles; it’s a mechanism authorized by lawmakers in 2007 that allowed the state to borrow against its future federal highway allocations to fund big, specific highway upgrade projects.  Next year’s GARVEE bond payment will be just under $59 million. “2031 is the last bond payment,” Stokes said.

Stokes noted that a governor’s task force estimated Idaho needs to spend $262 million more a year to keep its current road system in shape. “By deferring maintenance, what we can do today at lower cost, we are essentially passing on a rapidly growing debt to our children and grandchildren,” he said.

Lawmakers push bill to let Legislature to file its own lawsuits when Attorney General won’t

Sen. Curt McKenzie and Rep. Brent Crane, both Nampa Republicans, want a new law passed to specifically give the Legislature standing to sue to or intervene in lawsuits to challenge or uphold the constitutionality of state laws. McKenzie told the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning that the only example he could think of was when Idaho citizens passed a tribal gaming initiative, and some anti-gambling legislators wanted Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to sue to try to overturn it as unconstitutional. Wasden refused, saying his duty as Attorney General was to defend the laws of the state, not to challenge them.

Now, the state is being sued over its constitutional ban on same-sex marriage; both Wasden and the governor’s office are defending the law in that suit.

“I think it’s definitely a weighty issue that I don’t think we should take lightly, but I think it is something that supports our branch of government, it’s an appropriate function for us to have,” McKenzie told the committee. Sen. Elliot Werk questioned why the McKenzie/Crane bill would lay out a process whereby just the House speaker and Senate president pro-tem – both members of the majority party – would make the decision to mount such a lawsuit with public funds. “I would certainly like to see some role for minority party members,” he said. “We are looking at a potentially sizeable expenditure, depending on the nature of what we’re doing.” McKenzie called that “a valid concern,” but the bill was introduced as-is.

Bill would penalize Idaho police supervisors who order officers to enforce federal gun laws

A new version of former Rep. Mark Patterson’s bill to criminalize Idaho police officers if they enforce federal gun laws was introduced in the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning; last year’s bill passed the House, but died in the Senate. This year’s measure is an emergency bill, sponsored by Sens. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; it aims civil penalties at the supervisors of officers or public officials who order a police officer to “enforce any executive order, agency order, law, rule or regulation of the United States government” regarding seizure or restriction of guns or ammunition in violation of the Idaho Constitution, with a $1,000 fine for a first offense. A second offense would bring a misdemeanor penalty, which Hagedorn said would affect the penalized officer’s POST certification.

“Our intention is not to affect law enforcement officers who assist federal agents in drug or gang activities,” Hagedorn told the committee. “The intention is to provide basically coverage for law enforcement officers should they be directed unlawfully, according to Idaho Constitution or the U.S. Constitution, to confiscate, collect or restrict firearms or ammunition use in the state of Idaho.” Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, asked, “So the issue here is … that the federal government will somehow pass a law or executive order that requires the confiscation of guns, period?” Hagedorn responded, “In a nutshell, yes.” Werk asked, “Have you any indication at the federal level that such an order or law is imminent in the next decade?” Hagadorn said, “No, I do not.”

The introduction of the bill this morning clears the way for a possible full hearing.

Bill introduced to raise Idaho’s minimum wage to $9.75 by 2015

Close to 40 people attended a Senate State Affairs Committee this morning to indicate their support for legislation to raise Idaho’s minimum wage; the committee agreed to introduce the bill, but there’s no promise that it’ll go any further. “I appreciate you being here,” committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, told the crowd. “The signup where you signed in does become part of our official records.”

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, presented the bill to raise Idaho’s current $7.25 an hour minimum wage in two steps, to $8.50 an hour on July 2, 2014, and to $9.75 an hour on July 1, 2015, and then peg increases thereafter to inflation. “The current minimum wage in Idaho is about half the amount that it takes to meet the basic needs of one adult,” Stennett told the committee. “A growing number of people have to work almost two full-time jobs at minimum wage just to meet their basic needs.” Stennett noted that Idaho has the highest percentage of its workers earning minimum wage, a figure that’s been growing. “Young people are leaving the state … at the same time a growing number of seniors are entering the state,” she said. “Such trends aren’t sustainable for our economy, and that’s why I have brought this bill forward.”

Stennett said the average person receiving minimum wage is a 35-year-old adult, 36 percent are 40 or older and 56 percent are women.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, noted that the bill would “de-couple” Idaho’s minimum wage from the federal minimum wage, undoing a change that he and other lawmakers worked to enact in 2007. “Idaho did have a history of lagging behind the federal minimum wage standard,” Davis said. “By coupling Idaho to the federal minimum wage, which is now being struck, Idahoans have received an increase of $2.10 in minimum wage that they otherwise would not have received during a very difficult recession, when they needed it. And I am troubled that we now are wanting, a few years later, to de-couple us from the national federal minimum wage standard.” Davis seconded the motion to introduce the bill but said that piece of it concerns him. “I throw that out for public consideration as this debate goes forward,” he said.

Lawmakers return contributions from cabin site lessees

Scores of targeted campaign contributions — most of them below the $51 mandatory reporting threshold — have been turned away by top lawmakers on ethics grounds, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey. The donations, from Priest and Payette Lake cabin-site lessees, arrived with letters suggesting that “money buys elections” and “I hope I can buy a little of your attention.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said the donations and letters could have put at risk legislation to reform state land-exchange procedures that the cabin lessees support.  “I’m really disappointed with what some of the letters have said,” Keough told the Statesman.  “They’re angry, they’re confused, they’re hurt, they want closure. But this is a distraction and it casts a bad light on the folks at the lakes.” Popkey’s full Sunday story is online here.

Attorney General calls for criminal investigation of CCA understaffing at Idaho prison

The Idaho attorney general's office is calling for a criminal investigation into Correction Corporation of America's understaffing of the Idaho Correctional Center after learning that a police investigation announced last year was never done, the AP reports. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden wrote the letter to Idaho Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter and the heads of the state police, Department of Correction and the Ada County prosecutor's office Friday. The Associated Press obtained the letter through a public records request.

In it, Wasden said there appears to be a “large degree of confusion” into whether, based on a forensic audit that showed thousands of hours of guard posts being left unstaffed, an investigation into alleged criminal wrongdoing should be conducted. “To ensure that there is no confusion going forward, I recommend that this matter be immediately referred to the Idaho State Police and the Ada County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for an investigation of any criminal wrongdoing,” Wasden wrote.

In a reply letter delivered by hand on Friday, Otter told Wasden thanks but no thanks. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone, including a timeline of what state officials said when; the criminal investigation was announced Feb. 5, 2013, and in the year since then, it's been pointed to in testimony in federal court, in a judge's order, and in official denials from the state Department of Correction of public records requests, saying no information could be released because the matter was under a pending criminal investigation. ISP's chief now says he decided early in 2013 that the matter was civil and didn't pursue a criminal investigation.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Dan Popkey, Emilie Ritter Saunders, who’s filling in for co-host Aaron Kunz this week, and host Melissa Davlin for a discussion of the events of the legislative session’s eventful fifth week; also, Davlin and Ritter Saunders interview Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise; a panel of guests including state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer discusses economic development, and Davlin reports on transportation issues in the state. 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.

January state tax revenues down, but still close to target for fiscal year to date…

Idaho’s latest monthly general fund revenue report is out, and January state tax revenues came in 8.7 percent below the revised forecast, for a year-to-date shortfall of 1.4 percent. However, year-to-date receipts are still 4.1 percent higher than the same period in fiscal year 2013. Corporate income tax collections were significantly down for the month, partly because a few large payments pushed refunds for the month to twice the expected level. Individual income taxes for the month were below forecast by $14.9 million, or 8.8 percent, but year-to-date, they’re just 1.7 percent below forecast. Sales taxes came in 4.2 percent below the forecast for January, but are still close to on target for the year to date, at 0.7 percent below forecast. You can see the full report here.

Justice reinvestment bill introduced

Legislation to take the first step in Idaho’s justice reinvestment project was introduced this afternoon in the Senate Judiciary Committee; it could be up for a hearing next week. The bill, co-sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and House Judiciary Chair Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, would spend $2 million in state general funds next year, plus transfer some other funds, to begin reforming Idaho’s probation and parole system.

The project is aimed at saving the state money by going after the root causes for why Idaho has such a high incarceration rate but such a low crime rate; intensive study by the Council for State Governments and the Pew Trusts over the past nine months concluded that Idaho is keeping non-violent offenders behind bars for twice as long as the rest of the nation. Part of the problem is probation and parole violators who are being returned to prison for long stretches, without efforts to target ways to keep them from reoffending. The study concluded that if Idaho invested $33 million into reforms over the next five years, it could save $288 million in prison costs.

 

Bill would repeal law that requires ignoring conservation easements to compute taxable property values

Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, a longtime real estate appraiser, introduced legislation today to repeal a section of Idaho state law that says a conservation easement “shall not have an effect” on property values for tax purposes, and values for properties with those easements “shall be computed as if the conservation easement did not exist.” “It’s my opinion that that’s unconstitutional,” Morse said, citing the Idaho Constitution’s requirement that like property should be taxed uniformly.

Morse said a lower-court decision ruled the 1988 provision unconstitutional years ago, but wasn’t appealed. His bill would simply delete it. “It’s simply not an outright, forthright, correct valuation based on the mandate of this statute,” he said.

Under questioning from members of the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, Morse said he didn’t think the change would actually result in big valuation changes, because his experience has shown him that county assessors tend to reclassify such property to lower-value categories to take into account the conservation easements, which can prevent all development. “Assessors recognize that you can’t generally ignore major economic impacts on property,” he said. “That’s why I think the economic impact of this will be very low.” The committee agreed to introduce the bill, clearing the way for a possible hearing.

Bill would exempt glasses, contact lenses from sales tax, cost $4M

Legislation introduced in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee today would extend the existing sales tax exemption for prescription medications to glasses and contact lenses. “The prescription exemption has been on the books since 1966,” Kris Ellis, lobbyist for the Idaho Optometric Physicians, told the committee. Her bill, which carries a $4 million price tag, would add prescription glasses and contact lenses to that exemption; the committee agreed to introduce the measure, clearing the way for a possible hearing.

Frasure, Jensen hit campaign circuit

Former Idaho Sen. Evan Frasure, R-Pocatello, who’s running for Secretary of State, was back in the Statehouse today, passing through along with GOP schools superintendent candidate Randy Jensen of American Falls; the two are headed to Lewiston tomorrow and Moscow the next day, on a circuit to various GOP Lincoln Day events. “We’re both from eastern Idaho,” Frasure said. “I’ve known Randy forever – I was his high school football coach.”

“He’s a quality guy that should be superintendent, as far as I’m concerned,” Frasure said. “I’m honored to travel with him.”

Frasure acknowledged that he’s in a crowded race – announced GOP candidates for Secretary of State so far also include Rep. Lawrence Denney, R-Midvale; former Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise; and Chief Deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane. But he said he likes his chances. Frasure, a former redistricting commissioner, said by his calculations, 43 percent of the Republican primary vote comes from east of Boise, a third comes from Ada and Canyon counties, and 24 percent comes from north of Boise. “I’m glad to be the only candidate from eastern Idaho,” he said, adding, “It helps to have been involved in Republican politics for 37 years.” Frasure was 27 when he first ran for the Legislature.

Frasure said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, encouraged him to run. “I said, ‘I’m supporting Ben,’” Frasure said, referring to current Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. But now Ysursa’s retiring. “I ran against Ben 12 years ago, and there’s no hard feelings at all,” Frasure said. “He’s been an outstanding Secretary of State. Ben’s set a high standard. I hope to carry on that standard.”

House passes bill to create annual ‘Idaho Day’ on March 4

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, told the House today that presenting HB 378, his bill to establish an “Idaho Day” to “be celebrated with great jubilation every year on March 4th”, the anniversary of the day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the congressional act creating the state of Idaho, is the “most precious moment in my legislative tenure.” He said, “I’ve never been more fondly attached to a bill.”

After all the celebrations in the past year of Idaho’s 150th birthday, or sesquicentennial, Bateman said, “There was so much enthusiasm generated by that event, and so many wonderful activities, that the question was asked, ‘Why should we wait another 50 years to celebrate? Why not celebrate the birth of Idaho every year?’”

Bateman regaled the House with praise for Idaho’s historical, geographic, and cultural wealth; Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, also spoke in favor of the bill. “I believe it is useful and important for the people of Idaho, once a year, to reflect on how we came to be,” he said. The bill then passed unanimously; it still needs Senate passage and the governor’s signature to become law. The bill says the new holiday “shall not constitute a reason to close state and political subdivision offices,” but should be marked by flag displays, historical exhibits, ceremonies and proclamations.

Rep. Bolz to retire after 7th House term

Seven-term state Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, vice-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, announced today that he won’t run for an eighth term. Bolz, who said he’s not endorsing anyone for his seat, said he’s enjoyed his time in the Legislature and found it rewarding, but feels it is time to step aside and allow someone else to serve. “I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to serve the people of District 10, Canyon County, and the state of Idaho,” Bolz said in a statement. “It has been both an honor and privilege to serve in this capacity.”

Bolz said the things he’s found most rewarding in his legislative career have been “the people that one meets, and the things one learns every day.” In addition to JFAC, Bolz serves on the agriculture and judiciary committees. He is an emeritus professor for the University of Idaho extension.