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Eye On Boise

Archive for January 2014

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Bill Spence, and hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the events of the legislative session’s tumultuous fourth week; also, Davlin and Kunz interview outgoing state schools Superintendent Tom Luna; Kunz talks with eastern Idaho teachers about teaching in a time of transition in the state; and Davlin talks with Boise State Public Radio’s Emilie Ritter Saunders about lobbyist disclosure reports in Idaho. 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.

State Board of Ed sets special meeting for Monday on guns-on-campus bill

Idaho’s State Board of Education has called a special meeting for Monday at 10:30 a.m. in regard to SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill. The measure would pre-empt public colleges and universities in Idaho from regulating guns on campus, instead imposing a state law saying retired police officers and those with enhanced concealed weapons permits can carry concealed guns on college campuses, as long as they stay out of dormitories or stadiums with seating for more than 1,000. The elected boards of both North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho have voted to oppose the bill, and officials at other institutions also have expressed concern.

Audit: State treasurer’s ‘inappropriate’ transfers have cost taxpayers $10.2M, could rise to $27M

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Inappropriate transfers by Treasurer Ron Crane's office have cost taxpayers $10.2 million so far, but the hit to public money could rise to $27 million, according to an audit that concludes Idaho's money manager overrode internal controls meant to help contain financial risks. Legislative auditors concluded in a report that Crane's office should strengthen its measures designed to keep Idaho from losing money. Crane, whose management has drawn fire from auditors in the past including for using limousines in trips to New York, didn't immediately return a phone call Friday. But in a written response, Crane says he disagrees with the finding. The losses result from investments in mortgage-backed securities hit by the housing bubble's collapse. Crane shifted these investments between accounts in 2009, exposing state taxpayers to the risk.

You can read Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence's full report here. State lawmakers received the audit report today. Click below for the full AP report from reporter John Miller.

7th-grader introduces state amphibian bill, debates Senate majority leader…

An Idaho seventh grader went toe-to-toe with the Senate’s majority leader on Friday – and won, reports Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. Seventh-grader Ilah Hickman, who successfully got her bill introduced last year to make the Idaho Giant Salamander the official state amphibian but then didn’t get a hearing, returned to the Statehouse today, and this time, is starting her bill on the Senate side. In this photo by Corbin, she’s shown with Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

When Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, quizzed Ilah on whether other amphibians are indigenous to Idaho and asked her to name them, Corbin reports that Ilah noted there were others, such as the spadefoot toad. But the giant salamander has Idaho in its name, she noted, and is almost uniquely native to Idaho. “I am not going to win,” Davis conceded, before moving to introduce the bill. The whole committee backed introduction of the bill, except for Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. You can read Corbin's full report here.

Woodings launches Democratic campaign for Idaho Secretary of State

Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, announced her candidacy for Idaho Secretary of State today, saying as a self-described “voting geek,” she’ll put her top emphasis on keeping Idaho’s election system open and fair, and “making sure that partisan interests do not have a place in that office.” Woodings, 35, said the day she turned 18, the first thing she did was drive to the post office and register to vote. “I was going to be able to be involved and to have a part in the Democratic process,” she said. “I really am committed to kicking down any barrier that stands between people and the polls.”

Woodings launched her statewide campaign at the Boise office of her husband Ryan’s high-tech firm, MetaGeek, which started up 8 years ago and now employs more than 25 people, making hardware and software tools for managing WiFi networks.

After the legislative session is over, Woodings said, “I’m planning on packing up my 6-month-old in an RV and traveling around, so that he has his normal place to nap every day,” because, she said, as parents know, “naps are sacred.” “We’ll be criss-crossing the state,” she said. After her announcement, which was attended by a small throng of supporters including A.J. Balukoff, Democratic candidate for governor, and state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Kenck, Hollings’ campaign staff presented her with tiny campaign T-shirts for her kids, 3-year-old Mary and little Arthur, whose shirt is a onesie.

Woodings is the first Democrat to jump into the race for the open seat; longtime GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is retiring after his current term. Republicans who already have announced they’re running include former Sen. Evan Frasure of Pocatello, House Speaker Lawerence Denney of Midvale, chief deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, and former Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise.

House backs NPDES primacy on unanimous vote, sends bill to Senate

The Idaho House has voted unanimously, 62-0, in favor of HB 406, the measure from IACI to have the state take over primacy for wastewater permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. Floor sponsor Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, touted the “local control and more flexibility that is always inherent when we have a state agency there.” He noted that by 2022, the bill contemplates that the state DEQ, which would take over the program from the EPA, would need 25 additional full-time employees.

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said, “This is not a new issue.” Lawmakers contemplated the move in past years, but the economic downturn made funding impossible, he said. “I’m very appreciative of the fact that this bill has been brought before us and has a phase-in approach.” The bill now moves to the Senate side of the Capitol.

House kills bill after Perry asks, ‘Do you believe in limited government, or do you not?’

The House has voted 36-29 against legislation from Rep. Lynn Lyker, R-Boise, to ban the use of credit or debit cards in historical horse race betting machines. Luker said the machines already are set up for cash or cash-voucher use only, and state rules reinforce that, but his bill, HB 380, would have put the restriction into state law.

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, told the House, “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. I think it’s just an intrusion far beyond where we should be going.” She urged the House to reject the bill. “We can’t codify every rule,” she said. “When we put this in statute … what this is telling us is that government is not limited, government can go into your pocketbook and it can make your decisions for you.” She challenged the House, saying, “Do you believe in limited government, or do you not?”

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, told the House, “Many of us in this room are Republicans and not Libertarians.” He said he believes lawmakers have a responsibility “to choose what vices we allow and do not allow.” Luker said gambling devices may be used in an area where people are drinking alcohol and “aren’t able to … discern” how much they’re spending, but the vote fell short, killing his bill.

Bill to ban lawmakers from local elected offices pulled from House calendar, sent to amending order

Rep. Lynn Luker’s bill to ban state lawmakers from holding any other local elected office, from highway district commission to irrigation board to city council, has been pulled from the House’s 3rd Reading calendar by unanimous consent, and sent instead to the House’s amending order. “It was not anticipated that we’d go quite as deep in the election process with the dual service restriction,” House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, told the House, “and so we do need to amend that bill.” The measure, HB 368, otherwise would have been up for debate and a vote today.

Small musical flash mob backs ‘Add the Words’ with Statehouse harmonies

Five “Add the Words” supporters staged an impromptu musical flash mob in the garden level hallway of the state Capitol this morning, gathering with guitar, tambourine and music stand to sing in five-part harmony Nik Kershaw’s ‘80s song, “Wouldn’t it be good.” As the five sang their hearts out, two held up various signs with hand-written messages opposing the pending bill to protect professionals who deny service to others on religious grounds, and backing adding protections from discrimination for gays to the Idaho Human Rights Act. That measure is dubbed “Add the Words” by backers because it would add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the types of discrimination banned in Idaho.

The song’s chorus asks, “Wouldn't it be good to be in your shoes, even if it was for just one day? Wouldn't it be good if we could wish ourselves away? Wouldn't it be good to be on your side? The grass is always greener over there. Wouldn't it be good if we could live without a care?”

Brian Topaz of Boise said he’s concerned that the “Add the Words” bill has been proposed for eight years without success. “We’re trying to make politicians realize that it’s about time,” he said. “It has nothing to do with marriage equality. If the Republicans see fit to protect religious institutions, what about our rights?” Asked if the group had rehearsed before its Statehouse musical performance, Jen Potcher said, “We sing karaoke together.”

JFAC gives unanimous support to Otter’s $15M water project proposal

Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for $15 million in water projects next year, from $4 million to buy water rights from Simplot Corp. to guarantee water supply to Mountain Home Air Force Base, to millions for studies toward future dam projects including the Galloway and expansion of Arrowrock Reservoir and Island Park Reservoir, won unanimous support from the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning – not as an item for next year’s budget, but as a supplemental appropriation to happen right away.

“It was an effort to expedite the needs and the concerns around the state with regard to water,” said JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “Because of the way our economy has been treated in the recovery, we have significant one-time money, we do not have very much ongoing money.” Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal called for a “surplus eliminator” to transfer tens of millions in one-time surplus funds at the end of the current year into rainy-day savings accounts; this move could reduce that, though it still could be considered in next year’s budget.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of JFAC, told committee members, “I don’t think any of you were here when we pulled this money from long-range water management and took it to a short-range, desperate need. And I thought at that time that was not the way to run a government. And we did quite a few of those things. And now we’ll do what backfill that’s prudent.” She said, “I’m not on the water board, but I respect these people who are,” and they identified the projects. “They’re the managers of the water.”

The appropriation bill, to transfer the $15 million from the general fund to Water Resources this year, still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but appropriations seldom change after they clear the joint committee.

New Wyoming lottery could cut into Idaho Lottery’s sales next year

Wyoming’s approval of a state lottery could cut into the Idaho Lottery’s sales next year, Idaho Lottery Director Jeff Anderson warned legislative budget writers this morning, though the impact is uncertain; he’s estimating it could be as much as $3 million, or as little as $100,000. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill last March clearing the way for Wyoming’s lottery, which likely will start in June. “Our people aren’t going to go over there,” Anderson said. But some Utah players might, depending on where they live. Currently, 20 percent of the Idaho Lottery’s customers are Utah residents.

“We believe we’ve got strategies in place that can defend that,” Anderson said. Those include popular border retailers in Malad City and Franklin that draw big volumes of regular Utah customers. “So we’re the home of the Utah lottery, when it comes to that,” he joked. The typical Idaho Lottery retailer has about $150,000 in lottery sales a year; two stores in Malad City, Top Stop and Kwik Stop, each have between $3 million and $4 million. “Malad City doesn’t have a lot of people, but they sure sell a lot of lottery tickets,” Anderson said. Border retailers cater to Utah residents by providing “places you can sit down, have a hot dog, scratch some tickets, have a soda,” he said.

Washington customers bumped up Idaho liquor sales by $10M in 2013

Idaho state liquor stores had an estimated $10 million in additional sales – 6 percent of their total sales – from Washington customers in 2013, the head of Idaho’s state liquor division told lawmakers this morning. That’s because when Washington privatized liquor sales in June of 2012, the changeover bumped up prices enough in that state that more customers crossed the state line to North Idaho.

“It’s not so much that we’ve sold a lot more volume,” Jeff Anderson said. The increase, instead, came in higher-priced “premium and super-premium” liquor products. Idaho already had a price advantage over Washington in lower-tier products, Anderson said, but previously, a bottle of Patron Tequila that sells for $52 in Idaho might have sold for $53 in Washington, not enough to get a customer to make the trip across state lines. Now, with Washington’s new tax structure and fees on liquor, “It could be as high as $70 or more out the door,” he said. That’s enough to bring buyers across the Idaho line.

“There are instances where they have lower prices than us on certain items,” Anderson said, but overall, “We still retain a pretty significant price advantage.”

Idaho’s liquor division is projecting $170.4 million in sales this year, up from $164.5 million in 2013 and $153.6 million in 2012. Sales have been rising for years; 2010 sales were $137.6 million; 2005 sales were $95.2 million. Proceeds from state liquor sales go to the state general fund, cities, counties, courts, schools, community colleges and substance-abuse treatment.

Anderson said Idahoans’ per-capita consumption of distilled spirits remains well below the national average; the sales growth been driven by population increases and the fact that Idaho has followed the national trend, in that alcoholic beverage consumers increasingly are moving from beer and wine to distilled spirits. “They’re just trading,” Anderson said. “Someone might say, ‘OK, I’m going to have a strawberry sorbet vodka martini instead of a glass of chardonnay or a beer.”

As part of that national trend, the number and type of liquor products has been “exploding,” Anderson said. “Product innovation is one of the reasons why we’ve seen challenges at retail – if we get 500 new products proposed and we accept 150 of them, that’s 150 products on the shelf that we have to find room for.” That’s part of the reason the division is proposing remodels or relocations of seven state liquor stores next year.

The innovation wave started with vodka products, Anderson said. “Consumers have discovered that the flavored items are lower proof, they have less calories, and they taste better. Now it’s migrating into brown spirits, with flavored bourbons and tequilas.”

Anderson said Idaho’s state-run liquor sales system is “efficient and works.” Because state liquor stores serve only those 21 and older, they see less theft and more age-restriction compliance than broader retailers in other states. He said, “I think the Legislature recognizes that what we do has value to the people, and our prices are competitive.”

Water call issued on thousands of rights

Idaho Department of Water Resources' director Gary Spackman signed an order Wednesday telling 2,300 water-right holders they'll have to shut down irrigation if they can't reach a compromise with Rangen Inc, a Hagerman-based fish farm and feed producer, AP reporter Katie Terhune reports. The water call could put growers of sugar beets and potatoes in eight counties along southern Idaho's Snake River in jeopardy. This shut-off call for farmers who pump water from deep beneath the earth comes amid a disastrous year of snowfall, at least so far, that portends a parched summer — and scant water to sustain the rich agricultural region's demands. Rangen's water right has priority, giving it first dibs on water over the pumpers; click below for Terhune's full report.

Otter urges lawmakers to ‘prevent disruption of services to Idaho schools’ with more IEN funding

Gov. Butch Otter has sent out a press release urging lawmakers to allocate $14.45 million to keep the Idaho Education Network functioning in the face of withheld federal funds. “The Governor’s request to the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would maintain funding for the IEN and prevent disruption of services to Idaho schools and districts on the network,” Otter's release says. “Despite an inquiry for clarification, the IEN has received no word from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) – the entity that oversees federal E-rate funding – about when reimbursement can be expected.” Click below for Otter's full release.

Optum hearing: ‘They added a ton of people’

Emotions ran high today as Optum Idaho, a contractor with the state Department of Health & Welfare that's managing outpatient behavioral health services under Medicaid, was called before both the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees to respond to major complaints from Idaho care providers that were raised at a joint legislative hearing last week. Company representatives said they're fixing problems including long telephone wait times that providers said potentially put patients' lives at risk. Executives from Optum, a unit of UnitedHealth Group, told lawmakers that average waits for providers seeking approval for services have dropped to under 3 minutes, the AP reports, down the up-to-seven-hour waits that providers complained of last week.

Optum is being paid $10.5 million monthly to administer outpatient Medicaid's behavioral health services as Idaho seeks to control costs, boost efficiency and give incentives to providers to offer appropriate services when needed. Optum vice president Craig Herman apologized for the troubles, conceding they'd hurt Idaho providers' ability to provide services.

House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said after the House hearing that the company massively upped its staffing to take the calls. “They added a ton of people,” he said. “Things have gotten a lot better very quickly, with respect to that.” But he predicted more challenges ahead as Idaho tries to transform and upgrade its behavioral health system. “I’ve been in the trenches of health care for almost 40 years in Idaho,” Wood said. “We have absolutely zero system of mental health and substance abuse treatment in the state of Idaho, except a little bit of a rudimentary system in the Treasure Valley. But everywhere else, we have nothing. And … what little bit we have is so fragmented, and the standards of care and the variations of practice are so wide, that it’s just phenomenal. And of course, all that has to change.” That will be a long process, he said.

“I think the hearing went well today,” he said. “I’m glad we got it around the rest of the state. I know that a lot of providers were listening, from Idaho Falls clear up to Sandpoint, so hopefully we’ve gotten some answers and hopefully we’ll get on with fixing the problems.”

FCC says it’s holding IEN e-rate funds because of March Idaho Supreme Court decision

An FCC spokesman told Eye on Boise this afternoon that the federal agency has been holding up millions in federal “e-rate” funds for the Idaho Education Network since March in light of last spring’s Idaho Supreme Court decision in the Syringa case, while the agency investigates whether the IEN contract followed federal procurement rules, and there’s no telling how long that review might take. In that case, Syringa Networks sued over the state’s contract award for IEN.

The 2009 lawsuit contended that then-Idaho Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney improperly cut Syringa Networks out of $60 million in business when he awarded the IEN contract to Qwest, now known as CenturyLink. Syringa had partnered with Education Networks of America to try to win the big contract; Gwartney awarded it to Qwest and ENA. Though Syringa was mostly unsuccessful at the lower court level, on March 29, 2013, the Idaho Supreme Court resurrected the case on a key claim: That the bidding process violated state law regarding purchases by the state Division of Purchasing. The high court, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Dan Eismann, remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings on that question; it’s still in progress there.

“All contracts made in violation of these statutes are void and any money advanced by the State in consideration of such contracts must be repaid,” Eismann wrote in the ruling, citing Idaho Code.

Originally, Syringa and ENA submitted the highest-scoring bid for the IEN contract, scoring 856 out of 1,000 points on six specific criteria. Qwest partnered with Verizon and submitted the second-highest-scoring bid at 635 points. The state awarded the contract to both bidders, saying no one firm could serve the full geography of the state. Then, it issued change orders, amending the contract to divide the work not geographically but by function, with Qwest to provide the technical network, or “backbone” – which is what Syringa had proposed to do for ENA – and ENA to be e-rate contractor. That was what Verizon was proposed to do in the original Qwest bid.

“Qwest became the exclusive provider of what Syringa was to provide as a subcontractor of ENA,” Eismann wrote. “The amendments to the purchase orders issued to ENA and Qwest were, in effect, changing the RFP after the bids were opened.” You can read the full Idaho Supreme Court decision here.

Here’s the odd thing: State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning that she wasn’t sure why the FCC was withholding the funds, and could only speculate on the reason, based on the questions the federal agency had asked the state over the past months. The agency responded reasonably promptly to reporters this afternoon, pointing to the Idaho Supreme Court decision and saying it “is in regular contact with the relevant state officials, and is holding funding while it determines whether the E-rate program rules were violated.” Luna told JFAC an earlier email from the FCC to her department misstated the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Idaho faces $14.5M budget shortfall for school broadband network

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the unexpected $14.5 million hole in Idaho’s state budget, as lawmakers are being asked to dip into state funds to make up $14.5 million in missing federal payments to a group of vendors who are providing broadband service to Idaho high schools. “They’re business people and they’re not going to do it for free,” state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told the Legislature’s joint budget committee on Thursday. If lawmakers don’t ante up $14.45 million in state funds, she said, the network serving all of Idaho’s high schools “will be shut down.”

Lawmakers were thunderstruck. The state has spent millions to set up the Idaho Education Network, run by Education Networks of America and CenturyLink; that included $3 million in federal stimulus funds in fiscal year 2010, two $3 million grants from the Albertson Foundation in 2011 and 2012, and roughly $3 million in state funds last year and a like amount this year.

Senate backs funds for state takeover of privately run prison

The Senate has voted unanimously, 34-0, in favor of SB 1245, the supplemental appropriation bill to spend $1.9 million during the current budget year to transition the troubled Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise from private to state operation on July 1; the bill now moves to the House side. “It’s important for us to pass it,” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the Senate. Deadlines are coming up for potential new prison guards to enter Idaho’s POST academy in time to be trained and ready to go by July 1. “One of our first and foremost responsibilities as a state is to keep our citizens safe,” Cameron said.

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he’s looking into whether any statutory changes are required in conjunction with the changeover, but was comfortable approving the expenditure, with the assurance that that question will be answered before next year’s prison budget is set. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, told the Senate, “I was one of a very few who voted against this bill in JFAC.” But he said since then, his concerns have been addressed. “I feel that this is a necessary step at this time,” Vick said. “I do think that we need to be aware that this doesn’t permanently require us to make this a state-run facility. We have the option, it’s my understanding, to go back to a privately run facility. So with that knowledge … I am comfortable with this, and I am voting aye.”

The ICC, the state’s largest prison with 2,080 male inmates, has been at the center of multiple lawsuits, scandals, allegations of fraud by the Corrections Corp. of America over understaffing, and reports of such pervasive violence and gang activity that the lockup was nicknamed the “Gladiator School.” In December, Gov. Butch Otter announced that he’d asked the state Department of Correction to take over the prison’s operation on July 1 when CCA’s contract expires, rather than hunt for another private contractor; CCA had already said it wouldn’t bid on a new contract, as had the nation’s second-largest private prison firm.

Senate confirms insurance exchange board members

The Idaho Senate voted today, with no debate on any of them, to confirm the first five of 12 appointees to the state's health insurance exchange board, Your Health Idaho. Among those confirmed today were Chairman Stephen Weeg and former state Rep. Margaret Henbest. The remaining seven appointments still are pending; six are up for committee review this afternoon. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who carried Henbest's nomination, recalled her service on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “She was just an outstanding committee member who worked tirelessly and in my opinion saved the state millions through her efforts,” he said. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said of Weeg, “I’ve worked with him in multiple capacities, and in my opinion this is an excellent nomination.”

Chief deputy state superintendent quits

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho official responsible for fixing a troubled school software system is leaving the state Department of Education. Roger Quarles, hired only in August as chief deputy superintendent, quit the agency earlier this week. Quarles had been charged with addressing educator complaints about SchoolNet, a program funded largely by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. After quitting Tuesday, Quarles is returning to a program at Boise State University also funded by the Albertson Foundation. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna says Quarles is quitting because he came aboard last year only on the assumption that Luna would be running for re-election. Luna announced this week he won't run. Quarles, who just got back from an education conference in London, wasn't immediately available for comment. Quarles had been paid $120,000 annually in his state post.

Final bond payment on Capitol renovation to be made next year…

Next year, the state will make its final payment on the bonds that paid for renovating the state Capitol; the $20.1 million annual payments for seven years are being covered by cigarette tax funds. “The $20 million bond payments will be ending in fiscal year 2015,” Jeff Youtz of the Capitol Commission told legislative budget writers this morning. After that, the money “by statute, goes back into an economic recovery reserve fund.” However, he noted, lawmakers at that point could direct it elsewhere if they so chose.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said, “It’s been a beautiful experience to be back in a building that looks like this one – and works.” Amid laughter, she said, “Now the wiring works, and everything flushes.”

The bonds were initially authorized for up to $130 million, then revised downward. The 18-month project was completed on time and $1 million under budget, Youtz said.

With unexpected IEN cost, other budget priorities could suffer…

The Legislature’s joint budget committee took a break after getting the bad news from the state Department of Administration that it’s requesting $14.45 million more for the Idaho Education Network, to keep broadband service to Idaho high schools going after millions in anticipated federal “e-rate” funds failed to arrive.

“The committee’s got to mull on it a little bit and try and figure out how we’re going to make this fit in a very tight budget,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We may not be able to put as much into reserves. We may not be able to do a number of things we wanted to do, so it’s frustrating.” No specific date has been set for a vote on the new request, which came in a budget revision from Gov. Butch Otter as well as through the budget request from Administration Director Teresa Luna, who said all the money would go to vendor Education Networks of America, which would distribute shares of it to subcontractors including Century Link. She said based on experience with e-rate funds, she's confident that eventually the federal funds would be released and the state would be reimbursed for the $14.45 million.

Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, wrote in the budget revision memo to JFAC, “If the obligation to the vendors is not fulfilled, the districts that rely on the IEN for broadband will have no service until they are able to arrange for access independently. Districts with a secondary source will have broadband, but the delivery of the content will be disrupted. There will be at least an 18 month gap before districts could begin receiving e-rate funds, severely disrupting broadband access for schools.”

Cameron said he’s also frustrated “by the lack of communication. The department should do a better job of keeping us informed.” But, he said, “At the end of the day, we have to do the right thing, and I don’t think the right thing is to shut off the Idaho Education Network. We’ve got kids taking classes through it. We’ve got school districts that need to be protected,” and need to know if the network will be there next year as they plan their class offerings and budgets. “But I think the department needs to do a better job in its due diligence.”

“Unfortunately, a victim may be the expansion piece,” Cameron said; lawmakers are being asked to approve a $3.5 million state investment next year to expand the broadband network from high schools to the state’s middle and elementary schools. Said Cameron, “I don’t know how you vote on expanding IEN when you have no confidence that our federal partners are going to pay their fair share.”

Lawmakers: ‘We don’t keep track of the federal money?’

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, asked state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna, “I heard you say that we don’t keep track of the federal money?” Lawmakers are now being asked to approve a $14.45 million supplemental appropriation for the IEN to replace federal e-rate funds that haven’t come in.

Luna explained that for the Idaho Education Network, the state pays 25 percent of the costs, and federal e-rate funds pay 75 percent. “We typically pay that 25 percent out every month,” directly to the vendors, she said. The feds pay their 75 percent, also directly to the vendor. Luna said when the vendors “were getting concerned” because they hadn’t been paid for some time, the state moved up its 25 percent payments for April, May and June and paid the vendors early, “essentially to put a little bit more money into the vendors’ pockets for the 75 percent that they weren’t getting paid. That amounted to $550,000, and it was paid out of general funds that are used for the IEN,” she said.

Schmidt said, “The question is the contract oversight, in terms of who’s paying attention to who’s getting paid when. That seems to me like what’s being missed.”

Luna said, “We pay our 25 percent directly to the vendor, and … (the federal agency) pays their 75 percent directly to the vendor. It never comes through our hands. … So I think that’s where the communication issue could be better, if we did a monthly reconciliation to make sure that they’re getting their payments.”

JFAC members ‘very, very concerned’ over $14M IEN request

Members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee appear much taken aback this morning at the request for $14.45 million to bail out the Idaho Education Network, the broadband service run by contractor Education Networks of America that provides broadband connections to every Idaho high school. The state Department of Administration is proposing expanding the network next year to elementary and middle schools as well, with another $3.5 million state investment. Federal “e-rate” funds that were supposed to pay for much of the costs over the past year never arrived; the state is proposing the additional state funding to pay the contractors to make that up.

“This is a very interesting development,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow. “Are there other relationships with the federal government that might be at risk here? Because this sounds very mysterious to me.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I’m very, very concerned with the sense of urgency and the timing … particularly when we have such a large amount of money at stake.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I’m struggling because what we’re being asked to do on behalf of the taxpayers of Idaho is to fund an obligation or a partnership that existed with the federal government on e-rate funding … and many school districts had their own e-rate relationship before we established the IEN. So the state disrupted a previous relationship with many of our school districts on e-rate funding. We built the IEN and it’s been a marvelous tool, but now, because of this lawsuit dragging on, that funding is in jeopardy. The ability to move forward into expansion that has great support into elementary and middle schools is in jeopardy, because I’m not sure how fiduciarily we can move forward when we don’t know if our federal partners are going to be involved.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think I agree with Sen. Mortimer that we’re at a state where a nose-to-nose meeting is in order.”

Luna on $14M IEN problem: ‘They’re business people and they’re not going to do it for free’

State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told JFAC this morning she was informed July 31 by Education Networks of America, the contractor for the Idaho Education Network that provides broadband connections to every Idaho high school, “that they had not been paid e-rate funds in about 3 months. At the time, it did not raise a lot of concerns,” she said. “The e-rate funds is typically a slow pay. We had heard nothing to tell us the funds had been withheld.”

A couple of months later, the federal agency that administers the e-rate funds sent an email asking if Idaho’s contract with ENA was valid, in light of the lawsuit from Syringa Networks challenging the contract award. “We answered the question yes, based on the district court ruling and the Supreme Court ruling, these contracts are valid, and sent that back to them,” Luna said. “That review was due to be completed Dec. 23. We do these all the time, we always get the OK, everybody moves on. When Dec. 23 rolled around and we hadn’t heard anything, we thought, well, it’s Dec. 23rd.  We weren’t that concerned about it until Jan. 12, when we learned again through an informal contact with this group that our funds were being withheld pending resolution of the case.”

She said, “It’s our belief, based on the questions that they’re asking us, that they’re reviewing the contracting and purchasing process  to make sure that it meets their standards.” Luna said, “Even without full payment, the vendors have been providing services to the IEN since March. We are obligated for the services they have provided since that time. … They’re business people and they’re not going to do it for free. Short of the bridge funding that we’re asking for to keep the network going, it will be shut down.”

$14 million IEN problem tied to Syringa lawsuit

The $14.45 million problem with the Idaho Education Network, in which federal “e-rate” funding the state expected never came in, apparently is related to the Syringa Networks lawsuit over the award of the contract to run the IEN to Education Networks of America. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, told state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna this morning, “I was not aware of this until this week, and that’s very disheartening, because it appears that this happened back in July.” Keough said the situation “appears to be driven by the Syringa lawsuit.”

Luna responded, “While we believe it may be related to the lawsuit, we’re not 100 percent sure.” She said, “Just because we settle does not mean that the e-rate funds would be released. If we settle, our attorneys are worried that it could look like an admission of guilt in some way.”

State facing unexpected $14.45 million cost for Idaho Education Network

State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna is requesting a supplemental appropriation of $14.45 million for unexpected costs for the Idaho Education Network – about half of that for the current year, and half for next year – after the state failed to receive federal e-rate funding it anticipated. Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members are aghast. Gov. Butch Otter is proposing to fund the amount by dipping into the $29 million he had otherwise planned to transfer to the Public Education Stabilization Fund at the end of fiscal year 2014, the current year.

Woolf: Transparency is the ‘cornerstone of good government’

Idaho State Controller Brandon Woolf says the transparency website he launched last year, making large quantities of state data available online for free, has been popular. “Since launching the site, the volume of public records requests my office has received has gone down significantly,” Woolf told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. “I firmly believe in government transparency. … It’s the cornerstone of good government.”

Woolf has requested $132,000 next year to upgrade the site, with all but $22,000 of that for one-time expenses, but Gov. Butch Otter hasn’t recommended the funding. “When I launched Transparent Idaho last January, our goal was to provide the maximum transparency for Idaho’s citizens at the smallest cost,” Woolf told JFAC. The entire project was “paid for out of one-time savings in our budget.” He said, “If our transparency website were a car, it would be a bare-bones truck, no air conditioning, no power windows.” His requested upgrade would include work in his accounting and payroll divisions for software licensing and website redevelopment work. The site provides updated data daily on everything from state salaries to agency expenditures.

When lawmakers asked Woolf about Otter not recommending the funding, he acknowledged that, saying, “We can continue to run it and use it as-is, it just may not be as robust a system as we would like.” Woolf's request says, “The site was designed to meet citizens’ basic transparency needs, but without substantial investment, it will continue to fall short of meeting nationwide transparency best practices.”

Bills would turn many Idaho misdemeanor crimes into infractions

Idaho would shift many of its current misdemeanor crimes to infractions, under legislation introduced today by Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, including land use violations and building code violations. Luker told the House Judiciary Committee that Idaho only had misdemeanors and felonies until the “’80s or ‘90s,” when it began using infractions as well. “They impose a civil fine and there’s no jail time attached to it, and there’s also no right to jury trial attached to it, as there is with a misdemeanor and a felony,” he said. Plus, misdemeanors and felony charges bring the right to a public defender; Luker said Idaho’s many lower-level misdemeanor crimes are a factor in the overload of the state’s public defender system, and many are simply outdated.

He proposed three bills, all of which the committee agreed to introduce. The first would expand infraction violations to fines of up to $300, rather than the current $100, and make changes to how infraction penalties are set. The second would make land-use violations infractions rather than misdemeanors, with civil enforcement. The third would make building code violations infractions rather than misdemeanors; it would keep fines at up to $300, but would eliminate possible jail terms of up to 90 days. Today’s introduction clears the way for full hearings on the bills in the committee.

DEQ chief: Tests on kids show Silver Valley mine waste clean-up is working

Cleanup of mining wastes in the most-contaminated part of the Coeur d’Alene Basin appears to be working, Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality chief told state lawmakers today, after a big push to test kids' blood lead levels in the Kellogg area once again this past summer turned up very low rates, with only 1 percent elevated at all. Curt Fransen, DEQ director, said blood-lead levels in children in the Kellogg area were once among the highest ever recorded in the country; now, they’ve dropped to “levels consistent with national averages.”

High blood-lead levels can cause extensive damage in children, including lowered IQ and long-lasting health problems. In the 1970s, children living near the Bunker Hill smelter when it was operating without pollution controls had blood-lead levels averaging 65 micrograms per deciliter. Now, the average level is 2.4 micrograms; just two of the 276 children tested this year had levels of 10 or above. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Utah lawmaker says 80 mph speed limits a success, calls for expanding them

Just as Idaho lawmakers are considering allowing higher speed limits – up to 80 mph – on some stretches of interstate freeway in the state, a Utah lawmaker is declaring that state’s experiment with test sections with limits of up to 80 mph a success, and proposing to expand them. No increase in accidents or fatalities was reported, said Utah Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, according to the Deseret News; Dunnigan’s bill was introduced on Tuesday, to allow the higher limits wherever the state transportation department determines they’re safe. The lawmaker said people’s behavior didn’t change after the limits were raised; it just made their regular driving habits legal. You can read the Deseret News’ full report here.

Bill would amend, clarify last year’s anti-metal theft law

A sweeping anti-metal theft bill that lawmakers passed last year would be amended, after a group including scrap metal dealers, agriculture interests, utilities and more worked over the summer on refinements. This afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee vote unanimously to introduce the new bill, brought forward by Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene.  The amendments reduce the instances in which a scrap dealer could be charged with a felony; provide more detail on when those dealers must photograph their customers; and clarify definitions. “This was built through consensus,” Malek told the committee. Today’s introduction clears the way for a full hearing on the bill in the committee.

‘Add the Words’ activists eye service-denial bill, say hearing could air their issues

Gay-rights activists were stymied again this year in winning a hearing to add discrimination protections to the Idaho Human Rights Act, reports AP reporter John Miller, but now, however, they say a separate bill seeking to do what they call the opposite — to bolster religious professionals' rights to deny service to gays — could provide a powerful venue to testify publicly on virtually the very same issue. Former Boise Democratic state Sen. Nicole LeFavour said Wednesday she'd prefer a bona fide hearing on enshrining discrimination protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals in Idaho code, but short of that, Rep. Lynn Luker's religious freedom proposal, introduced Tuesday, offers a chance to air the very issues important to “Add the Words” activists. Click below for Miller's full report.

Former House chief clerk returns to give Ag Department budget pitch

Pamm Juker was the chief clerk of the Idaho House for a decade, so she’s plenty familiar with the legislative process. But she was in a new role at the Capitol today, when she delivered the annual budget presentation for the state Department of Agriculture. “That was something on my bucket list,” Juker said afterward; as chief of staff to Agriculture Director Celia Gould, Juker filled in today while Gould was in North Carolina awaiting the arrival of her son’s first child; both he and his wife, an engineer, are in the Marines and are stationed there.

Juker said after “reading bills for all those years, it was kind of comfortable, I guess. … It went just fine. I thought I would be much more nervous than I was, and as it turned out, I didn’t have time to be.”

The Department of Agriculture is up for a 1.9 percent budget increase next year in state general funds, under the governor’s recommendation; it’s a 0.2 percent decrease in total funds. Included within the budget proposal but not reflected in those figures, because it would be a fund transfer, is $2 million for a new wolf control effort to be overseen by a new board. When Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members asked about that, Juker deferred to department officials who said they’ll await the outcome of legislation on that, and the $2 million figure at this point is a placeholder in the governor’s budget proposal. Ag also is looking to expand its international marketing efforts, in a joint effort with the state Department of Commerce, by adding one position, either in the existing international trade office in Taiwan for southeast Asia, or possibly in Russia.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, asked if funding for anti-invasive species efforts is sufficient at this point; Ag official Lloyd Knight said between the $1.2 million a year coming in from special invasive species boat stickers and a $900,000 ongoing appropriation for invasive milfoil in waterways, that funding is now stable.

Senator-singer to be featured at high school benefit concert

Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, a noted jazz singer, will headline this year’s annual Boise High Chamber Orchestra benefit concert this Friday, singing with longtime BSU professor of piano Del Parkinson, a recipient of the Idaho Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Boise High Chamber Orchestra. The program promises “from Mozart to Gershwin, there will be a little something for everyone;” the concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Boise High School auditorium. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, teachers or seniors; they’re available online here or at the door. The concert will raise funds for the students in the orchestra to travel and perform in Europe.

Buckner-Webb is the chair of the Senate minority caucus.

Pie Day: ‘They’ve got a lot of pies’

Today is the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators’ annual “Pie Day” at the state Capitol, when fresh-scrubbed home-school students set up displays around the 4th floor rotunda highlighting their schoolwork and projects, and volunteers hand out slices of 150 home-baked pies. Before the House adjourned this morning, Majority Leader Mike Moyle announced, “I’d remind the body that today the home-school kids are here with the pies, and you need to go upstairs and get some. I’d suggest you go at least three times, because they’ve got a lot of pies.”

Raise speed limits up to 80 mph?

Raise Idaho speed limits on some roads to 80 mph? That’s what Senate leaders are mulling, the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey reports today. Popkey writes that Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, broke the news about the pending bill in a talk yesterday to the Idaho Association of Association Executives, after getting permission from Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who’s working on the bill. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who spoke after Hill, also made reference to the proposal, saying, “There are areas where that would be OK and areas where that would not be OK.”

The bill, not yet introduced, would let the Idaho Transportation Department decide on which stretches of road speed limits should rise from 75 to 80 on certain rural stretches of interstate, or up to 75 mph on stretches of state highway; you can read Popkey’s full reports here and here.

DEQ budget doesn’t restore cuts, agency says it’s refocused and is keeping pace…

Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality workforce has dropped significantly since 2010, when the DEQ had more than 380 employees, to a proposed 355 for next year. But the department’s not asking to boost that back up; instead, Director Curt Fransen’s budget request, presented to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, asks to formalize the lower staffing level by removing the now-unfunded positions.

 “We are comfortable recommending that the base be reduced to more accurately reflect the … expenditure in 2015,” Fransen told JFAC. The department is asking for one new position next year to work on water quality standards, which Fransen said is his top priority; Gov. Butch Otter has recommended funding the position. “Our current workload in this area is significantly outpacing our resources,” Fransen said. The result could be Idaho losing control of the setting of its water quality standards to the EPA. “Sometimes we are not in control of our own destiny,” he said. “The work that we do in our water quality standards area seems to be driven by these lawsuits and these demands and changes in federal requirements. I would very much like to get ahead of that process. We are falling further and further behind.”

The governor’s proposal for DEQ for next year reflects a 2.2 percent increase in state general funds, but a 1.3 percent drop in overall funding; it calls for $15.2 million in general funds, $11.2 million in dedicated funds and $39.1 million in federal funds. Other than the one new position in water quality standards, the only enhancement in the budget request is to make the annual, one-time transfer of $1.5 million from the state’s water pollution control account to the Environmental Remediation Fund to provide the state’s 10 percent match for Coeur d’Alene Basin superfund cleanup.

Fransen said the cleanup of historic mining contamination in the basin is proceeding. Blood-lead levels in children in the Kellogg area were once among the highest ever recorded in the country; now, they’ve dropped to “levels consistent with national averages.” A stepped-up testing program this summer “confirmed that the blood-lead levels of children in the ‘box’ remain within national averages, and demonstrate that the cleanup efforts have been successful,” he said, “effectively maintaining the progress that has been made.”

Ongoing work there includes remedial protection, infrastructure improvement projects such as installing drains and culverts to protect the cleanup work already completed from localized flooding, and repairing damage to local roads caused by heavy truck traffic involved in cleanup. “The vast majority of past and future cleanup work in the Superfund has or will be provided by the federal government and mining company settlements,” Fransen told lawmakers.

When lawmakers questioned how DEQ is doing on getting permits processed with its lower staffing level, Fransen said, “We have focused our resources on our core activities, and getting permits out is one of our core activities. … We are currently maintaining the pace.”

He was also questioned about HB 406, the bill proposed by the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry to have the state take over primacy from the EPA on wastewater permitting. “This is not DEQ’s legislation, and we do not have a position on this bill,” Fransen said. “We’re just trying to be helpful in terms of … here’s what the benefits are, here’s what the costs are.” The first-year cost estimated in the bill is $300,000 and three positions, as a multi-year takeover is envisioned that would stretch for seven or eight years; eventually, the program would cost an estimated $2.5 million a year. Fransen said that’s based on state studies that haven’t been updated since 2005, but said, “I think we’re in the ballpark.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked about the waste repository near the Cataldo Mission. “When that was first put in place, a lot of individuals in the area were concerned, when higher water levels would come along, the pollutants might be washed on down. I’m wondering how you think that’s going, with your monitoring of any effects of that repository.”

Fransen said the repository has been in place for five or six years. “One of the reasons that that location made sense is that the area there is highly contaminated, there are contaminated sediments at that site,” he said. “That’s the area where the river loses velocity and a lot of the metals and the sediments fell out of the water column over the years. And there was actually a dredge in the area to pull those sediments out and spread them on the mission flats.” He said the materials going into the repository are less contaminated than the materials in the same area at greater depth. “It is lined. It will be lined on the top when it is completed,” Fransen said. “It’s constructed in a way that it sheds water, and water will not move through the repository. We have monitoring wells around the repository. … We do not show any increase in the contamination in the groundwater in that location.”

Closely divided House panel approves ban on lawmakers also holding local elected posts

In a series of close voice votes, the House State Affairs Committee has rejected motions to amend or kill HB 368, Rep. Lynn Luker’s bill to ban lawmakers from holding any other elected local position, and just as narrowly passed the bill, sending it to the full House for a vote. Seven of the 16 committee members present asked to be recorded as voting “no.” Luker said 25 states have such bans, some of them in their state constitutions. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said, “I do appreciate (the information about) … states that have prohibitions. However, our founding fathers here did not choose to do that.”

Rep. Holli High Woodings, D-Boise, asked,  “What do you think the risk is in leaving those decisions up to the voters as well, to decide if there’s a conflict with a lawmaker?” Luker responded, “We’ve been elected here to deal with these issues.” He said, “Once a person steps beyond the school board or the city council, they have an obligation to a broader group, and so that city on any particular issue may be saying ‘go go go,’ and the other constituents may be saying ‘no no no,’ and that’s the concern.”

Jessica Harrison of the Idaho School Boards Association testified against the bill, saying, “Voters should be able to choose whom they want to represent them, regardless of whether they hold another elected officec. In rural areas, it’s hard to find qualified and willing members to serve as school board trustees. … There’s already a provision available for legislators to declare conflict of interest. … ISBA believes that this bill is an infringement on local control and the ability of local voters to determine their elective representatives for office.”

Luker said his bill would avoid concentrating power in a single person, and said the “power of incumbency” prevents such multiple-office-holders from being voted out. Anderson responded, “There is a power in incumbency … but it doesn’t mean we should be limited in our own local communities to serve, if that’s what our local communities desire us to do.”

After the close voice votes, House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “Don’t despair, if it’ll get amended, it’ll probably get amended in the Senate.” After the meeting, he said, “It’s an interesting discussion. … There may or may not be a conflict.” But, he said, “In reality, it just doesn’t look right. We’ve had county commissioners serving in the Legislature at the same time, mayors, city councilmen.”

Smyser won’t run for superintendent

The Idaho Press-Tribune reports today that former state Sen. Melinda Smyser will not run for state superintendent of schools; current Superintendent Tom Luna, in response to questioning from reporters after he announced that he won’t seek re-election, had said he’d talked with her about a possible run, but wasn’t endorsing anyone. “While I am flattered that he and many others would feel I am qualified to take on the challenge of succeeding him in this office, I am going to … decline the opportunity,” Smyser said in a news release submitted to the newspaper. Smyser is currently a regional director for U.S. Sen. Jim Risch. “It’s very fulfilling for me personally to help the citizens of Idaho work through the many issues they have with the federal government on behalf of Senator Risch,” she said.

Two Republicans and one Democrat already are running for the open seat: Republicans Randy Jensen of American Falls and John Eynon of Cottonwood, and Democrat Jana Jones, former chief deputy superintendent.

Lawmakers say they were ‘duped,’ rethinking approval of ‘historical’ horse racing machines

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers are having second thoughts about a new form of betting on horse races, contending they feel “duped” by operators of a track in the Boise area that's installed the gambling machines. The Idaho Statesman (http://tinyurl.com/qbfwlt6) reported Wednesday the House State Affairs Committee rejected proposed rules for instant gaming in Idaho. These machines store thousands of past races that are generated randomly on a screen for wagering. But Rep. Gayle Batt, a Wilder Republican, says machines installed at the Les Bois horse track in Garden City aren't what were described when proponents pushed them to lawmakers last year as a way to generate additional revenue and revitalize businesses. Lawmakers, among other things, worry people can skip to the end of races to accelerate betting. They're now working on an alternative.

Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell's full report is online here.

NIC trustees vote 4-1 to oppose new guns-on-campus bill

North Idaho college trustees voted 4-1 last night to oppose SB 1254, newly introduced legislation from Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, to allow concealed firearms on Idaho public college campuses under certain circumstances. Like most colleges, NIC bans firearms on campus. College officials said they plan to testify against the bill in Boise; you can read a full report here from Spokesman-Review reporter Scott Maben in Coeur d’Alene.

Chamber group pushes tax rate cuts for all brackets, not just top earners

The Idaho Chamber Alliance, an association of local chambers of commerce from across the state that’s holding its annual meeting in Boise this week, is pushing for legislation to lower Idaho’s income tax rates in a different way – by lowering not just the top rate of 7.4 percent, but also commensurately lowering taxes for those in every bracket. The chamber’s proposal would gradually phase in the decrease over five years, dropping the top rate from 7.4 percent to 6.85 percent; because all earners, not just the highest ones, would benefit, the cost is greater. The plan calls for lowering all rates 0.105 percentage points each year for five years, at a cost of about $24 million a year.

John Watts, lobbyist for the alliance, said he’s talked with House Speaker Scott Bedke about the proposal. But the bill’s not yet been introduced; it’s one of several pending proposals looking at ways to lower Idaho’s tax rates in the interest of economic development. “I’ve certainly given him my blessing to go get it drafted, whether or not I carry it,” Bedke said. He said the proposal is one of several in the mix to provide tax relief, including proposals to lower just the top rate; talks are ongoing. Bedke said, “A policy decision needs to be made there.”

The bill includes a “trigger,” delaying installments in the plan if state revenue drops that year. The statewide issues position statement from the chamber alliance for 2014 says, “The Idaho Chamber Alliance supports lower business and individual income tax rates to assist local area chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and the Idaho Department of Commerce in recruiting new business to Idaho and in supporting the retention and expansion of existing Idaho businesses. Lower income tax rates will position Idaho to be more competitive compared to surrounding states and stimulate a stronger economy.”

Rep: ‘Pre-emptive’ strike needed to help faithful

Idaho lawmakers and conservative Christian allies who contend faith is under siege by gays, lesbians and the government are launching a “pre-emptive” strike to bolster rights of licensed professionals to refuse service or employment to those they conclude violate their religious beliefs, reports AP reporter John Miller; click below for his full report on the bill introduced this morning in the House State Affairs Committee. Miller reports that Rep. Lynn Luker outlined a plan to shield religious people from the threat of having their professional licenses — issued for everything from midwives and doctors to physical therapists and nurses — revoked. Luker, a Boise Republican, knows of no example in Idaho of an actual challenge to a professional's license on these grounds. Still, he points to efforts by gays and lesbians elsewhere seeking to end what they contend is discrimination against them as a sign Idaho must act quickly to protect the faithful before something similar arises closer to home.

IFF’s alternative budget: $180M for tax cuts, 0 for school task force recommendations…

Wayne Hoffman’s Idaho Freedom Foundation released its own alternative state budget this week, though the group has not yet filled in many of the details. It calls for $180 million in tax cuts, no funding for the governor’s task force recommendations for improving schools, a 2 percent pay increase for state employees and teachers and a $10 million transfer from the state general fund to the Idaho Transportation Department, which traditionally has received no state general tax funds. Hoffman’s proposed budget skips Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed big transfers to the state’s rainy-day accounts along with numerous others of the governor’s initiatives, but proposes spending $2 million for a public defender pilot project and $4.7 million for justice reinvestment.

Melissa Davlin of Idaho Reports takes a look at the proposal here, but reports that Hoffman is out of town this week and unavailable to answer questions.

 

House panel clears wastewater primacy bill, sends to full House

The House Environment, Energy & Technology Committee today voted unanimously in favor of HB 406, legislation to launch a seven-year process to have the state of Idaho take over primacy for wastewater permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, though many questions were raised during a hearing on the bill. The measure now moves to the full House for a vote, with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, presented the bill and said costs could be split three ways, between the federal government, the state, and permit-holders. “There’s no guarantee it would go that way,” he said after the meeting, but that was the split the state last estimated in a 2005 study. Since then, the state hasn’t moved toward primacy largely because of costs – without state and federal funding, the full costs would fall on those who apply for permits, which include municipalities as well as private companies.

Asked if the state and federal government are likely to fund the move to primacy, LaBeau said, “We believe they can and should.” Total costs for a state-run permitting operation are estimated at a little less than $3 million a year; the bill estimates first-year costs next year at $300,000.

Idaho is now one of just four states that don’t have primacy for the program, meaning the EPA handles permitting in the state, rather than the state Department of Environmental Quality; it’s a situation under which Idaho cities and businesses have chafed. Under the federal Clean Water Act, the NPDES permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States, from confined animal feeding operations to municipal wastewater systems. Idaho currently has nearly 1,000 such permits, with about half held by municipalities. HB 406’s co-sponsors are Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, chairman of the Senate Resources Committee, and Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, chairman of the House Environment Committee that approved the bill today.

GOP candidate has third-party ties

Until recently, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News, GOP state schools superintendent candidate John Eynon was secretary of Idaho’s Constitution Party; he left the third party shortly before filing paperwork to run on the GOP ticket. Richert reports that Eynon’s campaign manager downplayed the maneuvering, saying Eynon had long been a Republican before leaving the GOP for a year or two, but the acting chairman of the Constitution Party says Eynon had indicated as recently as Jan. 9 that he’d run on the Constitution Party’s ticket. You can read Richert’s full report here. Eynon, a music teacher from Cottonwood, recently launched his GOP campaign for state superintendent on a platform of opposing the Idaho core standards.

Wasden launches re-election campaign, pledges to defend ‘rule of law’

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden launched his re-election campaign today, pledging to continue to stand up for the “rule of law.” Among the accomplishments he listed from his 11 years in office: Pursuing more than 130 public corruption cases, resulting in 49 convictions or guilty pleas; prosecution of internet child sexual predators and establishment of prevention programs; launching 224 enforcement actions over consumer fraud that brought that brought in $41 million in restitution to victims and $32 million in fines and penalties; and suing the federal government over health care reform, prompting a ruling that helped define the limits of the commerce clause.

“Every four years, I have a job interview with 1.5 million people, and I’ve tried to keep the promises that I have made,” Wasden told a crowd of about 50 in the Statehouse rotunda, including family members and supporters. Among them was Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who said he’s backing Wasden “110 percent.” Noted Ysursa, who is retiring after his current term, “He and I came in together, and have had some slight disagreements sometimes on the Land Board, but not very often.” He said as attorneys, both are committed to the rule of law. “We both stood in front of the people of the state of Idaho and took an oath to uphold the law – he has done that in exemplary fashion,” Ysursa said. “He’s a great attorney general.”

Wasden is seeking a fourth term. Thus far, he has no opposition. “There’s more work to be done to uphold the rule of law,” he said. “I’m working now to resolve a number of public corruption cases. We’re working to protect Idaho’s children from sexual predators. We’re working to defend the people of Idaho’s constitutional choice to define marriage. We’re working for the long-range solutions for Idaho’s endowment lands.”

Wasden famously sued the Land Board, on which he serves, over leasing state-owned lakefront cabin sites at below-market rates, despite the constitutional mandate to manage endowment lands for maximum long-term returns to the state’s schools. Wasden said since then, cottage site revenues have doubled. “It’s up about $2.8 million per year,” he said. “That was to fulfill our constitutional duty, our fiduciary duty, to Idaho’s schoolchildren.”

Last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced that he’d no longer defend his state’s voter-enacted constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and instead would join plaintiffs seeking to overturn the measure, saying he wanted the state to be “on the right side of history and on the right side of the law.” Wasden has taken the opposite approach, seeking and getting a federal judge’s permission to intervene in Idaho’s pending case to defend the state’s constitutional provision.

 “I’m obligated to defend the Constitution – that’s what my oath is, that’s what I’m elected to do,” Wasden said. “I’m obligated to defend it whether I agree or disagree. … The people of Idaho made a policy choice – they embedded it into the Constitution.” He said, “The people are entitled to have their lawyer, their elected lawyer, represent their view. Whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant.” He noted that when Idaho voters passed an initiative to allow expanded tribal gaming, he defended its legality, despite his personal opposition to gambling – and despite urging from like-minded gambling opponents to challenge the state’s law. “My duty is to defend it,” he said. Boise State Public Radio aired an interview with Wasden on this topic today; you can listen here.

Bedke meets with former state economist on tax-shift plan

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — House Speaker Scott Bedke says he's met with Idaho's former chief economist over a proposal to shift $80 million from a grocery tax credit to individual and corporate income tax cuts. Bedke, a Republican from Oakley, met with Mike Ferguson, the top economist at the state under six governors before retiring four years ago. “We shared spread sheets,” Bedke said. Bedke's proposal would redirect money now given to Idaho families to offset sales tax they pay on groceries to income tax cuts, in hopes of making Idaho a more-attractive place for businesses to relocate. According to Ferguson's numbers, the shift would mean, for example, a family of four earning more than $117,750 would see lower taxes. Meanwhile, those earning between $32,500 and $117,750 would see their taxes climb.

Luker introduces two bills aimed at protecting religious freedom, warns threats are coming

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, sees a war on religious freedom creeping toward Idaho, so today he introduced two bills designed to stem the tide. “There’s unfortunately greater antagonism toward religion,” Luker said. “We’ve seen government compel photographers, bakers and florists to be penalized for their religious beliefs. We’ve seen counselors in the field of psychiatry penalized for providing certain treatments.”

Luker brought the House State Affairs Committee two bills: One to prevent any kind of professional or occupational license from being revoked or suspended due to actions the license holder takes in accord with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The other would amend Idaho’s existing Free Exercise of Religion Act to expand it to cover cases in which the government isn’t involved, but one of the parties is relying on a government law or enactment; he said that’s in response to a New Mexico decision in which a photographer was fined for violating that state’s human rights law by refusing to photograph a same-sex marriage ceremony. He said that case arose because in New Mexico’s anti-discrimination law, that state “actually has added the words to prohibit discrimination on sexual orientation.”

Idaho hasn’t done so; its human rights law bans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodates on the basis of race, religion, disability and other factors, but not sexual orientation or gender identity. “Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t imagine seeing what we see today in our legal issues,” said Luker, a lawyer. “You could call it a pre-emptive bill. The issue is coming, whether it’s 10 years, or 15 years, or two years.” The panel voted to introduce both measures, though several members had questions about how it would work; the move clears the way for full committee hearings on the bills.

Bill would let some school boards hire spouses for district jobs

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A legislative proposal could clear the way for Idaho's smallest school districts and charter schools to hire the spouses of their board members. Rep. Marc Gibbs, a Republican lawmaker from Grace, said Tuesday that smaller schools face problems when the only qualified applicant for a position is married to a board member. A district or charter school that wants to hire a board member's spouse must have less than 1,200 students to qualify, and must first advertise the position for 60 days, or for 15 days if the vacancy crops up during the school year. While some on the House Education Committee questioned the ethics of handing jobs to family members, Gibbs argued it could be the only way to fill needed positions in rural communities with tiny applicant pools; introduction of the bill clears the way for a full hearing.

Fish & Game says ‘fee lock’ plan could stabilize its revenue in two to three years

Idaho’s state Department of Fish & Game gets no state general tax funds, instead relying entirely on hunting and fishing license fees, federal funds and grants; 51 percent comes from license and tag fees. But, Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, “Like the rest of the economy, our license revenue took a hit in 2008 and it’s just now starting to pick up.” To make up for the shortfalls, Fish & Game has been leaving vacant positions open for six months, reducing fish stocking and taking other steps. “Idaho’s population continues to grow faster than the proportion of people who purchase licenses, which directly fund all of our wildlife management activities,” Moore said. “The challenge for Fish & Game is to address this … without increasing fees beyond the means of Idahoans.”

Non-resident elk and deer tag sales grew in 2013 for the first time in five years. “It’s the start of digging out of that hole, but we’re 35 to 40 percent below where we were in 2008,” Moore said. Resident fees haven’t been raised since 2005; non-resident fees were raised sharply in 2009, just as the economy dived. “We followed the economy down,” Moore said. “We’ve seen similar declines in some other western states, specifically Montana and Colorado.” Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, questioned whether private “shooter bull” operations have cut into Idaho’s non-resident elk tag and hunting license sales. Moore responded, “I don’t believe it is affecting our revenue situation in any large degree. Almost all the information we have is the decline in our non-resident participation is related to declines in elk herds, the presence of wolves and the economy. We raised the price of non-resident tags in 2009 at the same time the economy collapsed.”

He said to address the situation, Fish & Game has come up with its “fee lock” proposal. “While the majority of Idahoans consider themselves hunters and anglers, not everyone buys a license every year,” Moore said. About 30 percent do, making them “our most valuable customers.” So the plan calls for an increase next year of between $1 and $6 in resident license and permit fees, but those who buy licenses in 2014 would be able to “lock in” their 2014 rates in 2015, and every subsequent year – as long as they continued to buy every year. That, he said, would provide “an incentive to buy every year and avoid paying higher fees.”

Legislation to allow discounts for the “locked in” fees already has been introduced in the House; introduction of the fee-increase bill is pending. The department also is proposing a marketing campaign next year to enhance both resident and non-resident license and tag sales, with a $200,000 price tag. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, asked, “Why don’t you just rearrange your existing budget to include a marketing program?” Moore said the department wants to be transparent and have a line item identifying it. “We want to be right up front about what we’re doing,” he said.

Nuxoll said, “There’s a lot of opposition to that part of your budget. I think as good PR, it would have been a good idea to have done that in the way I suggested.”

After the budget hearing, Moore said, “The sportsmen groups I’ve talked to get it, that this is not a bad use of their funds. We can stabilize our revenue by getting people to buy their licenses more often.” Moore said he’s anticipating that the “fee lock” program and marketing efforts will get the department’s license revenue back up where it needs to be to fund programs within two to three years. “I’m anxious to get started on it,” he said.

F&G chief: Wilderness wolf hunt was called off because it was no longer being effective

Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore, who made his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning, said afterward that the department called off its professional hunt for wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness yesterday because “we had been ineffective in the last two weeks on taking any additional wolves.” The hunt had taken nine wolves in the area since the operation began in December. “The analysis the staff has done tells us we’re near where we want to be with take in there,” Moore said, between the department’s operation and sport hunting and trapping in the area, though “we went in there with the expectation of staying longer.”

Moore said, “I hope that allows us to continue to have a conversation about our management actions for elk.” Conservationists challenged the operation under the Wilderness Act, but their initial court challenge was unsuccessful. Moore called the wilderness operation “very similar” to past years’ efforts in the Lolo zone to reduce wolf numbers, though those relied mainly on aerial shooting and trapping. The operation in the Frank Church wilderness “differed because we put one of our folks back there,” he said.

“Evaluation of the cost-benefit is what led to the staff decision to pull folks out of there,” Moore said. Click below for last night's full AP report on the end of the operation.

Idaho Fish & Game pulls professional wolf hunter from Frank Church wilderness

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho wildlife managers called off a professional wolf hunter who has been killing predators inside a federal wilderness area. Department of Fish and Wildlife Monday said it was halting the hunt after nine wolves were killed since December, with none in the past two weeks. It had planned to keep hunter Gus Thoreson of Salmon in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness this winter as it sought reduce wolves and bolster low elk populations there. Wolf advocates initially lost their bid for a court order to force Thoreson to quit hunting wolves from his base on U.S. Forest Service territory. On Monday, however, they contended their continued pressure — they'd appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — helped convince Fish and Game to end the hunt.

Click below for Fish & Game's full announcement.

State parks selling lots of Passports, but still crimped for funding…

The good news Idaho Parks Director Nancy Merrill had for lawmakers at the department’s budget hearing this morning: Idaho has sold more than 95,000 of its new parks passports in the first 12 months of sales, “bringing in over $1,077,000 – and that’s new money for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.” The new $10 season passes, sold with vehicle registrations, also have brought more visibility and more visitors to state parks.

The bad news: Costs are rising, for basics like personnel, utilities and fuel. So that’s where the money’s going, rather than to improve or expand parks. “Our list of deferred maintenance needs continues to grow,” Merrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. So for next year, the parks department is requesting state funding for specific park needs, from repairing septic systems to fixing roofs, fishing platforms and a waterslide.  Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a $1.87 million boost in state funding for parks next year, which looks like a whopping 140 percent budget increase. But that’s nearly all taken up with a one-time allocation for $1.6 million in specific replacement items and repairs at state parks. Otter also recommended $250,000 for a new entry road from State Street to popular Eagle Island State Park, which has become a year-round destination.

“We’ve worked hard over the past few years to reinvent ourselves and change the way we do business to keep each of these special places open,” Merrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Our greatest need is to keep and take care of what we now have. We have done so much with so little, and we need these modest requests we bring before you today.”

This year’s state budget for parks was only $1.3 million in general funds, a tiny piece of the overall $33.4 million cost of running the parks. In fiscal year 2008, the parks budget was $17.7 million in state general funds. Under Otter’s budget proposal, state funds for parks next year would come to $3.2 million.

Merrill said the parks have been generating new funds by selling firewood, renting paddleboards, canoes and sand-boards, marketing parks as venues for weddings and special events, adding partnerships and concessions, and adding camper cabins and other revenue-generating improvements. She said RV license fees that were tapped as a “bridge” funding source still are being tapped. “Until we come up with a new revenue source of that amount, we will have to continue to use those,” she said. About $1.5 million a year in RV funds are being used “to keep the parks going,” Merrill said, which is permitted by state law.

House, Senate ed chairs: Light turnout at hearing reflects agreement on ‘path forward’

This afternoon’s joint House-Senate “listening hearing” on education issues has wrapped up with only half a dozen people testifying, in addition to three education stakeholder groups who gave a joint presentation endorsing all 20 of the governor’s school improvement task force recommendations. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I guess I read into it that we don’t have large objection to the task force recommendations.”

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said, “We obviously knew that Idaho Common Core was a concern for some folks, so by isolating that and setting it up in a forum, I think we were able to address a lot of people’s issues.” If that issue had been included today, he said, the tone of the session might have been different. DeMordaunt said the three stakeholder groups’ agreement was reflected in the overall testimony. “There is substantial unanimity on what the path forward is.”

Testimony: Change school funding formula, ‘Truly encouraged by the way the process was done,’ ‘Harm was done’

In testimony at this afternoon’s “listening hearing” on education issues held by the House and Senate education committees:

Don Keller, principal of Sage International School, said he believes one item in the task force recommendations “will address the majority of the other recommendations: The need to take a look at the state educational funding formula in Idaho.” He said, “We can no longer allow for a system based on where a family chooses to live or go to school. … Policy makers and advocates need to rethink entirely how schools are funded. … They should be allocated based on equality if not equity, and not based on the relative wealth of a district and/or schools.” He pointed to newly enacted funding formulas in Canada aimed at providing even per-pupil funding, in addition to local initiatives.

Mike Vuittonet, a Meridian school board member who said he was speaking as a citizen expressing his own opinions, said, “I am in strong support of all the task force recommendations.” The task force plan, he said, “will have a strong and positive effect for our teachers, parents, students and communities at large.” He said he was also “truly encouraged by the way the process was done, that all stakeholders were brought to the table at every level,” which he called “something we don’t always get to see.” Vuittonet said he was particularly excited about the proposal for a “mastery-based” system, rather than one that moves students from one grade to the next simply based on time spent.

Victoria Young said, “Please consider, after 12 years of standards and testing for math and language arts, we have scores of scores, and students lacking the skills they need. Harm was done.  … Some districts are not ready for the switch to common core. It’s the children in those schools that will be hurt the most.” She decried standards and testing as promoting teaching to the test, saying they narrow what’s taught in schools. “Those most harmed by a narrow curriculum are those children whose parents do not have much to offer,” Young said.

Hearing: Task force recommendations a ‘package,’ not a ‘menu’ from which to choose…

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, is making a statement on behalf of her group along with the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Education Association, at this afternoon’s education “listening hearing.” “All three of our associations are in general agreement,” she told members of the House and Senate education committees. “Each of our associations had representatives on the task force. In every instance but one, our representatives unanimously supported the recommendations.”

“We support the recommendations as a package,” Echeverria said. “We know that transforming our system will require making significant changes. The list of 20 recommendations is not a menu from which to choose the things we like and ignore others.”

With turnout relatively light for this afternoon’s public hearing, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’ll relax the 3-minute limit on public comments.

Education ‘listening hearing’ opens in Capitol auditorium

The House and Senate Education committees are opening a joint “listening hearing” this afternoon, to hear from the public on education issues, with the focus on the 20 recommendations from the governor’s education improvement task force. Comments will be limited to three minutes; the House and Senate committee chairmen announced that “citizens will be permitted to comment on other areas of our education system as well, except for Idaho Common Core Standards.” That’s because a separate forum last week address those standards. The listening hearing is in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can watch live here.

“We're going to stay away from Common Core - we spent two hours on that last week,” Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, announced at the opening of the hearing. Drawing laughter, he added, “It's been suggested that we have another listening session, the next one to interview state superintendent candidates.” Said Goedde, “We'll take that under advisement.”

Wolf-control bill barely introduced, on close 9-8 vote

Legislation to carry out Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for a new $2 million state wolf control fund and oversight board was introduced in the House Resources Committee this afternoon but only on a close, 9-8 vote after lots of questions. The bill, brought by Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, and Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, would have the state set up a new control board not to make payments to livestock owners who lose animals to wolves, but to fund wolf-control efforts designed to control the state’s wolf population for which federal funds have fallen. “There are no new ways to control wolves being projected or being created by this bill,” Gibbs said. “They are simply subject to the tools we have today, which is sport hunting, trapping and aerial gunning.”

The livestock industry and hunting license fees would be tapped for yearly payments of up to $110,000 each to replenish the fund, which the governor wants to start with a $2 million one-time state appropriation.

New state Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, asked, “How is this a more cost-effective approach, to start a new board, than to put a little more money into Idaho Fish & Game so that they would be able to approach this problem within their existing framework?” Gibbs responded, “To me the importance of having a separate board of control is it gives the board the flexibility to work with anyone they need to in order to get their objectives.” He said, “The intent of this control board is not to eliminate wolves. The last thing that anybody I know of in the state of Idaho wants to see is to have to have discussions about putting wolves back on the endangered species list. That is not the intent of this bill. This bill is to manage wolves where there are conflicts with other industries and they’re socially unacceptable.”

The bill says the new five-member board would consist of the directors of the state departments of Agriculture and Fish & Game, and three gubernatorial appointees, one from a sportsmen’s group, one from the livestock industry, and one from the public at large.

Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he was concerned about the cost of setting up the new board, as opposed to using existing boards. “We’d have more money on the ground for dealing with the wolves,” he said. Asked how many wolves the fund would try to remove, Gibbs said it would follow the state’s wolf management plan, calling for a minimum wolf population of about 150. Rubel said that would require removing about 500 wolves, and at $2 million, would cost $4,000 a wolf.

Opponents of introducing the bill came from both parties and didn’t break down along party lines; the motion initially appeared to have failed on a tied vote, but then Gibbs noted that he hadn’t voted, and his “yes” vote provided the one-vote majority to introduce the measure.

Goedde: Luna can now be more ‘forceful’ pushing for task force plan

Idaho Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he would have supported state schools Supt. Tom Luna for re-election, but he understands Luna’s decision not to seek a third term. “I agree that certainly his efforts so far this legislative session have been characterized as an attempt to enhance his re-electability,” Goedde said.  Now, Goedde said, “I think the superintendent is in a position that he can be more forceful in trying to see those (education task force) recommendations move forward.”

Luna has served two terms as state superintendent, the first non-educator ever to be elected to the post; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. He said he has no particular plans for after he leaves office. “I’ve got a business I can go back to,” he said. “I’m not making this decision today because I know what I’m going to do 11 months from now.”

 

Luna won’t seek re-election

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna will not seek a third term, he announced this morning, saying he wants to take politics out of the process of putting into effect bipartisan school reforms recommended by a state task force. “I know it’s the right decision for me, for my family, and I know it’s the right decision for the children of Idaho,” Luna said. “I’ve never avoided a fight. I’ve always done what I thought was right.”

Luna was joined for his announcement by House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, along with House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, all Republicans, along with Luna’s wife Cindy.

Two other Republican candidates, Randy Jensen of American Falls and John Eynon of Cottonwood, already have announced their candidacies in the GOP primary for superintendent; Democrat Jana Jones, whom Luna narrowly defeated in 2006, also is running for superintendent. Luna said he’s not yet endorsing anyone for the post. “I will tell you that the person I will support is the person who stands up and boldly proclaims their support for all 20 recommendations of the task force and their commitment to get them implemented,” he said.

Luna said, “I’m going to be working hard for the next 11 months, not being distracted with a campaign and everything that goes into that.” He said it was “obvious to me that bipartisan support is fragile,” and people might think anything he does to support the task force recommendations is meant to “give me a leg up in the election. … So I wanted to take that off the table.” He said, “You won't see me on a ballot anywhere in Idaho in this upcoming election.”

New guns-on-campus bill introduced, ‘very lively debate’ promised

The Senate State Affairs Committee this morning, without objection, voted to introduce a new bill to allow concealed firearms on Idaho public college campuses under certain circumstances; the same panel has rejected such legislation in past years. “It’s an issue that relates to a fundamental one in our state Constitution,” Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, told the panel; he chairs the committee, but handed the gavel to vice chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, so he could present the bill. “The people have the right to keep and bear arms, which is a fundamental right that we put in our Constitution. This addresses that particular right on college campuses. … We’ve tried to craft a bill that both protects that constitutional right, but also takes into consideration the concerns that were expressed in committee and in testimony as well as over the summer and otherwise.”

McKenzie said the new bill would allow only retired law enforcement officers or people who have Idaho’s new enhanced concealed carry permit, which requires more rigorous training then the state’s regular concealed weapon permit, to have concealed weapons on public college campuses. Plus, there would be exemptions, not allowing concealed weapons in dormitories or residence halls, or in large entertainment venues with seating for 1,000 or more.

The bill also adds on to an existing law that makes it a crime to carry a concealed weapon while under the influence of alcohol or an intoxicating drug, McKenzie said. “We enhanced the penalty for that, so you would actually lose your license as well as any other penalty,” he said. He told senators on the committee that if they introduce the bill, “We will have some very lively debate.”

Several committee members had questions about provisions in the bill. Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, asked what various legal citations in the measure referred to; Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, pointed out that one pointed to an exception for self-defense or defense of others who are threatened, and asked how that would interact with the dormitory exception. “I think that would apply in a situation, like if someone in a dorm room is being attacked and calls for help,” McKenzie responded, “and you go in and protect their life, that’s not going to be a crime.”

Without comment, Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, moved to introduce the bill, and Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, seconded the motion. It passed, clearing the way for a full hearing in the committee.

Luna to announce election plans this morning

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna has just announced that he’ll hold a news conference at 10:30 this morning to announce 2014 election plans; it will be in room WW 55 of the Capitol. Luna has hinted he’ll seek a third term, but hasn’t made a formal announcement; last week, two Republicans announced they’ll run against him, Randy Jensen and John Eynon; Democrat Jana Jones already has announced her candidacy.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has scheduled a news conference on Tuesday at 12:15 in the second-floor rotunda to announce that he will seek re-election.

Otter collects big donations from casino moguls who back online gaming

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s latest campaign finance report shows that three billionaire Nevada casino operators who have been leaders in a push for online gaming in Nevada and New Jersey gave $60,000 to Otter’s re-election campaign, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports; his full Sunday story is online here. Popkey reports that the contributions came after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joined Otter for a campaign fundraiser at the Sun Valley home of one of the casino moguls, Steve Wynn, on Dec. 6; after that lunch fundraiser, Otter and Christie flew to Coeur d’Alene for a larger rally and fundraiser.

Popkey reports that after Christie spoke at the Sun Valley event, Otter said he “had the opportunity to make my pitch,” talking about his policies on state spending, the economy and unemployment. “And the first thing out of some of their mouths was ‘What’s your donation law?’ ” Otter told the Statesman. “I said, ‘$5,000 max, it can come from an individual or a corporation.’ ”

Wynn petitioned New Jersey regulators on Jan. 10 for a license to operate online gaming in New Jersey, Popkey reports. Brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertittas’ Station Casinos began offering legal online gaming at UltimatePoker.com in April, when Nevada became the first state to sanction the business; the site has since expanded to New Jersey as well.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Mike Ferguson, and hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the events of the legislative session’s third week, from budgets to listening sessions to candidate announcements; also, Davlin and Kunz interview Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, left, and Janie Ward Engelking, D-Boise, center; Davlin interviews Boise State University President Bob Kustra; and Kunz interviews interim University of Idaho President Don Burnett. 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.

During our discussion, I ask Ferguson whether the alternative state budget he released this week would use any one-time money for ongoing expenses, a question I’ve heard from legislators. The answer is complex and somewhat confusing; I quizzed him further after the taping, and his answer was no. The $71 million that Gov. Butch Otter proposes to transfer to state rainy-day savings accounts is technically one-time because it’s a year-end balance from the current year, Ferguson explained; his budget doesn’t make the transfer, but it does have a $66.1 million ending balance at the end of fiscal year 2015, so the funds aren’t routed into ongoing expenses.

New guns-on-campus bill in the works…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gun-rights advocates are resurrecting a measure aiming to allow concealed weapons on Idaho university campuses. A bill is up for consideration Monday in the Senate State Affairs Committee. In 2011, that panel's members dumped a House-passed measure, arguing decisions should be left up to university leaders. This year, one of the proponents, Republican Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale, has been working with key lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis to address objections. According to the proposal now, students could carry a concealed weapon — provided they complete rigorous firearms training included in a law from the 2013 Legislature creating an enhanced concealed weapons permit. Boyle said Friday she's optimistic these changes are sufficient to win additional support. Guns are prohibited on most American university campuses. However, Utah, Idaho's southerly neighbor, allows them, as does Colorado.

Jensen launches campaign, supt’s race starts getting crowded…

Randy Jensen formally announced his candidacy for state Superintendent of Schools today as a Republican; from the state Capitol steps, the longtime middle school principal and former Fulbright scholar said, “I will make decisions based solely on what’s best for kids in Idaho. … Now is the time to have a proven educational leader lead our schools.”

The race is getting crowded; also this week, Cottonwood teacher John Eynon, an outspoken opponent of Common Core standards for student achievement, announced his candidacy in the GOP race. Jana Jones, a Democrat whom current GOP Superintendent Tom Luna narrowly defeated in 2006, is running again. Luna himself hasn’t yet announced whether he’ll seek a third term.

Jensen, 52, has been the principal at William Thomas Middle School for 25 years, after starting there as a teacher. “After 29 years … I still love kids as much as I did the first day,” he said. He introduced one of his former 5th grade students who’s now a Boise dentist.

Jensen holds a master’s and bachelor’s degrees in education from Idaho State University and certification to serve as a school district superintendent. Asked the main thing he’d like to accomplish if elected, he said, “I want the state Department of Education to be a service organization, where we really work closely with local school districts to make them the best they can be. Great schools are not created by federal or state mandates. Great schools are created at the local level.”

Private prison workers sue CCA over safety issues

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Three current workers and one former worker at Idaho's largest private prison are suing their employer, Corrections Corporation of America, in state court over what they say is a dangerous work environment. Mark Eixenberger, Mandi Bravo, Mario Vasquez and Leonard King filed the lawsuit in Boise's 4th District Court on Thursday against the Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA. The workers contend they sustained severe emotional distress and in one case, physical injuries, because they were put to work at the Idaho Correctional Center with broken equipment and inadequate training. In the lawsuit, the workers say they had broken radio sets, empty pepper spray canisters and were often left to work without basic equipment like handcuffs. CCA has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

Before-and-after crash stats show big safety gains for Idaho’s ‘Connecting Idaho’ road projects

From 2007 to 2012, traffic crashes in Idaho dropped by 18 percent, according to research by Scott Stokes, deputy director of the Idaho Transportation Department, while fatalities and serious injuries on Idaho’s roads fell 25 percent. “That is saving the lives of approximately 80 people per year,” Stokes told lawmakers this week, in presentations to both the House and Senate transportation committees. But the numbers are even more pronounced for the corridors that Idaho targeted in recent years for major highway upgrades through the use of GARVEE bonds, or Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, a type of bonding that allowed the state to borrow against its future federal transportation allocations.

In the Garwood to Sagle corridor on Highway 95 in North Idaho, between State Highway 53 and Ohio Match Road, crashes fell 25 percent in the three years after construction, compared to the three years before, even as traffic volumes went up by more than 10 percent. At another major construction project south of Coeur d’Alene on Highway 95, Worley to Setters, crashes fell by 72 percent – even as traffic volumes went up 36 percent from 2007 to 2012.

“It is clear that when we invest in safety, the return on the investment is dramatic,” Stokes told lawmakers.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a former ITD board chairman, noted that the GARVEE projects, pushed by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in his “Connecting Idaho” program, were controversial. “One of the key things was safety and trying to reduce fatalities,” Winder said. “I just wanted to say … seeing the reductions in fatal crashes makes all of the criticism I’ve taken about GARVEE over the years more than worth it.”

Stokes, who also documented a 42 percent decrease in crashes on I-84 between the Garrity and Meridian interchanges after construction, a 34 percent drop at the Orchard to Isaacs Canyon stretch, and a 76 percent reduction in crashes after construction on U.S. 30 between Topaz and Lava Hot Springs in eastern Idaho, said, “This is something that I’ve been interested in since my days in Coeur d’Alene.” He long served as ITD’s district engineer in Coeur d’Alene, before becoming the department’s deputy director in 2007. “I’d always ask my engineers: I want to see before and after on our projects.”

Mental health care providers blast private manager; H&W may impose penalties

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller on the concerns raised at a Statehouse public hearing today about Optum, the private contractor that the state Department of Health & Welfare is paying $10.5 million a month to administer outpatient behavioral health services for Idaho's Medicaid program. Numerous mental health care providers told of waiting hours and hours on the phone for response from Optum to pre-authorize services for clients, with disastrous results. After Friday's meeting, Health & Welfare spokesman Tom Shanahan said Optum's contract requires it to respond to phone calls from providers within only two minutes; the agency has given the company until the end of the first week in February to start performing. If it falls short, Shanahan said, penalties could ensue.

Private donations now make up 62% of Idaho Public TV’s operating budget

Idaho Public Television now gets 62 percent of its operating budget from private donations, General Manager Ron Pisaneschi told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today. “High-quality programming translates into higher than average contributions levels,” he said. “We are doing considerably better than our peers.” Compared to similar public TV systems around the nation, Idaho has “more than twice the percentage of donors per capita than our colleagues, and nearly twice the average gift,” Pisaneschi said.

The station’s programming won 60 national and regional awards in 2013, and it was twice rated the most-viewed PBS station per capita in the country, in Nielsen ratings that occur four times a year.

“We’ve had a great year this year, lots of successes, but we do still have some challenges in the statewide delivery system,” Pisaneschi told JFAC. The governor’s recommended budget for Idaho Public TV calls for a 19.8 percent increase in state funding next year to $2.2 million, but that’s largely because of a recommendation for $629,200 to replace specific equipment items. Idaho PTV had asked for $1.4 million for that, plus additional funds for maintenance and repair. In total funds, the governor’s budget proposal for IPTV reflects a 0.8 percent increase.

Federal judge rules against St. Luke’s in hospital anti-trust case

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge says a Boise-area hospital violated federal antitrust laws when it purchased Idaho's largest independent physicians' practice. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill made the ruling Friday, ordering St. Luke's Health System to undo its buyout of the Nampa-based Saltzer Medical Group. The ruling came in a lawsuit between St. Luke's, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC and Saint Alphonsus alleged the buyout was an illegal market grab that gives St. Luke's an unfair advantage, but attorneys for St. Luke's countered that the acquisition would improve patient care and give consumers more options. Winmill said that it's likely the buyout would raise health care costs because it would give St. Luke's a dominant market position.

Hill: Wait for word from courts on marriage ban before addressing ‘Add the Words’

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the current federal lawsuit challenging Idaho’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is the reason he believes this year is not the time for a hearing on the “Add the Words” bill. “Why do they want to float something that has no chance of getting through, when after the lawsuit, it might have a chance?” Hill asked. “Let’s see what the courts say. By next session, we will have at least an initial ruling.”

Hill said he understands that there’s a difference between the two issues – the “Add the Words” bill would extend Idaho’s Human Rights Act to ban job and housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity – but said the outcome of the court case could change the environment of the debate. He also said in some other states, the existence of anti-discrimination laws has been used as a legal argument in favor of overturning bans on gay marriage.  “In my mind, the goal ultimately is to allow gay marriage in Idaho,” Hill said. If that’s how the court rules, he said, “I think there’s going to be a much different attitude towards the housing and employment.”

Hill said, “My feeling was it wouldn’t be a good year to pursue it.”

‘Add the Words’ sponsors say they’ve been denied a hearing, will use ‘all permissible procedures’ to push bill

Backers of the “Add the Words” legislation, to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, announced today that GOP leaders in both houses have informed them there will be no hearings on the bill this year. “Earlier this week, Speaker Bedke said that the Legislature is an ‘arena of ideas’ and that all ideas deserve consideration and an up or down vote,” Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said. “Without explanation, the idea that all Idahoans should be free of discrimination … is somehow deemed to be outside the field,” he said.

“We most adamantly do not accept this, and Sen. (Cherie) Buckner-Webb and I will use all permissible procedures in this Legislature to advance the Add the Words bill this session. We also call on the people of Idaho to contact their legislators on this important issue,” Burgoyne said.

He and Buckner-Webb, co-sponsors of the bill, were joined at a Capitol news conference by an array of supporters of the bill, including Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan, representatives of the Boise Police, the ACLU of Idaho, the Pride Foundation, Add the Words, and a bevy of Democratic lawmakers. The legislation has been proposed for eight straight years, but never has gotten a hearing.

Idaho’s Human Rights Act currently bans discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age or disability, in employment, housing or public accommodations. At least seven Idaho cities, including Sandpoint, Boise, Ketchum, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, have now enacted their own local ordinances to extend those protections to gays; last June, the Idaho Republican Party state central committee passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to pass a law invalidating such local ordinances.

Buckner-Webb said, “We must protect all of our citizens from discrimination. It’s the right thing to do.”

Optum problems: ‘We had a client burn his family’s house down’

Close to 30 people testified at today’s Health & Welfare listening hearing, and complaints about Health & Welfare behavioral health contractor Optum topped the list of concerns. “We had a client burn his family’s house down,” Nikki Tangen told lawmakers. “We can’t call Optum and get services. … Now we’re out of time.” She said, “Our request is that Optum immediately lift the reqirement to have prior authorization, and then we’ll be able to serve the clients that we have,” including those just released from the state’s mental hospitals. The requirement should be lifted until the firm actually has a way to handle the requests, she said.

House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley said, “Optum health care will appear before the House Health & Welfare Committee, it’s already scheduled for next week. The public testimony portion of that is today. We heard you loud and clear, and we have scheduled an entire two-hour period for Optum and the department to be in front of the House Health & Welfare Committee next week, and we will see if we can’t get to the bottom of some of the issues that you have.” He added, “I want to thank all of you for coming today. I know some of you came a long way. We did hear you, and we’ll do our best to help you to the best of our abilities.”

Senate Health & Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said the Senate committee, too, is bringing Optum representatives in. “We are working with Optum to try and resolve the issues there,” he said.

‘Unintended consequence of HB 260’ created ‘barrier to work’ for disabled

Jim Baugh, executive director of Disability Rights Idaho, told the House and Senate Health & Welfare Committees today that legislation is needed to correct an unintended situation in which people with developmental disabilities are being pushed out of the supports they need to work. “What’s happened here is an unintended consequence of HB 260,” Baugh said. “It said the department could only make an exception to people’s individual services budgets if the people could show they needed the exception for reasons of health and safety. Employment is not a reason of health and safety.” Baugh said, “The unintended consequence is instead of supporting people to go to work … we created a barrier to work.”

Baugh said, “We are suggesting  a change in the statutory language.”

House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said Baugh and others have come to see him. “I have a preliminary draft of that legislation,” he said. “We certainly heard you today. I personally visited this program with a young man in Burley and see the value of this program. Unfortunately I can’t make any promises on behalf of the Legislature, but we’ll certainly look into it and if possible run that legislation this year. … We heard you.”

Complaints about Optum mount at listening hearing…

Complaints about Optum, an Idaho Health & Welfare contractor for outpatient behavioral health under Medicaid, have continued to mount at this morning’s public hearing on Health & Welfare issues. Doug Loertscher, who owns and operates two mental health agencies in Boise and Nampa, said contacting Optum means staying on hold for five hours. “Currently we have about 50 individuals waiting for services to be obtained in our agency,” he said. “In reality, they probably need to add more like 30 new care managers in order to keep up.” He also said after he testified to a legislative committee earlier, Optum contacted him about his testimony; he asked lawmakers to protect those citizens who come and testify from retaliation.

Darcy Moreno, a provider in the Treasure Valley, said she’s seen numerous canceled appointments, including for children with severe neglect or abandonment issues, as providers try to get prior authorization from Optum to continue providing services. “That’s unacceptable,” she said.

Jessica Chilcott, a licensed social worker who provides case management services in Bonner, Boundary and Kootenai counties, said, “I’m here because I’m frustrated. … I personally spent 10 and a half hours on hold in the last five business days without being able to speak to an Optum representative. I’m aware my experience is not unusual.” She said Optum has told her to provide services for which she won’t be paid, and her agency has four parents who have been “told by their employers that they are at risk of losing their jobs if they take any more meetings dealing with their children.” She said, “I’ve spoken with multiple professionals who are no longer able to make a living as mental health providers in Idaho. I’m asking that the ability to do my job be restored.”

Testimony: Serious problems with Optum, DD services rules, lack of coverage…

In continuing testimony at the Health & Welfare listening session in the Lincoln Auditorium this morning, more than a dozen people have spoken so far. They’ve pleaded for expansion of Medicaid in Idaho; highlighted perverse incentives in current policies for developmental disability services that are limiting clients’ 24-hour home support services if they participate in job services, causing many to stop working; and pointing out serious problems providers are having with Optum, the contractor that Health & Welfare selected last April to manage the state’s outpatient behavioral health services under Medicaid.

House Health & Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, asked for a show of hands of all those who are here to testify about Optum; at least a dozen raised their hands. Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said he’s heard from a constituent who tried to contact Optum, and, “They were on hold for over seven hours. … I think it’s important that the record show that that’s a serious issue.” Other lawmakers said they, too, have heard from constituents with serious concerns about Optum.

“We are aware of Optum’s issues,” Heider said. “We’ve counseled with Optum, we’ve gotten promises from Optum. … We’re trying to resolve those issues, for your knowledge.”

Laura Scuri told the legislators, “I need you to direct Optum and the department to work with provider associations. … The system that we’re using right now will be catastrophic in the near future, for providers and clients. That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Genevieve Sylvia told the committees of the serious health problems she’s experiencing, with few options. “I don’t qualify for Obamacare, I don’t make enough,” she said.

Testimony: ‘Turning point for people with mental illness in Idaho’

Ian James Bott was the first to testify at the listening session on Health & Welfare issues. A 30-year-old college student with autism, he spoke of how he had to pay out of pocket for extensive dental work, including a bridge. “I’m hoping that people who need dental coverage can help get it rectified and resolved,” he said. “I thank you all for being here. … I hope that there will be resolving help for wanting to have the dental be eventually restored fully.”

Idaho cut adult non-emergency dental coverage from Medicaid in 2012 to save money, but instead, emergency room costs have ballooned; this year, the state Department of Health & Welfare is requesting that the coverage be restored.

House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, told Bott, “There is legislation making its way through the Legislature at this time that will restore dental benefits to the pre-HB 260 effort. That’s going through the process, but I’m encouraged by that, and we should get that accomplished for you.”

Kathy Mercer of Meridian, a state board member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and parent of a child with mental illness, told the lawmakers, “We are at a crossroad. This legislative session could mark a significant turning point for all of the people with mental illness in Idaho. I hear lots of references to doing the people’s business. I think improving access to mental health care is in the interest of people. … NAMI Idaho endorses Medicaid redesign as the most important change the state could make.” If it were enacted, she said, “96 percent of people living with mental illness could be covered.”

Bobbie Phillips told the lawmakers, “I’m here as a parent. I’ve got three daughters all diagnosed with bipolar and PTSD. I have over the years been their greatest advocate.” She said she’s had trouble getting the needed prior authorization for a medication her 13-year-old daughter needs. “These are 28 bucks a pill,” she said. “We can’t afford it as ordinary Americans.”

Listening session to hear from public on Health & Welfare issues this morning…

A crowd is gathering in the Lincoln Auditorium this morning for a “listening session” on Health & Welfare issues; the public is invited to speak, with testimony limited to 3 minutes apiece; both the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees will be listening. On Monday, a similar session is planned on education issues, in a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees; that session will run from 3-5 p.m. You can watch today’s hearing live online here; click on “Lincoln Auditorium.”

Meanwhile, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has budget hearings scheduled this morning, starting at 8, with the office of the State Board of Education, Professional-Technical Education, Educational Services for the Deaf and Blind and Idaho Public TV. The House convenes at 8 a.m.; the Senate at 11:30.

Idaho looking at ‘slow road back’ to restoring school funding

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s public school budget hearing; Idaho’s schools, hard-hit by budget cuts during years of economic downturn, would see a 5.1 percent boost in funding next year, under a budget plan pitched to lawmakers Thursday by state schools chief Tom Luna. Luna’s proposed $66.9 million increase for schools is well above the 2.9 percent, $37 million increase Gov. Butch Otter has recommended. And unlike Otter, Luna’s calling for modest raises for teachers next year – Otter recommended none.

“He laid out a blueprint that will give us something to work with,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee. Said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House co-chair of the panel, “It’s a slow road back.” Even with the increase, Luna’s $1.37 billion proposed budget for Idaho schools for next year falls below the 2009 level of $1.42 billion – it’s $50.8 million less.

Former prosecutor denies bankruptcy fraud

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A former southwestern Idaho prosecutor has denied charges that he tried to hide assets from a bankruptcy court. John Bujak pleaded not guilty Thursday to bankruptcy fraud, concealment of assets, making a false statement under oath, money laundering and obstruction of justice during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush in Boise. Bujak, a former Canyon County prosecutor, requested a public defender. Bush granted one for Thursday's arraignment but didn't decide whether to continue the appointment. Bujak's trial is set for March 25. The U.S. attorney's office alleges Bujak did not disclose to the bankruptcy court that he and his then-wife owned a $25,000 Rolex watch and that it and a ring were sold to an out-of-state jeweler. Prosecutors say Bujak cashed the check at a payday loan store rather than putting it in his bank account.

Olympic gold medalist who revolutionized high-jumping to run for Idaho House as a Democrat

A 1968 Olympic gold medalist and famed high jumper will run for the Idaho Legislature this year, Twin Falls Times-News reporter Kimberlee Kruesi reports. At her “On the Agenda” blog, Kruesi reports that Dick Fosbury, a Democrat, will challenge freshman Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield. Fosbury is a retired engineer who is making his first run for state office. But it was his back-first technique at the 1968 Olympics that made his fame; the technique, which became known as the Fosbury Flop, is now the standard in high-jumping, used by all medalists. It earned Fosbury a gold. You can read Kruesi’s full post here.

Economist: Wealthy aided by grocery tax shift, middle class would face tax hike

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's former chief economist says families of four earning more than $117,750 would see lower taxes, should lawmakers adopt House Speaker Scott Bedke's proposal to shift money from a grocery tax credit to individual and corporate income tax cuts. Mike Ferguson, chief economist for six governors including Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, said Thursday families earning less would likely see a higher tax burden, according to his calculations. For instance, Ferguson said somebody earning $50,000 would see their tax liability increased $305, based on his analysis of Bedke's proposal, which Otter says he'd at least consider. Bedke's plan would leave the grocery credit intact for families earning 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or $32,499. Ferguson now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, which analyzes budget and tax policy.

House votes 57-12 to ban same-sex couples from joint tax filings, retroactive to Jan. 1

The House has voted 57-12 in favor of HB 375, which writes into Idaho law – retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year – that same-sex couples legally married in other states may not file joint income tax returns in Idaho, meaning they’ll have to re-do their taxes from how they did their federal ones, now that federal law allows them to file jointly. Idaho’s income tax laws generally follow federal tax laws, even to the point of requiring Idahoans to submit copies of their federal returns along with their state returns. Twelve of the 13 House Democrats voted no, with the exception only of Rep. Carolyn Meline, D-Pocatello; all House Republicans who were present voted yes. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, missed the vote.

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said Oregon and Missouri, like Idaho, have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, but haven’t taken this step with regard to tax filings. “It is, in my estimation, a denial of equal protection,” he said. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said the bill is picking just one kind of out-of-state marriage to reject under Idaho’s tax filing laws. Other out-of-state marriages, such as common-law marriages recognized by some states, or marriages that don’t comply with Idaho’s age of consent, aren’t excluded from joint filing. “The Tax Commission is only questioning one kind of lawful marriage,” Gannon said. He said that violates the equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, and was the reasoning of the federal court in Ohio when it recently invalidated part of that state’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriages; the decision ordered the state to recognize such marriages on death certificates, giving the survivor widow or widower status.

“The problem with this bill is that it in all likelihood is not lawful,” Gannon said. “It will result in litigation and it will result in a lot of expense to this state, and we will in all likelihood ultimately lose.”

Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, the bill’s floor sponsor, said, “I would remind the body that this bill is about income tax. … We do have a severability clause within this should the law be challenged, so that the rest of the conformity bill will not be changed. We do also have a Supreme Court ruling which states the individual states have the right to define marriage within their states. And in statute 32-209 it states that marriages are valid unless they violate the public policy within the state. And same-sex marriage at this point, under statute and following our Constitution, is in violation of that.” Having passed the House, the bill now moves to the Senate side; if it passes there, it goes to Gov. Butch Otter.

Details of pay proposals in the school budget…

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked state schools Superintendent Tom Luna about his proposal for $16 million in one-time leadership bonuses for teachers next year, asking if that would require legislation. Luna said yes. He said it would follow recommendations from the governor’s education task force. “This would be the first step in transition to a career ladder,” Luna said. “This first step would not require us to alter the grid in any way. … It provides leadership bonuses.”

School districts would decide how to distribute the money, which would go to reward teachers for taking leadership roles such as mentoring other teachers, and helping write curriculum or assessments. Cameron asked how Luna came up with the $16 million figure. Luna aide Jason Hancock said the task force used a formula calculated essentially at $1,000 for every teacher with three or more years of experience. “That’s the formula for getting money out to districts,” Hancock said; districts would then decide how it’s distributed and to whom.

Cameron said, “I think all of us agree that the current system is not adequate to reward and retain our best teachers.” He said there’s lots of excitement about the proposed new career ladder for teachers that the task force recommended. He asked Luna why he’s proposing to start the leadership bonuses first. “Why not wait to roll out the leadership component … with the entire career ladder?” Cameron asked. Luna responded, “If we’re embracing recommendations of the task force, I hope we would embrace them all.” He added, “Doing these leadership bonuses is a step we can take. It’s similar to what we’re doing this year with the $21 million.” The current year’s school budget includes $21 million for one-time leadership bonuses for teachers and professional development. When Gov. Butch Otter left that money out of his proposed budget for next year, Luna called that a $21 million pay cut for teachers.

His revised proposal for next year now calls for the $16 million for the one-time bonuses, along with $6.9 million for permanent teacher raises averaging 1 percent, assuming lawmakers decide to give raises to state employees for the coming year; $2.5 million for 2 percent average raises for classified employees of school districts, such as janitors and lunch servers; and $1.55 million for 2 percent average raises for administrative employees, who wouldn’t share in the leadership bonuses.

Overall, that comes to just under $23 million for increased teacher pay; Luna’s original budget proposal in the fall called for putting $42 million into starting up the career ladder, but it’s not yet been developed. While Luna’s revised budget proposal has less for teacher raises, it has more for restoring past cuts to school operational funds, at $35 million, matching the governor’s recommendation, up from Luna’s original proposal for $16.5 million.

Luna’s revised budget proposal for public schools for next year reflects a 5.1 percent increase in state general funds, or a $66.9 million increase. Otter’s calls for a 2.9 percent increase of about $37 million.

Luna: WiFi contract was ‘something wanted, needed by our schools’

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, quizzed state schools Superintendent Tom Luna about how he interpreted a one-time appropriation in the current year’s budget, with intent language about installing and maintaining wireless networks in high schools, as authorizing a multi-year contract. Luna signed a five- to 15-year contract with Education Networks of America for the service over the summer.

Luna read the intent language to the budget committee. “I definitely understand how others have read this differently, and I take responsibility,” he said. “I think it’s obvious to me that this is something that is wanted by our schools and is needed by our schools.” He noted that the governor’s education task force recommended wireless not only in high schools, but in all schools. “But going forward, whether it’s the funding stream or the intent language, what I learned is it needs to be very, very clear what everyone is expecting, how this is going to be implemented going forward.”

Budget writers question Luna on his budget proposals…

Among the questions JFAC members are posing to state schools chief Tom Luna this morning: Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, asked about restoring funding for programs for gifted and talented students, which were shifted to the operating funds line during the economic downturn. Bolz said he’s had discussions with people who are concerned about training staff in elementary and middle school to identify those students; that used to be a $500,000 line item in the school budget. Luna said, “I think there is a need to be sure we’re always addressing that.” But rather than a separate line item, he said, discussions now are centering around “how does that become integral into the professional development we’re doing for all teachers. And if we’re talking about individualized learning and master-based learning, how do we integrate that into it?”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, questioned Luna about his growth estimates for student enrollment next year, which are higher than those Gov. Butch Otter used in his budget. Luna and state education official Tim Hill said the department is confident in its latest projections; the result is an increased cost of $3.4 million.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, asked Luna about his recent comments to lawmakers about collecting Idaho’s sales tax on online purchases. “I believe that a way to keep taxes low is to make sure we’re collecting every penny we’re owed,” Luna said. That’s not just for schools, he said, but for “a number of obligations, education being the top priority.” With half of the state’s general fund typically going to education, Luna said, half of the estimated $60 million in online taxes owed but not collected each year could be money for education. Luna said that Idaho must address that, particularly if the state is committed to carrying out the recommendations of the governor’s education task force over the coming years, at a total cost of $350 million to $400 million. “I think it’s a discussion that’s overdue, and I think we need to find a solution sooner rather than later,” he said.

A budgetary musical interlude…

As part of his budget presentation today, state schools Supt. Tom Luna played a video clip for legislative budget writers featuring Cathyanne Nonini, a violin teacher and wife of Sen. Bob Nonini (and his substitute in the Senate for the first two weeks of this year’s session), demonstrating a new technology tool: A computer program through which students can play a line of music, and then the program will tell them where they’ve made mistakes. In the clip, Nonini purposely played wrong notes the first time, then played the piece correctly the second time, demonstrating the different report on the computer screen.

As the clip started, seated in the audience, she squirmed at the wrong notes coming up, muttering, “This is terrible.” But in the second part on the video, with the right notes, she played longer; JFAC members noticeably relaxed, welcoming the musical interlude.

 

Luna calls for raises for teachers next year

State schools chief Tom Luna told lawmakers he’s made several changes to his budget proposal: He’s calling for a 1 percent increase in salary-based apportionment to school districts, to allow teachers to get pay raises next year, in addition to $16 million for one-time leadership awards, continuing funding that was provided on a one-time basis this year. For school administrators and classified staff, he’s requesting a 2 percent increase in salary funds, because they won’t be part of the leadership awards. Gov. Butch Otter's proposed budget didn't include any of those items.

Luna said these proposals are an interim step, until the governor's task force recommendation for a new career ladder system for teachers is fully developed. “Once the career ladder is fully implemented, starting salary will increase to $40,000,” he said. “The two other tiers in the career ladder would reach close to $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. However, until we make this transition, I believe we should fund a combination of Leadership Awards and a base salary increase for teachers so that we make progress where we can on the Task Force’s recommendation regarding teacher compensation.”

He also said he’s adjusted his request for $16.5 million to begin restoring operating funds to school districts slashed by budget cuts in recent years, to $35 million to match Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal. He’s also revised downward his request for dual credit and advanced courses, from $5.6 million to $3 million, based on the latest cost estimates.

“My budget request this year is an increase of $66.9 million,” Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Going forward, if we are to accomplish the implementation of the Task Force recommendations over the next five years, it will require this kind of funding increases every year going forward.” He added, “How we fund these recommendations now and in the future must be a part of any serious conversation about education reform in Idaho. I believe we have the funding this year for each of the requests I put forward.”

JFAC is now taking a break; it'll return for an hour of Q-and-A with Luna over his budget proposals.

Luna outlines technology proposals

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s budget request for next year includes $13.4 million for school technology; he said it’s the same amount schools got this year. That would include $8 million distributed directly to school districts for classroom technology; $2.25 million to continue the statewide high school WiFi contract Luna signed over the summer; $3 million for another round of technology pilot projects; and $150,000 for an online course portal for parents and students to use.

Luna made reference to lawmakers' concerns over his signing the multi-year contract with one-time funding, based on vague “intent language” written into this year's school budget. “If there is anything I have learned, it is that I will make sure we all have a clear understanding of intent language, what it means and exactly how it will be carried out in the future,” he told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Luna: ‘We raised the bar’

Tom Luna, state schools  superintendent, touted the new higher standards Idaho’s enacted for student achievement. “It is nothing short of amazing,” he told legislative budget writers. “Idaho’s teachers are hard at work implementing these new, higher standards in mathematics and English language arts at all grade levels. These standards emphasize critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. They make sure students see relevance in what they are learning and are better prepared when they graduate from high school.”

New testing to match the new standards is being phased in over three years, he said; last spring, it was piloted in 120 Idaho schools. This spring, all schools are scheduled to use the test in a trial run. “Because these standards are so much higher, we know not as many students will score on grade level the first time we measure them against these standards in Spring 2015, because quite frankly, they’re higher standards,” Luna said. “It’s not because our students woke up one day and were less smart than they were the day before.  It’s because we raised the bar.”

Luna: Idaho must start now to implement task force plan

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna, beginning his public school budget presentation, told lawmakers, “Overall, our schools are doing better as evidenced by our Five Star Rating System.” The top 5-star rating is not easy to get, he said; fewer than 100 schools statewide have it. But, he said, “Today, we have more 5-star schools than the year before and fewer 1-star schools.”

He urged lawmakers to read the full report from the governor’s school improvement task force. “When totaled, we estimate the recommendations will cost $350 million to $400 million over the course of 5 to 6 years,” Luna said. “We strongly believe implementation must begin today.”

He said his budget proposal for next year is designed to start that process.

 

Luna brings school budget request to lawmakers today; watch live…

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is presenting his State Department of Education budget right now to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee; that'll be followed by the public school budget, the largest single piece of Idaho's state budget. You can watch live here; click on “JFAC.”

Luna told lawmakers he’s had questions about statewide student testing; the department spends about $5.7 million a year on statewide standardized testing, which had been the ISAT, the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. About 30 percent of that comes from state general funds, and 70 percent from federal funds; Luna said that won’t change as the state transitions to the new Smarter Balanced assessment, and he’s not requesting more funding.

“Every estimate has shown that the cost of administering the Smarter Balanced assessment at the end of the year in Idaho should be similar to the cost of administering the ISAT,” he said. “We are finally moving away from a stagnant, multiple-choice-only test to a test that is able to better measure our students and what they truly know and are able to do – and we are able to do so in a cost-effective way.”

Measure would enshrine legislative rules-review in state Constitution

A proposed constitutional amendment introduced by House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher yesterday would enshrine the current rules-review process by state lawmakers in the Constitution, allowing the Legislature to review and accept or reject administrative rules written by state agencies. Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports that the move is something of a flexing of the muscles by the legislative branch to preserve its rule-reviewing power against the executive branch, but Gov. Butch Otter supports the amendment; Popkey’s full report is online here. “We have zealously guarded our authority,” Loertscher, R-Iona, told Popkey. “And other states are jealous of our process.”

To amend the Idaho Constitution, each house of the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote, and a majority of voters must support the change at the next general election.

Judge rules Idaho attorney general can intervene in same-sex marriage case

A federal judge has ruled that Idaho's attorney general can intervene in a lawsuit challenging the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, even though Gov. Butch Otter is already a party in the case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy W. Dale made the ruling Tuesday, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone; click below for her full report. Attorneys for four same-sex couples who are challenging the ban in court had objected, saying the state already was represented; they sued both Otter and Ada County Clerk Christopher Rich. Dale said because of the weighty and controversial issues in the case, she wanted to be sure that Idaho's stance was fully represented.

Senators dispute Fish & Game report on wolf numbers in the state

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Senators questioned the accuracy of Idaho Department of Fish and Game's report on the number of wolves in Idaho during a hearing. Officials say there were 683 wolves in the state at the end of 2012 and preliminary numbers for 2013 point to populations falling below 600. Several members of the Resources and Environment Committee asserted Wednesday that wolf numbers are actually much higher. Fish and Game agreed the count skewed low, calling the numbers a “minimum,” but said it accurately depicts population trends. Officials say the numbers will inform control policies. That's been a contentious issue in Idaho, pitting ranchers and hunters worried about effects on elk and livestock against wildlife activists who argue the species has a right to live and hunt in the woods without being killed.

DeMordaunt: ‘Diverse opinions were presented, and that’s all right’

The Idaho core standards forum has wrapped up after more than two hours of questions and answers from a six-member panel. Among the comments: Standards opponent Dorothy Moon said, “I think it’d be wonderful if we just had a halt to this whole common core process and wait for the legislators to go back and speak to their constituents.” State schools Superintendent Tom Luna said the state held 21 public forums, in every region of the state, on the standards in 2010. “I think that record stands for itself,” he said.

Bruce Cook said, “The testing is about double … from what the ISAT was.” Stephanie Rice said, “It is true that the smarter balance (test) does require more time of students, however it’s a more in-depth test measuring their knowledge and their skill level. … It’s more like what students will be doing in the real world.” Stephanie Zimmerman said, “It should mean something that so many states are stepping back and looking at common core. Yes, maybe at this point no one has pulled out, but just the fact that so many are looking at it should mean something.”

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said, “I can speak for at least myself that I have learned something today, and I appreciate the time and effort ttat each one of you put forward to answer these questions. I hope that the committee as well as the audience felt the same way.” He said, “Diverse opinions were presented and that’s all right, we appreciated that.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Otter open to Bedke’s tax-shift proposal, Moyle has concerns…

Idaho Gov. Butch would consider a proposal from House Speaker Scott Bedke to shift money from a popular grocery tax credit to individual and corporate income tax cuts, AP reporter John Miller reports. “Convince me,” Otter told the AP on how he's approaching Bedke's proposal. Idaho residents now claim the grocery credit, worth up to $100 for each person in a household, or $120 for those over 65. Bedke would limit beneficiaries to the elderly and low-income residents earning just 138 percent of the federal poverty line; the difference would be shifted to lowering Idaho's top income tax rate for high earners and for corporations. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, expressed concerns about the plan, however, saying it would amount to “picking winners and losers.” Click below for Miller's full report.

Otter names group to examine Idaho’s land endowment investments

Gov. Butch Otter has named a six-member working group to study how Idaho invests its land endowment, which raise millions a year for public schools and other endowment beneficiaries, including higher ed institutions. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa will chair the working group; other members are state Controller Brandon Woolf; Endowment Fund Investment Board member Thomas Kealey; state Lands Director Tom Schultz; and endowment fund investment manager Larry Johnson; along with a representative of the Idaho attorney general’s office. Click below for Otter’s full announcement.

Panel: ‘We should have done better,’ ‘Idaho students are capable’

More comments from the panelists to the Idaho core standards forum:

Stephanie Zimmerman: Common core standards were “not the best available. We should have done better.” She said, “The standards were already written by the time the teachers were brought in,” and said teachers were involved later only as “window dressing.”

Dorothy Moon: “Were teachers involved in creation of the standards? No. Corporate giants were involved in the creation of the standards, initially.”

Steve LaBau: “Teachers were involved in the creation of the standards. … As far as the implementation of the common core, teachers are absolutely the essential piece in implementing that.”

Tom Luna: “They’re not more rigorous than what any other country expects of their students, and I’m convinced that Idaho students are capable. … They’re meeting our standards, and then three months later they’re having to take remedial courses when they’re going on to college. That tells us that our standards are not high enough.” He added, “Idaho’s teachers, and teachers in general have been involved in this from Day 1.”

Bruce Cook: “They’re not really set up well, the common core standards, to help a child that’s struggling to remediate … other than putting a kid up a grade or two or down a grade or two, and that does not bode well for kids socially.” In other countries, he said, “They have their kids in school nine hours a day. … Kids come to school on Saturday. … But our system is not set up the same.”

Stephanie Rice: As a teacher, she said, “We take a very large role. Basically we have these standards as guidelines. Our learning in the classroom should be purposeful. … We want to make sure that all of our learning opportunities are aligned to those skills that kids will need to use later on in life.”

Core standards panelists differ on constitutionality, U.N. involvement…

Five of the panelists responded to a question about whether the new Idaho core standards are constitutional. Among their comments:

Tom Luna: “The U.N. did not play any role in developing these standards. I was there from Day 1. … We wanted to approve a state effort to improve our schools by working together. … Idaho’s Constitution makes it clear that the state does have a role in public education. … The state has always set education standards.”

Bruce Cook: “I don’t know if they’re constitutional or not. We began to implement because the state department told us to.”

Dorothy Moon: “Federal powers are limited and defined and states’ powers are broad. … As far as the federal government being involved, I truly believe that they are. I have a lot of documents proving that funding for common core is coming from the federal government. … The federal government has its name all over it. There are many documents put out by the U.S. Department of Education in reference to Common Core. … So Idaho does have the power to ignore common core, embrace common core,  take parts of common core.”

Steve LaBau: “I believe that they are indeed constitutional, and I appreciate the fact that the state and the Idaho Legislature gave us two years to prepare for implementation.”

Stephanie Zimmerman: “Bill Gates’ education agenda is the U.S.’s education agenda. Bill Gates has signed agreements with UNESCO. … Where we effect change is on the local level, so it doesn’t matter if the U.N. is involved or not – we need to deal with this at home.”

Panel: ‘We’re worried that the standards might be too high,’ ‘We have a 5-year phase-in’

From the Idaho core standards forum panelists:

Bruce Cook of the Madison School District said his district had five-star schools without the new standards, and he believes their cost outweighs their benefits. “We’re worried that the standards might be too high, and the test definitely is too hard,” he said. “We have to teach to the test.” Stephanie Zimmerman, of Idahoans for Local Education, said she believes the standards call for advanced concepts too early. “It is not developmentally appropriate for our younger grades,” she said.

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna said, “Our five-star rating system does take into account a number of factors, not just how they perform on the statewide assessment. … We have a five-year phase-in system for these standards. We adopted the standards in 2011. It will still be another year before students are tested against these higher standards.”

Panel: ‘There is a lot of fear,’ ‘No curriculum or textbook being imposed’

Members of the common core panel are mixed on the question of local control and the new academic standards for student achievement in math and English language arts. “We feel like our district’s hands are tied,” Bruce Cook of the Madison School District said. “We would like more local control.” Dorothy Moon said, “There is a lot of fear. … We definitely want to have local control and keep local control when this program continues to roll out.”

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna said despite fears, people saw this year that “districts still chose their own curriculum, they chose their own textbooks, and they still will. … There isn’t a curriculum or textbook or texts themselves that are being imposed on school districts.”

Luna: ‘Adopting new standards is nothing new, we change standards every 5 years’

The panelists at the Idaho core standards forum: State schools Superintendent Tom Luna; Madison School District director for curriculum and staff development Bruce Cook; Stephanie Rice, an English teacher for grades 7-12 in Council; Dorothy Moon, president of Moon & Associates engineering and surveying in Rupert and a retired educator; Steve LaBau, an elementary principal from Nampa; and Stephanie Zimmerman, founder of Idahoans for Local Education.

The first question was about money and where it comes from for the new core standards. Luna said, “The fact is, Idaho id did not receive any federal dollars when we adopted these standards. … We would not lose any federal funding if we were to walk away from these standards tomorrow.” He added, “Adopting new standards is nothing new for our schools. We change standards every five years.”

Common core forum: ‘Fact and opinion both are important to our process’

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told a full Lincoln Auditorium, “We asked the citizens of our state to submit their questions about the Idaho Common Core, and our citizens did not disappoint us. We received a great number of questions, and we were pleased to see that.”

Questions were consolidated to eliminate duplication, he said, but, “Certainly the goal was that the essence of every single question will be asked today.” The panel that is responding to the question is split evenly between proponents and opponents of the Idaho core standards, DeMordaunt said.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, advised the committee that it’s important to determine today “what’s fact and what’s opinion – both are important to our process.” He asked the crowd for no boo's and no applause. “Please be respectful,” he said.

Auditorium filling quickly for Common Core joint ed meeting…

The Lincoln Auditorium on the lower level of the state Capitol is filling quickly for this afternoon's joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees on the Idaho Core Standards. The session, which runs from 3-5 p.m., will feature a panel of experts and stakeholders responding to questions submitted in advance about the new standards; no public testimony will be taken.

Bill would launch 7-year process for Idaho to take over primacy on wastewater permitting

Legislation to have the state of Idaho take over primacy for permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, was introduced this afternoon in the House Environment Committee at the request of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. Idaho is now one of just four states that don’t have primacy for the program, meaning the EPA handles permitting in the state, rather than the state Department of Environmental Quality, Alex LaBeau, IACI president, told the lawmakers. “It is a seven-year process, it is an extensive process,” he said, “and it will be a relatively contentious process as we get into the rule-making.”

Idaho lawmakers have studied taking over primacy for the program several times over the past decade. The hangup has generally been financing. Under the Clean Water Act, the NPDES permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States, from confined animal feeding operations to municipal wastewater systems.

Idaho currently has nearly 1,000 such permits, with about half held by municipalities; LaBeau said cities are supportive of the move. Costs for the changeover could fall largely on permit-holders, though LaBeau said Idaho may be eligible for some federal funds as well. LaBeau said other states including Wyoming and Alaska have just recently gone through the process of taking over primacy, and Idaho can draw on their examples. Today’s introduction clears the way for a full hearing on the bill in the committee. LaBeau said two other pieces of legislation also would follow in future years to complete the step.

Senator brings colleague’s election challenger on a job-shadow

A young man in a suit who just turned 21 a month ago is doing a job-shadow of Sen. Steven Thayn in the Idaho Senate this week – at the same time he’s running against one of Thayn’s colleagues, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.

Christian Fioravant, who moved to Bonners Ferry about a year and a half ago, filed as a Constitution Party candidate for the Senate seat on Dec. 30.    Thayn, who began shepherding Fioravant around the Capitol on Tuesday, didn’t know Fioravant was a candidate until Keough told him on the Senate floor that morning.

“Hopefully Sen. Keough’s a good sport about this,” said Thayn, R-Emmett. “Constitution Party people never win elections. I mean, I don’t think she’s too threatened.” Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, was surprised. “It’s not something I would have done, I guess I can say that,” he said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Two new Fish & Game commissioners win unanimous Senate confirmation

Two new Idaho Fish & Game commissioners, Brad Corkill from North Idaho and Mark Doerr from the Magic Valley, have been unanimously approved by the Senate. Four Panhandle senators spoke in favor of Corkill’s confirmation, and three Magic Valley senators spoke in favor of Doerr’s, including Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, who shared a goose-hunting story.

25% of BSU students are now from out of state

Responding to a question from Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, BSU President Bob Kustra said 25 percent of Boise State’s students are now from out of state. “Boise State University has become a very popular place” for students from Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area, Southern California, the Phoenix area, and some from Texas, he said. “If you want to go all the way back to what really started it, I suppose it was the 2007 Fiesta Bowl,” Kustra said. “It really has added a dimension to Boise State that’s very attractive.”

He noted that unlike in-state students, out-of-state students are charged out-of-state tuition “that pays the full cost of education.” Kustra also noted that the University of Oregon, for example, has 45 percent of its students coming from out of state.

Among other questions from members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee: Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she wished “STEM,” or science, technology, engineering and math, could be changed to “STEAM” to add an ‘A’ for the arts. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, agreed, saying, “Arts are very important. They make a well-rounded person.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chairman, asked Kustra how Idaho can get more of its students to go on to higher education. Kustra said, “Start with families, and start with families of young children.” Sports can even play a role, he said, “if you can get an 8-year-old’s attention because he loves a university’s football team or basketball team,” and tell that child, “You can go there someday.” The greatest challenge, he said, is to help families and communities understand the need to go on. Secondly, he said, “I think our high schools still must be transformed into places of learning that are exciting for students.”

Kustra: ‘We have made good use of scarce resources’

Boise State University got $73.5 million from the state general fund in fiscal year 2002, when it had 18,431 students, BSU President Bob Kustra told legislative budget writers this morning; this year, in fiscal 2014, it’s getting $77.7 million, with 22,638 students enrolled and 3,757 graduates. “Boise State receives the lowest per-student share of state general fund dollars,” he said, “but produces the highest number of graduates each year.”

“We have made good use of the scarce revenues and resources that are available to us,” Kustra said. He said BSU has responded to Idaho’s changing economy, in which the number of high-tech firms grew 61 percent from 2000 to 2010, and technology now accounts for 17 percent of all wages earned statewide, or $3.4 billion. In the past five years, BSU has increased nursing bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates by more than 300 percent; doubled its graduates in biology, chemistry and pre-med studies; increased mechanical engineering grads by 50 percent; and doubled its computer science BS and MS graduates. “We estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 of our graduates work at Micron right now,” Kustra said.

The university also has focused additional efforts on helping students bridge the gap between college and career, from helping them understand career and job implications of a particular major to having students develop “e-portfolios” of their work through college that can serve as resumes and work samples when they apply for jobs.

“It makes no sense for us to allow there to be cost-ineffectiveness at a university these days,” Kustra said. That’s why BSU is “right smack-dab in the middle of a total review and overhaul of everything we do,” he said, from which degree programs are offered to how disciplines are arranged.

As far as budget needs, Kustra said Boise State needs to address lags in salaries. “Clearly, we’ve fallen behind,” he said. Plus, he said, for a research university, “Our student-faculty ratio is really high. … That’s something we want to deal with.” He said, “There is so much we could do with the funding we’ve requested.”

BSU, like all state universities, has requested funding for raises. It’s also requested $7 million to hire 102 additional staff as part of work toward the state Board of Education's 60 percent goal; Gov. Butch Otter recommended $1.1 million. Otter recommended funding occupancy costs for two new BSU buildings as requested. BSU, like ISU and the U of I, requested $3.75 million to address deferred building maintenance and repairs; Otter didn’t recommend any funding for that. The governor also is recommending $1 million more for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls, a joint project of BSU, ISU and the U of I.

Vailas: ‘We have to raise the bar’

Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas told legislative budget writers today, “Basically the theme of my presentation is the success of the university, especially ours, is very much impacted by partnerships. … Our partnerships are extensive.” He highlighted partnerships with everyone from the National Science Foundation to high schools to Harvard Medical School, including for innovative medical isotope research. The Pocatello university has “a very large portfolio” in health sciences, he said.

For the coming year, ISU, which Vailas said has more than 17,000 students, requested $3.1 million to “transform remediation, provide summer bridge programs for at-risk populations, support general education through additional graduate assistantships and hire additional science, technology, math (STEM) and health sciences faculty,” in furtherance of the state Board of Education’s goal for 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25-34 to have completed some type of higher education by 2020. Gov. Butch Otter recommended $1.1 million. “Our students who are graduating are not well-prepared going on to college,” Vailas told lawmakers. “The point is that we have to raise the bar.” He said financial aid and scholarships also are key.

ISU also requested $86,500 for occupancy costs for its new anatomy and physiology labs building in Meridian, which the governor recommended funding; and $3.75 million for deferred building maintenance and repairs, which Otter didn’t recommend.

While touting the university’s successes, Vailas told lawmakers, “We need to be diligent and ready for surprises. I don’t need to remind you of the huge deferred maintenance that we all have. … It’s something that we have to watch.” Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, told Vailas he wanted to “compliment you as you’ve put that institution on sound financial footing.”

LCSC president highlights ‘very, very critical needs’

As education budget hearings continue this week, Lewis-Clark State College is first up this morning, with Idaho State University and Boise State University to follow. LCSC President Tony Fernandez told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that enrollment at the Lewiston college dipped about 4 percent this year, but is still up almost 30 percent from 10 years ago. “We meet the needs of approximately 6,000 students every year,” Fernandez told lawmakers. “Most of them are in academic programs.”

LCSC’s general fund support from the state fell sharply from fiscal year 2009 to 2012, and has since been rising, but still falls well below the ’09 level of more than $15 million; state funding accounted for 37 percent of LCSC’s revenue in 2013, down from 46 percent in 2009. In that same time period, student fees have gone from 22 to 28 percent of the college’s funding, while federal student aid, including Pell grants, has risen from 14 to 17 percent.

“We do have some budget challenges,” Fernandez told lawmakers. “The state of Idaho may not be a very, very rich state, but it is rich in human resources, and we need to leverage those resources as much as we can. … We have some very, very critical needs.”

Those include boosting salaries, he said. Some job candidates are now declining even to come to LCSC for interviews, due to the low pay compared to other colleges. Getting salaries up to average through tuition and fee increases alone would require a 20 percent increase for students, Fernandez said, and LCSC isn't willing to do that. “We need increased student access,” he said. “And we have to maintain a safe infrastructure. … Some of the oldest buildings that are still being used by a public entity are on our campus.”

In addition to funding for raises, LCSC requested just under $1 million to add 14 positions next year, including faculty and advisers; Gov. Butch Otter recommended $350,000. The college also requested $1.25 million for deferred building maintenance and repairs; Otter didn’t recommend funding.

LCSC was established by the Legislature in 1893 as Lewiston State Normal School, with teacher education as its main mission. That is still among its primary emphasis areas, along with social work, nursing, business, arts and sciences, justice studies and professional-technical education.

Of colors, buses, and ‘glossy yellow’…

Little-known fact: When a school bus is decommissioned, state law requires that all school bus markings be “obliterated” and its paint color be changed, before it can run on state highways. A state trooper in Coeur d’Alene recently ticketed someone for not doing that. “It was still school bus color, and they wrote ‘em a ticket,” said Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger.

But when the officer was preparing to go to court, it was discovered that Idaho’s state law still referred to the color of school buses as “school bus chrome,” a name that goes back to the 1930s. “School buses haven’t changed color,” Wolfinger said. “That color has now changed names.” It’s now officially known as “glossy yellow, federal standard 595a, color number 13432.” The trooper contacted Wolfinger, and he contacted his local senator, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, to work on a bill to update the state law.

“It doesn’t require any buses to be painted, it’s not going to be any cost to any school district,” Wolfinger said. “It’s just to update the law to reflect the current name of the color.” However, when the bill came before the Senate Education Committee this afternoon, Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, noted that its statement of purpose said, “It will NOT require any buses to be painted.” Yet the existing law that was being amended requires exactly that – it’s all about how decommissioned school buses must be “painted a color other than” the one in question to run on state highways, plus have their school bus markings removed. The committee decided to wait on introducing the bill, to clarify the matter.

Wolfinger said he understood the confusion, as it’s “one of those obscure laws.” But, he said, “You don’t want somebody feigning a school bus.” School buses are subject to some unique traffic rules, including being able to stop traffic while they load students, having to stop at railroad crossings and so forth. “There are a lot of things that go with school buses,” Wolfinger said. Plus, he said, he wouldn’t want someone out masquerading as a school bus driver and trying to pick up unsuspecting kids.

“We probably don’t need to remove it from the books,” he said. So he’ll work with Goedde to clarify the bill’s statement of purpose.

Candidates, candidates, candidates…

Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik has filed paperwork with the state to challenge Lt. Gov. Brad Little in the GOP primary, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence reports; you can see his full post here. Chmelik, 53, is a second-term county commissioner and an outspoken advocate of state takeover of federal lands. “I think we're going down the wrong road and I'm going to stand up and say something about it,” he told Spence.

Meanwhile, Randy Jensen, a longtime middle school principal in American Falls and the 2005 national principal of the year, has filed paperwork to challenge state schools Superintendent Tom Luna in the GOP primary; Jensen, 52, plans an announcement in Boise on Friday. “I think it’s a critical time in education right now in Idaho, and I think I have the leadership skills … to bring everyone together to do good things for kids,” he said.

And today, Idaho Education News reported on another GOP candidate for state superintendent: Cottonwood school teacher John Eynon, an outspoken opponent of the new Idaho Core Standards. Idaho EdNews reporter Kevin Richert reports that Eynon filed paperwork naming a campaign treasurer on Friday, and his campaign website is emblazoned with the slogan, “Common Sense, NOT Common Core.” You can read Richert’s full post here.

Idaho’s doctor shortage threatens to worsen…

Not only does Idaho rank 49th in the nation for its number of doctors per capita, many of the state’s current doctors are expected to retire in the next few years, and the state, which has no medical school, is lagging on training new ones. “Knowing that it can take up to 11 years after high school to produce a physician, Idaho really has some challenges ahead as these physicians start retiring,” Dr. Mary Barinaga warned state lawmakers on Tuesday. That includes four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to seven years of residency and fellowship.

A new family medical residency training program in Coeur d’Alene is one step to try to help, joining other residency programs around the state; it would train six students next year. Lawmakers also are debating adding more medical school seats through a cooperative program that sends Idaho med students to the University of Washington, though Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year doesn’t fund more seats. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Bills would allow discounted multi-year hunting licenses, let younger kids hunt…

Idaho is looking to raise resident hunting and fishing license fees for the first time since 2005, but the plan in the works from the Department of Fish & Game would give loyal hunters or anglers who buy a license every year a break: They could “lock in” their fees at 2013 rates by buying a license every year, continuously. The fee-increase bill hasn’t yet been introduced, but the piece letting Fish & Game discount licenses was introduced today in the House Resources Committee. Also introduced today was another proposal from the Idaho Department of Fish & Game that would lower the minimum age for big game hunting from 12 to 10, if the youngster who’s younger than 12 is accompanied in the field by an adult who is licensed to hunt in Idaho; click below for a full report on that measure from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

Insurance exchange officials report to lawmakers

Here's  news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho insurance exchange officials don't know if the 20,000 people signed up for coverage effective Jan. 1 come from the ranks of the uninsured, or if they previously had insurance but switched to exchange policies because they're now eligible for financial assistance. Your Health Idaho board chairman Stephen Weeg and director Amy Dowd gave their first report to the Idaho Legislature Tuesday. Afterward, Weeg and Dowd acknowledged nobody is collecting that information about those getting coverage. It's a key question, because President Obama envisioned these online marketplaces for individuals and small businesses to shop for coverage as helping millions of uninsured people getting policies. As Idaho develops in-house software to enroll participants, Weeg said Tuesday, it may attempt to collect that data, to help learn if it's meeting that goal.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller. After addressing the Senate Commerce Committee today, exchange officials will go before the House Health & Welfare Committee on Thursday at 8 a.m. in the Lincoln Auditorium.

Bedke: Legislature as ‘arena of ideas’

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, shared some of his thought process and how he approaches the Legislature when he spoke at the Andrus Center today. “One thing that was drummed into us at my father’s table was that 99 percent of people - I can hear him say this - 99 percent of the people … will go to a meeting and not have anything other than criticism. He said you go with any type of an idea, then that will be the canvas that everybody else will start painting on, and then you can engage the group on solving the problems, as long as you have the start of an idea. I think that that philosophy has served me well.”

Said Bedke, “I view the Legislature as an arena of ideas, so if you bring an idea, then with very few exceptions … those ideas need to be heard, and then vote up or down on ‘em. And then if you lose, then bring a better idea next time. It’s not the end of the world. We’ve got to start this public dialogue on some of these issues.” He added, “I think it’s incumbent on the policy makers at this point to take the blinders off, raise our eyes to the horizon a little bit.”

Bedke shared an idea he’s been mulling: What if Idaho imposed a means-test on the $133.5 million that’s set to go out in grocery tax credits, giving it only to the poor? The resulting $70 million or $80 million in savings could be redirected to lowering Idaho’s top income tax and corporate income tax rates, on which, Bedke said, “We’re out of step with our neighboring states.” That might help attract new businesses to the state, he said. He asked the group of more than 100 what they thought of the idea; they were decidedly mixed.

Bedke also responded to questions on several issues:

  • On raises for state workers, he said, “I don’t know exactly what we’ll end up doing, but we will do something.”
  • On the alternative state budget unveiled yesterday by former longtime state chief economist Mike Ferguson and two former state schools chiefs, which would put less money into tax cuts and reserve funds and more into education: “I appreciate what Mike is trying to accomplish there, in being a catalyst for change. … I’m not ready to endorse it yet. I’ll take a look at it. I look at a lot of proposals.”
  • On collecting Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax on online purchases: “I’m seeing some softening on that. There’s a basic issue of fairness there.”

Otter reports more than $700K in bank for run against Fulcher

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said he has more than $700,000 in cash to wage a campaign against his Republican primary challenger, state Sen. Russ Fulcher. Otter filed his latest campaign report Tuesday, outlining his 2013 fundraising when he brought in $901,000, largely from business groups. Fulcher hasn't filed his report. Meanwhile, Otter hasn't formally announced he's running for a third term. Among Otter's biggest supporters were trucking lobbyists, cigarette-maker Altria, retailer Wal-Mart and wealthy Emmett rancher Harry Bettis, who gave $7,500. The J.R. Simplot Co., owned by family of Otter's ex-wife, Gay, gave $10,000. Direct-marketing company Melaleuca and its owner, GOP booster Frank VanderSloot, also gave $10,000. Among Otter's biggest expenditures was more than $16,000 to Arena Communications, a Utah company that helps do mailing and other services for Republican politicians.

State of the Judiciary: ‘A remarkable year for Idaho’s courts’

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick congratulated the Legislature today for “wisely identifying two of the chronic problems that impact Idahoans and the judicial system,” by launching interim committees both to examine public defender reform and to conduct a criminal justice reinvestment project in conjunction with the Council of State Governments and the Pew Trusts; Burdick called it “a remarkable year for Idaho's courts.”

“Idaho’s public defenders system today has significant deficiencies,” Burdick told the Senate in his annual State of the Judiciary message, which he’ll also deliver to the House today. “It is a patchwork of offices and contracts paid for by our already cash-starved counties. I congratulate the public defender interim committee for recommending legislation that will provide a solid first step in meeting our constitutional requirements.”

He lauded proposals to launch a public defense commission; to eliminate single fixed-fee contracts for public defenders; to provide training funds; and to authorize counties to establish public defense offices or contracts that meet their local needs. Burdick also applauded the justice reinvestment project, which is calling for changes in Idaho’s probation and parole system to reduce the lengthy incarceration of non-violent offenders and direct the state’s prison resources more efficiently.

The chief justice also noted recent national recognition for Idaho’s domestic violence courts and its child welfare system, while noting a challenge facing the court system on technology. “Our existing 25-year-old system is at ‘end of life’ and we must plan to move to a new one,” he said. A pending proposal will transform Idaho’s case management system and move to electronic filing and storage of court records. “This new technology will provide cost savings to taxpayers, optimize the use of court personnel at the state and county level, free up limited physical space from paper records in our county courthouses and storage facilities, and greatly improve the court’s ability to serve justice throughout the state,” he said. “It is now time to come to you and the governor for funding.” The courts have requested $4.85 million state general funds for the project in the coming year; Gov. Butch Otter has recommended approving the request.

Burdick also noted challenges in recruiting judges, as many current ones near retirement age. “The key barrier to recruiting and retaining the highest caliber judges is quite frankly salary,” he told the Senate.

Survey by group opposed to core standards finds teachers support them

A solid majority of teachers support the new Idaho Core Standards, according to a survey commissioned by a conservative group opposing the standards, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News; you can read his full report here. The December survey of 402 teachers conducted by the Idaho Freedom Foundation found that 59 percent had favorable or very favorable impressions of the new math and language arts standards, and only 31 percent opposed them. The survey also found that just 12 percent the teachers had a favorable view of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, 17 percent were unfavorable, and 71 percent were unaware of the organization.

Idaho’s 49th in number of doctors, and many will soon retire…

Idaho ranks 49th in the nation for its number of physicians per 100,000 residents, Dr. Mary Barinaga of the Idaho WWAMI program told legislative budget writers this morning. And Idaho’s doctors are aging: 25 percent are over age 60, and 86 percent are over age 40. “Knowing that it can take up to 11 years after high school to produce a physician, Idaho really has some challenges ahead as these physicians start retiring,” Barinaga warned. That includes four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to seven years of residency and fellowship.

Idaho has no medical school. But 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. Students do their first year of courses at the U of I in Moscow and Washington State in Pullman, go to the University of Washington medical school in Seattle for their second year, and train in clinical settings in Seattle or throughout the five-state region for their third and fourth years. In 2009, the State Board of Education recommended upping Idaho’s WWAMI seats from 20 to 40 students per year, but it hasn’t gotten there yet.

“Last year we made some progress,” Barinaga told lawmakers. Five new WWAMI students started last year on a special track for rural and underserved communities; funding is now requested for their second year, at $252,400 in state general funds. Gov. Butch 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. JFAC members questioned Barinaga about whether the program’s ready to go for those five additional students; she said yes – classroom space and other resources are in place, and all that’s needed is the funding.

“Residents tend to stay where they train, so we want to make sure we have opportunities around our state for people to do their training,” Barinaga said. That includes medical residency programs, in which prospective doctors train after they finish medical school. Next year, a new family medicine residency program is starting up in Coeur d’Alene to serve six first-year residents. Director Dr. Dick McLandress told JFAC that 50 percent of primary-care doctors are expected to retire within the next five to seven years. “In North Idaho, definitely we’re in the 50 percent zone,” he said. “That really matters to all of our communities.”

Otter recommended $200,000 for the Kootenai Family Medical Residency, which would cover only a small portion of the costs; Kootenai Health, formerly Kootenai Medical Center, as the sponsoring institution, would put in $475,000 a year, and federal funds also would be tapped.

UI offers displays, breakfast in 4th floor Capitol rotunda

The fourth-floor rotunda smells like bacon this morning, as the University of Idaho hosts a breakfast and displays on many of their programs; crowds of UI faculty, officials and students are here to talk about their programs. The event is scheduled to run until 10 a.m.

UI head: Higher ed key to solving Idaho’s ‘workforce imbalance’

“Idaho has a workforce imbalance,” University of Idaho interim President Don Burnett told lawmakers this morning, “an oversupply of workers with high school educations or less, and an undersupply of workers with post-secondary educations.” The oversupply attracts companies that offer minimum-wage jobs, he said. The undersupply discourages employers who offer higher-paying jobs, “because they’re concerned about the availability of talent. They will not invest in Idaho unless there is also a talent pool of job performers. Post-secondary education is the key.”

He said, “My parents, who grew up in Wallace, came to the University of Idaho during the Great Depression. They were the first in their family to attend a university. For them, a college education was the gateway to opportunity. Today I have the honor to stand before you as an Idaho native, as the interim president of the university they attended.”

Today, he said, “Nearly 35 percent of our freshman class come from first-generation families, just as my parents did, thereby strengthening the American dream of upward mobility in a society that is and should be defined by opportunity, not by status.”

UI urges raises for state employees, including university faculty

A major challenge for the U of I and for all of Idaho’s college and universities, interim U of I President Don Burnett told lawmakers, is the need to replace nearly 14 percent of its workforce every year, and to do so in a competitive environment. For the U of I, there’s competition just seven miles away across the Washington state line at WSU in Pullman. He urged lawmakers to fund raises for state employees next year, including university faculty.

“Idaho’s higher education institutions ask for your help in fiscal year 2015,” Burnett said. “We want to keep Idaho-developed expertise in Idaho. We want to maintain continuity and quality in our work,” and to boost the state’s economy. “We respectfully urge consideration of doing so in fiscal 2015.”

“All around us, states are stepping up with compensation for their employees,” he said. “It’s important to maintain a consistent structure of fair compensation.”

The governor’s proposed budget for Idaho’s colleges and universities for next year calls for a 6.2 percent increase in state general funds, but doesn’t provide any funding for raises. A joint legislative panel, however, has recommended funding for raises averaging 2 percent, with half permanent and half as a one-time bonus.

“It’s what determines the quality of our institution,” Burnett said. “We’ve been losing key faculty and key personnel because of salary differences.”

U of I stresses collaboration in its budget pitch to lawmakers

Don Burnett, interim president of the University of Idaho, is making the university’s budget presentation to lawmakers this morning in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, where he drew on recent years’ flap over the designation of the U of I as the state’s “flagship” university to sound a theme of collaboration. “This year the University of Idaho marks its 125th anniversary of service to Idaho,” he told lawmakers. “When the University of Idaho was established in 1889, Idaho was still a territory.” As a land-grant institution with statewide missions in research, teaching and outreach, he said, the U of I “fulfills the classic definition of a flagship institution.”

As committee members smiled, Burnett said, “The term flagship … is not a badge of superiority. It is an emblem of profound responsibility. After all, no flagship sails … by itself. It sails with a fleet.” He said, “In like manner, the University of Idaho collaborates with its sister institutions in Idaho post-secondary education. … You can be proud of all of these institutions.”

He said, “We respectfully urge the committee, as you go forward with your vital and challenging work, to improve investments in each of Idaho’s post-secondary institutions, including of course, but not limited to, the University of Idaho.”

Preschool pilot project bill stirs up philosphical debate…

Though support is growing in Idaho to join the ranks of states that include early-childhood education in their public education systems, many Idaho lawmakers remain philosophically opposed to state-supported pre-school. “Anything that is bringing institutional education to younger children is problematic to me,” said state Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. “This is a step removing the children from the household.” Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, agreed. “I’m not in favor of starting kids any earlier,” she said. “Each kid is individual, and each parent is individual, and they need to decide what the kids need.”

At least 40 other states have concluded that learning in the earliest years – before kindergarten – is important enough to make a state priority. In Idaho, Democratic state Rep. Hy Kloc of Boise and GOP state Rep. Doug Hancey of Rexburg are sponsoring legislation to take a baby step toward that. Their bill would create a three-year pilot project that would partially fund five preschool classrooms around the state; the bill hasn’t yet been introduced. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

UI report: Idaho ag income sets record for 4th straight year

Here's a news item from the AP and the Idaho Press-Tribune: NAMPA, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's farmers and ranchers saw record cash receipts in 2013, for the fourth consecutive year. A report from the University of Idaho says cash receipts were projected at $7.82 billion in 2013, up 3 percent from 2012. About $4.3 billion of that total came from the state's livestock industries, with dairy farmers bringing in $2.57 billion while the sale of cattle and calves brought in $1.5 billion. The Idaho Press-Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/1ifVOar ) crop receipts were led by potatoes with $965 million, followed by wheat at $732 million. Net farm income was projected at $2.73 billion for 2013, 56 percent above the 10-year average.

Alternative state budget plan would boost schools, leave out tax cuts…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on an alternative state budget that was released today, suggesting that Idaho could spend tens of millions more on its public schools, grant raises to teachers and state workers restore cuts to services to poor disabled residents and still balance its budget next year with 10 percent to spare. The plan is based on calculations by the state’s former longtime chief economist, Mike Ferguson, who joined with two former state schools superintendents – Jerry Evans, a Republican, and Marilyn Howard, a Democrat – to propose an alternative state budget that would boost school spending next year by 8.3 percent, instead of Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed 2.9 percent. The three were joined by two members of Otter’s school reform task force, urging lawmakers to consider the plan.

JFAC co-chairs favor a review of alternative budget plan

The co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee both say they’d be glad to have their budget analysts review the proposed alternative budget unveiled today by a coalition including former state chief economist Mike Ferguson and former state schools superintendents Jerry Evans and Marilyn Howard. After Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’d like to see the joint committee’s nonpartisan staff analyze the plan, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “That’s a reasonable idea,” and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “Oh my, yes.”

Bell said the plan’s approach, of shifting $71.7 million now tabbed for additional deposits to state savings accounts next year and $30 million set aside for possible tax cuts, “does free up a fairly good-sized amount of money.” But, she said, “When the governor gave his budget, those were priorities.”

Bell noted that lawmakers who served during the recession know how far the state had to reach into savings, “having been down so far and taken so much money to hold on.” She said, “Everybody is just so worried. … It took so much savings before, and this governor does not want a (mid-year budget) holdback ever again.”

The House Appropriations chairwoman said she’s looking favorably on the governor’s suggestion to bump up the maximum amount that can go into the state’s main savings account, the budget stabilization fund, from 5 percent of the state budget to 10 percent. The alternative budget plan does, however, leave 10 percent of next year’s spending in savings, when all state rainy-day accounts and unallocated funds are combined.

Bell also said she can understand why members of the governor’s education task force would want to see their recommendations implemented more quickly than the incremental plan that Gov. Butch Otter outlined for next year, because “they worked too hard and too long,” she said, and sometimes when plans are put into effect very slowly, parts get lost.

“I don’t think not having the tax relief is a very big issue,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do when you can. I think the difficult part will be backing off on the amount of savings, because of where we’ve been.”

Goedde wants analyst review of proposed alternative budget, calls it ‘an interesting coalition’

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, is intrigued by the alternative state budget released today by former state chief economist Mike Ferguson and former state schools superintendents Jerry Evans and Marilyn Howard, along with two members of the governor's education task force. “It sounds like something I’d like to see the numbers on,” Goedde said. “It’s an interesting coalition, if Jerry Evans and Marilyn Howard are both on board.” Evans, a Republican, headed Idaho’s state school system for 16 years; Howard, a Democrat, for eight.

The alternative budget would reduce additional deposits into state rainy-day funds and eliminate a $30 million set-aside for possible tax cuts, enabling an 8.3 percent increase in public school funding next year, along with state employee and teacher raises and other moves. Goedde said he’d like to see an “impartial” review of the proposal from legislative budget analysts, but warned that he worries about federal funding to the state dropping in the future. “When that money dries up, we’ll find ourselves in a terrible mess,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that we need to pour all the money into the rainy-day funds that the governor has suggested, but I just remember what it would’ve been like if we had not had a rainy-day fund in the last economic downturn, and it would’ve been disastrous.”

Alternative state budget would give schools, state workers bigger boost, still balance…

Mike Ferguson was Idaho’s chief state economist for 25 years. Jerry Evans, a Republican, was Idaho’s schools chief for 16 years; Marilyn Howard, a Democrat, served in that post for eight years. Today, all three stood together behind an alternative state budget that Ferguson has drafted – one that uses the same revenue estimate Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers have adopted, but calls for an 8.3 percent increase in funding for public schools next year, instead of Otter’s proposed 2.9 percent. The three were joined by two members of Otter’s school improvement task force, teacher Cindy Wilson and parent Mike Lanza.

The spending plan also would give state employees average raises of 4 percent, including to teachers; restore $35 million cut from Medicaid services to the disabled in 2012; and keep more than $200 million in reserves, 10 percent of next year's anticipated spending. It includes accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds to save the state $42.4 million next year, but even without that step, would result in a $13.7 million surplus.

Evans said he listened to Otter’s State of the State message, and, “I was astounded at the higher priority for rainy-day funds and for tax relief, while all along proclaiming that education is our highest priority.” The proposed alternate budget would leave out an additional $71.7 million Otter wants to deposit into state savings accounts, along with $30 million the governor designated for possible tax relief, such as income tax cuts for corporations and top earners or an increase in the property tax exemption for business equipment.

Howard said everywhere she goes in the state, “People come up to me to tell me how unhappy they are with the way that state government is treating our schools.” She said, “Harm has been done.” Even with the boosts outlined under Ferguson’s plan, Howard noted, Idaho’s public schools still would get less in funding from the state next year than they got in 2009.

Ferguson said he analyzed the governor’s budget and prepared an alternative “that reflects a different set of priorities.” The only changes he made were to eliminate the tax-cut and extra rainy-day fund items, while adding back $34.4 million to the public schools budget that was in it this year but considered one-time, and therefore was removed from Otter’s budget for next year; adding back $35 million to restore the 2012 Medicaid service cuts, which he said were “taken primarily from low-income persons with serious disabilities;” and adding in the 4 percent for raises, at a cost of $58.3 million. With only the money for raises added back in to the higher ed budget, it would rise from the 6.2 percent increase Otter’s recommended for next year to a 9.4 percent increase.

Lanza said, “This alternative state budget from respected economist Mike Ferguson demonstrates that it is possible to take significant steps toward implementing the task force recommendations, bigger steps than have been proposed by Gov. Otter.”

Evans said the percentage of Idaho’s per-capita income that goes to education has been dropping for years. “That is in a state where per-capita income is also going down, which doubles the impact,” he said. “It is time for the public to notice. … It seems to me that as we approach this year, our economy is beginning to improve. … It is time to begin to reverse what has been going on for so long.”

Ferguson, who retired from the state in 2010, now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a non-profit funded by the Northwest Area Foundation whose mission is to provide fact-based information and analysis regarding the state's finances. “In the 1990s, when we collected more of the revenue we needed, our economy grew faster than almost all other states,” Ferguson said. “Today, after more than a decade of reduced investments, that trend has reversed. Idaho is now the second poorest state in the nation with the highest percentage of minimum wage jobs, and we invest substantially less in education than all but one other state.”

Hundreds fill rotunda for state MLK observance

Hundreds of people have filled the rotunda of the state Capitol today for the state’s official Martin Luther King Jr.-Idaho Human Rights Day ceremony, filling the center of the statehouse on the 2nd floor and looking on from the floors above. “Dr. King was relentless … in striving for equal opportunity,” Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little told the crowd. “Dr. King’s vision of opportunity included the most basic of human rights, with the right to a better education and a better job being pre-eminent. … Let us keep moving for a better America and a better Idaho.”

The official proclamation, which Little read, said in part, “The ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Idaho’s commitment to human rights are worthy of reflection and serve as a reminder that improving the quality of life for all members of society is everyone’s responsibility.”

Jill Gill, a Boise State University history professor, is now giving the keynote speech, telling the story of Idaho and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – for which Idaho’s entire, then-bipartisan congressional delegation voted in favor. “Their votes put Idaho on the right side of history,” Gill said.

The Common Ground Community Chorus lifted its voices in a musical presentation of “I Have a Dream,” and the ceremony also includes trumpet fanfares, singing and more. Before it began, in the final order of business in the Senate, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill offered quotes from King.

Budget writers OK spending to hire guards, transition ICC to state operation

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislative budget writers have approved $1.9 million in spending to hire 90 guards and other prison workers for Idaho's takeover of the privately-managed Idaho Correctional Center. The Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America has operated Idaho's largest prison since it was built more than a decade ago. But earlier this year, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter announced he wanted the state to take over the facility, which has been plagued with allegations of mismanagement, rampant violence and chronic understaffing. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee still must approve the new operating budget for the prison — expected to be about $25 million — but the money for the new hires had to be approved right away to give the state time to hire and train the guards.

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

Budget increase for community colleges only funds a few items…

Idaho’s three community colleges would get a 9.1 percent funding boost next year, under Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal, but much of that $2.8 million increase would go to cover increasing enrollment at the fast-growing College of Western Idaho, occupancy costs for new buildings at CWI and the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, and transition costs for CWI's nursing program, which is moving to a full associate degree program. Other funding remains crimped. Legislative budget writers heard this morning from all three college presidents; all had additional funding requests that the governor passed over, including for a veterans center at North Idaho College and an expansion of dual-credit courses at CWI.

The governor does recommend funding for expansion of NIC’s outreach center in Sandpoint and a new Idaho Falls outreach center for CSI. Idaho's community colleges get only a portion of their funding from the state; the rest largely comes from student fees and tuition and local property taxes. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on NIC’s budget outlook.

Senate dumps rules designed to restrict protests around the Capitol

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Civil liberties activists won another victory in their bid to protect free speech when they convinced Idaho senators to reject rules designed to manage rallies around the Idaho Capitol. The Senate State Affairs Committee Monday voted 7-2 to dump the disputed rules crafted by the Department of Administration. The agency had sought to limit protest duration and give special treatment to state events. Idaho crafted the rules after the “Occupy Boise” protests of 2011 and 2012. Last year, however, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill decided the rules violated constitutional free speech protections. Even so, Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna had urged lawmakers to pass them anyway, to buttress Idaho's legal appeal. The matter isn't quite closed. The House now must reject the rules, before they're banished completely.

State Board of Ed defends goal of higher ed for 60% by 2020

The latest Georgetown University study estimates that by 2020, 68 percent of Idaho jobs will require a post-secondary degree or certificate, Idaho State Board of Education President Don Soltman told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. “We all know that education is directly tied to economic benefit for individuals and their communities,” he said. “There is a significant need in our state for individuals to earn some post-secondary education. This includes workforce training, certificates, and degrees. The largest growth needed will be in baccalaureate degrees.”

Idaho now has one of the nation’s highest high school graduation rates at 84 percent, Soltman said. “However, we are not doing enough to convince those high school graduates to go on and invest their time in … post-secondary education.” That’s why the state board in 2010 set a goal that by 2020, 60 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds will have a post-secondary degree or certificate, he said. Currently, about 35 percent of that population has an associate’s degree or higher, Soltman said; if lower-level certificates are added in, that rises to 39 percent, but the national average is 44 percent. That 60 percent goal is driving all the board’s initiatives, Soltman told lawmakers, from increasing rigor in K-12 education, to encouraging and supporting students in applying to college, improving remediation, and smoothing transfer of credits between institutions.

JFAC members questioned Soltman about the goal. Several noted that the state’s figures don’t include students who leave Idaho to go on to higher education. “So we could be considerably closer to our goal than the chart depicts,” said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace. Soltman responded, “That could in fact be the case.” He said the development of a longitudinal data system to track Idaho students’ success after they leave high school is key to pinning that down.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, asked Soltman, “There is no state at that 60 percent mark. Do you think that’s a reasonable goal to have?” Soltman said the board “put a lot of thought” into the goal it set in 2010, including bringing in a national speaker from the Lumina Foundation who worked with the board on it. The latest Georgetown University studies about what Idaho jobs will require in 2020 backs up the appropriateness of the goal, Soltman said. “I think it’s very reasonable.”

  

It’s an official state holiday, but the Legislature is in session…

Today is an official state holiday – Martin Luther King Jr.-Idaho Human Rights Day – but the Legislature, which doesn’t take holidays, is in session. First up this morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee kicks off a week of education budget hearings with a presentation from Don Soltman, president of the State Board of Education, followed by the budget hearings for the state’s three community colleges, the College of Southern Idaho, College of Western Idaho and North Idaho College. The Senate State Affairs Committee has an 8 a.m. hearing on the court-rejected rules restricting protests on the grounds of the state Capitol and in surrounding areas; state officials want the rules re-enacted to help their positioning for an appeal, but a federal judge already has ruled portions of the rules unconstitutional under the 1st Amendment, and opponents are warning that re-enacting them could double the state’s legal bills.

Official state Martin Luther King Day ceremonies are set for noon in the 2nd-floor rotunda, following a march from Boise State University to the Capitol; BSU history professor Jill Gill will give a keynote address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and Lt. Gov. Brad Little will give a formal proclamation of Idaho’s 27th annual observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday. The ceremony will open with a trumpet fanfare, and will include musical performances, a color guard, a peace quilt display and information tables.

The House convenes today at 11 a.m., and the Senate at 11:30; 11 House or Senate committees have meetings or hearings scheduled today.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Rebecca Boone and hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the events of the legislative session’s second week, and Kunz interviews House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill. Also, the show offers reports on the problems facing Idaho’s public defender system and on the big justice reinvestment proposal that came out of a legislative interim committee 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.

FEC: Craig ignored warnings, spent money illegally

Federal Election Commission lawyers urged a federal judge not to heed former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's contention that regulators are being too hard on him — and to force him to pay nearly $360,000 in fines and restitution for tapping campaign accounts for his legal defense following his 2007 arrest in an airport bathroom sex sting, the AP reports. The FEC says the Idaho Republican ignored the U.S. Senate's own warnings not to spend the money. Craig also has acknowledged the campaign didn't seek out FEC guidance on whether he should spend the money or not because he was worried it would tell him not to do it, the commission's lawyers wrote; click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Lawmakers warned that if Idaho re-enacts court-rejected protest rules, its legal expenses could double

The American Civil Liberties Union warned lawmakers Friday that they risk paying hundreds of thousands more in legal fees if they back rules governing Capitol protests that so far have been challenged successfully in federal court by the free-speech activist group, the AP reports. A U.S. District Court judge in Boise ruled last year these rally limits — crafted in the wake of the 2011-2012 “Occupy Boise” protests near the Capitol — violate the U.S. Constitution's 1st Amendment free-speech protections. Now, the state Department of Administration wants lawmakers to finalize those same rules, anyway, to clear the way for the agency to appeal what its leaders are calling a flawed decision.

At a hearing Friday, ACLU of Idaho attorney Richard Eppink said he has already calculated $100,000 in fees Idaho taxpayers may eventually have to shoulder, if his side ultimately prevails. If lawmakers approve the rules and plow ahead with an appeal of uncertain duration, that figure could escalate rapidly, Eppink said. “It could double in the course of an appeal,” Eppink told members of the House State Affairs Committee; click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Crapo, Risch sponsor bill to make state concealed-gun permits valid in other states

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch are co-sponsoring legislation to let those with a state concealed gun permit carry a concealed weapon in other states, too, as long at the state they’re in allows or doesn’t prohibit concealed carrying of firearms. “Idahoans and law-abiding citizens across the country should not be denied the fundamental right to self-defense while they are traveling or temporarily away from home,” said Crapo.  “This bill protects state sovereignty and does not establish national standards for a concealed carry, nor does it veto laws in those states that prohibit concealed carry permits.” Risch said, “Lawful gun owners should not have to face a labyrinth of gun laws the second they cross into another state.  This bill will ensure citizens who are able to carry concealed weapons can exercise that right in any state that has also passed a concealed carry law.”

The measure has three other co-sponsors, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas; John Thune, R-S.D.; and David Vitter, R-La.; you can see the full Crapo-Risch statement here.

Otter endorses justice reinvestment plan, calls it a ‘no-brainer’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today applauded the proposals of the state's justice reinvestment project, calling the plan a “no-brainer.” “While our crime rate is among the lowest in the nation, our recidivism rate is increasing,” Otter said. “This framework outlines a variety of sensible changes we can make as a state that will greatly impact both public safety and the amount of taxpayer dollars that go towards corrections. This is simply a no-brainer for me, and I hope the Legislature sees a similar value and acts accordingly.”

The recommendations, already endorsed unanimously by an interim legislative committee, include an array of improvements to treatment, supervision, parole and probation procedures, restitution and data systems over the next five years, along with limiting stays behind bars for non-violent offenders to 100 to 150 percent of their fixed terms; they’re now serving more than 200 percent of their fixed terms on average, and staying behind bars twice as long in Idaho as they do in the rest of the country. Under the plan, they’d get out earlier, but be supervised on parole. The plan estimates that an investment of $33 million in reforms over the next five years will save the state more than $255 million on prison costs.

Click below for Otter’s full statement.

State gears up for takeover of private prison, looks to hire 72 guards

Legislative budget writers held a special hearing this morning on the transition of the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise from private operation by the Corrections Corp. of America to state operation by July 1. The shift will require a supplemental appropriation – an additional authorization for spending in the current fiscal year. Deputy Director of Corrections Kevin Kempf told lawmakers, “We anticipate retaining 65 percent of the correctional officers that are currently there.” The rest will be new hires, he said; the department is asking to hire 72 correctional officers.

The full supplemental request is for $1.9 million in state general funds, including $1.2 million for personnel including a warden, correctional officers, a management assistant, a human resources specialist, IT support, a food service supervisor, and food service officers. It also includes supplies, uniforms, office equipment, computers, $12,300 worth of firearms, and more. Kempf said upper-level employees at the facility like the warden and deputy wardens “typically will stay with CCA,” and the state will hire its own.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, asked if the state-hired officers will be paid more or less than the private ones; Kempf said that’s a good question. “We don’t exactly know what correctional officers and staff make at the private prison. What we do know is what our budget is set at.”

Kempf said the department anticipates no problems recruiting guards. “We don’t have difficulty finding” applicants, he said. “To be perfectly honest with you, our difficulty is retaining them with us.” JFAC will vote on the supplemental appropriation on Monday, as it kicks off a week of budget hearings on education.

JFAC accepts CEC panel report calling for raises, will make final call Feb. 12

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted unanimously to accept the report of the CEC Committee for 2 percent average pay boosts for state workers next year, though it won’t make the final call on budget-setting figures until Feb. 12. “That money has to come from somewhere, so that has to be part of the overall blueprint for the budget,” JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I appreciate the committee’s work. Having served on it, it was work. But I appreciate the convening of the committee and the commitment also in the recommendation to meet again. To me, this is an ongoing process.”

If JFAC follows the recommendation in its base budget-setting decisions on Feb. 12, the 2 percent funding would be built into every state agency budget it sets.

CEC panel pitches raises for state workers to Legislature’s budget committee

The co-chairmen of the Legislature’s joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee are presenting the committee’s recommendation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, which calls for an average 2 percent pay boost for state workers next year – 1 percent permanent, and 1 percent in one-time bonuses. The increases would be distributed by agency heads based on merit and other factors. “We had a unanimous vote in the committee, and we hope that you’ll consider our recommendation very carefully,” Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, told the Joint Finance

The recommendation also calls for covering a $12.7 million increase in the employer’s share of health insurance costs for state workers next year; continuing “pay-line exceptions” for about 500 hard-to-fill positions, 60 percent of which are nursing jobs; and $99,000 to bring the 300 lowest-paid workers’ pay up by another 1 percent, through moving the base pay scale up 1 percent. And it calls for convening the joint CEC Committee again next year.

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, the House Commerce chairman, said, “I think the evidence was … this was an area that needed some attention this year, and we felt that a recommendation along this line was appropriate. … If you look at the data … a large number of state employees have basically not had much of a change in the past four or five years. So with the recovering economy, it seemed this was an appropriate measure to take at this particular point in time. We leave it in your good hands to see how to make that fit.”

Confusion reigns as Admin brings back court-rejected rules for protests around Capitol

Confusion reigned in the Senate State Affairs Committee this morning, where the state Department of Administration brought rules for approval governing use of the exterior of the Capitol grounds and the Capitol Mall area – the same rules that were, in part, ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge for violating the 1st Amendment in their restrictions on public protests and other events. State officials said they want to preserve appeal rights.

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked Deputy Attorney General Clay Smith, “You are encouraging us as a committee to approve those rules in order to preserve a meaningful appeal of issues that we disagree with the court on?” Smith said yes, and Davis said, “In the event, however, we approve the rules that the court has found problematic, our approval of the rules are still stayed by the decision of the court, correct?” Smith said, “Certainly the rules cannot be enforced, and to that extent they are, as you put it, stayed.” Davis followed up: “And if we find value in the position of the court as to some of the administrative rules before us today and we reject them, then similarly they’re not enforced, correct? Because they don’t exist?” Smith called that “an interesting question.”

State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told the committee, “The department is not enforcing any of the rules that the judge’s ruling in November called into question. They are still in your docket before you, but they are not being enforced.” After more questions from committee members, Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, announced that the panel had run out of time.

“So what we are going to do, because we have additional questions from the committee as well as citizens who have come here to have their voice heard on this, we’re going to continue this on Monday. We’ll clear our calendar of other issues and take the time we need to address this, because this is an important issue.” A subcommittee of the House State Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up the same rules at 9:30 this morning.

Faith-healing exemption law targeted after numerous child deaths

Numerous children of members of the Followers of Christ in Marsing, Idaho have died of treatable causes since 2009, AP reporter John Miller reports; church members rely on faith healing, rather than medicine, to help sick members. Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg says autopsies of many of the children showed that routine intervention — antibiotics here, an appendectomy there — could have saved them. Now, Democratic Rep. John Gannon is proposing amending Idaho law to lift the faith-healing exemption from Idaho's injury to a child criminal statute in cases where a child's medical condition may cause death or permanent disability. “Medical treatment for physical harm to a child should supersede every other consideration,” Gannon told the AP.

In 2011, Oregon legislators trimmed a faith-healing exemption, expanding a 1999 law that eliminated the defense from some charges, including manslaughter, as Followers of Christ members there were prosecuted and convicted following child deaths. Gannon has support from Linda Martin, an Oregon woman who left the church in Idaho decades ago and has returned this week to champion the changes. “These children need a chance to grow up,” Martin said; click below for Miller's full report. Warning: If you're a parent, parts of it are painful to read.

How the justice reinvestment project treated riders, sentencing laws…

After hearing several questions about whether Idaho’s “rider” program, which incarcerates offenders in a special treatment program for a short time, then releases them on probation if they succeed or sends them to prison for their full terms if they fail, skews state’s incarceration rate as presented in the justice reinvestment analysis by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Trusts, I quizzed Mark Pelka, the Justice Center’s director. His answer: Riders were only counted as incarcerated when they were actually behind bars, not when they were out on probation. The project’s figures showed that in Idaho, non-violent offenders spend twice as long behind bars as they do in the rest of the nation.

I also asked about sentencing reform, and its role in this project. The answer: The project didn’t even study Idaho’s sentencing laws, as far as the initial sentence that’s issued by a judge. “We have had calls from judges and many others to look more at sentencing,” Pelka said, but, “We did not shine a flashlight on that.” That was in part because Idaho’s sentencing laws don’t differentiate much within categories of offenses, leaving discretion to judges and making Idaho’s sentencing system more difficult to analyze. “Eighty-four percent of sentences are to probation or rider,” Pelka said. Then, 85 percent of riders get released on probation.

 But the project is recommending one major change to how sentencing works in Idaho: It’s calling for non-violent offenders to serve just 100 to 150 percent of their fixed terms behind bars. Currently, drug offenders in Idaho are serving 219 percent of their fixed terms; property crime offenders, 200 percent; and DUI offenders, 231 percent. The idea is to focus more on supervision of those offenders when they’re initially released from prison, to keep them from going back. “The big challenge for Idaho is the return-to-prison rate,” Pelka said. “Fifty-three percent come back in.”

In the project’s recommendations, policy option 2(D) calls for Idaho to “reserve prison space for individuals convicted of violent offenses, by regulating the percent of time above the minimum sentence that people convicted of non-violent offenses may serve.” To accomplish that: “Require that people sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses be paroled at a point between 100 and 150 percent of the fixed term and then be placed under parole supervision.”

That would be a big change. Even without making any changes in Idaho’s overall sentencing laws – under which judges now set both a fixed and an indeterminate term, such as two to six years, with the Parole Commission deciding how much of the indeterminate part the inmate serves – the project is predicting $255 million in savings for Idaho over five years.

State, county catastrophic medical costs have doubled since 2002

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how the costs to the state and counties for Idaho’s unique catastrophic medical care program more than doubled from 2002 to 2013, and they’re expected to continue to mount if the program stays as-is. Alternatives include expanding Idaho’s Medicaid program, which now is limited to children, very poor parents, and the disabled, to provide coverage for patients who otherwise would turn to the CAT program. Federal funds would cover most of the cost, and the existing program could be repealed.

Other options include sending some of the patients to the new health insurance exchange, through which roughly 40 percent likely would qualify for subsidized insurance; or cutting back the program to cover only emergencies. Lawmakers are talking about all of those now, after the news from this morning’s CAT fund budget hearing.

Lawmakers: Justice reinvestment project could mean ‘huge reduction,’ ‘save lives and change lives’

House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, cautioned that the justice reinvestment proposals would be phased in over five years, not done all at once. “What we are attempting to do this year is one year of a five-year program,” he said. “So while we cannot possibly entertain getting all these issues to the front this year, we are starting at the probation and parole. … We need to start at that end and then go back.”

Making changes to what occurs behind the prison walls would be further out, and there’s much to address, Will said. “We can save this state $290 million in five years by a $33 investment. That is data-driven, not just estimates – that’s data-driven information,” he said. “We know we can do far better  … never losing sight that public safety is No. 1.”

A retired state trooper, Wills said it’s the first time he’s seen all three branches of state government come together on a major initiative like this. “Ultimately in five years, I think we’re going to see a huge reduction in what we’re currently paying out right now,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said the project will “help us save lives and change lives.” She said, “We are in the process of drafting legislation now, so we will have something available quite soon.”

Far-reaching justice reinvestment plan unveiled; watch live…

More than two dozen legislators are among the audience in the Lincoln Auditorium this afternoon for the presentation on the justice reinvestment project; you can watch live here. The Council of State Governments and the Pew Trusts have worked with all three branches of Idaho’s state government to analyze why the state has the nation’s 8th highest incarceration rate and rising recidivism, though it has one of the lowest crime rates, and what can be done to improve the system.

”What’s great is that states know more now than at any time in history about what works to reduce recidivism,” Mark Pelka, head of the CSG’s Justice Center, told the group.

Months of intensive research, starting last June, along with meetings with the state’s district judges, prosecutors, sheriffs, victim advocates, police chiefs, agency heads and others, led to a report that was unanimously approved yesterday by a legislative interim committee; now, legislation is in the work to carry out the recommendations in the report.

Three major challenges were identified: A revolving door of recidivism, including parolees and probationers who return to prison; inefficient use of prison space, including delays in parole releases and lengthy prison stays for non-violent offenders; and insufficient oversight, including a system to track outcomes to assure strategies work. “You’re spending more to respond to recidivism than you are to prevent it in the first place,” Pelka said.

An array of improvements to treatment, supervision, parole and probation procedures, restitution and data systems are recommended in the report, which estimates that an investment of $33 million toward those reforms over the next five years will save the state more than $255 million on prison costs.

Analyzing Luna’s online sales tax pitch; he also compromises on spring testing

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert has an interesting analysis here of state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s address to lawmakers yesterday, in which he pitched collection of online sales taxes as a way to ensure the state can afford to make improvements to its schools recommendation by the governor’s education stakeholders task force. Richert notes that Luna has been promoting the idea for several years, including during his 2010 re-election campaign, but writes, “By talking about Internet taxes — and by renewing his call for an increase in teacher salaries — Luna is sounding like a candidate gearing up for a general election.”

Thus far, Luna, unlike Gov. Butch Otter, hasn’t drawn a challenger in the May GOP primary election; at this point, his only announced opposition is Democrat Jana Jones in the November general election.

Idaho EdNews also has a report here on how Luna has agreed to a compromise with school district superintendents over testing; he’s agreed to allow schools to opt out of a lengthy new test this spring for 9th and 10th graders. Originally, the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test was scheduled to be field-tested this spring with all 3rd- through 11th-graders.

Bateman proposes annual ‘Idaho Day’ each March 4

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State lawmakers are considering making appreciation of Idaho an annual event. Rep. Linden Bateman proposed legislation to name March 4 “Idaho Day,” addressing members of the House Education Committee with a miniature Idaho flag sticking out of the breast pocket of his suit. March 4 marks the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln signing the Idaho Territory into law in 1863. Bateman, an Idaho Falls Republican, said the statewide jubilation surrounding Idaho's sesquicentennial last year inspired him to propose a yearly celebration. His bill specifies that the new commemoration wouldn't mean the closing of any state or local government offices; the House Education Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill. If it ultimately becomes law, Idaho Day could become a new state tradition in 2015.

Indigent care dilemma: ‘We’ll struggle to find a better way’

At the close of the dispiriting presentation on the trend in the state’s medical indigency/catastrophic health care fund program, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, told CAT board Chairman Roger Christensen, a Bonneville County commissioner, “We appreciate having you as a partner. We probably don’t like the situation any better than you do, and we’ll continue to struggle to find a better way to do things.”

Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, asked why county costs for the program are so varied. “It’s difficult to predict … it’s kind of like the lottery,” Christensen responded. “You could have one huge case in your county” that would cost $1 million. “It doesn’t depend on the size of the population.”

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee then took its morning break, and members joined in animated discussions in the meeting room and outside in the Capitol's hallways and rotunda on the dilemma Idaho faces with the program and the possible alternatives, from the Arkansas model – taking federal Medicaid expansion money and using it to buy private insurance for uninsured residents – to other options. “Some are coming to the realization we’re spending those dollars already on the indigent program,” said JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “None of us are happy about having to spend those dollars.”

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician and a CAT fund board member, said, “We have done as many things as we can to control those costs. We’ve put in medical reviews. We only pay at the Medicaid rate. We have a good contract with the counties for oversight. In essence, we’ve done what we can on paying a bill after we get it, to control the costs. The premise of this sort of payment is the question. It, in my opinion, needs to be addressed as a policy decision. We need to have that discussion.”

CAT fund costs expected to continue to mount, if program stays as-is…

Combined state and county costs for the medical indigency/catastrophic health care fund in 2013 came to $52.7 million. That’s up from $25.3 million in 2002. It’s slightly down from the prior year due to the federal PCIP program, a temporary program that covered some costs, but expires March 31. “We anticipate that trend will reverse in the future,” Bonneville County Commissioner Roger Christensen, chairman of the state Catastrophic Health Fund board, told JFAC this morning.

The program covers catastrophic medical costs for patients who can't pay the bills off in five years; liens are placed on patients' property, but little is generally recovered. State general funds and local property taxes cover the full cost of the program. For next year, the CAT fund is requesting $38.5 million state general funds. That’s a 10.6 percent increase from the current year’s state appropriation of $34.8 million, and reflects the latest projections; the governor’s recommendation, submitted earlier, was for a 3.4 percent increase to $36 million. The rest of the cost for the program is directly picked up by county property taxpayers.

“One area that’s a real concern to our counties is the issues of mental health,” Christensen told legislative budget writers. “We’re seeing quite an increase.” He said the nature of the program is that it doesn’t provide preventive care; it just picks up catastrophic costs. “This is an area where prevention pays dividends,” Christensen said. “When we deal with it, it’s usually after an episode. It’s unfortunate, because people are being treated in our jails. … We just want to point that out as an area of major concern and pressure on program costs that we may have in the future.”

Christensen said if the program continues as-is, costs are expected to continue to mount. Alternatives include expanding Medicaid to provide coverage for patients who otherwise would turn to the CAT program, and repealing the existing program; sending some of the patients to the insurance exchange; or cutting back the program to cover only emergencies. Currently, its highest costs are for heart disease and related conditions, followed by cancer, and then diabetes. The average claim paid has risen from $24,127 in 2010 to $26,602 in the first six months of this year.

“This is the nature of our program,” Christensen said. “It doesn’t allow for preventive care, so we deal with the results after it becomes catastrophic, which is much more expensive, and it’s paid for dollar for dollar.” No federal matching funds are available to the medical indigency/catastrophic care program. Costs would be reduced if the patients were covered with an insurance plan, he said.

Number of people with developmental disabilities who are institutionalized continues to drop

As Idaho has moved to community-based treatment for people with developmental disabilities, rather than institutionalization, the state’s costs have dropped, legislative budget writers were told this morning. At one time, the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa, formerly the Idaho State School and Hospital, which is for people with severe developmental disabilities who cannot safely live in the community, had 1,000 residents, back in 1956. Five years ago, that number was down to 78; today, it’s 27.

“I am stunned that we had over 1,000 people at one time,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “I guess we’re doing something better.” The center serves only those clients who have no other placement option due to severe behavior or medical issues.

Instead of institutionalization, children and adults with developmental disabilities receive services including therapy, housing, employment, service coordination and respite care; those services are provided by private providers under contract to the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare. In fiscal year 2007, Idaho’s general fund budget for developmental disability services was $14 million; today, it’s about $12 million.

Proposed community ‘crisis centers’ would try to keep mentally ill from landing in jails, emergency rooms

Legislative budget writers held hearings this morning on mental health services through the state Department of Health & Welfare, as they continued a week of budget hearings on health and human services programs. Taking center stage: A proposal from Gov. Butch Otter to establish crisis centers for the mentally ill in three Idaho cities, with plans to expand eventually to seven; the idea is to help people who otherwise face incarceration or other costly measures that don't help resolve their problems. Law enforcement officers increasingly are answering calls involving people with mental illness, H&W division administrator Ross Edmunds told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Their intervention is, by and large, jail and emergency room care, hospital care.” He said the hope is that the community crisis centers will serve as a “gateway” to the care those patients really need.

“I hope what we can do is through this pilot, demonstrate to you the effectiveness of this model,” Edmunds told legislative budget writers, “that we are actually going to save our state money, we are going to save resources by utilizing this model.” AP reporter Katie Terhune reports that the crisis centers are modeled after a Billings, Mont. facility that officials say has proven itself a success since opening in 2006; click below for her full report. Said Edmunds, “We don't want to criminalize mental illness.”

 

Freedom Foundation now up to half a dozen anti-incumbent billboards around the state

The Idaho Freedom Foundation now has six billboards around the state attacking lawmakers who voted in favor of setting up a state-based health insurance exchange, rather than allowing the federal government to operate an exchange for Idaho. They’ve also updated the look of the first ones they posted, opting for a bright-red color scheme and photos of the legislators they’re excoriating. “We’ve improved the look, while putting them up in more places,” the foundation reported on its website. Foundation head Wayne Hoffman said there are now two signs in Idaho Falls, and one each in Rexburg, Burley, Mountain Home and Coeur d’Alene.

“They didn’t need to implement OBAMACARE,” the billboards say above the lawmakers’ names and photos, along with a statement by their photos that each one of them “voted FOR IT.” Across the bottom, the billboards say, “Repeal the State Insurance Exchange in 2014!” One pictures and targets Gov. Butch Otter, saying, “Your Governor and some state legislators implemented OBAMACARE.”

Four Kootenai County lawmakers are pictured on the billboard near Coeur d’Alene, which is along I-90 at Pleasant View in Post Falls, all Republicans: Reps. Luke Malek, Frank Henderson, Ed Morse and John Goedde. They don’t seem too upset at having their photos on billboards in their home turf. “I think the people in my district understand the issue,” Malek said. Morse said, “I represent the interests of the citizens in my district, not Wayne Hoffman.”

Luna calls for collecting online sales taxes to ensure state can fund school improvements

Idaho Schools Superintendent Tom Luna and Richard Westerberg, head of the education stakeholders task force that produced 20 recommendations to improve Idaho’s schools, are making presentations to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees this afternoon in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can watch live here. Luna is calling for addressing teacher pay increases, through leadership bonuses, next year, rather than waiting, as Gov. Butch Otter recommended in his proposed budget. And he’s making a call for collecting Idaho’s state sales tax on online sales as the best way to ensure the state can afford to improve its school system.

“Any tax code that does not take into account consideration of online sales tax and the migration of commerce toward online sales is shortsighted,” Luna told lawmakers. “I believe the answer is simple: We need to collect every penny of sales tax that is due. Some of you may be thinking, why would the State Superintendent of Public Instruction be talking about tax policy? It’s because I believe this is just one solution that will help us implement the Task Force recommendations. We are not going to be able to address the fiscal note of these Task Force recommendations with the current tax structure we have in place. This is the 21st  century. We want a 21st century education – then we must have a 21st century tax code.” Here's a link to Luna's full prepared remarks to the committee.

Idaho already requires taxes to be paid on online sales, but there's little enforcement. Idahoans are supposed to keep track of their online purchases and report and pay a 6 percent “use tax,” equal to the sales tax, when they file their state income tax returns, but few do.

Justice reinvestment interim committee unanimously backs plan

A legislative interim committee has unanimously endorsed a report calling for reforms to Idaho’s criminal justice system designed to address costly flaws in the system that are contributing to extra-long stays behind bars for non-violent offenders and for probation and parole violators. The full report will be presented to the Legislature tomorrow, at a joint meeting of the House and Senate judiciary committees. “We won’t do it today, but we’ll start drafting legislation and get that ready for everyone’s approval at a later date within the next couple-week period of time,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, Senate judiciary chair and co-chair of the joint interim committee with House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry.

With the assistance of the Council of State Governments and the Pew Trusts, the project analyzed Idaho’s system, which has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates despite the state’s low crime rates. The hope is that a relatively small investment in better offender supervision, treatment and other reforms will result in hundreds of millions in savings in the state’s prison system, and fewer offenders returning to prison again and again.

New video shows Bowe Bergdahl alive

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials have received a new video of captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that they believe was taken within the last month, showing that the soldier is alive. The video came to light several days ago, said one senior defense official. Another official said that Bergdahl appeared in poorer health than previous videos, showing the signs of his nearly five years in captivity. Bergdahl, who is from Idaho, was taken prisoner in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. It is believed he is being held somewhere in Pakistan. The Taliban have said they would free him in exchange for several of their most senior operatives who are being detained at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In a statement, Bergdahl's family said that they learned Wednesday about the video. “Naturally, this is very important to us and our resolve to continue our efforts to bring Bowe home as soon as possible,” the statement said. “As we have done so many times over the past four and a half years, we request his captors to release him safely so that our only son can be reunited with his mother and father. Bowe - If (you) see this, continue to remain strong through patience. Your endurance will carry you to the finish line. Breathe!”

Senators give warm reception to this year’s new F&G commissioners

The Senate Resources Committee, which last year refused to confirm Fish & Game Commissioner Joan Hurlock, gave a much different reception today to this year’s two new commissioners, Brad Corkill of the Panhandle and Mark Doerr of the Magic Valley. After Corkill, responding to senators’ questions, said he’d be glad to see all wolves disappear from the state and called for a “very aggressive program” to reduce wolf numbers, committee Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told him, “You answered the question right. … I thank you for your public service. We appreciate you volunteering.”

After questioning Doerr, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, told him, “It’s been some time since you’ve been out goose hunting, so that invitation is standing. Come out any time.” Jack Oyler of Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife, who strenuously opposed Hurlock’s confirmation last year, told the committee, “I want to speak in favor of both of these men on the commission.”

Hurlock, who was only the second woman ever to serve on the Fish & Game Commission, was ousted when both the committee and the full Senate refused to confirm her, something that hadn’t happened since 1974. The Senate voted 19-16 against her confirmation, after Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said, “This lady is not qualified,” saying she lacked the necessary “passion” for hunting and fishing to represent the interests of Idaho sportsmen.

Pearce said the committee will vote on the confirmations of Corkill and Doerr on Monday.

Senate honors Judge Lodge for his 50 years on the bench

The Idaho Senate today honored U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, the state’s longest-serving judge ever, with 50 years on the state and federal bench. Lodge, shown above at center, was in the gallery with family members and court staff. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, sponsored SCR 132, a resolution commending Lodge. “This is a man I respect. This is a person I think you should respect and Idaho should respect – he is one of my heroes,” Davis told the Senate. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, also an attorney, said, “I say he’s one of the great judges anywhere in our nation.”

Another senator offering comments has close ties to the judge: His wife, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. “What I can tell you about Ed Lodge is that he has his priorities in line,” she said. The resolution traces Lodge’s career, from Caldwell High School to Golden Gloves boxing champion to presiding over many of the state’s major court cases of the last half-century, from Claude Dallas to Ruby Ridge. He’s believed to have handled more murder cases than any judge in Idaho, and once presided over two simultaneously.

The Senate followed its unanimous approval of the resolution with an extended standing ovation for Lodge.

Otter names working group to study improvements to Tax Commission operations

Gov. Butch Otter has named an eight-member working group headed by former House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, to study ways to improve operations at the Idaho State Tax Commission, including how the commission's rule-making process could be improved and whether restructuring is in order. Tax Commission Chairman Rich Jackson will be among the group. “I have a lot of confidence in our four Tax Commission members, but there’s always room for improvement, especially where public confidence is involved,” Otter said; click below for his full announcement. The commission came in for criticism from state senators last year for being difficult to work with, though no specifics were cited; several years ago, a whistle-blower's report raised questions about how the commission handled secret settlements with big taxpayers.

New rules for extra-heavy loads sail through House subcommittee

Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence reports that though oversized loads have been one of Idaho’s most controversial transportation issues the past few years, that wasn’t the case on Tuesday, when new rules for loads of up to 129,000 pounds sailed through a House subcommittee. Under the rules, the process for designating a highway as suitable for the extra-heavy loads includes notification of adjacent counties and highway jurisdictions, an engineering and safety analysis by the Idaho Transportation Department, review by the ITD Board and a public hearing; you can read Spence’s full post here at his “Political Theater” blog. Lawmakers authorized such extra-heavy loads last year; the rules spell out how the new law would be implemented.

Bill would ban lawmakers from holding any other elected position

Legislators shouldn’t be able to also hold any other elected positions, Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said today, offering legislation to make that Idaho law. The House State Affairs Committee voted to introduce the bill, but several members said they saw problems with such a blanket restriction. Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, noted that many rural communities have irrigation or ditch districts. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said his small community doesn’t have a lot of people to serve on sewer boards or fire district commissions. “I think this is worthy of discussion, but I think we should keep in mind our small rural communities,” he said.

Freshman Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, took some heat last year for continuing to serve on the Lewiston City Council; her term ended at the end of the year. Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, is an elected member of the Greater Boise Auditorium District board, and several other lawmakers have served on their local school boards or had other community roles. Idaho has a part-time, citizen Legislature; lawmakers generally have outside employment back home.

Luker called it “unseemly” for a lawmaker to also represent another group of constituents, even within their district. Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, asked, “Can you spell out for me a little more clearly the conflict of interest?” Luker said, “I guess for me … there’s a certain aversion to accumulation of power, when we have multiple positions vested in one person.” He said, “I think there’s an issue of time, I think there’s an issue of conflict.”

After the meeting, Luker said, “For example, you’ve got cities coming here to lobby for money. … School boards the same way.” This morning, Steve Berch, a Democrat who also serves on the Auditorium District board, announced his candidacy for a legislative seat in Luker’s district.

After costs balloon, Idaho looks to restore non-emergency dental services it cut in 2011

When Idaho eliminated non-emergency adult dental coverage under its Medicaid program in 2011, it hoped to save money, but it didn’t. Instead, emergency room costs ballooned, with dental-related emergency room services more than doubling from $30,000 a month in 2011 to $65,000 a month today. Now, the state is looking to restore the coverage. “It’s an important reinstatement of services,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician who serves on the Legislature’s joint budget committee. He noted that he debated against the cut in the Senate in 2011, saying, “You can save money in your car by not changing the oil, but that’s not the right way to save money.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Risch: ‘Idahoans will have a clear choice’

GOP Sen. Jim Risch has posted the following statement on his campaign website, in response to the campaign announcement today from Democratic challenger Nels Mitchell:

“Senator Risch has been working diligently for over five years to reduce the size of the federal government and its intrusion into the daily lives of Idaho citizens. This year Idahoans will once again have a clear choice between Senator Risch’s conservative philosophies or another Democrat who will go to Washington DC to grow the government and help Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi push Obama’s far left agenda during the last 2 years of his presidency.”

Democratic challenger to Risch says he’d only serve one term

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Nels Mitchell, who today launched his campaign against GOP Sen. Jim Risch. Mitchell said he’d make jobs his top priority, and pledged if elected to serve only one six-year term. “I am not a politician. I have had a successful career, and it is now my turn to step up.” He also said he’d work with Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson on his wilderness proposal for the Boulder-White Clouds mountains, which Risch has opposed; and said like GOP Sen. Mike Crapo, he’d have co-sponsored the reauthorization of the two-decade-old Violence Against Women Act, which Risch voted against last February.

Former U.S. Attorney for Idaho Betty Richardson said she first met Mitchell in high school. He was the student body president at Boise High School and was running for a statewide student leadership position; she was a Lewiston High School student who was running his opponent’s successful campaign. “He impressed me then,” said Richardson, a Democratic activist who’s played a key role in recruiting candidates for the state’s minority party. “I just couldn’t see Risch running unopposed, and I didn’t want to recruit a token candidate,” she said. “Nels came to mind, and fortunately he said ‘yes.’”

Bujak indicted by federal grand jury for bankruptcy fraud, money laundering

Former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak was indicted by a federal grand jury today on charges of bankruptcy fraud, concealment of assets, making a false statement under oath, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. The charges center around a $25,000 Rolex watch that Bujak allegedly concealed from a bankruptcy trustee and creditors, then sold and cashed the check at a MoneyTree store in Caldwell. The indictment charges that Bujak then made false statements about the watch and tried to persuade his then wife to do the same. An initial court date has not been set; you can read the full announcement here from U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson, and the full indictment here. Bujak had been exploring a possible run for governor as an independent.

Click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Otter names Patrick McDonald to Mark Patterson’s former House seat

Gov. Butch Otter has named Patrick McDonald as the new state representative for District 15, replacing the disgraced Rep. Mark Patterson, R-Boise, who resigned. McDonald, a former U.S. marshal and Idaho State Police officer, will serve the remainder of Patterson's term; he'd previously announced he was running for the seat in the May primary. The other two nominees for the seat were Rod Beck and Sam Hoagland; click below for Otter's full announcement. McDonald and his wife, Sarah Jane, who is the Senate sergeant-at-arms, have three sons.

Otter said, “The citizens of District 15 deserve the chance for continuity and someone of unquestioned integrity representing them in the Idaho House. Pat McDonald ably provides those qualities, as well as a lifetime of service and a focus on the public’s safety and well-being. It’s important that he wants to keep serving in the Legislature beyond this term. More importantly, I trust him to serve District 15 and all of Idaho with character, honesty, and great distinction.”

Davis: Justice reinvestment project could save state a ‘bucket-load of money’

There’s a full house of more than 100 people for today’s first “Politics for Lunch” session sponsored by the Andrus Center at its downtown Boise location; Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis is the featured speaker. His first comment: “Wow. This is a remarkable group of people.” Pulling out his cellphone, he asked, “Do you mind?” and took pictures of the crowd. “My mother will never believe this,” he said. Davis said he’d offer “my prognostications, as modest as they may be,” about the upcoming legislative session. “If you like what I said, I meant it,” he said, “and if you don’t, I was just pulling your leg.”

He said the governor’s announcement of no Medicaid expansion this year likely matches what the result would have been had the expansion gone to either house for a vote. He said he’s “grateful” that the Legislature reconvened its joint Change in Employee Compensation committee this year for the first time since 2008, and said the question now is whether its recommendation of a 2 percent pay boost will be extended to public schools as well as state employees. “It has historically been that it was extended, and frankly I anticipate that that is what the joint committee is likely to do,” Davis said.

He called the criminal justice reinvestment project “one of the additional significant things that we will do this year in the legislative session,” and said, “Those states that have followed some of their more significant recommendations have saved a bucket-load of money. We are hopeful that we will be able to see some of the same positive results.” Tomorrow, an interim committee is scheduled to finalize its report and legislative recommendations; a session for all legislators on the proposals is set for Thursday.

Davis said he expects the Legislature to push hard to enact the recommendations of the education stakeholders task force over the next five years. As far as whether tax cuts will be enacted this year, he said, “I really don’t know the answer to that.”

Boise Democrat launches campaign against Sen. Risch

Boise attorney Nels Mitchell launched his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Idaho Sen. Jim Risch today, calling Risch an “out of touch” career politician and pledging if elected to serve just one six-year term. “Six years is a long time,” Mitchell said. “I will give the people of Idaho 110 percent for the next six years, and then I intend to return to private life.”

Mitchell, 60, is making his first run for public office. He noted that legendary Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church had only run once for the state Legislature before he successfully ran for the U.S. Senate. “When I was growing up here in Boise, Frank Church was my hero,” Mitchell said, noting that Church served as student body president at Boise High School 29 years before Mitchell did the same.

He said jobs will be his top priority, and decried Idaho’s fall to 50th on such measures as average wage and per-capita income. “Someone has not been minding the store, and that someone is Jim Risch,” Mitchell declared. “He’s been much too busy taking junkets and going to the theater.” He also faulted Risch for voting against funding for the Idaho National Laboratory, calling the INL “one of the best employers in the state.”

Former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus said, “The Democrats have got a good shot this time. Is it going to be easy? No. But when they’ve got the money and the organization, we ought to have the people. He’s an outstanding candidate – look at his resume. Now we’ve got to raise enough money to tell the story.”

Democratic activist and former U.S. Attorney for Idaho Betty Richardson said she first met Mitchell in high school. “He’s cut from the same cloth as Cece Andrus and Frank Church – we can’t do much better,” she said.

Risch, an attorney and former longtime state Senate leader who briefly served as governor, is nearing the end of his first term in the Senate; he announced last April that he’ll run for re-election.

House Rev&Tax votes 13-2 to keep Tax Commission’s new same-sex tax filing rule

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted 13-2 against a motion to reject the state Tax Commission’s same-sex marriage tax filing rule, with only two Democrats, Reps. Grant Burgoyne and Mat Erpelding of Boise, backing rejection. Democratic Rep. Carolyn Meline of Pocatello voted with all the panel’s GOP members to keep the rule in place.

Burgoyne said, “It’s certainly my view that this is a denial of equal protection, and I realize the Tax Commission feels between a rock and a hard place, and is not sure what to do here given our statutory and constitutional restrictions.” But, he said, “There are alternatives,” as shown in Missouri and Oregon. He said Idaho didn't need to change its filing rules, which previously required state tax filers to follow how they filed their federal returns.

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said, “I think the Tax Commission has done a pretty good job here threading a difficult environment and a changing law. … It seems to me that adding this language to the rule at this particular time is appropriate. It can be changed at some future date, should court rulings and other considerations come into play. This is a rapidly changing field.” He added, “While we may have individual sympathy for the situations that are presented by these cases, it seems to me that we should look first at the Constitution of Idaho, and then at the statutes, and then at the rules, if the rules are in conformance with those. So I’m going to vote against the motion to reject.”

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “I don’t really feel that we have a choice, because we expect our agency to enforce our law that we make, and I think that’s been very well explained here.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Rev & Tax rule debate: ‘States get to define marriage’

Half a dozen Idahoans who are in same-sex marriages urged against approval of the Tax Commission’s rule requiring them to re-do their tax returns when they file their state income taxes, so that they file as a married couple for the federal returns, but recalculate that and file separately in Idaho. Monica Hopkins of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho urged the House Revenue & Taxation Committee to reject the rule, and instead follow the lead of some other states that ban same-sex marriage, to allow state tax filings to mirror federal tax filings.

The committee then heard from Phil Skinner, deputy Idaho attorney general for the Tax Commission. He said the Windsor decision from the U.S. Supreme Court essentially said, “States get to define marriage, federal government you have no right to meddling in that. States get to choose and you can’t interfere.”

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “It would appear, then, that the Tax Commission was following Idaho law when they made this change in the rule.” He said, “If there is a question about that,” it should be resolved not through a Tax Commission rule, but through “somebody coming back to the Legislature to change the law to observe same-sex marriage, or let those that are contesting this take it to court to decide whether this law is legal or not. It looks like the Tax Commission did what they are supposed to do, in terms of defining the law.”

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said, “As Rep. Raybould has indicated, this is the law in Idaho today, buttressed by both the statute at the Constitution.” He asked Skinner if that’s his position, and he said yes.

Cutting adult dental coverage in Medicaid didn’t save money; restoration proposed

Legislative budget writers this morning are delving into the details of Health & Welfare programs, starting with the divisions of welfare and Medicaid. Medicaid takes up 80.6 percent of the budget request for the state Department of Health & Welfare for the coming year, down from 81.4 percent in the current year, fiscal year 2014. Medicaid administrator Paul Leary noted that the pie chart showing that is nicknamed the Pac-Man chart, but, “The Pac-Man is getting smaller, which really speaks to bending the growth curve.”

The department’s request for Medicaid for fiscal year 2015 totals $496.4 million in state general funds, a 4 percent increase, and $2.047 billion in total funds, a 1.1 percent increase. The governor is recommending $484 million in general funds, a 1.4 percent increase, and $2.042 billion in total funds, a 0.9 percent increase. The biggest differences are that Gov. Butch Otter would offset $10.9 million in general funds from a new dedicated health care assistance fund coming from cigarette tax funds, and that the department requested $1.4 million in general funds, which would bring in $3.5 million in federal matching funds, to restore adult dental benefits that were cut during the recession (a total of $4.9 million). Otter didn’t recommend the funding, though he backed restoring the benefit; he recommended drawing on savings from a recent renegotiation of the dental services contract to restore the coverage. Paul Leary, Medicaid administrator, said the roughly $5 million savings from the contract renegotiation should easily cover the cost, mainly because of decreased utilization.

The dental coverage was cut in 2011; about 27,000 adults lost coverage. Since then, the Medicaid program’s costs for dental-related emergency room services have more than doubled, from $30,000 a month in 2011 to $65,000 a month today. In just one case, sepsis caused by an abscessed tooth resulted in $300,000 in medical costs that could have been avoided.

“Other states that removed dental benefits have seen increases in emergency room services and hospital costs, indicating that the savings found from removing this benefit were short-term in nature and can lead to future utilization costs,” according to the department’s budget request.

Idaho tax filing rules for same-sex married couples draw objections

As the House Revenue & Taxation Committee opened its hearing this morning on the state Tax Commission’s temporary rule on same-sex married couples’ tax filings, Chairman Gary Collins noted, “This is a hearing on a pending rule, it is not a hearing on same-sex marriage. … It is a clarification on a rule that the state of Idaho needs for tax purposes.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a ban on federal benefits for same-sex couples was unconstitutional, that cleared the way for same-sex couples married in states where such marriages are legal to file joint federal income tax returns. But Idaho has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage; the state Tax Commission then enacted temporary rules requiring such couples in Idaho to re-file separately for their state income tax returns.

Several people are testifying to the committee that Idaho’s rule means they’ll have to pay more in taxes as same-sex married couples than would opposite-sex married couples. Gary Peters said Idaho’s rule means the IRA donation of $6,000 a year that he makes for his spouse will be taxed twice by Idaho. Tim Walsh, who’s been with his partner for 10 years, told the committee, “The question of whether we file as married filing jointly, or married filing single, should be left to us, not to the government. We should not be forced by the government to file as single. … If you truly believe in a less intrusive government, you would agree with that.”

Idaho’s no welfare state, lawmakers told

Idaho is no welfare state, legislators were assured Monday, even though 20 percent of the population now receives some form of public assistance. Idaho's benefits remain paltry compared to most states, and even after big jumps in the state's food stamp rolls through the recession, Idaho’s food stamp rate remains below the national average. “No one can live as a welfare king or queen in Idaho,” state Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers on Monday, as they opened a week of hearings on health and human services budgets in the state; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

State exchange reports enrollment figures, 24% of 20,000 enrollees are ages 18-34

YourHealthIdaho.org, Idaho's state health insurance exchange, reports today that 19,922 Idahoans have now purchased health insurance plans through the exchange, 48,082 have completed applications, 40,205 have been determined eligible to buy insurance on the exchange, and 26,665 have been found eligible for federal financial assistance to buy insurance. “These numbers show that the marketplace is working for Idaho,” said Amy Dowd, YourHealthIdaho executive director; she noted that the number who have selected plans is up by more than 1,000 times from just a month ago. “With three more months of open enrollment left, our work is far from over but I am confident that our efforts will pay off,” she said. Click below for the exchange's full announcement, including breakdowns of enrollees by age, gender and plan type. So far, 31 percent have been ages 55-64, and 24 percent ages 18-34.

 

2nd Amendment rally draws armed supporters to the Capitol

A Second Amendment rally on the Statehouse steps today drew more than 150 people, many of them with firearms at their sides or slung across their backs. “It’s a Second Amendment rally, so it’s kind of a given that you’re going to have guns here,” said Gary Pruett of Middleton, president of the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance. The group gathered to hear remarks from Wayne Hoffman and Alexandria Kinkaid along with Pruett, then moved inside to talk with legislators.

Pruett acknowledged that Idaho law already strongly protects gun rights, saying, “Compared to a lot of states we’re pretty good, but there was one gun magazine that ranked us 32nd, because of our self-defense laws. They said we’re pretty weak.”

Some at the rally carried banners, signs or flags, including a banner opposing abortion and “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Across the street, an armed signature-gatherer set up a table to collect signatures for a pending initiative to raise the minimum wage. Asked what he thought about all the weapons in the state Capitol, House Speaker Scott Bedke said, “I just hope everybody is responsible.”

Idaho potatoes take center stage at Syrian peace talks in Paris

At peace talks in Paris today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a pair of hefty Idaho potatoes, prompting an oddly festive moment of diplomacy during otherwise grim talks. Kerry quickly sought to disavow any deep diplomatic meaning from the spuds, the AP reported, explaining that he was in Idaho over the holidays when he and Lavrov spoke by phone. The Russian, it seemed, associated Idaho with potatoes. “He told me he's not going to make vodka. He's going to eat them,” Kerry said of Lavrov, who was next to him at an otherwise somber news conference on militant threats to humanitarian aid for Syria.

Kerry added: “I really want to clarify: There's no hidden meaning. There's no metaphor. There's no symbolic anything. … He recalled the Idaho potatoes as being something that he knew of, so I thought I would surprise him and bring him some good Idaho potatoes.” Lavrov said, “In Poland, they make vodka from potatoes. I know this. But that's in Poland.” Kerry tried to steer the discussion back to Iran or Syria, but Lavrov plowed on. “We used to do this in the Soviet Union,” he said. “Now we try to do it from wheat.” Click below for the full AP report from Paris.

Boise lawyer plans to announce challenge to Sen. Risch

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Boise lawyer plans to run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Jim Risch. Nels Mitchell aims to announce his run Tuesday at Boise's historic train depot. Mitchell grew up in Idaho's capital, but spent much of his professional career as a lawyer in New York and California. His legal experience includes several years as an associate regional director at the Securities and Exchange Commission in southern California, where he oversaw a staff of about 75 people who investigated and prosecuted securities fraud cases in the Los Angeles area. In Risch, Mitchell faces a foe who spent decades as a state legislator, lieutenant governor, fill-in governor in 2006 — and was elected to the Senate in 2008. He's now up for his first re-election.

Pre-K pilot bill unveiled, supporters gather

An array of backers gathered in a packed state Capitol meeting room this morning to unveil legislation to launch a pilot program for pre-K education in Idaho schools. “This is about the future of this state,” declared Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise. “Idaho’s future will be brighter if we can come together and agree to prioritize Pre-K through career.”

Idaho currently offers no state-funded preschool, though some programs are offered with private or federal funding. It was only after a big legislative fight under then-Gov. Cecil Andrus that Idaho began offering kindergarten in its schools; it remains voluntary.

The bill is modest; it would fund five classrooms of public preschool for 4-year-olds, at five elementary schools around the state, for three years; more than half the cost would be covered by private grants, with the state paying a smaller share. Participation would be voluntary, both for families and for the schools. The provision allowing for such programs would expire at the end of the three years. Kloc said he hopes it will provide Idaho-specific results that people can examine to consider expanding public preschool in the state in the future.

Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney called it a “no-brainer,” saying research shows kids who get quality preschool education are more likely to succeed in life and less likely to become criminals. “Studies show a 20 percent less rate of felony arrests in areas that have good preschool education systems,” he said. He estimated that Idaho taxpayers could save $30 million to $50 million a year if the state had preschool.

Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for Education of Young Children, said, “This is such a critical issue facing Idaho, and it’s past time that we did something about it Today in Idaho, over half of our children are not ready or prepared to enter kindergarten or first grade.”

Rep. Doug Hancey, R-Rexburg, co-sponsor of the bill with Kloc, said, “This is a good program, a good idea, and it’s a pilot program. … We’re not trying to revolutionize education in one year.” Kloc said the bill has been finalized, including making changes requested by House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, who wanted it to include more parent involvement; he hopes to present it to the committee within the next few weeks.

Groups backing the bill at the press conference included the Treasure Valley YMCA, the United Way, Idaho Voices for Children, Idaho Business for Education, and more. But House Speaker Scott Bedke, asked afterward about the proposal, said, “I’ll have a hard time supporting an expansion of the education system when I’m told we’re not adequately funding what we have. There are other priorities in the education arena.” Bedke said he’s focused on the 20 recommendations from an education stakeholders’ task force for improving Idaho’s K-12 schools. “The task force didn’t elevate this, and they could have,” he said.

Three state H&W initiatives…

Idaho H&W chief Dick Armstrong this morning highlighted three “important state initiatives” that are coming in the next year:

Behavioral health community crisis centers for those with mental health or substance abuse disorders. Three are initially proposed around the state next year, with plans to expand to seven “based on success and the cost of the pilots,” Armstrong said. “The goal is to reduce incarceration … used inappropriately, because there are few alternatives for law enforcement who are answering behavioral health calls.”

A child welfare pilot project to reduce foster care entries. Idaho has been chosen as the state to pilot this program, which is funded by a five-year federal grant. The idea is to fund in-home preventive services that allow children to safely remain at home while problems are being addressed, rather than being placed into foster care. “We believe it will result in improved long-term outcomes for Idaho children,” Armstrong told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “If this is successful, we could see a change at the national level for funding in all states.”

The State Healthcare Innovation Plan, or SHIP. “This is not a Department of Health & Welfare Program,” Armstrong said, though federal funding is flowing through the agency. “It really is a partnership with health care providers, insurers and participants to transform the health care model … from paying for volume of visits to paying for improved patient outcomes.” The approach involves a primary care physician overseeing all the services provided to his or her patients in a “medical home” model, with all providers using electronic health records to ensure there’s no duplication of services, collect treatment and outcome data, and identify best practices and encourage the most effective care.

Low pay driving increased turnover at state Department of Health & Welfare

The Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, the state’s biggest agency, is down 270 positions from the 3,119 employees it had in 2008, before the recession, Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers this morning. Turnover is up, rising to 15 percent in fiscal year 2013 with 399 people leaving. Those who left for the private sector reported receiving double-digit pay increases, Armstrong said. “We cannot expect them to stay on with such huge pay differentials, as well as the stress and workload.”

The two job classifications with the highest turnover: Public assistance eligibility workers and child protection social workers, which Armstrong said are “areas the state can least afford losing experienced workers.”

He urged JFAC to support the recommendation approved Friday by the joint Committee on Change in Employee Compensation, for funding an average 2 percent increase in pay for state workers next year; the panel recommended half of that be permanent, and half a one-time bonus.

Armstrong said Health & Welfare has had a “fundamental shift in our workforce” since the recession, reorganizing, reducing higher-paying jobs and hiring on additional workers “on the front lines.” “But for everything our employees have gone through, we have not been able to do much for them in return,” he said. “We are losing experienced, high-performing workers.”

 

Glitch leaves 6,000 Idahoans in ‘no-man’s land’ as they seek health insurance

Six thousand people in 2,500 Idaho households were told they qualify for Medicaid when they went through Idaho’s health insurance exchange to attempt to buy insurance and access possible federal subsidies. But Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said those eligibility determinations, which were done by the federal government, are suspect, and all are being reviewed. H&W has mailed all those people paper applications for Idaho Medicaid.

“We developed a small team of eligibility workers who will expedite these applications and determine eligibility within one to two days,” Armstrong told lawmakers. But in the meantime, those applicants are in “no man’s land,” not able to either get coverage under Medicaid, or purchase new insurance plans with federal subsidies. “We know this will be a terrible frustration for people,” Armstrong said, “but we have to get this right, or it is going to become even a greater quagmire. Hopefully this all is temporary.” He said, “For the long term, transitioning to a (fully) state-based exchange will solve most of these issues.”

The state expected to see up to 35,000 more enrollees in its Medicaid program with the Affordable Care Act, entirely consisting of people who already qualified, but didn’t realize it – Idaho hasn’t changed its eligibility standards. The thinking is that they’ll discover they’re eligible when they go to the exchange to try to access subsidies to buy private insurance; that’s still expected to happen, and the department has requested funding in its budget for next year to match federal funding to accommodate those increased enrollees.

H&W chief: ‘Idaho is not a welfare state’

A week of budget hearings on health and human services programs has kicked off this morning in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Idaho Department of Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told the lawmakers that the department budget for next year reflects only a 1.6 percent increase in total funds, 2.5 percent in state general funds. “This is the first year in recent memory where the Medicaid percentage actually is declining,” he said, at 80.6 percent of the department’s budget, down from 81.4. “We have seen it turn a corner,” Armstrong said. “No longer does the Medicaid budget look totally out of control and unsustainable. All the efforts that we have made over the years are starting to see results.” He cited improvements to claims systems and increased use of managed-care approaches.  “Things are looking better with Medicaid as we implement more managed care tools,” Armstrong said.

He said he’s heard from a number of legislators who are concerned that Idaho has seen increasing numbers of people receiving public assistance, and fears that Idaho is becoming a “welfare state.” The numbers don’t bear that out at all, he said. The Cato Institute published a report in August comparing state welfare programs; Idaho’s ranked last. The state had the highest rate of adults on assistance participating in work programs, at 88 percent.  “It shows very plainly that Idaho is not a welfare state,” he said. “No one can live as a welfare king or queen in Idaho. … If you are able-bodied and receiving public assistance, you have to take part in work search or job-training activities.”

Armstrong said Idaho Department of Labor figures show that the problem is that the state lost large numbers of high-paying jobs during the recession, and the jobs it’s since gained back are mostly lower-paying, service-sector jobs. The result: People are working again, but not making as much as before, and still qualifying for aid like food stamps to make ends meet. As long as wages remain low, Armstrong said, “We are going to see high utilization of public assistance programs. Our public assistance programs are not to blame for the increased use. They are about as lean as we can make them. And our citizens are not to blame,” as they’re working; Idaho has the nation’s highest rate of people working more than one job. The answer, Armstrong said, is better work opportunities. “When we get to that, the high utilization of public assistance will take care of itself.”

“We are a symptom of what’s going on in the economy. We don’t drive it,” Armstrong said.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Kevin Richert and hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz to discuss the events of the legislative session’s first week, including Idaho political developments. Also, Davlin interviews the co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell; Kunz discusses Medicaid and health care issues with physician-senator Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; and there’s a rundown of news from Gov. Butch Otter’s eighth State of the State message.

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.

Idaho lawmakers back raises for state workers

You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on how Idaho lawmakers on a special legislative committee voted unanimously today to give state workers average 2 percent pay boosts next year, despite Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation for no funding for raises. The joint legislative Committee on Change in Employee Compensation made the decision after the panel convened for this year for the first time since 2008; it recommended 1 percent for one-time bonuses, and 1 percent for permanent boosts. The pay would be distributed by agency directors based on merit and other factors, and agencies also would be encouraged to tap salary savings to give additional merit boosts.

CEC Committee unanimous in vote for raises for state workers

The Legislature’s special employee compensation committee has voted unanimously, 17-0, in favor of the motion from its co-chair, Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, to fund 2 percent in raises for state employees next year – 1 percent for one-time bonuses, and 1 percent for permanent pay boosts. The pay would be distributed by agency directors based on merit and other factors, and agencies also would be encouraged to tap salary savings to give additional merit boosts. The recommendation will come from the joint CEC committee to legislative budget writers. You can see the full motion here; it says “Draft,” but this is the language the committee voted to approve.

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, noted that the motion also includes reconvening the CEC Committee again next year, a move he said was important. “It has been a number of years since we had a functioning CEC committee. We entered a very sharp decline. … Almost a third of state revenue essentially disappeared in an 18-month period.” Hartgen said this move was appropriate now, “as we climb back out of that recession.”

Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, said, “I would like also to see at least a (permanent) 2 percent, but I think this is a good compromise. … We as a committee can come back next year and evaluate whether or not to make it permanent. … I feel a real strong need to balance the needs between the state employees and the fact that their and our pay comes from the taxpayer of the state of Idaho.”

Rep. Holli High Woodings, D-Boise, said, “I’ve learned so much over the last three days, more than I ever thought I would know about employee compensation.” She said she, like Sen. Jim Guthrie, would have preferred a 2 percent permanent raise, but, “I’ll support the motion we have before us. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to learn and also a tremendous opportunity to do what’s right by our state employees, who work very, very hard for us and deserve the compensation that reflects that.”

Debate: ‘An appropriate but tentative move,’ ‘Need to do it ongoing’

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “This motion may create some expectation that our educators would get something similar, in a percent increase. Do we have a number on what that would mean?” The answer: Each 1 percent in raises for state employees costs the state general fund $5.3 million. For teachers, the figure is $9.3 million.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who serves on both the Legislature’s joint revenue committee and JFAC, said in those panels, “There was a tepid belief that we’re raising expectations, we’re climbing out of a hole. I sense that in this motion. So to me, this motion appropriately reflects what we consider our duty as stewards for our state services. … I think this is an appropriate but tentative move, and given the fact that we need to be able to pay our bills, I think we will be able to pay this.”

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said he doesn’t like the idea of one-time raises, and would favor just granting a permanent 2 percent raise. “I think if we’re going to step up and do 2 percent for state employees, we need to do it ongoing,” he said. “If I’m the only one that feels this way, I’ll likely support the motion.” Guthrie said relying on salary savings for any raises is not “equitable.” The motion calls for continue to tap salary savings for merit raises, on top of the appropriation for raises.

Rep. Phylis King said with state workers facing a hike in their health insurance costs, their take-home pay will fall, and raises should at least cover that hike. She said the first 1 percent in raises would just cover the increased health insurance costs; the second 1 percent would actually increase take-home pay.

Motion: 2 percent for raises, half of that one-time, half permanent…

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, has proposed a motion to fund 2 percent in raises for state workers next year: 1 percent of that to be permanent, and 1 percent as a one-time bonus. He also included an additional $99,000 amount to boost pay for those state workers who are at the minimum pay for their pay grade. The motion also calls for covering the $12.7 million in increased employer share for health insurance costs next year that Gov. Butch Otter has proposed covering with state general funds.

With this approach, Anderson said, “At least we have the option to protect the state to some degree from making commitments that we can’t meet, depending on what happens with the economy.” The motion encourages similar treatment of workers whose positions aren't funded by the state's general fund.

Hay Group study says benefits offset some of Idaho’s low state pay, but not all

The Hay Group study of state employee compensation concluded that the state’s salaries and benefits overall are 29 percent behind the private sector market, and 10 percent behind other states. “The benefits offset some of that impact of the lower salaries but not all,” David Fulkerson, acting state director of human resources, told lawmakers this afternoon.

The study concluded, “The state should consider strategic salary increases of approximately 3 percent to improve competitiveness and help attract and retain employees in key jobs.” It also recommended increasing the state’s minimum, midpoint and maximum salaries in its pay ranges. It recommended no change in benefits.

CEC Committee opens meeting, examining state employee pay…

The Legislature’s joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee has convened in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can watch live here. This afternoon’s agenda includes a presentation on the Office of Performance Evaluations 2013 study of state employee compensation and turnover; a review of the 2013 Hay Group total compensation study; and some Q-and-A with state Controller Brandon Woolf. Then, likely following a break, the committee is scheduled to consider motions on state employee pay for next year, likely starting around 3:30.

Co-Chairman Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, noted that at the panel’s last meeting, there was some suggestion that today’s decision might be delayed. But, he said, “We have decided we feel like we’ve got the information we need, and we’re ready to move forward on motions” at the end of today’s meeting.

Bryon Welch, principal performance evaluator for the Office of Performance Evaluations, told the panel, “Not surprisingly, we found a very strong link between compensation and turnover.” Turnover rates have increased the last couple of years, he told the lawmakers. The OPE report noted that state law requires the state’s total compensation system to be competitive to attract qualified employees. “A discrepancy exists between the legislative intent of state compensation policies and their actual implementation,” the report concluded.

Lawmakers have funded only one 2 percent raise for state employees in the past five years, and imposed one 5 percent cut.

Rod Beck tops list of nominees to replace disgraced Rep. Mark Patterson

GOP activist and former Senate Majority Leader Rod Beck, R-Boise, tops the list of three nominees to replace former Rep. Mark Patterson, R-Boise, reports Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey. Beck, who served in the Senate in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has clashed with Gov. Butch Otter – who will make the appointment – over such notable issues as Beck’s push for a closed GOP primary election and his leading of the successful effort in 2008 to oust Kirk Sullivan, Otter’s choice for Idaho Republican Party chairman. “I’ve had some political differences with the governor over the years, but never a personal issue,” Beck told Popkey today.

The other two nominees for Patterson’s seat, submitted to the governor by the District 15 Republican Party committee, are Patrick McDonald, U.S. marshal for Idaho under President George W. Bush and a 33-year veteran officer of the Idaho State Police; and Sam Hoagland, a Boise lawyer since 1982 who also is trained as a pharmacist. McDonald had been campaigning against Patterson and planned to challenge him in the May GOP primary, before Patterson resigned after news surfaced that he had failed to disclose his guilty plea in a 1974 rape case. Popkey's full reports are online here and here.

Senate, House adjourn ‘til Monday, CEC vote on tap this afternoon

Both the House and the Senate have now adjourned until Monday, with the House wrapping up its brief session early this morning, and the Senate, pictured above (the blur is a young Senate page on the move), finishing just now. One big piece of business remains for the Legislature today: The joint Change in Employee Compensation (CEC) Committee has its final meeting this afternoon, starting at 1:30 in the Lincoln Auditorium, to hear two final presentations, and then consider motions on possible state employee raises for next year. The meeting will be video-streamed online; you can watch here.

Idaho exchange enrollment swells

Enrollment in insurance plans through Idaho’s state-run health care exchange has swelled since the federal government fixed the website that residents use to sign up coverage, the AP reports, with about 20,000 Idahoans enrolling in time for their coverage to begin Jan. 1. That’s up from 1,730 people through Nov. 30. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Senate panel introduces measure to honor Idaho’s longest-serving judge

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers aim to honor the longest-serving judge in Idaho history — and husband of one of their own — by recognizing his tenure. The Senate State Affairs Committee Friday introduced the measure to honor U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge for his more than 50 years on the bench, including as a probate court judge, a state district judge, a federal bankruptcy judge and as a U.S. district judge since 1989. Lodge, the spouse of Republican State Sen. Patti Ann Lodge, has overseen Idaho's biggest cases, from the Ruby Ridge standoff's aftermath to the death penalty case of Joseph Duncan, a convicted child killer. Judge Lodge wasn't in committee Friday, but his wife said with a chuckle she would support the resolution, even if she might be perceived as relatively conflicted.

JFAC accepts revenue report, pays state firefighting bills…

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning quietly accepted the report of the Legislature’s revenue assessment committee, which yesterday voted unanimously to go along with Gov. Butch Otter’s revenue estimates of $2.80822 billion for the current year, fiscal year 2014, and $2.987767 for the coming year, fiscal year 2015. The revenue committee said in its report that the governor’s number – though $50.2 million higher than the median of estimates submitted by members of the revenue committee – is “reasonable to begin the fiscal year 2015 general fund budgeting process.”

The presentation to JFAC from revenue committee Co-Chair Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, scheduled for half an hour, took less than 10 minutes. Now, the joint budget committee has moved into some of the nitty-gritty of the start of its budgeting work: Considering deficiency warrants, supplementals and recissions for the current budget year. First up was the annual bill for firefighting, which this year came to $10.4 million for the state general fund. JFAC voted unanimously to pay the bill.

The way fire costs are tallied and paid, there’s a time lag, so this payment reflects firefighting costs through June 30, 2013; next year, lawmakers will be asked to cover the rest of fiscal year 2013’s firefighting costs on state-protected lands, which are estimated at $15.6 million.

Proposal would expand UI law school program in Boise to include second year

If lawmakers can get past jokes about too many lawyers in Boise already, the University of Idaho stands a good chance of doubling its programs in the state's capital, AP reporter John Miller writes. Gov. Butch Otter is supporting a $400,000 measure to add a second-year offering for law students, to the third-year program now in Boise for students focusing on international business law or government. Miller reports that lawmakers appear amenable, too, a change from 2008, when the Moscow-based school was initially rebuffed on more-ambitious plans to establish a full-fledged Boise branch law campus. That's partly because there's no longer creeping suspicion, including among Moscow-based lawmakers eager to protect home turf, the UI is trying to uproot its law school from its remote home on the Palouse for Boise's more-populated confines; click below for Miller's full report.

Wasden files motion to dismiss same-sex marriage court challenge

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden filed a motion Thursday seeking to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges the state's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban, the AP reports, arguing that courts haven't ruled that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right. Wasden filed the motion as a representative of Ada County Clerk Chris Rich. He also is attempting to intervene in the case, but a federal judge has not yet ruled on that move; click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Fulcher decries Otter’s proposed $2M wolf control fund as unneeded ‘bureaucracy’

Sen. Russ Fulcher is ripping Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal for a new $2 million wolf control fund. “I don’t know what we need to spend $2 million for,” Fulcher said on the Nate Shelman radio show on KBOI radio this afternoon. Fulcher, who is challenging Otter in the GOP primary, said Otter’s plan would “create another bureaucracy in order to manage this.”

Otter announced the new fund in his State of the State message this week, telling a joint session of the Legislature, “One form of growth we don’t want to encourage is in the wolf population that was imposed on Idaho almost 20 years ago. With your unflinching support, we were able to fight through the opposition of those who would make Idaho into a restricted-use wildlife refuge and take back control of these predators from our federal landlords.”

He said, “We’re hunting them now, and they’re a trophy hunting species. But the population is still growing, and our resources remain at risk.” Otter’s proposed state budget for next year calls for spending $2 million in state general funds, on a one-time basis, to start up the new fund, and then adding contributions each year of $110,000 apiece from hunting licenses and the livestock industry to sustain the fund. “This three-pronged approach will provide the revenue needed to more effectively control Idaho’s burgeoning wolf population and ease the impact on our livestock and wildlife,” Otter said to applause.

Wolf control is a touchy subject; Idaho currently is being sued over its move to hire a professional hunter to exterminate two wolf packs in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and federal wildlife agencies have lost a chunk of their funding for such efforts to federal budget cuts in recent years.

Fulcher said wolves are “not a trophy species,” they’re a “predator.” He said, “Why wouldn’t we just increase the number of (wolf hunting) tags and let one predator take care of another? … This is an emotional issue in this state. I don’t know why we need another bureaucracy.”

Lawmakers leery of Otter’s approach to state worker pay

After three days of hearings, a special joint legislative committee is scheduled to vote on possible Idaho state employee raises Friday; the Change in Employee Compensation Committee could pass a resolution, or send a recommendation to budget writers, leaving the final call in their hands. Idaho’s funded only one 2 percent raise for state employees in the past five years, but lawmakers have been balking at Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to pass them over for raises again next year, and continue to give pay boosts only in agencies that come up with salary savings. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

EORAC panel unanimously accepts governor’s revenue estimate

The motion to accept the governor's revenue estimate - even though every committee member came up with a lower number - has passed unanimously in the joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee. Members said the differences between their numbers and the governor's just weren't that big, so accepting his estimate was reasonable. The governor's figure is $2.80822 billion for the current year, fiscal year 2014, and $2.987767 for the coming year, fiscal year 2015. The committee's report says that's a “reasonable forecast,” and says, “Although the committee median is lower … on this date we find the governor's projection … is reasonable to begin the fiscal year 2015 general fund budgeting process.”

Bedke: ‘Our differences are not that large’

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I’ll support the motion, because our differences are not that large at this point in the session.” The motion, from Sen. John Goedde, seconded by Sen. Cliff Bayer, would accept the governor’s revenue projection for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. Said Bedke, “We’ll have a chance to rectify any of these differences as we go through the budgeting process and have a chance to have them on the floor as well.”

Goedde moves to accept governor’s revenue forecast

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, has moved to accept the governor’s forecast as reasonable. “If you look at the difference between the committee median and the governor’s, over the course of two years we’re within $30 million. That’s really close,” he said That’s out of $6 billion, he noted; he got the figure by combining the differences in the estimates for fiscal 2014 and 2015. Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, seconded Goedde’s motion.

Revenue assessment committee goes over projections…

Derek Santos, chief economist for the state, is presenting his revenue forecast to the joint legislative Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee; Santos said he’s lowered his estimated growth for the current year, fiscal year 2014, to 2.1 percent from the previous 5.3 percent that he forecast a year ago, in part because 2013 grew so much more strongly than expected, and set his forecasted growth rate for next year, fiscal year 2015, at 6.4 percent, to $2.9878 billion.

Committee members have each submitted their own estimate as well; they range from a low of $2.8913 billion from Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, to a high of $2.9777 billion from Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield; all of the committee members’ 2015 figures came in below the governor’s. The committee median came in at $2.9377 billion. The median came in about $22 million above the governor’s estimate for the current year, but  $50.2 million less in revenue for fiscal 2015.

Once the committee has hashed through the forecasts, it’s scheduled to vote on its final report to the Legislature, settling on a figure.  That report then would be presented to JFAC in the morning. Legislative budget analyst Keith Bybee noted that while the committee members' projections varied, they didn't vary by a terribly large amount, and the final outcome was fairly close to the governor's with just the $50.2 million difference.

Pre-K pilot bill gains bipartisan sponsorship, draws support

A pilot program to begin experimenting with pre-K education in Idaho schools is gaining support, with bipartisan sponsorship and an array of groups, from Idaho Business for Education, to Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, to the United Way, the YMCA and KidsCount endorsing the move. “They’re all coming out in support,” said Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, who’s planning a press conference on the proposal Monday.

Rep. Doug Hancey, R-Rexburg, who’s co-sponsoring the measure with Kloc, said, “Statistically we know that a preschool program like that really helps children in kindergarten through third grade. … Those are the most formative years, and the more they can gain in those formative years, I think is worthwhile.” Hancey, a longtime supporter of education who helped raise thousands for his local schools foundation, said he thinks a pilot program has appeal, in part because it’s a modest step, calling for a three-year, voluntary experiment with one class each at five public elementary schools around the state.  No one would be required to attend, and no school would be required to take part.

The pilot project approach, he said, will “let people see: Does it work? Does it bring in quality, and does it better prepare our very young students for the educational process they’re going to be entering into for the next 12 years?”

Kloc has been working on the bill for the past year, and has pressed forward despite some resistance from those in Idaho who fear government involvement in early childhood issues. His bill, which hasn’t yet been introduced, calls for private grants to fund just over half the cost of the program, with the state kicking in just under $200,000 a year for each of the three years. Hancey said, “We have a funding problem – we’re a poor state, we can’t put all the money in we’d like to put in. We understand that.” But he said a step like the pilot program could help Idaho “improve our educational culture,” in part by involving parents with interacting with their children’s teachers at an early age.

“I just think it’s a good idea, and it’s relatively cheap,” he said. “These are your children and your grandchildren. Do as much as you can. Try and offer them the best choices they’ve got in life.”

Big ‘Add the Words’ rally set for Saturday on the Statehouse steps

There’s a big “Add the Words” rally scheduled on the state Capitol steps this Saturday at 1 p.m., to push to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the types of discrimination banned under the Idaho Human Rights Act. “Across the state, people are growing restless and frustrated,” said organizer Mistie Tolman. “Harm is done when lawmakers fail to say in law that cruelty is wrong.  For eight years now we’ve been asking for the dignity of a public hearing, an open discussion, and for them to hear us.”

Idaho lawmakers have rejected legislation each year for the past eight years to make that change to the state’s Human Rights Act, which now bans discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age or disability, in employment, housing or public accommodations. At least seven Idaho cities, including Sandpoint, Boise, Ketchum, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, have now enacted their own local bans. Last June, the Idaho Republican Party state central committee passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to pass a law invalidating such local ordinances.

Under state law, Idahoans can legally be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes or denied service in a restaurant solely because they’re gay. “People lose their jobs, their apartments, and live in fear each day, said Lisa Perry, an Add the Words organizer. “We ask the public to bundle up, rain or shine, bring umbrellas, and show our legislature this is wrong, and that we stand with our LGBT family and friends.”

The rally will feature performances by Curtis Stigers and the Common Ground Community Chorus, organizers said, along with speakers from across the state and bill sponsors Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb and Rep. Grant Burgoyne, both D-Boise. A new group called the Interfaith Equality Coalition, comprised of 14 Boise-area churches and religious institutions including Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, Mennonites and more, will participate in the rally. The Rev. Dana Worsnop, minister at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, said, “We want it known that there are many people of deep religious conviction who support LGBT rights.”

Simpson outraises Smith 4-to-1 in Idaho House race

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — In the congressional fundraising horse race, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson says he outraised challenger Bryan Smith nearly four-to-one in 2013's final quarter. Smith announced Thursday that he raised $111,066 in the fourth quarter. The money will go to his GOP primary election bid against Simpson, with the vote on May 20. Meanwhile, Simpson says he brought in $430,000. In total, Simpson says he raised more than $1.25 million in 2013, with Smith raking in $525,000, including his own money, since joining the race in June. Smith says he's “overwhelmed by the support my campaign has received.” Simpson, an eight-term Republican going for his ninth, says he's got $760,000 in cash to pay for campaign materials as he tries to keep his job in the face of Smith's challenge.

Outgoing LSO chief lauds unique nonpartisan staff structure

JFAC has started its agency budget hearings this morning, with the Legislative Services Office up first. Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz said the LSO has a unique staff structure for a state Legislature, with all divisions, including, research and bill-drafting, audits and information technology for both House and Senate, under a single director; it’s been that way since 1994. “We used to have separate agencies and separate directors,” said Youtz, who’s been with the Legislature for 36 years. “It didn’t work very well, I don’t think. I think the Legislature was very wise in putting the staff structure together.” He said he frequently gets inquiries from other states about how it works.

Idaho’s LSO staff is non-partisan, which Youtz said allows it to provide needed information to lawmakers “that you need to do your job, regardless of what your politics or agenda are.” He said, “Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or a Martian – we’ll support you.”

Among the duties LSO has taken over since the Capitol renovation: The Capitol tours program, which operates with 30 volunteer tour guides and now brings 10,000 visitors through the Capitol each year. “We get a lot of 4th graders through here, because that’s the Idaho history curriculum year,” Youtz said. There also have been visitors each year from about 30 states and 15 foreign countries. LSO also oversees the garden-level Capitol gift shop, which manager Dewain Gaudet has made “self-supporting from the beginning,” Youtz said.

The number of positions in the research and legislation division, which includes bill-drafting, and the budget and policy division, which includes JFAC staff, is the same now as it was 25 years ago, Youtz said.  “It’s the smallest research staff in the country. I don’t know how they do it, but they do a wonderful job.”

For next year, LSO is requesting a maintenance-level budget that reflects a 2.2 percent increase, mostly due to increased health insurance costs, and no new positions. The agency is at 64 full-time positions now, down from 71 at its high.

Youtz drew a round of applause from the committee at the end of his presentation; it was his last, as he plans to retire before next year’s legislative session. “We’ve always known we could count on you to do what was needed to be done for us to be successful, and still be good to work with, nice to work with,” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell told Youtz. “And I hope you continue to find the big fish and never miss us for a minute.”

December state revenues come in 6.6% higher than last December’s

State tax revenue numbers are in for December, and the month’s receipts came in 5.8 percent of predicted levels, or $2 million higher. The state has now issued its January revised revenue forecast, which at $2.8082 billion is slightly lower than the August forecast of $2.8088 billion; compared to the new forecast, December’s collections are 0.8 percent ahead. Looked at another way, the December tax collections were 6.6 percent higher than last December’s. You can see the full monthly General Fund Revenue Report here.

Lawmakers on state worker pay: ‘We’ll give it best shot we possibly can’

The Change in Employee Compensation Committee has wrapped up its public hearing on a somewhat somber note. “We can promise you process, we can't promise you outcomes,” Co-Chairman Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, told the audience. “We will give it the best shot that we possibly can.”

Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d'Alene, said afterward, “It's compelling. Granted, you can't make ends meet on those numbers and support a family.” He said, “I”ll do whatever we can do. I'd love to see the economy turn around. The lower end, they're struggling. There's no question their concerns are real and their problems are real.”

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, who is co-chairing the joint committee with Anderson, said he wasn't surprised by the moving testimony. “We recognize that we have great state employees, good, dedicated people who are working very hard to do a good job. … We want to treat them appropriately.” The committee is scheduled to vote on motions on Friday, though that could be delayed; Tippets said he'd prefer to see the business wrapped up. Today's hearing, he said, allowed lawmakers to “hear the human side of the story - the impact of what our decisions have on our state employees.” Said Tippets, “There is a likelihood this committee will decide to recommend a pay increase. It's a definite possibility.”

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “At this point in time, we really don't know what the budget numbers look like.” He said, “I'm a big fan of putting money in the stabilization accounts, but we may have to do a little bit of something different than the governor's looking at.”

Testimony: ‘We need help, we really do’

In continuing testimony on state employee compensation this afternoon:

Shelly Doty told the lawmakers, “I feel as if I’m banging my head against the wall.” She said many people at her agency qualify for food stamps or other aid.

Mechelle Thomas, pictured above, who works at the Idaho State Veterans Home, said, “I make $24,000 a year. I can’t afford a lot of things any more. I love my people that I work with, but they keep passing us up for a raise.” She said, “Two percent? That would be great. … We need help, we really do, we need help.”

Audra Campbell, who also worked at the State Veterans Home, said she worked there because she wanted to work with veterans. Breaking into tears, she said, “Unfortunately with the economy, I have given my resignation, because I can no longer afford to work at a job that I love to work at.”

‘Only way to get a raise is by applying for jobs in other agencies’

More testimony from this afternoon’s hearing on state employee compensation:

Kean Miller, an employee of the state electrical commission, told lawmakers, “When the employee group insurance plan goes up, my take-home pay will go down. That’s the truth. …. The result of that in the economy is I literally have less money to spend. It forces a downward spiral in the economy. … I will not be paying more sales tax, I will not be adding to business income, and I will not be adding to business income taxes. It has an effect.” She said she’s doing what’s called the “state shuffle:” “The only way I will be able to get a raise is by applying for jobs in other agencies. So I’m applying.” She’s a supervisor in her office, she said. “All three of my people have told me they are applying for other jobs because they need more money. That has an impact and cost to the state. It costs to spend time to recruit, to hire, to train. Consider wages as a tool you can use to get out of the recession.”

Heidi Graham said she’s “been a state employee for just shy of 30 years,” and said she believes the quality of customer service is waning. If pay is improved, she said, “The state will attract, hire and retain the best and the brightest, which will lead to competent, quality customer service that meets the needs of the public.”

Teri Gormley told lawmakers that after 10 years as a state employee, she makes $13 an hour, in a position for which the median is $19.30. “I thank you for having the hearing – it’s been a long time coming,” Gormley said. “It’s my opinion that keeping state employee wages down results in high turnover, less-qualified applicants. … We’re being expected to do more, work harder, with fewer qualified people. I currently spend no less than 50 percent of my time trying to train new administrative staff. … They realize they’re not going to get a raise, and they go elsewhere.” She said, “If you want to keep the dedicated state employees, you’re going to have to pay them more. We cannot keep this turnover.”

Testimony: ‘Find some way to give employees at least something’

In testimony at this afternoon’s public hearing on state employee compensation:

Donna Yule, of the Idaho State Employees Association, urged lawmakers, “Find some way to give employees at least something.” She noted, “IPEA has been advocating for the reinstatement of this committee for five years. … Idaho’s workforce is becoming top-heavy and the pay disparity gap is growing. … I would like to submit to you that the system as it is currently used is not working.”

Fred Rice, chairman of the Idaho State Police Association, said the average hourly wage for an Ada County sheriff’s deputy is $33.52, but for an Idaho State Police trooper, it’s $24. “That makes it very difficult for me to keep my people very happy,” he said. “What can we do to be able to keep our troopers working for us, when there’s these types of opportunity to move on?” Rice said, “We are behind the curve. We have to keep these people here. … We’re way behind on our wages.” He added, “I believe we have done better with less, but we’ve really done this on the back of all state employees. … I truly believe that it's time that we take care of the state employees that are out here.”

Roger DuBois, administrative services manager for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, said he has employees who have been on the job for decades and still are paid far below policy rates for their jobs; one makes only $8 an hour. “ICFL as other agencies have made adjustments to ongoing demands,” he said. “We have very dedicated personnel, employees who embrace the commission’s mission and vision and are proud to serve Idaho’s citizens. They should anticipate incremental salary increase throughout their years, which is fair,” he said, based on merit. But the commission hasn’t been able to provide those pay bumps. “Without some small incremental increases in appropriations, salary savings is insufficient in order to meet that. We have had ongoing vacancies that we could not even fill due to the decreases in our appropriation.”

Lesson: Keep tabs on your phone?

As a reporter, I often use a small recording device – these days, my iPhone – to record events like press conferences so I can later double-check my notes. So on Monday when I went to Gov. Butch Otter’s press conference in his office after his State of the State address, I set my phone to record and set it up on the mantelpiece. Then I went up front to take pictures and ask questions, moved around the room to take some pictures from different angles, later sat down in back, and then when the press conference concluded, went back to my desk in the Capitol press room. An hour later, I reached for my phone – and I didn’t have it. I was at a loss, until I realized I’d left it in the governor’s office.

I went flying up there – the door was open. But the phone was gone. I was directed to Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, who had my phone. Here’s the awful part: After the press conference, the governor had had a private meeting with the Senate pro tem in his office. And at the end of that, he’d found my phone, still recording. He was none too pleased. I apologized up and down and volunteered to delete the whole file on the spot with Hanian looking on, which I did. Later, at the governor’s reception with lawmakers in his office, Otter teased me about the incident, joking that he didn’t think it could have been mine because I couldn’t reach up that high (I’m on the short side – 5’1”).

I shared this story with an appreciative group before the City Club of Boise session today, but didn't have time to tell it during the panel discussion itself. I honestly didn’t try to plant a bug in the governor’s office! I prefer more conventional reporting methods, which have long served me well; I’ll plan to stick to them.

Bell: After state cuts, ‘there is no dead wood,’ urges consideration of raises for state employees

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, drew a brief burst of applause for her comments to the Change in Employee Compensation Committee this afternoon. “We have eliminated many, many positions, and those who are left know their jobs and do them well,” she said. Noting that the Otter Administration says 52 percent of state workers got some type of raise this year from salary savings, “I do say to you, there are not 48 percent of those employees that are left who are gold-brickers. … We have downsized state government. … This is a system, these are the people that run the systems and take care of the citizens of the state after we put the process in place, and ask them to be there to do that.”

She said, “There is no dead wood.” State agency heads tell her those folks were the first to go, Bell said. “But frankly, they kind of wonder if this is a good place to work. I don’t want them to wonder.” Bell said she wants the state to be the best place to work for its employees, and thanked the panel for convening this year for the first time since 2008 to examine state worker compensation. “They will have had a hearing, and I thank you for that,” Bell said, her voice taut with emotion.

Her JFAC co-chairman, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said both benefits and pay matter. “The dilemma for us on salaries, is you still have to have a competitive pay package in order to attract and retain those employees,” he said. “I don’t think you can do one at the exclusion of the other. … Are we competitive right now? I’m not sure we are. We hear stories, as we talk to agency directors, about entire technology teams being hired away by a competing entity. We hear those kinds of issues. I believe we have to address that. Can we address it all at once? No. This, I think, becomes the first step in starting to address it, holding this CEC Committee, revisiting it.”

Asked about benefits as a lure for state employees, Bell said, “Most young people will never get sick or need health care, and they’re really not looking at retirement. … If we’re looking to bring bright young engineers and those people into state government, those are really not very attractive to them.”

Cameron suggested that as a middle-ground approach, if the CEC Committee doesn’t feel it can pass a resolution setting a percentage funding increase it wants to see for state worker raises next year, it could instead approve a recommendation to JFAC; that was often done in the past, he noted.

Lawmakers expressing deep reservations over relying on salary savings for state worker raises

Like members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee before them, the Legislature’s joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee this afternoon is expressing deep reservations about Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to again provide zero funding for state employees next year, and instead rely on salary savings within agencies to give out any raises.

“There’s an incentive, then, to do things like maintaining vacancies as long as possible,” said Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, shown here speaking at left, co-chairman of the committee. “There’s an incentive then to create new positions to provide the opportunity to give someone a promotion to a higher level of responsibility, so that again, there’s justification to reward them. So you … start to erode your formal system you have for compensation, and these other informal processes start to encroach on your system.”

Jani Revier, Otter’s budget chief, defended the governor’s proposal. “I think that the recommendation is a good recommendation and I stand behind it, but we do need to continue to look at those issues and make sure that the state does address them and that the funds are adequate to do so,” she told the CEC Committee.

Under questioning from Co-Chair Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, Revier acknowledged that state employee pay is falling short of market rates – this year’s official state human resources report says it’s now fallen 19 percent below market – but said she thought benefits and working conditions made up for that. “I feel that we are in compliance,” she said. “The state has a very generous benefit package, and the benefits can outweigh the higher pay.” Plus, she said state employment offers “quality of life issues” like overtime pay and flex hours.

However, this year’s state compensation report states, “Wages for state employees lag the private sector by an average of 29 percent and trail the surrounding states by an average of 10 percent. HayGroup concluded that the higher benefits program value does not offset the below-market wages, and therefore results in a total compensation program below the market average in both the private and public sectors.”

Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith said, “Salary savings are one tool of the pay system, always have been.” But she said based on her analysis of state agencies’ use of their personnel budgets, “I don’t see ongoing personnel savings there. … Being maximized as they are now, they are not going to grow in the future. … I don’t believe it is sustainable.”

House, Senate education committees set joint session on Common Core

The House and Senate education committees have scheduled a joint session for Jan. 22 to hear from a panel of experts on Common Core standards, and the committee chairs say they’ll accept written questions in advance from anyone to be submitted to the panel, Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin reports. “One of the challenges of Common Core is there is a lot of misinformation out there about what Common Core is and what it isn’t,” said House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle. He called the joint session “an effort to be as transparent as possible.” You can read Corbin’s full report here at IdahoEdNews.org.

Otter names attorney Ilana Rubel to Ward-Engelking’s former House seat

Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Boise attorney Ilana Rubel to the Idaho House, to fill the District 18 vacancy created when he appointed then-Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, to the Idaho Senate; Ward-Engelking replaced former Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who left the state. Rubel, 41, is a litigation partner at the law firm Fenwick & West in Boise. She was one of three nominees presented to Otter by the district’s Democratic Party legislative committee. Click below for Otter’s full announcement.

Somber notes for lawmakers on a snowy day in Boise…

Some somber notes on this snowy day in the state Capitol: Today is the funeral in Colorado Springs for Air Force Capt. David Lyon, who died in Kabul, Afghanistan, after his vehicle was hit by an explosion. Lyon, 28, was about a month away from completing his year-long deployment to Afghanistan; he was an Air Force Academy graduate, a five-year Air Force veteran, and a renowned track star at Sandpoint High School. North Idaho lawmakers in both houses plan to take note during sessions of the Senate and House today; state flags are at half staff.

Meanwhile, Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, brought the sad news to Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, this morning that Sandpoint Mayor Marsha Ogilvie has passed away. Ogilvie has been mayor of Sandpoint since 2011, and served on the City Council for two years before that; she was a Sandpoint businesswoman, an activist for children at risk, and recipient of the state’s first annual “Brightest Star” award in 2002 for her work to help establish Kinderhaven, a community supported home for abused, abandoned and neglected children.

District 1 lawmakers also are mourning Shirley McDonald, who died in a house fire Dec. 30 in Priest Lake as her husband and son fought to save her. Anderson, a volunteer firefighter with the Priest Lake Fire District, was among those who responded to the fire. “We were there most of the night,” he said. “It was a hard thing.” Then, he was among the crew recovering the body in the morning, of a woman he’d “known for most of my life.” Said Anderson, “The funeral’s on Saturday. We’re all going home for that.”

Rancher-senator backs Otter’s wolf control board

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho senator who ranches sheep is promoting Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's proposed wolf population control panel, saying the $2 million the Republican governor has set aside will boost livestock and elk herds. Sen. Jeff Siddoway of Terreton told the Idaho Falls Post Register Tuesday (http://tinyurl.com/pptms6d) “anything that reduces the wolf population is good.” Siddoway has been behind many of the recent wolf control measures the Legislature has considered. In 2012, he pushed a failed measure to let livestock owners pursue problem wolves from powered parachutes or even use their own pets to lure predators into a rifle's scope. Otter's proposal foresees a five-member state board, including state agriculture and wildlife officials, along with ranching, hunting and wolf advocacy representatives, to help manage wolves, which now number 680 in Idaho.

Bogus opens Superior chair

For the first time this season, Bogus Basin has announced that it's opening the Superior chair on the backside today, the last major section of the mountain that's not been able to open so far due to the thin snowpack. There's more info here at the Bogus website, which reports that 5 inches of new snow fell overnight. Superior will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the non-profit ski area announced. Early-season conditions remain, with a reported snow base depth of 23 inches. The best news: There's more snow in the forecast all week, including a National Weather Service forecast for 5 to 9 inches more accumulation overnight tonight.

A snowy day at the Statehouse…

There is no truth to the scurrilous rumor being spread that I headed straight to Bogus Basin this morning; no, I’m here at the Capitol, and this is the snowy approach to it this morning, viewed through Capitol Park. It has a bit of the look of the magical land of Narnia to it today – just past that glowing lamppost lies a world where there may not be talking animals, but we have our own mythical political beasts… At any rate, I’m looking forward to my annual chat with the City Club of Boise today, the Pundits Forum, at which AP reporter John Miller, Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey and myself will discuss the upcoming legislative session with moderator Jim Weatherby.

This afternoon, the joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee holds its second day of hearings this year, starting at 1:15 in the Lincoln Auditorium with presentations from the governor’s budget chief, the legislative budget director and the JFAC co-chairs, followed by an open public hearing for testimony from state employees and the public from 3:15 to 5 p.m.

Balukoff issues polite but pointed response to Otter’s State of State message

A.J. Balukoff, Democratic candidate for governor and chairman of the Boise School Board, has issued a response to GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message, focusing on education needs, health care and the economy. “While Gov. Otter’s State of the State Address offers a lot of rhetoric about where Idaho needs to go, what he has actually shown us is the limit of his ability to take us there,” Balukoff says. “To give our kids, our economy and our state the future they deserve we need new leadership and to restore funding and make education a top priority.”

He closes his statement with this comment: “Governor Otter is a good person and a likable man, but it is clear that it is time for a new governor to lead our state.” The full statement is online here.

JFAC sets public hearing on state budget for Feb. 14 in Lincoln Auditorium

Nearly 2,000 people traveled to Boise from all parts of the state in 2011 and 2012 to have their say on the state budget at big public hearings, a first for the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which until then had been the only committee in the Legislature that didn’t take public testimony, though it writes the entire state budget.

That ended last year, when two hearings were scheduled, but then legislative leaders canceled them, saying they didn’t want JFAC to get out ahead of the House and Senate education committees as they considered the results of voters’ rejection of the “Students Come First” school reform referenda.

Now, the public hearings are back. This year, the Health & Welfare and Education committees will host public hearings, and then JFAC will have one, too – on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. “I think it’s important,” said JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Past hearings came during big budget cuts. Times are different now, but there’s still not enough state revenue to cover all the identified needs, Cameron said. “It’s important to help us prioritize the money that we have.”

Otter pushes for a new era of dam-building

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter aims to build billions of dollars in new or expanded Idaho dams, to capture more water in his state's drought-stricken southern desert for crops, cities and flushing endangered salmon to the sea. He's asking lawmakers to give him $15 million down payment for, among other things, studying whether a new era of dam building make sense, given somebody will have to pay for it. One project he's pushing, a new Weiser River dam, could be used for everything from flood control to electricity. But activist groups are skeptical, saying the project would have been built during Idaho's dam-building heyday — had it made financial sense. Idaho Power, the state's biggest utility, said Tuesday it's monitoring whether new dams fit its hydroelectric system on the Snake River.

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

Conservation groups sue Idaho over wolf-kill plan in Frank Church wilderness

Conservation groups are suing federal and state officials over Idaho's plan to track and kill wolves from two packs in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, the AP reports. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pocatello yesterday, contends the state's move to hire a professional hunter and trapper to target the two packs for elimination violates the 1964 Wilderness Act, because it threatens to change the character of the wilderness area. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

56% of Idaho state employees make less than $40K a year

Some interesting stats about current state employee pay were presented to lawmakers this afternoon by legislative budget analyst Robyn Lockett, who noted that as of December, 20 percent of Idaho’s state workers made less than $20,000 a year, and another 36 percent made more than $20,000 but less than $40,000. That means 56 percent make less than $40,000.

That’s among all 25,501 state employees, a figure that includes all state employees whose pay is processed through the state Controller’s office, including elected officials and employees of state colleges and universities, but not public schools.

Youtz recalls getting ‘BBQ’d’ by editorial writers for granting raises, but he cut jobs to fund them

Jeff Youtz, director of legislative services for the state, told lawmakers that in his 36 years of working for the Legislature, the joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee’s annual hearings and deliberations provided “an extremely valuable forum for you to receive information and stay in touch with state of Idaho employee compensation issues. When this committee doesn’t meet, I think there’s kind of a vacuum. … This is a very important committee.”

Idaho state law, he noted, states, “It is hereby declared to be legislative intent that regardless of specific budgetary conditions from year to year, it is vital to fund necessary compensation adjustments each year to maintain market competitiveness in the compensation system. In order to provide this funding commitment in difficult fiscal conditions, it may be necessary to increase revenues, or to prioritize and eliminate certain functions or programs in state government, or to reduce the overall number of state employees in a given year, or any combination of such methods.”

Youtz said, “I’ve lived this paragraph. When we went through these budget shortfalls, I reduced my staff 10 percent in order to create savings in my department to create increases for those employees who were left. It’s a bit of a cold-hearted approach, but I think it requires some steadfastness … or you’re going to find yourself behind the 8-ball in staying competitive. … To a certain extent, that’s where we are now.”

Said Youtz, “I remember personally getting barbecued by some editorial writers around the state for giving salary increases. … I did it the hard way, by cutting employees.”

Jones, narrowly defeated by Luna in 2006, says she’ll run again for state superintendent

Jana Jones, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Tom Luna in 2006, announced today that she’s again running for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. “I’ve spent the last 40 years in education in the classroom, in school districts, at the state level, and in both the public and private sectors and I know what it takes to bring everyone to the table to do what’s best for Idaho’s kids,” Jones declared in her announcement, issued today.

Jones, who holds a bachelor’s degree in special education and a doctorate in educational leadership, taught public school and holds state endorsements to serve as a principal, superintendent and special education director, founded a still-prominent early childhood education center in Idaho Falls, headed Gov. Cecil Andrus’ Office for Children, worked at the state Department of Education under three superintendents, including two Republicans and one Democrat, and was chief deputy superintendent to then-Supt. Marilyn Howard. In the 2006 election, Luna defeated Jones, 51.26 percent to 48.74 percent; Luna had lost to Howard four years earlier.

Jones said, “There’s lots of work to do. Budgets and programs have been cut, classrooms are over-crowded, local control has been diminished, and trust has been lost. You have to ask yourself: Do you feel better about our schools today than you did a few years ago? Probably not. I want us to start feeling good about our schools again.”

Luna, a Republican, has not yet announced whether he'll seek a third term as superintendent; he was re-elected in 2010 with 60.5 percent of the vote over Democrat Stan Olson. Last year, Luna's “Students Come First” school reform program was repealed by the state's voters; the key proposal, requiring laptop computers for high school students, changing the school funding system and calling for a new focus on online learning, was rejected by 66.7 percent of voters. The other two pieces of the plan, rolling back teachers' collective bargaining rights and imposing a new merit-pay system, were rejected by 57.3 and 58 percent.

CEC Committee convenes to address state worker pay, for first time since ‘08

The Legislature’s joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee has convened in the Lincoln Auditorium, the joint panel’s first meeting since 2008 to examine state employee pay and benefits. “I am pleased that we are convening once again,” said Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, who is co-chairing the panel, “with the full support of the commerce committees in the Senate and the House, with the full support of leadership.” Tippets said they’ll see how it goes, but “our intention up front” is that the joint panel will once again convene every year, as it did historically.

Said Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, the joint committee’s House co-chairman, “From my point of view, we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to run this state of Idaho in the best fashion that we can, and we’re all allied in that cause. … We’ll work together on trying to come up with the answers.”

The committee’s agenda today includes some history, a review of the state’s current compensation system, health insurance and retirement plans, and a review of the Division of Human Resources’ latest report on state employee compensation; you can watch live here. Tomorrow, the panel will hear from the governor’s budget chief, the legislative budget director and the JFAC co-chairs, and then will hold an open public hearing for testimony from state employees from 3:15 to 5 p.m.

Dems respond to Otter, call for education improvements

House and Senate Democrats, responding today to Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message yesterday, pledged to work with majority Republicans, but also outlined sharp differences, especially over funding priorities. “Our budgeting shows our values,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “Idaho’s public schools have seen deep cuts. The majority claims that these cuts were unfortunate results of a national recession. We strongly disagree. These cuts were choices, intentional and deliberate.” He said, “Idaho budget policy is starving schools. Every community that has had to pass a school override levy to pay for basic school costs understands that this is true. Every rural school district that has had to drop from offering school five days a week down to four days a week knows this is true.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said there was room to put much more toward implementing an education stakeholders task force’s reform plan next year than Otter allocated, “if you look at the governor’s budget, and you look at what he set aside for tax relief and you look at what he set aside for savings accounts.”

Senate Majority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “Idaho’s Democratic lawmakers will consider every proposal that has the potential to improve our economy, help our businesses and benefit our families. We will partner with anyone who shares this goal.”

The minority Democrats said their bills to place into law the education task force’s recommendations, already endorsed by GOP schools Superintendent Tom Luna, will be out soon. “There are some coordination issues we need to work out with the governor’s office, with the superintendent, with others,” Burgoyne said. “It is, in my estimation, quite a bipartisan effort.”

The Democrats said they’ll push for a pre-K pilot program, for efforts to attract more high-wage jobs, and for education improvements. As a minority, Rusche said, “Remember that we cannot make things happen by ourselves, but we can help lead in the direction.”

Otter defends Idaho ed budget after Luna salvo

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's aides defended his proposed $1.34 billion budget for public schools, saying $21 million that's going to teachers for bonuses and professional development this year was never meant to continue into the future. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has criticized Otter's budget, saying it neglects teacher pay — and demanding the $21 million be restored. On Tuesday, Otter's financial adviser David Hahn told the Joint Finance-Appropriations budget committee Otter moved the bonus money to district operations — something administrators pegged as among their top priorities. Hahn says the $21 million Luna wants wasn't cut, it was just shifted to other areas. He told the budget panel that boosting teacher pay remains among Otter's priorities, but “we're just not prepared to bite off on that in 2015.”

A time when Idaho’s unique legislative substitute rule played big role…

Marc Johnson has an interesting look today at the legislative substitute rule – which is unique to Idaho – that allows lawmakers to name temporary replacements to fill in for them; two are doing so now, with Sen. Bob Nonini’s wife, Cathyanne, filling in for him in the Senate, and North Idaho businessman John Chambers filling in for Rep. Frank Henderson, both temporary moves due to health-related issues.

“No other state has such a provision,” Johnson writes at his “Johnson Post” blog. “Several states, Washington and for example, have guidelines for how a legislator can be replaced when military service is involved, but no other state allows a legislator on their own motion to designate a replacement. In the 2013 session in Oregon, for example, a very senior state senator was seriously injured in an automobile accident and missed weeks of the session as a result. Her seat, as would be in the case in the U.S. Congress, just sat empty. That is not how it works in Idaho.”

Then Johnson, who served as chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, shares a story about a 1994 incident in which a legislative substitute played a key role in a legislative outcome – and later in a politician’s career. You can read his full post here.

Governor wants to rely on salary savings for any raises for state workers, JFAC raises concerns

More than half of state employees got some type of salary increase in 2013 through salary savings in their agencies, Jani Revier, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, told JFAC this morning, even though no raises were funded in the state budget. Revier told lawmakers, “The governor is not recommending a CEC this year because of the significant increase we had in health care costs. We’re hoping we can get those increased costs under control, then we can begin to address the pay side of employee compensation.”

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said she’s “troubled” by that approach. “It seems to me there has always been a system in place,” Bell said. “It just seems that it’s not a fair and professional way, to wind up with you having to have salary savings. … I appreciate all of your information on it, I really do, but apparently we’ve gotten totally away from us putting money, if we had it, and then using it like it should be used. Salary savings sounds to me like you’re not doing something, you’re not filling a position, and those who get it are probably happier than those who don’t. … Running a system this big on salary savings really troubles me, and I’m wondering if we’ve totally lost sight of our responsibility to fund the system that’s in place and count the people that are there and then do what we can.”

Revier responded, “Salary savings is not a long-term solution to pay. … At some point, when we’re able to get our health care costs under control, we do need to look at the pay side of things.”

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked Revier if the governor is recommending tapping salary savings next year again to address employee pay, and Revier said yes. Cameron said JFAC will need to quiz agency heads when they come before the joint committee about how they’ve used salary savings.

He also noted that while the governor is recommending paying the $12 million for the employer’s share of increased health care costs for state employees, he’s not recommending that the state pick up the employee’s share. “So there would potentially be some employees who would take a reduction in salary, because of their picking up the additional costs of their side of the health insurance?” he asked. Revier responded, “I believe that is correct.”

Cameron said, “I do know that we do have some agencies that are losing employees because of compensation issues, so we have to address that some way.”

Otter: Schools top priority, even before tax cuts

Education is the top priority for Idaho for the coming year, Gov. Butch Otter declared Monday, coming even ahead of tax cuts for businesses and top earners. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller; the full detail of Otter’s budget proposal is online here at the state Division of Financial Management’s website.

Fulcher decries Otter’s ‘tepid leadership’

Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, who's running against fellow Republican Gov. Butch Otter in the primary, released a statement on both video and audio this afternoon, reacting to the governor's State of the State message. Fulcher said the governor's speech to a joint session of the Legislature today “offers more evidence that he is out of touch with Idaho’s problems,” and decried Otter's “tepid leadership.” Said Fulcher, “He’s offering more of the same mediocre policies that won’t advance our friends and neighbors on a path toward prosperity and opportunity.” Click below for Fulcher's full statement.

No raises for state workers, but gov’s budget would fund health cost hike equal to 2% raise

Talking with reporters at a news conference in his office after today’s State of the State address, Gov. Butch Otter was asked about his recommendation for zero funding for raises for state employees. He noted that he is proposing $12 million to cover health care cost increases for state workers next year, suggesting that might be viewed as “a substitute for CEC,” or Change in Employee Compensation, the legislative shorthand for legislative funding for pay increases.

Jani Revier, Otter’s budget chief, told reporters that under the governor’s proposed budget, the state will spend an additional $12.7 million on employee health insurance costs increases next year, an amount she called “significant” and said is “equivalent to a 2 percent CEC.” That expenditure would fully fund the state’s share of the cost increases; state workers still would have to pay their share of the increase, she said.

IEA: ‘Critical piece of the equation overlooked’

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, is applauding Otter’s “recommitment to public education” in his State of the State message today, and said her organization “readily supports the majority of the goals and initiatives that he has outlined.” But she decried the lack of any increased salaries for teachers as part of his proposal for the coming year. “We have put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage compared to neighboring states, and only through improving education can we ensure a qualified workforce that will drive Idaho’s economic recovery,” Cyr said in a statement. “Facilities and technology are important tools for education, but they are of minimal value without qualified people to use them.”

Said Cyr, “The IEA applauds the growing realization that public education is the key to Idaho’s future prosperity, but education doesn’t happen without quality teachers, and that critical piece of the equation has been overlooked in Gov. Otter’s proposed budget.”

Otter proposes $15 million in water projects

Among the major items proposed in Gov. Butch Otter’s budget for next year: A $15 million, one-time allocation to the state Department of Water Resources for water supply improvement projects around the state. “Being from southern Idaho, I’m encouraged by putting the money back into the water infrastructure, so that we can prepare to recharge,” said an approving House Speaker Scott Bedke.

The proposal includes: $4 million to acquire water rights and provide a reliable water supply to Mountain Home Air Force Base; $500,000 for studies of the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer to support the establishment of municipal water rights for long-term needs; $2 million to initiate environmental compliance and land exchange analysis for the Galloway Project; $1.5 million for completing the Arrowrock enlargement and flood control feasibility study; $2.5 million to begin the Island Park Reservoir Enlargement Project; $500,000 to develop the computer infrastructure for the operation of the Water Supply Bank; and $4 million to develop additional managed recharge capacity.

Bedke ‘encouraged,’ says state will go ‘above and beyond’ for education this year

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, had overall praise for Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message today. “I’m intrigued by the new concept of K-through-Career,” he said, instead of seeing education as K-12. “I think that is an important recognition that the goal of our education system is to get our citizens gainfully employed. I’ll look forward to finding out some more detail on that.”

Bedke said he’s “encouraged with the overall theme of implementing the task force’s recommendations on education.” He also noted the governor’s pledge that tax cuts “come into play only after the issues in education have been addressed this year.” Said Bedke, “I think that denotes a real commitment, that we go above and beyond what we might normally do in education.” Bedke said, “It’s my goal to have that budget set toward the first of the budget-setting process, and not at the last.” Then, he said, lawmakers will know what else they can do.

Asked about the governor’s zero recommendation for state employee raises – in the same year that the Legislature is convening its joint committee on state employee compensation for the first time in six years – Bedke smiled and said, “As you know, it will be the Legislature that sets the budget.” He said, “The House and Senate have jointly convened the CEC Committee. They’ll have three days of hearings, and then we’ll see.”

Luna: Governor’s budget would cut teacher pay by $21 million

Reactions are rolling in to the governor’s State of the State message to a joint session of the Legislature today. Among them: State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says the governor’s budget would cut teacher pay by $21 million. That’s because this year’s budget includes $21 million in one-time bonuses that aren’t repeated next year, and Gov. Butch Otter proposed no other pay increases for teachers; that means total teacher pay would be $21 million less. Though Otter is touting the recommendations of his education stakeholders task force that include big boosts in teacher pay, those would come as part of a new teacher career ladder and tiered licensing structure that’s not yet been developed. Otter did, however, propose a $35 million “down payment” next year on restoring more than $80 million in operational funds cut from schools over the economic downturn. Here’s Luna’s full statement:

“Today, Governor Otter set a positive tone for this Legislative Session, making it clear education is his top priority. I am pleased he made the implementation of our Task Force recommendations a priority and demonstrated his continued support for the Idaho Core Standards. My only concern is that the Governor's budget proposes reducing overall teacher compensation in order to help schools pay the light bill. I cannot support that. I believe we have the funding and the plan to accomplish both, and I will fight to ensure we continue to improve teacher compensation this year and in the future.”

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