Archive for March 2014
Here’s a link to the Idaho State Police incident report on the Jan. 25, 2013 traffic stop in which a 69-year-old Washington man, whose vehicle had Colorado plates – he has a second home in Colorado – was pulled over as he entered Idaho on I-84, detained, and his vehicle extensively searched, as officers insisted he must have marijuana. Nothing illegal was found and Darien Roseen eventually was released. ISP released the report today pursuant to a request under the Idaho Public Records Law; the agency has not yet responded to a federal lawsuit over the incident.
In the report, ISP Trooper Justin Klitch wrote that he observed that Roseen’s eyes were glassy and “his hands were shaking uncontrollably as if he were extremely nervous.” He wrote, “I informed Roseen his behavior was consistent with someone who had illegal items in their vehicle.” He told Roseen he planned to call for a drug dog, and “he indicated that was fine and that I wouldn’t find anything.” Then, after Klitch urged Roseen to open a sub-trunk compartment under his pickup truck’s bed – because the officer knew “from prior experience” that the Honda Ridgeline truck had such a compartment – Roseen eventually agreed. Klitch said at that point he smelled the odor of marijuana.
The lawsuit says no one else smelled such an odor, and it was raining, windy and snowy at the time. The incident report says when Klitch told Roseen he smelled an odor of marijuana, Roseen “acted as if he were shocked.” No marijuana was found.
Mark Coonts, the attorney for Darien Roseen, the retired executive with Colorado license plates who was pulled over, detained and fruitlessly searched for drugs just inside the Idaho border as he passed through the state on I-84, said, “This driver was singled out because of the fact that he had a Colorado plate. … But there’s a bigger implication of any state having a particular characteristic or association with that, being used as justification for law enforcement contact.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com,
“For instance, Idaho is known as a pretty gun-friendly state, pro-gun,” Coonts told Eye on Boise. “It would be like me going to Oregon and being pulled over because of my Idaho plates, and law enforcement assuming that I had a gun, as soon as they walked up to the car, ‘Where’s the gun?’ I think that’s the much broader picture of this case.”
Coonts, who is with Jones & Swartz in Boise, said since news came out about Roseen’s case – and his federal lawsuit against the Idaho State Police – his firm has received a number of emails about similar incidents. “Quite a few people have emailed in about similar interactions,” he said. “In Idaho, people being stopped and questioned … the same type of scenario, people being targeted because of the plates of their vehicle.”
He added, “This is, we feel, a civil rights issue. It’s not a political issue about people’s particular ideas about marijuana, we didn’t file it about that at all. And we are not also passing judgment on all law enforcement, because they do have a difficult job. … If somebody’s speeding in our state, law enforcement should be able to issue a citation. It’s when it goes beyond that to start profiling, and people become associated with their state of origin, that’s when it becomes a civil rights violation.” For Idahoans, he said, “the risk is that they could experience the same treatment in other states.”
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has added a southern Idaho county to its list of Idaho regions considered natural disaster areas because of drought. The department designated Elmore County a primary natural disaster area, making farmers and ranchers in the county eligible for natural disaster assistance. Other Idaho counties with federal natural disaster declarations include Ada, Boise, Custer, Owyhee, Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Twin Falls. Farm operators in those regions can apply for low interest emergency loans from the federal Farm Service Agency, as long as they meet certain eligibility requirements. Farmers have until Nov. 19 to apply for the loans to help cover part of their actual losses from drought.
Lots of news has happened over the past week while I’ve been off work. Here’s some catch-up:
Gov. Butch Otter signed 112 bills into law on Wednesday (the list he published looked much longer, but nearly every bill was listed twice); and 48 on Friday – and still hadn’t vetoed a single one of the more than 400 bills passed this year. Among those signed on Wednesday: HB 462, the ski area liability bill; three pieces of the public school budget, which overall shows a 5.1 percent increase in state funding; SB 1314, the controversial payday loan bill; SB 1354a, on bad-faith patent infringements; SB 1372, the school student data security bill; SB 1374a, allowing the state Board of Corrections to contract out inmates for farm labor; and HB 470a, the $400,000 wolf control bill, which had an emergency clause and took effect immediately upon signing. You can read a full report here on that bill from AP reporter Nick Geranios.
Among those signed on Friday: HB 518a, modifying last year’s bill to regulate scrap metal businesses in an effort to crack down on metal theft; the remaining pieces of the public school budget; SB 1394, raising Idaho judges’ salaries; SB 1417, the higher ed budget, which reflects a 6.2 percent increase in state general funds; SB 1421, the state prisons budget, which reflects an 11 percent increase; and numerous other agency budget bills.
Reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News analyzed the legislative session’s progress on the 20 recommendations of the governor’s education improvement task force; you can read his report here. And Idaho EdNews reporter Kevin Richert queried the five candidates for state superintendent of schools on how they grade the 2014 legislative session, and if elected, what their priorities would be for next year; his full report is online here.
The Idaho Department of Labor reported that Idaho personal income jumped 3.7 percent in 2013, a full percentage point more than the nation and third-highest among the states in percentage increase; you can read more here. The department also reported Idaho’s population shift from rural to urban counties slowed in 2013 as the 33 rural counties saw their combined population increase for the first time in three years; there’s more on that here. And Boise State Public Radio reported that a new study shows an Idaho worker earning minimum wage would need to work 73 hours a week in order to afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment; see their report here.
The University of Idaho named Mark Adams, former vice dean at Valparaiso University Law School, as the new dean of its College of Law. The Oregonian reported that state Sen. Curt McKenzie’s ex-wife, Renee, has sued the state of Oregon for blocking her plans to marry a convicted murderer serving two life sentences in an Oregon prison. Meanwhile, Idaho Reports on Idaho Public TV took a look Friday at how lawmakers’ attention is turning to primary elections, talked with lobbyists about the 2014 legislative session, and more; you can watch here.
Several stars from the A&E program “Duck Dynasty” appeared at a fundraiser for Idaho GOP secretary of state candidate Lawerence Denney on Saturday night, and Idaho Statesman reporter John Sowell reports that “several thousand” people attended the event at the Idaho Center, which seats 12,279. You can read Sowell’s full report here; he reports that Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, 67, clutching a Bible, told the crowd, “When this goes, your freedom goes with it.”
Close to two dozen “Add the Words” protesters protested outside; one counter-protester held a small sign saying, “Phil for President.” Sowell reports that Denney appeared briefly onstage to introduce several Robertson family members, and said he’d known the family for many years; his daughter Stephanie works for their family business, Duck Commander, and Alan Roberts, a minister, married Stephanie and her husband Jason. Last year, Phil Robertson was temporarily suspended from the show after making anti-gay comments in an interview with GQ magazine.
Meanwhile, Holli Woodings, a Democrat who also is running for Idaho secretary of state, sent out an email noting that Denney sold tickets for the campaign event for $47. “Why is that important? Because Idaho’s sunshine law requires candidates to report every contribution over $50,” she wrote. “Contributions under $50 don’t have to be disclosed. That means no one who attends this event will appear on Denney’s sunshine report. So why would someone who wants to be secretary of state – the very person in charge of upholding our sunshine laws – try to skirt the system?” Woodings said, “Denney isn’t technically breaking the law, but let’s face it – he’s definitely violating the spirit of the law.” She invited her supporters to send her $51 contributions – exceeding the reporting limit and requiring that the donations be disclosed.
Denney is in a four-way GOP race for secretary of state, an open post since longtime GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is retiring; the other Republicans running are former state Sen. Evan Frasure, chief deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, and former Sen. Mitch Toryanski. Woodings is unopposed on the Democratic ticket; the primary is May 20.
A federal lawsuit against the Idaho State Police charges that officers profiled, pulled over, harassed, detained and searched a Washington man simply for driving across the Oregon line into Idaho on the freeway – because he had Colorado plates. Officers insisted the man must be carrying marijuana, but extensive searches of his vehicle found nothing illegal. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Darien Roseen, a retired executive who was on the way home from his daughter's baby shower in Washington to his second residence in Colorado, was targeted within the first mile he drove into Idaho by ISP Trooper Justin Klitch, according to the lawsuit, who pursued him as Roseen pulled into the “Welcome to Idaho” rest area, refused to allow him to use the bathroom, and began badgering him to consent to a search of his vehicle – which Roseen refused. This happened just before noon on Jan. 25.
By the time the incident was over, Klitch had called in additional officers, detained Roseen in a patrol car, had an officer drive Roseen’s truck – without his permission – to the Payette County Sheriff’s Department, where it was further searched, and held Roseen up for hours. The lawsuit, which names the ISP, the Fruitland Police Department, the Payette County Sheriff’s Department, and the numerous officers involved, alleges violations of the 4th, 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution regarding illegal search and seizure, along with discriminatory and selective treatment by profiling, violating the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment and Roseen’s right to interstate travel.
“Trooper Klitch profiled, followed, and pulled over the vehicle driven by Mr. Roseen because it had Colorado license plates,” the lawsuit states. “Upon learning that Mr. Roseen came from Washington, Trooper Klitch further profiled Mr. Roseen. Trooper Klitch assumed and alleged that Mr. Roseen was a person who was transporting marijuana based on his states of residence.”
Both Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana; Idaho has not. And the ISP has been reporting numerous big marijuana busts in recent months along I-84, a main route of travel between the states. Click below for a full report from the Denver Post via the Associated Press; you can read the lawsuit complaint here. The Post reported that Idaho State Police would not comment over the weekend, but planned to issue a statement on the litigation later this week.
I’ve been feeling really fortunate that this is my week off work, because the skiing has been great up at Bogus Basin, where there were sunny spring conditions early in the week, followed by a reported 5” (much more in places) powder dump today that made for an honest-to-goodness powder day all over the mountain. Bogus had been scheduled to close for the season this Sunday, but has just made an announcement: “Due to all the fresh snow we’ve gotten, Bogus will be open an additional week! Regular mountain operations will continue until Sunday, April 6th. The entire mountain will be open except for Chair #4 (Showcase, accessible from Chair 1 Deer Point) and Chair #5 (Bitterroot, already closed for the season). Lift tickets will be $25 this Sunday and $39 for the remainder of the week.”
The end-of-season party is still on for this Sunday; it’s just changing its title to the Spring Snow Party, and Boise’s non-profit community ski area promises more music and activities on the mountain the following Sunday. For the remainder of April, there still could be additional “bonus weekends” if snow permits. Night skiing operations have ended for the season.
Idaho must restore $16 million a year in services to Medicaid clients with developmental disabilities, under an injunction issued by a federal judge, the AP reports. The cuts were made in 2011; the order from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill requires them to be reversed immediately, and also lets an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of disabled Idahoans proceed as a class-action case. The suit isn't seeking monetary damages. “We're suing just to fix this system and fix it as soon as possible,” said ACLU of Idaho Legal Director Richard Eppink said. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.
“We hope that this decision is a wake-up call for the Department of Health and Welfare,” Eppink said. “Our investigations show that the very same constitutional due process problems the court found in this program are found in virtually every other Idaho Department of Health and Welfare program. Those will be the next lawsuits.” You can read the judge's ruling here.
Downtown Boise’s FalconCam caught a big development today: Downtown’s Peregrine falcon pair has its first egg. This is the earliest date a first egg has appeared in the nest box high atop the One Capital Center building at 10th and Main streets since the webcam first was installed in 2009. It’s almost two weeks earlier than last year’s, which also was the earliest at the time. “Wild birds keep their own schedules,” says the Peregrine Fund. Typically, a Peregrine falcon lays an egg roughly every other day until she has produced a “clutch” of three to five eggs.
Then, for about a month, both the male and female will help incubate the eggs until they hatch. Both parents then typically care for the checks after hatching, keeping them warm, bringing them food and feeding them for six to seven weeks before the chicks begin learning to fly and hunt their own prey. That process also unfolds under the parents’ watchful eyes – and those of everyone in downtown Boise. The FalconCam, sponsored by the Peregrine Fund, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game and Fiberpipe Data Centers, went up in 2009, but peregrines have been using the nesting box on a 14th floor ledge of the office building since 2003.
The Peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999, after an extensive captive breeding and release program by the Boise-based Peregrine Fund helped restore its population numbers. Eight were released in downtown Boise in 1988 and 1989, where tall buildings mimic the cliffs the birds like for their nesting areas. There are now an estimated two dozen breeding pairs of the swift-flying Peregrines in Idaho. You can watch them on the Falconcam here, which features live, streaming video; right now, it takes up to a minute to load, and there’s no audio, but it’s coming.
Idaho has slipped from first in the nation for its proportion of workers earning the minimum wage, to second after Tennessee, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Idaho’s percentage of workers earning the $7.25 per hour minimum dropped from 7.4 percent in 2012 to 7.1 percent in 2013, at the same time that Tennessee saw a big increase in minimum wage workers that boosted it up from 5.5 percent to 7.4 percent.
Both Idaho and Tennessee remain far below the national average of 4.3 percent, which was down from 4.7 percent a year earlier. In Idaho, two of every three jobs created in 2013 were in the service sector. You can read more here from the Idaho Department of Labor, and see the full federal report here.
About 1,400 flood insurance policies in Idaho subsidized by the government are facing hefty premium increases despite a congressional fix intended to limit the worse of the rate hikes, the AP reports. More than a million policyholders across the nation will be required to pay higher annual premiums as the federal government cuts subsidies in an effort to cover the National Flood Insurance Program's more than $24 billion deficit brought about by the discounts and a series of catastrophic storms. Coastal states will bear the largest burden, but in Idaho and other landlocked states, older communities along rivers will be particularly affected; click below for a full report from AP reporter Nicholas Geranios.
Boise’s non-profit ski resort is delivering the spring skiing this week, from soft, smooth, forgiving corduroy on the frontside in the morning (pictured at right) to sweet spring slush on the backside in the afternoon (shown above). It’s the last hurrah for Bogus Basin; the resort has announced that its last day for the season will be this coming Sunday, with possible “bonus” weekends into April if weather and snow conditions permit. Final-day festivities on Sunday will include $25 lift tickets; the annual PBR Ribbon Hunt and kids’ scavenger hunt from 9-2:30; and a live band from 1-5 p.m.
Bogus is reporting that over the course of the season, it had 240,000 skier visits, a figure consistent with the last two seasons; taught lessons to 27,000 skiers or snowboarders, 70 percent of whom were children; and employed more than 600 seasonal workers. This year’s season started Dec. 8, 2013.
Education funding took center stage at the Idaho Legislature this year – even bumping big new tax cuts from the favored top-priority position they occupied in recent years. Lawmakers nearly doubled Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed 2.9 percent increase in school funding, to $66 million; the cash infusion was an attempt to jump-start a series of reforms recommended by a state task force. They even ditched Otter’s call for $30 million in new tax cuts – and Otter agreed. “I think that they found a better use for the money than tax relief this year,” Otter said. “In their wisdom and in my conclusion, I think they made the right decision.”
Still, Idaho’s school funding remains below where it was in 2009; so does the state’s overall budget. After years of deep cuts during an economic downturn, lawmakers this year barely started restoring some of the services they cut then. You can read my session wrap-up story online here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review. There’s also a list of bills that went partway but didn’t end up passing, from dumping the indexing of the homeowner’s exemption to designating a state amphibian.
North Idaho Rep. Shannon McMillan says she’s “grateful” for the process in which the House Ethics Committee decided to not take any formal action against her for failing to disclose a conflict of interest before voting against a bill. McMillan, R-Silverton, cast one of just two votes in the House against HB 510, which would remove a special exemption dating back to 1939 that protects elected officials and legislators from having their wages garnished due to state court judgments. She didn’t disclose that she faces numerous court judgments, including at least one in which garnishing of her legislative wages was blocked because of the special exemption. House ethics rules require such disclosures.
A week later, McMillan asked the House for forgiveness, revealed her conflict of interest and requested an ethics committee investigation into her actions. “I thank the committee for responding quickly to my request for this review,” McMillan said in a statement. “I am grateful for this process that has helped to assure that the high ethical standards of this body and my fellow members are upheld.” You can read more here in my Sunday column.
GOP lawmakers who voted last year in favor of the state health insurance exchange weren’t more likely to draw primary challenges this year after all, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reported on Sunday; he calculated that 36 percent of those who voted “no” drew primary opponents this year – identical to the 36 percent who voted “yes.” “This is the ultimate reality check,” House Speaker Scott Bedke told Popkey.
The numbers give the lie to widespread predictions that the exchange votes would spell trouble for GOP lawmakers in this year’s Republican primary election on May 20. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a strident opponent of the exchange, targeted a number of “yes” voters with billboards in their districts; in one of those districts, District 27, all three incumbent Republicans are unopposed both in the primary and in the November general election. Popkey’s full report is online here.
On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Sven Berg, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the events of the week, from the final action of the legislative session to Idaho politics. Also, Davlin and Kunz interview Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello; Davlin interviews Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa; and the show explores the real-world implications of Idaho’s current medically indigent/catastrophic health care program. 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 Gov. Butch Otter joined GOP legislative leaders today to declare this year’s legislative session a success. “In 74 days, I thought we accomplished a lot,” Otter said. “I think it was probably one of the smoothest sessions I’ve ever seen.” He said it “maybe didn’t meet everybody’s expectations – they didn’t meet all my expectations. But I’d gladly take the results, and appreciate ‘em. And I think it’s a good path forward, especially in the education package. I think it’s a great start.”
Otter said he wasn’t concerned that lawmakers passed over his recommendation for $30 million in additional new tax cuts next year, and instead nearly doubled his proposed increase in public school funding. “I think that they found a better use for the money than tax relief this year,” Otter said. “In their wisdom and in my conclusion, I think they made the right decision.”
Otter touted the start that lawmakers made toward funding his education improvement task force’s recommendations, including restoring part of the cuts made in recent years to public school operations funding; the state bailout of the Idaho Education Network, which faced possible shutdown as federal funds were cut off due to a dispute over the state’s award of the original contract; the passage of a criminal justice reinvestment plan; passage of business tax credit incentive legislation for companies that create large numbers of higher-paying new jobs in the state; and funding for water projects and wolf control.
“They did it all while showing the kind of fiscal responsibility and attention to the proper role of government that has been consistently lacking in our national government,” Otter said.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, noted that lawmakers did grant some tax relief this year – by allowing the next increment in Idaho’s phased-in grocery tax credit to go into effect next year, at a cost to the state general fund of $15 million. That money “will accrue to all Idaho citizens in the form of increased grocery tax credit,” Bedke said. “It was policy that we set in the past, but it was another $15 million in tax relief that will accrue to all Idaho citizens.”
NPR reports today that Idaho is one of a few states where failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney can still be an effective campaigner, and takes note that Romney has been stumping here for Gov. Butch Otter and Congressman Mike Simpson, both of whom face challenges from the right in the May GOP primary. You can listen to the full story online here; it’s headlined, “Romney’s Job in Idaho: Prevent GOP Voters From Veering ‘Wild Right’”
A federal judge says he won't put a lawsuit against a major private prison company on hold while the FBI investigates the company for possible criminal fraud charges, the AP reports. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge made the ruling this week in a lawsuit brought by a group of Idaho inmates against the Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America. The company had asked the judge to put the lawsuit on hold, contending that if its employees had to testify in the lawsuit, they could be at risk of incriminating themselves in the FBI investigation. “This is a high-profile case, and the Court has determined that the interests of the public would be frustrated if a stay were issued,” Lodge wrote. “Idaho's citizenry has a right to be informed about these serious issues of public concern.” Click below for a full report from Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone.
House and Senate Democrats today pointed to some steps forward during the just-concluded legislative session, from the passage of a criminal justice reinvestment plan to some boosts to education funding. “But the Legislature did very little on many of the issues that challenge us most,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said at a Statehouse news conference today. “Twenty years of GOP tax cuts for the rich and well-connected have slashed investment in education and economic growth. Families, cities and small businesses are struggling to make ends meet. Idaho ranks near-last in education investment, 50th in the nation for family wages, and first in the percentage of minimum wage jobs.”
“Everyone in this building knows this,” Rusche said. “Just three months ago, almost everyone said public schools and workforce development were top priorities. That high-minded rhetoric did not translate into action.”
He pointed to continued shortfalls in education funding, multimillion-dollar unexpected costs this year due to “botched contracting for the Idaho Education Network,” continued high costs for outside attorneys, scandal and lawsuits at the state’s privately run prison, and no moves toward increasing road funding, updating discrimination laws, or expanding Medicaid, despite potential payoffs in both lives and dollars. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “It was no secret that the majority party put these issues aside because it’s an election year.”
Democrats are only a small minority in Idaho’s Legislature, with more than 80 percent of the seats held by Republicans. Stennett said, “Our GOP colleagues debated divisive social issues that harm our standing in the nation and the world. … A more balanced Legislature will put Idaho back onto the path toward prosperity.”
Rusche said that harm could come in everything from families that don’t want to send their kids to college in a state that allows guns on campus, to customers who decline to buy Idaho food products due to concerns about animal abuse, after the passage of this year’s “ag-gag” bill, which criminalizes taking surreptitious video of ag operations. “I think that those are going to hurt us long term,” Rusche said, “by changing the marketplace for Idaho products.”
When the Coeur d’Alene Tribe wanted to buy the former greyhound racetrack in Post Falls and turn it into a casino in 1998, Idaho Gov. Phil Batt said no – tribal gaming should stay on the reservation. That restriction became state law in 2002, after it was written into the voter initiative that legalized tribal gaming in Idaho. Now, however, gambling on slot machine-like devices is coming to the Greyhound Park, prompting some Idaho legislators to complain they were “duped” into approving the new form of betting last year.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe sees a double standard. “It’s an economic threat to the tribe, no question about it, if you have that kind of gaming,” said Bill Roden, the tribe’s Boise lobbyist. “And it’s sort of ironic that the governor said ‘No’ to us.”
The kind of gaming in question is done on machines called “Instant Racing.” They have tiny, 2-inch screens in an upper corner on which the last few seconds of one horse race after another is shown, while operators bet and video slot machine-like reels spin with symbols. They’re considered parimutuel betting, like betting on horse races, because the risk is pooled among players around the country betting on various historical races. That concept is being challenged in court in Kentucky, however.
Early in this year’s legislative session, the House State Affairs Committee balked at the new rules to implement last year’s “historical horse racing” law, which was billed as allowing betting on randomly generated broadcasts of past horse races, and voted to reject them. Its Senate counterpart didn’t, however. The rules referred to the new type of gaming as “instant racing.” Four states – Kentucky, Arkansas, Oregon and Wyoming – now allow betting on “instant racing” machines. The rules also allow just a portion, rather than all, of a “historical” horse race to be shown to bettors.
House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he considered a last-minute resolution to reject those portions of the rules, but instead reached an agreement with the state Racing Commission that it would issue new rules, removing the reference to “instant racing” and letting the player decide whether to watch all or part of the race in question – not the house. Loertscher said he was especially surprised to see the reference to betting on “instant racing” in the rules. “They’ve agreed that’s not in the statute,” he said.
But taking the phrase out of the rules won’t force any change in the machines. “At this point, I’m not sure how much we can do,” Loertscher said. “We probably have buyers’ remorse from having passed the statute not knowing what exactly was involved. Shame on us for doing that.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The gavel has fallen and the Senate has adjourned for the session, at 6:57 p.m. Boise time. Just a minute later, at 6:58, the House did the same.
The House has finished its business for the legislative session, passing SB 1430 on a 47-22 vote, to provide the funding for top elected officials' raises next year. Now, it's sent committees to notify the Senate and the governor that it's completed its work and is preparing to adjourn sine die, which means without a day - ending this year's session. Meanwhile, the goodbyes are still going in the Senate…
There was little debate on one of the biggest budget bills of the session in the House, as the Medicaid budget passed on a 44-26. That measure, SB 1424, was the next-to-last bill of the session for the House. The last bill is SB 1430, the funding measure for the elected official raises.
Despite vehement debate in favor of it from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the House has defeated SJR103a, a proposed constitutional amendment regarding militia service, on a 33-37 vote. It needed two-thirds support to pass. A laughing Moyle said afterward, “In 16 years, that's the first one I lost.” The House then moved on to several other measures.
Meanwhile, senators are saying their goodbyes, including some who won't be returning next year - Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, who is running for governor, and Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, who is running for district judge, among them.
The Senate has completed all its business for this year's legislative session, on this 74th legislative day. It has now dispatched committees to inform the governor and the House of that, and is at ease, preparing to adjourn sine die. The House is still debating, and is locked in debate on SJR 103a, a proposed constitutional amendment regarding militia service.
After 36 years of service to the state, Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz is retiring in September of 2014 – this is his last legislative session. So both the House and Senate are honoring him today with a resolution, HCR 63, lauding his service. After unanimously passing the measure, the House gave Youtz an extended ovation. Speaker Scott Bedke told Youtz, “Jeff, just let me say from the speaker’s chair how impressed I’ve been, for my whole career, of the professional way you’ve conducted yourself and that of your staff. Your staff is second to none, and they’re all very professional, and they key off of you and your professionalism. It’s been an honor for me to work with you. Thank you again.” The Senate took up the measure next; it was the Senate's last vote of this year's legislative session.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said of Youtz, “Sometimes he was a mentor, sometimes he was a counselor, and sometimes he was just a great help. Everything he does … he does it right.”
The House Ethics Committee has met to consider Rep. Shannon McMillan’s failure to disclose that she had a conflict of interest before voting against a bill, and decided not to take any formal action against her. “The Ethics Committee met to consider the ethics review publicly requested by Rep. Shannon McMillan,” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, told the House just now; he’s the chairman of the House Ethics Committee. “The committee has reviewed her request and circumstances, and takes no formal action in light of Rep. McMillan’s voluntary disclosure of a potential conflict.” He added, “We conclude with a caution to the body to thoughtfully consider and declare conflicts to the body prior to voting.”
McMillan cast one of just two votes in the House against HB 510, which would remove a special exemption dating back to 1939 that protects elected officials and legislators from having their wages garnished due to state court rulings – without disclosing that she faces numerous court judgments, including at least one in which garnishing of her legislative wages was blocked because of the special exemption. House ethics rules require such disclosures. A week later, McMillan asked the House for forgiveness, revealed her conflict of interest and requested an ethics committee investigation into her own actions.
Though HB 510 passed the House overwhelmingly, it died in the Senate without a hearing amid a dispute between the Senate and House over an unrelated bill. McMillan, R-Silverton, has announced she’ll run for a third term in the House; she faces a challenge from Republican Shauna Hillman of Wallace in the primary, with the winner facing Democrat Jessica Chilcott of Sandpoint in November.
Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney stumped for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Mike Simpson in Boise on Thursday, the AP reports, saying he was endorsing the three because they are good conservatives and because they were early endorsers of his presidential campaign. Romney said GOP-dominated Idaho is a good example of how conservative principles can lead to economic prosperity. “There are more jobs in Idaho and you see rising incomes,” he said. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Romney, who lost to President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, also said he does not plan to run for president again; click below for a full report from AP reporter Nick Geranios.
The Senate has voted unanimously in favor of HB 645, the funding bill that trails HB 406, the measure to have the state take over primacy for wastewater permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System from the EPA. The funding bill includes $300,000 in ongoing funds to the state DEQ next year, plus three new full-time employees. “The program will have significantly higher costs in the future,” said Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston. By the end of the eight-year phase-in, it will cost an estimated $2.5 million a year and require 25 additional full-time employees at DEQ, he told the Senate.
HB 406 earlier passed both houses unanimously; Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law on March 7.
Both houses are whipping through bills, headed toward adjournment today. The House has voted 44-25 in favor of SB 1395 as amended in the House, the bill to grant 1.5 percent raises to top state elected officials for each of the next four years, rather than 2.5 percent as the bill originally said. Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who is running for Secretary of State, asked to be excused from voting as the bill could affect his future pay. Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, who is running for the same position, made the same disclosure but opted to vote – against the bill. She said having served on the committee that granted just 1 percent for permanent raises for state employees next year, “It doesn’t really seem fair to me that we’re now giving 1.5 percent to this particular branch of state employees.”
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “We also gave a 1 percent bonus. That’s 2 percent. All we’re offering to our elected officials is 1.5. I think that’s a good compromise. … I think it is the right thing to do.” The bill now goes back to the Senate.
The House has also passed several appropriation bills, including HB 649, funding the new wolf-control fund next year with $400,000 in one-time funds, which passed 53-16; and HB 650, the $4.8 million bailout bill to pay Education Networks of America next year for missing federal e-rate funds for the Idaho Education Network, while also requiring improvements in contract management and reporting at the state Department of Administration. That passed 67-1 with just Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, dissenting. “I think we've learned a lot,” said House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “When things are done wrong, we need to hold them accountable. I would hope that we use this as a lesson, not just for the Idaho Education Network, but for all of the tens of millions of dollars that we contract out.”
Both houses are back in session; the House has gone to its amending order and amended SB 1395, the bill granting raises to top state elected officials, to lower the amounts from 2.5 percent a year to 1.5 percent a year. At the urging of House Speaker Scott Bedke, the amendment was approved. Meanwhile, the Senate passed the final piece of the public school budget, the portion that includes the high school WiFi networks funding. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron noted under the budget bill, HB 643, schools that already are in the statewide contract that state schools Superintendent Tom Luna signed with Education Networks of America last July can continue, but those who want to can opt out and get the same amount the state’s paying ENA - $21 per student – for their own high school WiFi networks. Also, those schools that never joined the contract would get the per-student funding for their networks. If costs go above the original $2.25 million, the difference would be made up from the Public Education Stabilization Fund.
Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, praised JFAC for the way it crafted the budget, and Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, thanked Goedde for “his work and collaboration on putting this public school budget together.” Cameron said, “This is the best public schools budget that we’ve had on this floor since 2008. It’s the highest percentage of increase in public schools budget that we’ve had on this floor since 2007. All of us admit we’ve got a long ways to go, we’ve got a lot of work to do in discretionary funds, career ladder, teacher pay … but this is a good budget.” Cameron also thanked Luna for his work with lawmakers on this, his final school budget as state superintendent. The bill then passed on a 29-5 vote. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said he was voting no because the measure includes funds to train teachers to implement the new Idaho core standards.
The Senate has recessed until 1:30, after watching a musical slide show from its pages about their experience at the Statehouse. Before that, five of the seven bills that make up the public schools budget had passed easily, four of them on unanimous 34-0 votes, and one, HB 638, for the teachers division, on a 29-5 vote. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a retired teacher, said a 1 percent base salary increase for teachers wasn't enough, but she'd back the bill as a start. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, voted against the bill, saying he objected to funding to train teachers on implementing the new Idaho core standards.
House GOP leaders have proposed amendments to SB 1395, the bill granting raises to the state’s top elected officials over the next four years, to trim the boosts back from 2.5 percent a year to 1.5 percent a year. “That is a number that would enjoy support on the House floor,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “I think the amendments reflect what I heard from the caucus.”
At a meeting of the House State Affairs Committee just now, Bedke proposed a series of amendments to SB 1395, and the committee agreed unanimously to send the bill to the House’s amending order with the proposed amendments attached; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Under the amendments, the governor’s salary would rise next year from the current $119,000 to $120,785, a 1.5 percent increase, and bump up another 1.5 percent in each of the next three years, to hit $126,302 on Jan. 1, 2018. The Secretary of State, state controller state treasurer and state superintendent of schools all would see 1.5 percent raises next year as well, from the current $101,150 to $102,667, with additional 1.5 percent boosts the following three years.
The lieutenant governor would keep the bigger boost next year that the Senate-passed bill envisioned, rising 19.6 percent from the current $35,700 to $42,275, but in subsequent years, that salary would increase just 1.5 percent a year instead of 2.5 percent.
The amendments don’t change the proposed salary for the Attorney General, which would rise next year to the salary of a district judge, $124,000, a 16 percent increase, and then stay frozen at that level through the end of the four-year term.
“Yes, that makes the attorney general for a year or two earn more than the governor,” Bedke told the committee. Asked if he thought the Senate would accept the changes, he said, “I hope they do. … They know we’re amending the bill.” This means SB 1395 must come up on the amending order in the House to make the changes, then go through readings, debate and approval as amended there, and then go back to the Senate for concurrence in the amendments and passage again there as amended.
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, disclosed a possible conflict of interest under House rules before voting on amending the bill, noting that he has a relationship with the state treasurer, whose salary the bill sets - the current state treasurer is his dad, Ron Crane, who is seeking re-election.
The House has recessed until 1:30 p.m., and has a House State Affairs Committee meeting scheduled immediately upon recess to hear SB 1395, the bill granting top state elected officials raises over the next four years; the House Ways & Means Committee will meet at 1:20 p.m. Meanwhile, the Senate is debating the public schools budget bills; the first one passed unanimously.
Yesterday, House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, carried one of the major chunks of the public school budget in the House that had been scheduled to be presented by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls; Bell commented to the House, “Someone’s off with Mitt Romney and I’m here with you.” Romney was in Idaho Falls yesterday stumping for Congressman Mike Simpson and Gov. Butch Otter; he’ll do the same in Boise this afternoon.
Thompson, who’s back today, said, “She knew where I was at.” He said, “I had a couple of appointments in Idaho Falls I had to make, so I went home Tuesday night. It just happened to coincide with when the governor was here, so I was able to participate.” Of the school budget bills, he said, “When I left, they weren’t scheduled. … My view was that we would’ve done public schools this morning.” He noted that he’s carrying five budget bills in the House today.
Thompson said he had two personal appointments in Idaho Falls, and while he was there, was able to do radio and TV interviews too, along with attending the Romney event at Frank VanderSloot’s ranch, which he said drew a crowd of more than 300 people. “It went great,” Thompson said. “He endorsed me.”
Legislation signed into law yesterday by Gov. Butch Otter regarding “time-sensitive emergencies” will save an estimated 100 lives a year in Idaho, according to House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a physician. Rusche co-sponsored the bill, SB 1329, with the other two medical doctors who serve in the Legislature – Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow – and Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; it’s the result of six months of work by the state Health Quality Planning Commission and numerous stakeholders on improving procedures for dealing with patients suffering from trauma, stroke and heart attack, three of the state’s top five causes of death.
Emergency medical service providers, hospitals, health care providers, insurers, rehab providers, lawmakers and community members all worked on the legislation, which seeks to “get the right patient to the right place in the right time,” according to the bill’s Statement of Purpose. “It will be well worth the effort, and can be expected to reduce trauma deaths by 15 percent – about 100 per year – and decrease the disability from strokes and heart attacks,” Rusche said. “Idaho will be joining 48 other states with organized emergency care systems. It is about time.” The measures outlined in the bill are voluntary for hospitals.
Gov. Butch Otter signed 42 bills into law yesterday; he’s still not vetoed any of the legislation passed by lawmakers this year. Among the bills signed: SB 1274a, which amends Idaho’s Safe Boating Act to make it enforceable again; SB 1310, to restrict fines imposed by homeowner’s associations; SB 1327, allowing schools to keep Epi-Pens or other epinephrine auto-injectors on hand for unexpected extreme allergic among students or staff without an advance individual prescription; SB 1332, to punish Idaho officials who order police officers to seize guns or ammunitions if feds order the move; HB 438, to make a series of reforms and updates to the state’s rules for the practice of midwifery; and HB 563, to amend Idaho’s “video voyeurism” crime law to expand it to cover crimes involving “revenge porn,” or posting of private images online for purposes of extortion, humiliation or revenge.
This year’s legislative session may well end today. “Mr. President, senators, let’s go home today,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate this morning. “Let’s go home today. It’s doable.” He said he’s visited with his House counterpart, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and “he joins in sharing that optimism.”
The House has a considerably longer calendar to take up today, including lots of budget bills. “I’d like to try to do it today,” Moyle told Eye on Boise. “We’ll see what happens. If not, we can finish up tomorrow. We’re on track.”
Davis said the Senate will need to handle 26 or possibly 27 different pieces of legislation today to finish up. “In addition, we need to graduate our pages, we’re going to do a call of the Senate, we have a caucus meeting for the majority party planned for a short period of time.” He told senators, “If you’ll help me help you, we can save the taxpayers another nickel or two and actually sine die before our target date,” which is tomorrow. Today is the 74th legislative day of this year's session.
Lawmakers may try to pause it
But changing times surely will cause it
To move to the fore
With debate on the floor
This issue is out of the closet.
After much debate, all seven pieces of the public school budget for next year – which reflects a 5.1 percent increase in state funding from this year – have passed the House, and are on their way to the Senate. Objections came members of both parties, with House Democrats decrying the funding as inadequate, and some Republicans offering the opposite argument; Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin has a full report here. “This seems like an awful lot of money, and if we keep increasing like this, we’re going to outpace our ability to fund the school system,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.
In the end, the budget bills all passed easily, though the administrators division drew 21 “no” votes, the teachers division drew 19, the operations division had 12 dissenting votes, and the central services division had 10. The bills now move to the Senate; to become law, they need both passage there and the governor’s signature. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
It’s getting very, very difficult to go back inside after venturing out, even briefly. So here’s Legislative Limerick No. 2 for this session:
Outside the birds twitter happily
A little dog passes by yappily
The sun and light breeze
Little buds on the trees
Let’s just stay out here and write sappily.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has signed into law the justice reinvestment bill, SB 1357, after it unanimously passed both the House and Senate. The measure, calls for reforms to Idaho's probation and parole systems in an attempt to reserve prison space for the most dangerous offenders, after studies showed Idaho holds non-violent offenders behind bars twice as long as other states. Idaho also has one of the nation's lowest crime rates, but one of the fastest-growing prison populations. The justice reinvestment plan, hashed out through months of work with the Council of State Governments' Justice Center and all three branches of government in Idaho, is aimed at reducing recidivism and heading off the need for a costly new state prison in the next five years.
“We all realized that unless we made some important changes, the prison population would continue to grow significantly,” Otter said. “That would mean spending much more without actually addressing the causes. I applaud everyone who worked tirelessly to produce the legislation that I was pleased to sign today. For the people of Idaho, it will mean safer communities and better use of taxpayer dollars.” Click below for Otter's full announcement.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed 15 bills into law yesterday, including HB 547, which directs that cigarette tax receipts that now are going to pay off bonds on the state Capitol renovation will instead go to road work and water projects next year, once the bonds are paid off. Otter had originally recommended that the cigarette tax money go to fund the Medicaid program, but he never introduced legislation to do that; GOP legislative leaders pushed the roads-water split. The bill passed the House 63-4 and the Senate 33-1. Otter signed it without comment.
Other bills signed into law by Otter yesterday included HB 476, to restore employment supports for people with developmental disabilities that had been cut as part of Medicaid budget cuts two years ago, removing the ability of some of those people to work; HB 521, legislation following the recommendation of the governor’s school improvement task force regarding strategic planning in school districts; and HB 519, legislation from Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, requiring that when restraints are used on a mentally ill person who is being transported by police, and those restraints were not ordered by a doctor, their use must be documented by the officer and noted in the patient’s clinical record.
After passing HJR 2, the constitutional amendment to enshrine legislative review of administrative rules in the state Constitution, on a unanimous vote, the Senate has recessed to 1:45, and the House has recessed to 4 p.m. Both houses are planning a signing ceremony for the amendment, which doesn't go to the governor; instead, it'll go to voters, who must approve it by a simple majority at the next general election to change the Constitution.
Lawmakers are ebullient about the change, saying it means more accountability; Idaho lawmakers now review all agency rules to ensure they match the intent of the laws that enabled them. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said putting that in the state Constitution is significant for “our ability to control rules and keep that separation of power intact.” He said, “Assuming the voters support this, this will be a major accomplishment for Idaho and something I think other states should look seriously at adopting.”
Retiring Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, has endorsed Avista Corp. official Greg Gfeller for the seat Henderson will be vacating next year, as Gfeller heads into a hotly contested three-way GOP primary race. “I was looking for someone with a business background, because jobs are such a major issue in Kootenai County and we need to expand the economy and the tax base,” said Henderson, 91. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Gfeller – pronounced gee-feller – faces Jeff Ward, president of the Reagan Republicans group, and Don Cheatham, a retired former longtime Los Angeles police officer, in the District 3 GOP primary. No Democrat is running, so the Republican primary will determine the winner.
Gfeller is director of operations for Avista’s East Region, which stretches from Bonners Ferry in the north to Grangeville in the south, and also includes Pullman and Clarkston, Wash. He’s been with Avista for more than 36 years, and is a former lineman; he holds a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. Gfeller has lived in the Post Falls area since 1996.
“Collaboration is a big thing in our company – that’s how we get things done,” Gfeller said. “I think I can bring that to the table.” Gfeller, 58, said, “I’m totally pro-growth, pro-jobs. I think government’s role is to provide infrastructure.” As for the campaign, he said, “I’m all in. I told Frank that I’m going to do whatever I need to do to be a candidate.”
With a 67-1 vote of the Idaho House this morning, lawmakers have sent legislation granting raises to the state’s judges and justices to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. “The judges and justices in the state of Idaho are some of the lowest paid in the nation, and this is something we need to address,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the House. He said judges haven’t gotten a raise since 2009. The bill would grant raises over the next two years, varying by the level of judge. “It gets us moving in the direction we need to do as we solve this problem,” Moyle said.
Sen. John Gannon, D-Boise, said amid laughter, “I do practice in front of these judges, and I just feel like I should have a Rule 38.” That’s the rule requiring lawmakers to disclose conflicts of interest before casting votes. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who like Gannon is a lawyer, said, “I suppose I need to chime in. It probably is not a Rule 38 (conflict), but we do practice in front of these judges and we are voting to give them more money, and it doesn’t feel quite right if we don’t say something about it.” Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, another lawyer, offered a one-word comment: “Ditto.”
The only “no” vote came from Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis. Top judges would get pay increases next year ranging from 7.5 percent to 11 percent under the bill; district judges would see an 8.5 percent increase, and magistrates would get a 2.5 percent boost. The following year, Supreme Court justices would see an additional 3.7 percent increase to $140,000 a year, with the chief justice rising to $142,000.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A new report from Idaho's state auditors shows that sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole is more expensive than imposing the death penalty. But the Office of Performance Evaluations also found that the state's criminal justice agencies don't collect enough data to determine the total cost of the death penalty. Hannah Crumrine and Tony Grange presented the report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee Wednesday morning. Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter wrote a letter responding to the report, stating he believes state agencies have been diligent in accounting for and containing their costs. Otter wrote that though the report raises the question of whether tax dollars are spent wisely on capital punishment, he continues to support the death penalty laws. Idaho has executed three people since 1977.
Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
Budget bills are moving through both houses; among them, the Senate this morning voted unanimously in favor of SB 1415, the budget bill for the state’s community colleges for next year. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, lauded the inclusion of funds for expanding outreach efforts at North Idaho College, including expansion of its Sandpoint Center. “Community college courses, in my estimation, is where we need to grow our workforce training,” he told the Senate, “and it would be nice if Eastern Idaho Technical College was at some point a community college.”
Idaho has three community colleges – NIC, the College of Southern Idaho, and the College of Western Idaho – all of which draw on local property taxes for a portion of their funding. EITC, in Idaho Falls, is fully state-funded; voters there have refused to make it a community college funded in part by local property taxes. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, was the Senate sponsor of the community college budget bill. In his closing debate, after Goedde’s comment, he told the Senate, “No rebuttal – I happen to agree with the good senator from (District) 4.”
It already passed once, but today the Idaho Senate again passed HB 546, the business tax credits bill, this time as amended to address constitutional concerns raised in an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion. Proposed by state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, the House-passed bill would allow existing or new businesses that create lots of new jobs that pay more than the county average wage to qualify for refundable credits equal to up to 30 percent of their corporate income, sales and payroll taxes, for up to 15 years. “After we had voted, we discovered there were problems with the bill,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. “Those have been addressed by the amendment. There is an appeal directly to the district court,” plus “some additional sideboards on this.”
Just like last time, the bill drew just six dissenting votes. “I still have issues with the premise of the bill,” said Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise. The measure makes the tax credits discretionary, with the state Department of Commerce and its Economic Advisory Council deciding who should get how much. The amendments require the department to promulgate rules setting out standards for that, and to set the credit at the lowest level required to incentivize new jobs. Since it was amended in the Senate, the bill now must go back to the House for consideration.
The Senate has voted 28-6, achieving the required two-thirds margin, to suspend the rule that allows former senators floor privileges with respect to one former senator - Nicole LeFavour - in response to LeFavour’s “Add the Words” protest yesterday in which she hid in a closet behind the Senate chamber.
“According to her, she had been hiding there for five to six hours,” Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told the Senate. “I’ll not speculate as to her motives, but from where she was hiding, she was able to eavesdrop on private discussions and telephone conversations in this room behind the chamber. She has demonstrated disregard for the law, resulting in multiple arrests this session. We cannot have anyone abusing their privileges in the Senate.”
Hill said, “Senators, we all come from varied backgrounds with different ideas, different points of view, different priorities, we don’t always agree on all the issues. But we come together to accomplish the people’s business. On that we are united. And we all agree that we must protect the ability to do that. I’ve asked Sen. LeFavour not to return to the whole area of the Senate here, but it’s difficult to enforce that request unless we suspend this rule that is designed to honor those who have previously served in this body. I ask for your support.”
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I reluctantly will oppose this motion. I feel I can understand the behaviors that we have seen, which I don’t condone and am not going to support. But I believe this is the wrong response. I believe there could have been and should be a different response, and I believe this response is incorrect, so I will be opposing this motion.”
LeFavour's privileges are now suspended for the remainder of this year’s session, which is expected to wrap up this week.
HB 441, a bill from the Idaho Association of Counties to make a series of technical changes to the law to ease the administration of the $100,000 per-taxpayer, per-county property tax exemption that lawmakers passed last year for business equipment, is headed to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments – where it’ll likely morph into a bill to address questions about where to draw the line between real and personal property for purposes of the exemption.
Senate Tax Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, told Seth Grigg of the IAC this morning, “We’ve worked throughout the session trying to get a personal property tax bill put together to … perhaps take another bite out of that personal property this year.” Now, he said, “We’ve got a rule that is going to affect legislation and legislation is required, and it deals with the three-and-a-half factor, the half-factor being fixtures. … And I think the darn chairman of the Tax Committee has held up all the tax bills, and that’s one of ‘em that got held up too. … We have to use your bill, Seth, as a vessel to get that piece of legislation in there.” He said, “My recommendation to our committee is to send that to the 14th Order so we can use that as a vessel to finish this up here.”
Siddoway said part of the problem is the rules defining the line between personal and real property, which matters more now that personal property – business equipment – has a big tax exemption. The state Tax Commission in November passed a controversial rule to draw the line, but business interests that lost out on the exemption in that process protested. Alan Dornfest, property tax chief for the state Tax Commission, said the commission’s rule was an attempt to deal with the “half-factor” confusion about when fixtures, such as machinery, are real or personal property, when it came to things like underground storage tanks. “It says when there’s a conflict between the three-factor test and third-and-half factor, the three-factor test will dominate,” Dornfest said. The three factors are that removing the item would cause damage to the real property; that the item is integral to the use of the real property; and that it would be reasonable to consider the item a permanent addition to the real property. Part of that Tax Commission rule declared that a list of types of property, including cell phone towers, underground storage tanks and pipelines, are real, not personal, property, and therefore not eligible for the exemption.
The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee voted unanimously today to reject that rule, Rule 205; the House Revenue & Taxation Committee already has taken similar action. Siddoway said, “The proposed amendments that we would have to 441 would directly affect this rule. And it would supersede the rule and it would put in statute what we’ve been dealing with in rule. So that would be legislative authority rather than rule.” He summed up the three factors as “annexation, adaptation and intention.”
Siddoway said the intent is to use HB 441 as a “vessel” to make those rule changes, but not to add any amendments to expand the $100,000 exemption beyond its current level next year, as he had earlier advocated.
Twenty people were arrested by Idaho State Police and charged with trespassing late last night after refusing to leave the state Capitol in an “Add the Words” demonstration, including a number who had been arrested on similar charges in earlier demonstrations this year. The protesters want the state to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act's anti-discrimination protections; the bill hasn't gotten a hearing.
Shortly before the Senate adjourned tonight, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, cautioned senators to secure their office areas before leaving, saying an individual was found hiding in a closet in the Senate lounge, which is the room directly behind the Senate chamber, where there are a few couches and some snacks and cookies are laid out.
It turned out the individual was former Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who has been arrested a half-dozen times this session in protests at the state Capitol pressing to “Add the Words,” the catch-phrase for amending Idaho’s Human Rights Act to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the act’s anti-discrimination provisions. “Closets are never safe for gay or transgender people,” LeFavour told Eye on Boise, acknowledging that it was her. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
LeFavour, who was Idaho’s first openly gay state lawmaker and served four terms before leaving the Senate to run for Congress in 2012, said she had been in the closet for between five and six hours. “It’s a very large closet,” she said. “There are lots of people in closets out there, and they’re not comfortable.” Instead, she said, they’re “scary.”
Davis said the Senate was at ease when LeFavour was discovered, while staffers were looking for some items in the closet that belong to the Senate’s secretary. “I have no idea how long she was there,” he said. “She was asked to leave.” Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, was the one who asked LeFavour to leave. “It seemed to me that there was some initial reluctance, but there was compliance,” Davis said.
LeFavour, who has led “Add the Words” demonstrations throughout the legislative session in which people stand with their hands over their mouths, signifying that they haven’t been heard – because the change to the law hasn’t gotten a hearing – said, “The lives of gay and transgender people do matter to thousands of us, and every time one of us is standing hand over mouth somewhere, it is a message of love to somebody else who is scared, somewhere in Idaho.”
A New Yorker article out today on the saga of the Highway 12 megaloads in Idaho, headlined, “Another Oil-Sands Challenge: Transporting Equipment,” has an interesting note in it: Writer Michael Ames reports that Imperial Oil, the Exxon-Mobil affiliate that unsuccessfully sought to move 200-plus megaloads of Korean-made oil field equipment over the scenic Idaho river corridor en route to the Canadian oil sands, is now ordering equipment that’s manufactured in Alberta instead.
Ames writes that by February of 2013, after legal battles and rerouted loads, Imperial was 61 percent over budget for the first phase of its oil-sands development. “From now on, Imperial is ordering its heavy processing equipment from Canadian manufacturers,” he reports, quoting company spokesman Pius Rolheiser saying that the Highway 12 quagmire “was a significant factor in our decision not to procure modules from outside Alberta.”
Legislation regarding how the state’s lottery proceeds are split up between schools and state buildings has passed the Senate as amended; now it goes back to the House for concurrence in the Senate amendments. HB 478a would keep the current distribution – 37.5 percent each for school building projects and for the state’s permanent building fund, and 25 percent for the bond levy equalization fund – for the next five years. It passed, 26-8.
Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News has a good explanation here of the complicated bill and the issues surrounding it; when Idaho first established its state lottery in 1986, proceeds were split equally between schools and the state building fund, but since 2009, a growing share has gone to the bond fund to help school districts afford to build new buildings. If that split weren’t continued, the state would need to ante up $12.5 million in state general funds for the bond levy equalization program.
The House, meanwhile, has adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow. Before adjournment, when House members had a chance for introductions and announcements, those included Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, putting in a pitch for “the four words be added so all of God’s children are treated as equals, because in America we all are;” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, giving his version of the tally as to how much the House “spent” today through approving appropriation bills; and Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, expressing thanks for the taxpayers of Idaho “that are willing and able to pay the money that we collect to provide the services.”
The Senate has voted 26-8 in favor of HB 470a, the now-shrunken $400,000 wolf-control bill that previously was a $2 million wolf-control bill, with a new board set up to oversee the spending of the money to kill problem wolves. Since the bill was amended in the Senate, it still must go back to the House for consideration there as amended. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “HB 470 creates an entirely new board and would duplicate efforts and create confusion about which state agency has control.” She said the measure wouldn’t help Idaho’s wolf-management efforts keep the wolf off the federal endangered list, and doesn’t include enough attention to non-lethal control methods.
Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said, “It creates that unnecessary board the good senator from 26 (Stennett) talks about, it’s highly inefficient and poorly organized, it will create quite a bit of confusion, but there is a problem, and that’s the only option that is before us at this time. I reluctantly will be voting aye.”
Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said, “HB 470 is a funding bill. … It is not a wolf management bill. … This is not a wolf extermination bill as some of the opposition is claiming. This bill does not compensate ranchers for their lost livestock due to wolves. Funding for wolves has decreased, and more control will equal less depredation and less need for compensation dollars.” He added, “This is a good bill, a necessary bill.”
One area where three diverse stakeholder groups have come together this year: Education, according to Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert. Unlike the battles that preceded the controversial, voter-rejected “Students Come First” school reform laws, this year’s session has seen the three major associations representing teachers, school boards and school administrators working as a team on everything from teacher pay to contract issues. You can read his full report here.
The Senate has approved amendments to HB 546, state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer’s bill to provide refundable tax credits to businesses that create certain numbers of higher-paying new jobs. Aimed at resolving constitutional concerns raised in an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion, the amendments, proposed by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, make very few changes to the bill: They just allow for appeals in court of decisions made under the bill; require the Department of Commerce to promulgate rules setting out criteria for which businesses should get how much and for how long; and require that the credits handed out be the lowest ones “that will incentivize creation of new jobs and state revenues.”
The Attorney General’s opinion raised questions about the original bill’s delegation of full discretion to the department and its Economic Advisory Council as to who should get how much in tax credits. Senators approved the amendment unanimously, and several complimented Rice, an attorney, on its crafting. He said Sayer and lobbyist Jeremy Pisca helped draft the amendment. The bill now needs Senate approval as amended, and then it has to go back to the House for approval there as amended, before lawmakers can send it to the governor’s desk. Earlier, before the amendments – and before the Attorney General’s opinion – it had easily passed both houses.
When Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, brought his thrice-amended bill regarding legislative substitutes, SB 1370, to the House State Affairs Committee today, members had some questions about some of the wording and pondered whether another amendment was needed. The much-amended bill doesn’t actually do much of anything, at this point; it just says legislators who appoint substitutes should verify that they’re qualified. The committee decided to just pass it as-is; it’s on its way to the full House.
Which prompted this, with all appropriate apologies – my first legislative limerick of this year’s session:
Rushing to get out of town
Can lead to some flailing around.
Amend it again
It’s almost the end
But don’t try to slow this thing down.
Legislation that’s been several years in the works to spread out food stamp payments in Idaho so they are staggered over 10 days, rather than all coming on the 1st of the month and causing big crushes at grocery stores, has now passed both houses, with the Senate’s 33-2 passage of HB 565a this morning. However, the bill was amended in the Senate, so it still has to go back to the House for another debate and vote as amended.
The amendments push back the effective date of the change from Dec. 31, 2015 to June 30, 2016, giving the state Department of Health & Welfare six more months to comply. They also direct that if there aren’t sufficient funds available for the changeover from food stamp bonus funds H&W gets from the federal government for efficient performance, general funds would be requested. The department has gotten $3.7 million in food stamp bonus funds in the past three years.
The department originally switched to the single-day distribution during the economic downturn to save money; the cost of switching back has been estimated at anywhere from $293,400 to $683,200. In certain parts of the state, large grocery stores have reported massive crowds and chaos on the first of each month as a result. But it’s been less of a problem elsewhere, and moves to change back have been stopped in each of the last few legislative sessions. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, spoke out against the bill in the Senate today. “I’d rather see this money go to educating these folks so they can be healthier, make better food choices and learn to spread their dollars,” she said. But supporters of the bill easily prevailed. The bill, before the amendments, passed the House last week on a 50-16 vote.
Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.
Before the House recessed this morning, Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, the House minority caucus chair, had an announcement: She has $20 raffle tickets available for a chance to win a Browning X-Bolt Medallion rifle, limited edition, valued at $1,079, that’s being raffled off by the Sportsmen’s Caucus. “It’s a really nice gun,” Pence said afterward. The Idaho Legislature’s Sportsmen’s Caucus has about 50 members, from both parties and both houses; it has four co-chairs, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and House and Senate members. Pence is one of the four.
Pence said this is the first time the Idaho Sportsmen’s Caucus has done a gun raffle; manufacturers donate the guns, which are distributed to state groups by a national foundation related to the congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. She said the funds raised will pay for Sportsmen’s Caucus expenses, including sending some members to a national conference. Only 500 tickets will be sold. “With just 500, it’s not a bad odds,” she said. “My husband said, ‘Get me five.’”
A controversial rule from the state Tax Commission drawing the line between personal and real property for purposes of the state’s business personal property tax exemption is on the agenda for the House Revenue & Taxation Committee’s meeting today at 1:15 p.m. The rule declared that cell phone towers, pipelines and the like are real property, not personal property, so they don’t qualify for the exemption; business interests that wanted the exemption but lost out protested vociferously.
“We’re going to kill the rule,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who’s on the agenda to present the resolution rejecting the rule. “We’ll see if we can come up with …. some follow-up legislation,” yet this session. He added, “We’ll let the Tax Commission have another stab at it.”
The House has now recessed until 4 p.m., awaiting some bills due to come over from the Senate. House Republicans are headed into caucus, as are House Democrats, after a House Ways & Means Committee in the JFAC room. The House Revenue & Taxation Committee will meet at 1:15, and the House Environment Committee at 1:30.
When the House voted unanimously – 70-0 – in favor of an obscure bill this morning regarding testamentary appointment of guardians of minors, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, joked that he wanted to “record this moment.” Such unanimity is rare in the House. It happened again on the next bill, but subsequent bills, including the Senate-passed budget bills for Idaho Public TV and the Commission on Hispanic Affairs, drew more dissenting votes. SB 1397, the public TV budget, passed on a 46-24 vote; the Hispanic commission budget passed on a 45-25 vote, though neither bill drew debate. House members had a lively debate on SB 1400, the budget bill for mental health services, psychiatric hospitalization and substance abuse treatment and prevention at the Department of Health & Welfare.
Those objecting, including House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the Otter Administration isn’t hearing the cries of those who are suffering due to shortfalls in the state’s mental health system. JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told the House the budget bill doesn’t set policy – it just funds the programs that are there now. The bill passed, 52-18.
Meanwhile, the Senate has been debating and passing a series of memorials and resolutions. Among them: HCR 38, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the addition of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance; HJM 10, backing certain positions in negotiations with Canada over the Columbia River Treaty; and HCR 51, declaring March 30, 2014, as the “Welcome Home Vietnam Veteran Day” in Idaho as part of a national commemoration.
The House has agreed unanimously to return HB 473 – the bill attempting to nullify the EPA’s regulatory authority in Idaho – to the House Resources Committee, at the request of Resources Chairman Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale. “I think that having this bill in front of us shows the level of frustration that many of our constituents have and feel about not only the EPA, but many of the federal agencies as well,” Denney told the House. “I believe that HB 473 does perhaps try to go too far and is very likely unconstitutional as written.”
He said dredge miners in the Riggins area are concerned, and local government officials weren’t consulted when the EPA began requiring a new NPDES permit last spring. “Perhaps a more appropriate bill would have said that new dredge mining regulations would not be enforced until the local government consultation process had been completed,” Denney said, and he asked to return the bill to committee.
Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, sponsor of the bill, said, “I was warned I better be prepared about the legal problems with this bill, because if we’re going to try and have state authority over federal authority, we’ve run into problems with that before.” After recounting how he got the House and Senate Resources committees to hold a joint hearing earlier this session to hear the dredge miners’ concerns, and then proposed the bill, Shepherd yielded to Denney, saying, “Since there is this legal concern and maybe other issues, I’d like to yield at this time to our chairman of our resources committee.”
HB 546, state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer’s economic incentive legislation, is up for reconsideration in the Senate today after passing yesterday – but being pulled back after an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion raised questions about the bill’s constitutionality. The main problem identified is the discretion the measure offers to the state Department of Commerce to decide who gets how much under the new tax credits, with no appeal and no set standards.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the Senate this morning that the sponsors plan to ask to shift the bill to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments today. “Amendments have been prepared,” Davis said. The Senate will go into its amending order at some point today, possibly late this morning or early afternoon, Davis said. “It will depend on some time management.”
Meanwhile, the House is in session and has, at the top of its 3rd Reading calendar, HB 473, the bill from Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, attempting to nullify the EPA.
Legislative budget writers have voted unanimously to allocate $90,000 to the Legislative Services Office to conduct service audits of the Idaho Education Network and the state high school WiFi contract, both of which are contracted to Education Networks of America. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair, said legislative auditors can conduct the audit, designed to determine what services are being provided where and at what cost, and how satisfied school districts are with the services. “Frankly we need to have confidence in the information and the numbers that are given, and we have confidence in their work,” Cameron said.
With that 20-0 vote completed, Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, said the joint budget committee’s work may be done for the session. “I would like to say that that takes care of us, but one never knows, does one,” she said.
The governor’s $2 million wolf-control bill has now officially shrunk to a $400,000 wolf-control bill. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted 17-3 this morning to appropriate $400,000 in one-time funds for HB 470a, the bill to set up a new wolf-control board that would oversee the killing of problem wolves that prey on domestic livestock or the state’s wild game herds. The three “no” votes came from Reps. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, and Phylis King, D-Boise, and Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I’d like some clarification on what we’re trying to accomplish with this. … If we were looking for $2 million and that was what we needed, but if we’re cutting it back to $400,000, are we going to be coming back every year?” Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, said yes. “I think indeed the plan is to come back every year for an appropriation of $400,000,” he said. “Obviously, $400,000 for five years is $2 million.” Gibbs said the annual appropriation will allow lawmakers to check up on how the program's doing.
HB 470 passed the House on a 49-16 vote on Feb. 21; it was amended yesterday in the Senate, to address a constitutional problem in the bill – it had originally set up a new wolf control board as a separate state agency, but that would have bumped the state above its constitutional limit of 20 agencies. The amendment placed the new board under the governor’s office. HB 470 as amended is now awaiting a final vote in the Senate; the JFAC action adds a “trailer” bill to supply the funding, which will “trail” after HB 470.
Gov. Butch Otter has signed SB 1277a into law, authorizing the restart of land exchanges involving lake cabin sites owned by the state endowment. Exchanges of cabin sites at Priest and Payette lakes were halted earlier this year after legal questions were raised about whether the state could legally trade the sites for land that wasn’t “similar” – such as timber land, grazing land, or other property used for purposes other than summer homes. The bill says such trades are OK, but adds a limitation: The state couldn’t trade endowment land for “lands that have as their primary value buildings or other structures, unless said buildings or other structures are continually used by a public entity for a public purpose.”
The state has been trying to get out of the cabin-site renting business, after years of legal and political battles over the prime sites, on which the lessees often have had their family cabins for generations. The state Constitution requires that endowment lands be managed for the maximum long-term financial returns to the endowment’s beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public schools. The new law takes effect July 1.
More than a thousand people are now ringing the state Capitol, calling for Idaho to “Add the Words” sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's Human Rights Act to ban discrimination. The protest has drawn cheerful crowds who are walking along the sidewalks that ring the state Capitol building, some with kids and dogs in tow, some holding small protest signs, a few walking bikes, and most bundled against the chilly spring wind. Cars going by are tooting their horns; the crowds are waving back.
On the Capitol steps, a huge rainbow flag has been unfurled, and people are taking turns telling their stories of why they back the change in Idaho's discrimination laws.
Major business tax incentive legislation that cleared the Legislature this afternoon is being pulled back for possible reconsideration – after an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion late this afternoon raised questions about its constitutionality. You can read the opinion here; after learning of it, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, served notice of possible reconsideration. He could do that because he voted on the prevailing side – in favor of the bill, which passed 29-6. Davis said senators will need to weigh the opinion before the take the bill up again tomorrow.
The measure, HB 546, was otherwise speeding out of the Legislature to the governor’s desk; it already had passed the House. Proposed by state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, the bill would allow existing or new businesses that create lots of new jobs that pay more than the county average wage to qualify for refundable credits equal to up to 30 percent of their corporate income, sales and payroll taxes.
Major tax-incentive legislation for business expansions passed the Senate today and headed to the governor’s desk; HB 546, proposed by state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, passed on a 29-6 vote. (Note: An hour later, the bill was held for reconsideration the next day; there's more here.) The bill would allow existing or new businesses that create certain numbers of new jobs, if those jobs pay at least the average annual wage in the county, to qualify for a refundable tax credit of up to 30 percent of their state corporate income taxes, payroll taxes and sales taxes for up to 15 years.
“They don’t get any tax credit until after they have already created the jobs,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. “They start getting it when they perform.” The bill, dubbed the “Idaho Reimbursement Incentive Act,” is patterned after a Utah program, but has some key differences: The Utah law forbids retail businesses from applying; and requires wages to be 25 percent higher than the county’s average wage. Rice said the bill will bring jobs “that pay over minimum wage,” saying, “That’s what we need in this state. We have to keep our kids here.”
“Let’s give it a chance and see if it works,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise. “Because I think it will generate some jobs and will generate some tax income.” Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said it’s better to get “70 percent of a good thing” than 100 percent of nothing.
Opponents included Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who told the Senate the bill wouldn’t help small businesses. For companies to qualify for the credit, they’d have to create at least 20 jobs in a rural area – defined as an unincorporated area or a city with a population of 25,000 or less – or at least 50 jobs in an urban area. “Will this legislation lead to corporate welfare, crony capitalism, picking winners or losers? I don’t know, but it could,” Vick said.
Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said he worried that the bill would create a situation where two comparable Idaho businesses are paying very different amounts of taxes, because one got the credit and one didn’t. “That concerns me – that’s not equitable,” he said. “I think it can create some disparities.”
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, noted that the bill requires extensive reporting back to the Legislature and the public about who gets the credits, how many jobs are created, and more. “I’ve voted against job credit bills, I’ve voted against a lot of things,” Hill said. “This is the best I’ve seen.”
The measure earlier passed the House on a 63-5 vote; it has a whopping 47 legislative co-sponsors, including eight Democrats and 39 Republicans. The Idaho Legislature has 105 members.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill seeking to let Idaho dictate how much payday lenders can give borrowers passed the House Monday by only one vote. The 35-34 decision came after several lawmakers said they had issues with the bill, which limits loan size and lets borrowers set up interest-free payment plans if they hit a financial snag. Boise Democrat Rep. Phylis King said letting borrowers take out loans of up to 25 percent of their monthly income was still too much, suggesting the amount be closer to 5 percent. Others worried loan-seekers could circumvent the parameters by visiting multiple lenders in one day. Proponents say it gives breathing room to borrowers when unexpected financial woes prevent them from returning the money. Idaho's governor will now decide whether to sign the measure into law.
Idaho’s congressional delegation joined two Oregon senators, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter for a Boise news conference today to tout proposed changes in how the nation funds firefighting costs, which would shift the worst wildfires into the same fund that now covers hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters. “Unfortunately, we find ourselves once again preparing for another extreme fire season,” Otter said. “We haven’t had the … money necessary to come forward with the kind of prevention and management that’s necessary.”
That’s because federal agencies for years have faced firefighting costs that far exceed budgets, and have had to dip into prevention and remediation funds, Jewell said, creating even worse fire seasons. “It spirals down and we have to borrow more money and so on,” she said; she's shown speaking here in this Aaron Kunz photo.
“2013 was not a terrible fire year,” the interior secretary said at Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center. “It was sort of a new-normal fire year in some ways. But it exceeded the fire-protection budget … by about a half a billion dollars.”
Under legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the most-destructive wildfires each year – the top 1 percent, which tend to cost about 30 percent of total expenses – would shift into the FEMA fund, instead of forcing the draining of fire-prevention funds. Companion legislation in the House is co-sponsored by Idaho Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador, among others, and President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget proposal includes the plan.
Crapo, co-author of the legislation, said, “Wildfires have become disasters.” He said they should be treated as such. Added Wyden, “The reason this is so important is that fires now are often bigger, they’re often hotter, and they often last longer. We now feel, on a bipartisan basis, it’s time for a fresh approach with regard to fighting wildfire.”
The idea is not to spend any more money, the officials said – it’s just to plan ahead of time for the disastrous nature of wildfire. “The big fires break out, the bureaucracy ‘borrows’ from the prevention fund in order to fight the fires, and then of course the problem gets worse,” Wyden said. “The problem has been … the prevention fund often doesn’t get paid back.”
The shift in approach, he said, “we think … is going to end up producing savings for the long term,” by allowing fire-prevention efforts to go forward without the current funding fits and starts. “The reality is that we always pay for the fires anyway,” Wyden said.
Jewell said under the new approach – the legislation is now making its way through Congress – federal agencies will fight fires by using their normal budget until they hit 70 percent of the 10-year average. Then, they’d dip into the FEMA emergency funds, which now are capped at $2.6 billion. No increase in the cap is proposed. “It’s fully expected that we can work well within that cap on the disaster plan.” She said NFIC puts out “basically 97 to 98 percent of all fires before they go anywhere. … Then you’ve got this 1 percent that become really extreme. It’s just those we’re talking about taking off the regular suppression budget.”
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A coalition of animal activists, civil rights groups and media organizations is suing Idaho in federal court over a new law that makes it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed the new law last month, after Idaho's $2.5 billion dairy industry complained that videos showing cows being abused at a southern Idaho dairy unfairly hurt business. The Los Angeles-based animal rights group Mercy for Animals released the videos, which showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping and otherwise abusing cows in 2012. The lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, Animal Legal Defense Fund, CounterPunch and others asks a judge to strike down the so-called “ag gag” law. A similar lawsuit is underway in Utah over Utah's version of the law.
Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
Legislation to remove Idaho lawmakers’ special exemption from having their wages garnished for state court judgments has fallen victim to late-session hostilities between the House and Senate, and never received a Senate committee hearing. That means both bills proposed this year to remove special privileges from Idaho lawmakers, including this and another that exempts them from concealed gun permit requirements, have failed this year, both after passing the House and dying in the same Senate committee. “Sure sounds like a pattern, doesn’t it?” said freshman Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, sponsor of the wage-garnishment bill, HB 510.
Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, has refused to schedule a hearing on HB 510 until a House committee sets a hearing on his bill regarding firefighters’ occupational cancers. But that Senate-passed bill isn’t going to get a hearing in the House Commerce Committee, according to that panel’s chairman, Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who is adamant that he doesn’t think the firefighter bill is good public policy. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The troubled Idaho Education Network – the broadband network that links every Idaho high school and also provides video-conferencing – faces an uncertain future, though lawmakers have ensured it’ll keep running until they’re back in Boise next year. I have the rundown on this in my Sunday column here; also: Lawmakers are moving to deposit $36 million into the state’s rainy-day savings accounts at the end of the current fiscal year, just under half the $72.3 million Gov. Butch Otter had called for.
When Idaho’s legislative session opened this year, two participating members, one senator and one representative, hadn’t been elected. They hadn’t been appointed to office, either. They’d just been tabbed as temporary substitutes for two North Idaho lawmakers who were out due to temporary health issues. In fact, since this year’s session began, seven Idaho lawmakers have named temporary substitutes for anywhere from three days to three weeks. In the past five years, there’ve been 36 substitute lawmakers casting votes and debating bills, a few for much of the session. Idaho’s the only state that allows this to happen.
“I think this is about keeping your constituents represented,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who named his wife Sarah to fill in for him after he was seriously injured in a ranching accident in March of 2011. “In a part-time, citizen legislature, life happens while we’re here.” Said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, “The whole point is if you’re not here, your district is going unrepresented. … I think it’s a great tradition.” Said Hill, “We’re the only state that does a lot of good things.”
Brenda Erickson, an analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said some states, including Washington, allow for temporary subs when a legislator is called up for military duty. But no other state does what Idaho does. “More often, they’re granted an excused absence, and that’s how it’s handled,” she said. “There’s no replacement.”
Idaho’s substitute-lawmaker law dates back all the way to 1891, though the original statute just allowed the governor to appoint temporary replacements for four top statewide elected officials – the Secretary of State, auditor, attorney general and schools superintendent – when they had a “temporary absence or disability.” In 1945, it was amended to include “any elected official.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Bill Manny, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the events of the week, from school levy votes to election filings to legislative happenings. Also, Davlin interviews Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, about guns on campus, stakeholders in issues, and this year’s session; Davlin and Kunz interview Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; and Davlin interviews Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone about the FBI investigation into Idaho’s private prison debacle and the state’s vulnerability to a lawsuit over its substandard public defender system. 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 is in for a very busy election season this year, with positions from governor down to North Idaho legislative seats drawing multiple candidates prior to today’s 5 p.m. deadline. The state’s primary election is May 20, and voters will have plenty of choices. At the top of the ticket, every top office-holder except for state Treasurer Ron Crane has drawn a GOP primary challenger. So have all but one of the North Idaho incumbent lawmakers in Districts 1 through 4 who are seeking re-election. The lone exception: Second-term Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who is unopposed. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and see the full list of candidates here.
After a long and sometimes heated hearing, the Senate Resources Committee has voted unanimously to forward the wolf control bill, HB 470, to the full Senate, but it’ll go to the 14th Order for amendments. Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, the bill’s sponsor, said an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion pointed out a constitutional problem – if the new Wolf Depredation Control Board existed for more than two years, it’d push the state above its constitutional limit on the number of state agencies of 20. So the bill either had to be amended to place the new board under an existing agency, or it had to be a temporary board lasting for no more than two years. Brackett said he’ll propose an amendment to place the new board under the governor’s office.
The new board would allocate state funds to kill depredating wolves – those that prey on livestock or wild game. Brackett said he hoped the state funds would be a one-time allocation of $2 million, as recommended by Gov. Butch Otter, but he recognizes that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee may decide otherwise. “JFAC’s going to do what JFAC’s going to do,” he said. “I would like $2 million one-time, but we’re told that isn’t going to be happening. Hopefully, it would be in the $400,000 range.”
He noted that $400,000 in ongoing funds, if it lasted for five years, would be the same as putting $2 million in, in the end. “You end up with the $2 million,” Brackett said.
The House and Senate have now both adjourned until Monday. There's still a Senate Resources Committee meeting this afternoon at 1:30, at which HB 470, the controversial $2 million wolf control bill, is among the items on the agenda.
Legislation to impose felony penalties on patients who batter medical workers prompted extended debate in the House today before it finally passed, 42-26; an earlier version of the bill passed the House last year, but died on a tied vote in the Senate. This year’s version, SB 1351, would impose a three-year prison term for violations; last year’s bill had five years. Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, said she worried that patients may be people of diminished mental capacity, and putting felonies on their record could cause them permanent harm. Rep. Ilana Rubel D-Boise, said, “I am very nervous about potentially putting a three-year penalty on somebody who maybe in a severely diminished state, grabs a doctor’s arm.” Rubel, a lawyer, noted that battery merely requires unwanted touching, not injury.
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, spoke out in favor of the bill. “The testimony in committee was very compelling,” she told the House. “The law as it is written is not protecting people. … Their charge is to heal.” Doctors and nurses are required to treat people, backers of the bill said, and have little protection when those people turn on them violently. Said Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, “Our nurses are on the front line, our doctors are on the front line. … The nurses aren’t allowed to walk away.”
Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said, “If we batter a pregnant woman it’s only a misdemeanor. If we batter a child it’s only a misdemeanor. … I can’t see that it makes sense to elevate one group of individuals over another.”
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, a lawyer, said there are some problems and inconsistencies with Idaho’s battery statute, but the current law isn’t working for health care providers. Patients who attack providers can’t be charged with aggravated battery unless they cause serious and permanent bodily harm, he said. That’s why the bill proposes a felony penalty for a simple battery in those cases.
“A health care worker is three times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in the workplace than any other sector,” said Rep. Pat McDonald, R-Boise. “I think we do have a problem here.” His co-sponsor, Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, a lawyer, said, “There are a large number … of people being abused in the work environment, not by people who are emotionally distressed, but by people who are going in there and just being violent.” Battery does require intent, he noted. “They can’t walk away from the situation. They have to provide care.” The bill now goes to the governor's desk.
The House has killed legislation that earlier passed the Senate unanimously to increase highway district commissioners’ terms from four years to six years, after an impassioned plea from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Moyle noted that legislators all run for office every two years, while statewide elected officials serve four-year terms; he said that makes them accountable to the people. Moyle asked how increasing terms for highway district commissioners was any different than increasing the governor’s term to six years. “This is a bad bill,” Moyle declared. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said this doesn’t happen often, but he had just one word to add to Moyle’s debate: “Amen.” The bill, SB 1285a, then was killed on a 20-46 vote.
Controversial House-passed legislation to trim Idaho cities’ power to regulate building design has died a quiet death, after passing the House in late February. The bill, HB 480, won’t receive a hearing in the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee, Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said today.
“I certainly respect personal property rights,” Siddoway said. But he said the measure would have destroyed the ability of local communities to plan for how they want their town to develop, including those who, like Victor, opt for a downtown theme. “To take away that call from the locals is not a good Republican principle, to me,” Siddoway said.
He said in Victor, a small city in eastern Idaho, the town has long had a western theme. “So they work with their property owners to try to put a western theme on the front of their shops and stores,” he said. “And they can’t get these themes accomplished without having the local planning authority to do that.”
The bill, proposed by Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, was opposed by cities and architects across the state. Morse said cities shouldn’t regulate subjective issues like beauty or appearance when it comes to development on private property. “We need jobs and economic development in this state much more than we need the planning police mandating their vision of beauty,” he told the House.
The bill would have made design review requirements voluntary, preventing cities from requiring changes in proposed buildings for esthetic reasons. It still would have allowed cities to impose design requirements in designated historic districts, and for signage, lighting, landscaping and screening. The bill allowed for regulation of surface finishes, but not structures. It also required that all requirements be “clear, ascertainable and not based on subjective considerations.”
Idaho’s top judges would get pay increases next year ranging from 7.5 percent to 11 percent, under legislation that passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday and an appropriation that won unanimous approval from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. “We know over the past few years, that one of the issues has been being able to recruit qualified judges, both at the district level as well as the other levels, and salary has been one of the main components of that,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, JFAC vice chair. “We certainly want qualified people to serve on the bench.”
The chief justice’s salary would rise from the current $123,400 to $137,000 next year, an 11 percent increase; the rest of the Idaho Supreme Court justices would see their salaries rise from $121,900 to $135,000, a 10.7 percent raise. Court of Appeals judges would go up from their current $120,900 salaries to $130,000 next year, a 7.5 percent increase, and the chief judge of the Court of Appeals would rise to $132,000, a 9.2 percent raise.
District judges’ salaries would rise from the current $114,300 to $124,000 next year, an 8.5 percent increase; and administrative district judges would rise from $115,800 to $126,000, an 8.8 percent increase. Magistrate judges’ current salaries of $109,300 would rise to $112,000, a 2.5 percent raise.
The appropriation bill is a “trailer bill” to SB 1394, which set the raises; it will “trail” after SB 1394, and start in the Senate. If SB 1394 doesn’t pass the House, the appropriation bill would be pulled back.
On a party-line vote, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted this morning to transfer $24 million to the Budget Stabilization Fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings account, at the end of the fiscal year on July 1; and also to transfer $10 million to the Public Education Stabilization Fund; and $2 million to the Higher Education Stabilization Fund. All four of JFAC’s minority Democrats opposed the move.
“I fully understand the need for being prudent,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. “But I just have heard from folks in my district who would much prefer putting at least some of these dollars to work on issues like salary in K-12 and higher education to a greater extent than we did. And I do think that in addition to representing those in my legislative district, that it would be in the state’s interest to have done this a little differently.”
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, said, “It’s just always a good idea to have the money there. You never know when it will be needed, and these are good places to put that funding.”
The joint committee also voted to transfer an additional $10 million from the general fund to the Permanent Building Fund, with $2 million of that targeted toward the Education Building at the University of Idaho, and the rest for alterations or repairs at the direction of the building fund advisory council.
The figures approved by JFAC are lower than Gov. Butch Otter's original recommendation; he wanted $15 million for the Permanent Building Fund, $35 million for the Budget Stabilization Fund, $30 million for PESF and $7.3 million for HESF.
The Legislature’s joint budget committee nearly deadlocked this morning over the funding for statewide elected officials’ raises for next year, with a 9-9 tie vote after many members expressed concerns about granting bigger raises to top officials next year than state employees are getting. But Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, had yet to vote; after much hesitation, he voted aye, and the appropriation passed on a 10-9 vote.
“Looks like leadership has some work to do,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. JFAC’s measure is a “trailer” bill to SB 1395, the bill that grants raises to top state elected officials every year for the next four years; it passed the Senate yesterday on a 30-5 vote. The appropriation bill will “trail” after SB 1395; if that measure doesn’t pass the House, the appropriation bill would be pulled back.
“I have some problems with this,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. “I have the feeling that given what we’re doing with the state employees of the state, a 1 percent ongoing and no definite signal as to what we’re doing in the future, I just … will probably not be supporting this bill.”
Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, said, “It does seem odd to me that we’re giving these kinds of increases, given the other things we’re doing with state employees.”
In the 10-9 vote, those voting no were Sens. Mortimer, Vick, Nuxoll, and Schmidt, and Reps. Eskridge, Stevenson, Miller, Ringo and King. Voting yes were Sens. Cameron, Keough, Johnson, Bayer, Thayn and Lacey, and Reps. Bell, Bolz, Gibbs and Youngblood. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, missed the vote.
Gov. Butch Otter signed 20 bills into law today, including HB 399, which lowers the minimum age to hunt big game from 12 to 10, provided that the youngster is accompanied in the field by a licensed adult. Also signed today: HB 504, establishing “leadership premiums,” one-time bonus awards for teachers; HB 403, creating a special 4-H license plate; and HB 550, providing an additional $6.6 million in state funds to Education Networks of America this year for the Idaho Education Network. So far this year, he hasn’t vetoed a single bill.
After much debate, the Senate has voted 32-2 in favor of HB 462, which updates a ski area liability statute to include clauses about snowboarding, terrain parks, and in-bounds avalanches. Though some senators raised concerns that the measure went too far to absolve resort operators from liability – particularly in the case of in-bounds avalanches – others argued that the same level of liability protection already was set under the current law.
During the course of the debate, numerous senators had a chance to share stories about their skiing experiences. Among other things, listeners learned that Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, is a former explosives-wielding ski patroller, and Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who learned to ski 52 years ago, is a former ski instructor. The bill, proposed by the Idaho Ski Areas Association, now goes to Gov. Butch Otter.
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on an Idaho House committee’s vote today to approve legislation attempting to nullify the EPA, though a state Attorney General’s opinion says the measure’s unconstitutional. Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, said, “I don’t happen to agree.”
Shepherd noted that it’s late in the legislative session – lawmakers are hoping to finish their session next week. “We’re lucky to even have this hearing,” he said. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen now.” No one testified against the bill, HB 473; seventy-six people signed in at the committee hearing in support. After dozens testified, including lots of suction dredge mining enthusiasts who don’t like a new EPA permit requirement that went into effect last April, the committee approved the measure on a voice vote with no discussion.
In the attorney general’s opinion, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane wrote that the bill “would, with almost certainty, be found unconstitutional.” In a six-page analysis, Kane wrote that many mistakenly believe the EPA was “created by executive order” rather than by Congress. Actually, he wrote, it was created by President Richard Nixon in 1970 under a specific clause in federal law, and then, as required, ratified by both houses of Congress - twice. Congress then delegated regulatory authority to the EPA through “numerous federal laws,” he wrote, and those laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Shepherd said, “I think that the Supreme Court needs to go by their oath of office. The Supreme Court’s changing the Constitution.”
Jim Werntz, Idaho director for the EPA, said the agency chose to try to regulate suction dredge mining in Idaho, rather than just shut it down, as happened in California and Oregon. More than 80 of the new permits have been issued; they’re good for five years. But, he said, “Where there were species issues or protected waters or wild and scenic waters, those waters were protected and closed.” That included popular areas along the main and lower Salmon River near Riggins, where critical habitat for salmon and steelhead prompted closures to dredging.
In this afternoon’s House Resources Committee meeting, all the testimony was in favor of HB 473, Rep. Paul Shepherd’s bill to nullify the EPA because of concerns from suction dredge miner about regulations. “EPA just wants control, they want power,” Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, told the committee. She said veterans are “precious to us,” and many veterans find it “soothing” to do recreational suction dredge mining. “They’re trying to control us, and they’re trying to control our vets also,” she said.
Others who spoke railed against “environmental fruitcakes,” “tyrannical bullshit,” “people from back east” and “these big environmental groups.” Shepherd told the committee, “All over the United States, people are concerned with EPA overreach. … The purpose of this legislation is to protect citizens of Idaho from EPA regulations that are not authorized by the Constitution of the United States and that violate the Constitution’s true meaning of intent.”
On a motion from Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, the committee agreed on a divided voice vote to forward HB 473 to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.”
Two bipartisan bills were introduced in the House Ways & Means Committee this afternoon, one from Reps. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, and Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, opposing NSA data collection on citizens; and one from Reps. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, and Donna Pence, D-Gooding, seeking to block the state’s Correctional Industries from competing with private businesses.
The Woodings-Malek measure is a non-binding memorial calling on Congress and the president to “immediately discontinue bulk data collection practices that are contrary to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and to instruct our national security agencies to ensure that national security will be achieved without invasive violations of civil liberties.”
The Henderson-Pence bill would block Correctional Industries, which produces everything from license plates to office furniture with inmate labor at Idaho prisons, from selling its wares to non-profit organizations, retailers or wholesalers – all of which are authorized now. Henderson, chairman of the House Business Committee, said two weeks ago, about 20 local printers came to the Statehouse to complain about competition from Correctional Industries. “They have, for instance, six full-time salesmen,” Henderson said, who contact not only government agencies but private entities to market products. “We have no issue with sales being promoted to government.”
But Correctional Industries has much lower costs than other businesses, he said, and can easily undercut private competitors in products like printing. “The purpose … is not to end the industries program, because it has its merits,” Henderson told the committee, “but it has to be limited.” The committee voted unanimously to introduce both bills.
About 35 “Add the Words” protesters were back in the Statehouse today; after the House and Senate adjourned their morning session, the protesters circled the third-floor rotunda and stood solemnly, hands covering their mouths, to signify not having been heard. They want a hearing on adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections, but no hearing has been scheduled.
While the protesters stood, two singer-guitarists in the 1st floor rotunda below played music including “We Shall Overcome,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and an original composition entitled “Add the Words.” Former Idaho Sen. Nicole LeFavour said, “We’re making sure that lawmakers see us. Every person here has a story, and the stories are so powerful and sometimes so devastating.” Throughout this year's legislative session, there have been more than 150 arrests of “Add the Words” protesters who blocked areas in the Statehouse or refused to leave; hundreds more have participated in peaceful protests like today's.
Seventy-six people have signed in for a House Resources Committee hearing this afternoon, including many suction dredge miners who are supporting HB 473, Rep. Paul Shepherd’s bill attempting to nullify the EPA’s regulatory authority in Idaho because of miners’ concerns about EPA regulations. In early February, a joint hearing of the House and Senate resources committees drew dozens of angry suction dredge miners who are steamed about a new EPA permit that’s been required for suction dredging in Idaho since last spring.
“I have been mining in the same spot as my great-uncle and other family members,” Don Smith told the committee, “and I have to tell you, the violent high-water event of annual spring runoff makes my activities totally inconsequential.” He said, “When considering EPA rules, Congress has not spoken to this precise question at issue.”
Shepherd’s bill would declare that the EPA’s regulatory authority “is not authorized by the Constitution of the United States and violates its true meaning and intent as given by the founders and ratifers, and is hereby declared to be invalid in the state of Idaho,” and “shall be considered null and void and of no force and effect in this state.”
Others told the committee that the EPA shouldn’t be requiring the same permit for dredge miners as for those who discharge pollutants into waterways, because the dredgers just put the same sand and gravel back into the water that they took out. “Let’s get the EPA out of Idaho and get back to enjoying the gem state,” one told the lawmakers.
Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “I notice in here, we’re talking about dredge mining, but the wording of this would this include any EPA regulations of anything in Idaho, just flat-out.” He asked Shepherd if the bill would cover any water quality or air quality standards the EPA has. “Yes,” said Shepherd, R-Riggins. “I feel it covers any overreach that we can show is legally overreach by that agency.” The hearing is continuing.
Democratic candidate for governor A.J. Balukoff spoke out today against the guns-on-campus bill that Gov. Butch Otter signed into law yesterday, saying, “That’s a solution looking for a problem. It was totally unnecessary, and I think the process to pass that was just as flawed as the bill.” Balukoff, the chairman of the Boise School Board, said, “It was an erosion of local control. … It’s also an unfunded mandate to our colleges and universities, who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
Balukoff’s comments came in response to reporters’ questions as he held a news conference on the Statehouse steps today to note that he and running mate Bert Marley have filed their candidacy papers; Marley, a former Democratic state senator and longtime teacher, is running for lieutenant governor.
“State government continues to focus on issues that polarize and divide people rather than bringing us together,” Balukoff said. “Most of the issues they’ve dealt with in this legislative session will have very little practical impact on most Idahoans, but they take time and energy and resources away from the important issues, education and our economy.”
Balukoff also was asked about the Corrections Corp. of America, which operates Idaho’s largest state prison, but the state is now taking it back over amid scandal and lawsuits. “I’m glad that the FBI is doing an investigation,” Balukoff said. “I think that we’ll be better off running our prisons internally, instead of contracting that out to for-profit companies. It just doesn’t sound right to me to make profit off of a prison system. It’s more than warehousing people. We should be educating, rehabilitating those people so that they can return to society, support their families and be productive members of our communities.”
In addition to Balukoff, Terry Kerr of Idaho Falls filed to run for governor as a Democrat this week, though he’s run for local office as a Republican in the past. GOP candidates who have filed thus far include incumbent Gov. Butch Otter; Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian; and perennial office-seeker Harley Brown of Nampa. The filing deadline is tomorrow.
Budget bills have been flying through both houses today, most of them passing with only a couple of dissenting votes and little or no debate. The House today has passed appropriations for the legislative branch, the Division of Financial Management, health education programs including the WWAMI medical education program, the State Independent Living Council, the lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general, and more. The Senate has passed the budget bills for Idaho Public TV, the Commission on Hispanic Affairs (which drew 10 “no” votes), the Catastrophic Health Care program, pieces of the Health & Welfare budget including psychiatric hospitalization and services for the developmentally disabled, and for the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor and others.
The House has actually finished its calendar, though some bills were held; it’s now adjourned until tomorrow. Before adjourning, House Speaker Scott Bedke announced that Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, twisted her ankle severely today and is at St. Luke’s hospital. “She’s going to be fine, although … I think there’s some orthopedic surgery probably in her future, and she’s very disappointed that she couldn’t be here today,” he said.
The Senate bogged down a bit on the debate over the budget for the state Liquor Division, which includes no state general funds; it ended up passing handily, 32-2. The Senate also passed SB 1408, to double the cap on the Budget Stabilization Fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings account, from 5 percent of the budget to 10 percent, on a 30-5 vote. The Senate has now recessed until 4 p.m.
With no opposing debate, the Senate has passed SB 1395, the bill granting raises to top statewide elected officials over the next four years, on a 30-5 vote. The bill now moves to the House. It gives the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, controller and superintendent of schools 2.5 percent increases next year and each year thereafter. The Attorney General’s pay would rise next year to that of district judges, a 16 percent increase; and the lieutenant governor would get a 19.6 percent boost next year, with 2.5 percent increments thereafter.
“There’s been a lot of work go into this, trying to make a proper balance,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill. “I’m one who thinks that public officials should take some sacrifice in order to serve, but I don’t want the sacrifice to be so large that the good people can’t serve.” He said the lieutenant governor is “definitely underpaid. … Obviously that position has gone, over the years, from a part-time position to a very full-time position.”
The bill now moves to a House committee; there’s more detail here. Lawmakers are granting state employees funding for 2 percent merit-based raises next year, half of that permanent and half in the form of one-time bonuses.
Legislative budget writers have approved only a third of the requested $4.56 million in ongoing state funding, plus another $600,000 in start-up funds, for community crisis centers across the state next year. That puts the total state funding for the new centers next year at $2.12 million, instead of the requested $5.16 million.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who made the motion, said it’ll be up to the state Department of Health & Welfare as to how many crisis centers to set up next year; the governor’s initiative for the centers anticipated three, as a pilot project. The centers are envisioned as a place for patients suffering from mental health crises to go on a voluntary basis, to avoid them landing in county jails or hospital emergency rooms.
Schmidt said Idaho communities have varying needs, though there are major needs in community mental health treatment throughout the state. The bill authorizing the centers, SB 1352, anticipates community investment in them as well as state funding. “I wanted to make sure we do this in a thoughtful, careful way, rather than plunk out a big contract,” Schmidt said. “I believe the mental health needs in our state are significant, but the policy direction for how to address them at this point hasn’t been clearly defined. So rather than take a big leap, I thought it should be a step. … This is a step in the right direction.”
Schmidt said though he proposed the motion, it was the result of extensive negotiations involving multiple lawmakers and the state department. It passed the joint committee with just three “no” votes, from Sens. Vick, Thayn and Bayer.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted 19-1 this morning to pay Education Networks of America to offset a portion of the missing federal e-rate funds for the Idaho Education Network in the coming fiscal year, but only eight months’ worth, not a full year. That knocks the additional appropriation down from the requested $7.3 million in state general funds to $4.8 million.
The idea, said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair, is to “go a step at a time, ease into it, and see where we’re at at the next legislative session.” The funds will be appropriated month by month – not up-front. Strict reporting requirements on the state Department of Administration are tied to the money, and if federal e-rate funds are released, the state funding would stop, and the state would be paid back.
The federal e-rate funds, which come from a telephone tax, are supposed to be paying for three-quarters of the cost of the IEN, a broadband network that connects every Idaho high school and also provides video-conferencing capabilities. Idaho signed a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract with ENA and CenturyLink, then Qwest, in 2009 to provide the network, but the contract award is being challenged in court by another bidder, Syringa Networks. After the Idaho Supreme Court issued a ruling last March that raised serious questions about whether the contract award was legal, the feds cut off the e-rate funds. Budget analyst Robyn Lockett said the feds are conducting their own “independent verification of the validity” of the contract award, before determining whether or not to release the funds. If they find the contract is invalid, Idaho may also be ordered to repay the $13.3 million in e-rate funds already paid to ENA under the contract.
In January, the state Department of Administration asked JFAC to pay $14.45 million in state taxpayer funds to ENA to cover the missing e-rate funds. Initially, the lawmakers approved just $6.6 million for the current fiscal year; they put off until today the question of $7.3 million for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Today’s JFAC action would cover the portion of those funds for the first eight months of the fiscal year, from July to February. Cameron said the hope is that by then, the issue would be resolved and the federal funds released. If not, the Legislature could decide in next year’s session how to proceed. School districts could apply for the e-rate funds on their own, but the annual deadline is March 23 and there’s a 28-day request for proposals period required – so it’s too late for them to apply this year. They could, however, apply next year.
The JFAC bill also includes a requirement for a service audit of the Idaho Education Network. “To me, the success of the IEN network will be based on whether it’s providing additional educational services to more kids,” Cameron said. “The IEN is not a success if we’re just providing internet service, or providing IDLA classes – those were being provided for before. The success, I think, is going to be based on what additional educational services are provided.” At this point, he said, lawmakers don’t have answers to that question. IDLA, the Idaho Distance Learning Academy, is the state-run distance learning operation that provides high school classes online.
The only “no” vote came from Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, but he didn’t object to the legislative intent language tied to the appropriation, which was approved unanimously. It also includes a statement that the move “shall not be construed as an endorsement or a commitment to the continuation” of the contract beyond this appropriation; the Department of Administration last year extended the contract with ENA through 2019, without informing lawmakers. The $4.8 million budget bill still needs approval from the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change after they’re set by the joint committee.
Yesterday was Election Day in an array of Idaho school districts, and voters approved nearly $209 million in school levies and bond issues, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. Richert reports that voters approved 41 of 48 ballot measures for schools statewide. The biggest winner was Twin Falls, where voters backed a $73.8 million building bond measure to make room for a growing student population; the biggest-ticket ballot item was handed the election’s biggest loss, as a $92 million bond issue in the growing Bonneville School District was resoundingly rejected by voters. The closest calls: A levy in Wallace passed by just three votes, while a $4.8 million bond in Eastern Idaho’s North Gem district failed by just four votes. You can read Richert’s full report here.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A bill that seeks to pre-empt a hypothetical gun-seizing order from the federal government cleared its last hurdle when it won unanimous backing in the House Wednesday. Rep. Jason Monks, a Meridian Republican, says the measure, SB 1332, will protect Second Amendment rights by punishing Idaho law enforcement officers who seize citizens' firearms. It's aimed at counteracting the chance President Barack Obama will try to restrict gun ownership, something Monks says is at odds with Idaho law. Idaho officials who order confiscation of firearms could face fines or misdemeanor charges under the measure. Officers wouldn't be barred from taking guns away from felons. The bill has already passed the Senate, where a similar measure died last year. It will now land on Gov. C.L.” Butch” Otter's desk for signing.
Late this afternoon, after waiting for more than two hours, seventh-grader Ilah Hickman got her meeting with House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. Idaho Education News reports that Loertscher met with the 13-year-old for 25 minutes, as her mom and other lawmakers looked on. He quizzed her on Idaho’s state symbols – she aced them all – and the two discussed the youngster’s bill, which passed the Senate with just two “no” votes, to designate the Idaho giant salamander as Idaho’s official state amphibian. Loertscher told Ilah it’s too late in the session for a hearing on her bill, but she left undeterred, saying if it doesn’t pass this year, she’ll try again next year. You can read Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin’s full report here.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today signed SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho public college and university campuses - over the objections of the colleges - into law. “As elected officials, we have a sworn responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States - not only when doing so is easy, convenient or without cost, but especially when it is not,” Otter wrote in his signing statement. “This legislation challenges us to fulfill that charge, and we will.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Otter was pushed to veto the bill in recent days by the mothers of shooting victims in college mass shootings across the nation, and by Idaho student leaders. He said he concluded that Second Amendment rights have some exceptions, but wrote, “This is not the circumstance to carve out another.” Otter concluded, “We all will be watching closely to ensure the interests of Idaho citizens are served while their constitutional freedoms are protected.”
Seventh-grader Ilah Hickman has been working for four years to get the Idaho giant salamander named the official state amphibian, and this year, she persuaded not only the Senate State Affairs Committee but the full Senate – which voted 33-2 on Feb. 26 in favor of her bill, SB 1271. But it hasn’t gotten a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee, and Ilah’s phone calls, letters and emails to Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, about it have gone unreturned. So this afternoon, Ilah came down to the Capitol after school to talk to Loertscher. She went to his basement office, where his secretary told her she might catch him up in the House chamber.
Ilah went up there, accompanied by her mom, Lori, and sent in a message and waited in the House lobby, but Loertscher didn’t emerge before the House’s 4 p.m. session today. Loertscher, who was working on email at his desk on the floor, said, “I’ve already told ‘em I’m not going to have a hearing on the bill. … We’re a little busy. I think I got six new bills into State Affairs this morning.”
Loertscher said, “We’ve gone a little bit overboard on designating these state symbols. If we haven’t got anything else to do, I suppose it’s OK, but we’re awfully busy right now.” He added, “If a lot of members of the committee wanted to hear it,” that might change his mind. “I’ve talked to a few,” he said.
Out in the lobby, Ilah’s wait was rewarded by a brief visit from House Speaker Scott Bedke, who pulled her and her mom aside for a brief chat. Afterward, Ilah said, “He said, ‘No more cute and tenacious – you’ve got to work the committee.’” She came away making plans to contact committee members. “I think if we bug them enough, they’re going to say, ‘OK, let’s get this done with,” the youngster said. “If they don’t, then I’ll just come back next year and do it again.”
After Ilah presented her bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee this year, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told her, “I’ve seen a lot of very capable people come with some very compelling legislation. Yours, however, is as well done as I’ve heard, including from professionals.”
Boise attorney Christ Troupis, who represented the Idaho Republican Party in its successful lawsuit against the state to close the GOP primary, announced his candidacy today for Idaho Attorney General, challenging GOP Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “I believe the time is right to ensure that Idahoans have a meaningful choice in this year’s election,” Troupis declared on the Statehouse steps to about 40 supporters, who cheered, applauded, and occasionally called out “amen.”
Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, introduced Troupis. “We need some changes there, and he is the answer,” Pearce said. “He’s a constitutional attorney who’s shown his moxie.”
Troupis said he’s changing the spelling of his first name for the campaign from Christ to Chris, which is how his first name always has been pronounced anyway; he'll go by C.T. “Chris” Troupis. “I don’t want the election to be about my name,” he said. Christ, pronounced Chris, is his given name, bestowed by his parents as a shortened version of his Greek father’s first name, Christos. “I’m proud of my name,” Troupis said. “It’s just that ‘Chris’ is a better name to run on.”
Wasden is seeking re-election to a fourth term; he was unopposed when he won his third term in 2010. In 2006, he won his second term with 62 percent of the vote over Democratic challenger Bob Wallace.
Idaho’s top elected officials would get bigger raises than state employees next year, and additional raises every year following for the next four years, under legislation that cleared a Senate committee this morning; the lieutenant governor's salary would jump nearly 20 percent. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Under SB 1395, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, the secretary of state, treasurer and state schools superintendent each would get a 2.5 percent raise next year and each year thereafter, as would the governor; while the lieutenant governor would get a 19.6 percent raise next year, then 2.5 percent each year thereafter. The Attorney General’s pay would be tied to that of district judges next year, meaning a 16 percent boost.
The Senate State Affairs Committee approved the bill on a voice vote; it’s now headed for the full Senate. It gives those top officials more than lawmakers are granting state employees, who are getting merit-based raises averaging 1 percent next year, plus one-time bonuses, also equal to 1 percent. The raises for the top officials would be granted for calendar years 2015, ’16, ’17, ’18, running through the first Monday in 2019, and over the next five fiscal years, would cost the state an additional $86,700.
The governor’s salary would rise from the current $119,000 to $121,975 next year, a 2.5 percent raise; by 2019, it would rise to $131,354. The lieutenant governor’s salary, now set at $35,700, would rise to $42,691 next year, and rise to 35 percent of the governor’s salary, or $45,973.90, by 2019.
The secretary of state, controller, treasurer and schools superintendent all make $101,150 now; they’d get $103,679 next year, and 85 percent of the governor’s salary, or $111,650.90, by 2019. That’s a 10.4 percent increase over that time period.
The Attorney General’s current salary is $107,100 a year. Under the bill, it would rise July 1 to $124,000, matching next year's proposed salary for state district judges, and stay at that level for four years.
The story I posted this morning on the bill to raise top elected officials' salaries had incorrect percentage figures, as it compared the new salaries to the old salaries in the bill - which actually are from several years ago, not from this year. That made the percentage raises appear much larger. A corrected story will be posted shortly.
The Senate Finance Committee, the Senate half of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, met briefly this morning to introduce a bill and refer it to the Education Committee. The measure, from Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, lays out state requirements for high school wireless networks to qualify for state funding. That’s part of the new approach endorsed by JFAC for high school wireless networks next year: In addition to funding the existing contract that state schools Superintendent Tom Luna signed with Education Networks of America in July, JFAC allowed school districts that declined to participate in the contract to get their share of state funding to apply to their own wireless networks. It also allowed schools that are in the network now to opt out if they choose, and qualify for the state funding for their own networks.
The JFAC legislation would grant those school districts $21 per student – the same rate the state is paying ENA – if their wireless networks meet state standards. So the new bill outlines those standards, including coverage from any instructional and administrative area in the school, roaming connectivity while moving from room to room, and full service in media centers, assembly spaces, libraries and administration areas.
The bill also addresses content filtering and security, and requires the State Department of Education to develop requirements for functionality, performance and reliability.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed more than two dozen bills into law today, many of them non-controversial. Among the more notable ones: HB 395 will restore non-emergency adult dental services under the Medicaid program, a program that was cut in 2011 with disastrous results, as the state’s emergency room costs soared and people with disabilities lost teeth or suffered painful and expensive abscesses and infections. The bill passed the House 62-6 and the Senate 23-8.
Also among today’s bills signed into law: SB 1224a, reforming the state’s behavioral health services; and SB 1339, modifying the existing Purple Heart recipient special license plate to make it available for motorcycles as well.
Idaho is considering a student loan repayment program to draw doctors, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to a pair of chronically understaffed rural state hospitals, the AP reports, State Hospital North in Orofino and its sister State Hospital South in Blackfoot. Senate-passed legislation to authorize the repayment program, SB 1362, cleared a House committee this morning, and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today unanimously approved the funding, which would come from state endowment funds for the two mental hospitals. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The head of Idaho's Department of Correction is taking a leave of absence as his grandson faces a murder charge in southern Idaho. Brent Reinke has led the department since 2007. Department spokesman Jeff Ray said in a prepared statement that Reinke is taking two weeks' leave, effective immediately, to address his grandson's criminal prosecution. Twenty-three-year-old Bradley Frank James is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the shooting and stabbing death of 58-year-old Larry R. Miller in Filer. Prosecutors say Miller was shot in the face and stabbed 25 times. James' attorney has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. Board of Correction Chairwoman Robin Sandy said the board respects Reinke's wish to support his family as they deal with a tragic and personal matter.
Like the Senate before it, the Idaho House has voted unanimously in favor of the justice reinvestment bill, SB 1357, sending it to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. There wasn’t even any debate in the House on the measure, which would invest in reforms to the state’s probation and parole system and community treatment programs, while moving to prioritize prison space for more-violent offenders. The aim is to reduce Idaho’s overly high recidivism rate, promote public safety and save money. The hope is that investing $33 million into reforms over the next five years will head off the need to build a a $288 million new prison.
Ten months of research went into the bill, with the help of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Trusts. Idaho has one of the nation’s lowest crime rates, the project found, but one of the fastest-growing prison populations – and non-violent offenders spend twice as long behind bars in Idaho as in the rest of the nation. Gov. Butch Otter has been an enthusiastic supporter of the justice reinvestment bill and is expected to pass it into law; it’s had backing and participation from all three branches of Idaho’s state government, including the courts.
Speed limits up to 80 mph in Idaho? The House was decidedly less enthusiastic about the idea today than the Senate was earlier, but SB 1284a narrowly passed, 34-31, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. The bill earlier passed the Senate on a 30-4 vote. It wouldn’t raise the limits everywhere – it would just empower the Idaho Transportation Department to decide, based on engineering and traffic studies, to make the change on stretches of road where it decides the change would be in the public interest. Stretches of interstate could go up to 80 mph; two-lane roads now at 65 mph could go up to 70 mph, based on the same standards.
Opponents focused mostly on safety questions. “I worry about the kids that are just learning how to drive,” said Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon. “Kids are our most vulnerable drivers on the road today. They do not have the experience, they do not have the reaction times. They do not have the ability to drive safely at even more increased speeds.”
Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, the bill’s House sponsor, said, “There’s all sorts of reasons to argue on both sides of the issue. I think it can safely be done in Idaho.” The bill follows Utah’s move to raise speeds to 80 mph on I-84 just across the state line from Idaho; that state did a three-year experiment and found that accident rates didn’t rise with the higher limit, in part because drivers mostly went no faster than they had before.
More than 43,000 Idahoans have now selected health insurance plans on YourHealthIdaho.org, the state health insurance exchange, with 26 percent of them falling into the key 18- to 34-year-old demographic. The latest numbers, released this afternoon, place Idaho second in the nation in per-capita participation. An additional 30,224 Idahoans have started the application process but not yet selected a plan, according to Jody Olson, YourHealthIdaho spokeswoman.
“Idahoans who still want a plan have until March 31 to sign up,” Olson said. “We know the process takes time, so we encourage people to start now.” She added, “We will continue helping sign people up until the end of open enrollment.”
Idaho firefighters have fought for years to get the state’s workers compensation laws to recognize cancer as an occupational hazard, when it develops after they’re exposed to known cancer-causing substances while fighting fires. Today, after much debate, the Senate voted 28-7 in favor of SB 1273a, legislation that would create a “rebuttable presumption” that certain types of cancers are occupationally related for professional firefighters, under certain circumstances, including that the firefighter has not used tobacco products for 10 years prior to the diagnosis; and that an initial employment medical screening showed no sign of the cancer prior to starting work.
Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s “based on scientific research as to the dangers that professional firefighters face.” He said, “I know for some people it goes too far, for other people it doesn’t go far enough, but this is what the science shows.” McKenzie said the bill’s been in the works for four years. “It’s limited to those whose profession is to go into those fires and put themselves at a risk that they know is putting them in a much higher category to develop cancers that could shorten their life, but they’re doing it anyway,” he said. “It’s an appropriate policy based on what we know.” SB 1273a now moves to the House side.
The House has voted 46-21 in favor of granting $10 million a year in tax credits for donations to scholarships to private schools, after much debate; similar legislation narrowly passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. HB 507 now moves to the Senate side. Then, in a rare move, the House recessed until 4 p.m. – meaning it’ll come back into session for a third time today. There’s a big calendar of bills waiting, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle has threatened a Saturday session if the House doesn’t get moving on its calendar. Between now and 4, there are two House committees scheduled to meet, Resources and Judiciary.
Maybe it’s because it’s so late in the session, but there seem to be a lot of second thoughts bouncing around the Statehouse. The House today reconsidered two bills that it voted on yesterday, again passing one, and passing the other even though yesterday it killed it. The Senate today voted to reconsider its earlier vote on a constitutional amendment, out of deference to minority leaders who weren’t present when the bill was brought up the first time.
The House’s first reconsideration today was on HB 451, legislation to allow county records to be retained digitally and original paper copies destroyed. Yesterday, the bill passed the House, 59-11, but House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, served notice that he’d ask for reconsideration. He could only do that because he voted on the prevailing side – in favor of the bill.
When it came up again today, Vander Woude said he’s uncomfortable with destroying the paper copies. “I tore down an old house on old house on property that I bought, and I found a newspaper in there that was from 1933, the Nampa Press-Tribune,” he told the House. “That original document has a lot more value than if I go on digital to look at what that newspaper said and read it online. When we start destroying documents, I think we destroy a lot of what we had and what was valuable.” He added, “How many of you have had computers crash, where you can’t access the document any more?”
Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, the bill’s House sponsor, said, “The purpose of this legislation is to update county public records and bring them into the 21st Century, by digitizing paper records.” He noted, “These are for county offices, and right now, court records and land records are already done this way. They’re already digitized and stored and the paper records are destroyed.” This time, the bill passed 49-21, picking up more opponents than it had yesterday, but still passing easily. Among those switching from supporting to opposing: Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who is running for Secretary of State. The bill was brought by Deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, who also is running for Secretary of State; the two are among four candidates facing off in the GOP primary.
The other reconsiderations today included HB 593, legislation from Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, to set up a tax relief account to collect any taxes that come in on online sales; it was narrowly killed yesterday, but passed today. And in the Senate, SJR103a would amend the Idaho Constitution to update archaic language regarding militia service.
Small Idaho school districts with pressing building problems could get loans of up to $200,000 to make the fixes, under legislation that cleared the House today on a 38-31 vote. The loans would come from the Public Schools Facilities Cooperative Fund, a state fund that currently contains more than $16 million, and is tabbed only for building emergencies at school districts that can’t get their local voters to approve taxes for the repairs. It’s been tapped only twice, for the Plummer-Worley and Salmon school districts.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, sponsor of the bill, said small, rural school districts in Idaho have no place to turn to fix their building problems, which may not require all that much to fix. Under HB 578, districts with fewer than 2,000 students could apply to the State Board of Education for the loans, which would be only for projects “directly related to school security and safety or energy efficiency.”
“The system we have is barely keeping these districts with their doors open, and they need more tools to handle the situations that come up,” Ringo told the House. “Here we have an opportunity. … This is a state that has many rural, small school districts and they’re struggling to get by, and I ask for your support to give them one more tool to be able to do it.” After much debate, the House passed Ringo’s bill; it now moves to a Senate committee.
The school facilities fund was set up nearly a decade ago in the wake of a lawsuit that successfully challenged the constitutionality of Idaho’s school-funding system, which requires local voters to agree by a two-thirds margin to raise their own property taxes in order to pass a bond to build a school. Even districts like Plummer-Worley that tap into the special fund, which originally was started with $25 million in state funds, have to pay the money back; their local property taxpayers are on the hook for it.
HB 578 requires that the small districts repay their loans within five years; if they don’t, their state funding allocations would be tapped to pay them back. The bill also includes a “sunset,” or expiration, of July 1, 2019.
The Senate has voted unanimously in favor of legislation from Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, to allow the state Board of Correction to contract out inmate labor to harvest fruit or do other agricultural labor involving perishable food products. “This is a voluntary program for inmates,” Lodge told the Senate. “This will help them develop a work ethic and give them skills. It will help them when they are released.” Plus, she said it will help ag producers who have faced labor shortages, leaving crops unharvested. “I think one of the saddest things I saw this year, this fall, was to see the fruit on the ground because we couldn’t find laborers to pick it, and then this winter to see the apples frozen on the trees in Sunny Slope,” Lodge said.
The bill, SB 1374a, now moves to a House committee.
Tamarack Resort now belongs almost entirely to Credit Suisse, after the Zurich-based firm was the only bidder at a sheriff's sale on Monday, the AP reports; click below for the full report from the AP and KTVB-TV. Resort officials say the sale, which involves three big sections of the struggling ski and golf resort near Donnelly, won't lead to any changes in operations at the resort, and instead will make a future sale and development easier; the resort already owed Credit Suisse more than $300 million.
Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, tweeted last night, “I was quite frankly shocked,” after the Senate State Affairs Committee killed his bill, HB 514, to remove the special exemption that allows elected officials to carry concealed weapons without a permit. “Our bill passed resoundingly in the House and all but 2 members of the committee voted it down,” Hagedorn said on Twitter. “Mostly concerning the loss of automatically being able to carry concealed! It was supported by the Sheriffs, NRA and a number of pro-gun groups as a great step forward. Still befuddled…”
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said the motion she planned to make in JFAC this morning – before the joint committee abruptly adjourned – was to make the 2 percent raises for state workers next year all ongoing, rather than half permanent and half one-time. She’s none too pleased that Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, adjourned the committee as she began making her motion. “I’m irritated to the max over this,” she said. “I thought it was rude and inappropriate, and I could throw out all kinds of other adjectives.”
Ringo said she spoke with Cameron after the meeting. “He told me my motion would’ve just gone down,” she said. “I said, ‘That does happen to me now and then.’ But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have the opportunity to represent the people.” Ringo said she considered making the motion at the start of budget-setting, but then “thought I’d wait ‘til we got clear to the end, to see what kinds of balances we had.”
Ringo, a seventh-term representative who is running for the 1st District congressional seat, said, “That was a first in my … years on JFAC. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody be denied the opportunity to make a motion.”
Idaho’s PUC commissioners, state tax commissioners and Industrial Commission members would get the same level of salary boost next year that has been funded for all state employees – 1 percent permanent, and 1 percent as a one-time bonus – under legislation approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Those three commissions have full-time commissioners whose pay is set in statute. “Anytime we’ve had a CEC adjustment, we’ve had to make this adjustment for these three sets of commissioners,” said JFAC Co-Chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.
The raises will cost the state $6,700 from the general fund next year, $22,000 in total funds; that’s $11,000 for the permanent raises, and $11,000 for the one-time bonuses. PUC commissioner salaries would rise from $94,010 to $94,950; tax commissioners from $87,156 to $88,028; and industrial commissioners from $91,505 to $92,420. Those statutorily set salaries don’t include the one-time bonus portion. “These folks are state employees, and this is consistent with the actions we’ve taken,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC vice-chair.
Cameron noted that there are still two other categories of state employees the joint committee will be asked to address concerning salaries: The judiciary, and state elected officials. A judges' pay increase bill, SB 1394, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.
The joint committee also unanimously approved so-called “trailer bills,” because they trail after the main legislation, to add funding for three other bills that are passing this year: SB 1350, setting up an investment advisory board to the state treasurer; HB 542, establishing a Public Defense Commission; and SB 1362, tapping endowment funds for loan repayment for top physicians at State Hospital South and State Hospital North, to aid in attracting and retaining doctors there.
Finally, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked for unanimous consent of JFAC to reopen all budgets except public schools “for the purpose of reconsidering the CEC language.” CEC stands for Change in Employee Compensation – which JFAC has written into all state agency budgets at 2 percent, half of that one-time, and half ongoing. Both Cameron and JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell objected, and as Ringo began to make a motion, Cameron banged his gavel and declared, “The committee will stand adjourned until 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.”
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has voted 19-0 this morning to increase the cap on the state’s main rainy-day savings account, the Budget Stabilization Fund, from 5 percent of the general fund to 10 percent. “I’m pleased that we can do this, and it’s the right thing to do,” said JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “We’re in a position to be more prudent with our savings now.”
Gov. Butch Otter had recommended the move, as the savings fund was bumping up against its cap. Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, told JFAC, “The governor is very supportive of this legislation and is pleased the committee is considering it today.”
Last July 1, the budget stabilization fund had a balance of $135.1 million. After its scheduled, statutory transfers in fiscal year 2014 of $2.4 million, it will hit the current cap, at $137.5 million. In fiscal year 2015, the new cap would rise to $275 million, which would allow the state to double its savings set aside in the fund. JFAC’s action today approves legislation to double the cap, which now needs passage in the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law.
Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, is plenty steamed about the demise of his bill, HB 514, in a Senate committee today; the measure would have removed state elected officials’ exemption from the requirement for a concealed weapons permit. “I guess I’m surprised that a senator would say he should maintain special privileges over the people who put him into office,” Youngblood said, referring to comments in the committee by Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. “Isn’t that kind of odd?”
“It’s time for that change,” Youngblood said. “We’re not better than our voting public.” He said of opponents of the bill, “Why would they be afraid to go get fingerprinted and have a background check? I wonder, is there something there that would be troubling?” The freshman representative noted that he had an array of co-sponsors on the bill including House Speaker Scott Bedke, along with backing from the NRA and the Idaho Sheriffs Association, and called its failure in the Senate State Affairs Committee today “very surprising.” Said Youngblood, “I was very surprised that they would take that position. … I will certainly take a run at it again next year. I just think it’s that important.”
Idaho’s Office of Performance Evaluations will conduct an investigation into the workload of the Idaho Attorney General’s office and the cost of contracting out for legal services for the state rather than doing them in-house, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee decided this afternoon. Also picked by JLOC for topics for upcoming investigations were the instructional improvement program used by the state’s schools and surrounding issues; and advantages and costs of using salary savings for compensation and benefits for state workers.
If there’s time, JLOC asked the office to also investigate the use and satisfaction of the Idaho Education Network and its services to schools.
There’s a new worst-case scenario for the Idaho Education Network e-rate funds debacle: If the feds decide Idaho granted the multimillion-dollar contract for the IEN improperly, the state could not only have to pay back the $13.3 million in federal e-rate funds it’s already received for the project – it could be denied any such funds in the future, even with a newly re-bid contract, reports Idaho Education News. “They have the ability to debar the state,” Merlyn Clark, attorney for the state in the case, told the Senate Education Committee Monday, during a hearing on the IEN and its funding problems. That would be on top of the $6.6 million in state general funds lawmakers already committed this year to make up for the lost e-rate funds, and possibly another $7.3 million they're still mulling. Senators grilled Clark, state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna and other officials during the hearing; you can read reporter Kevin Richert’s full report here at idahoednews.org.
With no debate, the House has passed SB 1277a, legislation to authorize the state to again start doing land exchanges with state-owned cottage sites at Priest and Payette lakes that are part of the state’s land endowment. Exchanges were halted earlier this year after legal questions were raised about whether the state could legally trade the sites for land that wasn’t “similar” – such as timber land, grazing land, or other property used for purposes other than summer homes. The bill says such trades are OK, but adds a limitation: The state couldn’t trade endowment land for “lands that have as their primary value buildings or other structures, unless said buildings or other structures are continually used by a public entity for a public purpose.”
The vote was 63-1, with just Rep. Doug Hancey, R-Rexburg, objecting. The measure already passed the Senate, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter.
The Senate has voted 21-13 in favor of SB 1314, controversial payday lending legislation from Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, that was opposed by advocates of reform in payday lending for not going far enough, and backed by major payday lending firms. The bill would allow people who can’t repay their payday loans a once-a-year option to get an extended payment plan with no additional fees or interest, and would ban payday loans for more than 25 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, with the burden on the borrower to prove that. It doesn’t, however, place any limits on interest rates or otherwise cap loan sizes.
“It’s not a comprehensive solution, I don’t see it as one,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. “It’s also not going to stop people from doing dumb things by borrowing money they can’t repay, but there’s no law that stops people from borrowing money they can’t repay. … It is a behavior that ultimately does tend to lead to bankruptcy. So a cap on interest rates is not going to help. This should marginally help at least those that desire to fix their situation and actually repay the loans.”
Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, opposed the bill, saying, “I’m really concerned when government attempts to protect people from themselves.” He said he viewed the measure as “government inserting themselves between two lawfully contracting parties.” Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said he thought the bill was “a reasonable first step.” It now moves to a House committee.
Heider said the average payday loan in Idaho is outstanding for 18 days, and the average charge for a $100 payday loan is $20. “This does provide an out for those people that get stuck in this lending cycle and really need to get out from under it,” he said.
The House has voted to remove the indexing of the homeowner’s exemption from property taxes, instead setting it at a fixed maximum level of $90,000 or 50 percent of home value, whichever is less. In 2006, the Legislature raised the exemption from its previous cap of $50,000 to $75,000 and indexed the maximum amount to the Idaho Housing Index, so it would go up and down with the market. Since then, the exemption has risen to a high of more than $104,000 in 2009, and dropped back down to $81,000 in 2012.
Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, said the time lag between the index and market changes posed problems. “During the recent housing collapse … the index did create some very negative consequences for taxpayers,” she told the House. “As home values were dropping, the taxes were actually increasing. … I believe that removing the index makes good sense for the state of Idaho.”
The House vote was 54-16 in favor of the bill, HB 594, which now moves to the Senate side; the House has now recessed until 1:30 p.m. The Senate remains in session; it’s debating SB 1314, the payday loan bill.
Led by Sen. Russ Fulcher, who is running for governor, and Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, a divided Senate State Affairs Committee this morning voted to dump House-passed legislation to remove lawmakers’ special privilege to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Siddoway said, “We are giving up our freedoms, we are giving up our liberties. We have the ability now to carry and I think that most of the citizens realize that we are in a different situation than the average guy on the street.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Fulcher decried the bill as “political correctness,” and said, “I understand the argument of having elected officials being under the same laws as everyone else, (but) I believe there is a defendable difference in this case. And that is the majority of the citizenry does not put themselves in the same set of circumstances that those of us do who have chosen and who have been privileged to be elected officials. … It’s not the same for me as it is for the 35,000, 40,000 people that are my constituents. This was put in statute for a reason. I believe it was for a good reason.”
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she and members of her family have had their lives threatened, and she asked whether, if the bill passed, she’d have to have a concealed weapon permit on her person when she was out in her horse pasture. Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said no – because she’s outside city limits. In addition to removing the elected-official exemption, the bill, HB 514, broadens Idaho’s concealed-carry law to clarify that anyone can carry a concealed weapon without a permit outside city limits; that’s now allowed while hunting, fishing, or pursuing other outdoor activities. Lodge said, “I agree with what Sen. Fulcher said. I remember a time in the room across the hall when I couldn’t get out, and I felt very threatened.” She was referring to the Lincoln Auditorium.
Hagedorn said, “I understand your concerns – I have the same concerns. That’s why I have a concealed weapon permit. That’s why I had a concealed weapon permit before I joined the Legislature.” He said, “This has nothing to do with political correctness, in my opinion. It has everything to do with preparation. If you know that you are going into a contentious job as an elected official, it is your responsibility to be prepared to go into that job. And training is appropriate.”
Idahoans must get at least some gun safety training to obtain a concealed weapons permit; elected officials are now exempt from that requirement. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said he spent much of his quality time with his dad while growing up at church meetings, rather than out hunting, as some other committee members said they had done. “I’m Exhibit A as to why maybe we should encourage people like me to at least go through some additional training and teaching,” Davis said. “I think that for me and people like me, we would benefit by being asked to get appropriate training, just like the other folks out there, and not be granted an additional right to carry merely because of holding an elected office.”
Fulcher said he disagreed. “My vote will not be to willingly give up the privilege that our predecessors granted,” he said. “We do not need to relinquish our privileges.”
On a party-line vote, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee this morning agreed to introduce legislation to expand the personal property tax exemption for business equipment from $100,000 per taxpayer per county to $250,000, at a cost to the state of about $8.7 million a year. Local taxing districts would be reimbursed for the lost property tax revenue at a fixed rate based on 2012 values; the bill would take effect for the 2015 calendar year, meaning the reimbursement would start in fiscal year 2016, not next year.
The measure also clarifies which property is considered real property and which is considered personal property for purposes of the tax exemption, following the guidelines the state Tax Commission set in a rule it approved before this year’s legislative session. “This bill basically codifies Rule 205,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the committee. That “will be controversial,” he said. “We’ll hear about it in the hearing.” Amid much pushback from business interests, the Tax Commission bill clarified that the exemption lawmakers approved last year (at $100,000 per taxpayer per county) doesn’t apply to pipelines, underground storage tanks, cell phone towers, railroad tracks and the like, as they are considered real property.
The bill also includes a table of percentages to establish how divisions between personal and real property will be set for centrally assessed property taxpayers, which mainly are regulated utilities and railroads. That table of percentages was advocated for by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.
Moyle said, “The goal is to ultimately end the tax for everybody.” Supplying the percentages, he said, “gives us a number to shoot at” to do that in the future. That, however, would cost the state more than $100 million a year; it’s not accomplished by this bill. “That’ll be the fight between the House and the Senate,” Moyle said. Senate Tax Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, has been pushing for repealing the tax entirely; last year’s exemption eliminated it entirely for the vast majority of Idaho businesses.
All three of the committee’s Democrats, Reps. Grant Burgoyne, Mat Erpelding and Caroline Meline, voted against introducing the bill; it's co-sponsored by Moyle and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
Former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who is running for Secretary of State, was involved in a conflict that sparked accusations of theft, private work done on state time, political retribution, state contracts that benefited his family, undeclared conflict of interest and more – all involving the former employment of his wife, Donna, by a state agency, Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell reported in a Sunday story. To make the tale even more interesting, Donna Denney’s former boss was Kim Toryanski, wife of Denney’s GOP Secretary of State rival Mitch Toryanski, and former head of the Idaho Commission on Aging.
Sewell reports that Kim Toryanski told an Idaho State Police detective investigating the case that she resigned her position and went to work for another state agency due to “political pressures, particularly from Speaker Denney and his political allies.” The Denneys referred Sewell’s questions to their attorney, David Leroy.
Idaho’s proposed $2 million wolf control fund won’t be getting $2 million next year, reports the Twin Falls Times-News’ Kimberlee Kruesi; with millions needed to shore up the Idaho Education Network in the face of missing federal funds, legislative budget writers instead are looking at an allocation of less than half that amount. “It will probably get less than $1 million or closer to the $400,000 that was requested last year,” JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told Kruesi. “We have some flexibility when it comes to killing wolves. We don’t have flexibility with IEN.” You can read Kruesi’s full report here.
On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Clark Corbin, and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of education funding issues that came up in the Legislature this week, from WiFi to broadband to teacher pay. Also, Davlin and Kunz interview House Majority Leader Mike Moyle on the end game for the session; Davlin explores the new Idaho core standards and how they’re playing out in Idaho classrooms; and you’ll get a glimpse of various Idahoans reciting the Gettysburg Address as part of a Ken Burns documentary project. 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.
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how lawmakers decided today that Idaho school districts – like Coeur d’Alene – that opted not to join a controversial statewide contract for high school WiFi services should qualify for state funding for their own WiFi networks. The decision from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would not only allow districts that went out on their own to be reimbursed; it’d also offer that option to those now in the contract who want to withdraw; those districts, if they met certain standards, would get $21 per student, the same price the state is paying Education Networks of America.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who signed the five- to 15-year contract in July based on a one-year appropriation from JFAC, called today’s decision “good news,” saying it showed the state would continue to support wireless networks for every Idaho high school, which he said was his goal all along.
Idaho’s state Board of Correction could contract out prison inmates as farm laborers, under legislation making its way through this year. Reporter Sean Ellis of the Capital Press has a report here on the bill, SB 1374 from Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. Ellis reports that fruit growers in southwestern Idaho have struggled to find enough workers to pick their fruit in recent years, and last year, pear were left unpicked in the Sunny Slope area. The inmate workers would be paid under the same payment standards used by Correctional Industries, and part of their earnings could go to pay restitution orders, to offset their costs of incarceration, to buy prison commissary items and to help them re-enter society when they’re released.
SB 1374 was amended in the Senate yesterday. It has backing from the Idaho Farm Bureau and fruit growers. The bill says the inmate labor could only be used when there are labor shortages; the inmate workers couldn’t displace any other workers in the region.
The general fund revenue report is out for February, and the numbers are positive – state tax revenues came in 28.6 percent ahead of forecasts. February’s $27.5 million surplus is enough to offset the previous month’s $25.9 million shortfall; year to date, general fund receipts are now $3.6 million more than forecast. You can read the full report here. Individual income tax collections were the strongest category, coming in more than three times higher than expected, according to the governor's Division of Financial Management.
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into private prison company Corrections Corporation of America and how it ran an Idaho state prison plagued by inmate violence, the AP reports. The Idaho State Police was asked to investigate the company last year but didn't, until amid increasing political pressure, the governor ordered the agency to do so last month. Democratic state lawmakers asked the FBI to take up the case last month. Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray confirmed Friday that the FBI met with department director Brent Reinke on Thursday to inform him about the investigation. Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said her agency was no longer involved with the investigation and the FBI has taken it over entirely. “They (the FBI) have other cases that are tied to this one so it worked out better for them to handle it from here,” Baker said; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
The homeowner’s exemption from property tax would no longer be indexed and go up and down with the market, under legislation from the Idaho Realtors and the Idaho Farm Bureau that cleared the House Revenue & Taxation Committee today. HB 594 would instead set the homeowner’s exemption at a fixed $90,000; it’s now indexed to reflect changes in the Idaho Housing Price Index. The bill now moves to the full House for debate.
A narrowly divided House voted 34-32 in favor of HB 556, legislation from Rep. Steven Harris, R-Boise, to require parent and student input in teacher evaluations – a bill that was opposed by all three major education stakeholder groups in Idaho, and a departure from the governor’s education improvement task force recommendations. “I think we’ve been down this path before, when we assumed we know better than the professionals in education,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told the House. “It didn’t end well last time.”
Nevertheless, the bill passed. After the House had moved on to other business, Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, asked to change his vote on HB 556 from “no” to “yes,” prompting the House to go at ease and leadership from both parties to huddle. After a break, the House reconvened and agreed to allow Holtzclaw to change his vote – making the vote on the controversial bill 35-31 – but House Speaker Scott Bedke warned lawmakers that they should think carefully about their votes. A vote can be changed only by unanimous consent of the House, and he noted that in past sessions, either the majority or the minority has objected to such changes and they haven’t been allowed. The bill now moves to the Senate Education Committee.
Harris’ bill includes an array of specific percentages of weight that must be given to parent and student input and certain other factors in teacher evaluations, with those percentages increasing each year through 2019; it also requires larger percentages of weight in teacher evaluations to be placed on student test scores. No distinction is made between older or younger students in requiring their input. Associations representing Idaho school administrators, school board members and teachers all opposed the bill.
With little debate, the Senate has voted 28-6 in favor of SJR 106, Sen. Steve Vick’s proposed constitutional amendment to empower the House speaker and the Senate president pro-tem to order the governor to call a special session of the Legislature for a veto override try, if the veto was issued after lawmakers finished their session and left town. Currently, Idaho lawmakers have no way to override post-session vetoes, though nothing stops them from proposing the same bill again when they convene the next year.
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, argued against the bill, saying empowering just two officials to call a special session on behalf of the whole Legislature was inappropriate; Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, responded that the Legislature could pass enabling legislation if the constitutional amendment passes, requiring more steps. But it received the required two-thirds vote, and now moves to the House side. Amending the Idaho Constitution requires two-thirds support in each house of the Legislature, followed by majority support from voters at the next general election; the governor doesn't weigh in.
Vick said he was prompted to propose the change to the Idaho Constitution because when he served in the Montana Legislature, that state had rules allowing for a poll of legislators for post-session overrides. Washington state lawmakers can take up a post-session override attempt at the start of the next session.
The Idaho Constitution says only the governor can call a special session of the Legislature, and special sessions are limited to only those topics named in the governor’s proclamation calling the session. Idaho’s last special session of the Legislature was in 2006, a one-day session called by then-Gov. Jim Risch to shift school funding from property tax to sales tax. Each day the Legislature is in session costs taxpayers an estimated $30,000.
Four “Add the Words” protesters, their hands covering their mouths and some holding photocopied pictures of two gay Idaho teens who committed suicide, have been standing silently in the center of the first-floor rotunda of the Capitol today. Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour said she and two others did the same last night, and were arrested shortly before midnight when the building closed and they wouldn’t leave. She said the protesters didn’t realize the building would close. “Frankly, I brought my toothbrush – we were going to stay the night,” she said.
This morning, while LeFavour stood near the four protesters, a counter-protester angrily confronted her and began shouting louder and louder in her face; a uniformed Idaho State police officer soon beckoned him away. “I'm really grateful,” LeFavour said. “They're here to keep everybody safe.”
LeFavour said she thought last night was the fifth time she’s been arrested this year in protests pushing for civil rights protections for gays. Each charge, mostly for trespassing, can carry a $1,000 fine. “How do you put a price on something like this?” asked LeFavour, who was Idaho’s first openly gay state legislator. “We’re just waiting for the process to start,” she said. “Is it going to be productive to drag it into next session?”
Legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections has been proposed each year for the past eight years, but has never gotten a full committee hearing.
There have been other “Add the Words” protests this week as well, including brief “flash mobs” of people singing protest songs in Statehouse hallways; protesters reading their stories in the Statehouse rotunda; and silent vigils by protesters near Statehouse doorways. On Tuesday morning, 23 protesters were arrested after they blocked every entrance to Gov. Butch Otter’s office, keeping staffers and the governor himself from starting work in their offices that day until the protesters were removed. With the three additional arrests last night, that brings the total number of arrests this session in “Add the Words” protests to nearly 150.
Student leaders from Idaho colleges and universities delivered a six-inch-high stack of petitions and letters to Gov. Butch Otter this morning opposing SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill that passed the House yesterday, and urging Otter to veto the bill. Bryan Vlok, BSU student body president, said the student leaders have requested a meeting with Otter before he acts on the bill. “We haven’t heard back yet,” he said.
Today’s delivery to the governor’s office included 752 letters from students, petitions with 2,976 signatures, and letters from 126 Idaho faculty members, all opposing the bill.
With the Medicaid and Welfare Division budgets set, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has reached the end of its agency budget-setting schedule – a milestone. Typically, lawmakers can wrap up their legislative session as soon as two weeks after the end of agency budget-setting. JFAC’s work isn’t done, however. The joint committee has now started work on so-called “trailer bills” – bills that trail behind others that already are passing, to provide the funding called for in the fiscal notes on those bills.
Two are up today, and more will still be coming. The first one today is for SB 1329, regarding “time-sensitive emergencies” within the Emergency Medical Services program. This one actually doesn’t add any funding; it transfers it from one program to another, with no bottom-line impact. The second is larger: Following passage of HB 406, the state will move to take over primacy from the EPA for issuing wastewater permits under the federal Clean Water Act. The bill starts an eight-year phase-in of the takeover; next year, it will cost the state $300,000 in the DEQ budget, and require adding three employees. Eventually, the new program is expected to cost the state $2.5 million a year.
The primacy funding bill passed on a unanimous, 18-0 vote, though legislative budget analyst Ray Houston, asked by JFAC members if eventually some of the funding for the program might not come from fees or the federal government, said fees for municipalities are often a very political issue, and “Basically it does not look like the federal government would contribute any money.” He said, “I think it's safe to say that over the next eight years, the state is likely to pick up the most part of this $2.5 million.”
JFAC won't meet on Monday, but it will meet on Tuesday. Among items yet to be decided: Additional trailer bills; year-end transfers, including to state savings accounts; the request for $7.3 million for Idaho Education Network contractors in 2015 to replace missing federal e-rate funds; and recommendations from two interim committees on justice reinvestment and public defense.
Legislative budget writers have set a budget for Medicaid that reflects only 0.4 percent growth next year in total funds, 3.1 percent in state general funds. That’s in part because the “woodwork effect” of more people signing up for Medicaid who already were eligible, but just hadn’t realized it, hasn’t materialized to the extent it was expected to. “Medicaid numbers are flat,” budget analyst Jared Tatro told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who crafted the budget plan with Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, said the two slashed the funding for caseload increase in half from the governor’s recommended level. “We haven’t been seeing the growth that we were expecting from the woodwork,” Schmidt said. “We’re taking a bit of a risk. … It’s a budget for growth, but it’s not as much as they asked for.”
Because when people apply for health insurance plans on the state insurance exchange, they’re first evaluated for eligibility for Medicaid, the state anticipated lots of people “coming out of the woodwork” to sign up for Medicaid without any change in eligibility for the program. Thus far, Tatro said, those signing up for the Medicaid basic plan are up slightly, but numbers for the enhanced plan, for those with disabilities or special health needs, are “way down, and that’s the big expense driver.”
JFAC voted 17-2 in favor of the proposed budget, which totals $492 million in state general funds for next year, and $2.03 billion in total funds; just Sens. Nuxoll and Bayer dissented. Medicaid is funded roughly 70 percent by the federal government, and 30 percent by the state. It provides health coverage for the state’s disabled and poorest residents.
The joint budget committee also approved a budget for the Division of Welfare in the state Department of Health & Welfare, which includes the process of determining eligibility for Medicaid. That budget shows a slight decrease in state funds, but a 5.9 percent increase in federal funds, largely because of the $11.8 million federally funded project to integrate the eligibility determination system with changes in Idaho’s insurance exchange. In its first year, the state exchange has used the federal eligibility determination system, but next year, it will be transitioning to a state-operated eligibility system. That budget cleared JFAC on a 15-4 vote, with just Sens. Nuxoll, Bayer, Mortimer and Thayn dissenting.
Sen. Dean Cameron’s “Option 1” intent language for the public school budget – which lets school districts opt out of a statewide high school WiFi contract that state schools Supt. Tom Luna signed with Education Networks of America and get alternative funding for their own high school WiFi networks if they do – has passed JFAC on a 15-5 vote, after Sen. Dean Mortimer’s alternative proposal failed on a close 9-11 vote.
The five “no” votes on Cameron’s motion came from Sens. Mortimer, Vick, Bayer, Thayn and Nuxoll. On Mortimer’s motion, supporters included those five plus Reps. Eskridge, Youngblood, Thompson and Stevenson, but that was still short of a majority.
Cameron said the JFAC co-chairs and vice-chairs met with Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to go over options, and simply canceling the contract through non-appropriation at this point turned out to be a risky course. “Unfortunately, you’d probably spend as much in legal costs defending that decision, based on the lack of information we have, as you would in paying for the contract, so that didn’t seem to be a wise choice,” Cameron said. “Our legal counsel impressed upon us that what we really needed to do was make a good-faith effort, gather information, and then make appropriate decisions down the road. … That’s what Option 1 attempts to do.”
He noted that under that option, the state could end up paying more next year, if some districts opt out and ask for funding, when the contractor has already been paid. If that occurs, the funding would come from the Public Education Stabilization Fund.
Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said, “We have a contract with a provider. … We’re saying we’re allowing you to withdraw. I’m wondering how that would violate the contract, how that works out.”
Cameron noted that schools Superintendent Tom Luna has letters amending the contract from its original flat-fee, $2.25 million annual payment to a per-school payment for services rendered. “I would remind the committee this is one-time money,” Cameron said. “This is a one-year appropriation, with one-year intent language. At the end, next year we would be able to make a decision as to how to proceed – whether to continue with the contract, or whether to do something completely different. … We’ll have a better defensible position.”
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is arguing for Option 1 on high school WiFi network funding – which would let school districts opt out of the statewide contract with Education Networks of America if they want, and get state funding for their own networks. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, is arguing for Option 1, which would continue the statewide contract and pay districts that didn’t sign on for that, but not give any funding to districts that already are in the contract but don’t want to continue.
Mortimer said, “They voluntarily opted in, they said they were willing to work with the state. … They all said, ‘This is what we want.’” He said, “I believe that in good faith the state put forth the contract, the districts opted in, and it is important to keep that contract.”
Cameron said, “In discussing this with our legal counsel, the least expensive option is to fund the contract and do nothing else.” But that doesn’t do anything for those districts that opted not to participate, he noted, or those that aren’t satisfied with the services they get.
Cameron’s proposal calls for a “service audit” to see what services are being provided where, what they cost, and how satisfied districts are with them. Then, he said, next year the state can decide what it wants to do about the contract, with full information at hand. He noted that the funding, like this year’s funding, is one-time only – meaning JFAC will have to consider it again next year. “There’s a fundamental difference between the two options, although the good news is we’re talking about wireless for all the schools,” Cameron said.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is looking at two possible options on intent language for the public schools budget this morning with regard to state high school WiFi networks: One would allow school districts to “opt out” of the current long-term, statewide contract, and get a share of the funding for their own WiFi networks, while continuing the contract for those who want to stay in; the other would provide funding to districts that haven’t already opted into the contract, but wouldn’t give any money to those that already are in but want out; it also would continue the contract.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna signed the five- to 15-year contract with Education Networks of America over the summer, based on a one-time appropriation from JFAC last year.
The Idaho Falls Post Register has a report today about how Gov. Butch Otter ended up appearing in what eventually turned out to be a soft-core porn movie, years after he agreed to provide horses to a California movie crew working on a “low-budget horse opera” that was filming near Weiser. Reporters Nate Sunderland and Jeff Robinson report that the movie, which began filming in 1993, was released straight to video as an R-rated film in 1997 and rereleased as unrated in 2003; DVDs of the film remain for sale on Amazon.
Staffers for Otter said the final version, which they hadn't seen, apparently is nothing like the film Otter signed on for; then the state’s lieutenant governor, he acted the part of a sheriff in a few scenes in the film, none of which contained any explicit content or themes. The other content apparently was added years later.
A federal judge says a whistleblower lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections can move forward in court on some of the claims it raises, charging that young prisoners at a Nampa juvenile detention facility were sexually abused by staffers, and agency leaders not only didn't effectively act to stop the abuse, but retaliated against workers who complained about that and other problems at the lockup. “This is a whistleblower case,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in a Thursday ruling. “The 10 plaintiffs — employees at the Nampa facility operated by the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections — claim they suffered retaliation when they protested unsafe conditions at the facility. They claim that the retaliation was designed to suppress their protected speech and prevent the public from finding out about deplorable conditions at the facility that placed juvenile inmates in danger.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
The Senate has spent lots of time in session today, and is still going now, at a quarter to 6 p.m. Boise time. Among the bills it’s passed this afternoon: HB 504, the measure to give $15.8 million in leadership bonuses to Idaho teachers next year. The bill, which previously passed the House on a 62-6 vote, passed the Senate unanimously, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. The only opposition in either house came from six House Republicans, Reps. Barbieri, Barrett, Dayley, Harris, McMillan and Sims.
The bonuses are a small piece of the recommendation from Otter’s education improvement task force to sharply increase teacher pay in the state, mostly by developing a new career ladder and tiered licensure system. That’s still in the works and won’t happen this year, but the bonuses piece was simpler. In addition to HB 504 passing both houses unanimously, the funding for the bonuses was included in the public school budget set earlier this week by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on today’s final passage of SB 1254, the bill to allow guns on Idaho’s public college and university campuses, though the colleges don’t want them and strenuously opposed the bill. It now goes to Gov. Butch Otter, who already has said he supports it on Second Amendment grounds.
Frustrated student leaders from the state’s campuses, who had delivered petitions with more than 3,000 signatures against the bill to lawmakers a day earlier, said lawmakers dismissed opposition from all eight public university presidents, the state Board of Education, faculty senates and student associations. “Who does this legislature represent?” asked Megan Greco, vice president of the Student Association of the College of Western Idaho. “The answer is clear: Lobbyists, and apparently, themselves.”
Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said today that he’s sticking to his determination not to give House-passed legislation to cut individual and corporate income tax rates a hearing in his committee. “I’m sticking to my guns,” Siddoway said. “If we properly fund education and our public safety requirements, we have to have that money.”
He said he may support depositing more money into state rainy-day savings accounts as “a conservative way to handle money.” But, he said, “We can’t cut taxes and fund everything.” He’s still holding out hope for his favored tax cut – an expansion of the property tax exemption on business property that lawmakers passed last year; last year’s exemption eliminated the tax for the vast majority of Idaho businesses. But that measure would have to start in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, he noted. “First we’ll see if we can get enough horses to pull it out of there,” Siddoway said. “It has to start in that House committee.”
HB 548, the income tax cut bill, passed the House on a 54-13 vote on Monday; it has 37 co-sponsors, all house Republicans, including House Speaker Scott Bedke and Majority Leader Mike Moyle. It would phase in $126 million in tax cuts over the next six years.
SB 1254, the guns on campus bill, has passed the House on a 50-19 vote, and now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. All 13 House Democrats voted no, as did six Republicans, Reps. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake; George Eskridge, R-Dover; Maxine Bell, R-Jerome; Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell; Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls; and Lynn Luker, R-Boise. All other Republicans voted yes, except Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, who missed the vote.
After an hour and a half, the House debate on SB 1254, the guns on campus bill, has wrapped up, and Reps. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, and Christy Perry, R-Nampa, are giving their closing debate. “The authority surrounding the 2nd Amendment has always resided within the Idaho Legislature,” Perry told the House. “Agency heads are not elected - they do not have the same accountability. … Handing the authority to the multiple boards of trustees has not worked well for Idaho citizens. … Send it back to the Legislature where it actually belongs.” The vote is up next.
More from today’s guns-on-campus bill debate in the House:
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, complimented House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, for how he ran the earlier committee hearing on the bill. “We were there for seven hours, we heard everyone who wanted to speak, and I learned a lot. I appreciate that,” Gannon said. He questioned whether Idaho adequately checks whether people who get concealed weapons permits suffer from a mental disability. “I want my kids safe,” he said. “I don’t want somebody coming on that campus with a gun and start shooting people.”
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said, “I do not believe this bill does anything but establish a policy giving a few people comfort that they can carry on campus.” He said he supports gun rights, but raised a number of concerns about the bill as written. “This bill is constitutional. So is the law that it’s modifying,” Clow said.
Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said university officials “gave us some very compelling reasons to reject this bill.” He said, “I, like you, have received the emails, they’re overwhelmingly against this.” But he said he’s watched a video clip - “I’ve seen it more than once” – about a University of Nevada-Reno student who was raped at gunpoint in a campus parking lot, and who didn’t have her gun because they weren’t allowed on campus. “I cannot in good conscience vote to deny that young lady or any other person from the right to exercise the choice to defend themselves, when it is guaranteed in both the federal and state constitutions,” Andrus said. “I cannot go there, and I hope you cannot go there either.”
Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “Eighty percent of the firearm deaths in Idaho are self-inflicted gunshot wounds. The highest percentage of suicide attempts is in adolescent and young adult males. I think that’s a deadly combination that we’re setting ourselves up for.”
Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said if people can’t have guns on campus and they’re on campus regularly, that essentially bans them from having guns at all during their day. “What are they supposed to do with it?” he asked. “We’ve effectively said all week long, you’re not allowed to do it, and I don’t think the Constitution said that your right to bear arms was only on the weekends. Effectively that’s what we’re doing here. What are you supposed to do if you can’t take it with you in the morning, you’ve got no place to put it in the afternoon, you can’t go to the store, you can’t go to the restaurant afterward?”
Here’s some of the debate in the House this afternoon on SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill:
Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, an attorney, said, “Idaho courts have found that restrictions on guns in schools are legitimate under the Idaho Constitution. … This is really just a question of policy.” She noted that the state’s public colleges and universities say it will cost them millions to comply with the bill, though the measure says it will have only a “de minimus” cost for signage. “Where are we going to find this money? This bill sure doesn’t provide it,” Rubel said. “And what’s the justification of this financial knee-capping of colleges? … Just to make an abstract philosophical statement?”
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, asked Rubel, “What do you think the price of an individual’s freedom and their personal safety is? What kind of price tag would you put on that?” Though both House Speaker Scott Bedke and House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, took issue with the question, Rubel said she was willing to answer it. “I have seen no indication that this bill would in any way improve anyone’s personal safety, so I think the question is a little bit moot,” she told Crane, adding that she thought it could be argued that the bill would actually reduce people’s safety.
Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, told the House, “So few people are asking for this. It wasn’t something that was a crisis to this Legislature in the first place. In fact, my district, the district that I represent, has emphatically rejected this legislation, and I know that other districts have emphatically rejected this legislation.” At the end of his comments, after mentioning problems like bullying, Erpelding said he thought right after this debate, the Legislature should “add the words,” referring to banning discrimination against gays; his comment prompted immediate objections from several House Republicans.
Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, told the House, “Ladies and gentlemen, you know where this is coming from. We’ve got people all across the United States who are very unhappy about the assault that has been coming for years on the ability to bear and keep arms and protect ourselves. Probably any one of you that’s tried to buy ammunition knows what is going on in the United States. This isn’t by accident, we all know that. We know that there is a certain feeling across the country that there needs to be much more control on arms. … Can you really blame us for taking tiny steps, which we’ve been doing for some time, to try to secure our right to defend ourselves?”
The House has convened for its afternoon session, and quickly disposed of its first bill at hand unanimously. Now, it's time for the guns-on-campus bill. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, is opening the debate on SB 1254.
“This is the bill that you’ve all been hearing about and waiting for,” Boyle said, and read from the Idaho Constitution, “The people have the right to keep and bear arms, which right shall not be abridged; but this provision shall not prevent the passage of laws to govern the carrying of weapons concealed on the person.”
She said, “The Legislature can regulate carry-concealed licenses, but not open carry, unless we change our Constitution. This bill does not change our Constitution. It does not do anything with open carry at this time. It does set restrictions on guns on campus.” Boyle yielded to Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, to finish the opening debate in favor of the bill. “The presence of firearms (carried) by law-abiding citizens has never been proven to cause crime rates to go up,” Perry told the House. “There is no reason for anyone to restrict their rights.”
“Most of you know that I do carry a gun with me,” Perry said. She shared a story from years ago, in which she said she was driving on a darkened road at 5 a.m. when the driver ahead of her was driving erratically, slamming on the vehicle’s brakes. She attempted to pass, and the other driver ran her off the road, into the ditch. As she sat there fumbling for her phone, she said, the other driver approached her car. “I grabbed my gun,” she said. “The person came back, I held the gun in the window. … When they looked at it, they took off at a high speed. I didn’t have to do anything else. I did call the police. … I did get a license number. … I was still extremely scared to even be put in that position.” She said, “It’s my right to be able to defend myself, regardless of where I’m going to be.”
SB 1254 would allow retired law enforcement officers or anyone with Idaho's new enhanced concealed weapons permit to carry a gun on Idaho's public college or university campuses, anywhere except in a dorm or a large entertainment venue seating more than 1,000 people. The bill is opposed by all of the state's public colleges and universities and the State Board of Education. Currently, Idaho law lets public colleges and universities regulate guns on their own campuses; all ban them in most cases.
The House has recessed until 1:30, with just one more bill left to address before it gets to SB 1254, the controversial bill to allow guns on Idaho public colleges and university campuses. All of Idaho's public college and university presidents oppose the bill, as does the state Board of Education, but it's already passed the Senate. The National Rifle Association-backed bill is expected to pass, and Gov. Butch Otter has said he supports it.
Meanwhile, the Senate has recessed until 4 p.m.
HB 550, the supplemental appropriation bill to pay $6.6 million in state general funds to Education Networks of America to make up for missing federal e-rate funds that haven’t arrived as scheduled this year to fund the Idaho Education Network, has passed the Senate on a unanimous, 35-0 vote. “This stinks, but it is something we have to do,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. “We can’t turn the lights off on our students.” Goedde said he’s also plenty steamed at the state Department of Administration for extending the contract with ENA through 2019 without informing lawmakers.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the bill is something “many of us will have to plug our nose and vote for, because not to do so would not necessarily harm ENA, it would not necessarily harm the Department of Administration, it would harm the kids that are participating in the Idaho Education Network.” The IEN is a broadband network that links every Idaho high school and also provides video-conferencing.
Cameron added, “Frankly, based on our discussions with legal counsel, we are obligated for this piece. I need to inform you that this is the first half. The second half we are still arguing and discussing and re-discussing what we do for fiscal year 2015. … This is for this current fiscal year.” The bill earlier passed the House 66-1, with only Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, objecting; it now heads to the governor’s desk.
HB 567, Rep. Janet Trujillo’s parental rights bill, has passed the House on a 64-5 vote, after House members had lots of questions for Trujillo about what the bill actually does, including whether it would allow parents to opt their child out of standardized testing. “No, this is not an opt-out statute,” Trujillo replied. “Now, there are many states that within their statutes do have opt-out policies, but within Idaho we prefer to handle that on the local district level, and your individual district may have opt-out policies already in place.”
When the bill had its House committee hearing earlier, two supporters testified in favor of the bill, saying it would let them opt out of standardized testing for their kids. Trujillo said attorneys for the state school boards association examined the wording of the rather vague bill and “they were very comfortable with it.” The measure, which has 18 GOP co-sponsors, now moves to a Senate committee. It says parents and legal guardians have “a right, responsibility and obligation to participate in the education of such minor children.”
Both the House and the Senate are now in session; House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said the House will first suspend rules and take up those House bills that are on its 2nd reading calendar, and then it’ll start working its way down its 3rd reading calendar. The controversial guns-on-campus bill, SB 1254, is on the 3rd reading calendar, and it’s the 11th bill down. There are six House bills on the 2nd reading calendar that will be taken up first. So, depending on how much debate there is on the various bills, the House may or may not get to SB 1254 this morning; it will reconvene this afternoon after a lunch break following its morning session.
In the Senate, senators also are planning to suspend their rules in order to take up Senate bills on their 2nd reading calendar. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis advised the Senate that senators will go into their 14th order for amendments this morning, and again this afternoon as additional bills arrive there; the Senate will reconvene for its late-afternoon session after its afternoon committee hearings.
About 35 Add the Words protesters are ringing the 3rd floor Statehouse rotunda today, each in turn telling their stories of discrimination and why they're involved with the movement, while the others stand with their hands covering their mouths. The voices are ringing down through the Capitol rotunda. Later, the protesters all began reading their stories at once and repeatedly, creating a loud cacophony.
The protesters want the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act, to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on those factors.
After a long hearing and much debate, a divided House Revenue & Taxation Committee has approved HB 507, legislation from Sen. Bob Nonini and Rep. John Vander Woude to grant $10 million a year in tax credits for donations to scholarships to send students to private schools. The idea is that by enticing Idaho students to switch from public to private schools, the state would save money. But opponents – including all three major education stakeholder groups in the state – questioned that assumption and opposed the bill.
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said the bill also may be unconstitutional, conflicting with the Idaho Constitution’s strict prohibition on spending state money for sectarian purposes. “I think the Attorney General’s opinion is very clear - we are taking a risk here if we pass this legislation,” he said. “In my estimation, this is no time for us to be taking a risk with the amount of money the state of Idaho has available to fund education.”
Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, spoke out in favor of the bill. “For me, this is about school choice,” he said, “and it’s about school choice for a very small number of kids.” He said Idaho’s schools could easily handle the loss of several hundred students due to the bill. “I’m assuming that we have at least that much if not more seasonally … and just population changes,” he said. “I think the public schools are positioned very well to handle this.”
Similar legislation failed last year. This year’s version would allow a tax credit for 50 percent of the donation, while keeping the same $10 million cap on the credits; last year’s bill allowed a tax credit for 100 percent of the donation. Donors also could deduct their full donation from their state income for tax purposes, for a double benefit.
Lawmakers have set the budget for the state Catastrophic Health Care Program for next year at $35 million, almost exactly what the state portion of the county-state program is budgeted for this year. Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, said she and Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, didn’t think the forecasted increased caseload costs of $1.04 million would materialize next year, in part because up to 40 percent of those who now turn to the county medical indigency and state CAT fund program apparently are eligible to purchase health insurance through the state health insurance exchange.
Legislation that died in a Senate committee yesterday would have excluded anyone who qualifies for the exchange from the indigency and CAT fund program, starting in 2016. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who serves on the state CAT fund board, noted that last year the fund turned back $3 million of its budgeted amount to the state, while the year before, it required an additional $6 million supplemental appropriation above its budgeted amount.
With the budget set at $1.04 million less than the governor’s recommendation, JFAC essentially saved $1 million in general funds by the move. However, if the CAT fund’s costs do run higher, a supplemental appropriation could be needed to cover the bills.
The other section of intent language for the public school budget that was up for consideration in JFAC today has won unanimous support, with little discussion. It deals with funding for instructional improvement systems, including the much-criticized Schoolnet system. Again, the language is exceedingly complicated. It calls for letting the state superintendent of schools spend or distribute up to $4.5 million for maintenance, operation and licensing of an instructional improvement system, known as ISEE Phase II.
Of that, up to $2 million is required to be distributed to school districts and charter schools based on enrollment, with districts free to choose whatever system they want as long as it interfaces with the state system; they could also use the money for technology staffing costs or classroom technology. Up to $904,000 would be spent by the superintendent for digital content; and up to $1.6 million of the $4.5 million would be spent by the superintendent for “assessment items, professional development, training and school district support, in-house system maintenance, software licensing, and self-hosting support” for the current ISEE Phase II system.
Budget analyst Paul Headlee said the approved language is “the no re-bid option” for approaching this item. Instead of going out for a new contract, the state will now own and run this system in-house; it now owns the code it had obtained through the earlier contract for the Schoolnet system.
After some back-and-forth, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, has withdrawn her objection, and the joint budget committee has agreed to hold off for one day on the intent language to go with the public school budget regarding high school WiFi networks. “We have a wonderful new education budget that needs to get moving,” Bell told the committee. “It needs to go to the bodies … so we can get it out and people are comfortable with what we’ve done.”
She said, “The issue here was just simply fairness – fairness to those schools out there that were not wired at this point, carefully keeping our contract commitments, and then giving the schools time to get into where we know actually what does work, and maybe when we come back next year, this system is what we want, or maybe this system is not what we want.” She said, “I would really like us to see those budgets move.”
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said his problem was with a clause in the intent language that says school districts can get the funding for their own systems, at $21 per enrolled student, if their own systems will meet a certain WiFi standard set by the Idaho Education Technology Association. Mortimer said it’s his understanding that the association hasn’t yet set that standard. It’s also unclear whether the networks being installed now under a statewide contract will meet that standard.
After being assured that the delay will be for only one day, Bell said she’d withdraw her objection – just after Mortimer pressed for an up-or-down vote on a motion for a one-day delay.
OK, this is complicated. JFAC has taken up the intent language to be added to the public school budget – strings tied to the funding that have the force of law – regarding high school WiFi networks and funding for the instructional management system. At issue is whether to stick with a current long-term contract that state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna signed last summer based on a one-time appropriation, or whether to scrap the contract and send the money out to school districts.
A complicated proposal now before JFAC tries to kind of do both: It would continue funding the contract for those school districts who want to remain a part of it, but would pay $21 per enrollee to districts that aren’t in the contract for their own WiFi networks, plus let districts now in the contract opt out and get the payments instead. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said more information is needed on this and he asked for unanimous consent to hold off on it for another day. JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, objected.
Community colleges would see a $2.8 million, 9.1 percent boost in state funding next year, under a budget set by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning on a unanimous vote; much of the 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.
Lawmakers departed from the governor’s recommendation by including $302,300 to expand North Idaho College’s Sandpoint Center – Otter had recommended $226,700 for that – and $100,000 for a STEM initiative at the College of Southern Idaho aimed at hiring, developing and retaining faculty in science, technology, engineering and math, which Otter hadn’t recommended. But they also cut the proposed enrollment workload adjustment by more than $600,000, bringing the budget set by JFAC to slightly below the governor’s recommended 9.2 percent increase.
The JFAC-approved budget also funds pay raises totaling 2 percent, with half permanent and half one-time, as is being provided in all state agency budgets; Otter had recommended zero raises.
Legislative budget writers this morning have set a budget for the state’s four-year colleges and universities that matches the governor’s recommendation for a 6.2 percent increase in state general funds, though it’s slightly higher, at 7 percent, in total funds; Gov. Butch Otter’s recommended total-funds increase was 6.4 percent.
The JFAC-approved budget, like Otter’s, provides funding to add a second year of law school to the University of Idaho Law School’s Boise program, which now includes only the third year; covers occupancy costs for new buildings at BSU and ISU; provides a $1 million funding boost for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, to be shared by ISU, BSU and the U of I; and adds $200,000 in matching grant funds for a major National Science Foundation grant.
Like all state agency budgets, it also includes funding for 2 percent in salary increases; at the universities, that’s $3.7 million in state general funds and $2.7 million from dedicated funding sources. Budget writers shifted funds around from the governor’s recommendation, however, trimming funding for replacement items and instead tabbing $4 million in one-time funds for the State Board of Education to allocate as it chooses. They also trimmed back the governor’s $5 million recommendation toward funding the universities’ systemwide programs, putting $2.8 million toward those; the universities had requested $14 million.
Reps. Phylis King, D-Boise, and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, proposed an alternative plan with a 7.7 percent general-fund increase and 7.8 percent in total funds, but it failed, 2-17. The successful motion, from Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, then passed, 18-1, with just King objecting.
In the budget for the judicial branch of state government this morning, competing budgets were proposed in JFAC, with the sole differences whether or not to grant an increase in funding for the Guardian ad Litem program, through which volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates speak for children who are neglected or abused. In fiscal year 2013, 376 abused or neglected children were not served by CASA volunteers due to a lack of resources. Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, advocated a budget adding $40,000 next year to the program, saying it hadn’t been funded in several years. Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, countered, “There’s a little over $600,000 in the base for this program, so it’s not like we’re not funding the program.” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, proposed an additional $100,000 for the program next year. “They serve very, very vulnerable members of our society,” she said. “This money is to help train them.” The courts had requested a $262,500 boost; the program now has $75,000 less in state funding than it had in 2009.
King’s motion was voted down, 5-15, but Nuxoll’s passed, 15-5. JFAC Vice Chair Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, who made the original motion with no increase for that program, noted that the courts will get $4.85 million next year for the new court technology system. “This is going to be a one-time appropriation for the next five years,” he noted.
Overall, the courts will see a 27 percent increase in state general funds next year, with much of the increase due to the technology project; by the end of the phased-in project, all court filings will be electronic and online.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has a full house and a full agenda this morning, with budgets scheduled to be set including the judicial branch, colleges and universities, community colleges, the catastrophic health care fund, intent language for the public schools budget regarding WiFi and more.
Legislative budget writers have turned thumbs down on a proposal to expand the Idaho Education Network to elementary and middle schools next year, as the state grapples with millions in missing federal e-rate funds for the existing broadband network connecting the state’s high schools. “At this point, basically we don’t know where we are on e-rate,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, the JFAC vice-chair who made the motion on the Department of Administration’s budget in the joint committee yesterday.
There was some confusion yesterday as to whether that decision was final, as another question in that budget was deferred – whether to pay another $7.3 million state funds to Education Networks of America and its partners in the contract to cover the missing e-rate funds for the coming year. But today, budget writers and their staffers clarified that the expansion decision has been made – it won’t happen next year. “Until we figure out what’s going on with e-rate, I don’t think we need to go and expand it,” Bolz said. The budget motion he crafted with Reps. Youngblood, Thompson and King passed yesterday on a unanimous, 19-0 vote in JFAC. It still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budgets rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.
The federal e-rate funds were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the IEN, including any possible expansion, but they stopped flowing last March, after an Idaho Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit challenging the state’s original contract award for the IEN. Lawmakers didn’t find that out until January. That lawsuit is still proceeding, and the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether the contract was awarded improperly. If it decides it was, the state could also have to repay $13 million in e-rate funds already received before last March.
Sponsors of SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, held a Statehouse press conference this afternoon to announce that the Idaho Sheriff’s Association, after a poll of its members, has endorsed the bill. “There was a pretty wide margin that were in favor of this bill,” said Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman, shown here at center, between bill sponsors Sen. Curt McKenzie, left, and Rep. Judy Boyle, right. “The main reason is legal citizens should not have their right to pack guns taken away from them.”
The bill, which is opposed by Idaho police chiefs, all of the state’s public college and university presidents and the state Board of Education, would allow retired law enforcement officers or people with Idaho's new enhanced concealed carry permit to carry guns on Idaho’s public college campuses. Boyle said she’s not concerned that petitions with close to 3,000 signatures against the bill were delivered to the House speaker today. “Unfortunately, a lot of people do not understand what that enhanced carry concealed permit requires,” Boyle said. “They have the idea that we are handing out guns on the campuses to 16-year-olds and this is not true - you have to be 21 or over, you have to have taken this class, and it’s an extensive class.”
She said, “When you go and buy a firearm, your intent is to practice with it, become efficient with it and effective, because you’re protecting yourself. Most people you would not even know the folks that carry in this building, because no one says, ‘Oh, by the way, I have a gun here.’ We do it because we want to be able to protect ourselves, and it’s really no one else’s business.”
The bill could come up for debate and a vote in the House as soon as tomorrow. At Friday's committee hearing on the measure, attorneys for universities raised concerns that the bill's wording creates a loophole to allow open carrying of firearms on campus - and even in venues like Bronco Stadium or the Kibbie Dome - though its sponsors say it's just about concealed guns. McKenzie dismissed that concern today, saying, “It's implied.”
The Senate Health & Welfare Committee debated for close to an hour this afternoon before voting to kill Rep. Janet Trujillo’s catastrophic fund bill, HB 535. The measure, which wouldn’t have taken effect until 2016, sought to exclude from the state’s medical indigency and catastrophic care program anyone who qualified to buy health insurance through the state insurance exchange, in an attempt at several million in savings in the program that covers the catastrophic medical bills of those who can't afford to pay them. “I was very glad that we had the discussion that we had,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician, “about how we’re going to provide coverage for people in Idaho.”
“But in essence, her bill had an enacting date of 2016,” he said, “which, if we’re going to do something like that, we can pass that bill next year.” Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, was the only committee member to support passing the measure, which earlier passed the House.
The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee has voted unanimously in favor of HB 531, to grant a sales tax exemption to Camp Rainbow Gold, a kids cancer camp north of Ketchum – but only because the camp has the exemption already. Therefore, the fiscal note shows no change in revenue to the general fund. “If it woulda had a fiscal note, it wouldn’t have had a hearing,” said Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton. “We know that already.”
Jeremy Chou, a board member of the camp, explained that the American Cancer Society operated the camp for 30 years, and was listed as a health-related entity for purposes of the tax exemption in 1984. Last year, the society decided to get out of the business of running cancer camps across the country to focus on research and other priorities, and a local group took over running the camp. Chou said, “This legislation is presented to you to preserve the status quo,” to keep the camp’s exemption even though the name of the organization running it has changed.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “It just has a different organizational name – I don’t see this as an additional exemption.” He said lawmakers “certainly don’t want to penalize” the camp, and moved to approve the bill. To become law, it needs passage in the full Senate and the governor’s signature; the measure earlier passed the House, 69-0.
Every state senator or representative from North Idaho’s districts 2 through 5 is backing a move to use negotiation, rather than litigation, as the state and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe look to settle federal reserved water rights in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication. The 12 lawmakers all signed a letter to Gov. Butch Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden backing the move; today, the House Ways & Means Committee approved legislation to pass a concurrent resolution urging the state to take that route.
“It’s essentially a formal request to just move into negotiations, without having to have a long discussion in the courtroom about whether we’re going to have negotiations,” said Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene. “It’s us trying to do everything possible to avoid litigation.” Malek, an attorney, said negotiation is “a lot less costly than litigation, and more inclusive.”
Helo Hancock, legislative liaison for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “Other states that have chosen the path of litigation with tribes, there’s 50-year cases. It’s very expensive. We’ve been in discussions with the Attorney General. … There’s been a willingness to sit down at the table.”
The question of the tribe’s federal reserved water rights claims is a major factor in the adjudication of all the water rights in the North Idaho basin, which is now under way; Idaho also is concerned about downstream claims from the state of Washington. “All parties want to protect Idaho’s interests,” Malek said. The Ways & Means Committee voted to send the resolution directly to the full House’s 2nd reading calendar for a vote.
After asking lots of questions, members of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee have signed off on HB 547, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle’s bill to shift cigarette tax funds that now are going to pay off bonds for the state Capitol renovation into water recharge and road work. Under the bill, which earlier passed the House on a 63-4 vote, water and roads would be the top priorities for the newly freed-up funds once the bonds are paid off next year.
Each year, $5 million of the money would fund Idaho Department of Water Resources efforts to recharge depleted aquifers; another $4.7 million would help retire highway construction bonds from the big “Connecting Idaho” debt-for-roads program; and the remaining amount – estimated at $7 million in fiscal year 2016 and $8 million in fiscal year 2017 – would go toward addressing Idaho’s backlog of road work. Moyle said it would provide new ongoing funding both for water and for roads; Norm Semanko of the Idaho Water Users Association, supporting the bill, told the committee, “This is one of the single most important pieces of legislation for water users that we’ve seen in decades – it’s a game-changer for us.”
Moyle’s co-sponsor on the bill is House Speaker Scott Bedke. It needs passage in the full Senate and the governor’s signature to become law. Gov. Butch Otter had proposed shifting the funds to help cover Medicaid costs, but he never introduced legislation along those lines. Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said there are “a lot of good projects out there” toward which the money could have been directed, but that this bill “goes a long way to doing the right thing.”
After 10 months of research, long hearings and hard work by all three branches of Idaho’s state government, the justice reinvestment bill won quick and unanimous support this afternoon in the House Judiciary Committee. “I think enough’s been said,” said Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, after he said he was honored to make the motion to approve the bill. SB 1357 now moves to the full House; earlier, it passed the Senate unanimously, 35-0. The measure, which just needs House passage and the governor’s signature to become law, launches a five-year project to reform Idaho’s criminal justice system by strengthening parole and probation supervision and treatment; tailoring sanctions for violators to match the offense, rather than either just ignoring the violations or sending the offender back to prison; and stepping up data-gathering, from risk assessments to outcomes, to make sure the fixes work.
All are aimed at problems highlighted by the research, which was done with the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Trusts over the past year; it found that Idaho keeps non-violent offenders behind bars twice as long as the rest of the nation, and the state has one of the nation’s fastest-growing prison populations even though it has one of the lowest crime rates. By reserving prison cells for the most dangerous offenders and addressing a “revolving door of recidivism” the studies identified – particularly for those released on probation or parole who end up back in prison – the hope is to save Idaho millions, while also helping more former offenders succeed and become law-abiding, productive citizens.
“This has been a work in progress for a long, long while,” House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, told the committee. “I’m really proud to tell you that the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative branch are all on the same page.”
Holly Koole of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association told the lawmakers, “We really appreciate the prosecutors being involved in every step along the way of this process. … It’s been a long year, but we have worked hard on this and we support this bill, and we appreciate everybody’s hard work.”
State Corrections Director Brent Reinke said, “The way we really measure our success is going to be based on our outcome data.” The project is aimed at saving $288 million the state otherwise would have to spend to build a new prison within five years, by investing $33 million into the reforms. SB 1357 has a price tag of a little over $2 million; the remainder of the estimated first-year cost of $5.5 million is in items included in the governor’s recommended budget for the Department of Correction for next year, which the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved this morning.
Over the objections of all three major education stakeholder groups, the House Education Committee today approved a bill altering the teacher evaluation process, Idaho Education News reports. Rep. Steve Harris’ bill, HB 556, conflicts with recommendations from the governor’s education task force, opponents said, and could be read as requiring a 5-year-old student’s say on whether a kindergarten teacher should get a pay raise or not.
“Student input below middle school – not valid,” Luci Willits, the State Department of Education’s chief of staff, told the committee, reports Idaho EdNews reporter Clark Corbin. “You don’t do it with the little ones. That’s not going to give you the kind of information you need.” Nevertheless, the bill passed the committee and is now headed to the full House. You can read Corbin’s full report here.
A group called the “Coalition to Keep Guns Off Campus” delivered a thick stack of petitions against SB 1254, the guns-on-campus bill, to House Speaker Scott Bedke this morning. “We have nearly 3,000 Idahoans who have signed this,” said spokeswoman Emily Walton. The petitions call on lawmakers to reject SB 1254, the Senate-passed bill that was the subject of a seven-hour hearing Friday before a House committee forwarded it to the full House, where it’s now pending. The bill could come up for a vote in the full House as soon as tomorrow.
Idaho’s state Department of Correction would see an 11 percent increase in state funds next year, under a budget set by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in a series of motions today, slightly higher than the governor’s proposed 9.2 percent, but the difference is largely because it includes the same state employee pay boosts that lawmakers are writing into every state agency budget – 2 percent in total funds, with half of that for permanent raises, and half for one-time bonuses. Otter had recommended zero funding for raises. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, argued unsuccessfully for an alternative plan to make the full 2 percent permanent for prison workers, but was outvoted, 6-13; she’d earlier made the same proposal, with similar results, for the state Department of Juvenile Corrections.
Nuxoll and backers of her proposal said Corrections sees high turnover because of its low pay, which means steep training costs; other JFAC members said the same approach is being taken for all agencies next year, and it wouldn’t be fair to waive it just for one agency or another. They also suggested that if revenues are sufficient, lawmakers next year could look at making the one-time part of the raises permanent.
There was some drama on the budget for the Commission for Pardons and Parole, which is a piece of the corrections budget. The committee approved a budget on a 17-2 vote that largely matches the governor’s recommendation, declining to fund any of the upgrades the commission has requested – including funding to address a backlog in hearing minutes that stretches back four years. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, offered a stark alternative motion: Zero-fund the commission entirely. “This is meant in no way to disrespect commissioners,” Schmidt said. “But at the time of our budget hearing, what I heard deeply troubled me.” He said he’d done lots of research, and the commission appears to be “in violation of statute and rule, which in my opinion puts us in a very difficult position.”
Schmidt said under the Idaho Constitution, the Board of Correction has authority over parole. “Are we going to continue to give them money to violate the law?” he asked. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, seconded Schmidt’s motion, but it never came up for a vote, because the other proposal, from Rep. Darrell Bolz and Nuxoll, was proposed as a substitute motion and passed. Only Schmidt and Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, voted against the Bolz-Nuxoll motion.
At that point, work on the corrections budget was complete; it totals $200.7 million in state general funds, a $19.89 million increase from this year. JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said the situation reminded her of Thanksgiving dinner. “You just work hours and hours and days and days, and then in 35 minutes it’s done,” she said. “All those efforts. I do thank all of you who have taken so much time on those budgets this year. I know there were hours that went into the Monday budgets, and hours that went into these.”
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “When you leave Thanksgiving dinner, you’re always full and satisfied. You can’t always say the same here.”
The Idaho Realtors Association proposed legislation today to remove the indexing of the homeowners exemption from property taxes to the Idaho Housing Price Index, instead setting it at a fixed $90,000 at the high end. John Eaton, lobbyist for the Realtors, said his bill is backed by the Idaho Farm Bureau. He noted that after the Legislature raised the exemption to $75,000 in 2005 and tied it to the index, the exemption rose to a maximum of $104,471 in 20909, but then fell to about $81,000 in 2013; it’s now just under $84,000. “We think it’s good policy to set it at $90,000,” Eaton said, rather than have the ups and downs. He said the downs, in particular, “wasn’t really fair to the rural folks,” whose areas saw less increase in home values during boom times. “I think it would be easier across the board for everybody if we just had one flat number.”
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, spoke out against the move, saying it would mean property tax increases for homeowners in his region as real estate values recover. “It will make home ownership more expensive and it will ripple through our entire economy,” Burgoyne said, and “have a very profound and negative effect in my region of the state.”
A The House Revenue & Tax Committee agreed to introduce the bill on a voice vote, clearing the way for a possible full committee hearing.
The state’s Permanent Building Fund budget for next year won unanimous approval in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, though the panel didn’t address Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation to transfer $15 million from the state general fund to the building account for alterations and repairs; that will be taken up later, along with end-of-session decisions about deposits to rainy-day funds and the like.
The building budget includes seven capital projects: $1 million for the fifth and final year of rehab to the Capitol Annex next year to make it ready for occupancy; $2.5 million for the second and final phase of construction of the Research & Innovation Center at the University of Idaho; $80,000 for design costs only for a wildlife research lab for the Department of Fish & Game to replace UI lab facilities that will no longer be available in two years; $4.6 million to complete an $8.5 million remodel and expansion of the Idaho State Historical Museum, a project that also will include privately raised funds; $600,000 for the design phase of a $6 million ISP facility on ITD land in Pocatello; $722,500 to match federal funds to renovate an armory in Mountain Home; and $1.1 million for the Bioskills Learning Center at Idaho State University. All but the ISU project were included in the governor’s budget recommendation.
The Permanent Building Fund budget is for construction and maintenance costs for state buildings, including those at universities and community colleges; an advisory council reviews and recommends projects to the governor and Legislature. In addition to general fund appropriations, the fund has its own specific sources of revenue: A $10 “head tax” charged per person on Idaho income tax returns; $5 million a year from sales taxes; a portion of cigarette tax collections; a portion of the tax on beer; a portion of state lottery earnings; interest on the fund; and interest earned by the Budget Stabilization Account, the state’s main rainy-day fund.
Legislative budget writers took no action this morning on expanding the Idaho Education Network from high schools to elementary and middle schools next year, or on whether to cover $7.3 million in expected e-rate shortfalls in the coming year, as requested by the state Department of Administration. While setting the department’s budget, JFAC set aside no funds for those items. “That’s just not going to be decided today,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “We’re still working on it. We have the Attorney General’s office looking at language.”
Budget writers said while tens of millions in federal e-rate funds are in doubt due to questions over the award of the contract, they can’t vote on expansion. “Until we figure out what’s going on with e-rate, I don’t think we need to go and expand it,” said JFAC Vice-Chair Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. He joined with Reps. Youngblood, Thompson and King in crafting the budget motion, which passed on a 19-0 vote.
The state’s original award of the contract for the statewide broadband network that links every Idaho high school to Education Networks of America and Qwest, now CenturyLink, drew a lawsuit from another, lower bidder, Syringa Networks; the Idaho Supreme Court ruled last March that the lawsuit could proceed on the question of whether the award violated state purchasing laws, and last month, a district court judge also ruled the case can proceed on that question.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, the Federal Communications Commission has been holding up three-quarters of the funding for the IEN, which was supposed to come from e-rate funds generated by a telephone tax, while it investigates whether the contract award was improper. That prompted the Department of Administration to request $14.45 million in state funds to make up for the lost e-rate funds; JFAC approved only the $6.6 million for this year’s portion of that, and still hasn’t decided about next year.
If the feds conclude the contract award was improper, the state might have to pay back another $13 million in e-rate funds paid to ENA prior to the Supreme Court decision as well.
Idaho’s state Department of Administration would be required to re-examine its contract management practices in light with a 2013 Office of Performance Evaluations report, and report back to the Legislature on that next year; and to notify the Legislature in writing 90 days in advance of any early contract renewal, under legislative intent language that JFAC attached to the department’s budget this morning. That follows the revelation last month that Admin extended the Idaho Education Network contract through 2019 last year a year early, without notifying lawmakers. In addition, the department would be required to submit a list of contracts exceeding $1 million that are due for renewal in the upcoming fiscal year, as part of the budget-setting process.
Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, asked if that intent language – which has the force of law – carries any penalty for non-compliance. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said there’s “the co-chairs’ stink-eye,” but added, “It’s a transparency piece, where they have to come and report, and hopefully they’ll report and follow the intent language as directed – and we would anticipate they would.”
He said, “Obviously this committee has other authority and direction as we move forward on budgets.” The joint budget committee agreed unanimously to adding the intent language to the department’s budget.
The “heavy lifting” is continuing in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today, which this morning is setting budgets including the state Department of Administration and the Department of Corrections, among others. First, however, it took up a minor technical change – legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith said she made a $100 error in the previously set budget for the Office of Performance Evaluations, and asked the joint committee to reopen the budget and correct the error.
“Mrs. Holland-Smith, you never make a mistake and I think we should have just taken up a collection,” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said to laughter. “I think we could come up with some pocket change.” Sen. Dan Schmidt then moved to correct the error, “in lieu of taking up a collection.”
Idaho’s legislative session is on track to end by March 21, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey writes today, with a school budget set that’s winning support and GOP legislative leaders sticking by Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to avoid big issues like Medicaid expansion and transportation funding, set budgets and go home to campaign. Every seat in the Legislature, along with every statewide office, is on the ballot this year, with the filing period for candidates open now.
Popkey reports that Democratic leaders are miffed at a session that’s seen pro-gun, pro-agriculture and anti-wolf bills move – all good issues for the GOP – but nothing on civil rights protections for gays or other big issues like Medicaid expansion and transportation funding. “I just really am disappointed in the majority’s short-term view,” said Rusche. “The big one — the one that saves 120 lives a year and $90 million — is one that we can’t even talk about. But don’t forget: We did wolves!”
Popkey’s full piece is online here.
As part of a Ken Burns documentary, hundreds of people around the nation are reciting the Gettysburg Address – including dozens in the Idaho state Capitol today. A crew from Idaho Public TV set up in a Statehouse meeting room, and among those reciting the address for the camera were numerous lawmakers, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, shown here; Gov. Butch Otter, state Controller Brandon Woolf, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill; Parker Davis, the young grandson of Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis; Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr, several foreign exchange students, and lots of others. Students in classrooms around the state also have participated in the project.
Kris Freeland, shown at right, KUID station manager in Moscow, is coordinating the project locally. “It’s my goal to get as many people from Idaho as possible,” she said. Burns’ documentary, “The Address,” will air on Idaho Public TV on April 15; he’s launched a nationwide challenge to get people to learn more about and recite President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech.
Among today’s notable recitations: Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, took a spill on the stairs near the 3rd floor rotunda earlier today and hit his head, prompting paramedics to be called. After being checked out by the paramedics, Bateman promptly headed to the taping, with a prominent goose-egg on his forehead, and recited the full Gettysburg Address from memory. “He’s fine,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa. “Later on, I saw him grabbing his stuff and heading to a committee meeting.”
Second-term Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, has filed to run for re-election to a third term representing District 7. McMillan, who yesterday publicly asked the House to convene an ethics committee to investigate her actions when she voted against a bill that ends special protections from debt collectors for elected officials without revealing that she had personally benefited from that law, had no comment after filing her candidacy papers. Asked if she planned to send out a statement about why she’s running again, McMillan told this reporter, “No, and I think you should leave.”
McMillan won re-election in 2012 with 64.9 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic challenger Casey Drews, who had 35.1 percent. But in McMillan’s home county, Shoshone County, she actually lost to the Democratic challenger, who took 2,627 votes to McMillan’s 2,214. She outpolled Drews in the portion of the sprawling district that takes in part of Bonner and all of Clearwater and Idaho counties.
McMillan defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd in 2010, 54.9 percent to 45.1 percent, to win her seat, which then was in District 2. That year, Shepherd defeated McMillan in Shoshone County, where both are from, with 2,378 votes to McMillan’s 1,470 votes, but again, McMillan outpolled her opponent in the outlying counties in the district, which that year included Benewah, Bonner, and part of Kootenai. Shepherd died in November.
Today is not exactly the first Idaho Day – though the bill to create the new March 4 holiday, marking the anniversary of President Lincoln’s signing of the act creating Idaho Territory, has passed both houses and Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law today. The bill, HB 378, has no emergency clause. That means it takes effect July 1. So the first designated “Idaho Day” holiday would be in 2015.
Both the House and Senate voted unanimously in favor of HB 378. “Idaho Day” wouldn’t be a paid holiday or a day to close government offices; just a day to highlight Idaho’s history and heritage. On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the congressional act creating Idaho Territory. Twenty-seven years later, President Benjamin Harrison signed a congressional act on July 3, 1890 establishing Idaho as the 43rd state.
Legislation to boost Idaho’s top highway speed to 80 mph for rural stretches of interstate and to 70 mph for two-lane roads has cleared the House Transportation Committee, though five members voted no; the Senate-passed bill would let the Idaho Transportation Department determine which stretches of road are appropriate for the 5 mph boost in top speeds.
Mike Kane, lobbyist for AAA of Idaho, pleaded with the committee to “tap the brakes” and send the bill to the House’s amending order, to push its effective date a year out into the future. “Give us an extra year,” he said. Kane said AAA, which represents motorists, has lots of questions. “One hundred big game animals are killed approximately, every year, by road collisions,” he said. “When are we going so fast that everybody will be over-driving their headlights? We don’t know at this point.” He also raised concerns about big trucks traveling at high speeds, and asked, “Will increased speeds have an effect on road conditions in the long term? … We don’t know what the answer to that is. We’re trying to find that out … have a public conversation. … Let us work with ITD, let us work with the sponsor.”
SB 1284a earlier passed the Senate on a 30-4 vote. “There are roads that are currently designed for these greater rates of speed,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told the lawmakers. “The bill is written in a way that life safety, not convenience, life safety was the primary factor.” If the bill wins approval from the full House and the governor signs it into law, it would take effect July 1. There’s no specified date after that by which ITD must decide on whether to change the speed limits on any particular roadway; Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, noted that the department could decide not to raise the limits anywhere. The bill requires the agency to conduct a traffic and engineering study on the stretch of road in question, and decide based on the public interest.
Idahoans who bought computers or other electronic devices containing DRAM chips from 1998 to 2002 may be eligible for payments from a legal settlement announced today by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. The case involved price fixing by manufacturers of the chips; Idaho and other states have reached a $310 million settlement with the chip-makers.
“I am pleased the manufacturers worked with the states to reach an agreement that appropriately addresses our concerns and resolves this matter on behalf of Idaho consumers,” Wasden said. “Idaho’s governments, businesses and consumers spent significant amounts of money on products that contain DRAM. When those costs are inflated by unlawful anti-competitive practices, as we have alleged in this case, we have a duty to help consumers recover their money.” Click below for Wasden’s full announcement.
HB 546, state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer’s “Reimbursement Incentive Act,” has passed the House on a resounding 63-5 vote and is headed to the Senate side. “It’s an economic development tool,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, said, “Whether we like it or not, tax incentives have become a critical component to business growth and recruitment. … Post-performance incentives like this one are simply less risky than others.”
Patterned after a Utah law, the bill would allow the state to consider rebating up to 30 percent of a company’s corporate income tax, sales tax and payroll tax if it brings in certain numbers of high-paying new jobs. The credit would be available to existing as well as new companies, and projects would qualify only if they bring a minimum of 20 new jobs to a rural area or 50 to an urban area; and if the new jobs pay higher than the typical wage in the county.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I’m a co-sponsor and I favor this bill. This has been a bill that’s been worked on for a long time. It started out as a value-added tax credit for agricultural products industries. I think it’s been changed significantly and beneficially to be a rebate rather than a tax deduction.” The only “no” votes came from Reps. McMillan, Barrett, Sims, Harris and Shepherd.
HB 567, Rep. Janet Trujillo’s parental rights bill, has cleared the House Education Committee after a long debate, and now moves to the full House. Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, told the committee, “Parental rights, as we take education in a different direction within the state, are being violated.” She added, “We will encourage involvement, and maybe involvement by parents who haven’t felt the need before.”
Two moms testified in favor of the bill, saying it would allow them to opt out of things like standardized testing for their children or use of a required laptop computer. “I guess here we are, hoping to protect in writing that which was already mine, endowed by my creator,” Stacey Knudsen told the committee. Julie Lynde, executive director of Cornerstone Family Council, urged support for the bill. “Parental rights are under siege as are so many of our other rights,” she said. “Courts will be able to have something firm to stand on in Idaho statute that affirms parents’ fundamental rights.”
Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, asked Lynde if the bill would, for example, allow a parent to veto a teacher’s assignment for a student to read Huckleberry Finn and write a book report. Lynde responded, “It says parents have a right to be involved in their child’s education, and not only that, but it’s best that the parent is involved.”
Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association said, “While this legislation is certainly better than the first version we were given, ISBA … doesn’t understand the need for it.” She also said the bill appears to inaccurately quote the U.S. Constitution.
Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked Echeverria if she’d heard of the United Nations Treaty on the Rights of the Child. “That’s been around since 1989,” Mendive said. “This is a very real threat. … Currently there are only two nations that have not ratified this treaty, that would be the United States and Somalia. … There is a threat out there, whether or not it’s real, I think it is. … This is sadly necessary in this day and age to try to protect the rights of parents, because parental rights are under assault, some from within and some from the international community.”
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, proposed a small amendment, to remove the word “obligation,” based on the Attorney General’s office advice. Clow said with that word in there, the bill could be interpreted as doing the opposite of what its sponsors intend – people could argue that parents have an obligation to participate in their children’s education, including by putting their kids through all required testing and the like. But his motion to amend the bill was voted down, and the original motion, from Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, passed on a voice vote. Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, declared, “No one loves my kids more than me.”
Twenty-three people were been arrested in this morning's gay rights protest at the state Capitol, four for trespassing, 18 for unlawful assembly/refusal to disperse, and one for resisting or obstructing an officer. There was no physical confrontation, ISP said; the resisting charge involved a protester who refused to leave with officers once placed under arrest.
Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said all the charges are misdemeanors; the protesters, their hands secured with plastic zip ties, are being loaded onto a white Ada County Sheriff's bus in front of the state Capitol for the ride to the county jail, where they can arrange to post bond. Here, a group of protesters is led to the bus, including, at right, former Sen. Nicole LeFavour. Baker said the difference in charges this time - previous protesters were charged with trespassing - came because “they were blocking different doors - a non-public door.” The protesters blockaded all entrances to the governor's office this morning, keeping employees, including the governor himself, out for more than an hour.
Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, is presenting her parental rights bill, HB 567, to the House Education Committee this morning. “One argument I’ve heard against this bill is it would allow for opt-out on standardized testing,” Trujillo told the committee. “The fact is, student achievement and standardized tests are higher when parents are involved in their children’s education.”
The bill has 18 legislative co-sponsors, all Republicans. Its wording doesn’t mention standardized testing, instead just saying, “Under the United States Constitution and as recognized by Idaho courts, parents and legal guardians who have legal custody of minor children have a right, responsibility and obligation to participate in the education of such minor children. It is the public policy of this state that parents retain the fundamental right and duty to exercise primary control over the care, supervision and upbringing of their children.”
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said he’s concerned about an unintended consequence of the bill, that by including the word “obligation” it “could be used as some sort of a tool by parents in a custody battle or child welfare situations,” with perhaps one parent claiming his or her ex wasn't meeting the obligation and therefore should lose custody. Clow said he shared his concern with the Idaho Attorney General’s office, and was advised that the concern could be addressed by simply removing the word “obligation.” He asked Trujillo if she’d do that, but she said, “The basis of this legislation is not to be used as a punitive measure.” She said the wording of the bill is “pretty much verbatim from a long line of Supreme Court decisions. … So I’m not one to say that the Supreme Court language is problematic.”
More than a dozen “Add the 4 Words” protesters have been arrested and removed from the entrances to the governor's office this morning, which they were blocking. Meanwhile, governor's office employees - including the governor himself - milled around outside the complex of offices; Otter paced around the ground-floor rotunda, on the phone. Former Sen. Nicole LeFavour was the first one arrested today; the protesters may face additional charges, beyond the misdemeanor trespassing charges filed against the 122 arrested in earlier protests this session, possibly including failing to comply with a lawful order from an officer.
State Department of Administrator Director Teresa Luna said, “They're blocking the secure door, so that is a little different,” referring to the side door of the complex of the governor's offices. Major Steve Richardson of the Idaho State Police said a bus is waiting in front of the Capitol to take those arrested to jail. He said it's being handled “largely the same” as earlier protests, but there may be “some different charges this time.” Some of those arrested were handcuffed.
“Add the 4 Words” protesters are blocking every entrance to the governor's office this morning, standing silently with their hands over their mouths. The protesters, who arrived about 6:45 a.m., have posted signs saying anyone inside the offices who wants to leave need only knock and they'll let them through. Staffers for the governor gathered with Senate and security officials in offices across the hall briefly this morning. About 21 protesters are blocking the four entrances to the governor's office area, including the main door. Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said they're willing to be arrested. “We're prefer they just start working on the bill,” she said, saying the protesters will “remain in place until the governor is willing to start ending his silence on this issue.”
The protesters want the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act, which now bans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on race, religion and other factors, but not those. The change has been proposed every year for the last eight, but has never gotten a full committee hearing in the Legislature.
LeFavour said the protesters are particularly concerned about the impact of the lack of discrimination protections on gay teens in the state, and the message sent by the lack of action on the legislation. “You look at Pocatello and it scares me,” she said; a gay Pocatello teen committed suicide in February after being bullied at school. That followed another suicide in 2011. “We can't let them despair like that,” said LeFavour, Idaho's first openly gay state lawmaker. “We have to give them a promise that things will get better, now.”
Amid concerns from Senate GOP leaders, the Idaho Sheriffs Association has agreed to cut in half its requested increase in county jail payments for housing state prisoners. Mike Kane, the association’s lobbyist, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon that his organization will go along with amendments to take the current $40 per day rate up to $45, rather than to $50, next year, cutting the cost to the state general fund for the increase in half. HB 465 earlier passed the House on a 47-20 vote; its fiscal impact as currently written was estimated at $2.19 million. The Senate committee agreed to send HB 465 to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments.
The House has voted 54-13 in favor of a $126 million cut in income taxes over the next six years; HB 548 now moves to the Senate side, where Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway already has said he doesn’t plan to give it a hearing, as he favors instead further expanding the property tax exemption for business equipment. The bill would lower every individual and corporate income tax bracket’s rate by a tenth of a percent each year for the next six, eventually lowering the top rates from 7.4 percent down to 6.8 percent. If the state’s general fund revenue didn’t grow by at least 3 percent in a particular year, the next installment wouldn’t happen.
“This is a simple little bill,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “One of the problems that we have is that our income tax and our corporate tax are on the high end of things.” Moyle said the bill would reduce them “so that we’re more competitive, especially with our surrounding states.”
Moyle told the House that Idaho’s per-capita tax rates “rank in the middle on most of them.” However, the state Tax Commission’s annual study of how Idaho’s per-capita tax burden compares to other states, posted in October on the commission’s website, shows that Idaho’s overall tax burden ranks 49th nationally out of 51, and 11th regionally out of 11 western states. Both rankings, based on 2011 taxes, the most recent available for comparison, were unchanged from 2010.
HB 548 now moves to the Senate, where it’s likely to land in Siddoway’s committee.
Idaho state Rep. Shannon McMillan has asked that the House convene an ethics committee to examine her actions, after she voted against a bill that could hurt her financially without revealing her conflict of interest. “It is with deepest regret that I rise before you today and offer my sincerest apology,” she told the House.
McMillan, a second-term Republican from Silverton, cast one of just two votes against HB 510, legislation to remove Idaho lawmakers’ special exemption from having their wages garnished for state court judgments. According to court records, McMillan has had numerous court judgments against her, including one from North Idaho Credit Corp. that led to a writ of garnishment. On July 29, court records show, that writ was returned because McMillan is an “exempt employee.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Gov. Butch Otter filed his candidacy papers this morning with the Idaho Secretary of State's office to run for a third term. Otter, who hasn't yet made a formal announcement, has been gearing up his re-election campaign nonetheless. So have his challengers, including GOP primary opponent Russ Fulcher, the Senate majority caucus chairman; and Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff. “Well, you're official,” Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told Otter today. Otter's campaign manager Jayson Ronk said Otter will formally announce his candidacy “soon.”
Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, was upbeat this morning after the House Education Committee agreed to introduce his bill for a preschool pilot program, after hearing his 45-minute presentation about the bill. “It was actually great – it gave me an opportunity really explain the bill,” Kloc said, and to address questions and objections about it. Kloc said he felt he made a good case that the bill lines up with several of the education improvement task force recommendations, including one regarding literacy.
Some lawmakers wanted to know why there’s a need for preschool and whether it isn’t really just a family thing, he said. “I agree it is a family thing, but the families that work two or three jobs just to make ends meet have little time to work with their kids on reading and math, things that’ll get them ready for kindergarten.”
The bill would set up pilot preschool classes in five elementary schools across the state; the programs would be voluntary, both for families and for school districts, and 55 percent of the funding would be raised from private sources. Idaho is one of nine states that does not fund pre-K.
There’s no guarantee that the bill will move any further this session; the committee’s vote to introduce it means it’ll be printed and get a bill number, and it clears the way for a full public hearing in the committee – but only if the chairman chooses to schedule one. “I think preschool will come to Idaho eventually,” Kloc said. “Where this goes from here I’m not sure. But our objective was to get it in and printed, just to move it in the right direction, and we did that today.” Idaho Education News has a full report here.
On a 15-5 vote, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has set a budget for Idaho Public Television that largely matches Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation, but makes a shift from one-time funding for half of the needed replacement items, to ongoing funding for $400,000 worth of maintenance and repair funding, in an effort to get out in front on replacing failing equipment. That means that money would become part of the agency’s base budget. Otter had recommended $800,000 in one-time funds for replacement items; the agency had requested $1.6 million.
The successful motion, crafted by Reps. Ringo, Eskridge and Stevenson and Sen. Lacey, is aimed at equipment-replacement problems the TV network has repeatedly faced in recent years, as aging equipment failed. Last year, Idaho Public TV was allocated $296,400 for replacement items; the year before, $189,600; and for the two years before that, zero.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that last year, service to Salmon failed until lawmakers approved replacement of needed equipment. “Rather than having to go back and always beg for replacement items,” she said, the new approach will allow for better planned maintenance. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “It’s pay me now or pay me later.” The budget motion passed on a 15-5 vote, after an alternative, proposed by Sen. Dan Johnson, failed 6-14; it would have allocated more money overall, but not added ongoing funds for maintenance and repairs. Overall, the budget for next year is a 20.5 percent increase in state funds, largely because of the equipment replacement and maintenance funding; it’s just a 1.7 percent increase in total funds.
A decision on how to handle the future of a high school WiFi contract and the Schoolnet program has been postponed for three days, by unanimous consent of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I feel like we’re making a decision here without full information,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, asked that all other sections of intent language relating to the new Division of Central Services in the public school budget be approved, but those two be held open for three days. The joint committee agreed unanimously to the delay.
The motion to fund the new Central Services division of the public school budget at $15.7 million in state general funds, $16.8 million total funds, has passed on an 18-2 vote of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, with just Sens. Steve Vick and Sheryl Nuxoll dissenting. The bigger debate is the one coming up, however, on the “intent language” specifying how that money should be spent. That includes how to handle the future of a statewide WiFi contract, the Schoolnet program and more. The funds are being shifted from other, existing divisions of the school budget for better identification.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, who made the funding motion, said creating the new division in the budget is important. “It provides transparency that we need to have in state government that we have not had,” he said.
In the past, the public schools budget included just six divisions. This year, a seventh division has been added: Central Services. Moved into that division are items for which the state Department of Education is granted funds to secure services centrally for Idaho school districts, including the statewide contract for high school WiFi networks and the funding for an instructional management system, which now includes the Schoolnet program. The idea is to provide more transparency in the budget-setting process for those items; last year, lawmakers were stunned when the State Department of Education signed a five- to 15-year contract with Education Networks of America for WiFi networks in every high school in the state. They had granted the department only a one-time, $2.25 million appropriation for WiFi networks in high schools, and didn’t expect a long-term contract to be signed.
How to proceed on that in the future is a matter that’s still being hotly debated; that division is up next this morning. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, favors ending the WiFi contract through non-appropriation – every state contract contains a clause saying if lawmakers don’t appropriate funds for another year, the contract is void. But some JFAC members worry that if they cut off the contract, but still send money to school districts for their own WiFi networks, the state could end up legally on the hook for both.
An Idaho Attorney General’s office analysis distributed to JFAC members this morning says if the contract is ended through non-appropriation, ENA is required to remove all of its equipment from Idaho schools. The department could waive that, however, or negotiate a buyout of some of the equipment. The analysis also warned that if the state wants to end the contract through non-appropriation, it shouldn’t allocate any money to the department for wireless networks – just to local school districts – to avoid liability for continuing the contract.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, arguing for her motion to give teachers a 1.5 percent base pay increase next year instead of 1 percent, noted that teachers have lost thousands in pay due to budget cuts during the economic downturn, and not all teachers will benefit from leadership bonuses. “All the teachers have felt the bite of those changes – every single one of them,” she said. “There’s not a huge difference in numbers between my motion and the main motion, but I think it speaks volumes in values.”
Ringo’s motion drew just four “yes” votes, from her, Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, and Sens. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; and Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston. The original motion, for the 1 percent increase, then passed on a 15-5 vote, but the opponents were different: They included Ringo and King along with Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood; Cliff Bayer, R-Boise; and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens. Vick had asked several questions about money included in the budget for teacher professional development and how that relates to new Idaho core standards. That vote was for the teachers division, one of seven divisions within the public school budget.
“There’s a lot about this budget that I support, including raising minimum salaries and professional development,” Vick said. “In fact, I support most of what’s in here. What I don’t support is that we don’t really seem to have an answer on how much of an impact the new core standards will have to individual school districts and how much that’s going to cost. … I have some concerns about the standards and I don’t know where else I have a chance to voice my objections to implementing the standards, so that’s why I’m doing that here.”
The successful teachers division budget also includes an increase in the minimum teacher salary to $31,750, bringing it back up to the 2009 level.
The numbers in the series of motions for the public school budget next year proposed by 14 members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee add up to a $66.2 million increase (5.1%) in general funds for public schools next year, compared to Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed $37.5 million increase (2.9%). State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna had originally requested an increase of more than $70 million (5.4%).
Otter called for restoring $35 million in operational funds that were cut from the school budget through the economic downturn; the motions include those funds. They also include $15.8 million for leadership bonuses for teachers, which Otter hadn’t included in his budget; and a 1 percent increase in base pay for teachers and administrators, whereas Otter had recommended zero.
Still to come this morning are debates over how to approach future funding for high school wireless networks and for Schoolnet, an instructional management software system that’s drawn lots of complaints from school districts, some of which have opted to buy different systems.
JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said if the joint committee can’t reach agreement on the intent language regarding those items today, it could hold that for later. He said he hoped that debate over those items won’t obscure the big picture about the budget lawmakers are setting today: “It’s as good a public schools budget as we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. The total in state general funds next year would be $1,374,598,400; the alternative motion from Reps. Shirley Ringo and Phylis King is for $1,376,724,900. The governor’s recommendation was $1,345,819,300.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is preparing this morning to set the single largest slice of Idaho's state budget - the budget for public schools. Much work and negotiation has been going on behind the scenes, on everything from how to handle a high school WiFi contract to teacher pay. A group of 14 JFAC members - that's 14 of the 20 members - has come together to craft a series of motions to set the budget; another, dissenting group of two members, Democratic Reps. Shirley Ringo and Phylis King, have crafted their own version. But the only difference between the two is on pay. Ringo and King want a 1.5 percent increase in base pay for teachers and administrators, while the others want 1 percent; both proposals also include $15.8 million for one-time leadership bonuses for teachers, as laid out in a bill now moving through the Legislature. The Ringo/King proposal also calls for a 1.5 percent increase in the minimum teacher salary, from the current $31,000 a year to $31,465. The larger group is calling for a bigger boost to the minimum salary, to $31,750 - the same level it was set at in 2009.
The public school budget is divided into a series of divisions; on the first division, dealing with administrators, the Ringo-King motion was defeated 2-17, and then the larger group's motion passed, 17-2. The sponsors of the successful motion are Sens. Cameron, Keough, Mortimer, Thayn, Schmidt, and Lacey, and Reps. Bell, Bolz, Thompson, Eskridge, Gibbs, Miller, Stevenson and Youngblood.
Overall, the larger groups' motions, if all pass, would result in a 5.1 percent increase in public school funding next year, and 4.9 percent in total funds. The Ringo/King motions would result in a 5.2 percent general fund boost and 5 percent in total funds. Gov. Butch Otter recommended a 2.9 percent increase in state general funds, 2.8 percent overall.