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.