Special coverage

Idaho Politics

Political and legislative news out of Idaho.

Latest from The Spokesman-Review

Idaho prisons chief pleads for end to staff furloughs

Idaho’s state prison system, with its crimped budget, has continued to put employees on furlough this year, to the tune of 90,000 furlough hours for the fiscal year. That includes 15,000 fewer hours spent monitoring probationers and parolees in the community. State Corrections Director Brent Reinke said the department is saving $1.89 million this year because of furloughs – they’ve even helped push down the overall cost per inmate from $57.44 per day in fiscal 2009 to $52.22 per day in fiscal 2010 - but it doesn’t want to continue them next year. In fiscal year 2010, staff furloughs were equivalent to losing 35 staffers, Reinke told JFAC, at a time when the prison system also eliminated 71 permanent positions and 32 temporary ones.


Idaho’s corrections budget has dropped 19 percent since fiscal year 2009. Cost-saving moves have included everything from trimming food costs to 83 cents per meal to setting up a trio of options for short-term sentencing, with three, six- and nine-month options, and carefully shifting inmates among the lowest-cost beds that are appropriate for them. Meanwhile, Reinke said, other states are looking at releasing thousands of inmates due to budget crises, a move Idaho hasn’t considered. “Idaho’s path is different from other states,” Reinke said, focusing instead on moves to drive down the inmate population and control costs. “We want to be sure in the department that the short-term crises that we have do not lead to long-term consequences.”

 

But the cutbacks are taking a toll, he said, particularly on staff. Turnover has ballooned to 28 percent, which then bumps up training costs. “I need to be able to touch the minds and hearts of our staff, because I’ve already picked their pocket,” Reinke said. “It’s got to be about keeping Idaho safe.”

Big Medicaid shortfall could force Idaho to rely on volunteers

Idaho’s Medicaid program is projecting a $42.3 million shortfall in the current year, in state general funds. Last year, the program pushed $89.4 million in bills into the current fiscal year – leaving providers waiting from three weeks to three months for payment – in order to balance next year’s budget. But if that were tried again, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers this morning, the delayed payments would then fall under the reduced federal matching rate that Idaho will see next year.


“That doesn’t mean it might not be a good strategy, but it has a significant cost attached to it that we didn’t face last year,” he told JFAC.


Looking ahead, Idaho’s facing a projected state fund shortfall for Medicaid in fiscal year 2012 of $171.6 million. That’s a huge hole, and Armstrong said it’ll likely mean cutting services. Children are protected, so “we would have to focus on adult services – that’s where we’d have to go. We would have to eliminate major categories of service.” Armstrong said “every state in the nation” is looking at the same “Draconian” type of cuts.


One suggestion he offered to cope with the crisis: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was much more use of volunteers in providing services to the disabled and others. Idaho could “see if there could be a resurgence of voluntary assistance, specifically around keeping adults stable in the home environment,” Armstrong said.

Budget writers: ‘It’s going to be hard’

You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on today’s JFAC discussions, in which state lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee got a grim glimpse of the decision-making that awaits them when they convene in January, including a possible budget shortfall for next year in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who said the state may have to eliminate some programs that are “not as effective as others.” “We have to see where we may be able to do less,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC co-chair. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, disagreed. “We’re in a culture of timidity with respect to taking the responsibility to match revenue to meet our needs,” she said. “I think in part the role of this committee should be to identify those things that we think we responsibly have to provide, and supporting that we have to find the means to do that.”

Groaned Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “Why would anybody want to be on JFAC this year? It’s going to be hard.” Hammond, a former school principal, noted that the state constitution requires the Legislature to fund education. He said, “I guess I’m still hoping that we’ll find something out there that’ll help us avoid cutting deeper.

On Tuesday, the joint committee will hear presentations on likely shortfalls in funding for Medicaid, state prisons, colleges and universities.

Student data system could bring savings

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A state budget analyst says Idaho could bank hefty savings from a new system designed to collect and monitor student test scores, attendance and other data from the time they enroll in kindergarten. Paul Headlee, an Idaho Legislature budget analyst who covers public education, says Arkansas realized savings of $15 million after its newly installed longitudinal data system found the state had over-counted students by 2,200. Headlee told lawmakers Monday that there is potential for Idaho to realize some savings as well. Idaho is among few states without a longitudinal data system to better track and count students. The state has put more than $2.5 million toward the creation of a student data system since March 2008. Headlee said the state applied for, but did not win, a $20 million federal grant to finish building the system. During the upcoming legislative session, public schools chief Tom Luna plans to request $926,000 in ongoing state funds for the program, along with $43,000 in one-time funds to purchase equipment.

Initial school budget request wouldn’t restore any of $128M in cuts

A public school budget request for next year that would make this year’s historic $128 million funding cut for schools permanent – none of it would be restored - was reviewed by the Legislature’s joint budget committee this afternoon. The request is preliminary, having been prepared in September, and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said it’s likely to change before January. But it gave lawmakers a sign of what’s to come.

The request calls for discretionary funding to school districts to remain where it is this year, while adding in funding for an anticipated 5,000 additional students, or 250 classroom units; and replacing one-time funds that were plugged into this year’s school budget with state general funds. That combination plugs $60 million more into the general fund budget total, without increasing per-pupil spending. There also are a couple of new items, including $47 each to pay the fee for college entrance exams for every high school junior in the state, and an undetermined amount of funding for a new third year of math and science that will be required for high school graduation for the class of 2013.

Overall, the budget request totals $1.29 billion in state general funds and $1.62 billion total, which would be 6.2 percent more in general funds than schools got this year, and 2.6 percent more in total funds. (That compares to this year’s figures of $1.21 billion in general funds and $1.58 billion total.) Luna said the request will change when there’s more information about the economy, state revenues and more. Mostly, he said, it was intended as an “instructional piece” to show that even if Idaho just wants to keep school funding where it is now, the total will have to rise to cover growth and lost one-time funds. “We have a $60 million hole that we have to fill before we see any increase in per-pupil spending,” Luna said.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair, said, “I know this will be a tough budget for this coming year.” Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, called the request “reasonable,” and said it’s no “pie in the sky.” However, he also noted that it replaces all the one-time money, such as federal stimulus money, that propped up this year’s school budget with state general funds. Noting the grim overall budget outlook lawmakers heard earlier today, Hammon said, “I think that’s a very ambitious goal in light of what we saw this morning.”

Tax commission wants extra auditors made permanent

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A State Tax Commission official says the agency will request $2.7 million in the upcoming Legislature to permanently take on workers who were hired on a temporary basis to collect unpaid taxes. Randy Tilley, administrator of the agency’s Audit and Collections Division, says the commission will request an additional $2.3 million to hire another 48 temporary workers next year. Earlier this month, Tilley said temporary workers had brought in more than $5.5 million at a cost of just $157,092 over a three-month period that began July 1. The collection goal for the temporary workers was $1.266 million. He presented the information to the Legislature’s joint budget writing committee on Monday. Lawmakers will likely use that information in deciding whether to dedicate funding to make all of this year’s temporary positions permanent and hire more temporary workers.

PERSI healthier than other state retirement systems

The Public Employee Retirement Fund of Idaho has gone from 78.9 percent funded in October of 2010 to 87.7 percent funded as of last Thursday, fund director Don Drum reported to lawmakers on the joint budget committee this morning. The system’s unfunded liability has dropped to $1.5 billion, less than half the figure from June 30, 2009 that alarmed some lawmakers during this year’s legislative session.

Bob Maynard, the fund’s investment director, noted that the fund was 105 percent funded back in 2007, before the recession hit. “Prospects for the future are reasonable, but very fragile,” he said. Maynard told JFAC, “We are still in a hole, but the hole is relatively much shallower” than those for other state retirement funds. Funds typically don’t want to be 100 percent funded because that means the current generation is paying too much; 90 to 95 percent is the ideal, Maynard said. “We have a pretty modest plan structure. We don’t have medical. We have a healthy employee contribution going into the system. … We have consistent employer contributions … a relatively modest level of benefits, there’s no frills, no attempt to use this for economic development in the state, a small mandatory COLA. … There’ve been no permanent benefit increases in good times, and always required a reserve.”

He added, “From day one, all benefit increases that have been put into the system have been fully funded from contribution rates, unlike other retirement systems.”

What that’s meant for Idaho’s state retirement system is that it needs to earn only 3.75 percent above inflation to meet statutory benefit requirements, whereas other systems need 5 percent or more. Thus, a simple, conservative investment approach can work, and that’s what’s happened.

State forecasters ‘very comfortable’ about revenue growth

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he’d put state economist Derek Santos on the spot, as JFAC often did to newly retired state chief economist Mike Ferguson, while recognizing that there’s always risk in economic forecasting: He asked him what his level of confidence was that Idaho’s state tax revenues would actually grow by 3 to 4 percent in fiscal year 2011. The official state forecast calls for 4.7 percent growth.

Santos looked back to his boss, DFM chief Wayne Hammon, who gave him a nod and said, “It’s your neck.” Amid laughter, Santos said, “Recognizing this may be a career decision, I’m very comfortable with 3 to 4 percent. I would be very comfortable with 3 to 4 percent, and I’m still comfortable with 4.7 percent.”

Idaho tax revenues beat forecast again

Gov. Butch Otter’s Division of Financial Management is presenting its latest revenue figures to JFAC; in October, state tax revenues were up $8.8 million over projections, for a year-to-date total of $22.8 million ahead of projections. Both individual and corporate income taxes are running well ahead of projections. Overall for fiscal year 2011, DFM economist Derek Santos said the prediction is for $2.36995 billion in state tax revenues, an increase of 4.7 percent over fiscal year 2010.

Wayne Hammon, DFM chief, told JFAC members, “I believe the current forecast is accurate as a breakdown by month. … It’s not skewed.” However, the fact that revenues so far aren’t growing by the full 4.7 percent could be a sign of further forecast revisions ahead, Hammon said.

JFAC reviewing grim budget figures

JFAC, the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, is holding its interim meeting in the state Capitol today, as lawmakers begin looking ahead to the budgeting task they’ll face in January when they convene. Among the figures reviewed thus far: One-time money used in setting the fiscal year 2011 budget – the year now under way – that won’t be available in fiscal year 2012 adds up to $270.7 million. Additional costs to which the state’s already committed in 2012, from school enrollment growth to a second year of a phased-in increase in state tax auditors to collect uncollected taxes, add millions more, for a potential shortfall of $340.2 million if revenues don’t grow.

The state’s general fund tax revenue is forecast to grow 4.7 percent in 2012, but lawmakers are leery about the estimate; so far, it’s been closer to 2.8 percent.

Also, under terms of the federal stimulus funding, if state revenue increases beyond the 2011 appropriation unexpectedly, more than half of that must be funneled back into school and higher ed funding, per federal “maintenance of effort” requirements. That money can’t go into reserve funds or capital projects. And the state already faces $27.3 million in supplemental budget request for the current year, for everything from Medicaid costs to the catastrophic health care program to enrollment growth at the College of Western Idaho. In addition, there are numerous requests from agencies for additional general funds, for everything from making up one-time funding cuts that aren’t sustainable to urgent needs to cover additional costs.

Semanko: As red as Idaho is, Wyoming has us beat

Here’s an interesting tidbit shared by Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko on IPTV’s “Dialogue” program last night: Despite the GOP sweep in this year’s elections, Idaho is no longer the “most-Republican” state as measured by Republican dominance in its top offices and Legislature. Wyoming takes that prize. Wyoming, like Idaho, has its entire congressional delegation and all its statewide offices held by Republicans. The difference: While Idaho has now jumped up to 80 percent GOP in its state Legislature, Wyoming is at 84 percent.

Semanko, Roark to analyze election results, take calls tonight

Idaho’s state Republican and Democratic party chairmen - Norm Semanko and Keith Roark - will analyze the election results and take calls from viewers tonight on Idaho Public Television’s “Dialogue” with host Marcia Franklin; there’s more info here.  The show airs live at 8:30 p.m. Mountain time, 7:30 Pacific; to join the conversation, you can email your questions in before the show to dialogue@idahoptv.org, or call in live during the show, toll free, at (800) 973-9800.

Idaho’s first Hispanic congressman-elect says vote sent message about state

Idaho elected its first Hispanic to represent the state in Congress on Tuesday, as Raul Labrador upset freshman Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick with a decisive 51 percent to 41.3 percent victory. Labrador, a conservative Republican state lawmaker and immigration attorney who charged during the race that Minnick’s attack ads against him had racial overtones, said he thought the “first” was significant because it sent a message to the nation about Idahoans.

“People have such a bad connotation of what Idaho represents,” Labrador said, “a bad place, a racist place. I can’t think of a better message for Idaho to send than to send a young man who was born in Puerto Rico, was raised in Las Vegas and was adopted by this state.” Tony Stewart, a founding board member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said the election result is one of a long string of firsts in Idaho’s history that belie the state’s image, which was tarnished by the presence in the 1990s of a small but violent group of white supremacists.

Idaho elected the nation’s first Jewish governor, Moses Alexander, in 1914, and the nation’s first Native American attorney general, Larry EchoHawk, in 1990. It’s also elected Native Americans to the state Legislature and at one time elected a high percentage of women to the Legislature compared to other states. “So there’s a track record there of looking at the merits of how people are seen as candidates, and they’re not basing it on race, but on the issues,” Stewart said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Victorious Republicans rally on state Capitol steps

Victorious Republican candidates gathered on the Statehouse steps for a rally today, where Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko declared, “Last night was the biggest victory in the history of Idaho Republican politics.” Newly elected 1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador said he can now remove the bright red “Fire Pelosi” pin he’s been wearing on his lapel for the last few weeks. “We have done the job and I can take it off, because the mission has been finished,” Labrador declared. Newly re-elected Gov. Bucth Otter said, “Our focus for the next four years … is to continue on exactly what we’ve started the last four years.”

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who won a third term in the Senate, said, “I think the message from America, which is the same message that people here in Idaho were sending us, is that we need to get to work. … My hope is that we can now get down to work, to work across party lines, develop consensus-based, conservative, constitutional focused solutions to the issues facing our nation. We can do it, we will do it.”

Idaho voters OK four constitutional amendments

All four constitutional amendments that were on the Idaho ballot passed, and passed fairly easily. SJR 101, allowing “tuition” at the University of Idaho (rather than just “fees”), passed with 64.1 percent of the vote. HJR 4, on hospital debt, got 63.5 percent; HJR 5 on airport debt, passed with 53.3 percent support, and HJR 7, for municipal electric system debts and power contracts, passed with 57 percent. All had received overwhelming support in the Idaho Legislature - that’s how they got on the ballot - though the Idaho Republican Party at its convention this year voted to oppose the three debt amendments.

All 11 constitutional amendments that have appeared on Idaho’s ballot since 1998 have won approval from Idaho voters, including complex measures dealing with endowment investment reform. Idaho voters tend to support them. This AP photo by Charlie Litchfield shows a scene from Idaho’s polls yesterday.

Election expands GOP supermajority in the Idaho Legislature

The Republican sweep that swept across Idaho yesterday did more than return the state to a 100 percent Republican congressional delegation to match its all-GOP slate of top statewide officials: It also added five seats to the Republican majority in the Idaho House. According to final, unofficial results, the five switches came as seven-term Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, lost to first-time GOP candidate Shannon McMillan in District 2; Republican Kathy Sims beat Democrat Paula Marano for the seat formerly held by Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, in District 4; Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, lost to Republican challenger Jeff Nesset in District 7; Republican Jim Guthrie won the District 29 seat formerly held by Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, defeating Democrat Greg Anderson; and, in the closest race in the state, former Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, edged Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking by just nine votes in District 18, to win the seat formerly held by Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise.

Durst lost his bid for the Idaho Senate seat formerly held by Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, to Republican Mitch Toryanski by just 103 votes. But Democrat Dan Schmidt defeated Republican Gresham Dale Bouma to take the Senate seat formerly held by longtime Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, whom Bouma defeated in the GOP primary; that leaves the Senate’s party balance where it was, with 28 Republicans and seven Democrats.

The Idaho House went from 52 Republicans and 18 Democrats to - if these election results hold - 57 Republicans and 13 Democrats. That drops the Dems from a quarter of the seats in the House to under a fifth. Overall, that means the Idaho Legislature goes from three-quarters GOP to four-fifths.

Labrador, Minnick comment on results

Outgoing Congressman Walt Minnick issued a statement early this morning, saying, “It now appears that Raul Labrador will be the victor when all the votes are finally tallied. Therefore, early this morning I placed a call to Raul and wished him every success as Idaho’s next Congressman. I, in particular, hope he can be successful in working with the Administration and his colleagues of both parties in the exceedingly important task ahead of putting our country back to work and of balancing our nation’s budget.”

Meanwhile, the victorious Labrador issued a statement saying, “Everywhere I campaigned throughout the district people wanted someone to bring sanity back to Washington DC.  Whether it was a coffee shop in Nampa or a small business in Coeur d’Alene the message was the same; our government is out of control. I have always put the voters of Idaho first and I’m humbled by the support we received.  They have placed their trust in me.  I will hit the ground running in Washington to restore their faith in Congress and start working to create jobs.”

You can read Labrador’s full statement here, and click below to read Minnick’s full statement.

Labrador wins, beats Minnick

The Associated Press has called Idaho’s 1st District congressional race in favor of GOP challenger Raul Labrador. The latest figures from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office show that with 753 of 961 precincts reporting, Labrador had 50.2 percent to Minnick’s 42 percent, with independent Dave Olson garnering 5.9 percent and Libertarian Mike Washburn 1.9 percent.

Minnick’s campaign said on Twitter just now, “Congratulations  to Raul Labrador on a hard-earned win, and best of luck as Idaho’s next Congressman.”

Otter claims victory, promises ‘conservative leadership in tough times’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has claimed victory in his re-election bid, saying in a statement, “I give credit to my opponent, Mr. Allred, for running a very tough race. In the end, Idahoans spoke loudly that strong conservative leadership is what they wanted during these tough times.” You can read Otter’s full statement here. In this AP photo by Matt Cilley, Otter, joined by his mother, Regina Otter, delivers a thank-you message to supporters earlier tonight; he waited to claim victory until he heard from Allred.

Allred concedes in guv’s race

Democratic candidate for governor Keith Allred has conceded to GOP Gov. Butch Otter in the governor’s race. “I believe more strongly than ever in the Founding Fathers’ wisdom that the best solutions are those that attract support across the lines that divide us,” Allred said in a statement. “It’s been my privilege to take that message to the people of Idaho.” Allred, who called Otter at 12:36 a.m. to concede, said, “I wish Governor Otter all the best as he works to guide our state through a difficult time.”

Meanwhile, GOP congressional hopeful Raul Labrador took the podium at Idaho GOP election night headquarters and said, “I want to go to bed. It’s too early to call it.” He thanked his supporters, and noted that he was outspent both in the primary race and in the general election contest. “I think they have shown what you can do with a little bit of money, a lot of energy and a lot of faith,” Labrador said.