BOISE – On the turbulent border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, an Idaho soldier who’s serving on a multinational security force now has a new Spuddy Buddy figure, a box of Idaho candy and a Senate medallion, after his home-state senator came by on an international tour.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the first Idaho senator in nearly three decades to serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee, recently returned from a six-nation tour through the Middle East, which included meetings with the heads of state of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Dubai and Afghanistan. Along the way, he met with Idaho troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sinai Peninsula, and handed out “Idaho trinkets” he’d brought along for them.
He was surprised to find an Idahoan, Sgt. Samuel Manifold of Grangeville, among the 650 U.S. troops serving on the force keeping peace on the Israel-Egypt border.
Risch, along with three other U.S. senators, went on the trip on behalf of the Senate and the State Department.
“In Afghanistan, we met with President Karzai, but we also met with the opposition at the request of the State Department,” he said, to demonstrate that the United States is neutral in the Afghan elections. Risch, who also serves on the Energy and Natural Resources committee, said, “What happens around the world affects every Idahoan.”
He reported on his trip and his first 100 days in office in a recent talk to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. Risch said when he served for seven months as Idaho’s governor, it was like “drinking from a fire hose.” In the Senate, he said, “Believe me, the fire hose there is a whole lot bigger with a whole lot more pressure.” There have been times when four of five committees he serves on have been meeting at the same time. The workload, he said, is surprisingly large.
“My focus is totally on Idaho and Idaho people, even though my committee assignments are broader than that,” said Risch.
They’d need a sign
Lawmakers last week had to rewrite their final budget bill after the first, Senate-passed version was defeated in the House. Part of the original bill would have directed a $17 million chunk of federal economic stimulus funding all to local highway districts, cities and counties, rather than to the Idaho Transportation Department. But Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who made the original motion to include that, said more information has since surfaced about the federal money.
“Apparently there’s a 1,500-page manual from OMB back in Washington, D.C. that requires extreme tracking of stimulus dollars, and on transportation projects, requires a sign on every project,” Keough said. “For a lot of the money that would have gone to locals, the signing and the paperwork requirements would have outweighed the benefit that would have gone to locals.”
Keough said her original vision – that perhaps a small, rural district might get enough to pay for a load of gravel – didn’t work if a $300 sign had to be erected and multiple reports filed. The new version of the bill sends the money through the ITD’s existing grant process for local highway projects. “What we have here is a compromise that uses the existing system,” Keough said.
‘There will be layoffs’
The new version of the final budget bill, arrived at under a compromise between the House, the Senate and the governor, eliminates a proposed across-the-board 3 percent pay cut for state employees, instead cutting statewide personnel costs by 5 percent, but giving Gov. Butch Otter discretion to reduce that where needed, with enough money from rainy-day funds to trim it to a 3 percent cut.
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, noted that any agency that can’t get to the 5 percent cut can appeal to the governor. “They can go to him for help,” she said. “I just want people across the state to understand that.”
Agencies that don’t receive state general tax funds would see 3 percent personnel cuts, which some lawmakers said showed unfair treatment. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “There is no way that we’re going to treat everybody fairly.” That’s just not possible, he said.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he hoped layoffs could be avoided - that’s why lawmakers first came up with the across-the-board pay cut – but he thinks the funding cuts as structured now will force some layoffs. “I’m here to tell you that I think there will be layoffs. We hope, particularly in areas that affect the public health and safety, that those layoffs can be minimized.” That’ll be the duty of the governor, he said.
Lawmakers commend NIC
The Senate has unanimously passed a House-passed resolution saluting North Idaho College on its 75th anniversary, after several senators had glowing things to say about the Coeur d’Alene college. When the resolution cleared the Senate Education Committee earlier, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the panel that 25 years ago, when the college celebrated its 50th anniversary, Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, then a Kootenai County commissioner, spoke at the celebration. This year, Henderson, 86, spoke at the 75th anniversary celebration.
“I know Rep. Henderson had made his plans for 25 years from now to speak at the 100th anniversary of the college,” Nonini said, a prospect Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene applauded, saying, “I’ll look forward to hearing the 100th anniversary presentation from Rep. Henderson.”
In the Senate, Goedde called NIC “a huge economic development tool” for the region, as well as a key educational resource for residents. Said Hammond, “It is something that we all benefit from.”
She’s working on it
State Controller Donna Jones is criticizing HB 263, the unsuccessful proposal from Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, this year to essentially put the state’s checkbook online. Jones says her office has already been working on exactly that, and will get it up online as soon as the state’s financial picture permits. However, she wrote in a statement, “in consideration of the turbulent economy, now is not the right time to spend the estimated $250,000 needed to implement this project. That’s why I worked closely with JFAC and state budget officials and withdrew my funding request for this project.”
Jones said in a statement that Hart’s bill would “legislate a transparency solution that fails to solicit citizen input, does not provide the types of information taxpayers want to see online, and overlooks the importance of designing a cost effective method of extracting data from our financial systems.”