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Rainy day higher ed fund sailing along

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers say they want to protect state colleges and universities from future state budget swings by creating a special reserve fund – though there’s hardly any money yet to put in it.

The state Senate voted unanimously, 33-0, in favor of creating a “higher education stabilization fund,” to hold money deposited in good years to help see the state’s colleges and universities through down times. Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, the Senate sponsor of HB 544, said, “This is an idea that many of us wish we had come up with a while ago.”

The bill already has passed the House, and with its final passage in the Senate, heads to the desk of Gov. Butch Otter, who is co-sponsoring it.

Amend U.S. Constitution?

Here’s why most House Democrats aren’t on board with Otter and House Republicans’ proposal to amend the United States Constitution to broaden states’ rights: “I’m not sure that either the Commerce Clause or the supremacy aspects of the federal Constitution have served us ill,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “We’ve done fairly well as a nation for 232 years.” He added, “Generally, we’re pretty tired of this sovereignty, beat-up-the-U.S.-government and at the same time, we take hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Otter says he wants the amendment to “restore federalism”; he and Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal – a Democrat – are pushing the proposal.

When boats bump …

Final passage in the House came unanimously for SB 1329, legislation from the Idaho Sheriff’s Association regarding when two boats bump. The bill raises the trigger for mandatory investigations of boat accidents from $500 in damages to $1,500 in damages – matching state law regarding motor-vehicle accidents.

“All we’re doing is upping it before you have to make a report,” said House sponsor Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries. The vote was 65-0, sending the bill to the governor’s desk; it earlier passed the Senate, also unanimously.

Lawmakers honor medalist

Two years later, the Idaho House has voted unanimously in favor of a resolution honoring U.S. Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong for her 2008 cycling medal.

“Kristin Armstrong is a positive and inspirational role model for all of us,” state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, told the House. “We recognize and honor Kristin Armstrong for her superior attitude and conduct, her medal-winning performance … and for the pride and inspiration she brings.” The measure won a unanimous voice vote, as Armstrong and her husband looked on from the House gallery. Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, noted that she’ll be the commencement speaker at the University of Idaho this year.

Hart said he intended to bring the measure earlier, but Armstrong was traveling; then, the Legislature was in temporary quarters during the renovation of the state Capitol, where there was no public gallery, so he decided to wait until this year.

Hart said he wanted to propose the measure because he’s a former bicycle racer himself; in the late 1970s, he said, he came within 6 seconds of the American record for the 10-mile time trial.

The recognition wasn’t Armstrong’s first appearance at the Legislature this year; she testified to a Senate committee in favor of two bicycle safety bills that then were sent to the Senate’s amending order.

Dems: Jobs bills needed

House and Senate Democratic leaders say the latest unemployment figures underscore the need for economic development legislation like the 10 bills their party has proposed, including six as part of their “IJOBS” package, but none of those bills has passed; just two have received public hearings.

“Democratic legislators understand that the No. 1 issue for Idaho’s citizens is jobs,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Elliot Werk. “While the majority has focused on playing politics with a series of memorials and bills that will do little more than force the state to defend costly lawsuits, there has been precious little discourse about how we can help the private sector create jobs for Idahoans.”

House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Dennis Lake said he won’t schedule hearings on bills that aren’t going to pass his committee.

‘There is no gravy’

After last month’s stormy special Land Board meeting at which a divided board opted to take an additional $22 million from school endowment reserves to help Idaho’s schools through next year’s budget crunch, the board now has received another request, from State Hospital South, for an additional $1.2 million special distribution in fiscal year 2011. The State Hospital South endowment reserve actually has $1.6 million in excess of its goal of five years’ worth of regular distributions.

The board isn’t scheduled to decide on that request until next month, but Otter said the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee should be informed of the possibility as it finalizes state agency budgets for next year.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said endowment distributions at one time were “supposed to be the gravy on top of the regular appropriation,” not to function in place of general funds. But Otter said, “Nothing is normal about this … process this year, and there is no gravy.”