Eye on Boise: New legal defense fund, at $200,000, a late addition

SUNDAY, MARCH 25, 2012

BOISE – The Idaho Legislature has created its own $200,000 legal defense fund, to be controlled by House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill.

The surprise appropriation, which was introduced nearly two weeks after agency budget-setting ended, was requested by the speaker and pro-tem, said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee; it still needs final votes of approval from both houses to become law.

Minority Democrats objected to the new legislative legal fund. “I see this as going to get a third opinion on something that the attorney general isn’t going to give the ‘right’ opinion,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum.

Cameron responded, “I think that’s a fair criticism. … The speaker and the pro-tem will have to guard against that.”

The transfer from the state’s general fund was approved on a 16-4 vote, with all four Democrats on JFAC objecting.

Brew bill passes

Legislation to ease outdated restrictions that are crimping a joint venture between Ponderay’s Laughing Dog Brewing and a new microbrewery starting up in Post Falls, Selkirk Abbey, has passed the House on a 58-5 vote and headed to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.

“This gives us an opportunity for us to have an industry within Idaho that uses Idaho employment and Idaho products, and gives us economic development opportunities, especially in our rural area,” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, told the House. He’s co-sponsoring the bill with both of the other District 1 lawmakers, Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. The bill earlier passed the Senate on a unanimous vote.

Current law restricts brewery owners from having a financial interest in another facility that offers retail or a tasting room, though no such restrictions exist for Idaho wineries. As a result, Selkirk Abbey was denied a state license because Laughing Dog co-founder and brewmaster Fred Colby was a partner. The bill, SB 1344, lets Idaho microbrewers – there are 24 now – have an interest in another operation. Selkirk Abbey representatives told lawmakers that Colby, with his expertise and distribution contacts, was key to the new startup’s business plan.

Laughing Dog, which sells its beer in 35 states and Canada, makes award-winning brews including Alpha Dog IPA, Cold Nose Winter Ale and Huckleberry Cream Ale.

State would set town speeds

The Idaho Senate has voted 26-9 in favor of HB 619a, which removes from Idaho cities the ability to set local speed limits where state highways pass through town. The bill, now headed to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk, reverses legislation passed several years ago to give cities that ability.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “They don’t have the staffing to do the engineering studies … to do this kind of work. So it’s really better for ITD to do that.” He said the Idaho Transportation Department would work with cities on the limits.

But Keough said, “I was part of the effort to pass it many moons ago, in direct response to ITD not being helpful to cities, especially in areas in rural Idaho where the state highways go right through the middle of your town and in some cases residential areas. I’m hopeful that ITD has gotten more responsive. But quite frankly, in my view it tips the balance right back to where we were before.

“I’m not someone who enjoys a speed trap or slowing down unnecessarily. But at the same time, I’m not sure that this is the right answer.”

Fraud bill sidetracked

The House last week sidetracked legislation sought by the state Department of Labor to penalize employers who, after a warning, still don’t report new hires, enabling those workers to fraudulently collect unemployment benefits; they’d be fined $25.

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said he’s been an employer for 25 years. “Every conflict I’ve had with the Department of Labor in this or other states, I’ve lost, even though I think the facts are on my side,” he told the House. “There is a bias against employers.”

“I think it’s big government at its worst, penalizing the people providing the jobs,” declared Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls. “Twenty-five dollars is totally unreasonable. Five dollars is probably too much.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said, “By the simple expedient of complying with the law, your penalty will be zero.”

The bill, SB 1369, had earlier passed the Senate unanimously; labor officials said it’d save the state $5 million a year in unemployment fraud. Now its fate is uncertain as the close of the legislative session approaches.

Eye on Boise, a weekly column by Betsy Z. Russell, is available online at Russell can be reached at or (208) 336-2854.

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