May 19, 2013 in Idaho

Eye on Boise: Otter’s housing stipend to resume

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Former longtime chief state economist Mike Ferguson analyzed the latest state tax revenue news – which showed revenues surging 13.2 percent over forecasts for April, the biggest tax revenue month of the year – and concluded that lawmakers likely will have $162 million more on hand when they convene their 2014 legislative session than they thought they would two months ago, at the close of this year’s session.

“While the numbers will change (for example, we don’t yet know actual May and June revenue numbers, and we don’t know what revised forecast growth rate will be used for FY 2014), it is clear there will be substantially more revenue available than policymakers thought less than two months ago,” Ferguson writes. “How this additional revenue is utilized will depend on Idaho’s public policy priorities.”

The tax revenue jump is big news for the state, Ferguson writes. “This is a significant departure from the revenue forecasts the FY 2013 and FY 2014 budgets are based on, and it has significant implications for the fiscal condition Idaho’s state budget faces in those two years (and beyond).” Ferguson is now the director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

Otter taking stipend

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s pay will go up by $4,500 a month on June 1, as the state resumes paying a monthly housing stipend to its governor to make up for the lack of an official governor’s residence.

The payments were cut off in 2009 when the hilltop mansion donated by the late J.R. Simplot to the state for a governor’s mansion opened for use after renovations, but Otter never lived there. Instead, he continued to live at his ranch in Star, west of Boise. Otter is Simplot’s ex-son-in-law.

The state is handing the mansion back over to the Simplot family, and the deal is to close by June 1, so a legislative panel, the Governor’s Housing Committee, voted unanimously last week to start back up with the gubernatorial housing stipend, which adds up to $54,000 a year. That’s on top of the governor’s salary of $117,000 a year. On Jan. 1, 2014, by law, the governor’s salary will rise another 1.7 percent to $119,000.

Committee members said the monthly stipends are “a lot cheaper” than the nearly $180,000 a year the state has been spending to maintain the Simplot home and its expansive green lawn, which covers an entire hill and is visible from all over town.

Otter, a multimillionaire, will accept the payments, his press secretary, Jon Hanian, said Friday. He did so until 2009, saying if other governors got the payments, he’d get them as well. Hanian said the governor’s reasoning hasn’t changed.

Inmate suicide

Idaho’s state prisons have seen their third inmate suicide by hanging in a year and a half. The Idaho Department of Correction reports that a 34-year-old inmate apparently committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise last weekend; Brandon Munk, a convicted forger from Bannock County who was serving a two- to five-year sentence and was scheduled to be released in July 2014, died at a local hospital the day after he was found.

It was the first suicide reported at an Idaho state prison so far this year; last year, there were two, one at ISCI and one at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center, both also by hanging.

About face

Two North Idaho conservation groups, Friends of the Clearwater and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, are questioning the U.S. Coast Guard’s turnabout on permits for the “Race the Joe” jet boat race on the St. Joe River near St. Maries, allowing the race to go forward as scheduled this weekend rather than be held up for a lengthy environmental assessment.

“We’d like to know how the Coast Guard went from needing 130-something days to complete the environmental assessment to being able to complete it in a week,” said Brett Haverstick of Friends of the Clearwater. “With that kind of speed, the Coast Guard should consider entering the race.”

Otter and three members of Idaho’s congressional delegation appealed to the Coast Guard to issue the permit in time to allow the race to take place as scheduled. Otter also sent a memo from Idaho Fish and Game saying the event wouldn’t harm bull trout or bald eagles if organizers agreed to keep people and vehicles out of buffer zones around eagle nesting sites.

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