Latest from The Spokesman-Review
The Senate Education Committee has voted 5-4 in favor of SB 1113, the biggest piece of the Luna school reform plan, with class size increases, laptop computers for high-school students and required online courses. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, said there's still time for amendments or trailer bills; he said the committee doesn't have the final say, as the bill still must move through the full Senate and the House. Joining the two Democrats on the panel in voting no were Sens. Toryanski and Andreason.
The first question in today’s Boise City Club debate was on whether the two major-party candidates for governor support a “proper investigation” into allegations of special deals at the state Tax Commission for influential taxpayers. “I do support a proper investigation of it, in fact … we did have an independent investigation,” Gov. Butch Otter responded. Otter said the state investigation two years ago showed a need for several reforms in the tax compromise process, including new definitions and new steps in the process, and they were adopted. “I will tell you that that Tax Commission and those previous definitions were put in long before Butch Otter became governor,” he noted.
Challenger Keith Allred responded, “This is just one of the many areas, special interests get better treatment than everyday Idahoans, and Idahoans are frustrated about that. … You think about who it is that really engages the Tax Commission and tries to oppose an audit and challenge it.” Allred said it’s those with the resources to fight, while “those who play by the rules get punished. We’ve got a problem there and Butch Otter is telling you it’s just fine the way it is, I don’t think it is.”
Gov. Butch Otter is touting a national fiscal survey of states as proof that this year’s legislative budget-setting decisions for 2011, including deep cuts to schools and other state programs, were the right ones, as other states are facing large shortfalls. “We are doing our best to help everyone through this rough patch,” Otter said. “Like any family or any business, we are working for a more prosperous future while protecting what we have and positioning ourselves for a quicker and more robust recovery by not promising what we don’t yet know we can deliver.” Click below to read Otter’s full release.
Idaho is on track for an economic recovery in 2011, according to the state’s latest official forecast - though state lawmakers and the governor set a pessimistic budget for 2011 that requires historic cuts in education. The newest state forecast, issued in May, says, “Idaho’s economic recovery should be well established after this year, entering a period of modest growth beginning in 2011. … It has been awhile, but it is beginning to feel like a recovery.” The forecast is considerably sunnier in tone than the last official state forecast, which was issued in January; that one suggested “cautious optimism” and said, “Admittedly, risks to the economy exist, but it appears the worst is behind us.”
The Legislature and Gov. Butch Otter cut their own estimates of state tax revenues far below the official forecast to be on the safe side, even though the decision meant deep cuts in government programs including schools. Public schools saw an unprecedented overall funding cut for next year of 7.5 percent - $128.5 million - along with state authorization to cut pay for teachers and administrators, a statewide declaration of financial emergency for schools, and more. “The governor has said all along that we expect there to be a recovery - it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “We’ve gone through this difficult period. … His view is we need to be very frugal, very cautious and conservative in our budgeting. Really, nothing has changed to suggest that isn’t the prudent way to go. It’s Idaho common sense, that’s how he’s built this budget.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
There was one issue on which Idaho lawmakers from both houses and both parties were united before this year’s legislative session even started: Making Idaho the 24th state to ban texting while driving. Yet, nothing passed - despite long hearings with impassioned testimony in favor of the move from everyone from teenage drivers to prosecutors to insurance lobbyists. It’s a lesson in legislative dysfunction and politics.
Though both the Senate and House had voted overwhelmingly in favor of a ban - in one form or another - the bill died in the closing moments of this year’s legislative session on a procedural vote, amid a spat between the two houses. ”I would say that that’s not the best representation of a functional system,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who delivered petitions with hundreds of signatures gathered by Post Falls 6th graders to the Senate Transportation Committee in favor of a ban. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe says Benewah County has reneged on the cross-deputization deal the two sides and the Idaho Sheriffs Association reached during this year’s legislative session, a deal that prompted the tribe to ask a House committee to hold its proposed legislation that would have forced the county’s hand it if wouldn’t collaborate. Instead of signing the agreement, Benewah County has sent the tribe a new version containing more than 50 changes, including changes in items the two sides negotiated. “I am extremely disappointed with this new document in front of me,” said Tribal Chairman Chief Allan. “It is not what we agreed to.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said, “Benewah County made representations to the committee and to the tribe that a deal was in place. We were happy to hear it then and we believed all that was needed was for the necessary parties to sign the agreement. What I am hearing now is that Benewah County did not live up to its promises.” Click below to read the full news release from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe; you can read our full story here at spokesman.com.
Now that it’s all said and done, here are the numbers on this year’s legislative session: In 78 days, there were 816 pieces of legislation drafted, 620 of which were introduced, and 359 passed. Every one of those became law; there were no vetoes, though Gov. Butch Otter withheld his signature from five of them, he still allowed them to become law.
Compared to past sessions, this year set records for the lowest number of bills drafted and introduced in the past decade - perhaps in part because legislative leaders warned in advance that anything that cost money likely wouldn’t be considered - but, oddly, the number that became law is actually higher than last year’s figure of 344. Last year, lawmakers were in session for 117 days, the second-longest session in Idaho history. This year’s 78-day session was the third-shortest in the past decade, eclipsed only by the 69-day session in 2004 and a 68-day session in 2002. Both those years yielded more new laws: 389 in ‘04, and 370 in ‘02.
Wayne Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, discusses his disenchantment with the mainstream media and his role as a political activist in an article by AP reporter John Miller, in which Hoffman refuses to disclose how his group is funded; click below to read the full article. The article says, “Idaho conservatives say Hoffman is a rising leader of the GOP’s libertarian right.”
Idaho’s state prison system is eliminating 24 more staff positions, bringing the number cut in the past two years to 102, and imposing far-reaching furloughs on all prison staffers in the coming year to cope with state budget cuts. Because of shifts of workers from one job to another and non-filling of positions that become vacant, there have been few layoffs, the Idaho Department of Correction reports. “This has been a difficult process especially for the employees whose jobs have been impacted,” said Corrections Director Brent Reinke. “While almost all of them still have jobs, many of them have had to take pay cuts and demotions.” In the fiscal year that starts July 1, all prison security staff will have to take 32 hours of unpaid furlough, while all other department employees must take 80 hours.
Meanwhile, Idaho’s prison population is forecast to grow by 4.3 percent in the coming fiscal year. Reinke said the growth could be more because of additional cuts in social service programs through the Department of Health and Welfare and the Office of Drug Policy. “The fact is there are now a lot of people who won’t get the mental health or drug treatment they need in the community and run the risk of ending up in prison,” Reinke said. Click below to read the department’s full announcement of its budget-balancing plan.
Four House GOP leaders have sent a letter to Idaho school districts - here’s a link to the letter - advising them to prepare for an additional 5.5 percent holdback in the coming year when they negotiate teacher contracts, reporter Ben Botkin reports in the Times-News. The April 5 letter, from House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke and Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, warns districts that a future holdback is “a distinct possibility” and says current teacher contract negotiations are districts’ “only chance” to prepare for it. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, called the letter “inappropriate” and the Idaho Education Association objected to it. The possibility of an additional holdback is speculative; the latest state tax revenue figures, for March, actually exceeded state forecasts. You can read Botkin’s full story here.
At the first hearing today in the federal lawsuit challenging national health care reform filed by a group of states - including Idaho - U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson said he’ll fast-track the case, according to the Associated Press. In a federal court case, though, fast-tracking means hearing dates could stretch out to November. Thirteen states have joined the lawsuit, and six more will be added by a May 14 deadline, lawyers told the judge. A Department of Justice attorney said the federal government will file a motion to dismiss the case; click below to read a full report from AP reporter Melissa Nelson in Pensacola.
Gov. Butch Otter has allowed four more bills to become law without his signature, after earlier taking the same action for SB 1353, the “conscience” bill for health care providers. This time, the bills in question include HB 727 and 728, both of which regard the Idaho Education Network and its funding and oversight at the state Department of Administration; HB 688, which permits state universities, in some cases, to follow their own purchasing procedures rather than the state’s; and HB 492, which imposes a fee on death certificates to fund training for Idaho coroners.
Otter issued formal letters to the Legislature laying out his reasoning for withholding his signature, but still allowing the bills to become law; he hasn’t vetoed any bills passed by this year’s Legislature. You can read the full letters here. On the education network bills, Otter said he supported new requirements for quarterly reporting and more legislative oversight, but wanted more educators and private-sector tech people on an oversight committee. “While I am withholding my signature, I will not withhold my full support for either the process or the goals it is intended to advance,” he wrote. On the purchasing bill, HB 688, Otter said he’s concerned about the possibility for duplication, but is willing to see if the move will work; he noted that the bill expires after three years. And on HB 492, the coroner training bill, Otter said he supports the training, but is concerned about imposing state-collected fees to support a county function.
A growing number of conservative groups are bankrolling startup news organizations around the country, aggressively covering government and politics at a time when newspapers are cutting back their statehouse bureaus, the Associated Press reports; we’ve seen our own example here in Boise, where the Idaho Freedom Foundation launched “Idahoreporter.com.” “If you have a laptop, a wireless card and a flip cam, you’re as powerful as The New York Times,” Jason Stverak, a former North Dakota Republican Party director who runs the year-old Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity in Bismarck, told the AP. Stverak said the movement has caught on because people are skeptical of the mainstream media. “You can draw a parallel between the explosion in the tea party and the rapid increase in the amount of new news organizations,” he said.
The new organizations have been denied Statehouse press credentials in numerous states because of their ties to advocacy groups. Many of the groups, including the Idaho one, refuse to say where they’re getting the money to finance the operations. Phill Brooks, director of the University of Missouri’s State Government Reporting Program, said such reluctance is a “red flag.” A similar startup news service in his state, Missouri News Horizon, refused recently to say who was paying the bills. “I can’t recall in 40 years that there’s been an organization that has come here and asked for recognition as a news organization that hid its financial background,” he said. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.
Idaho has joined a federal court case in Montana arguing that locally made and used guns should be exempt from all federal laws, including registration requirements. It’s a follow-up to the “Idaho Firearms Freedom Act” that state lawmakers enacted this year at the urging of Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, who said the bill wasn’t really about gun rights. Instead, Harwood told fellow lawmakers, the measure was intended to spark a federal court case designed to expand states’ rights.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff filed a “friend of the court” brief in the Montana case, and Idaho, Alabama, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming all signed onto the brief, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula. “We have an obligation to defend that state statute,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The Brother Speed motorcycle club is among volunteers stepping forward to help maintain Idaho state parks in the wake of deep budget cuts, reports AP reporter Simmi Aujla. The biker group is working to maintain Thousand Springs, a state park near Hagerman where it’s held its annual Memorial Day gathering for 35 years. “This week, the agency started charging fees at two Thousand Springs units that had been free to the public for decades,” Aujla reports. “The park’s rangers insist they will do everything they can to stay open for visitors who come to enjoy the region’s breathtaking gorges, canyons and rivers. Brother Speed is helping. Last month, nine bikers sporting black leather jackets adorned with the group’s logo, a grinning skull, planted 75 blazing maples in a corner of Thousand Springs. They worked alongside college students, a Mormon group and a square dancing club.”
Click below to read her full report.
Among the nearly 50 bills quietly signed into law yesterday by Gov. Butch Otter: HB 496, requiring Idaho voters to show a photo I.D. when they go to the polls; HB 531a, making secret the names of all Fish and Game hunting and fishing license and tag holders; HB 589, the “Idaho Firearms Freedom Act,” declaring guns manufactured in Idaho exempt from federal laws including registration requirements in an attempt to prompt a multi-state federal lawsuit challenging the reach of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution; and HB 692a, cutting pay for the state’s top elected officials by 4 percent next year, restoring it to this year’s level a year later, and then granting them raises in the following two years. You can see the full list here. So far, Otter hasn’t vetoed a single bill passed by this year’s Legislature.
One of the reasons lawmakers scurried to finish their session was they wanted to be done before the next set of tax revenue figures came out, after January and February collections came in below projections, fueling concern over the economy and zeal to cut budgets even more deeply. March isn’t a terribly significant month as an indicator - it’s typically a third of the biggie, April - but preliminary numbers now show it’s coming in above projections to the tune of $15.1 million. Even more significantly, the portion of that total that comes from the personal income tax was up by 50 percent compared to expectations. “It’s encouraging to have an up month,” Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, told the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey. You can read Popkey’s full report here.
The first shoe dropped yesterday, when the state Board of Education, after nine hours of agonizing, set big tuition hikes for Idaho state college and university students for next year in the wake of deep state budget cuts, approved in the recently concluded legislative session. Now comes the next shoe: The Idaho Department of Health & Welfare announced today that it is permanently closing nine of its 29 offices statewide and laying off 126 employees. “The closures will cause hardship and inconvenience for many people, but resources are not available to continue the current level of office support,” the department said in a news release; you can read the full Health & Welfare announcement here.
Communities whose local Health & Welfare offices will close within the next two months include American Falls, Bellevue, Bonners Ferry, Emmett, Jerome, McCall, Orofino, Rupert and Soda Springs; also, the size and functions at the St. Maries office will be reduced. Expect more shoes to drop as the implications of this year’s legislative budget-setting decisions become clear.
Gov. Butch Otter has quietly signed dozens of bills into law without comment, including SB 1418, the public school budget for next year that contains historic cuts. Others include HB 687, imposing an emergency surcharge on every conviction for the next three years to keep the state’s courts operating through budget cuts; HB 696, the sharply reduced budget for the state parks system next year; HB 636, requiring every Idaho school district to adopt an Internet use policy for its students and file the policy with the state; HB 588, which amends state law to allow state offices to close because employees are being put on furlough without pay; and HB 604a, the measure that bans future pension-padding retirement purchases for certain state employees like the large one given the retiring state director of human resources last year.
The governor has two public signing ceremonies scheduled today: One for SB 1382a, establishing a new custodial remedy for grandparents or other relative caregivers seeking legal custody of grandchildren or relatives; and one for SB 1331a, which replaces outdated language, including such words as “retarded,” “idiot” and “lunatic,” in Idaho statutes for people with disabilities.
Here’s a link to the final week of Idaho’s legislative session in pictures, as a slide show. Let your cursor hover over the bottom part of the picture frame, and the captions will appear as the slide show plays. On Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports” this week, we talk about the developments of the week and the session, which wrapped up late Monday, and was reviewed the next day by both the governor and GOP legislative leaders in a press conference in the governor’s office, and by legislative minority leaders in a press conference in the Capitol rotunda.
Guests joining host Thanh Tan on the show tonight include Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls; Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise; House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale; and House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. I join commentators including Jim Weatherby and Dan Popkey on the program, which airs tonight at 8, is rebroadcast Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time/10 a.m. Pacific time, and can be viewed online here. The show also is broadcast on the radio at 3 p.m. on Saturday on KISU-FM, and 10 a.m. Sunday on KBSX 91.5 FM. This isn’t the end for “Idaho Reports” - the show will return weekly each Friday in April. Tune in and join us.
Here’s a link to the recent national Rasmussen Poll, which found a big lead for Gov. Butch Otter over Democratic challenger Keith Allred in its first automated phone poll on the 2010 Idaho gubernatorial race, and also found a similar lead for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo over a generic Democratic challenger. The poll of 500 Idahoans found 60 percent chose Otter to 28 percent choosing Allred, with 3 percent for some other candidate and 9 percent not sure. The poll also questioned respondents about whether they view the two candidates favorably or unfavorably. Otter came out 62 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable and 3 percent not sure, while Allred scored 34 percent favorable, 34 percent unfavorable and 32 percent not sure.
Here’s a link to a full report on the poll by the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey, which notes additional results including 58 percent favorable response toward the Tea Party movement and 63 percent favorable on suing to challenge national health care reform.
Temporary Sen. Darrell Kerby, R-Bonners Ferry, who filled in for the final weeks of the session for Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, while she was with her husband during his major heart surgery, reflected on his brief legislative experience. “It was an extreme honor for me to be asked to be here, but it wasn’t fun to participate in the dismantling of the programs that this state has taken years to build to assist the citizens and protect our friends and neighbors,” said Kerby, who participated in the joint budget committee’s deliberations as it set sharply reduced budgets for state agencies including schools.
“It was not a happy session, it was not something fun to do,” Kerby said. “It was about trying to do as little damage as possible, as opposed to being creative and looking for ways to help the state go forward.” He added, “That said, I wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. It was an honor to sit in that seat, especially Sen. Keough’s seat. She is so respected down here.”
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says the stress and pain lawmakers talked of during this year’s legislative session as they set a public school budget containing historic cuts now will fall on local school districts, as they cope with the results. “The real stress and the real pressure is shifting to the local school districts,” Luna told the Associated Press. “This is unprecedented, the kind of cuts they’re going to deal with.” He said his office plans to offer guidance and technical assistance to school superintendents as they navigate the new flexibility afforded them in education spending for next year that accompanies the cuts; click below to read a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.
Gov. Butch Otter has signed into law bills creating two new special license plates - one to benefit mountain biking trails around the state, and the other to benefit wilderness stewardship through the Selway-Bitterroot Foundation. The mountain biking plate bill, HB 486, was sponsored by Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, and co-sponsored by Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian. The wilderness plate bill, HB 540, was proposed by Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.
Another one, to benefit pets, didn’t make it this year - nor has it for the past three years. Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, who has been working on the Idaho cares for pets plate idea for three years now, said, “I’m still working on it.” The bill never was introduced, as Chadderdon hadn’t ironed out who would be responsible for the funds, which would go to local one-day spay/neuter clinics. She said she’d been in talks with the state Department of Agriculture, but it was wary of taking on a new program when its staff was being cut. “I said, ‘Well, we’ll come back,’” said Chadderdon, who said at the start of the session that the pet special-plate bill was the only bill she was working on this year. “I’m going to raise money for it this summer so we can go forward.”
Sarah Palin has endorsed Vaughn Ward in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District GOP primary, adding oomph to a race in which the two leading contenders have been trying to out-conservative each other. “I’m happy to support Vaughn Ward because I know that he believes in the same common sense conservative ideals that we cherish,” the former Alaska governor said in an announcement; she also endorsed two other veterans who are seeking congressional seats in Florida and Illinois. Ward, a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is vying against state Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, for a chance to challenge Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick. Three other lesser-known Republicans also have filed for the seat.
Ward said, “Gov. Palin has provided great leadership for the Republican Party and I am proud to have her support. I look forward to promoting our conservative values in Congress.” Labrador, for his part, said, “You know, I like Sarah Palin, she’s a well-respected conservative, but it’s a little disappointing that she continues to support moderate Republicans in primary elections.” The other primary race Labrador pointed to: The primary challenge faced by U.S. Sen. John McCain, Palin’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
AAA Idaho is praising teens who came out to support a ban on texting while driving during this year’s legislative session, even though the bill was killed in a procedural move in the House on the final night of the legislative session, amid a tussle between the House and Senate. “I was most impressed that these teens cut through the clutter and made a clear case for passing a law without getting caught up in the politics of the moment,” said Dave Carlson, director of public and government affairs for AAA Idaho. “They weren’t looking for a perfect law, just a good starting point to start addressing this dangerous driver distraction.” The auto club said it hopes supporters will be back next year to “finish the job,” and noted that Wyoming has become the 20th state to enact such a ban. You can read the AAA’s full statement here.
The Idaho AARP has released its list of “winners and losers” of this year’s legislative session. Among the winners: State retirees, grandparents, older drivers and older voters. Among the losers: Those with living wills or advance directives, Medicaid recipients and Idahoans struggling with health care costs. You can read their full list here, along with their reasoning.
Democratic leaders Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, called this year’s legislative session a “difficult” one, and said its impact will be felt for years. “Cuts will mean less law enforcement officers on duty, more students in classrooms, less help for Idahoans in need of food or medical services, higher fees for students at our colleges and universities, and neglected maintenance work on our roads, our parks and our schools,” Kelly said.
Rusche said he thought the three worst developments of the session were the health care “conscience” bill, which allows any licensed health care provider to refuse, on conscience grounds, to provide a treatment or medication related to abortion, emergency contraception, end-of-life care or stem-cell research; the “posturing about health care reform” when Rusche, a pediatrician, maintains Idaho has huge health care needs; and the public school budget, which included historic cuts.
The Democrats pushed an “IJOBS” package of jobs bills, but none became law. “We listened to what our constituents were telling us back in our districts and came to Boise ready to focus on jobs and the economy during the 2010 legislative session,” Rusche said. But he and Kelly said the focus of the session instead turned to sending messages to the federal government to keep out of Idaho’s business. “It is a disappointment that were weren’t able to move that forward,” Kelly said. “Really, it’s a question of priority.”
Here are some more of Gov. Butch Otter’s reactions to the just-concluded legislative session:
TOP PAY: The governor praised a pay bill for the state’s top elected officials put together by House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, which cuts pay next year, restores it the following year, then grants raises the next two years. “I think the Legislature did the right thing,” Otter said. “They cut back on all of the officials, and then allowed for hopefully within the growth of the economy increases the third and fourth years out.” Otter said he’s donated any raises he’s received since 2007; he liked the idea of allowing officials to reject raises - now forbidden - but acknowledged that that didn’t get done.
TEXTING: “I do recognize that there is a problem. Frankly, I don’t text, I don’t write messages on a Blackberry … but I see a lot of people who do. There is some concern there, and I think that’ll probably be something that we’ll be taking up in the future.”
LEGISLATIVE STRESS: “It was a session that had a lot of heavy lifting in it, had a lot of angst in it, had a lot of tough decisions, and probably one of the most stressful sessions that I’ve ever seen. … But this Legislature responded to that, and I’m very proud of ‘em.”
Gov. Butch Otter this morning applauded the just-concluded legislative session, particularly lauding lawmakers for not raising taxes. The governor praised lawmakers’ “efficiency, sensitivity and civic virtue,” and said they stuck to five principles he outlined: 1) Don’t raise taxes. 2)Maintain some cash reserve. 3) Protect education. 4) Protect health and safety. 5) Avoid duplication or waste of taxpayer money. “I think we have reaffirmed Idaho’s values in terms of living within the taxpayers’ means,” Otter said. “As far as I’m concerned we had a great session.”
Joined by a group of GOP lawmakers, he said, “There isn’t a person up here that wouldn’t have liked to have more money for education, but getting that money means raising taxes. I don’t think it’s a smart thing to do.”