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Senate passes substance abuse, mental health budget, moves to adjourn for night

The Senate passed HB 338, the budget bill for substance abuse and mental health services, and now is moving to adjourn for the night. The bill passed over strong objections from Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who said cutting such services will mean more suicides. Both houses have been on bill-passing marathons today; each killed one and passed dozens.

After much debate, House passes energy bills

House members vociferously tried to kill HB 347, the renewable energy tax credit extension, but it passed on a 40-29 vote after much debate. House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, urged representatives to kill the bill. "This industry will survive just fine without it," he said. Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, "Keep that money in the state budget - we've got a lot of use for that money in the state budget, you know that. We could use it very beneficially." Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, "I have voted against this thing so many times I've lost count. It keeps coming back with a different bathing suit but it's still the same flabby body."

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, "I'm from North Idaho and I haven't seen a lot of wind turbines up there." But she said she thought taxpayers would pay for wind turbines many times over, between federal and state incentives. Plus, she said, "I can assure you one day we'll have to tear all these down. Please vote no." Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, noted that the bill already passed the House once when it was in one piece rather than two. The money can't be spent elsewhere, he said, because the rebate is only from taxes generated by the power projects, he said; without the projects, there's no money.

Then, at the urging of House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, the House voted 67-2 to pass HB 348, the second piece of the energy compromise, with only Barrett and Sims voting no. At that point, the House adjourned for the night.

House suspends rules to take up renewable energy bills

The House has suspended its rules to take up HB 347, which contains half of HB 337, the renewable energy rebate bill that earlier passed the House; senators objected that the bill contained multiple subjects, so it was split in two in its newest version. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said the House will take up HB 348, containing the other half, as soon as it's done with HB 347. The first bill deals with the extension of the rebate; the second with PURPA contracts regarding wind and solar projects.

House overwhelmingly kills bill to limit specialty license plates

The House has voted 47-21 to kill legislation designed to limit future specialty license plates. SB 1179, co-sponsored by the House and Senate transportation chairmen, would have restricted all future specialty license plates to those benefiting government agencies or their foundations. Some House members decried the move. Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, "I think if we're going to have special license plates, it should be open to everybody and we shouldn't discriminate." Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, "We're eliminating people's brilliant ideas on how they would like to gain attention for some particular thing or raise money for some particular issue. … I don't think we should be in the business of limiting people's imaginations and what they want to do to do these things."

House Transportation Chairman Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said, "I think it's at least a way to begin getting some control on these." But he and other backers of the bill were heavily outvoted.

Public school budget passes Senate

The Senate has voted 27-7 in favor of SB 1206, the public school budget bill, sending the measure to the House.

The public school budget…

The public school budget that's now being debated in the Senate is $1.224 billion in state general funds and $1.56 billion total, a $47 million cut from this year's level, which saw a historic $128.5 million cut from the previous year. That's a 3 percent cut. The budget calls for a 1.87 percent pay cut for teachers, administrators and classified staff in the base salaries funded by the state. Part of that comes from a $14.8 million reduction in salary funds to cover technology investments required under SB 1184, the school reform bill, and the rest from an additional $13.3 million cut designed to help balance the budget and meet the bottom line. Discretionary funding per classroom would drop by 10 percent from this year's level, which was 14.4 percent below last year's; overall, the budget is $12 million below the governor's recommendation.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said Idaho's not as bad off as Washington. "They're looking at cutting $700 million from education, both higher ed and K-12," he said. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the cuts shouldn't have been made; the state could have raised the sales tax or the cigarette tax and avoided them, she said. "In my gut, in my soul, this budget is really painful," she said. "It's sobering … we in the nation rank as one of the ones that spends the least per pupil on education funding for our public schools, so when we are forced to cut to this level, it can be very, very difficult for districts." Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, "I have to tell you that I am thrilled that we got it to this level, because when this session started the reduction for public schools was pretty breathtaking, it was pretty onerous."

Senate takes up public school budget

The Senate has taken up one of the biggest bills of the session: SB 1206, the public schools budget. It's the single largest slice of Idaho's state budget, and includes controversial cuts, including a cut in teacher pay. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, told senators, "Sit back and relax - here we go."

Of facts, rhymes, and megaloads…

When the Senate debated HB 193a yesterday, the bill to allow courts to require big cash bonds before a lawsuit could be filed against a megaload or other transportation project on Idaho roads, the Senate sponsor, John McGee, R-Caldwell, said in his closing debate that companies planning mega-huge hauls along U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho have spent big bucks on the road: "There's a $10 million investment made into the road in turnouts … power lines … Apparently now those turnouts are now being used by steelhead fishermen," he told the Senate.

However, Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, said his firm - which has done all the alterations to Highway 12 for megaload transport - only planned to spend about $2.2 million in Idaho, including $600,000 to grade and re-gravel nine existing turnouts, and $1.6 million to raise or lower power lines. (The company does plan to spend $10.6 million on the direct costs of its haul, from guide vehicles to highway patrol escorts, over the year-plus the giant loads would travel, but that's not for road work). ITD reports that the work on the nine existing turnouts, which it inspected, came to $480,000; no new turnouts were created. McGee said former Sen. Skip Brandt told him about fishermen using the turnouts.

McGee, who said he got the $10 million figure "straight from the Internet" and stands by it, said, "This is not a big deal." And perhaps it's not, but it's a bit ironic that when the same bill was debated in the House earlier, the sponsor there, Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, offered the following whoppers in his debate: He said the companies shipping megaloads will post a $250 million bond to cover damage; the bond is actually $10 million. He said the giant loads are only permitted to travel from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.; actually, it's 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. And Harwood talked about “how much the company has done for the state of Idaho - we have gained a lot. We've got a blacktop road and lots of turnouts. They've done a lot for the road.” Actually, though ExxonMobil paid to improve nine turnouts along Highway 12 by graveling and leveling them, it did not pave the route or add any new turnouts; the highway has been paved since 1962.

McGee disputed that there's any irony here. "I think the word is coincidence," he said. So, in that spirit, here's a little rhyme I call "HB 193a":

Fishing for whoppers?
You'll find your fill
When Idaho lawmakers
Debate this one bill.

Benefits grow,
While obstacles shrink,
History does flip-flops
And numbers just kink.

But as for a lawsuit
On a big megaload
Don't give us no facts
Just 'git down the road.

Off-track betting bill passes the Senate

An off-track betting bill has passed the Senate on a 26-9 vote; HB 191 would let racetracks at county fairgrounds that already have licenses for betting on simulcasts of races elsewhere transfer their licenses to a more suitable location, rather than the track itself. "This will not expand gaming, nor the number of locations," said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the Senate sponsor of the bill. Instead, she said, it will allow the small tracks to make more money to upgrade their live racing facilities. Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, spoke in favor of the bill. "It does create jobs," he said. "It really does have an effect on rural Idaho, and I will urge your aye vote." There was no debate against the bill, despite the number of "no" votes; a number of lawmakers routinely vote against any legislation regarding gambling on moral grounds. The bill, which earlier passed the House, now heads to the governor.

‘Grandson of nullification’ bill wins final passage in Senate

HB 298, nicknamed the "grandson of nullification" as the latest version of legislation aimed at barring the national health care reform law from being implemented in Idaho, has passed the Senate on a 24-11 vote and headed to the governor's desk. This version targets the discretionary portions of the act, and says Idaho won't do anything to comply with those for one year; it also prevents the state from accepting federal funds to implement the act. "Nothing in this stops our state from implementing a health care exchange," said Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, the bill's Senate sponsor. Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, objected to Pearce's repeated use of the name "Obamacare" to refer to the reform law; Pearce apologized and said he'd switch to the official acronym, PPACA, which stands for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Malepeai said, "We've got some complicated issues before us as it relates to health care. … Do we have resources to do all this? I'm not sure where we're headed down the road in terms of all that's going on at the national level, but I just want us to think about what we're doing." He said, "We don't want to move too hastily forward and do something that we will regret later." "I think this is a mistake financially," said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, speaking in favor of the bill, said of the national health care reform bill, "It takes away our right to choose our doctor, sets up death panels … sets up a wealth of programs in the home to take our children away from us, which is the same way the Nazis did." Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, "It's really a good time to slow down and say, wait, not yet. … We don't know how deep the water is. Let's not dive in yet." Said Pearce, "We at least need to hold it out of Idaho as long as we can."

House passes two more ‘trailer’ bills to earlier school reform bills

The third "trailer bill" to add an emergency clause to already-passed school reform bills, HB 345, has passed the House on a 50-18 vote. This bill adds the emergency clause to SB 1184, the measure that shifts funds from teacher salaries to technology boost and a performance-pay plan. The bill now moves to the Senate. Also, the House has voted 42-26 in favor of HB 315, legislation from Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, to amend already-passed SB 1108 to partially protect school districts that have sharp enrollment drops next year, while dropping the measure's requirement to pay 10 percent severance to teachers laid off due to enrollment drops. That bill, too, moves to the Senate.

Wolf disaster bill passes House

The House has voted 64-5 in favor of HB 343, a measure declaring a disaster emergency in the state due to wolves. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said the measure was necessary to protect the "safety of our citizens and livestock producers." Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, "The wolves eat better than anyone else in Custer County," and threatened to cry if the House didn't pass the bill. "They're killers," she said.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, spoke out in favor of the measure. "Folks, there is an emergency," he said. "If we don't take  care of this problem soon, we won't have any wildlife left to hunt or to look at - they will be gone. … I think this is a good idea for us to declare an emergency." The bill now moves to the Senate.

‘Grandson of nullification,’ wolf emergency bills being debated…

The Senate is now taking up HB 298, the "grandson of nullification" bill against the national health care reform law, while the House is debating a new, hastily introduced measure to declare a disaster emergency over wolves.

20-week abortion ban wins final passage in the House on 54-14 vote

SB 1165, to ban abortion after 20 weeks on grounds of fetal pain, has passed the House on a 54-14 vote and now goes to the governor's desk. The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, shared several stories of people who bore their children rather than having abortions, despite difficult circumstances including illness. If they hadn't, he said at the conclusion of one of the stories, "America would not have been blessed with Beethoven." Crane told the House that the "hand of the Almighty" was at work. "His ways are higher than our ways," Crane said. "He has the ability to take difficult, tragic, horrific circumstances and then turn them into wonderful examples."

The bill makes no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal abnormality or the mental or psychological health of the mother; only when the pregnancy threatens the mother's life or physical health could a post-20-week abortion be performed. An Idaho Attorney General's opinion said the bill is unconstitutional because it violates the Roe vs. Wade decision regarding state restrictions on abortions prior to the point of fetal viability; but backers said they're prepared to defend it in court. "Is not the child of that rape or incest also a victim?" asked Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton. "It didn't ask to be here. It was here under violent circumstances perhaps, but that was through no fault of its own."

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the bill would force parents of non-viable infants with severe deformities who won't survive to carry the pregnancy to term, rather than letting them decide how to react to the situation on their own. "These diagnoses were made right at about 20 weeks," said Rusche, a pediatrician who has handled three such cases. "To knowingly force someone to carry a baby to term when they know it's not going to survive I think is cruel," he said. All 13 of the House's Democrats voted against the bill; they were joined by one Republican, Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow; while two other Republicans missed the vote.

House, Senate both back at 2

Both houses have now recessed until 2 p.m.

Senate passes ‘Hire One Act,’ 30-5

The Senate has voted 30-5 to pass HB 297, Gov. Butch Otter's "Hire One Act" to give a tax credit to employers who make new hires, with the amount varying based on their rating in the state unemployment system. "It provides an incentive to Idaho employers to hire more people," Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate. "I think this is the kind of legislation that will kick-start our economy and get us headed in the right direction." Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said there are a lot of good things in the bill, but he said it's more of a reward for employers who make hires than it is an incentive. "The questions is, can government buy new jobs?" He said, "When I was in business … would I have ever hired one person for a 2 percent or a 4 percent or a 6 percent bonus at the end of the tax year? Would that make good sense to me? And I have to admit it would not."

The bill was amended in the Senate, and rather than taking effect retroactively to Jan. 1, it would take effect next year, so it wouldn't impact next year's state budget. The bill now goes back to the House for concurrence in the Senate amendments.

Senate kills bill to let state officers hire their own lawyers, rather than use AG

After much debate, the Senate has voted 24-11 to kill HB 277a, legislation that sought to permit state constitutional officers to hire their own attorneys, rather than using the Idaho Attorney General's office. Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said the measure would accommodate an officer who wants a different attorney for partisan or philosophical reasons, someone whose "view of the world" matched his or her own. But attorneys in the Senate said that's not how it works. "I think we have here a misunderstanding about what attorneys do when they practice," said Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise. "They should give their clients … an honest appraisal of what the law is." Coloring that with politics or ideology, he said, is "not ethical."

Ways & Means introduces sweeping tax cut bill

The House Ways & Means Committee met just now and voted along party lines to introduce new legislation from Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, calling for big cuts in personal and corporate income taxes to be phased in over the next eight years, for a total drop in state tax revenue by 2019 of $402 million. "History tells us that the last five times this has been done nationally, the economy has soared, business has thrived," Hagedorn told the panel. "This is the right idea to bring jobs to the state of Idaho."

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said the plan was simply to introduce the bill, not to take it any further this year. He called it "no more than giving them something to work with," as discussions continue on the concept between this year and next year. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, "I have real concerns" about such legislation at a time when the state's reserve funds are empty and budgets are being cut. House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakely, said, "I think this is a topi that needs to be further discussed, further refined. … I don't think there's any question that it'll be the private sector that'll lead us out of this doldrum."

The committee also voted to introduce a new renewable energy rebate bill, as part of plans to split the compromise measure that already has passed the House into two separate bills; the other piece already was introduced on the Senate side.

Emergency clause bills clear House over bipartisan opposition

Two bills to tack emergency clauses onto the already-signed school reform bills, SB 1108 on teacher contracts and SB 1110 on teacher merit pay, have passed the House and now head to the Senate. The first, HB 335, passed on a 58-10 vote with no debate. On the second, HB 336, Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, asked the sponsor, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, about the reason for the emergency clause. Nonini said it's to keep a stay from being issued to block the bill from taking effect if a referendum aimed at overturning it qualifies for the 2012 ballot, and said that would restore the "balance of power."

Rusche said, "I think it's interesting that by restricting the public's ability to effect through referendum it restores the balance of power. We've had significant, significant adverse testimony, both sides of the Capitol, here on these education bills, and I think it's reprehensible to try and stifle the voice of the people through referendum in this way." Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, added, "I don't think there's an emergency. If the emergency is that we're not going to let the usual referendum process take its course, then apparently any time that there is a desire to inhibit the ability of the people to overturn legislation that this body passes, there is an emergency. I don't think that's what emergency clauses are intended for. … It's inconsistent with our Constitution and statutes."

Nonini said, "People get a chance to overturn it in 2012, but until then this legislation gets a chance to move forward." He noted, "There's precedent for doing this," in that a 1986 Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Right to Work law wasn't stayed in advance of a referendum vote because it contained an emergency clause. HB 336 then passed the House on a 47-22 vote, with nine Republicans joining the 13 House Democrats in opposing it, including Majority Leader Mike Moyle, State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, Health & Welfare Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, Transportation Chairman Leon Smith and Appropriations Vice-Chairman Darrell Bolz. Also voting no were GOP Reps. Rich Wills, Lynn Luker and Julie Ellsworth.

Library Internet filtering bill wins unanimous House support as amended

The House has voted unanimously to approve HB 205a, the library Internet filtering bill, as amended in the Senate; it now goes to the governor's desk. "Some amendments were put on it that made it more acceptable to the library association, who had been in opposition prior, but now are in full support," Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, told the House. "By changing a couple of 'shalls' to 'mays' we have a law that I think is very good and puts into statute an Internet protection measure for our libraries and the protection of our youth."

The Idaho Library Association had objected to the earlier version of the bill as an unfunded mandate that required filtering of all Internet access for adults; a group called "Citizens for Decency" that brought the bill to Shirley refused to negotiate with the library association before House passage of the bill, but senators brokered a compromise.

House halts Ringo’s move to call her bill on secret tax deals out of committee

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, made an unsuccessful move in the House this morning to call HB 37, her bill to crack down on secret tax deals and make more of the process public, out of the Rev & Tax Committee, where it's been sitting since January. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, spoke against the move, saying, "The committee had a reason for it being there, and that's where it needs to stay." Ringo responded, "Actually the point is to let the committee process work. This bill was introduced Jan. 25, and there is nothing in our rules that gives the committee chair the power to refuse a hearing on a bill. … It's the committee process that I want to talk about, and I think it's not working."

Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, "This is a House bill that I held in committee, and there's a good reason for it. As you recall early in the session there was a lot of controversy about what was going on in the Tax Commission, some changes were made, and I think that that issue has substantially resolved itself. Do we still have some issues regarding how we do compromise and closing agreements? Yes, we do." But he said a committee was formed, including himself, his Senate counterpart, and GOP legislative leaders. "We will make some recommendations to the governor, and I think any changes ought to come through him," Lake said.

The House then voted 52-15 to "excuse the committee" from bringing forth the bill, which leaves the measure there. All 13 House Democrats opposed the motion, which Moyle proposed; they were joined by two Republicans, Reps. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, and Max Black, R-Boise.

Davis: Thursday adjournment ‘a real possibility’

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis just announced to the Senate, "Our current target for adjournment sine die is Thursday, and we're going to work as hard in that direction as we possibly can." He said, "What we can do on our side is make sure we have our legislation cleared each day. If we do that, it makes Thursday adjournment a real possibility. There are some other moving parts that could have an impact on that, but we're working hard in that direction." The Senate cleared all the legislation on its calendar yesterday; it plans to do the same today, Davis said, and each subsequent day, which requires suspending rules to take up bills that haven't yet reached the 3rd Reading Calendar.

Given Davis' track record on such predictions, it seems likely the Legislature will adjourn Friday.

Election-change bill has big implications…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today's surprise holdup for SB 1198, the closed-primary election bill, after the House State Affairs Committee balked this morning and asked to hold the bill for a day so various questions about it can be answered. The Idaho Republican Party successfully sued to overturn the current system, in which Idahoans can choose which party's ballot to vote on during primary elections, without ever pledging loyalty to one party or another. The Idaho GOP adopted a party rule saying only registered Republicans should be able to vote in its primary, and a federal court ruled that the state law violated the party's freedom of association rights by forcing violations of the party rule.

It's now up to lawmakers to decide how to restructure Idaho's primary election laws to comply with the court decision. The plan put forth by GOP leaders, in consultation with the Republican Party, would let parties choose each election whether they're going to allow unaffiliated voters or members of other parties to vote, or just their own members; under the current Idaho GOP rules, it'd be just their own members. The issue is of particular significance in Idaho, where this year's Boise State University Public Policy Survey showed that independents are now the single largest group in the state at 37 percent, edging out Republicans, 33 percent, who hold most of the state's elective offices, and Democrats, 21 percent, who hold few offices.

House State Affairs balks at closed-primary bill, won’t vote ‘til tomorrow

In a surprise move, the House State Affairs Committee has voted unanimously to hold SB 1198, the primary election bill, for one day - rather than vote on it today. "I think it is a fundamental shift in election policy, and I have some questions about this bill that I need answered before I can make a decision as to whether to advance this piece of legislation forward," said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa. "So I'd like to hold it for one day and get some of those questions answered."

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, said, "I would concur with Rep. Crane's motion. I truly don't care if primaries are open or closed, but I really care about the cost to the taxpayers on registering political parties, on using the taxpayer money for political parties to get people registered for their party."

After the unanimous voice vote in favor of Crane's motion, committee Chairman Tom Loertscher announced that tomorrow's House State Affairs Committee meeting will have to start at 7:15 a.m., to accommodate both re-hearing this bill and another "time-consuming piece of legislation" already scheduled.

‘Some rude shocks for independent voters’

Gary Allen, attorney for a group of independent voters, said under SB 1198, "There are going to be a lot of people who sign up as unaffiliated and are going to be surprised when they show up at the voting and discover that they're only voting for their district court candidates, and nothing else is available to them. … I think there are going to be some rude shocks for independent voters. … That does not seem fair to me."

Allen: ‘Can’t believe partisan registration more important than funding schools, medical care for needy’

Gary Allen, attorney for independent voters who are appealing the federal court decision overturning Idaho's current primary system, told the House State Affairs Committee this morning, "My clients are concerned with the requirement for mandatory registration for two reasons: First, it requires public disclosure of a voter's party preference. This is a break with 100 years of history in the state of Idaho - never before has a voter in the state of Idaho had to declare a party preference." He said that's an "unnecessary intrusion" into his clients' privacy. "Frankly, our clients don't want to do it," he said. "Second, there's a significant cost associated with … registration. This is also unnecessary. … I find it hard to believe that administering partisan registration is more important than funding our schools or medical care for the needy."

Allen said there are plenty of other options for complying with the court decision without requiring party registration. Idaho could move to a "top two" primary, like Washington's. Or it could let parties that want to close their process hold conventions or caucuses at their own expense. "We encourage you to adopt an option that allows independent participation," he said. "The Republican primary in Idaho often is the only election that counts."

Lots of questions from reps this morning on modified-closed-primary bill

House Speaker Lawerence Denney is presenting the primary election bill, SB 1198, to the House State Affairs Committee this morning. Committee members have lots of questions. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, asked, "As I read that, that's a default to a closed primary and the chairman of the party has to affirmatively notify that that'll be an open primary, is that correct?" Denney responded, "That is correct. It was set up that way to comply with the judge's ruling that it be closed unless the party choose to open it."

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, asked about the costs identified in the bill - $215,000 to the state general fund and an additional $160,000 to the counties. "It would probably be less after the first one," Denney said. "The first one is for voter education and additional poll workers. Once everyone goes through the system and is registered, then they expect that to decrease. But that would be for the first one, and probably for the first couple."

Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, asked, "I'm not sure this would eliminate crossover voting, but would it curtail it somewhat?" Denney responded, "It depends on whether the party chooses to close, totally close the primary. And even if they do choose to totally close, you could go through the process where you register as a partisan, and then change your party affiliation back to unaffiliated and vote in the other primary the next time, but that would be a very cumbersome process."

Boxes appear, end of session near…

In the hallway of the Senate chamber, empty cardboard boxes are piled up - a sure sign that the end of Idaho's 2011 legislative session is approaching. The boxes are for lawmakers and staffers to pack their things in when they leave the Statehouse at the end of the session.

Big turnout for Dems’ cig tax hearing…

There's a big turnout this afternoon at the informational hearing that House Democrats are holding on legislation to increase Idaho's cigarette tax - more than 60 people are in the room, and there are people testifying both for and against the bill. Practically the entire Democratic House caucus is sitting and taking the testimony; the Dems decided to schedule the hearing on their own after majority Republicans refused to hold a hearing on the measure.

Senate passes pro-megaloads bill to make lawsuits tougher

The Senate has voted 27-8 in favor of HB 193a, the amended version of Rep. Dick Harwood's pro-megaloads bill to require a big cash bond before anyone can sue to block one of the loads. The bill originally required a cash bond equal to 5 percent of the insured value of the load; the amended version allows a judge to require a bond of up to 10 percent of that value. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said, "Idaho has a good permitting process, but one in this case that was manipulated and in my opinion unnecessarily delayed."

He said he thought the process of permitting megaloads already allows "plenty of public input," and said, "By taking the 5 percent floor and turning it into a 10 percent cap … the average person can actually participate in the process much more easily." McGee said, "The problem we have is that people's jobs were being held up by these lawsuits. … Passage of this bill sends a message that Idaho is not going to let its economy be held hostage by activist groups using lawsuits as delay tactics."

When the bill had its Senate committee hearing, Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning testified that ITD has only ever faced one lawsuit over a load - the one over the Highway 12 megaloads, which was unsuccessful. The bill passed the Senate on a 27-8 vote; it now goes back to the House for concurrence in the amendments.