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The Legislative Council, the leadership group that oversees legislative issues when the Legislature isn't in session, has voted unanimously this morning to have the Natural Resources Interim Committee look into whether Idaho should try to take over primacy on wastewater regulation from the EPA, and bring recommendations back to the Legislature. The Senate passed a resolution for such a study during this year's legislative session, but it didn't pass the House. "It's my understanding that the House … was not opposed to the consideration of the issue … but felt like this committee could be tasked to do it," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said he'd like to add Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, as an ad hoc member of that interim committee this year for that discussion. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, also was added.
There was no change in chairmanships for the four continuing interim committees that will meet this summer. Sen. Monty Pearce and Rep. Dell Raybould will continue to co-chair the natural resources committee; Sen. Curt McKenzie and Rep. George Eskridge will continue to co-chair the Energy, Environment and Technology Interim Committee; Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Gary Collins will continue to co-chair the Health Care Task Force; and Sen. Edgar Malepeai and Rep. Bob Nonini will continue to co-chair the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs.
Idaho's state Department of Administration has published new rules for use of the Capitol Mall grounds, as authorized by last-minute legislation that passed on the final day of this year's legislative session. The new rules, which take effect immediately but still will be reviewed by next year's Legislature, are targeted at the Occupy Boise protest across from the state Capitol, but also include rules for protests and exhibits in and around the state Capitol and other state facilities. Among them: No event can run more than 11 consecutive hours or seven consecutive days, and events are limited to the hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The effect of the new rules on the Occupy Boise vigil are unclear, as a federal judge has ruled the 24/7 vigil and its tents are protected free speech; a June 7 court hearing is scheduled on the matter. The Idaho Statesman has a full report here on the new rules; you can read the new rules here, along with information on how to submit written public comments. A separate set covers indoor events. The Department of Administration is accepting written public comment on the rules through 5 p.m. on Friday, June 1.
OFF-ROAD VEHICLES — Idaho recently came within an eyelash of stripping the Idaho Department of Fish and Game of the authority to regulate the use of all-terrain vehicles on public land during hunting seasons.
An editorial in the Idaho Mountain Express notes that if the state Senate had not stopped a measure that had been approved by the House, Fish and Game would have had no say on where hunters could operate ATVs during big-game hunting seasons.
That would have been a big mistake, the opinion piece suggests.
Read on for the editorial's reasoning.
Click here for the Idaho Fish and Game Department's web page on ATV issues.
Methane gas that long has formed deep within the rotting garbage at Kootenai County's Fighting Creek Landfill is going to a new use today: It's generating enough electricity to power 1,800 homes. The county and the non-profit Kootenai Electric Cooperative flipped the switch on their joint venture last month, launching a new clean, renewable, local power source that has officials beaming with pride.
"It's going to generate revenue for the county, and it's so good for the environment," said Kootenai County solid waste director Roger Saterfiel. "We were just burning the gas off. … It's being put to a use now."
But in the larger world of energy politics, the project has landed KEC in the middle of a big-bucks fight between Idaho's largest utilities and small generators of renewable power that's threatening a key piece of the new plant's long-term financial plan. At issue are renewable energy credits, also called "green tags," which have great value in states where utilities must generate a significant and growing percentage of their power from renewable energy. Idaho isn't among those states - Washington is - but the credits can be sold on the open market, potentially for millions.
Idaho's three largest utilities - Avista Corp., Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power - introduced legislation this year declaring that when a utility buys power from a renewable generator, it gets the credits too. The bill didn't pass, but it set off a fiery debate that's now playing out in a pending case at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, which has approved some contracts in recent years in which utilities and generators split the credits.
KEC's already given half the credits from its new 3.2 MW plant to the county, under its contract, and is counting on the other half for its own money-making purposes. Now the cooperative is trying to sign a deal to send the landfill power to Oregon - where state law says the generator gets to keep the renewable energy credits; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The Idaho Statesman reports that Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, the state's only black lawmaker and a current candidate for the state Senate, received an application in the mail to join the Ku Klux Klan, hand-addressed to her and postmarked in Great Falls, Mont. “It conjured up a lot of things for me that weren’t very comfortable — not fear, but sometimes we get to thinking things are settled,” Buckner-Webb told the Statesman; you can read the Statesman's full story here. Meanwhile, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported that three other Idaho lawmakers also received similar mailings; click below for their report. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said he also received the letter. "I was offended and shocked as well (we have an adopted daughter from India)," he said in an email. "But in this job we get a lot of offensive mail so I did what I do with the rest of it and threw it away."
In the end, there were no vetoes - not a one - as Gov. Butch Otter today allowed the last three bills passed by lawmakers this year to become law without his signature. That makes 342 bills passed and zero vetoes. The three:
SB 1321a, which altered a law about the Fish & Game winter feeding account to specify that it only can be spent for actual food, not for improvements to winter range for the same animals being fed, or for anything else. That controversial measure passed the Senate 25-8 and the House 40-30; it was sponsored by Sens. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, and Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton. Otter pointed out some serious problems with the bill in his transmittal letter - including that by specifying the fund could only go for food, it couldn't pay for the transportation costs to get the food out to the animals and other related costs, and therefore would put pressure on fishing and hunting license funds to fill in those costs. Nevertheless, he didn't veto the bill.
HB 603, the new "97 percent protection" bill for Idaho school districts, which partially restores a program eliminated under the "Students Come First" school reforms that protected districts from big, sudden drops in state funding if they lose students from one year to the next. Under the bill, districts that lose more than 3 percent of their students from one year to the next will be funded as if they've lost just 3 percent, but the money for the protection will come from school districts themselves, spreading the cost among all the state's school districts. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, and the Idaho Association of School Administrators, received only one "no" vote in either house - from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Otter said in his transmittal letter that he opposed such funding protection as double funding of students.
HB 611, the bill that was promoted as a move to ease sale of abandoned horses by horse boarders by adjusting a law that currently requires, after 60 days, that the animals be sold at a licensed livestock auction, to simply allow them to be sold at a public auction. Sponsored by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, the bill passed both houses unanimously. However, Otter noted in his transmittal letter that "the scope of this legislation goes beyond the intent 'to provide for an alternative method of selling boarded horses when the owners do not pay.'" Otter, an avid horseman and rancher himself, wrote, "The legislation is not limited to horses but provides for public auction of 'livestock of any kind.' This broad language has raised concerns from owners of livestock auction yards." Still, he didn't veto the bill, saying instead that he looks forward to "working with all parties in resolving these concerns" during next year's legislative session.
Gov. Butch Otter has acted on all but three of the bills passed in this year's legislative session; he has until 1:50 p.m. tomorrow to either sign or veto the final three, or let them become law without his signature. Asked if these are measures the governor just hadn't gotten to yet, or whether he was still debating on them, Otter's press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, "I think there may be a little of both."
The remaining bills: HB 1321a, on the Fish & Game winter feeding account; HB 603, on education support units and attendance; and HB 611, on livestock liens. So far, Otter hasn't vetoed a single one of the 342 bills passed by this year's Legislature.
Idaho will join 43 other states and start licensing massage therapists, after Sen. Jim Hammond‘s bill was signed into law last week by Gov. Butch Otter. Therapists will have 18 months to become licensed; currently, anyone can claim to be a massage therapist and charge for the service, including criminals. “Everybody giggles about massage therapy, but really it has become a mainstream therapy for healing and for maintaining good health,” said Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene. He said people taking a relative or family member for massage therapy – which now often is prescribed for everyone from people recovering from medical procedures to the elderly or disabled – “want somebody of high moral character … who’s well-trained.”
You can read more in my Sunday column here, which also includes info on why the governor let two other bills become law without his signature - on one, he noted a conflict of interest - and the state asking for public input on arguments for and against the two constitutional amendments that will appear on the November ballot, the Right to Hunt amendment and a one-word change regarding county misdemeanor probation services.
On tonight's "Idaho Reports," I join Jim Weatherby, host Greg Hahn and two retiring lawmakers, Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, and Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, to discuss the recently completed legislative session. Tonight's program also includes Hahn's interviews with Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian; and with Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; and a panel of business reporters including Brad Iverson-Long, Bill Roberts and Emilie Ritter Saunders.
The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television; it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time, 10 a.m. Pacific; and will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 6 p.m. After it airs, "Idaho Reports" also can be viewed online at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.
Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 1274a, the bill banning texting while driving, into law. The new law, which passed this year after three years of unsuccessful attempts in the Legislature to enact such a ban, makes texting while driving an infraction. Idaho currently has misdemeanor penalties for inattentive driving, but unlike most states, no specific law banning texting while driving.
Two years ago, a ban that had passed the Senate died on the final night of the legislative session in the House, when then-Rep. Raul Labrador, now an Idaho congressman, used a parliamentary maneuver to force a two-thirds vote. The bill failed, with just a 37-30 majority. Last year’s version would have banned texting while driving if it distracted the driver, but not if it didn’t; it failed.
This year’s bill got strong support in committee hearings, from teens to law enforcement to the AAA to to insurers. It also got a solemn boost when an 18-year-old Caldwell woman, Taylor Sauer, died in January in an Idaho freeway crash while texting. Her surviving family members offered tearful testimony in favor of the bill in committee hearings in both houses.
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, sponsored this year's bill, a simple, one-page measure; the new law takes effect July 1.
The cost to the state of Idaho for fighting the wrongful-firing lawsuit from former ITD chief Pam Lowe: $540,479 and counting, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell today, who learned that figure by filing a public records request under the Idaho Public Records Law. That's the total as of March 31 for the taxpayers' tab for the private law firm the state hired to fight Lowe's lawsuit. You can read Sewell's full report here.
Meanwhile, I'm on vacation for much of this week (and the spring skiing up at Bogus Basin today was fabulous, absolutely fabulous!), but I did receive some info in response to a public records request of my own to ITD: The Connecting Idaho Partners contract, which Lowe contends she was fired for trying to trim back, has swelled to $82,929,461 - that's right, $82.9 million - as of the end of March 2012. The management contract with URS, formerly Washington Group, and CH2M Hill, was first envisioned at $50 million over 10 years; Lowe was trying to reduce it to less than $30 million.
Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports that the Idaho State Police are still looking into the actions of state Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, who resigned Feb. 22 amid allegations of sexual harassment of a female Senate staffer. "It is still with ISP and is an ongoing investigation," ISP Capt. Steve Richardson told Popkey. "There would be nothing that we would release at this time. It has not been forwarded to any other agency." You can read Popkey's full post here.
Tax-protesting Idaho Rep. Phil Hart pressed his case to the Idaho Supreme Court today, arguing to the justices in Coeur d'Alene that his status as a state lawmaker should have given him months longer than other citizens to appeal an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. “It’s not about me,” Hart told S-R reporter Tom Clouse after the hearing. “It’s really about the Legislature and whether it’s going to be free to do its work or … be subject to distractions when they are trying to do the work of the people.” Clouse reports that "the justices appeared to have little patience for the Athol lawmaker’s claims that the state constitution shields him from tax collectors." You can read his full report here at spokesman.com.
Idaho’s legislative session this year was long on drama, but many of the biggest and hottest debates won’t mean much for most of the state’s residents. Instead, it’s the smaller things, some of which passed with little controversy, that will make the most difference in everyday Idahoans’ lives. Examples: Idaho became the first state to enact legislation letting drivers show proof of insurance electronically on their smartphones. New youth concussion legislation will require schools to better protect young athletes who suffer head injuries on the playing field. A state suicide hotline got funding to start back up after a six-year gap. Some of the session’s biggest debates, on the other hand, will have little effect on state residents. You can read my full story here in today's Spokesman-Review.
In other looks back at the session, click below for AP reporter John Miller's report on "what went splat" during this year's legislative session, from ultrasound to insurance exchange to a cigarette tax hike. You can read my Sunday column here, "Session comes to a screaming end." AP reporter Alex Morrell has a session wrapup here, read how Gov. Butch Otter backtracked here on an education funding claim, and read a report here from Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin on the high number of retiring lawmakers this year, including five longtime Magic Valley legislators.
On tonight's "Idaho Reports," I join Jim Weatherby, George Prentice, Dan Popkey and host Greg Hahn to discuss the legislative developments of the week. Tonight's program also includes Hahn's interviews with Lt. Gov. Brad Little and with Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise; a report on energy policy from Aaron Kunz; and more. It was the session's last week, and it's the next-to-last "Idaho Reports" program of the year.
The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television; it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time, 10 a.m. Pacific; and will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 6 p.m. After it airs, "Idaho Reports" also can be viewed online at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.
Gov. Butch Otter praised lawmakers today, calling this year's legislative session "productive." "I think it was a great session - in fact, I would give a good solid 'A' to the Legislature." He said, "The Legislature got it right this year." You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Otter lauded the full funding of the "Students Come First" school reforms, which include technology boosts and a teacher merit-pay bonus program; an increase in funding for hard-hit colleges and universities; the IGEM university research program; and a cut in corporate and individual income tax rates for top earners.
Asked if he would have signed the pre-abortion ultrasound mandate bill had it reached his desk, Otter said, "No comment - next question." Click below for Otter's full statement.
House and Senate Democrats responded to this year's legislative session today, criticizing the Republican majority for its priorities, including tax cuts for top earners and social legislation on contraception and abortion. "They played special-interest social politics and forgot that people care about their personal freedom," declared House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.
While lauding some of the session's accomplishments, from youth concussion legislation to suicide hotline funding to a ban on texting while driving, Rusche said the GOP leaders fell short on education, ethics, job creation and more. "The real hope now is not that these leaders will remember their promises," he said. "Rather it's that the voice of the people is heard this November through recall of the Luna laws."
He also called for a constitutional amendment "to protect a citizen's rights to refuse government mandated medical procedures and make it necessary to have their consent for health care treatments," saying, "One wouldn’t think it necessary in Idaho, it wouldn't be necessary to protect the freedoms and rights of our citizens from the overreach of government, but if anything, experience has shown that not all Idaho legislators have the same perceptions of personal freedom."
Click below for the Democrats' full statement.
Election is coming…
Now it's just time for the spin
As lawmakers pack it all in
So if you approve
Or opposed every move
It's time to get your vote in.
The Idaho Senate has adjourned for the session at a little after 7 p.m., four hours after the House did the same. Here, Lt. Gov. Brad Little applauds the end of the session, which ran for 81 days. The final hours included tearful goodbyes, speeches, and even a "Thanks for the Memories" serenade of the Senate by Sens. Chuck Winder and Dean Mortimer. Click below for a session wrap-up story from AP reporter John Miller; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com on the House's final action, returning Rep. Bob Nonini's $10 million tax credit bill for private school scholarships to committee.
The Senate has been saying its goodbyes, including emotional farewells from the longest-serving Idaho senator ever, Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo; from Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise; Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle; Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello; Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian; Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello; and Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise; and more. When Lt. Gov. Brad Little asked if there were "any more announcements," Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, turned with a grin and pointed at Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, saying, "It's your turn, Bert." There was laughter; the two will face off in the GOP primary this year after redistricting landed them in the same legislative district.
LeFavour, Idaho's only openly gay lawmaker, told the Senate, "I know I'm not the first gay person to serve here. I think we all know that. Maybe I'm the first one to feel safe enough to be honest about who I am."
Darrington said, "The Senate has been my life for 30 years. … I think when you take on the responsibility, I think you take it all on. That's been my creed."
"The Senate has completed its business and is about to adjourn sine die," Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said. Committees are being sent to notify the House, which adjourned for the session nearly three hours ago, and the governor.
With no debate or discussion, the Senate has passed HB 698, the teacher salary bill, on a 28-7 party-line vote. That's the House version of the bill to cancel future cuts required by the "Students Come First" reform law in teacher salary funds, in order to pay for the law's initiatives including laptop computers and merit-pay bonuses for teachers. The House bill also declares those initiatives the top funding priorities in the school budget, and requires that whenever teacher base salaries are increased, the minimum teacher salary must rise by twice the percentage. The bill now goes to the governor.
The Senate has voted unanimously, 35-0, in favor of HB 662 to declare the Idaho Guard Youth Challenge program to start a school in Pierce, Idaho a secondary alternative school. The funding for that was defeated in JFAC, however. Backers hope to get state matching funds for federal funds and private donations to operate the school.
The Senate has voted 28-7 along party lines in favor of HB 563, the $35.7 million cut in Idaho's corporate and top individual income tax rates; just over 17 percent of Idaho tax filers would benefit. "This is a good way to use that money," Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, said in his closing debate, "to give a little tax relief to the citizens of Idaho, that may not even realize they're going to get it. But … it has a multiplier effect."
"It should go to higher education and K-12 education," said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, who voted against the bill. Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, initially voted against the bill, then changed his vote to yes, leaving only the Senate's seven Democrats voting no.
Among comments in the tax cut debate so far:
Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, "I guess I would look for a bill at this point in the session that creates jobs, and this one I don't think does. … I am really sorry to see that this is the bill we have at the end of the session."
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg: "The fact is we're not competitive in our income tax rates with our states right around us, and those are the ones we're competing with the most." He said he sees the tax cuts, state savings, and restoring teacher salary-based apportionment as "a package deal."
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise: "In many instances, people will never know they got this," because the small amount will be buried in people's tax returns.
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, opening debate on HB 563, the tax-cut bill, said, "I know that some are willing to support increased funding for teacher pay. I know that some want tax relief. I know that some want money put away in savings. All we have to do is decide our priorities."
He said of the reduction in Idaho's top income tax rate and its corporate tax rate, "It's not a huge amount, but it does make a statement, and I think a very positive statement." Said Winder, "I think even if you got $75 or $100 back, that'll buy some gas, that'll pay for some groceries. It'll have some impact."
The $35.7 million tax cut would go to corporate filers, and to top earners who now pay the state's highest rate for individual income tax. For a single person who doesn't itemize and takes the standard deduction, that equates to a minimum gross income of $36,260 to start getting any tax break. For a married couple filing jointly with no dependents, it's $72,520. For a couple with two children, it's $79,920. Just over 17 percent of Idaho income tax filers would benefit from the cut; taxes for lower earners wouldn't change.
Poverty level for a family of four, according to the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, is $22,350 a year; for a single person, it's $10,890.
Now the Senate is moving on to HB 563, the House-passed $35.7 million income tax cut for top earners.
The Senate has adopted proposed new ethics rules in a straight party-line vote, 28-7. In his closing debate, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said, "There's a lot that was said in opposition to the bill that I agree with." But he said a public ethics process before probable cause has been determined "does not … preserve reputations against frivolous allegations." He said, "When we make it part of the public discourse, let's at least have confidence that we've met a probable cause standard, and if we have, then it should be part of the public discourse."
He noted that the new rule includes provisions for ethics complaints for conduct unbecoming a senator, which wasn't previously in the rule, along with complaints for violating any state law "that brings discredit or embarrassment to the Senate or that constitutes a breach of public trust."
Davis said, "We and our predecessors care about the Senate, and I have confidence that our successors will be similarly devoted, and if not, the people of the state of Idaho know how to correct that, and they should." He said he thinks the new rule sets "substantially increased standards for ethical review."
Among comments in the Senate debate this afternoon on proposed new ethics rules:
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, who chaired the Senate Ethics Committee this year and helped draft the rules, said, "My heart is broken. … This I believe is the best we can get and we can do for right now. Is it perfect? No. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not."
Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said, "Yes we value openness, but we also place some value on the dignity of the individual … on fairness. … In my view this resolution strengthens our rules."
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, "This really was an effort to try to be fair to everyone, in both parties, in all parts of the state. I was so naive I actually thought the minority would join in on this. I had heard comments that it probably should be kept confidential until there was some kind of reasonable cause. … There are so many things we could have done with this to make it unfair." He said the rule tried to "protect the innocent, and yet to protect people's right to know if there's been a violation."
Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello: "The best, not perfect, the best approach of being acceptable to what we all might see to be fair, would be for both sides to come together and figure it out together. That's what experience teaches me. … We could have perhaps arrived at a proposal that we all could have bought into, but we didn't. … That process was absent."
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, pointed to a clause in the proposed new Senate ethics rule that would make it a violation of the rules of the Senate to disclose "any information that is confidential concerning the preliminary investigation … or … the disclosure of any information, preliminary investigation or written complaint."
"What we're doing is we're gagging every senator," Werk said. "As you and I know very well, rumors run quick. And if you remember from the ethics investigation we just had, the only people that were complaining weren't a set of senators. We had emails firing off at us pretty quickly. So everything is going to be swirling, most likely, and then we'll be expected to somehow not say anything, with a violation of the ethics rules, the rules of the Senate, hanging over us."
Werk said, "What we need to be favoring is the public. … This will not instill public confidence, it will erode public confidence."