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Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he's not convinced that the state can afford the tax cut, bearing in mind the lessons he learned sitting on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for years as that panel had to make deep and painful cuts. However, he said he'll support the motion to send the bill to the full Senate so all senators can weigh in.
Sen. Jim Rice has moved to send the tax-cut bill to the full Senate with no recommendation; Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill seconded the motion.
Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, then spoke. "I believe that we've accomplished some good things this legislative session and I've seen them first hand. … I believe we've done some good things with what we were handed. I also believe that there are some obstacles to economic development, and one of them is … a shrinking and a struggling middle class. I'm a member of that. We have decreasing high-paying jobs in Idaho. If I had it my way, Idaho would have put some money back into early-childhood education, that's something I'm very passionate about, but it's not part of our budget. .. I think the record shows that when we invest in our children, when we invest in early-childhood education it prepares them for a lifetime of success, for a lifetime of learning. That tells you a little bit about myself."
He also shared some more personal stories, including having a benign tumor removed from his head, and his son having heart surgery when he was a single parent. "I've been without a home, and I've accepted public assistance," Johnson said. "I look at this issue through a different lens. I look at it as an investment … in the future of Idaho." He said he favors tax reforms.
"I came to a decision about how I would vote on this last night. … It's not an easy decision, it's not a perfect decision, but I've made my decision, and I am going to vote in favor of sending this bill to the Senate floor, because I … think we need to hear from all the members of the Senate." Johnson said Gov. Butch Otter contacted him and asked him to support the bill. "I told him I would vote my conscience … and that's what I'm doing today."
The Senate Tax Committee is questioning Sen. Chuck Winder and deliberating on HB 563, the tax-cut bill for top earners. "I haven't seen anything in here that indicates there would be a single job created," Sen. Elliot Werk. "Have you or the proponents done any studies?" Winder noted that the Idaho Chamber Alliance testified in favor of the bill. "Various chambers believe that this will help their businesses," he said. "I think we all know that we need to get people back to work, and I think this will help do that. … Part of this is that it does send a message out that we are willing, in order to … get people back to work, to lower our tax structure a little bit."
"We've heard that this only benefits the rich," said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene. "Have we truly figured out who the beneficiaries are overall?" Winder noted that the governor proposed $45 million in tax cuts, and this is less at $35 million. "I think from the standpoint of most people in the state of Idaho … that a significant number of people will benefit, not just the rich, because the rich in Idaho may be someone that makes $26,000."
The proposed $35.7 million tax would go only to those paying Idaho's corporate income tax, 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.
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said if the $35 million wasn't spent on tax cuts and was just left in reserves, it wouldn't create any jobs.
Public testimony has wrapped up on the tax cut bill, and Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, is now giving his final comments to the Senate tax committee. "This tax relief will help Idaho's economy and Idaho's taxpayers; after all this is their money and not ours," he said. "I think it sends a resounding message across the nation that we're different from most states. … We have taken care of our budget needs."
The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee is hearing emotional testimony this morning against HB 563, the House-passed tax-cut bill for top earners. "It's a shameful message to send to Idaho's working families," Marty Durand told the committee. Cindy Tiferet said, "We once again choose to help only those who are doing the best."
David Hensley, chief of staff for Gov. Butch Otter, told the committee, "For the governor, tax relief is a first step, and he believes it's an important first step this session." Tax reform, he said, will take more time and "thoughtful consideration." Said Hensley, "DFM and JFAC agree that there's enough money to accomplish the priorities that you've set forth that the governor agrees with." He said the governor believes cutting top individual and corporate income tax rates will help new and existing companies create jobs in the state.
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, who presented the bill to the committee, said it's part of a three-pronged session-ending deal, restoring teacher salary cuts that would have been required in future years by the "Students Come First" reform law; refilling drained reserve funds; and cutting taxes. "We need all three legs of this plan to hold us up and get us on our way home,” Winder told the panel. He said he thinks he has the votes to pass the bill in the full Senate if it clears the committee.
The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning took up three changes to Senate rules, including a major revision of its ethics rules. Among the changes: More secrecy. Under the proposed changes, ethics complaints would be secret until the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee votes that they are valid and should proceed to a full investigation; the Ethics Committee would meet in closed-door executive session to deliberate on that.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, noted that that means if the panel deadlocked 3-3 along party lines, the complaint would be dismissed - and would never become public. "The effect of that would be then for one party to be able to squash the complaint of another without any notice of the process," she said. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he didn't think that would happen, noting that the vote to dismiss ethics charges against Sen. Monty Pearce this year was unanimous. "I have chosen not to live in the world of fear on this issue, but by making sure that both parties have equal buy-in in the process," Davis said. "I like the idea that both parties take ownership of the ethics of this body."
Other changes include a more clear requirement that conflicts of interest be disclosed in committee as well as on the floor of the Senate; and more specific grounds for bringing ethics complaints, including conduct unbecoming a senator. Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, "I think all of this is a step in the right direction. I do think that our goal should be to have an independent commission, but I do think that in the interim this is a good step, and I appreciate all the hard work that has been done on it." Another change removes a clause in Senate rules that requires a two-thirds vote on the floor to dismiss a Senate employee; Davis said that's never been done, and such matters generally are handled by the Senate president pro-tem.
Two of the three resolutions, the employee dismissal one and the expanded disclosure rule, were approved on unanimous votes in the committee; the ethics revision rule drew one dissenting vote from LeFavour. The rules resolutions now move directly to the full Senate for final passage.
Yesterday afternoon, while all eyes were on JFAC, the Senate State Affairs Committee took up the Capitol Mall rules bill, and after negative testimony in a public hearing, passed it.. Occupy Boise member Mary Reali wrote afterward, "Well, a lot of us testified, a few questions were asked, some non reassuring 'pledges' were given and H693 passed on party lines, to be voted on in the general Senate."
Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey writes today about appointed Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, the swing vote in this morning's Senate committee consideration of the House-passed tax cut bill. "The most important lawmaker in Idaho today is an appointed senator who’s spent three months on the job," Popkey writes. "Republican leaders need his vote, and Gov. Butch Otter has asked for it. Colleagues ready to call it quits are dying to know what he’ll do. Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, is handling the pressure with veteran cool, declining to say whether he favors a full Senate vote on a $35.7 million income tax cut that will benefit only corporations and individuals in the highest tax bracket." You can read Popkey's full column here.
On the new $200,000 legislative legal fund, controlled by the speaker and pro-tem:
Things that come up very late
May not be a plus for the state
The legal slush fund
Is case No. 1
Would more scrutiny have sealed its fate?
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said now that legislation is back on track to cancel the future cuts in teacher salary funds required by the "Students Come First" law, and JFAC has approved transfers to the state's rainy-day accounts, he's willing to support the House-passed tax cut bill, which is up for a committee hearing in the Senate tomorrow morning. "For me, getting the salary bill … and getting a large chunk into reserves is a pretty fair compromise, and I'm willing to go along with the tax cut," Cameron said.
House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he was disappointed that JFAC didn't put any money into the new higher education stabilization fund, which he helped create; only the Democrats on the joint committee supported a $1 million appropriation for that. But he also said the money going into the budget stabilization fund is "the same suit of clothes, it's just another pocket."
Bedke said JFAC's action fits well with the ongoing session-ending negotiations. "I don't think it boxes us in," he said. "It certainly doesn't preclude anything that might happen at this point." Asked what he thought would happen next - there's been much speculation that if the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee doesn't pass the tax cut bill tomorrow morning, the session will drag on, possibly into next week and beyond - Bedke said, "I suspect that by 8 o'clock tomorrow, that they'll have the votes in that committee."
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, moved to transfer funds to the budget stabilization fund beyond the statutorily required amount, including "any excess cash balance" beyond a $5 million carry-over at the close of fiscal year 2012. Based on current revenue estimates - and assuming that the proposed $35 million tax cut bill passes - that would transfer $12.2 million in addition to the statutory transfer of $10.9 million, for a total transfer to the budget stabilization fund of $23.2 million. If the tax cut bill didn't pass, that would transfer $35 million more into the budget stabilization fund.
Cameron said, looking at the with-the-tax-cut numbers, if you add that to the transfer already approved to the public education stabilization fund of $21.5 million, "and then if you add the money that's still sitting in the Veterans Division if necessary in an economic downturn, you could access about $80.6 million." The motion, seconded by Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, passed unanimously.
The way the JFAC motion was structured, it works either way: If the tax cut passes, it accounts for it; if the tax cut doesn't pass, it routes that money into the reserve account.
Cameron praised members of the joint budget committee for their work this session, which he said set an "austere" budget but one that addresses the state's critical needs.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, moved to transfer $1 million to the new higher education stabilization fund, and Rep. Shirley Ringo, seconded the motion. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, spoke against the motion. He noted that that would mean $1 million less to the budget stabilization fund, the state's main reserve fund. "If we're going to need this money, that's where we're going to need it first," he said. "I think by everybody's measure, we have treated higher ed very well this year." Ringo noted that that came after "a very long dry spell" for higher education in Idaho; colleges and universities have seen big state budget cuts in recent years. Jaquet's motion was defeated on a 4-16 party-line vote.
The first two year-end transfers from the state's general fund approved this afternoon by JFAC: $2 million to the disaster emergency fund; and $21.5 million to the public education stabilization fund, the state's savings account for schools. Next up: Discussion of transfers to the budget stabilization fund, the state's rainy-day savings account.
JFAC is back in, and Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, tried to move approval of just the dedicated and federal funds for the Youth Challenge, but JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told him, "Your motion is out of order." JFAC is now moving on to the question of transfers to rainy-day funds.
JFAC has gotten snagged in an extended parliamentary dispute, after the joint committee defeated, on a 10-10 tied vote, an appropriation bill, called a "trailer bill" because it trails after the substantive legislation, to match the House-passed bill, HB 662, authorizing funding of the National Guard Youth Challenge as an alternative secondary school.
Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, "We've all agreed" that the program should be made available to the state's youth, by passing authorizing legislation last year, and HB 662 this year, which passed the House today. The program would start up a military school for at-risk youth; much of its funding would come from federal funds and donations, Hagedorn said, though the state would provide $600,000 next year in matching funds, and $1.2 million each year thereafter. Hagedorn asked for reconsideration, which requires a two-thirds vote. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that last year when lawmakers pushed for approval of the program late in the legislative session, "They made a promise that they would not ask for general fund dollars." He said, "This is not the way to start a program."
"I have no doubt that it would be good for that community up north," Cameron said. "But there's a lot of stuff that we can't fund." Starting a new program requiring an ongoing commitment of state funds should require coming in early in the session and making a case, he said.
Hagedorn said he wanted to make a slightly different motion, not reconsider the one that failed; committee members are now checking rules and disputing over which way to go.
Another trailer bill, to follow HB 660, the judges' retirement bill, was approved on a 19-1 vote, with just Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, dissenting.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Senate has voted to remedy a special-use permit problem, passing HB 691 and sending the bill to the governor. Senators called the bill a shotgun wedding that married a fix for a recent Idaho Supreme Court decision that undermined thousands of existing special-use permits with new rules governing wind farms. The bill passed 31-3 Wednesday; it earlier passed the House 59-10. In January, a Supreme Court ruling in a Teton County case threw Idaho's 35-year history of special-use permitting into question. Bill sponsor Sen. Tim Corder says a remedy was needed, to keep decades of land-use planning from descending into chaos. But House members also demanded the bill include new public-notice requirements meant to govern industrial wind farms. The combination, something Sen. Elliot Werk of Boise called one of those "funny" little peculiarities that emerge in bills during a legislative session's waning days, was inserted by turbine foes.
JFAC has convened at this unaccustomed late-afternoon hour, and its first item of business is a request to allocate $660,000 from a mortgage foreclosure settlement to the Idaho Attorney General's office for use in helping Idaho homeowners affected by foreclosure. The AG's office made a presentation to JFAC some time back on the proposal; the money from the settlement is expected to come in soon; the expenditures would be over the next three years. The overall settlement is expected to bring in $13.3 million.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, moved to transfer $500,000, rather than the full $660,000, and Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, seconded the motion. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, proposed a substitute motion with the same bottom-line total, but cutting out funding to help low-income families negotiate loan modifications through Idaho Legal Aid Services, instead shifting that money to HUD for housing counselors; Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, seconded that motion. Thompson's motion was defeated, 5-15, and Jaquet's motion then passed unanimously.
Both the House and the Senate are now adjourning for the day, and JFAC is preparing to meet. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said, as to whether the Legislature can adjourn tomorrow, "I remain hopeful that that is possible … but I wouldn't give Friday away yet."
SB 1413, the bill to put another $500,000 in state general funds into the nearly-drained Constitutional Defense Fund to cover legal judgments against the state, has passed the House on a 61-6 vote, after earlier clearing the Senate on a party-line, 28-7 vote. Much of the money in recent years has gone to pay legal fees for Planned Parenthood after the state lost major court cases over anti-abortion legislation that was overturned as unconstitutional; several other cases also have tapped into the fund. The bill now goes to the governor.
The amended Senate animal cruelty bill, SB 1303a, has passed the House on a 64-2 vote, with just Reps. Dick Harwood and Paul Shepherd voting no. The bill, which makes the most aggravated charge of animal cruelty a felony on a third offense, was amended in the House to add penalties for cockfighting; Idaho is now one of just three states with no felony penalties for animal cruelty. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, "I think the bill has been well-vetted throughout the livestock industry and we're in agreement with it." The bill now returns to the Senate for concurrence in the House amendments.
HB 662, to fund the proposed National Guard Youth Challenge school in Pierce in north-central Idaho as an alternative school, has passed the House on a 50-19 vote. Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told the House, "These are not additional dollars that we are asking for, folks, these are dollars that we would spend for any of our students to go to alternative schools today." The cost to the state would be $600,000 next year and $1.2 million each year thereafter. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said that money will go to match federal funds that will bring total funding up to $4.7 million a year. The bill now moves to the Senate.
The nine-member Senate committee that will take up the tax-cut bill tomorrow morning is deeply divided, reports AP reporter John Miller, and its chairman, Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, prefers to see the $35 million in question go into state rainy-day savings. Corder says the House-passed bill provides a family of four earning $100,000 with just $71 in tax relief — not enough to really make a difference. "My vote is 'No,' " Corder told the AP. "That's where I am, truly and squarely."
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, favors the bill, while Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, opposes it. "What's the conservative and prudent thing to do? It's to save money," he said. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, is on the fence but leaning toward supporting the bill to attract companies looking to move to the state. "I want to put every dime I can into savings," Hammond said. "But I also appreciate, as we start climbing out of the hole in the economy, one of the things we can do is create a better first impression."
Hill said, "We don't know if it's going to come out of committee." Click below for Miller's full report.
After much debate, the House has voted 48-21 in favor of HB 697, the latest Boise County bill. This one, unlike the previous one that failed in the House on a tied vote, requires a vote of the people before the county could bond to cover costs of a big legal judgment.
Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, called it a "difficult issue" and said it's one of the toughest he's worked on in the Legislature. He said he hopes the county's voters can pull together and pass the measure. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, was among those speaking out against the bill. "This was brought about by bad decisions, wrong decisions, by county commissioners," he told the House. "I think they need to think long and hard before they make these decisions." Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, countered, "The good citizens of Boise County have got a problem, and the public officials have made bad decisions. But to continue to penalize the public officials that have stepped up now to try to solve these problems isn't the way to go about it."
The bill now moves to the Senate.
Boise County Prosecuting Attorney Ron Twilegar, a former Senate minority leader and former Boise city councilman, has delivered a letter to House Speaker Lawerence Denney suggesting that SB 1387, the forced ultrasound bill, "violates Article 1 of the Idaho Constitution and, thus, the rights of women of Boise County." Twilegar said as a former lawmaker, he doesn't consider the bill dead until the session is over, even though its backers say they've now withdrawn it. "Under certain circumstances, SB 1387 could mandate a patient agree to 'forced consent' to invasion of a body with a medical procedure not recommended by her physician, but rather a medical procedure compelled by the Government," he wrote
He wrote, "If SB 1387 becomes law … I intend to file a civil action to enjoin any physician from implementing the provisions of SB 1387 in Boise County as a violation of the constitutional and statutory rights of women in my jurisdiction."
Twilegar said, "I'm an elected official. There are 44 county attorneys - where are they all on this bill?" You can read his full letter here.
The Senate has voted 23-11 in favor of HB 695, which sets up a new $200,000 legislative legal fund to be spent at the sole discretion of the Senate president pro-tem and the House speaker, with each in charge of $100,000. The bill already has passed the House, so it heads now to Gov. Butch Otter. Currently, the Idaho Attorney General, an elected official, provides legal opinions and other legal representation for the Legislature; the new fund would allow lawmakers to turn to outside counsel rather than use the Attorney General's staff.
The Senate is taking up HB 695, to create a $200,000 legal fund for the Legislature to hire its own attorneys. Meanwhile, the House is taking up HB 697, the latest version of the Boise County bill, to enable that county to pay a large legal judgment.
Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, told the Senate that the legal fund would allow lawmakers to hire another lawyer when, for example, the Attorney General has voted an issue on the Land Board and therefore would have a conflict of interest. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, responded, "I appreciate the opening debate but none of it holds any water whatsover. This bill is about lawyer shopping and opinion shopping, very simple, at the taxpayer expense." Werk, who served on the Senate Ethics Committee this year, said, "I've learned a lot about what conflict of interest actually means, and there's no way," just because the Attorney General had voted on an issue on the Land Board, "that an entire gazillion-member staff can't be counted on to provide an honest and open accounting of an opinion on a bill." He added, "It's disturbing … to see this come up at the last minute. … The idea of shopping for legal opinions on the taxpayer dime to try and refute what the Attorney General might say about the next hot-button issue - I don't think that's a good use of taxpayer funds, I don't think it's appropriate for the Legislature."
Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, a lawyer, said, "I would call this the Idaho legal profession stimulus fund."
Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, noted that the governor has his own lawyer. "Most legislative bodies already have their own in-house legal team that are not bill-writers, or just bill-writers, but they perform many of the functions that we lean heavily against our Attorney General for," Davis said. "There are occasions … that we will want to look and draw upon scholarly legal assistance to guide us, on a variety of issues," outside the Attorney General's staff. "There are other individuals who have a professional expertise that we're not able to draw upon because we lack this tool," Davis said. "This allows us to draw upon outside assistance."
The House Ways & Means Committee introduced two new bills this afternoon, but neither is expected to go any further this session; both were introduced just for discussion. In the words of House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, the moves will "get 'em a bill number, put 'em in the public domain."
One, from Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, is a new version of his “food freedom act,” which, in its earlier incarnation this session as HB 431, the "Idaho Farm Freedom Act," would have exempted from any licensing, certification or inspection requirement the sale of farm products at farmers markets, at roadside stands, or directly to consumers, including for a “traditional community social event” like weddings, church socials, school events or potlucks. That measure drew strong opposition from the Food Producers of Idaho, who said it would risk consumer health and hurt the reputation of Idaho's farmers markets.
Hart's latest version, which is 14 pages long, is aimed at "allowing an unregulated and uninhibited relationship between the farmer and/or the farmer's agent and what the bill defines as an 'informed end consumer' of the farm product," according to its statement of purpose. He said he'd talked with the Idaho Potato Commission about his bill and included a provision at that panel's request; several ag lobbyists who attended the meeting said they hadn't yet seen the new bill.
The second bill introduced in the committee today was from Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, to create an Idaho Office of Utility Consumer Advocate to represent ratepayers in utility rate cases before the Public Utilities Commission. Cronin said his proposal is for a "hybrid model," with the Attorney General appointing a director and a utility ratepayer advisory commission. Forty-three states have some form of consumer advocate in their utility rate-setting process, Cronin told the panel.
Both bills were introduced on unanimous votes, with the understanding that they won't proceed further this session.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's proposed $35 million income tax cut will be in the hands of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Thursday morning. But its fate remains uncertain. During Wednesday's behind-closed-doors Senate Republican caucus meeting, committee chairman Sen. Tim Corder of Mountain Home agreed to give Otter's tax relief bill a hearing. That's despite Corder's misgivings that Idaho's finances aren't strong enough to merit the relief — and that it provides only $71 for families earning $100,000. Corder will oppose the cut. Meanwhile, one of the nine-member committee's swing votes, Republican Sen. Jim Hammond of Coeur d'Alene, is leaning toward supporting Otter. But Hammond says he's gathering information about whether the state can afford it. The Idaho House has already passed the measure, one of Otter's 2012 priorities.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho House lawmakers marked Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's third birthday in captivity of a Taliban-allied group in central Asia. Bergdahl is a U.S. soldier from Hailey, Idaho, taken prisoner in Afghanistan in June 2009 who is now being held by the Haqqani network. The now-26-year-old Bergdahl was born March 28, 1986. Rep. Wendy Jaquet represents the central Idaho district where Bergdahl was born and where his parents live. As Wednesday morning's House session closed, Jaquet somberly asked lawmakers to keep him in their prayers and their hearts — in the hopes that he will soon return home. As recently as this year, there have been discussions of a possible deal between the Taliban and the United States that could clear the way for Bergdahl's release. So far, however, nothing has materialized.
Senate Republicans emerged from a 90-minute closed-door caucus with no particular announcement; they're now planning to recess the Senate for lunch. "We're just looking at how to get out of here," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis. "We have work ahead of us, and we're working on it."
He said, "I think we're on a good path forward to getting out of here in a few days."