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‘Yes’ vote will support ‘Students Come First’ reforms, ‘no’ vote repeals them

Looking ahead to the November 2012 general election, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said there will be three referenda on the ballot on the “Students Come First” school reform plan. “Folks should remember that a 'yes' vote would be in favor of the legislation that was passed by the Legislature dealing with Students Come First,” Ysursa told JFAC. “If you're against the legislation and do not like it and wish that it be repealed, then the person would cast a 'no' vote. I think it's going to be pretty clear.”

Ysursa: ‘Perfect storm’ in elections this year

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, making his budget pitch to lawmakers this morning, said, “I do find it rather disconcerting that we're here on Friday the 13th.” He noted that his office is requesting a supplemental appropriation for $200,000, “for a public information campaign, voter information campaign related to the primary May 15th, which is a brand-new scenario in the state of Idaho.” For the first time, Idahoans will have to register their political party affiliation.

Ysursa said a “perfect storm in elections” is happening this year, with the new closed primary and redistricting not yet settled. He recalled how in 1984, the Idaho Supreme Court extended candidate filing by a week as a court-ordered plan was imposed. “That is not our goal,” he said. “We want to get this thing done. We need finality, so do you.”

Ysursa said he'll propose legislation this year to do away with Idaho's presidential preference primary in the spring, since both parties are choosing to hold caucuses instead. If that passes, his office will save about $60,000 on its costs for the primary election.
  

Controller: Statewide accounting system could fail without funding boost

State Controller Donna Jones says her office needs a $245,000 budget increase in general funds for computer services for the statewide accounting system, and needs it badly. The accounting system had an operating deficiency last year, and she shifted funds from personnel savings, she said - otherwise, “I would have been forced to shut down my accounting division before the end of the fiscal year.” The problem, she said, is “so severe that unless action is taken to secure it, our ability to fulfill our statutory and constitutional duties may be compromised.”

Jones' budget request is for a 9.5 percent increase in general funds next year, but an overall decrease in all funds of 2.2 percent. Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a 1 percent general fund increase, and an overall 6.3 percent cut. He didn't recommend funding the $245,000 request, Jones' top request. “Over the past five years we've cut everything that can be cut from our budget,” Jones said. “When you asked me to tighten my belt and my budget, I did.”

All bill drafters are attorneys, except 34-year vet who’s ‘walking encyclopedia’

Responding to questions from JFAC members, legislative services chief Jeff Youtz said, “All the bill drafters are attorneys, with the exception of Mike Nugent, who is a walking encyclopedia.” Youtz said after 34 legislative sessions, law school would probably be a waste of time for chief bill drafter Nugent. (Actually, Nugent does have a law degree, in addition to a master's degree in public administration; he just hasn't taken the bar exam, as he doesn't need it for his work). Also an attorney: Legislative librarian Kristen Ford.

Youtz told budget writers that philosophically - and also according to state law - he believes state employees should get pay increases each year to keep their compensation in line with the private sector, “to retain and attract the best possible state employees you can get. … If it forces you to cut the number of employees to do that, I think you should do that.”

As for the legislative staff, Youtz said, “We've made a decision to work the people we have to a frazzle, and allow them to earn comp time.” Legislative workers build up comp time during the legislative session, then are entitled to take it off other times of the year on an hour-for-hour basis. However, he said, “I know for a fact I've got employees that are losing comp time and vacation time, just because they don't have the time to take that off.”
  

Of his 34 legislative sessions, Youtz says recent years have been the worst

Idaho Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz is making his budget presentation to lawmakers this morning. He said the Legislature's nonpartisan staff is down to 62 positions, from its high a few years ago of 69; there are 64 authorized positions, “but I can only afford to fill 62 of those,” Youtz told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I'm not asking for any restoration of anything, nor do I have any new line items.”

He ran through the various parts of the legislative services staff; they include the Capitol gift shop, which is self-supporting. Youtz praised Dewain Gaudet, who runs it. “He's a retired businessman - I pay him minimum wage,” he said. “It's kind of a hobby for him.”

Idaho was well-prepared for its redistricting effort this year, Youtz said, with special software and more. “Being the organizational nut that I am, we started shopping for it four years ago,” he said. The redistricting budget still has about $58,000 left in it, he said. “I'm confident that's enough to cover a consequence of having to reconvene the commission again, if that's the case. … Time is a bigger issue than money at this point, as you all well know.”

Idaho's new “GEMS” bill-drafting system has now won both state and national awards, Youtz said. “We developed it in-house over probably six years, and I think that's how you have to do it,” he said. “You have to invest in people that are talented and you have to invest in the technology to make it work. … The GEMS system has worked extremely well.”

Youtz said the Legislature's nonpartisan staff has gone for four years without raises - its pay for directors and division managers ranks last among the 13 western states - and last spring, he sought approval for one-time bonuses to try to compensate the staff. “I was promptly roasted like a marshmallow with the editorial writers around the state,” Youtz said, “but you have to do something. Sometimes you have to step up and not just pay lip service to state employees, you have to provide some compensation. So we did that in the spring. It was one-time.”

Youtz said he's never seen such tough legislative sessions as the past few years', with the state's budget crunch, and, “this is my 34th legislative session. This past three or four years have been the worst.”

Agreement to work on bipartisan ethics panel bill marks session’s first week

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com about the agreement announced yesterday between legislative Democrats and Republicans to work together on a bipartisan bill to set up a new, independent state ethics commission. That came as the Dems unveiled their initial draft of the bill, authored by Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, a centerpiece of a slate of new ethics bill they'll be pushing for this year.

Both House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill confirmed the agreement. A working group consisting of two members of each party from each house will work on the bill over the next two weeks; then, it'll be presented to both parties' caucuses. Denney said he’d also like representatives of the Attorney General’s office and the governor’s office to participate in the working group, “so we’re all on the same page.”

Hill said, “We are all concerned about good government and ethics in government, so I’m very pleased that both the House and the Senate are willing to approach it on a bipartisan basis.”

Report: Fewer state employees now out-earn Otter, who got a raise last year

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — The governor got a pay raise this year, but he still earns less than half of what some of Idaho's public university presidents take home. The Lewiston Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/wkYE7H ) the state gave Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter a 4 percent salary increase in the current fiscal year. Otter now makes about $115,300, up from $110,700 during the last fiscal year. In comparison, Boise State University President Bob Kustra and University of Idaho President Duane Nellis each earn about $335,000 a year. According to the state controller's office, 261 state employees earned more than the governor as of this month. That's down from last year, when nearly 300 employees made more than Otter, according to a report released last Friday.

ADDITIONAL INFO: Here's an excerpt from a post from this blog on March 30, 2010, regarding HB 692, which passed that year to set raises for top state elected officials for the next four years; under the state constitution, their pay must be set before their terms start, and not changed during the term:

“Here are some 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.”

McGeachin makes a splash, prints up and delivers copies of fed health care bill

There was quite the spectacle in the House Health & Welfare Committee meeting this afternoon, where the committee's chairwoman, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, had a string of pages bring in tall stacks of paper for committee members - a copy for each of a 906-page printout of the federal Affordable Care Act. Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that McGeachin said she shopped around for the best deal on printing, and got the giant document printed by a local printer for less than half what the Capitol's in-house copy center would have charged - and that panel members should keep private-vs.-public costs in mind when considering insurance legislation; you can see Davlin's full post here at her “Capitol Confidential” blog.

McGeachin, describing the voluminous bill as the “Bible” that her committee members should study this year, said she'll begin hosting “weekly Bible sessions” starting next Tuesday, where “anyone who has a question about this law” can participate. McGeachin earlier cast the only “no” vote in the Legislature's joint Health Care Task Force against an Otter Administration bill to set up a state-run health insurance exchange; the panel endorsed the bill on an 11-1 vote. She said at the time that she didn't object to a state-run exchange, but had some concerns about how that bill was drafted.

At today’s meeting, McGeachin said she was concerned that the federal health care reform law radically expands the government's powers, Davlin reports, saying, “Some of us feel we are fighting for the life of our country on this issue.”

Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Clark Corbin (@clarkcorbin) tweeted, “McGeachin showed me receipt from BizPrint in Boise showing she spent $397.40 printing 10 copies health care act. Used her Visa.”

AP: Otter backtracks on exchange claim

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter now says he misspoke when he said Idaho risks losing $300 million in federal matching funds for the state's Medicaid program if it doesn't set up a state-run health insurance exchange. Idaho could lose that money if it fails to complete a separate system to process Medicaid applicants by an October 2013 deadline, reports AP reporter John Miller. That system, called Medicaid Readiness, will help determine whether people are eligible for Medicaid, or if they qualify for subsidized insurance provided through an exchange.

“I must have left the impression it was the insurance exchange,” Otter told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “That's simply not right.” While Medicaid Readiness will be integrated into a state-run or federally-run exchange, it isn't part of the exchange; Idaho has every intention of completing Medicaid Readiness, via a $3.48 million appropriation it expects to get through the Department of Health and Welfare's fiscal year 2013 budget request, said agency director Dick Armstrong. “That's in the current budget,” Armstrong told the AP. “That's the match required.” Click below for Miller's full report, which also suggests Otter is backing off from his earlier strong support using federal grant money to set up a state-run exchange.

Dems unveil ethics commission draft, agree to working group with GOP

Idaho legislative Democrats unveiled draft legislation setting up a new independent state ethics commission today, and they also announced that they've agreed with GOP leaders to set up a working group, with lawmakers from both parties and both houses, to agree on a bipartisan bill within the next couple of weeks. Both House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill confirmed the agreement. “I believe we must maintain and grow public trust in government,” declared Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, who said she began working on the bill in the fall. “My intent was to keep it simple, easy to use and low-cost. I am pleased to say that Speaker Denney also recognizes the importance of the idea and will collaborate with us.”

Idaho's new ethics commission would be independent and nonpartisan. In King's current draft, it would review complaints from anyone about any public official, but would keep them confidential unless it determined they had merit; at that point, the commission would publish a report and refer the complaint to the appropriate agency for action, in the case of ethical issues, or to prosecutors, in the case of criminal violations.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “What's wrong with the way things are is that people don't trust us, they don't trust us. They don't trust us to manage our own behavior. So this is an attempt to restore that trust.”

Denney said his initial reaction to the Democratic draft was that there should be some way to limit or discourage frivolous complaints, and that a provision including complaints about waste of public funds was probably too broad. “In some people's minds, that what we do is waste public funds,” he said with a chuckle. “We don't want to outlaw the Legislature.” But overall, Denney said he and the minority aren't far apart on the setup of a commission. He also said he'd like representatives of the Attorney General's office and the governor's office to participate in the working group, “so we're all on the same page.”

Said Hill, “We are all concerned about good government and ethics in government, so I'm very pleased that both the House and the Senate are willing to approach it on a bipartisan basis.”

This year’s state fire-season cost: $4 million

Each year, lawmakers have to authorize payment for costs that have been run up fighting forest and range fires on state lands. This morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved $4 million in fire deficiency warrants, the first state spending the budget committee has approved so far this session, on a unanimous, 20-0 vote. The amount is relatively low, as the fire season this year was 59 percent of the 20-year average in numbers of blazes, and the acreage burned, 981, was just 11 percent of the 20-year average; the payment is equal to 62 percent of Idaho's 10-year average, and 84 percent of its 20-year average.

Understanding the health insurance exchange…

For a simple, easy-to-understand explanation of the state health insurance exchange issue in a Q-and-A format, check out this report today from Idaho Statesman business reporter Audrey Dutton. Among the questions it answers: What is a health exchange, how would it work, why is it so expensive, who will run it, and how has this turned out in other states.

PERSI has had ‘two good years of returns’

The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, PERSI, “has experienced two good years of returns and we're cautiously optimistic about the future,” PERSI executive director Don Drum told legislative budget writers this morning. “Fiscal year 2011 was a very successful year for PERSI. … We actually had our highest growth in the last 25 years in the fund this year.” During the fiscal year, the fund grew by $1.9 billion, and at the end of the fiscal year was approaching fully funded status at 90.2 percent funded; the U.S. Government Accountability Office considers plans that are 80 percent funded  healthy.

In fiscal year 2011, PERSI paid out $578 million in benefits, Drum said. “Most public employers believe the PERSI benefit is important to retaining staff. … It also is important in the Idaho economy,” he told lawmakers.

In May of 2011, PERSI hit a historic high in its asset value at $12.2 billion; that's a gain of nearly 65 percent since the market low on March 9, 2009. Historically, PERSI's 46-year average returns are 8.31 percent.

Questions from lawmakers included one from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who asked how Gov. Butch Otter's proposal to grant state employees one-time bonuses rather than raises next year would affect their PERSI retirement. Drum said bonuses don't count toward retirement. “They would not factor in for the retirement salary calculation,” he said.

JFAC kicks off agency budget hearings with guv’s office, DFM

Presenting the budget requests for the governor's office and the governor's Division of Financial Management this morning, DFM chief Wayne Hammon said the governor's office has eight staff vacancies, and DFM has four. “We continue to do the same amount of work with less bodies, as has been the norm in the rest of state government,” Hammon told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Answering questions from lawmakers, Hammon said the governor's office remains authorized for those positions in case the state chooses to return to that staffing level in the future. The governor's office budget request for next year doesn't include any increases; the DFM budget has two: A request to hire a second economist, bringing the office back up to its traditional number; and a $45,000 line item to upgrade the budget development computer system. Hammon said, “$45,000 will not fix the system. The system is old, it's dying a slow and painful death. $45,000 is enough to keep it on life support for another year or two.”

Hammon said he's been in talks with legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith about development of a single budget system that could work for DFM, the Legislature, and all state agencies. “That would be expensive, several hundred thousand dollars, so this is not the year for that,” Hammon said. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, had questions about the proposal to bring on a second state economist. Hammon said, “I strongly believe and the governor supports that we need a second economist.” He added, “We need a second set of eyes.”

The joint budget committee is beginning its process of budget hearings for state agencies; Hammon's was the first. Also scheduled this morning is PERSI, the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho; the joint committee then will hear several requests for deficiency warrants and supplemental appropriations, which are expenditures to be made from the current year's budget. On Friday, JFAC will hold budget hearings on the Legislative Services Office, the state controller and the secretary of state; on Monday, it'll begin digging into budgets for the state's largest agency, the Department of Health & Welfare.

Dems to unveil ethics commission bill; Denney may co-sponsor with them

Idaho is one of just nine states with no independent ethics commission, but that may soon change. Democrats in the Idaho Legislature will unveil a new ethics commission bill this morning, and GOP House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he may end up as a co-sponsor. “We're still on board with moving forward,” Denney said late Wednesday. If Democrats want him to co-sponsor, he said, “I'd love to do it.”

You can read my full story here in today's Spokesman-Review. Idaho's movement follows the path other states have been treading since the Watergate scandal in  the 1970s; the last two states to create ethics commissions were Utah and Colorado, which both created them by voter initiative in the past five years. According to the Ethics Center of the National Conference of State Legislatures, ethics commissions in 38 states, including Washington, have subpoena power; those in 20 states can issue orders that are enforceable in court.
  

Economic Outlook meeting delayed to Jan. 24

The Legislature's joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee has put off its scheduled Thursday meeting, resetting it instead for Jan. 24. “The chairmen asked that we reschedule,” said legislative staffer Keith Bybee. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, co-chairman of the panel, said, “We decided we'd give everybody a chance to think about it.” He noted that the panel did the same thing last year. The meeting is the one at which the lawmakers will decide on a figure for forecast tax revenue for the coming year, on which to peg the state budget.

Grocery industry eyeing Idaho for possible liquor privatization initiative

Grocery industry lobbyists are eyeing Idaho for a possible liquor privatization push, reports AP reporter John Miller; click below for his full report. Miller reports that an industry lobbyist met with Gov. Butch Otter and other state officials last month over the issue, including inquiries about how to qualify a voter initiative for next November's ballot. In addition, some Idahoans are reporting receiving calls from a pollster with questions gauging their support for liquor privatization and grocery store sales.

McGee: ‘I’m really ashamed’

Some expected Sen. John McGee to apologize to the Senate when he rose during today's session, but McGee told Eye on Boise, “My family was sitting up there. I was much more focused on, we had just got done with that caucus meeting. That was an introduction of my family, a compliment to my wife. … That was five minutes after the caucus meeting.”

During the nearly two-hour closed-door confab, McGee apologized to the caucus, which then discussed and voted on whether he should keep his leadership post as caucus chairman; the vote was to keep him. “It was frank, and it was honest,” McGee said. “That was the first time we'd really had a chance to be together and address that issue. It was a very good and frank discussion, by a lot of well-meaning people.”

McGee said the caucus didn't want explanations of what happened in the bizarre incident last May that left McGee with a DUI conviction and a battered reputation. “This was an opportunity for me to be in front of them and offer my apology,” he said. “They want to move on. That's hopefully what we've done today.” He added, “I'm really ashamed that I embarrassed my peers and my constituents and most importantly my family,” saying, “I have and I will continue to be spending a lot of my time apologizing, and I should.”

‘Fairly minor change’ to Students Come First teacher evaluation rules introduced

The Senate Education Committee has voted to introduce legislation from state schools Supt. Tom Luna to make a “fairly minor change” in the “Students Come First” school reform laws, to clarify when parent input would be required to be a part of teacher evaluations. “That happens later, after June 30, 2012,” Luna aide Jason Hancock told the committee. “The legislation before it was a little bit unclear. … We just wanted to reorder that so it was a little bit clearer that it should happen after June 30, 2012. It's a fairly minor change, but the request was to get this in the hopper quickly, so that we could get it moving before the next set of evaluation dates comes due on Feb. 1st.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, had several questions, but the panel voted unanimously to introduce the bill; Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he hopes to schedule a hearing on it Monday. Click below for a full report on the issue from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Senate GOP caucusing on McGee

Senate Republicans have gone behind closed doors to discuss whether Idaho Senate Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee should continue in his leadership role after a bizarre incident that included a DUI conviction; here's a link to a full report from AP reporter John Miller on what's at stake.

Proposal would merge state, historical records archiving and management

State Historical Society Director Janet Gallimore told legislative budget writers today that 35 states have combined their state archives and their state and local government records management, and she and state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna are proposing that Idaho do that, too. The merger, Gallimore said, would mean better service for the public and government agencies, centralized online access, and streamlined costs. At issue are official records from 1863 to the present, everything from court records to historical photos to maps to marriage licenses.

The state archives, operated by the Historical Society, currently gets about 17,000 records requests a year, Gallimore said. The state records center gets about 4,650 requests. The documents involved are required by law to be preserved. The Idaho associations of cities and counties, the State Historical Records Advisory Board, and the Foundation for Idaho History all are working on the merger plan. Gallimore is proposing the first of three phases for the coming year, to amend legislation to merge the two functions and begin streamlining the state's records management. The second phase would include a consultant's study on ways to enhance access to the  records, including an online catalogue. The third phase would recommend alternatives for a “fiscally sustainable model for a long-term archival program for state, city and county records of enduring value,” she said.

State worker salaries now lag market 18.6%

The last time the Legislature funded raises for state employees was in fiscal year 2009, state Division of Human Resources head Vicki Tokita told legislative budget writers this morning. As a result, state worker salaries now lag 18.6 percent behind market rates, up from 15 percent in 2009. Gov. Butch Otter targeted that market lag in the early days of his administration and proposed boosts, but that was before the state's economy tanked.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked how state employees' total compensation package, including benefits as well as salaries, compares to the private sector. State Department of Administration chief Teresa Luna responded that the state last examined total compensation a couple of years ago; at that time, compared to seven large Idaho employers, state employee compensation was “about 15 percent less than the private sector, including benefits, pension and retirement,” Luna said.

According to the latest report, the fiscal 2013 Change in Employee Compensation Report, state employee turnover is now 12.1 percent, and the average length of state service for those who left state employment in 2011 was 9.8 years.

State workforce has dropped 1,842 jobs since January of 2008…

JFAC is holding a special hearing this morning on state workforce budget issues. Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith has been detailing the way the state accounts for its employees, which is complicated and varies by funding type and other issues. Bottom line: The “FTP” or “full-time position” count usually used in budgeting doesn't necessarily line up with the number of “active employees,” as tallied by the state controller's office annual “rainbow report” that includes stats on state employees. That “active employees” number was 26,040 in January of 2008; it's 24,198 today, after years of cutbacks. That's a drop of 1,842 employees. Also scheduled this morning is a report from the state Division of Human Resources on employee compensation and benefits.

Sen. McGee: ‘My bad decision-making led to all this’

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, spoke with the Idaho Press-Tribune on the eve of a closed-door Senate GOP caucus to discuss whether he'll continue in his Senate leadership post, as majority caucus chairman, after the bizarre Father's Day incident in which he was arrested for DUI after jackknifing a stranger's SUV on a neighbor's front lawn. McGee told the newspaper that his drinking after a golf tournament led to the events, most of which he doesn't remember; he also said he's undecided about whether to seek a fifth term in the Senate in what had been considered a promising political career. You can read the Press-Tribune story here. Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet in caucus at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday.

AP: For leverage, Dems threaten voting with GOP right

As the 61st Idaho Legislature's second regular session lurches into gear, AP reporter John Miller reports today on an odd prospect: That the most-liberal members of the House Democratic caucus could vote with the most-conservative Republicans against creating a state-run health insurance exchange. Click below for Miller's full report.

Lawmakers learn that Otter’s budget wouldn’t restore cuts

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's budget proposal for next year wouldn't restore any of the steep budget cuts Idaho's made in the past three years of economic downturn, with just one exception: Partial restoration of $750,000 in grant programs at the state Department of Commerce. As state lawmakers began examining the details of Otter's agenda Tuesday, some concerns surfaced about that approach. The one area to have cuts restored: Three Commerce grant programs, the Business and Jobs Development Program, the Rural Initiative, and Small Business Assistance Grants, would split the $750,000, which replaces only a tiny fraction of funds cut from them in the past three years; the Rural Initiative alone has lost $2.6 million from its annual budget.
  

Dems’ State of the State response: ‘Culture of arrogance and entitlement’

Legislative Democrats gave their response to GOP Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State and budget message this morning, and they weren't happy. “The governor has talked about budget, education, taxes, employment and reserves. All of these issues are important, but it is really hard to govern if there is little confidence that government serves their interests,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said of Idahoans. “It is unfortunate that the governor has failed to address the culture of arrogance and entitlement that is pervasive in the Legislature and GOP leadership.”

The minority Democrats noted that they've introduced numerous ethics bills over the years that in many cases were ignored. “We hope this year will be different,” Rusche said.

There already have been signs of that: Shortly before the start of the session, GOP House Speaker Lawerence Denney expressed support for establishing an independent Idaho ethics commission, a measure Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce on Thursday. And GOP Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he'd already contacted Denney about new financial disclosure legislation, though he'd not yet heard back.

Said Rusche, “We invite the majority party to partner with us and show that we are ready to face the ethical issues head-on, and begin to restore the confidence of the people in our state institutions.” The independent ethics commission, he said, would be a “crucial first step,” saying, “People need to feel like they have a voice and complaints don't disappear.”
    
The minority party, which holds just 20 of the Legislature's 105 seats, also differed sharply with Otter on his priorities for the state budget for next year. “He … suggests that a vague, ill-defined tax break costing $45 million is more valuable than defined and focused job development activities,” Rusche said. “We need a tax policy that is stable and fair to all the people, while generating enough to support the vital public structures that we all depend on - schools and colleges, roads, telecommunications, courts and public safety.”

The Democrats said their No. 1 priority is “getting back to work,” and noted the “iJOBS” package of legislation they proposed unsuccessfully two years ago. They have more coming along those lines, they said. One area of the governor's proposals that drew praise: the IGEM proposal, which would fund university research to encourage technology transfer that creates jobs. “We'll likely support that quite strongly, because hey, two years ago it was part of our package,” Rusche said. “I think there is much more.”

While Otter's budget restores none of recent years' budget cuts except for a partial restoration of grant programs at the state Department of Commerce, the Democrats said their priorities are first to restore education funding so that “we're not losing teacher/student contact;” second to restore cuts to services that are actually costing the state or local governments more money, like trimming mental health services while driving up incarceration; and third to look at “the maintenance of the property and buildings the state of Idaho owns,” for which maintenance funds have been trimmed through the recession years. Said Rusche, “I think to say, well, we've got enough money for tax breaks, we have enough money to put into a savings account, but we don't have enough money to restore the services that civilization depends upon, I think is fallacious thinking.”

Despite their small numbers, the Democrats said they expect to work with the majority and influence this year's debate. “I think there's a number of areas here where not only will they want us to work with them, they'll need us to work with them,” Rusche said, “because frankly, in the House that 36th vote is going to be hard to come by.”

Commerce grants are the only budget cut restored under guv’s 2013 budget plan

Among the questions legislative budget writers have had this morning about the governor's budget proposal:

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise,  asked if cuts to mental health and substance abuse services that are becoming a problem for law enforcement and local governments will be restored; Wayne Hammon, the governor's budget chief, said no. “In the governor's recommendation, those reductions that have been made by this committee and the Legislature over the last few years have not been restored, with the exception of those grants at the Department of Commerce,” he said.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked why the governor planned for one-time, conditional bonuses for state employees rather than permanent pay raises. Hammon responded, “The governor's just not comfortable spending every dime that's in the forecast.” He said Gov. Butch Otter would like to grant permanent raises, but is worried about state revenues; if they come in higher than projections, he said, there might well be a proposal next year to make the pay boosts permanent. Jaquet responded, “It makes sense. … It doesn't feel quite good.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked why the governor capped general-fund spending growth for state agencies at 5 percent, when counties have a limit on their property tax budget growth of 3 percent.  “With the revenue forecast provided to us, we believe that this level of additional spending at 5 percent is affordable and the right thing to do,” Hammon said. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that with the governor's proposal for $45 million in tax cuts, “that equals a 2 percent reduction. … The governor in essence has a 3 percent budget plan. Is that not an appropriate way to think of it?” Hammon said, “You're right, it's very close.” LeFavour noted that the state has cut its budget sharply in the last few years, “which is something local governments generally don't do.”

Cameron asked how the governor's budget treats salary-based apportionment and the salary grid in the public school budget. Hammon said it makes no change from existing law, meaning the “Students Come First” law's requirement to shift funds out of the salary funds into technology boosts and merit-pay programs stands. The $31.6 million increase for public schools in the governor's budget proposal includes $11.2 million for student population growth, and virtually all the rest goes for requirements of the Students Come First law, which phases in laptop computers for every high school student, a new focus on online learning, and teacher merit pay.

Guv’s budget tries to reduce reliance on one-time funding for ongoing programs

Gov. Butch Otter's budget is aimed at reducing the amount of one-time money that's targeted at ongoing needs, Wayne Hammon, Otter's budget chief, told lawmakers on JFAC this morning. His budget anticipates a $103.5 million balance at the end of fiscal year 2012. That one-time surplus then is mostly spent in his 2013 proposal on one-time spending, including the $60 million in deposits into the various state rainy-day accounts.

The governor's budget for next year still includes $36 million in Medicaid provider assessments that could be viewed as one-time money going to ongoing needs, Hammon said; the administration hopes to  reduce that with some excess funds from the Division of Veterans Services, but no agreement has yet been reached on that.

Hammon said this year's state budget included $74.6 million in one-time money directed to ongoing needs, so Otter's proposal halves that for next year, with the hope of getting it down to zero in fiscal year 2014.

Hammon: University research VPs at work on IGEM legislation

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, is presenting the governor's proposal to JFAC this morning, but JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that Hammon's wife is expecting a baby at any time, their second; with that warning, lawmakers will know why if he abruptly exits.

Among the details emerging so far from his presentation: The $2 million for new university research initiatives under IGEM would be distributed through the Higher Education Research Council, or HERC. Hammon said the details of IGEM are being laid out in legislation that's being “worked on right now by the research vice presidents at the state universities.” He said the administration hopes to have a bill ready for lawmakers “in the very near future.”

In addition to IGEM, the governor's budget includes $750,000 to restore existing grant programs that have been cut at the state Department of Commerce; that's not enough to bring them all back, but Hammon said it's a start. Otter's budget identifies three items toward his priority of creating jobs and advancing economic development: IGEM, the Commerce grants restoration, and $45 million in unspecified tax cuts.