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Bill would make it harder for initiatives, referenda to qualify for Idaho ballot

Idaho would make it harder to collect enough signatures to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot, under legislation introduced this morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee at the request of lobbyist Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau; the bill’s sponsor is the committee’s chairman, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Idaho lawmakers amended the initiative and referendum law in 1997 to require signatures equal to at least 6 percent of the registered voters in at least 22 counties, in an attempt to ensure that such measures couldn’t qualify solely with signatures from Idaho’s biggest cities. That was overturned as unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court, however, saying it unconstitutionally gave more say to rural residents than urban ones. In 2003, the 9thCircuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

The new legislation points out that while the 9thCircuit’s opinion rejected the “minimum number of counties” standard, it left open the possibility of using a different geographic distribution requirement, such as legislative districts. The bill requires signatures from at least 6 percent of registered voters in at least 22 Idaho legislative districts; Idaho has 44 counties and 35 legislative districts. The total number of signatures still would have to equal 6 percent of the registered voters in the state.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said he had “grave concerns” about the change, which nonetheless was introduced on a unanimous voice vote; that opens the way for a full hearing on the measure in the committee.

‘Ed Week’ hearings open in JFAC, Legislature is in session despite holiday…

Idaho State Board of Education President Ken Edmunds is opening “Education Week” in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, with a presentation from the state board; he’ll be followed this morning by ISU President Arthur Vailas and then BSU President Bob Kustra. Edmunds told lawmakers that in Idaho, 92 percent of students graduate from high school, just 46 percent go on to some kind of additional education after that, and the post-secondary graduation rate is just 34 percent. The state board’s goal is that by 2002, 60 percent of Idaho’s citizens age 25-34 will have at least a one-year post-secondary credential. Currently, about 35 percent of Idahoans in that age group have an associate’s degree or higher. “We as Idaho are falling behind our global competition, and we have to find a way to deal with that,” Edmunds told JFAC.

He also noted that rates of unemployment in Idaho decline significantly with more education, and earnings go up significantly.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, a state holiday, but the Legislature doesn’t take holidays – it’s in session today as usual. However, that will include the annual state commemoration of the holiday at noon today in the Capitol rotunda.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby, Dan Popkey, Melissa Davlin and host Greg Hahn to discuss the week’s developments in the Legislature and Idaho politics. Plus, Greg interviews two physician-lawmakers, Sen. Dan Schmidt and Rep. Fred Wood, on health care, Medicaid expansion, insurance exchange issues and more; and there’s a report on water issues and a tour of the “garden level” of the Statehouse. The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.

JFAC members speak out on cancellation of public hearings…

Here are some reactions from JFAC members to today’s announcement that public hearings on the state budget scheduled for Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 have been canceled, and the joint committee won’t take public testimony this year on the state budget:

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens: “I’m pretty disappointed that we’re not having public testimony on the budgets. If it was up to me, we’d have public testimony on every budget. I think it’s important to hear from the clients, the people  who pay for the services as well as those who provide the services. And we had public testimony on all the budgets when I was in the legislature in Montana. It seemed to work fine.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow: “I think that the public has every right to have access to every part of the process we can possibly arrange, and frankly the referendum issue that came up, came up because of decisions being made without that open process. Now, I agree there are some things that appropriately do go through the germane committees, and JFAC probably wouldn’t be making those decisions anyhow, but I think people greatly appreciated that opportunity, so I would expect some pushback on the part of the public. … I do think it’s way too bad.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of JFAC: “I think it was wise. I was a little uncomfortable, but I just was not sure that we could control those people who would come to testify concerning education, because it’s been such a big issue. And obviously we had a lot of other topics and a lot of other things in the budget, but after what happened in November, and the task force going on … I was just concerned. Had there not been a task force, it would have been a different story.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chair of JFAC: “I thought this year it would have been critical, with so many new members, for them to see the face of the handicapped child or the teacher. … I thought  it was important for the new members to see that and feel that, because in my opinion, those were  life-changing events. And I guess I’m really in favor of the openness, of transparency. All that pays off. … Why be mysterious? We’re trying to do the best we can with limited resources. … Given the size of the pie, it’s our job to try to decide how to divide that pie out and how to do that fairly.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of JFAC: “I’m perplexed by the decision. I believe the co-chairs have been leaders in trying to respond to the criticism we get on that committee on not being open and inclusive as other committees are, and I thought we were going in the right direction and it seemed to be well-received by legislators and public alike. So I’m surprised. … I think it’s unfortunate that we’re going this direction. I hope that we think about it and try again in another year, perhaps.”

Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise: “I was not on JFAC the years that they had those quote unquote public hearings. They were listening hearings. You don’t get an opportunity to engage.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover: “I’m OK with it, and the reason I’m OK with it is I know that there’s going to be some work, especially in the area of Health & Welfare and education. We’ve got the insurance exchange thing, the expansion of Medicaid issues as well as the response to losing all three propositions last year on education reform. Given that that leaves money available in the 2013 budget, in the area of schools, I think it’s justified that we let the germane committees deal with that issue before we start dealing with it in JFAC. It’s kind of a policy call, not a JFAC call.”

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls: “The hearings that will be taking place will be from the germane committees, as in the House and Senate education committees, that’s my understanding, and that’s where policy is made, where JFAC’s the budget committee. … My understanding is that the chairmen of those committees will be holding hearings on that legislation that they have.”

When JFAC held public hearings…

This photo is from the big public hearing that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held on Jan. 28, 2011 on the Health & Welfare budget, which drew nearly a thousand people who spilled out of a packed Capitol Auditorium into five separate overflow rooms. Today, JFAC announced that it’s canceling the public hearings on the state budget that had been scheduled this year for Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 at the direction of legislative leaders, who don’t want the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to get out ahead of the House and Senate education committees as they consider the results of voters’ rejection of the “Students Come First” school reform referenda.

Nearly 2,000 people traveled from all parts of the state to Boise for the hearings over the past two years; prior to that, JFAC, which sets the entire state budget, was the only legislative committee that didn’t take any public testimony – a status it regains with today’s announcement.

2011 marked JFAC’s first-ever public hearings; a Jan. 21 hearing on the public schools budget drew more than 500 people, nearly 80 testified, and another 400 submitted written comments. Among them was Matt Barkley, a school band director from Post Falls, who said it was worth it to travel 400 miles to give his input. “I was a little nervous with the large crowds here,” Barkley said after he spoke. “I came down at 6 in the morning to get in line. It was worth it - I heard a lot of compelling testimony, and I hope that the committee heard that, too.” A week later, the hearing on the Health & Welfare budget drew even more people.

Last year, JFAC held a single public hearing on Feb. 3; more than 200 people attended and more than 60 testified. More than 40 addressed concerns, often very personal ones, about funding for Medicaid and Health & Welfare programs; more than half a dozen spoke out for establishing a state suicide prevention hotline, including parents who’d lost children to suicide; nearly as many spoke about education funding; and several expressed concerns about state employee compensation. All those concerns later were addressed when JFAC set the state budget for the year.

At the close of the 2012 hearing, JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said quietly, “We thank you for coming and participating, and we have heard your message.” From the audience, a woman called out, “Thank you!”

PNWER working to open thousands of oil sands jobs to Idaho workers…

There are more than 100,000 unfilled jobs in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, and thousands more in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, according to a Canadian official who visited the Idaho Legislature this week as part of a delegation from the Pacific Northwest Economic Region – and if a PNWER effort gets off the ground, Idaho workers could have a crack at some of them. Lyle Stewart, pictured here, minister of agriculture for Saskatchewan and president of PNWER, said the idea is to find skilled American workers – particularly targeting returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan – to head up to the oil sands for temporary work.

Due to recent regulatory changes in Canada, Stewart said, “A U.S. worker can work temporarily in Canada for up to four years.” PNWER has launched a pilot project, first targeting the Puget Sound area, where there’s a large pool of unemployed skilled workers. Canadian companies have been recruiting there. “There will be follow-up to that,” he said. “Depending on the success of that, we foresee that it will spread to other jurisdictions, specifically Idaho.”

The jobs are for heavy equipment operators, welders, steamfitters, pipe fitters, electricians, construction trades and more. “We hope to expand it across the PNWER region,” Stewart said. PNWER is a public-private partnership that includes five states and five Canadian provinces; it works for regional and bi-national cooperation, particularly on economic development and environmental issues. Click below to read more.

Senators hear from F&G commissioners, who say ‘wolves are getting smarter’

Randy Budge, chairman of the Idaho Fish & Game Commission, told the Senate Resources Committee this afternoon that a key to the future of hunting in Idaho is involving youngsters. “Our generation is getting a little grayer,” Budge said; he's speaking, here, and is joined by the other commissioners to meet with the Senate panel. He also noted that Idaho is lagging behind other states in dealing with wildlife mortality through overpasses, underpasses and high fencing.

Tony McDermott, the North Idaho Panhandle member of he commission, told the senators, “I go off in May. It's been an interesting eight years. I can tell you that there's never been a dull moment, and it's come from all directions.” He also addressed wolves. “Predators have to be managed, or you have problems,” he told the senators. That goes for fish too, he said, as in Lake Pend Oreille. “We have saved that trophy rainbow trout fishery through the management of predators,” McDermott said.

He said the elk population in the Lolo Zone is around 2,000, down from 15,000 in the 1990s. “The only way we're going to be able to deal with predators in that area is through predator control measures,” he said. “Hunters understand the problem. They're readily buying wolf tags.” But less than 1.5 percent of those who get tags actually take a wolf, he said, adding, “Trapping has made a difference.” McDermott said wolf hunters in Idaho took 136 wolves in 2009, 173 in 2011, and 137 in 2012. “So we're about 20 percent off of where we were last year,” he said. “Wolves are getting smarter.”

At the end of the meeting, Budge told committee Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, that the commission would appreciate as much advance notice as possible if a new hearing date is set for confirmation of the appointment of Commissioner Joan Horlock of Buhl, so they can get to Boise for the hearing. Pearce simply responded, “Thank you.” Asked afterward, he said he hasn't set a hearing date.

Enjoying the view…

These Senate pages, at the suggestion of a legislative staffer, are enjoying the best view in the Statehouse - the view straight up from the middle of the rotunda. Amid the ornate concentric circles of the Capitol's center, the young legislative aides were counting the stars that decorate the ceiling of the dome.

Lawmakers prepping for firearms debate

Plenty of Idaho lawmakers want to introduce legislation dealing with guns or school safety - mostly to promote gun rights in the wake of President Obama's proposed restrictions. So House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, has asked Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, to corral the various proposals; Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, is heading up a similar effort in the Senate. “I don't want a bunch of redundant bills,” Bedke told the Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/Ydv29d). “I want the common themes consolidated into individual bills. Put the ideas in the arena, let's do the research and let's have the debate.” Click below for a full report from the AP and the Idaho Statesman.

F&G commissioner stresses his experience as sportsman at confirmation hearing

The Senate Resources Committee is holding its confirmation hearing for Fish & Game Commissioner Will Naillon of Challis this afternoon. The first question from Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth: Noting that Naillon is a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, he asked how many trophy heads Naillon has listed. Naillon answered none – yet. The club keeps record books on big game trophy heads and horns.  Asked by Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, why he wants to be on the Fish & Game Commission, Naillon said, “I feel like I’ve been training for this position my whole life, with all the sporting activities that I do. … I haven’t always agreed with the Fish & Game. … I was asked to put in for the position. … I decided to give it a go.”

In the audience was Idaho’s other new Fish & Game commissioner, Joan Hurlock of Buhl; a confirmation hearing for her appointment hasn’t yet been scheduled, amid concerns raised by some sportsmen about her experience and knowledge of hunting, fishing and wildlife management. Hurlock is the second woman ever to serve on the commission.

Naillon stressed his experience as a sportsman in his comments to the committee; lawmakers also grilled him about wolves, and about landowner and big game issues in Custer and Lemhi counties, among other topics. Under questioning, Naillon acknowledged he has no formal degree or certification in wildlife management, but he said his life experience and his six months on the commission have given him the necessary experience to serve. Fish & Game commissioners are required by state law to be “well informed upon, and interested in, the subject of wildlife conservation and restoration.”

The panel also has a visit with the whole commission scheduled during this afternoon’s meeting.

Bedke on canceling public hearings for JFAC: This year it’s about policy issues

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said issues surrounding the defeat of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 prompted him to press for canceling big public hearings on the state budget this year by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, hearings that in the past two years have drawn nearly 2,000 people from all over the state to the Capitol Auditorium to testify about the state budget. “With the defeat of the propositions, the budget was not what was struck down or changed, it was policy,” Bedke said. “So I feel much more comfortable with the policy committees being the clearinghouse for all the good ideas that come, because there is an expectation that JFAC can do something on those things, and it’s got to be the policy committees that makes the changes.” He added, “I would urge the co-chairs of education to conduct listening sessions based on the policy.”

JFAC’s first-ever public hearings were in 2011, when nearly a thousand people turned out to give their input on the Health & Welfare budget; the crowd spilled out of the auditorium and filled five overflow rooms. That year on Jan. 21, a hearing on the public schools budget drew more than 500 people, nearly 80 testified, and another 400 submitted written comments. Last year, JFAC held a single public hearing on Feb. 3; more than 200 people attended and more than 60 testified.

Bedke said, “Certainly the Legislature collectively needs to always be listening. The problems that we have … are problems that only the policy committees can fix.”  He added, “There’s always a dynamic in the Legislature, of what drives policy. Does the budget drive policy, or does policy drive the budget?” He noted that he’s an alumnus of JFAC. “That is a workhorse committee,” Bedke said. “Those are committed members and they do good work.” But, he said, “The issues that we’re talking about this year are policy.”

Asked how the decision fits with Bedke’s pledge to promote inclusiveness as the new House speaker, he said, “It includes the ones that are directly responsible for the decisions. It in no way diminishes JFAC … it elevates the other committees.” He said he’d support joint listening hearings by all the germane committees, from Education to Health & Welfare to others. He added, “I heard some frustration from some members of JFAC that they listened to all these things, and they were powerless to change it.”

At urging of House leadership, JFAC cancels its popular big public hearings

There was a surprise announcement at the end of this morning’s JFAC meeting: Both public hearings that had been scheduled for this year on the state budget have been canceled, largely at the urging of House leadership. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the committee, “There comes times in life where we sometimes have to do things that we don’t particularly care to do, and this happens to be one of the times, for me at least.”

He said, “Two years ago, our committee embarked on a process by which we would start holding public hearings. And those public hearings were, in my judgment, very successful. We got to hear from the public as to the concerns about how we spent money, we got ot see how the changes that we were having to make would have an impact on their lives and on those programs, and frankly, this committee did a great job of listening and mitigating some of the issues that were naturally there. And those hearings proved to be very useful.”

“Unfortunately, and we had scheduled two of those hearings this session, the first one to be held on Feb. 1 and then I believe Feb. 8, unfortunately, we have been instructed and asked not to hold those hearings, so that we’re not out in front of some of the germane committees with some of the issues that they will be dealing with. So we will do as instructed.”

The past two years’ unprecedented JFAC public hearings drew hundreds of Idahoans from across the state to the Capitol Auditorium to comment on the state budget; the joint budget committee, until then, was the only committee in the Legislature that didn’t hold public hearings or take testimony from the public, though it makes among the weightiest decisions.

”We would certainly encourage the public to continue to communicate, and we’ll certainly continue to listen, and we would encourage the public to continue to communicate through the traditional means,” Cameron said, “and hopefully at some future stage, we’ll be able to hold public hearings again. So just be aware that your schedule  will need to be adjusted, and we will not be holding  those hearings on Feb. 1.”

Idaho’s fast-growing Hispanic population shows education gains

Hispanics are Idaho’s largest minority group, at 11.9 percent of the population in 2011, and that population is growing fast. From 2000 to 2010, Idaho’s Hispanic population increased by 73 percent, or more than 74,000, Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs Director Margie Gonzalez told JFAC this morning. The growth rate for non-Hispanics in Idaho in the same decade was 17 percent.

In 2010, 45 percent of Idaho’s Hispanics were 19 or younger, compared to 28 percent for non-Hispanics. Among the implications of that: Idaho’s Hispanic student population in its public schools has almost doubled from 2003, when it was 26,966, to 2011-12, when it hit 45,805. “Education ranks high in our priorities,” Gonzales told lawmakers. “Idaho’s Hispanics have lower levels of educational attainment than any other group. This is particularly troubling.” She said, “Experts say the state’s economic health depends on fixing ethnic achievement gaps.”

Gonzalez said the commission is working with the state Department of Education on efforts to reduce that gap and cut dropout rates. Some significant results have been seen: The Hispanic student dropout rate has dropped significantly, from 8.2 percent in 2000-01 and 12.7 percent in 1993-94 to just 1.72 percent in 2009-10. Also, Idaho Hispanic students have made big gains in vocabulary tests, eclipsing gains in other states, and the state is seeing record enrollment of Hispanics in higher education.

Wait list for Voc Rehab job program for disabled swells to 400, wait time is year and a half

Idaho’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation now has 400 people on a waiting list for extended employment services for the disabled, with the average wait time about a year and a half. These are people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. “They can get work and work in the community, but they just need some supports so they can keep their job,” said Don Alveshere, division administrator. In the past year, 615 people on the program had jobs in the community, a 12 percent increase from the previous year, and 444 worked at sheltered workshops, down slightly from 480 the previous year.

Alveshere, who presented his division’s budget request to JFAC this morning, didn’t dwell on the agency’s request for a $170,000 boost to the100 percent state-funded program next year, as Gov. Butch Otter didn’t recommend funding for the request. It would have allowed the program to serve another 50 to 75 people now on the waiting list, plus provided the first rate increase in four years to providers in the program. “This is a long-term commitment to these folks,” Alveshere explained. The extended employment services, depending on the level of disability, may be needed for life.

The program provides up to 10 hours a week of services to participants. “Only when we get more funding or some people pass away or leave the system can we … get new people,” Alveshere said.

Asked about the size of the waiting list, Alveshere said it includes some people who previously qualified for employment services under Medicaid, but lost those through recent Medicaid budget cuts. “These are people who, when they’re not receiving these employment services, are almost always receiving some other form of Health & Welfare related services,” Alveshere said, such as adult day care. “So there is a cost to the state by them not being a part of the program.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC co-chair, said, “I know that it continues to be a topic of discussion. I think that we'll end up looking at it as we start to work on the numerous budgets in Medicaid, and I know that we'll be interested in hearing from the germane committees what their recommendations are.”

JFAC members questioned why Voc Rehab returned $1.6 million of its federal grant funds in 2012, which go to other programs in the division besides extended employment services. The answer: It didn't have enough state or local funds to match that portion of its $15.4 million grant.

Otter also didn't recommend a request from the division for a $236,000 boost in state funding for its vocational rehabilitation services, including increasing outreach to businesses and transitioning clients from high school. That would have redirected funds from the former renal disease program, which has been eliminated, and allowed the state to leverage another $333,333 in federal grant funds for those services. The governor did recommend funding for a $16,500 request for additional interpreting services for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Second-ever female F&G commissioner faces confirmation fight in Senate

Controversy over Gov. Butch Otter’s appointment of Joan Hurlock of Buhl to the Idaho Fish & Game Commission is delaying the Senate confirmation hearing on the appointment, with Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, scheduling a hearing tomorrow for Otter’s other June 2012 appointee, Will Naillon of Challis, but not for Hurlock. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“At this point, I’d rather not talk about it,” Pearce said this afternoon. “Give us a little time. … We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s up in the air still.”

Hurlock, a former forensic chemist for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms explosives and arson unit and a former member of the U.S. Capitol Police, is the owner of the Body Works fitness center in Buhl and the daughter of a California game warden. She’s been active in civic and sportsman groups in the Magic Valley, according to Otter’s office. When she was appointed to the commission in June, she said in a statement, “I’m now looking forward to being an advocate for getting our youth more involved in hunting, fishing and the great outdoors in Idaho.”

But some Magic Valley sportsmen’s groups have been organizing against her confirmation, saying they favored two other candidates who they see as more experienced and avid hunters and fishermen.

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said, “It’s been a six-month ordeal and I’m kinda right in the middle of it. I really would rather not get into personalities and reasons. We’ve all been in and talked with the governor.” Said Heider, “I think that Sen. Pearce will hold the appointment at his desk,” preventing it from reaching the full Senate.

But Pearce said he’s looked into it, and he doesn’t have that option. “I’m told that I can’t put it in my drawer,” Pearce said. “It really belongs to the committee of the whole of the Senate, so one way or another, it will come before the Senate.”

Pearce said both the governor and the Legislature have roles in the appointment process. “I’ve got the Constitution out and read it,” he said. “It’s a check and balance in the system.”

Hurlock, who has been serving on the commission since July 1, is only the second woman ever to serve on Idaho’s Fish & Game Commission, which was created in 1938 by the first citizen initiative passed in the state. Nancy Hadley of Sandpoint was the first; she served from 1997 to 2005.

Jack Oyler of Filer, a board member of Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife, was a member of the panel that interviewed the candidates for the two commission openings this year, and he’s opposing Hurlock’s confirmation. He said he had several long conversations with her a month before the interviews, and concluded that she had little knowledge or experience with hunting, fishing and wildlife management policy. “This is not a woman thing with me, it’s qualifications,” he said.

Hurlock said, “My dad was a Fish & Game officer, so I’ve been involved with Fish & Game issues pretty much my entire life.” She said she got her first Idaho hunting license in 2002, and has had both fishing and hunting licenses over the years, though not every year. She learned about the commission opening when she was out helping with habitat restoration, planting bitterbrush in the King Hill area after a wildfire. “I have a thorough knowledge of all of the various wildlife management plans,” Hurlock said. She accompanied her 13-year-old son on his first hunt this fall, in which he got a deer; she said enhancing hunting and fishing opportunities for youth is among her top priorities. “That’s why I live in this state,” she said. “And I do know that I have the full support of the other commissioners.”

Bonnie Butler, a top aide to Otter who also served on the interview panel, said, “The governor’s office is fully behind Joan Hurlock. She was chosen just like Will Naillon, through the process. He’s talked with her and he’s told her he supports her fully, and as long as she wants to be a commissioner, he supports her.”

This afternoon, Hurlock met with Pearce in his Senate office; afterward, she said, “I don’t think it will be tomorrow, but he did agree that I can have a hearing, and he will be in touch with me as to when that will be.” She added, “I actually have a lot of support in my region for my appointment. But it’s usually the loud minority that gets heard and not the silent majority, I guess.”

Said Hurlock: “I just would really like the opportunity to have a hearing, so I can go and present my qualifications before the committee, and just be heard and given a fair hearing one way or the other.”

Groups serving deaf, hard of hearing greet lawmakers in 4th floor rotunda

Groups that serve the deaf and hard of hearing across Idaho have displays in the 4th  floor rotunda of the state Capitol until noon today as part of a legislative breakfast sponsored by the state Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Steven Snow, executive director of the council, said there's been an encouraging turnout today, with at least 20 legislators stopping by to visit and see the displays. “We have 150,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in our state,” Snow said through a sign-language interpreter. “We are typically the invisible disabled - unless you see hearing aids, you wouldn't know that I was deaf.”

Groups represented include Elks Hearing and Balance Center, Caption Call, Idaho Association of the Deaf, Idaho Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the Living Independence Network Corp., and Hands and Voices, a support group for parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Lorna Irwin, a volunteer and secretary for Hands and Voices, said when parents have a deaf or hard of hearing child, “It just happens to them. Most of us are hearing So we're kind of lost in the beginning.” Her group supports families “regardless of what their choices are, as far as communicating with their children,” she said. “Time was, you joined the sign language camp or the oral camp.” Now, she said, “The child leads the way. It's communication that's important.”

Nuxoll: Soldiers are being wrongly accused for acts in line of duty

After Col. David Brasuell presented the budget request to JFAC this morning for the Idaho Division of Veterans Services, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, asked about the division’s excess funds, for which Brasuell had outlined an evaluation process the department is working through to determine the best way to spend those for the benefit of veterans. “In the union, a lot of soldiers are coming home and some of them are being accused in the line of duty and facing trials, in which, at least it looks to me, like they’re being judged wrong,” Nuxoll said. She asked if that could be an issue for any Idaho soldiers, and wondered “if that’s an option to save funds for legal defenses.”

Today’s news included a Marine who pleaded guilty yesterday to urinating on the corpse of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan who likely will be demoted one rank under a plea agreement; and reports than an Army staff sergeant who allegedly went on a rampage and killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes, had suffered a traumatic brain injury during earlier service.

Nuxoll said later that she's received letters in the mail from mothers or wives of active-duty soldiers who they believe have been wrongly accused. “I get a lot of them,” she said, though she said she hasn't gotten any from Idaho. “They're not from any particular state.”

Brasuell responded, “I don’t know of a program in that area. We do, as I mentioned here, all the veterans’ services.” That includes service officers around the state who assist veterans involved in mental health and drug courts, he noted. “But as far as a fund for legal defense, I don’t know of one.”

Brasuell reported that ongoing excess revenues have occurred because of the division's budget restraint, its lack of control over federal reimbursement rates, and a federal law that prevents Veterans Administration per diem payments from being offset by Medicare or Medicaid. Possibilities currently under study for existing fund balances include establishing a Veterans Endowment Fund; building a fourth veterans home and/or second veterans cemetery; renovating existing veterans homes to cope with an expected increase and changes in the veteran population; and conducting a statewide needs assessment to identify gaps in services. The division also is looking at increasing below-market pay for critical nurses and increasing direct care staffing hours in veterans homes. Only 3.9 percent of the division's budget comes from state general funds, down from 12.8 percent in fiscal year 2003.

Legislative leaders rethink archiving video stream, after lobbying group starts its own archive

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports today that just two months after legislative leaders affirmed their decision to remain among 17 states that don’t archive video of floor proceedings and make the footage available to the public, they’re now rethinking that decision. Idaho Public Television, which streams the video live on the Internet, has proposed an archive for several years. Last week, IdahoReporter.com, the online news arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, began posting the floor sessions on the Web, prompting concern among some lawmakers that the only source of a video archive is a private group that could manipulate the video. “My personal feeling is we need an official archive, one that is accessible by everyone without being filtered through some outside organization,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who, along with other GOP legislative leaders, met with IFF Executive Director Wayne Hoffman late Wednesday.

Another move by IFF’s three Statehouse reporters also has caused a stir, Popkey reports. Hoffman, a former Idaho Statesman reporter, has his staff wearing brown name tags of the same style used by credentialed reporters. The name tags are worn by 70 reporters with floor access and other privileges conferred by the Capitol Correspondents Association. But Hoffman’s staff was denied credentials by the association under the Legislature’s joint rules, because IFF’s advocacy and lobbying are disqualifying under Correspondents Association bylaws. Hoffman told Popkey, “They’re reporters. They wear brown tags.” But House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “Everybody on the playground knows that’s not right. I expected better of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.”

17.2% of Idaho adults smoke, 14.3% of youth; most say they want to quit

Idaho has the 16th lowest smoking rate in the nation, the head of the Division of Public Health at the state Department of Health & Welfare told lawmakers yesterday. “However, we still have 17.2 percent of our adult population smoking,” Elke Shaw-Tulloch told JFAC. And Idaho’s youth smoking rate is 14.3 percent. “Seventy percent of our Idaho adult smokers … say that they want to quit,” Shaw-Tulloch said. “And we want to make sure that we are there for them when they want to do so.”

The division’s budget request for next year calls for spending $2 million from Idaho’s Millenium Fund, which comes from a nationwide tobacco settlement, on tobacco control, including $1.5 million for free nicotine replacement therapy, a four-week program; and $500,000 for counter-marketing, including an anti-smoking media campaign, event sponsorship and more. The department had actually requested $2 million for “Project Filter” tobacco-cessation services and $1 million for the counter-marketing effort, but Gov. Butch Otter recommended just a total of $2 million from the Millenium Fund.

Otter also is recommending turning to the Millenium Fund, rather than state general fund, for two other division requests: $30,000 to keep Idaho’s Cancer Data Registry going in the face of declining cigarette tax funding; and $245,000 for the Women’s Health Check program, which provides breast and cervical cancer screening for low-income women. He recommended no funding for the division’s STD Prevention Project, which had requested $126,000 in state funding to replace federal funding that will expire Dec. 31, 2013. That program currently covers screening, testing, treatment, partner notification, prevention, and counseling services for sexually transmitted disease for high-risk individuals.

Otter did recommend $558,000 in one-time state general funds to cover the cost of vaccines for children who are on the military’s Tricare health insurance program; Otter’s also recommended a $441,400, one-time supplemental appropriation in the current year for the same thing. That’s because the federal government notified Idaho in August that as of this past Oct. 1, the federal vaccine grant funding the state was using to purchase vaccines for Tricare kids was no longer an eligible funding source; that meant 7,700 children were at risk of losing immunization coverage. Otter and the department are working with the federal government on a long-term solution.

Idaho sees an incident of domestic violence every 88 minutes…

Idaho’s Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance, which is funded almost entirely by a $3.6 million federal grant, worked with 21,631 victims in 2012. Director Luann Dettman said, “Violence is preventable when we act.” Idaho saw 22 people die in domestic violence incidents in 2011, she said. In that same year, there were 5,715 incidents of violence between spouses, ex-spouses and those in dating relationships in Idaho – one every 88 minutes. “Keep in mind these are only the reported stats,” Dettman told lawmakers. “There are many that go unreported.”

Lawmakers on the joint committee seemed a bit stunned by the stats, and had no questions. The two independent councils that fall under the Department of Health & Welfare, the domestic violence council and the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, both are requesting maintenance budgets for next year, with no new initiatives.

JFAC wants agencies to address all open audit findings…

JFAC this morning is continuing its full week of health and human services budget hearings; up first this morning was the Indirect Support Services division of the state Department of Health & Welfare. Budget writers quizzed H&W Deputy Director David Taylor about past years’ audit findings regarding use of federal funds in the division. “You know that part of our responsibility, whether it’s federal dollars or state, is to see that it’s spent appropriate,” said JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “Some of these findings are clear back in 2011, that’s true, but that seems ample enough time to have resolved some of ‘em or more. So I would encourage you to focus on it. We’re going to pay closer attention to it as well, and rightfully so.” JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, said the joint committee will look at open audit findings from all agencies as they come in for their budget hearings.

The division won a national award for its Women, Infants and Children Information Systems, or WISPr program, in the past year. It’s seeing rising fees for criminal background checks; is working on required modernization to Medicaid information systems to comply with federal laws; and is requesting four new staffers for its welfare fraud investigation unit, which Gov. Butch Otter has recommended. Its Medicaid Program Integrity Unit hasn’t met its target to save $1.18 million to the general fund for the current year, but it’s saved $600,000, and providers owe another $4.9 million; some are paying over time.

Also up this morning: Independent councils, the Commission on Aging, public health districts, Veterans Services and the Office of Drug Policy.

‘Quiet wave of kindness’ sweeping Statehouse

Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that a “quiet wave of kindness” is sweeping through Idaho’s Capitol. The reason: Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, is asking friends and colleagues to do 37 small acts of kindness in memory of his son, Ritchie Hill. Ritchie, who had just turned 28 when he died in 2004, would have turned 37 on Jan. 27 this year. Hill told the Times-News that his family has commemorated his birthday each year, often with acts of service. “Ritchie was known for helping others and loved reaching out to those in need,” Hill wrote in a Facebook post. “It would be a great way to celebrate a life worth celebrating.”

Ritchie Hill was a nonsmoker who succumbed to lung cancer. His illness helped prompt his father to propose 2004’s successful legislation to ban smoking in many Idaho public places, including restaurants, to protect Idahoans from the dangers of second-hand smoke. You can read Davlin’s full report here. She reports that people replied to Hill’s online request with service ideas of their own. One person donated coats, and another shoveled a neighbor’s driveway; numerous legislators commented on or “liked” the post.

House leader says Mendive comment poor choice, ACLU commends him for attending event

House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, said freshman Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, made a poor comparison when he linked prostitution to abortion, saying both are “a woman’s choice.” Said Vander Woude, “Rarely when a woman becomes a prostitute, is it because of a choice. The example, in my opinion, was a very poor choice.”

This incident marks the second time inside of a year in which an Idaho lawmaker has gained attention from comments he's made about abortion. Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise, the Senate assistant majority leader, made comments during the 2012 session in debate over a bill to require a woman to get an ultrasound before an abortion. “I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by a rape,” Winder told the Senate last March.

Winder later said he was misunderstood and never meant to cast doubt on the truthfulness of a woman's claim of rape.

Meanwhile, ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins said she was glad Mendive was among 15 or 20 state lawmakers who attended the ACLU’s breakfast event Wednesday morning where he made the comment; he was the first one there. The presentation covered an overview of the group, and then focused mostly on criminal justice reform. “The interesting thing about the ACLU is you may not agree with us on one issue, but a lot of times we can find common ground on other issues,” she said. “I actually commend him for coming to the breakfast and learning a little more about us.” You can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

Rep. Mendive: ‘I’ll stand up for right’

Freshman Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, was surprised to learn that there’s a news story out about a question he asked this morning regarding abortion and prostitution – and that it’s going viral. He attended an ACLU breakfast presentation in the Capitol this morning, and when  it was opened up for questions and answers at the end, Mendive said his question was prompted by the group placing women’s reproductive rights among its high priorities. So he asked whether the ACLU supports prostitution along with abortion, because it’s also “a woman’s choice.” The Associated Press reported that there were “audible gasps” in the room at his question, and ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins responded that abortion rights are constitutionally protected, while prostitution is illegal; and that prostitution is not always a choice, as in human trafficking cases.

“Was there a reporter in the room?” Mendive asked when told about the story. “I am anti-abortion, so that’s why I brought up that question,” he said.

Mendive said, “Actually I grew up in Kellogg, and the reality is there used to be brothels in Wallace. That was a career choice – no one forced them into that.” He said he didn’t mean that he thought prostitution should be legal. “I think that there’s kind of a double standard,” he said. “With abortion there are two beating hearts, and prostitution, there’s just one. If a woman were going to make a choice to be a prostitute, that’s her decision as to what to do with her body.”

He said in his view, it’s comparable to someone deciding to use illegal drugs. “I don’t support that either,” he said. “Those were just examples.”

Mendive said he didn’t feel like his question was answered. “She changed the topic,” he said of Hopkins, who noted that anti-human trafficking legislation may be introduced this year.  “Human trafficking is a real serious problem in this country,” Mendive said.

Asked about making the news like this when he’s just been serving in the Legislature for a week and a half, Mendive said, “I guess that’s life. There’s right and there’s wrong. I’ll stand up for right.” You can read the full story here at spokesman.com.

North Idaho lawmaker compares abortion to prostitution

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawmaker from northern Idaho drew audible gasps when he asked representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho if their pro-abortion rights stance also means that they support prostitution. Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d'Alene, made the comparison Wednesday morning during a legislative breakfast presentation held by the ACLU on criminal justice reform and other issues. Mendive asked the organization's executive director, Monica Hopkins, if she felt the ALCU should support prostitution since it supports a woman's right to choose abortion. Mendive then said that prostitution is also “a woman's choice.” Hopkins said a woman's right to reproductive health care is constitutionally protected, while prostitution is illegal. She also reminded Mendive that prostitution is not always a choice, noting that legislation targeting human trafficking may be presented during the legislative session.

Senate panel rejects part of new capitol grounds use rules, cites free speech concerns

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted to accept new rules for the state Capitol grounds and surrounding areas, but to reject sections limiting events and exhibits to certain hours and locations, along with a section limiting amplified sound. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, made the motion, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, seconded it. The committee’s two minority Democrats offered an alternative motion to reject the rules in their entirety, but it was voted down.

“In the past we haven’t had mass confusion and disaster on the state Capitol grounds based on the fact that the policies and rules and guidelines weren’t in effect,” said Sen. Eliot Werk, D-Boise, who argued that the rules go too far to restrict free speech and public gatherings. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “Just because we don’t philosophically or by definition agree with what a group does, we promulgate rules. I think that’s the crux of the problem here.”

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “These rules are going to apply to every group that comes here. I think that’s important, that they’re administered fairly and evenly across the board, and that’s certainly the intent. … We did find out that by not having them last year we did have some misunderstandings, we did have some oh, I wouldn’t call it chaos, but we had some challenges that we need to deal with.” Last year’s “Occupy Boise” encampment across the street from the state Capitol prompted the new rules. Said Winder, “These rules apply to everybody no matter what the group is. So it’s not trying to single out a particular group or political philosophy.”

Hill said, “We have to have these kinds of rules because there are people who are disrespectful of the public’s property. … We have to continue to look at each rule to make sure … the innocent, the responsible citizen is in no way going to be hurt by this, or have some of their rights or privileges compromised in any way.”

Davis said, “It does stick in my mind that we did ask for accelerated rule-making, and that wasn’t fair to the department. It did put them in a difficult spot. With hindsight, I wished we had done that differently and allowed the department the time it needed to participate in a more deliberative process,  and very candidly, it’s remarkable that they’ve been able to do what they have in that limited period of time. But I believe that in this area, this is one that we should invite our department to revisit at least those three sections.” While they do that, he said, if they find they need to modify other parts of the rule “to encourage the exercise of free speech rights, that they know that the Legislature is committed to them wanting to do that.” The motion adopts the rule with the exceptions of sections 201, 313, and all but section E of 302. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Senators considering rejecting part of Capitol grounds use rules…

After an hour and a half of questions, the Senate State Affairs Committee has now voted unanimously in favor of one of the three rules dockets before it, the one that deals with rules for use of the interior of buildings in the Capitol Mall, except for the state Capitol. Members are now debating rejecting several portions of the proposed rules for public gatherings on the exterior grounds around the Capitol, amid concerns about how they affect public gatherings.

State hospitals: ‘Ground zero’ in care of the mentally ill

Psychiatric hospitalization, which includes community hospitalization for individuals committed to state custody but not yet placed in state hospitals along with State Hospital South and State Hospital North, is recommended for a 2.5 percent funding increase next year by Gov. Butch Otter, to $30.9 million, including $19.3 million in state general funds; the majority of that is for operating State Hospital South, which has 110 psychiatric beds in three units plus a 26-bed nursing facility. State Hospital North has 50 beds. “State hospitals are ground zero, that’s ground zero when it comes to the care of the mentally ill,” H&W official Ross Edmunds told JFAC this morning. “These are the sickest in our state, very challenging.” If they weren’t in the hospitals, he said, “It’s likely many of them wouldn’t be alive.”

More Idaho residents are being committed to the state's psychiatric hospitals, but the length of time they spend in the hospitals is dropping, Edmunds reported. In the current year, the state Department of Health & Welfare expects 818 commitments to state hospitals; the comparable figure in fiscal year 2008 was 473. Mental health admissions to community hospitals also has been on the rise; it rose from 1,019 in fiscal year 2010 to 1,230 in fiscal year 2012. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Edmunds didn't elaborate on what is behind the icnrease in mental health hospitalizations, but it came as the state's budget for community mental health treatment has suffered major cuts in recent years.

State hospitals provide both short- and long-term, 24-hour residential care for people who can’t remain safely in the community. After funding was provided last year to correct critical staff and patient safety concerns, Health & Welfare is projecting a 39 percent reduction in staff injury from results this year compared to last year, and a 33 percent reduction in the use of restraints and seclusion on patients. Both state hospitals still are reporting difficulty recruiting psychiatrists.

JFAC reviews state’s ‘transforming’ community mental health system

Legislative budget writers, continuing their hearings this week on Health & Welfare division budgets, are looking this morning at mental health, substance abuse treatment and related topics. Mental health services, including both adult and children’s mental health, is recommended by Gov. Butch Otter for $32.9 million in total funding next year, including $23 million in state general funds. That goes 62.5 percent for adult mental health services, delivered primarily through seven regional, state-operated community mental health centers; and 37.5 percent to children’s mental health, which provides assessment and evaluation, clinical case management, hospitalization,residential treatment, and therapeutic foster care for children with serious emotional disturbances.

Next year’s budget request, in total funds, is for a 5.2 percent increase. But funding in this area in Idaho has dropped sharply in recent years. In fiscal year 2007 the total appropriation for mental health services was $42 million. It’s dropped by a quarter since then.

Ross Edmunds, administrator of the Division of Behavioral Health for Health & Welfare, said the state has been transforming its community mental health system to focus on local input and influence, integrated treatment, and eliminating gaps in services. It’s moving to a managed-care model for behavioral health benefits, which he called “a huge transformative step in moving the system forward.” Atthe same time, the national health care reform law will soon require that all insurance cover mental illness just as it covers physical illness. Though most states have long required such “parity,” Idaho hasn’t in the past.

Edmunds said, “I don’t know exactly what that increased coverage will be like … there’s several decisions before the Legislature this year. … But certainly we expect more individuals to have insurance coverage, and the requirement is that those insurance plans have a behavioral health benefit included. So when I look at the system, I really think the majority of people will have insurance, and that they will receive the clinical treatment services that they require through their insurance services. But there’s a big gap, there’s a big piece missing … and that’s what I call recovery support services.”

Many of those who receive the services through the state are homeless, he said. “They often have very few resources, and it’s a real challenge, because if they don’t have those basic life needs met – shelter, food, clothing and relationships, we’re really not setting them up for success. We’re setting them up to perpetuate the cycle and stay in our system.”

The budget request this year includes $466,900 in one-time “seed money” for new regional behavioral health boards in each of seven regions of the state. There also will be legislation proposed, Edmunds said, to “create a system … in which those recovery support services are administered at a local level.” He said, “Benefits … will be controlled by insurance … but what we can do is present them with an opportunity to look at those recovery support services and how best to administer those on a local level.”

Senators grill ACLU attorney over constitution, Capitol grounds use rules…

Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee, including Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, an attorney, are grilling ACLU attorney Richie Eppink this morning about constitutional questions with the state’s proposed new Capitol grounds use rules. Under the rules, Eppink said, “Two people gathered for any reason conceivably is an event. Likewise with an exhibit … this is an extremely broad definition of exhibit … that as far as I understand it would include a single person with a sign, or even a single person with a T-shirt … or button.”

Under questioning from Davis, Eppink said the constitutional problem is not with the definitions themselves, but how the definitions then are treated in restrictions, including on hours and locations. The question is how far the restrictions go, he said, and whether they meet the government’s “extraordinary” burden on restricting the rights to free speech and assembly. Eppink said the limits on durations of events and exhibits in the rules “crosses the line already.” He said, “The state’s interest, particularly in public open spaces of the kind we have around the Capitol and on the Capitol Mall, has generally been limited to regulating competing uses.”