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Legislative leaders clash over taking away reform money from Idaho schools

Things got a little heated at the end of the legislative leaders panel this morning at the AP Legislative Preview, when House Speaker Scott Bedke said the $44 million in the school budget that was allocated to the voter-repealed “Students Come First” reform laws might not stay with schools, now that those programs have been repealed. “There are people that are eyeing that,” he said, for purposes including eliminating the personal property tax on business property.

“Our caucus would be adamantly opposed to that,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, responded. “The schools need that money. It makes sense to reappropriate that in a manner that allows them to use it. I think the outrage over taking money for public schools and putting it to pay off a personal property tax that basically would go to the largest companies in the state is something that not only our caucus would find objectionable.”

Bedke said, “But don’t keep telling me then that we ought to do nothing because the voters have spoken.” He said if the Legislature were to do nothing on education policy because of voters’ rejection of Props 1, 2 and 3 in November, school districts would be left without that money this year. Asked if he personally supports taking the money away from schools, Bedke said he’s the speaker now, not just an individual lawmaker. “I’ve got 57 perfectly good Republican caucus members, all of which have got great ideas,” he said. “I want to hear what they have to say.”

After the panel discussion, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he doesn’t support shifting the school money to pay for personal property tax relief. But he noted that all state agencies and programs took funding hits during the recession. “Is it fair that education keep all the money?” he asked. “It needs to go back to the appropriations committee, and they need to divvy it up in an appropriate way.”

Working on ethics issues…

When a questioner noted that lawmakers will be working on ethics issues next week – all legislators will go through an unprecedented half-day of ethics training - Senate President Pro-tem Brent Hill said, “We’re always working on ethics issues.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke said a draft revised ethics rule is circulating in the House and likely will be addressed early in the session. “It would include a formal standing ethics committee,” he said, along with provisions regarding “how they would carry out their responsibilities.”

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Idaho is one of the few states without an independent ethics committee to oversee lawmakers’ conduct, and it should establish one.

Hill: Exchange issue will go to Commerce in Senate, not Health & Welfare

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the health insurance exchange issue won’t go to the Health & Welfare Committee in the Senate this year – it’ll go to the Commerce Committee. “That’s an insurance issue,” Hill said, explaining his thinking.

Dem leaders: Listen to voters

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “We are going to have to face some real monumental issues.” He said the minority party has been out talking with voters, and is bringing back some messages. “They want a Legislature and government that’s open, honest, and focused on the constituents’ needs, on their families and their future opportunities,” he said.

Addressing reporters at today's AP Legislative Preview, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “I think what we need to do here … is to keep in mind that the voters have spoken, and to try to do the best we can to honor the message that they’re sending to us. .. It’s obvious that we need to have evidence-based recommendations for education,” and for teachers and parents and education professionals to be involved in that, she said. “They don’t want us politicians necessarily in the center of all that, and we have to hear that.”

Bedke promises ‘some interesting times’ in upcoming session

House and Senate leaders are speaking now at this morning’s AP Legislative Preview. Said new House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, “Every other person, nearly, in the House of Representatives is new. And there’s a lot of new chairmen. There’s been a lot of shuffling around. We can talk about these issues, but that’s going to shape the legislative session in a major way on the House side.”

Said Bedke, “I’m very encouraged and excited to work with these new people. This is a very accomplished group, broad spectrum, very diverse life experiences. They’re smart, they’re eager to be here and eager to be involved, and there’s some energy that I haven’t noticed before. And I’m looking forward to really incorporating these new people and their ideas into some of these old problems, and we’ll see what comes of it.” He promised “some interesting times.”

Otter: ‘We are not going to become the dumping ground for nuclear waste’

Gov. Butch Otter, asked about the question of nuclear waste in Idaho, declared, “We are not going to become the dumping ground for nuclear waste.” He said, “I have no disagreement with Gov. Batt’s 1995 agreement. I thought it was great when he got the agreement, I thought it was great when we established a ‘get out of Idaho by 2035,’ and I see no reason to change that. What I do see is the failure of the federal government and a potential conflict with them, because of their failure to open Yucca Mountain on time or at all maybe.”

Otter on Simplot mansion: ‘Remember there are only 2 bedrooms in that house’

Asked about Idaho’s vacant governor’s mansion – which is costing the state nearly $180,000 a year in upkeep - Gov. Butch Otter said it’s not up to him what the state does with the home of his late former father-in-law. “What you could do with $180,000 a year in the classroom, that would make a pretty good difference,” Otter said. “But on the other hand, what if a person gets elected governor, say six or eight years from now, that has a family, and actually comes from northern Idaho or eastern Idaho … and has a large family? Remember there are only two bedrooms in that house.”

Otter on exchange: ‘If we stay at the table, I think we can make a difference’

Here’s what Gov. Butch Otter had to say this morning on the issue of a state-run health insurance exchange: “Let me just say from the outset on that, I see nothing wrong, or nothing liberal, or maybe even nothing conservative, about preserving all of our options,” he said, “and to back away from the table and just say ’you folks come in and set your own up’, I don’t think really that establishes for me an idea of sovereignty of the state of Idaho. I think it is a states’ rights issue, that we should be at the table.”

He added, “ I thought that with the wolves or the grizzly bears, I thought that with the caribou, I thought that with the sage hen and almost every other issue that has come up. If we stay at the table, I think we can make a difference. We did make a difference in most of those negotiations.”

Otter praises legislative ethics training

Gov. Butch Otter praised state legislative leaders for setting up extensive ethics training for lawmakers next week. “I think sometimes we cross an ethical barrier because we simply don’t know the rules,” he said, “so I see great advantage for leadership to step up.”

Ed reforms need consensus, Otter says

Gov. Butch Otter told reporters this morning that education reform must be arrived at collaboratively and with consensus, saying the process that led to the voter-rejected “Students Come First” laws, which he championed, was badly flawed. “It’s pretty hard to establish consensus if you’re only talking to yourself on a matter of public policy,” Otter said.

Otter: Address personal property tax without harm to local government

Gov. Butch Otter is here at the Statehouse to speak to the press this morning at the annual AP legislative preview – though it’s First Lady Lori Otter’s birthday. There’s an overflow crowd.

“I will tell you that the state of the state is in pretty good shape,” Otter said, particularly compared to other states. “I hear horror stories about them not being able to meet the mandates of a balanced budget, their unemployment rates,” Otter said.

He said he’ll propose a balanced budget on Monday that will be structurally sound, a goal he’s long had – to bring Idaho’s state budget into structural balance by 2014. He also said he’ll have a lot to say in his State of the State message about repeal of the personal property tax. “I will tell you that I think there is a growing consensus amongst folks that the personal property tax is one of the drags on our economy and that we need to do something about it, and the question is what and how fast,” Otter said. He said another part of the question is “how do we do what we would like to do … without doing … harm to the local units of government. So those will all be debated and re-debated.”

Gov to speak, you can watch live…

This morning’s AP legislative preview will be streamed live online by Idaho Public Television; you can watch live here. It starts with Gov. Butch Otter at 9 a.m., legislative leaders from both parties speaking at 10, and a panel discussion at 11 on the possible repeal of the personal property tax.

Gearing up for the legislative session…

It isn’t usually a part of how I gear up for a legislative session, but this morning I underwent a root canal. On the good side: It should be all downhill from here.

Tomorrow morning, the governor and legislative leaders will speak to reporters as part of the annual AP Legislative Preview; tomorrow evening is the first episode of Idaho Public TV’s “Idaho Reports” program, and the legislative session starts on Monday, with Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message to a joint session of the House and Senate set for 1 p.m.

StateImpact Idaho has posted a guide to the upcoming session here; Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, offers a look ahead here; and the Legislature’s website here is ground zero for tracking bills, agendas and more. Also, watch this space. I’ll tell you all about it.

Economic outlook: ‘Subdued and stumbling growth’

Bob Maynard, chief investment officer for the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, told lawmakers this morning the coming year’s economy is widely expected to be similar to this past year: “Subdued and stumbling growth, good equity markets, flat bond markets.” He said, “2012 was pretty close to forecast. Basically the world economies muddled through. … Next year is expected to be more of the same.” For example, he said, in 2012 the S&P 500 was up 15 percent, compared to an expected 12 percent. “That’s pretty much a bullseye given the pessimism of last year,” Maynard said. “Markets again expect about 12 percent equity yields and flat bond markets.” He added, “Right now, bonds are tremendously unattractive.”

Maynard said, “The capital markets run off of expectations, not current conditions. And the current economic expectations are moderate.”

He’s among an array of economic experts and business representatives addressing the Legislature’s Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee today and tomorrow, as lawmakers begin mulling where to set the revenue estimate on which the state budget for next year will be based. After hearings today and tomorrow, the panel will reconvene on Jan. 10 to finalize its report to the Legislature.

Lawmakers look at economic outlook, watch live on newly upgraded streaming site…

Idaho Public TV’s new live streaming site is up for the 2013 legislative session, which kicks off Monday. The old links still work through a redirect, but the new address is www.idahoptv.org/insession. Upgrades mean that the service will now stream easily to Macs, PCs, iOS devices and most Androids; that means easier access to live video streaming from House and Senate floor sessions and hearings in the Capitol Auditorium, audio from all standing committee hearings, Idaho Supreme Court oral arguments at their Boise chambers, some press conferences from the governor’s office and more.

Today, the Legislature’s joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee is meeting all day, and you can watch live at the new streaming site. Today, the joint committee is hearing from bankers, builders, Realtors, retailers and more; tomorrow, it’ll hear from hospitals, university economists and the INL. The whole process is aimed at evaluating the outlook for Idaho’s economy to help in setting the revenue estimate on which the state budget for the coming year will be set; you can see the full agenda here, along with background information and links to presentations.

New lawmaker tones down claims in exaggerated online bio

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A newly-minted Idaho lawmaker changed his Internet biography after questions about its accuracy. When Rep. Mark Patterson was elected in Boise's District 15, his Facebook site listed him as a University of Southern California student and petroleum engineer. But Patterson never attended USC and isn't an engineer, though he once worked in Wyoming's oil fields. The 60-year-old Republican says the inaccurate details were posted by a former campaign staffer, without his knowledge. Patterson, whose company makes bike lubrication products, did stick to claims he was a professional cyclist. Though he held no professional license, Patterson said he was paid in the 1990s by another lube company to market products by riding amateur races. House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude said the matter shows lawmakers should monitor their online identities. 

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Rep. Henderson going strong, excited to lead as new committee chair

Idaho state Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who was appointed chairman of the House Business Committee a day after he celebrated his 90th birthday, is excited about his new role. “The composition of the whole committee includes a number of experienced legislators, so I think if I can give it effective leadership, that it’s going to be a very productive committee,” Henderson said. He said he’ll be bringing proposals to help boost existing Idaho companies, including possible new investment tax credits. “We’ll be looking for new ideas,” Henderson said. You can read my full Sunday column here.

When the House, near the close of its organizational session last week, took note of Henderson's birthday and offered to sing “Happy Birthday” to him, he wasn't there. That's because he was over at the state Department of Commerce, meeting on economic development initiatives.

Becoming a committee chair “was not a burning ambition with me,” Henderson said, but he said he wasn't surprised by the appointment; he was in line for the post, as the vice-chair of the panel. “I'm pleased to be there,” he said. “It's going to satisfy a legislative ambition,” he said, “to help the Idaho economy grow and diversify, from when we were just agriculture, timber and mining.”

Report: Citizen lawmakers’ occupations differ from state as a whole, affect policies

StateImpact Idaho took a look at the occupations of the 105 citizen legislators who make up the 2013 Idaho Legislature, and compared them to those of Idahoans as a whole. The conclusion: They don’t match up. For example, 21 percent of Idaho legislators work in agriculture; just 5.3 percent of Idahoans as a whole work in ag-related fields, including forestry, mining, fishing and hunting.

Most Idahoans work in educational services, health care, and social assistance, according to the U.S. Census. But StateImpact found that just one Idaho legislator works in education, although several are listed as retired educators; and nearly 26 percent work in business, including small retail owners, consultants, construction company owners, and entrepreneurs.

That could help explain the Legislature’s tendency to favor tax policies beneficial to business; you can read the full StateImpact Idaho report here.

Northern Idaho lawmakers double their numbers on JFAC

Lawmakers from Lewiston north will take up eight of the 20 seats on the Idaho Legislature's powerful joint budget committee when the legislative session convenes in January, doubling the representation for the region on the budget-writing panel. “Five of us are in the northern Panhandle, so to the degree there might be northern issues that we all would agree on, we certainly would have the opportunity for some leverage there,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a ninth-term senator who will again serve as the Senate vice-chair of the joint committee.

Clout for North Idaho has varied over the years in the Idaho Legislature, with no North Idaho lawmakers serving in the majority leadership of the House or Senate, either in the past year or the upcoming session; this time, none even ran. But the budget committee is a place where lawmakers from a region can combine to boost a project from their area. Meanwhile, the number of committee chairmanships held by North Idaho lawmakers will stay even in 2013. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.