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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In these tight times, everyone’s trimming the fat

Betsy Z. Russell The Spokesman-Review

Senators apparently are mutinying over bacon.

This session, the strong smell of bacon frying no longer permeates the area around their chambers in the morning, as they’ve cut back in the Senate dining room – no more hot breakfasts.

“We’re just trying to be frugal,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Brad Little, R-Emmett. “We’ve got kind of some conservative guys in leadership.”

Complaints about the missing bacon have been so strong that Little quipped that Republican senators may hold a caucus on the topic. But he said the issue is unrelated to Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis’ strong hints to senators that they all need to ante up their $75 lunchroom fees.

Shift on taxes?

House Tax Chairwoman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, has cracked open the door to reconsidering Idaho’s numerous sales tax exemptions. For years, Crow has been the chief opponent of re-examining exemptions, and has thwarted attempts.

But this week, she said it might be time to take another look. However, the avowed opponent of virtually all tax increases said she’d consider the idea, “only if something else takes their place that is better for the taxpayer. It isn’t going to be something for nothing.”

Unemployment compromise reached

Here’s an unlikely prospect: Business and labor sitting down together to work out a plan for increased unemployment taxes on businesses and reduced benefits for workers. But that’s really what happened.

The state Department of Commerce and Labor unveiled compromise legislation last week on Idaho’s unemployment system, worked out over the past two years by interests ranging from Micron Technology to the Idaho AFL-CIO.

This comes after a three-year freeze on tax rates, which otherwise would have risen through the roof thanks to the recession, as many Idaho workers were laid off.

While the freeze saved Idaho employers millions, it also depleted the state unemployment trust fund, and the new legislation is designed to keep the fund solvent.

The freeze ended Jan. 1. Without changes in the law, unemployment tax rates would now shoot up 113 percent. Instead, the compromise legislation calls for them to rise 12.5 percent this year, and then to rise or fall as needed each year, in increments rather than sudden jumps. Benefits would be slightly reduced – the maximum payment would drop from $325 a week to $312 in 2005, plus some workers would get a week less of benefits and others would take longer to qualify.

The benefits and tax rates were tied together, so in the future, when the economy recovers, tax rates would go back down and benefits would go back up.

“You’ve got to look at both sides,” said Dave Whaley, of the Idaho AFL-CIO. “We’ve got to have the jobs for the workers. We’ve also got to have those unemployment benefits that will carry them to another job.”

Safety in the Statehouse

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had just finished detailing all the safety problems in the Capitol, as part of his pitch in his State of the State address for renovating the historic structure.

“Thousands of children visit this building every year,” the governor said.

“Yet the only part of the Statehouse that has fire sprinklers is the area that caught fire several years ago. If you have a heart attack or any sort of a medical emergency, the paramedics’ gurney will not fit into either of the small, outdated elevators. There are no emergency exits.”

After the speech, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis was among a committee of lawmakers who formally escorted Kempthorne to his office.

On returning, a short-of-breath Davis reported to the House that Kempthorne had “wonderful sugar cookies in his office … in the shape of Idaho.”

House Minority Leader Wendy Jacquet was quick to add that the cookies had frosting, too.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb swiftly retorted that Davis should be “mindful of the governor’s speech.”

Amid loud laughter, he said, “The paramedics’ gurney can’t fit in the elevators in case of a heart attack.”