Printed on: February 19, 2010

Cheers & Jeers


Post Register editorial board members are Roger Plothow, publisher; J. Robb Brady, publisher emeritus; and Corey Taule, Opinions Page editor

An unwise reversal

Jeers to House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, a Republican from Iona. On Wednesday, Loertscher's committee voted 13-5 to kill a bill that would halt a 1 percent cost of living increase for retired state and local government employees.

On Thursday, Loertscher brought the bill back for reconsideration, saying new information showed that the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho has a $3 billion unfunded liability. Loertscher didn't put the bill on the committee agenda, which prevented public testimony.

"We had a lot of public input yesterday," Loertscher said.

None of that input, however, concerned Loertscher's $3 billion bombshell. The result was predictable. Eight Republicans, including Idaho Falls' Russ Mathews and Erik Simpson, changed their minds and voted to kill a miniscule cost of living increase for nearly 32,000 retirees, including 1,584 in Bonneville County.

Had Loertscher allowed public testimony Thursday, members of his committee might have learned that Idaho's pension plan is on solid footing.

A report released this week by the PEW Center on the States named Idaho and eight other states as "solid performers," the highest rank attainable.

Had PERSI Director Don Drum been given time Thursday, the committee would have heard that PERSI's assets fluctuate with the stock market. So, a surplus in 2007 turned into a deficit in 2009, Drum told the Spokesman Review's Betsy Russell.

Drum said the account has gained $500 million since June 30.

Killing a $50 million item in a multibillion dollar system that rises and falls with the stock market doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Hopefully, lawmakers will weigh all the information and understand what Loertscher, Simpson and Mathews clearly do not: blocking the cost of living increase won't save the state a dime, now or in the future.

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Cheers to Idaho's congressional delegation, Democrat Walt Minnick and Republicans Mike Crapo, James Risch and Mike Simpson. The nation has been hollering for some good old-fashioned bipartisan action. Well, here's a good example. Idaho's delegation came together recently to fight a Forest Service proposal to take back discounts enjoyed by senior citizens and disabled public land users.

In a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, the delegation questioned why a $650 million infusion of stimulus funds wouldn't preclude draconian cost saving measures. "We urge you to maintain these discounts at their current levels," the delegation wrote. "In this economic climate, we cannot eliminate the opportunity for our senior and permanently disabled citizens to enjoy our public lands."

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Jeers to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, whose proposed budget appears to have been founded on the Mafioso principle of mess with me and pay the price. Senate President Pro Tem Robert Geddes, a Soda Springs Republican, revealed this week that Otter's proposal to phase out several state agencies was less about determining the proper role of government than hammering the bearers of bad news.

"Those agencies and departments who chose to kind of thumb their nose at the governor found that they didn't have a place in the budget," Geddes said.

In September, Otter asked agencies to look for reductions. Heaven help you if the governor didn't like what he heard. "The budget was a wake-up call for them to get on board," Otter's budget director, Wayne Hammon, told the Idaho Statesman. "And with the exception of public television, all of them responded very favorably."

IPTV General Manager Peter Morrill told Otter that further budget cuts would adversely impact viewers. IPTV lost nearly 50 percent of its state funds in the last year.

Strangely, Otter backed off his zeroing out plan this week. The governor told the Idaho Statesman's editorial board that he wasn't serious about defunding the agencies.

"I wanted the (agency heads) to think that," Otter said. "How else am I going to get them to respond?"

Talk about mixed messages. Perhaps the public outcry over Otter's phase-out of public television and other agencies has the governor in damage control mode. Or maybe one hand in the governor's office doesn't know what the other one is up to.

Cheers to Sen. Joe Stegner of Lewiston, the lone Republican in the Idaho Legislature with the courage to call the Idaho Health Freedom Act exactly what it is, "meaningless legislation."

The bill would compel the state to sue the federal government if Congress and the president approve a health care plan that requires Idahoans to purchase insurance. It passed the House on a straight party-line vote. This week, the bill passed the Senate State Affairs Committee, with Stegner joining two Democrats in opposing the measure.

As Stegner pointed out, the Constitution's Commerce Clause gives the federal government authority in this area. Even if you disagree with that personally, the Supreme Court is in accord. Which led Stegner to ask the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, "Why in the world do you think the state can arbitrarily declare that they have sovereignty on the issue of health care reform when in fact I think all sorts of precedent would say that the federal government can certainly impose that if they so choose?"

Clark's response: "The Commerce Clause is there, but the federal government still has to prove that in court, and I think it's worth a fight."

At a potential cost of $100,000. And here we thought any bills that cost the state money were dead on arrival.

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Jeers to Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. Last week, Luna led the charge to use endowment reserve funds to boost the public school budget. This week Luna passed on a chance to put money back into the fund.

At issue are leases on 521 cottage sites at Payette and Priest Lakes. The leases expire at year's end. Lessees have until April 30 to renew. For too long, well-heeled folks, mostly from Boise and Spokane, have gotten sweetheart deals at the expense of the land's beneficiaries, which include the public schools, Idaho State University and State Hospital South.

Currently, the state charges its lessees 2.5 percent of the land's assessed value. Those civic-minded folks want that dropped to 2.2 percent. Three members of the State Land Board, Otter, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Luna, were prepared to increase rents to 4 percent of value. Controller Donna Jones was non-committal. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden balked, saying the state should be charging 6 percent. Luna backed off his support, saying he wanted more time to discuss "premium rent," which is collected when leases sell. Sellers keep 90 percent of "leasehold value," paid by a buyer to assume the lease. Since 2003, the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey reported, leaseholders cleared $25 million while endowments got $2.7 million. The plan is to increase premium rent to 50 percent from 10 percent over five years.

Luna's reticence frustrated Otter. Clearly, this issue needs to be resolved. The Constitution demands maximum long-term return on the lands. Let's hope Luna remembers that when the Land Board meets next month.

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Cheers to Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise. He's the latest to run a bill that calls for all sales tax exemptions to come under review. Winder wants exemptions to be reviewed every five years and for any new exemptions to carry a five-year expiration date. Senate and House Democrats are proposing similar legislation. The more the merrier. It's long past time for lawmakers to take a close look at sales tax exemptions, to see which ones are working and which ones are not.

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Cheers to the Senate Tax Committee, which unanimously turned down a new sales tax exemption, this one dealing with homeless shelters. The bill passed the House 70-0 and carried a minimal price tag of $15,000. But give the committee credit for sticking to its guns. No new exemptions until the ones already on the books are examined. It's not easy to walk away from something that appears so deserving, but Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and his crew are right to draw a line in the sand.

Corey Taule