Sho-Bans Back Off Breaching;
by Kevin Richert
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes on Friday signed on to a federal salmon plan - effectively promising that they will not pursue breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
This makes the Nez Perce Tribe's steadfast pro-breaching position all the more gutsy, and all the more critical to the long-term health of Idaho's endangered salmon.
The Sho-Ban tribes' decision is a political coup for the feds. After all, the Sho-Bans first petitioned to add Snake River sockeye salmon to the federal endangered species list. The sockeye have been listed as endangered since 1991.
But at first glance, the 10-year, $61 million agreement offers very little to reverse the fortune of the sockeye - which remain imperiled, despite one year of robust returns to Central Idaho spawning grounds:
As the feds' press release points out, the Sho-Bans agree "that the federal government's requirements under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and Northwest Power Act are satisfied for the next 10 years." In other words, the tribes drop the idea of suing to force the feds to breach the lower Snake dams, which many biologists say would give Idaho salmon their best, or only, shot at recovery.
The $61 million includes only $29 million for species covered under the Endangered Species Act. The rest goes to various fish and wildlife habitat programs and one-time spending on hatcheries.
The Statesman has supported breaching since 1997, arguing that the move would save Idaho salmon and allow federal agencies to curtail expensive hatchery programs, supported by electric ratepayers.
There's a cynical divide-and-conquer feel to these agreements, which pour money at programs that look like salmon recovery initiatives, but actually peel off potential pro-breaching litigants. Four Northwest tribes cut a deal with the feds in April; the decidedly anti-breaching state of Idaho followed suit and accepted a separate deal two days later.
Nez Perce tribal leaders have continued to swim upstream against the political current. Good for them.
A RAINY JANUARY
I'm no chief meteorologist - nor do I play one on TV - but I predict some rainy days in January.
When the 2009 Legislature reconvenes, expect to hear a lot of talk about the "rainy day" fund. I predict that it isn't a question of if lawmakers tap this fund - known officially as the "budget stabilization fund" - but how much they take from the fund.
Currently, $140.6 million sits in the fund. Lawmakers and then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne drained the account dry in May 2003 - at the end of the longest and perhaps most bitter legislative session in state history. Since then, lawmakers have quietly built up the reserves, banking away surplus dollars generated by the Idaho housing boom.
Now, with the housing boom history and the national economy looking at least as shaky as it did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's looking rainy out there. It seems like it would make sense to use some of the funds in 2009 to fill some gaps in the budget, particularly for programs such as economic development, higher education and community colleges. But with no clear signal on when the economy might rebound, lawmakers would be wise to keep some of the $140.6 million stashed aside for stormy conditions in 2010.
On Wednesday, Gov. Butch Otter sent a strong signal about the state of the state budget, when he asked agencies to draw up budgets reflecting cuts of 1 percent, 2 percent and 2.5 percent. He's telling agencies - and Idahoans - to expect a 5.9 percent revenue shortfall.
While Idaho has another $50 million or so in carryover for the 2008-09 budget year - in addition to the "rainy-day" fund - the $50 million won't cover a projected $174.3 million slump in revenues. So it looks inevitable that Idaho will have to tap a variety of its savings accounts.
And this would include a separate "Public Education Stabilization Fund," designed to shield K-12 education from economic downturns. In 2006, when lawmakers foolishly shifted much of the state's public school spending from local property taxes to the volatile state sales tax, they at least hedged their bets by socking away $100 million. Otter "fully supports" tapping this fund, according to a Division of Financial Management memo.
There's rain in the forecast. I won't try to predict how much will remain in the state reserves at the end of the '09 session.
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