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Federal lands interim committee adds seventh public hearing next month

The Federal Lands Interim Committee, a joint legislative interim committee co-chaired by Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, has scheduled a seventh public hearing, this one in Sandpoint on Sept. 12. That’s in addition to the six already scheduled over the next two months, including Sept. 11 in Kamiah and St. Maries; Oct. 9 in Idaho Falls and Soda Springs; and Oct 10 in Twin Falls and Hailey.

The move already has prompted a “jeer” from the Lewiston Tribune’s editorial page that Denney “just happens to be making a series of statewide swings at taxpayer expense, right in the middle of campaign season, including stops next month in Kamiah and St. Maries.” Denney, former speaker of the House and current House resources chairman, is running for Idaho Secretary of State; he faces Democrat Holli Woodings in the November election.

Denney said, “We thought that it was important that the people have their say in what they think about the state taking over title to the federal lands. And that was certainly always the plan – last year was to be fact-finding, this year was more public hearing.”

Winder, Denney’s co-chairman, said, “We have to report back to the 2015 session. So in trying to coordinate schedules, it was very difficult to get anybody to where we could get like two days together, actually going back to July or August.” Denney said the pre-election timing “wasn’t my choice,” saying, “I would like to have started way earlier, because it’s going to take time away from me right when I think I need it most in the campaign. … I think it was just logistics.”

Asked why the panel is heading to small towns like Soda Springs, Kamiah and St. Maries, Denney said, “A lot of the people who want to come and testify are from these more rural areas, and why make them travel? … They always have to travel.”

Winder said the Sandpoint session was added at the request of Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who said her constituents “felt like it was too far to go to St. Maries to testify.”

The panel is charged, during its two years, to “undertake and complete a study of the process for the state of Idaho to acquire title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government.” It’s already spent more than $41,000 on legal fees to Bill Myers, a Boise attorney and former solicitor general for the Department of the Interior, whom it hired to advise it.  

Winder said, “We’re already pretty confident that from a legal perspective, we don’t stand on very firm ground if it were a matter of litigating. But we do think there are alternatives available to us in existing laws and potential for congressional changes in how the states interact with the federal agencies that manage public lands. … We think it’s worth the effort.”

Bond issue falls short in Idaho’s largest school district

Voters in Idaho’s largest school district – West Ada, formerly known as the Meridian district – have narrowly failed to pass a $105 million bond issue, which fell short in yesterday’s election though 63 percent supported it with just 37 percent opposed. Bond issues require a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Idaho Education News reports that turnout was sparse in the school bond election, at just 9.5 percent of registered voters. It was the first bond issue sought by the district since 2005, and came in response to an 18 percent increase in student numbers since 2005-06. The bond was intended to fund the construction of two new middle schools, one new elementary school, renovation and expansion of  Meridian High and site purchases for future new schools; Idaho EdNews reporter Kevin Richert has a full report here; he also has a statewide roundup here on how various school bond levies and bond issue vote fared.

Military equipment in demand among Idaho police agencies

Idaho law enforcement agencies have received at least 2,905 pieces of donated military equipment worth more than $9.3 million, mostly during the past three years, the Idaho Statesman reports today, according to data from the Idaho State Police. They range from $1 pliers to MRAPs - mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicles - worth anywhere from $412,000 to $733,000. Last September, the Idaho State Police requested a cargo plane. The MRAPs went to six police departments: Boise, Caldwell, Nampa, Pocatello, Post Falls and Preston.

The Statesman’s full report is online here. Reporters John Sowell and Audrey Dutton report that the military trappings are in high demand among Idaho agencies, and at least one local police department has received more military firearms than it has officers on its force.

Commerce chief apologizes, says firm getting tax incentive will be named when deal finalized

Idaho state Commerce Director Jeff Sayer apologized today for promising last week that the first recipient of Idaho’s generous new tax reimbursement incentive would be named at an Economic Development Council meeting today at which the council approved a 25 percent tax break for the firm. “I screwed up,” Sayer told Eye on Boise. “That wasn’t the agreement we made with the company.”

Today’s council approval is only preliminary, Sayer said; if the company accepts the offer for the tax incentive, a final agreement still would have to be negotiated. Once that’s approved, all aspects of the deal would become public, he said. “Today we are respecting the wishes of the company,” he said. “There are going to be situations where we give that approval only to have the company tell us ‘thanks but no thanks, we’ve chosen another state.’” That’s apparently not the case here, however.

“When an agreement is signed and a company does decide to choose Idaho, you’ll see us be completely transparent,” Sayer said. The information will be posted on a Commerce Department website, he said. “All of those details will be on the table.”

The information that Commerce is releasing today about the deal includes a one-page summary that you can read here. It says “Project Sky” is a project to build an aerospace maintenance facility in Ada County that would hire 50 full-time employees in 2015, with benefits, and expand to 100 over the next 12 years, with an average annual wage of $52,000. The council voted today to offer a 25 percent rebate of the firm’s sales, payroll and corporate income taxes for 12 years; the new incentive law allows up to 30 percent for up to 15 years.

Though Commerce decided not to name the airline today, the Boise Weekly reported on Sunday that it is SkyWest. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.

Otter touts ed results, new tax incentive in address to business community

Gov. Butch Otter defended the state’s direction on education — and its funding commitment — in a speech to some 600 Treasure Valley business leaders today, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. The occasion was Otter’s annual address to the business community, and Otter didn’t directly address his re-election campaign – or his Democratic challenger, longtime Boise School Board Chairman A.J. Balukoff – in the speech. But he did touch on a point of contention in the race between the two, Richert reports.

Balukoff, in a fundraising email last week, took the state to task for its per-pupil spending, which perennially sits near the bottom of national rankings. The rankings, he said, are “downright shameful.” Otter told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon today, “I still think we have to look at the results. It’s not how much money you spend, it’s how you spend the money.”

He said the 2014 Legislature took a “great leap forward” in restoring school funding after recession-era budget cuts, though the restoration isn’t complete; it was part of the first step in a five-year plan, he said. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Meanwhile, Idaho Statesman business reporter Zach Kyle, in his report on the speech, writes that Otter “stuck to familiar talking points,” including touting the new tax reimbursement incentive law that took effect July 1 and for which the Idaho Economic Advisory Council is considering its first applicant today, an airline that wants to build a big new maintenance facility in Boise. Kyle’s report is online here; the Boise Weekly reported on Sunday that the airline in question is SkyWest.

Thursday will see 59 Priest Lake cabin sites on auction block at CdA Resort

With a complex auction coming up Thursday for 59 state-owned lakefront cabin sites on Priest Lake, the state Department of Lands has released a fact sheet about how the whole thing will work; you can see it here. Among the highlights: The 59 lots – down from the 62 announced in July, as several have dropped out – have been divided randomly into four groups, with a quarter assigned to each, and groups have been scheduled for auction at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Each group is expected to take less than an hour.

Anyone who’s not the existing lessee and wants to bid on one of the lots must submit a $50,000 cashiers check ahead of time; if that person is the successful bidder, that $50,000 will be credited against the cost of the improvements on the property, for which the winning bidder must pay the existing lessee at appraised value. Existing lessees don’t have to put up the $50,000 because they already own the improvements.  There also are various fees that the winning bidder will have to pay.

The auction, which follows two earlier ones of state-owned cabin sites at Payette Lake, comes as the state Land Board has decided to get the state out of the business of renting lake lots on which people build and own their cabins, leading to years of battles about the appropriate fair-market rent to charge for the ground under the cabins. It’s the first of what’s expected to be a series of auctions for Priest Lake lots. Proceeds from the auction will go to Idaho’s public school endowment fund. This initial group consists of lots whose lessees had attempted to join land exchanges that were cancelled; they voluntarily agreed to the auction instead.

The auction will be for the lots, not including the value of the buildings on them. Starting bids are set at the appraised value, which ranges from $200,000 to $665,000. Information on all the properties is online here; the terms and conditions of sale are online here. The auction starts Thursday at 1 p.m. Pacific time at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

Idaho Meth Project names new director

The Idaho Meth Project has hired a new executive director, Adrean Cavener, the former director of government relations in Idaho for the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. The Meth Project, which got just over a quarter-million in funding from Idaho’s Millenium Fund this year but otherwise operates on private donations and federal grant funds, works to prevent meth use, particularly among youth.

Cavener said while rates of meth use have been declining, large amounts of the drug still are coming into Idaho. “We still have about 500 pounds of meth being trafficked through Idaho every month, which is alarming, because 2 grams, about the size of a sugar packet, is 25 hits of meth to a new meth user,” she said.

The Meth Project, known for its graphic ad campaigns, has been focusing on reaching teens through social media including Pandora, Instagram and Facebook, and also has lots of billboards in the works, Cavener said. She replaces Gina Heideman, who was with the Meth Project for just over five years and who left a month ago.

First Lady Lori Otter, a booster of the Meth Project, said, “We know that meth use comes with enormous costs, both in the state budget, but more devastatingly to the living rooms of Idaho families. We look forward to the passion and knowledge Adrean will bring to the Idaho Meth Project.”

Dairy group urges farmers to deny media requests for tours, interviews in wake of ag-gag law

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho dairy industry group has sent a letter to all its members urging them to deny media requests for tours and on-farm interviews. The letter from the United Dairymen of Idaho was sent anonymously to the Associated Press late last week. In it, co-chairs Tom Dorsey and Tony Vanderhulst advise dairy producers that there's been an increase in requests from media groups seeking to film on-farm footage in the wake of an Idaho law that makes it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities. The letter says that for the protection of the Idaho dairy industry, people seeking tours or interviews should be turned down or referred to United Dairymen officials or another industry group. Spokeswoman Cindy Miller confirmed the letter was sent to about 500 dairies.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone, and a statement from the dairy group.

ITD to suspend most road work over holiday weekend

The Idaho Transportation Department says it’ll suspend roadwork statewide that impacts travelers to ease the way for motorists over the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend, with one exception: The Gowen Road interchange project just east of Boise. Work being done there will not impede traffic, ITD says. “Contractors have no interest in working over the holiday, just like most of us,” said ITD Chief Operations Officer Jim Carpenter. “Most would take these days off anyway, even if it was not required.”

The closure for the holiday will be from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1.

Scalia praises Idaho’s Snake River Basin water rights adjudication

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Boise on Monday evening, praised Idaho's completion of a nearly 30-year process negotiating Snake River Basin water rights as a successful exercise in state rights and local control. “Adjudication serves a noble purpose,” he said. “It lets people of Idaho know just what they own. Everything from farming to fishing to mining and manufacturing requires water. Each of these will go smoothly now that they know what they own.”

The adjudication completion doesn't eliminate future disputes, but provides a guideline for what people might fight over in the future, Scalia said. Water law attorneys have processed more than 158,000 water rights claims. This has allowed thousands of farmers, dairies and fish processors to have a comprehensive record of state, federal and tribal water rights. Scalia was the keynote speaker at Monday's event in Boise marking the end of the largest ever adjudication review settling water ownership throughout nearly 85 percent of the Gem State; with the Snake River Basin Adjudication complete, Idaho has now begun adjudicating water rights in North Idaho.

Students to take new test aligned to core standards this school year

As students across the state head back to school, AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi offers an overview of the new standardized testing students will face this year aligned to Idaho Core standards adopted in 2011. Idaho school districts began teaching under the new standards last school year, and students took a field-test version of the new exam, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), but the results didn't count. The Idaho State Department of Education is now referring to the new test as the ISAT 2.0; in the spring of 2015, students will take the test and results will count. Click below for Kruesi's full report.

Andrus Center to host Conference on Women and Leadership

The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will present a Conference on Women and Leadership Sept. 10-12 featuring an array of prominent speakers, from retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to four-star Admiral Michelle Howard, vice chair of operations for the U.S. Navy,  to Dr. Ellen Ochoa, director of the Johnson Space Center, to award-winning film producer Frieda Mock.  

The two and a half day conference at the BSU Student Union building is designed to motivate and educate women on leadership and success. Click below for more information.

Lawmakers to eye endowment land investments, public defense reforms

An interim committee of Idaho lawmakers tasked with determining if Idaho endowment lands are being managed properly to generate revenue is scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday, the Lewiston Tribune reports; click below for a full report from the Trib via the AP. “We'll focus on the structure of the state Land Board and the functioning of the Idaho Department of Lands, and look at the returns the endowment is getting on its various investments,” Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, co-chairman of the committee, told the Tribune. The entire endowment of land and investments is worth more than $3 billion, but it only generates about $50 million in annual payouts to public schools, universities and other trust beneficiaries, he said. “That's not a very good return,” he said. “So what should we be doing? A lot of endowment lands don't make any money. Should we hang onto them or try to sell them and find a better investment?”

The committee will meet Thursday from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. in room EW 42 of the state Capitol; it will be live-streamed so people can watch online. Here's a link to the full agenda.

Also this week, the Legislature's Public Defense Reform Interim Committee will meet Tuesday from 8-3 in Room WW53; that meeting, too, will be streamed live online. The agenda is here.

Scalia to speak in Boise at SRBA conference

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will be the keynote speaker Monday night at a conference marking the conclusion of the Snake River Basin Adjudication process. Scalia will speak at a sold-out 7 p.m. dinner at the Boise Centre on the Grove that also will include the formal signing of the SRBA decree; the banquet and 6 p.m. reception will close out a full-day conference sponsored by the Idaho Supreme Court, the University of Idaho College of Law and the Kempthorne Institute to mark the conclusion of the SRBA process. Nationally known water law experts will discuss the adjudication and related issues throughout the West.

The conference will continue Tuesday morning with a water policy panel hosted by former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who also is a former U.S. secretary of the interior and former U.S. senator. The 8 a.m. panel on Tuesday at the Centre on the Grove, moderated by Rocky Barker, will include panelists Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe; Michael Bogert, former counselor to the Secretary of the Interior; Mike Connor, current deputy Secretary of the Interior;  former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig; Rebecca Miles, former chair of the Nez Perce Tribe; Bob Iacullo, executive vice president of United Water; former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski; and former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan. There’s more info here and here; the Idaho Statesman has a full report here.

New Idaho GOP chairman seeks to heal party

Here’s a link to my Sunday story on how new Idaho GOP Chairman Steve Yates says his party has work to do to recover from its big split midway through an election campaign. After the party’s state convention in June failed to elect leaders amid a bitter intra-party divide, former Chairman Barry Peterson sued, claiming he still was chairman. A judge said no, prompting the election of Yates Aug. 2.

Yates, a former aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney who moved to Idaho Falls in 2011, said, “I have a reasonable amount of experience dealing with things that can be hashed out in the situation room in the West Wing, or in territorial disputes abroad. I have to believe that whatever our disagreements may be within the party, less is at stake … and that we ought to be able to work out our differences.”

Idaho’s Republican Party currently dominates elective offices in the state, holding every statewide office, all four seats in the congressional delegation and more than 80 percent of the state Legislature. But the party’s disarray has created a potential opening for minority Democrats and third party candidates, who are campaigning hard this year in races including the one for governor.

Also from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, here’s a link to my Sunday column on the politics surrounding the stalled wildfire disaster funding act in Congress and new demographic projections about Idaho’s school students.

AdWatch: Balukoff launches second TV campaign commercial

The newest TV ad to surface in Idaho’s gubernatorial campaign this year is a second one from Democrat A.J. Balukoff, themed around the historic Oregon Trail wagon runs south of Boise. “It’s another good introduction piece, but it doesn’t seem to be much different from the first one,” said Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus of public policy at Boise State University. “He needs to get his name out there and continue to introduce himself, but I think we need to pretty soon hear some more from him in terms of what a Balukoff Administration would look like and how different it might be from an Otter Administration.”

The only promise Balukoff makes in the ad is a general one, to “make quality schools and good jobs a priority.” Otter has been preparing a campaign commercial, though it’s not yet aired. You can see the ad and read my full AdWatch story here at spokesman.com.

Two divergent views on Idaho education…

The two major-party candidates for governor are offering “two divergent views on education” this week, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News, with GOP Gov. Butch Otter sending a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers saying Idaho is on a continuing “journey to education excellence,” and Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff sending out a fundraising  email calling Idaho’s bottom-ranked per-pupil spending “downright shameful.” Both candidates used a back-to-school theme.

Otter writes, “As Idaho students head back to school, I’m reminded of how far we’ve come toward improving education in Idaho – and how far we still need to go. It’s been an interesting and instructive journey, and one that reinforces my belief that how we get where we’re going is just as important as the destination. Almost two years ago I called on education stakeholders to join policymakers in charting a bold new course for Idaho's schools. In response, the State Board of Education assembled a diverse group of working educators, business leaders, legislators and other experts. The product of their work was a slate of 20 visionary recommendations that now serve as our path forward on improving education.” He says as part of that, he’s “committed to replenish classroom dollars” after budget cuts.

Balukoff writes, “Kids all over Idaho are returning to school. Some of them will get five-day school weeks, others will get just four. Some will have pay-to-pay athletics, some will have music and art while others won’t, and many classrooms will be overcrowded. The Idaho Constitution requires a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools. Education in Idaho is anything but uniform. The only way to change that is by voting out the top decision-makers. Not only is our dead last standing in the country for investment in education unacceptable, it’s downright shameful.”

You can Richert’s full report here.

 

First applicant for new Idaho tax incentive is airline planning new maintenance facility

An airline is looking into coming to Idaho to set up a maintenance facility in Boise that would create 100 new jobs with salaries of close to $50,000 a year, Idaho’s state commerce chief says, in part because of a new tax incentive law. The firm, which will be named on Tuesday when the state’s Economic Advisory Council considers its application, is the first to apply for the state’s new economic reimbursement incentive – a new tax break that will refund up to 30 percent of a firm’s state corporate income, sales and payroll taxes for up to 15 years if they create specified numbers of new Idaho jobs.

“I think people will be pleased when they hear the name of the company,” said Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer. “We’ll be announcing whether or not the proposal is approved. And then there may be a subsequent announcement later, we’re hoping, in this particular case, where the company will be announcing they’ve actually chosen Idaho.”

The new tax incentive law just took effect July 1. It offers the tax breaks to firms that create at least 20 new jobs in rural areas or at least 50 in urban areas, if the jobs pay at least the county average wage. It’s available both to existing Idaho businesses and to out-of-state firms; Sayer said the first applicant is coming from out of state. “We’re among the final states that they’re looking at, and they’ve asked us to fast-track this particular process so that they can make their decision and get going,” he said. “If they choose Boise, it’ll be a huge win for our aerospace industry sector and the airport and Boise all at the same time, so we’re hopeful.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Non-Republican sought for vacancy on state Tax Commission

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is looking for someone who's not a Republican to serve on the state Tax Commission. The commission has a vacancy due to the departure of Commissioner David Langhorst to become the new chief of the state Department of Parks & Recreation. By law, no more than two of the four commissioners can be of the same party; current commission Chairman Rich Jackson and Commissioner Ken Roberts both are Republicans, while Commissioner Tom Katsilometes is a former Democratic county commissioner. 

Otter is accepting applications until Sept. 10 to serve out Langhorst's term, which ends in March, with the possibility of reappointment. Langhorst is a former Democratic state senator. “I have placed a lot of focus in my administration on increased transparency, accountability, collaboration and customer service at the Idaho State Tax Commission,” Otter said. “David did a great job, and I have high expectations for a worthy replacement to join the Commission and serve Idaho taxpayers.” Click below for Otter's full announcement.

 

GAO concludes Bergdahl swap broke law

The Pentagon broke the law when it swapped Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner in Afghanistan for five years, for five Taliban leaders, according to a GAO report submitted to Congress today, the AP reports. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said the Defense Department failed to notify the relevant congressional committees at least 30 days in advance of the exchange — a clear violation of the law — and used $988,400 of a wartime account to make the transfer. The GAO said the Pentagon's use of funds that hadn't been expressly appropriated violated the Anti-deficiency Act; click below for the full report from AP reporter Donna Cassata in Washington, D.C.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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