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Eye On Boise

Both Jones, Ybarra urge caution on controversial tiered teacher licensing plan Edit

Both candidates for state schools superintendent - Jana Jones and Sherri Ybarra – are urging a cautious approach to a teacher licensing proposal that’s drawn fire from the state’s teachers union, Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News reports. His full report is online here. Meanwhile, Jones and Ybarra will face off in their first debate tonight in Twin Falls; they’ll debate again Thursday in Caldwell and Friday in Boise.

Latest Otter campaign ad credits guv for economic turnaround, avoid specifics…

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s latest campaign commercial features a real estate broker crediting the GOP governor with turning around the state’s economy and looking out for “all industries.” “Our governor, Butch Otter, has had a lot to do with us coming out of that downturn,” Eagle, Idaho Realtor Tracy Kasper says in the ad, which shows scenes of home construction, manufacturing, and the sun breaking through the clouds over familiar Idaho scenes. “He had to make some tough choices, we all did. He took a hard stance and had to be a big watchdog for all industries.”

“Those are pretty extravagant claims,” said Jim Weatherby, emeritus professor at Boise State University and a longtime observer of Idaho politics, “with no support in the ad, with no documentation or even a specific example of what he accomplished.” Added Weatherby, “I’m not sure the average voter will understand what he’s talking about. The average voter might say: ‘Well, is he a watchdog for me, too?’”

The commercial, which began airing a week ago in southwestern Idaho, doesn’t cite any examples or hard facts, campaign spokeswoman Kaycee Emery said, because “it was completely opinion and a testimonial piece.”

Weatherby said Otter’s ad, like his previous one that cited selective statistics to try to make the case that Idaho’s economy is “on a roll,” appears designed to leave a positive impression about Otter and the economy. After claims in the previous ad were questioned, Weatherby said, “It’s hard to attack this one because it really doesn’t say much substantively.” You can read my full AdWatch story here at; you can see the ad here.

Balukoff announces debate schedule

A.J. Balukoff, the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, today released the schedule of the debates he’s agreed to participate in over the next month – the same four to which GOP Gov. Butch Otter earlier committed, plus one more in Twin Falls. “I look forward to these debates with Gov. Otter and the opportunity to lay out my vision for a better Idaho,” Balukoff said in a statement. “While he may try to distract the debates away from his eight year record, I intend to focus on the issues critical to moving our state forward: better schools, creating good-paying jobs, and restoring trust and accountability to state government.”

Otter already had announced he’ll debate Oct. 3 in Coeur d’Alene, in a face-off at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library sponsored by the Coeur Group; Oct. 9 in Idaho Falls at the Idaho Falls City Club debate; Oct. 14 at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa in a debate sponsored by KTVB-TV; and Oct. 30 in the “Idaho Debates,” which will be broadcast live statewide on Idaho Public Television and are co-sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Voters of Idaho.

Balukoff said he’ll also participate in a debate tomorrow from 7-8 p.m. at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls, sponsored by the Times-News newspaper. Otter was invited to that debate, but declined the invitation. The newspaper announced that its debate will feature Balukoff and Libertarian candidate for governor John Bujak. The Times-News also is hosting a debate tonight between the two candidates for state superintendent of schools, Democrat Jana Jones and Republican Sherri Ybarra.

Idaho, BPA reach $40 million deal on wildlife mitigation funding

The state of Idaho and the Bonneville Power Administration have agreed to a $40 million deal to satisfy the BPA's wildlife habitat mitigation responsibilities to the state for impacts from its hydropower dams in southern Idaho. The money will go to the Idaho Fish & Game Department over a 10-year period, for administration, operation and maintenance, and restoration and acquisition of wildlife habitat. Of the total, $22 million will be used for restoration, acquisition and stewardship costs associated with new projects (at least 8,588 acres), $4 million will be used to administer the program over the next 10 years, and the remaining $14 million will be placed in a state endowment fund to pay for perpetual management of approximately 8,700 acres already protected by the mitigation program.

“This agreement gives the state control of acquiring and managing wildlife habitat lost as a result of federal dams in southern Idaho,” said Gov. Butch Otter. “The agreement also protects the state’s fiscal interests by establishing a dedicated endowment fund to ensure Idaho can manage these lands for future generations.” It's designed to mitigate the impacts on wildlife from development of Palisades, Black Canyon, Minidoka and Anderson Ranch dams, along with operational impacts of Deadwood Dam. Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore welcomed the agreement, saying it will give Idaho more flexibility in how it manages mitigation funds and programs, including funding new projects and managing existing ones. Click below for the state's full announcement, followed by some historical information about the role of BPA mitigation funding in Idaho.

Idaho insurance exchange names new executive director, picks local after national search

Idaho’s state health insurance exchange, YourHealthIdaho, has named a new executive director: Pat Kelly, the former finance director for the exchange who was named interim executive director in July. “Pat has been with us since the very beginning and has a deep understanding of our commitment to our customers and to our state,” said Stephen Weeg, board chairman for the exchange. “After a very competitive nationwide search, we realized we already had the right leader in place.”

Kelly replaces Amy Dowd, who left in July to head New Mexico’s state health insurance exchange. Prior to joining the exchange, he was a Boise businessman, working in telecommunications, manufacturing and business consulting. Weeg said, “Pat has kept YourHealthIdaho on track during a critical time. We are less than two months away from launching our own technology platform. It has been a challenging process but Pat has been able to bring key stakeholders to the table to ensure we take care of our customers when open enrollment starts on Nov. 15.”

Homeowner’s exemption to rise for second year, after four years of declines…

The homeowner's exemption from property tax will rise to a maximum of $89,580 in 2015, up from the current $83,920. That reflects a 6.74 percent increase in Idaho housing prices, and marks the second year of increases after four years of declines. Click below for the full announcement from the Idaho State Tax Commission. The homeowner's exemption reduces taxes on an owner-occupied home by exempting up to half of its value, with the maximum exemption adjusting each year based on the Idaho House Price Index. Lawmakers tied the exemption to the index in 2006.

Jones, Ybarra to debate three times this week, in Twin Falls, Caldwell and Boise

Jana Jones and Sherri Ybarra, the two candidates to be Idaho’s next state schools chief, will face off in three debates this week, Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News reports. The first is tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Twin Falls, sponsored by the Twin Falls Times-News. The two face off again Thursday at 7 p.m. at the College of Idaho in a debate sponsored by the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce. Then, on Friday, they’ll debate in a forum sponsored by the City Club of Boise starting at 11:45 a.m. at the Grove Hotel.

Later, on Oct. 21, Jones and Ybarra will debate on statewide television as part of the “Idaho Debates,” co-sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Voters of Idaho and broadcast on Idaho Public Television. Corbin’s full report is online here, including how to submit questions for this week’s face-offs.

Dems have hope in Idaho schools chief race, as Jones faces Ybarra

Conventional wisdom is that the Democrats’ best chance of capturing a statewide office in Idaho this year is the state school superintendent’s post. It’s an open seat in which the Republican nominee is a political newcomer with no statewide experience and the Democratic nominee is the former chief deputy state superintendent who almost beat current GOP Superintendent Tom Luna eight years ago.

So far, the race has been marked by a series of embarrassing revelations about Republican nominee Sherri Ybarra. Even Luna says Democrat Jana Jones could well win. He hasn’t endorsed either candidate in the race. Jones is running hard, but it’s an uphill climb for a Democrat in Idaho, as Republicans hold every statewide office, every seat in the congressional delegation and 80 percent of the state Legislature. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Luna on Idaho’s next state superintendent: ‘I hope they’re bold’

Curious about his comments to the Times-News last week, I chatted today with state schools Superintendent Tom Luna about the race to replace him. Luna confirmed that he has not endorsed either candidate in the race – Republican Sherri Ybarra or Democrat Jana Jones.

“It’s likely or possible that a Democrat could win this race – I don’t think that’s news to anyone,” he said. Luna also said he met with GOP nominee Sherri Ybarra last week. “She ran a very non-traditional campaign in the primary. I’m assuming she’s taking a similar approach in the general,” Luna said. “But I will tell you that having met her and talked with her, I think she can win, but more people are going to have to get to know her the same way I have. And I’ve only got to know her recently.”

Luna compared Ybarra’s prospects to his own first run for the position, when he lost, but came back four years later and won, “because I had a network in place, I had name I.D. built.” He said, “It’s not uncommon for a Democrat to hold this position. … I don’t think anyone would assume that this will be a cake walk for a Republican.”

Luna, who has served two terms as state superintendent and is the first non-educator to hold the post, said, “I think I have accomplished a lot, and it hasn’t been without controversy, obviously. But I think we have accomplished a lot and I leave office pleased with the results that we’ve seen.” He pointed to improvements in technology in Idaho schools, high school students taking college-level courses, increasing numbers of charter schools, and changes in how teachers are compensated to include factors beyond education and years of experience. “I specifically ran on those things, and we’ve accomplished them,” Luna said. “The bottom line is by every academic measure, our schools and our students are doing better than they were eight years ago when I came into office.”

He said, “I hope the next state superintendent is looking to make a difference and not make a career. I hope they’re bold. I hope they’ll stand up to people that support them and work with people that don’t. It won’t be easy … but it’ll be the most rewarding experience of their life. That’s how I feel about my time in office.”

I’ll have a story on this year’s race for superintendent in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Ysursa urges voters to register, marks National Voter Registration Month

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is reminding voters that September is National Voter Registration Month, and urging them to be aware of deadlines for the upcoming Nov. 4 general election. “Participation is the essence of democracy, and I encourage all eligible voters to check their registration status online or with their county clerk before going to the polls in November,” Ysursa said.

His website allows voters from anywhere in the state to check their registration status and find their polling place. Anyone who is 18 or older, a U.S. citizen, and a resident in Idaho and in the county for 30 days prior to the election is eligible to vote. People who have recently moved or changed their name need to update their voter registration.

Ysursa noted that Idaho is one of eight states that offer same-day registration at the polls on Election Day. However, voters can save time at the polls by registering early. The deadline for early voter registration for the November election is Oct. 10. You can see Ysursa’s full announcement here.

Senate votes to back Obama on Syria; Risch, Crapo both vote ‘no’

The U.S. Senate has voted 78-22 in favor of President Obama's plan for the U.S. military to train and equip Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic state militants. Like yesterday's 273-156 House vote, support for the president's plan was bipartisan - but both Idaho's senators voted no, as did both of Idaho's congressmen yesterday. Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo issued these statements on their votes:


“I have real reservations about choosing from over 200 different ethnic and religious groups within Syria and arming those that are labeled ‘moderate’ by some in our government. I am not convinced there is a group of ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria.  There is no easy choice here, but President Obama has not laid out a clear strategy, instead the strategy I have seen is not in my opinion destined to succeed, but drag us further into the mire.  I want to support a winning strategy, but I cannot support his $500 million proposal without a better plan.”


“ISIS poses a very real threat to the United States and our national security. The President’s announced action leaves many questions for the American people and Congress.   Unless the Administration provides more details about a comprehensive strategy, I cannot support it.”

Click below for a full report from the AP in Washington, D.C.


Management review says state treasurer’s office has cleared up gas card, limo issues, finds no new problems

The office of state Treasurer Ron Crane received a clean bill of health in a new management audit out today from Idaho’s state auditor’s office. The new management review, which covers fiscal years 2011, ’12 and ’13, is a turnaround from the previous three-year report, which highlighted three concerns that state auditors reported to the Idaho Attorney General having to do with gas card purchases, staff time and state funds supporting a program that wasn’t specifically authorized by the Legislature, and travel costs for annual bond rating trips to New York, including the use of stretch limos to transport Idaho’s delegation there.

All three of those have been “satisfactorily closed,”  the new management audit reports.

Crane welcomed the new audit, saying, “I am extremely proud of our office and my staff!” which he said runs “a clean, efficient and smooth operation for the benefit of taxpayers in Idaho.” Said Crane, “We strive to provide the best service possible through innovation and to protect the state’s assets by applying prudent and ethical banking and investment practices.”

The gas card issue dealt with Crane charging nearly $8,000 on a state credit card for gas for his commutes from his Canyon County home to the Capitol; while auditors thought that violated the state’s travel policy, the Attorney General later found that it didn’t. Nevertheless, Crane stopped charging the state for gas for his commute, and now pays for his own.

The second finding involved the “Smart Money, Smart Women” conference that Crane’s office has been sponsoring annually around the state. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee now authorizes $10,000 in annual expenditures specifically for that conference in Crane’s budget.

The third, dealing with the New York trips, prompted changes in how travel costs are accounted for in the annual bond rating trips to New York. Also, Crane said the Idaho delegation now is transported in SUVs rather than stretch limos.

The three-year review is required by state law; the state Audits Division, which falls under the Idaho Legislature, conducts the management reviews for all agencies. They are online here. The management reviews are separate from the statewide Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and Internal Controls Report, online here, which is required under governmental accounting standards and examines financial details; it is completed every year for all state agencies. That financial audit is the one that highlighted issues with Crane’s shifting of investments from one investment pool to another, which the audit said cost state taxpayers $10 million; a 90-day follow-up to that audit issued at the end of June said auditors still haven’t received documentation of a full review to show whether there were other such issues.


Smoke plume from California wildfire rolls into Boise, blankets valley

Foul-smelling smoke from a huge wildfire in northern California that's burned hundreds of homes and other structures rolled into Boise this morning, limiting visibility, diminishing air quality and staining the sky a brownish-grey. “With the way the jet stream’s going and the wind patterns, we got hit with the plume from the California fire that’s getting all the press,” said Dave Luft, Idaho DEQ air quality manager for southwestern Idaho. As for air quality, “ We’re well into the yellow or moderate category.”

Luft said the smoke likely will clear up some this afternoon, and it could vary throughout the day with showers and other weather changes. “When it warms up, we’ll start to get better ventilation, and it will thin out a bit,” he said. A change in the weather is expected tomorrow that should alter the wind patterns and clear up Boise’s skies.

House backs president on Syria, but both Idaho reps vote no; Senate votes today

The U.S. House voted 273-156 in favor of President Obama’s plan to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants yesterday, but both Idaho GOP representatives, 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador and 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson, voted no. The Senate votes today. Click below for a full report from the AP in Washington, D.C. There was both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition to the move; The Hill has a full report here

Labrador, in a statement, said he’d support a “targeted operation” to go after the killers of two Americans murdered by ISIS, but not a broader move to support rebels who want to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad. Here’s Labrador’s statement:

“Like all Americans, I am outraged and saddened by the murder of two Americans by ISIS. I would support a targeted operation to hunt down the killers and win justice for the victims and their families. Instead, the president has engaged in a broad intervention without congressional approval and sought authority to arm Syrian rebels whose primary interest is removing President Assad.

“As I warned last year, regime change could lead to a worse outcome for America. While Assad is a brutal dictator, I still believe backing rebels allied with al-Qaeda and on the same side as ISIS in this civil war likely would bring to power even worse elements in Syria. Our focus should not be on resolving an age-old religious civil war, but on bringing to justice those who took the lives of our citizens.”

Idaho playwright says genius grant will let him devote himself to his work in ‘huge way’

A 33-year-old Idaho-born playwright is among the 21 winners of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.” Samuel D. Hunter, now of New York, is the author of plays including “A Bright New Boise” and “The Whale.” The prize comes with $625,000. “What's going to change about my work is ostensibly not very much,” he told the Associated Press. “I just think I'm going to have so much more time and freedom to devote myself to it in this huge way.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Warren Levinson in New York.

Of democracy, fundamental rights, and one key U.S. Supreme Court justice…

Tom Perry, attorney for Gov. Butch Otter, said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the Windsor decision, has “sort of carved himself out as the swing vote, and we’ll see which side he goes on.” Said Perry, “This is a question of state authority, a question of the democratic vote in 2006 where Idahoans nearly 2-1 voted to retain the benefits of man-woman marriage. Justice Kennedy, as an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, is also a big proponent of democracy and federalism. So that’s where you’ve seen kind of the push and pull here.”

Deborah Ferguson, attorney for the couples challenging Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage, said, “If we are discussing a fundamental right … then that is not subject to the will of the majority, and we all don’t get to decide what the fundamental rights might be of a minority group. That is not the American way.”

She said, “There is the question: Is this a fundamental right? That’s our due process argument. The other is our equal protection argument. These are laws that discriminate against a group of people. … So does the government have a legitimate reason to discriminate against that group of citizens? That’s the equal protection argument I think in a nutshell.”

The attorneys are speaking at the University of Idaho's Constitution Day statewide panel discussion, with audiences in Boise, Moscow and Coeur d'Alene. Craig Durham said he agreed with Ferguson on democracy and fundamental rights, but also agreed with Perry that Justice Kennedy likely will be the deciding vote on the nation’s highest court.

‘Never seen access to the courtroom so tightly controlled’

The first question posed to the lawyers from Idaho’s gay marriage case was about the atmosphere in the courtroom at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals when the judges heard arguments in Idaho’s case earlier this month. Deborah Ferguson said the arguments were in the San Francisco courtroom that’s normally used for en banc arguments, when larger panels are convened. “It’s a very beautiful courtroom of marble and mosaics,” she said. “The building predates the great earthquake in San Francisco.” She added, “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen access to the courtroom so tightly controlled, and every seat was spoken for.”

The arguments were streamed live on YouTube, she noted. “Personally, I’d rather not be videotaped, although you forget about that very quickly as they start asking you questions, the judges, that is.”

Craig Durham said, “I had the unfortunate revelation afterward that I was on YouTube sitting behind whoever was speaking.” Tom Perry said, “I share Craig’s perspective – you would turn on your phone and you’ve got 300 texts, ‘Hey, I see you,’ as you’re pawing through your briefs trying to respond to an argument.”

Asked to rate the 9th Circuit judges’ questions compared to those from other circuits, the attorneys declined. Durham said he was a bit surprised that the 9th Circuit judges didn’t ask the lawyers any questions about Baker vs. Nelson, an early 1970s case that’s been a topic of questions at arguments in some other circuits.

Perry noted, “A lot of times, judges take you to places that really aren’t the principle thrust of your case.” He added said, “For degree of toughness, I really thought Judge (Candy) Dale, on both sides, she was really pretty tough on both of us.” Dale is the U.S. magistrate judge who overturned Idaho’s ban after hearing arguments this spring in Boise.

Lawyers: Marriage law debate offers chance to see ‘cutting-edge’ constitutional law arguments take shape

Deborah Ferguson, the attorney who made the arguments in the 9th Circuit this month against Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage, told the UI’s Constitution Day crowd, “It’s been sort of a remarkable turn of events in how quickly everything has developed … in a period of just 14 months.”

Tom Perry, attorney for Gov. Butch Otter – who’s on the other side of the case – agreed. A UI grad himself, he told the law students participating in today’s statewide discussion, “There aren’t really very many opportunities as a student to learn constitutional law from a real-live example,” but the marriage debate is just that. “The briefing in these cases is really quite good across the nation,” Perry said, advising law students to read it. “You’re reading cutting-edge equal protection (arguments), from both sides.” He added, “From both sides, we’re really seeing some fantastic advocacy, and it’s really worth a look to get a better flavor.”

Attorneys from both sides of marriage case address Constitution Day event

In honor of Constitution Day, attorneys from both sides in Idaho’s same-sex marriage case are gathered at a University of Idaho event in Boise today, in which students, lawyers and others are participating from Boise, Moscow and Coeur d’Alene. Here, the attorneys are Craig Durham, left, and Deborah Ferguson, center, who represent the four Idaho couples who successfully sued to overturn Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage in federal court; and at right, Tom Perry, attorney for Gov. Butch Otter, who is thumbing through a pocket version of the U.S. Constitution, an item that’s been provided to all the attendees here in Boise. Otter and the state appealed the federal court ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where it's now pending.

Shaakirrah Sanders, University of Idaho law professor, said, “This case still very much is in the litigation phase, and so to that extent … we are not expecting any of our panelists to really discuss the merits of the case. Our goal is to help provide a broader understanding both for the public and for the attorneys in the room on how our Constitution applies under these circumstances, and the fact that this is very much an issue that is in the public’s interest.”

Ferguson is starting with an overview of what's happened thus far in the case.

Tally of voter-approved supplemental school levies since ‘07 tops $1 billion

Since July 1, 2007, Idaho’s school districts have backfilled their budgets with more than $1 billion in supplemental property tax levies, Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News report. These short-term, voter-approved levies – property tax increases – have steadily grown over that time period; 91 of Idaho’s 115 school districts had a supplemental levy on the books in 2013-14, up from 59 districts in 2006-07, the budget year that ended on June 30, 2007.

Richert reports that the growth of the supplemental levies occurred as the state was cutting K-12 funding, and using money from the federal economic stimulus package to pick up some of the slack; but the locally passed supplemental levies replaced only a fraction of the money cut from state funding. His full report, including comments from candidates for governor and state school superintendent, is online here.

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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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