Gov. Butch Otter seemed a bit surprised this morning that he’d already received a public records request for documents related to his move to create a public records ombudsman position in his office. “Did you hear about that?” he asked reporters before his press conference, referring to the request from AP reporter Rebecca Boone. “She asked for a public records on the executive order I’m signing about public records today!” When a reporter – OK, it was me – responded, “What a great idea!” a laughing Otter said, “You guys – get outta here.”
Boone’s request seeks “all documents, correspondence, notes, phone messages, emails, text messages and other records regarding the creation of a public records ombudsman position by the Governor’s office,” along with policy or procedure documents on how to respond to public records requests both before and after the creation of the office, and all drafts and previous versions of the executive order creating the ombudsman position.
That final item may be of special note, considering that Otter spokesman Jon Hanian told the Idaho Statesman, in an article printed today, that the new ombudsman would take requests from those who've had a public records request denied, in whole or in part, within 90 days of the denial, and issue an opinion within 10 business days. “We think it will add another check and balance in the process of transparency,” Hanian told Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell. But the order Otter signed today doesn’t include that process.
The governor said that’s his vision for what his new ombudsman would do, but first the attorney, Cally Younger, will gather information about how agencies handle requests now and help formulate proposals for improvements, some of which might require legislation. Hanian said today that the 90-day time frame “was in the earlier working draft; it was not in the executive order he signed today.” He said Otter left that out of today’s order because “he wants all of the particulars that deal with the process … as well as the time frame … to be part of the dialogue that he spoke about this morning. So it may end up being 90 days, it may be shorter than that or longer than that. … This will get the ball rolling on it and we can start fine-tuning it.”
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today signed an executive order creating an Idaho public records ombudsman’s office under his office, charged with collecting information and compiling concerns and complaints about state agencies’ compliance with Idaho laws requiring disclosure of public records, and working with the governor, stakeholders and the public to come up with improvements to Idaho’s system.
“What we’re announcing today is the beginning of a process for the establishment of a consistent program for either denying or accepting public records requests,” Otter said. “Before now, the only remedy for somebody being denied a public records request was going to court.”
Otter’s executive order doesn’t change that – that’s still the law. But the governor said his new ombudsman’s office, which he can create on his own by executive order, will lay the groundwork for making a case to the Legislature next year – with all stakeholders involved – on how to make the process better.
“In the next six or seven months, we’re going to amass this information,” Otter said. “I’m going to have to go to the Legislature and say we’ve got stuff in the statute that we can take out, or we’ve got additional stuff that we should put into the statute.”
Otter named Cally Younger, associate counsel in his office, as the new public records ombudsman. “What I envision is Cally saying to an agency, ‘You are without statutory or legal grounds to deny this.’ That’s what I envision,” he said.
Establishing such an office under the Idaho Attorney General’s office, which already advises state agencies on public records law issues, has been discussed for years, but hasn’t happened due to lack of funding. Otter said he’s not seeking any additional funding at this point. “Cally’s already on staff and she’s a very industrious employee, works very hard,” he said.
Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director, said the attorney general’s office doesn’t have the power to create such an office by executive order, and the governor’s office does. Otter thanked the Newspaper Association of Idaho, an association of Idaho newspaper publishers, and the group’s lobbyist, Jeremy Pisca, for spurring the move. “I want to build a process that gives some relief ahead of going to court,” Otter said. “That’s what this is all about.”
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — Idaho County commissioners have sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management asking for guidance concerning a protest planned by suction dredgers upset with federal regulations. “The parties involved wish to respectfully exercise their right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances,” the letter reads. “They have informed us they will be respectful and orderly in this event and are seeking guidance from the BLM for a successful event.”
Robin Boyce, acting manager for the Cottonwood Field Office, said the BLM is working on a response to the event planned on the Salmon River in central Idaho near Riggins around the Fourth of July, the Lewiston Tribune (http://bit.ly/QCPIVP) reported Tuesday. “We are still trying to figure out how this would work and when and if it is possible on BLM property,” Boyce said. John Crossman of the Southwest Idaho Mining Association of Boise said the dredgers plan to run their equipment in the Salmon River. He said the goal of the protest is to remove the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from the state.
Gov. Butch Otter issued this statement on the impending retirement of state Parks Director Nancy Merrill:
“Besides being a great friend, Nancy has been a skilled and energetic director at Parks and Recreation. She brought enthusiasm, experience and a hard-nosed business approach to managing the agency that was badly needed and will be sorely missed.”
Merrill, 66, said she’s proud of her record at the department, and with her husband retiring in May, it seemed like the right time. “We’ve accomplished a lot, and I feel good about it,” she said. “We had some tough years.” She said of Idaho's state parks, “We have learned to kind of stand on our own, and that includes looking at our fees and the way that we do business, and that includes bringing in additional revenues to help sustain ourselves.” That focus will need to continue in the future, she said, including tapping corporate sponsorships and other sources of funding to help the park system stay solid. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Nancy Merrill, director of Idaho’s Department of Parks and Recreation, will retire in mid-July, and the state is launching a national search for her replacement. “We’re reaching out to every resource available,” said parks spokeswoman Jennifer Okerlund. Merrill has been the head of Idaho’s state park system since 2009.
State funding for parks in Idaho has dropped from $17.7 million in general funds in 2008 – the year before Merrill took over – to just $1.3 million this year, forcing the parks to tap other revenue sources, from RV licensing funds to new ventures including low-priced season park passports, selling firewood, renting paddleboards, canoes and sand-boards, marketing parks as venues for weddings and special events, adding partnerships and concessions, and adding camper cabins and other revenue-generating improvements.
“We’ve worked hard over the past few years to reinvent ourselves and change the way we do business to keep each of these special places open,” Merrill told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in January. “Our greatest need is to keep and take care of what we now have. We have done so much with so little.” Lawmakers this year approved a $3.5 million budget for parks next year – a 160 percent increase – but that’s largely due to a one-time allocation for $1.6 million in specific replacement items and repairs at state parks. The total cost of running Idaho’s parks is more than $33 million; Gov. Butch Otter has led a move to wean the parks system from state general funds.
Merrill launched the sales of $10 season passes to all Idaho’s parks with state vehicle registrations, bringing in more than $1 million for parks in the first year of sales and also bringing more visibility and visitors. But at the same time, costs for basics like personnel, utilities and fuel at the parks rose enough to swallow up the extra money.
In a 2013 interview with “Outdoor Idaho” host Bruce Reichert, Merrill reflected on the future of Idaho's state parks, saying she hopes the state will have the foresight to acquire more park land for future generations; you can see that interview here.
Merrill is the former mayor of Eagle and the former president of the Association of Idaho Cities. She and her husband Galan have four children and 15 grandchildren. Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Otter, said, “Nancy’s been one of our stars.”
A district court judge in Twin Falls is ordering Google to identify the sender of an email that threatened College of Southern Idaho Vice President Edit Szanto, from a Gmail account created to falsely appear that the sender was former CSI President Jerry Beck, the Times-News reports. Szanto, a 17-year employee of CSI who is involved in an employment dispute with the college, was put on involuntary paid leave Jan. 2; she’s also filed a complaint with the Idaho Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You can read the Times-News’ full report here from reporter Julie Wooten.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, has a guest opinion in the Idaho Falls Post Register today lauding Idaho’s decision to establish a state health insurance exchange. Under the headline “Going our own way,” Hill writes, “The choice last year was never between a state-run exchange and no exchange at all. That option had been denied by the courts. It was a choice between state involvement and total federal control. Those states that ignored the law relinquished control to the federal government. Idaho refused to surrender its decision-making authority over health care issues.”
Hill writes, “While the residents of other states have been strapped by a 3.5 percent premium tax to fund the federal exchange, Idaho has kept fees at only 1.5 percent. Idaho's health insurance rates continue to be among the lowest in the country. While the federal exchange requires detailed personal information in order to access its exchange, Idaho allows persons to browse plans and check rates anonymously.” Click below for his full article.
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on Idaho having the highest interest rates in the nation for payday loans, at 582 percent, and how payday loan reform legislation passed by this year’s Legislature won’t change that. Washington’s average percentage rate for payday loans is 192 percent, because of additional restrictions that state places on payday lending businesses. Idaho is one of just seven states with no limits on interest charges or fees.
This year’s legislation was highly controversial, with numerous groups opposing it for not going far enough to reform the business in Idaho, and major payday lenders backing it as a “progressive” move to protect consumers. But many of the lawmakers who voted against the bill thought it went too far. Said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, “I don’t think it’s government’s role to protect people from themselves.”
A Nampa man has been sentenced to nine months in prison for stealing rocks from BLM land, and not just any rocks. Brian Kirkpatrick, 46, pleaded guilty to stealing more than 9,800 pounds of sandstone from federal BLM property to sell commercially for use in landscaping projects. He had a similar federal offense in 2009, and is currently in state prison on related state charges. “Protecting Idaho’s public lands is a priority for my office,” said U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson. “Public lands are just that: They are there for the public to enjoy. This prosecution hopefully sends a strong message that my office will prosecute those who illegally exploit public lands for their own gain.” Kirkpatrick's conviction is for theft of government property.
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke was among 50 politicians from nine states who gathered at the Utah state Capitol on Friday to discuss ways states can take over management of federal lands, reporter Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reports. “It’s time the states in the West come of age,” Bedke said. “We’re every bit as capable of managing the lands in our boundaries as the states east of Colorado.”
The Idaho Legislature has an interim committee studying the issue; it also passed a resolution in 2013 demanding that federal lands in Idaho be transferred to the state. You can read Richert’s report here; the Salt Lake Tribune has a full report here.
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Prosecutors are seeking to keep the public from viewing some of their legal filings in a bankruptcy fraud case against a former Idaho prosecutor and current candidate for governor. The U.S. attorney has filed five sealed motions in the past week in the case against John Bujak. Bujak opposes sealing the motions. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge has not ruled on whether the filings can be kept from the public. U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson tells The Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/1kPC0dG ) she can't discuss the reasoning behind sealing the filings. She says in general, it prevents evidence from being made public before being introduced at trial and protects individuals' privacy. Bujak has denied charges of bankruptcy fraud, concealment of assets, making a false statement under oath, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Idaho's payday lenders charge the highest interest rate in the nation - an average 582 percent, according to a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The trusts found that Idaho, Nevada and Utah had the nation's highest interest rates for payday loans; the three states are among seven that put no limits on those rates. Click below for a full report from the Salt Lake Tribune via the Associated Press; the Tribune reported that 15 states either ban payday loans or cap interest rates at 36 percent. The news comes after a payday loan reform bill that contains no caps on interest rates passed the Idaho Legislature this year amid much controversy; opponents said the bill, backed by major payday lenders, didn't go far enough to reform the business in Idaho. SB 1314, which passed the House by just one vote, was signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on March 26.
The new law, which takes effect July 1, limits borrowers taking out payday loans to an amount not to exceed 25 percent of their gross income, with the borrower to provide the proof of that; and requires lenders to offer borrowers who can't repay their loans on time a once-a-year option for an extended payment plan without additional fees.
On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of current events and election politics. Also, Davlin and Kunz discuss Idaho college tuition hikes and the state Republican Party’s platform survey for candidates, and Davlin and Seth Ogilvie interview two legislative candidates facing off in the primary – both Democrats from District 19, Troy Rohn and Melissa Wintrow. It’s the latest in a series of looks at legislative races around the state. The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.
Poachers are likely killing far more game animals than wolves are, state wildlife officials in northern Idaho say. Officials tell the Lewiston Tribune (http://bit.ly/1jdj31p) in a story on Friday that last year in northern Idaho they confirmed poaching of 30 elk, four moose, 13 mule deer and 57 whitetail deer, according to an AP report from the Tribune. Officials say a realistic detection rate is 5 percent, meaning poachers are likely killing about 600 elk, 80 moose, 260 mule deer and 1,000 whitetail annually.
“It's real easy for people to blow a gasket about wolf predation,” said Idaho Fish and Game District Conservation Officer George Fischer. “They are very passionate about it, they are very irate about it and they are livid about it. Yet there is a two-legged wolf out there that is probably killing as many or more than wolves. Wolves are causing an impact, there is no doubt about it; I don't want to downplay that at all, but two-legged wolves are probably killing more or stealing more game than wolves. That is the shock-and-awe message.”
Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler says poachers strike throughout Idaho. “Poaching is an issue throughout the state,” he said. Click below for the full AP/Lewiston Trib report.
Unemployment in Idaho fell to 5.2 percent in March, the lowest rate in five and a half years, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. That seasonally adjusted rate was the eighth straight month to show a decline; nationally, the rate was 6.7 percent in March, the same as it was in February. You can read Labor’s full announcement here.
County breakdowns showed Kootenai County’s jobless rate was 6.3 percent in March, down from 6.5 percent in February and 7.7 percent in March of 2013. Bonner County was at 7.6 percent, unchanged from February but well below the 9.3 percent from a year earlier. Shoshone County saw a small rise in unemployment from February to March, from 10.5 percent to 10.7 percent, though it, too, had improved from its March 2013 level of 11.3 percent. The city of Coeur d’Alene showed a 5.8 percent unemployment rate in March, down from 7.3 percent a year earlier.
Gov. Butch Otter has been holding a series of mock signing ceremonies for bills he signed into law this year earlier and quietly. This morning, as he celebrated with backers of HB 598, this year’s “cloud services” sales tax exemption bill, Otter was asked why he didn’t just go public when he took the action.
“It was all the timing,” he said. “Quite frankly, every one of the bills, it’s been timing. When we have a mock session, it’s a result of the folks wanting to get together one more time, saying, ‘Job well done,’ and making sure those that worked the hardest on it got the credit for it, and that’s not always possible during the waning days of the session, or the 10 days after.” Otter said if he’d waited to sign HB 598 until all its backers were available, “Then it would’ve become law without my signature, and I was so supportive of this, that wasn’t going to happen.”
The bill expands a law that passed last year to exempt software services delivered through the “cloud” from sales tax, under the argument that those are services, not tangible personal property. This year’s bill is much more broad; the state Tax Commission objected that its fiscal note wasn’t accurate, and its wording could lead to exempting numerous other software sales that could cost the state as much as $40 million a year in lost sales taxes. That would include not only services delivered through the “cloud,” but also downloaded software and so-called “load and leave” software that companies have installed on their systems.
Asked about those concerns, Otter said, “Well, just like with any legislation, it’s going to be a work in progress. And if we’ve got unintended consequences … then we’ll have to make those changes.” He said, “I heard what the Tax Commission was saying. They told me what they were going to say when they went up to talk about it, and I said, ‘Well, then it’s going to be up to you guys to come back and say, ‘Here’s how we achieve what we intended here, but at the same time clean up the unintended consequences that we cause.’”
Joining Otter at today’s ceremony were House Majority Leader Mike Moyle; Idaho Technology Council President Jay Larsen; Kount.com Vice President Rich Stuppy, the council’s chairman; Hawley Troxell attorney Rick Smith, whom Larsen describe as “our tax guru here,” Micron lobbyist Mike Reynoldson; and more. “We had so many industry folks really support this legislation, and we’re so thrilled about this passing and the support we’re getting from our state government,” Larsen said. He said tech folks across the country are “starting to say, 'What's happening in Idaho?'”
Otter signed the bill into law April 4; it takes effect July 1. Its fiscal note says “the fiscal impact is not expected to be significant and is estimated here at $2 million to $5 million annually.”
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A former professional boxer from Idaho who made a name for himself as the “Emmett Eliminator” by smashing his way through the cruiserweight division can add another title: lottery winner. Idaho Lottery officials announced Thursday that Kenny Keene is the Weekly Grand winner and will receive $1,000 a week for 52 weeks. The 45-year-old Keene retired from boxing in 2006 with a 51-4 record. Before retiring, he thrilled fans with a straight ahead brawler style, winning cruiserweight titles from the International Boxing Association, International Boxing Council, and World Boxing Federation. He now runs Kenny Keene's Bail Bonds in Emmett.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has sent an op-ed piece out to Idaho news media urging the Air Force to keep both Idaho bases, Gowen Field and Mountain Home Air Force Base. Otter says he'll make that pitch to Air Force Chief of Staff Mark A. Welsh III when he visits Idaho in May, based on “the tremendous value that both facilities represent.” With expansive flight areas over lightly populated terrain, “extraordinary flying weather,” and strong community support, Otter said, the two bases should be “the darlings of Pentagon planners.”
Otter, who is currently facing challenges in both the primary and general elections in his bid for a third term as governor, writes, “Please support our members of Congress and me in fighting to secure the mission and future of Gowen Field and Mountain Home. If we roll over while Idaho's sentinels of freedom are dithered away, the shame and the loss will be our own.” Click below for his full article.
Emma Atchley of eastern Idaho has been elected president of the State Board of Education, taking over from Don Soltman, who finished up his term as president today; he was elected secretary for the coming year. The board also elected Rod Lewis of Boise as its vice president. “Don has done an outstanding job, and we appreciate all he has accomplished,” Atchley said. “The students of our state are fortunate to have such diligent, thoughtful leaders working on their behalf.”
Former longtime state Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, has been named the new state president of the Idaho AARP. Trail, who served 16 years in the House and is the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has been an AARP member for 24 years, the seniors group said. He’ll now take on the group’s highest volunteer position, replacing Peggy Munson, who will continue on the organization’s executive council. Munson is a retired geriatric nurse; Trail is a retired college educator with a doctorate in psychology and degrees in education and animal science.
“During my entire career, I served in positions committed to social concerns, education and public service,” Trail said. “This appointment represents a culmination of that work. … I look forward to engaging and energizing volunteers to carry out AARP’s vision, mission and strategic priorities in the state.”