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Otter aims for third term, challengers aim for change; link to election coverage

Here’s a link to my Sunday story on the governor’s race, which wraps up the series I’ve been doing over the past few months on Idaho’s top races in the November election. From the story: Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s cowboy charm has long appealed to Idaho voters, helping make him one of the state’s most-elected officials: a longtime lieutenant governor, three-term congressman and two-term governor. But has he earned the rare distinction of becoming only the second governor in Idaho history to be elected to a third consecutive term? An array of challengers, led by A.J. Balukoff, the Democratic nominee and longtime Boise School Board chairman, say no, arguing the state’s schools, economy and reputation have suffered on Otter’s watch. Otter says he wants a chance to finish leading the state out of the recession. “Now the economy’s getting much better, and it’s an opportunity for us to rebuild,” he said. 

Here are links to the earlier stories in the series: My Oct. 12 article on the Senate race here, in which Sen. Jim Risch is being challenged by Nels Mitchell; my Oct. 5 story on the 1st CD race here, in which second-term GOP Rep. Raul Labrador is being challenged by longtime state Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; my story on the Idaho Secretary of State race here, between Reps. Lawerence Denney and Holli Woodings; my story on the race for state superintendent of schools here, in which Republican Sherri Ybarra and Democrat Jana Jones are facing off; my story here on the wild card role the Libertarian candidate, John Bujak, could play in the governor’s race; and my story on the state treasurer’s race here, in which incumbent Ron Crane faces a challenge from Twin Falls CPA Deborah Silver.

You can also see our Idaho Voter Guide here, with a guide to candidates and races in federal, state, local and legislative races on the ballot in Kootenai County; and visit our Election Central here, for links to all our news coverage related to the election in Idaho and Washington.

What the CCA settlement actually said and didn’t say about civil, criminal liability…

After Gov. Butch Otter said in two recent debates against Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff that the $1 million settlement the state signed with Corrections Corp. of America over fraudulent billing and understaffing at the state’s largest prison can be “set aside and then we can go after CCA” if the FBI’s investigation turns up anything, I filed a public records request for the provision in the settlement agreement that says that. Here’s what I received: The 9-page Settlement Agreement and Release, which talks about how all claims, past or future, discovered or undiscovered, are settled by the $1 million payment; and a series of emails here.

In the emails, Otter aide Mark Warbis inquires of state Corrections Department officials about this very question. “David (Hensley, Otter’s chief of staff) has a question about the ‘Release and Discharge’ section at the bottom of Page 1,” Warbis writes. “Does this release and discharge apply only to civil claims, or could this potentially block the pursuit of criminal claims should they emerge?”

Mark Kubinski, lead deputy attorney general for the Idaho Department of Correction, responds, “The release section only applies to civil claims. The signatories are Division of Purchasing, IDOC and the Board, none of whom have any authority to waive any potential criminal charges. I’m comfortable with the language as drafted.”

If I'm interpreting this correctly - and please, all you lawyers out there, chime in if I'm not - that suggests that the state could in fact “go after” CCA criminally if the FBI investigation uncovers evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but the settlement agreement would not be “set aside” and the state could not seek any additional civil penalties or damages.

Latest poll shows governor’s race closer than earlier polls suggested…

There’s little public polling in Idaho. So far, the few publicly released polls have shown GOP Gov. Butch Otter far ahead of Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff, like the CBS News/NYT/YouGov national online poll, which had Otter leading Balukoff 57 percent to 33 percent in its latest round, which ended Oct. 1. Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker writes today that the Republican Governors Association’s decision to invest in a six-figure ad buy for attack ads against Balukoff suggests private polls were showing otherwise. “Now a new poll by a Democratic polling group released this week shows the closer race that the RGA actions suggested,” Barker writes; you can read his full post here.

The poll by PPP Polling, a North Carolina pollster with mainly Democratic clients including the Democratic Governors Association, shows Otter with 39 percent to Balukoff’s 35 percent. It was PPP’s first Idaho poll, and included a full range of questions, from the governor’s race to Broncos-or-Vandals question – the poll came out 49 percent Broncos, 19 percent Vandals, and 12 percent ISU Bengals. The full poll is online here.

GOP school superintendent in Balukoff ad has GOP voting record in Oregon, but hasn’t yet voted in Idaho

An Idaho school superintendent who is featured in an A.J. Balukoff ad saying he’s a lifelong Republican but will vote for Democrat Balukoff in this year’s gubernatorial election hasn’t voted in an Idaho election before, the AP reports, but voted Republican for many years in Oregon before moving to Idaho in 2010. Rob Waite told the AP that he didn't register to vote in Idaho when he moved first moved to the state because he still hadn't sold his house in Oregon.

“I didn't think it was fair to register to vote when I still had a dual residency,” he said. “Did it take me longer to register to vote than I probably should have? Yeah. But it's not until recently I was able to sell my house in Oregon.” In the campaign ad, Waite says he’s planning to cross party lines and vote for Balukoff because of his concern over cuts to schools under GOP Gov. Butch Otter.

Mike Lanza, spokesman for Balukoff’s campaign, said the campaign was aware of Waite's voting history. “I don't think it's misleading,” Lanza said. “Here is an educator who is a Republican who is saying the state is going in the wrong direction. This is a genuine person with genuine beliefs.”

AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi reports that Oregon voting records show Waite registered as a Republican in 1998 and voted in 16 of the past 20 elections there.

Anti-fracking activist released from Payette jail after refusing to go through booking process for a week

Anti-fracking activist Alma Hasse was released from the Payette County Jail yesterday after being held there for a week – because she refused to go through the booking process that would have allowed her to be cited and released. Hasse was arrested at a public Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Thursday evening on charges of criminal trespass and resisting and obstructing an officer, both misdemeanors. Once taken to the jail, “The officer gave her the opportunity to be cited and released if she would provide the information that was needed,” said Payette Sheriff’s Capt. Toby Hauntz. “She refused to do that. The jail deputies that were trying to book her let know that if she went through the booking process, they would just issue her a citation and release her.”

Instead, Hasse remained in the jail for seven days, during which time she went on a hunger strike and refused all meals. She appeared before a judge last Friday morning but refused to provide information on arraignment to the judge as well; that was repeated on Tuesday. At that point, the judge issued a $10,000 bond “because she wouldn’t answer his questions and complete the booking process,” Hauntz said.

“I finally went to her on Wednesday and just told her we’ve got to get this done, the judge had told us we need to get the booking process completed,” the sheriff’s captain said. “She finally started talking to me and within five minutes we got everything taken care of.” Going through the booking process, by state law, requires fingerprinting and a photograph, along with providing identifying information; Payette County requires a full name, date of birth, and medical questionnaire. State law, in Idaho Code Section 20-601, says, “Any person who refuses to submit to the entire booking process will be held in the county jail until the process is completed, or until ordered to be released by a magistrate or district judge.”

Hauntz said Hasse went back before a judge on Thursday who released the bond and agreed to release her on her own recognizance; she has a court date in November and a jury trial set for December. “We knew who she was, she had no prior criminal history,” Hauntz said. “Not even 30 minutes after she went to court and the judge reduced the bond, we had her out of custody.”

The Boise Weekly has a report here on Hasse and her jail hunger strike; the site EnviroNews Idaho has a report here, including video, about a protest at yesterday’s Idaho Department of Lands oil and gas lease auction that included Hasse’s daughter, Shavone, who wore a shirt with “Free Alma Hasse” written on the back.

The Idaho ACLU is looking into the case. “We are first of all very concerned about how she actually got removed from the public meeting,” said Leo Morales, interim executive director. “We’re also very concerned how she was then treated once she was in detention in isolation. It’s very concerning to us that government, at this point, has this great authority to just remove someone from a public setting and then charge them with trespassing.”

Morales said Hasse was exercising her right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination, in her refusal to comply with the booking process. “The government has a way to eventually book someone either as a John or a Jane Doe, but in this case they chose not to do that,” he said. “It’s almost akin to a political prisoner, I would say.”

Idaho Veterans Cemetery says there’s no longer any reason to deny burial to vet’s same-sex spouse

The director of the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery says there’s no longer any reason to deny a request from an Idaho veteran to be buried there with the remains of her same-sex spouse. Maddelyn Lee Taylor, a Navy veteran, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after her request to be interred at the cemetery along with the ashes of late wife Jean Mixner was denied. “Based on the current law at the time, the spouse was not eligible,” cemetery Director James Earp said today. “So therefore now with the change in decision based off the courts and the state, that is no longer the case. So we will continue on now with scheduling an interment process, once she is available to do so.”

Deborah Ferguson, Taylor’s attorney, said she is working with the Idaho Attorney General’s office to wrap up the federal lawsuit, and expects that to happen early next week. “We’ll be talking about how to draw that to a close,” she said. Taylor is planning to go out to the cemetery to make arrangements next week, she said. She and Mixner were legally married in California in 2008.

“I’m happy to see them comply and recognize Maddelyn’s marriage to Jean and her request for interment,” Ferguson said. “It’s wonderful.” 

Partisan rhetoric reaches new pitch in Idaho County GOP ad

An ad paid for by the Idaho County Republicans now running in the Idaho County Free Press takes partisan rhetoric to a new level: It says, “Voting democrat will assure redistribution of your money, veterans and all military abandoned, unknown illnesses crossing our unsecured borders. Vote & Keep Our Religious Freedom.” The pitch is accompanied by a red, white and blue GOP elephant, and lists the names of local legislative and county GOP candidates Mark Frei, Skip Brandt, Paul Shepherd, Shannon McMillan, Kathy Ackerman, Sheryl Nuxoll and James Zehner.

College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi said that type of rhetoric is unlikely to change people’s minds about their votes. “It’s pretty in-your-face, though,” he said.

Idaho auctions off more oil and gas leases

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Department of Lands has auctioned off oil and gas leases on 5,250 acres of state-owned land in southern Idaho for $263,000. The Idaho Department of Lands says Trendwell West Inc. was awarded eight tracts for $190,000 on Wednesday, and that Alta Mesa Idaho was awarded three tracts for $73,000. The leases are for about 4,500 acres in Owyhee County, 600 acres in Cassia County and 160 acres in Gem County. Counting previous auctions, state officials say they've now leased about 98,000 acres of state-owned lands for oil and gas development. On producing wells, the state will receive a 12.5 percent royalty.

Crane, Silver face off in debate over Idaho investments

Idaho state Treasurer Ron Crane’s Democratic challenger, Twin Falls CPA Deborah Silver, went on the attack in a televised debate between the two on Thursday night, charging that Crane should be fired as state treasurer for a fund transfer that auditors say cost state taxpayers at least $10 million. “In the business world, we know how this would end – the treasurer would be fired,” Silver declared. “The only way to fire this treasurer is with your vote. I am running to give Idaho taxpayers a choice for honest stewardship of their tax dollars.”

Crane protested that his office “vociferously disagreed with the findings of the legislative auditors,” and defended his actions in the transfer, which occurred after he said mortgage-backed securities the state had purchased in 2005, 2006 and 2007 were showing $70 million in losses as the housing market collapsed.

“I held those securities and rode out the storm, letting them come back in value toward par,” Crane said. “Last year, 2013, I had enough interest earnings and portfolio gains to wash out five of the seven securities and still show a profit of $122,000 for the general fund and $2 million for all the rest of the portfolios that I manage. I still have two of those securities in my portfolio. A year ago at this time, they were about $17.5 million underwater. Today, as of Friday, they are $9.6 million underwater. So they’re coming back, they’re moving in the right direction.”

Crane charged that legislative auditors wanted him to sell the securities at the time and realize the full $70 million in losses. But a critical state audit report didn’t suggest that; instead, it faulted him for transferring the securities from a local government investment pool to the investment fund for state money, shifting the losses to state taxpayers rather than local governments. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

State treasurer candidates debate tonight on Idaho Public TV

Tonight on Idaho Public Television, state Treasurer Ron Crane and Democratic challenger Deborah Silver will debate at 8:30 as part of the “Idaho Debates,” co-sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Voters of Idaho. After tonight’s debate, the series continues with the candidates for state superintendent of schools on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m., lieutenant governor Oct. 30 at 8:30 p.m., and candidates for governor facing off Oct. 30 at 7 p.m.

Jerome Cheese Co. agrees to $88K EPA settlement over anhydrous ammonia

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A south-central Idaho cheese producing company has agreed to pay the federal government $88,000 following allegations it failed to properly adhere to regulations involving a colorless gas that can cause temporary blindness. Jerome Cheese Company admitted to no lapses in its handling of some 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia each year in agreeing to the settlement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contends the company violated the Clean Air Act due to poor record keeping, incomplete safety system information and a lack of timely safety training based on a 2011 inspection. On Thursday the EPA announced that the company has since corrected the violations. The colorless gas is commonly used in industrial refrigeration systems.

Otter statement on IEN: Syringa ‘has no legitimate claim for monetary damages’ from state

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, through his campaign, has released a lengthy statement on the legal dispute over the contract award for the Idaho Education Network, the statewide broadband network designed to link every high school; the state is embroiled in a lawsuit from Syringa Networks over the award of the $60 million contract to Qwest and Education Networks of America. The legal questions over the contract award prompted the federal government to stop paying its three-quarters share of the project in 2013, and lawmakers had to bail out the IEN with $11.4 million in extra state funds this year to offset the missing federal “e-rate” money; millions more may be requested when the Legislature convenes again in January.

In response to questions raised by Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff about news reports that the state was seeking a confidentiality agreement in its negotiations with Syringa, Otter's statement says, “Confidentiality agreements are common in mediations to ensure both parties negotiate in good faith. Syringa refused to sign a confidentiality agreement; nevertheless, the state proceeded with mediation. There are no 'secret' negotiations taking place.” Click below for Otter's full statement, which includes several references to court documents in the case. It also asserts that Syringa “has no legitimate claim for monetary damages” from the state. You can read the full Idaho Supreme Court decision here in the case, which remanded it back to the district court on a single question: whether the contract was awarded illegally.

Balukoff calls on Otter to release all documents on CCA settlement

A.J. Balukoff, Democratic candidate for governor, is calling on GOP Gov. Butch Otter to immediately release all public records and communications related to the Corrections Corp. of America, after today’s Idaho Statesman reported that Otter’s top staffers were involved in negotiating a $1 million settlement with the firm, a major donor to Otter’s campaigns and the former private operator of Idaho’s largest state prison. “This news story shows that Gov. Otter’s claim that he had no involvement in the CCA settlement was a bald-faced lie,” Balukoff said in a news release; you can read his full release here.

“Gov. Otter has bungled this debacle badly, and now there’s very good reason to suspect criminal wrongdoing at some level in state government,” Balukoff said. “If Gov. Otter wants voters to believe that he deserves a third term in office, he has a responsibility to show voters just exactly what has been going on in this affair.”

Coho salmon season to open on Clearwater after unprecedented recovery

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials have approved a coho salmon fishing season on the Clearwater River following efforts by the Nez Perce Tribe to bring the salmon back after they disappeared about 30 years ago. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday approved the historic sport fishing season that starts Friday and runs through Nov. 16. Anglers will be allowed to keep two coho salmon per day and up to 10 for the month-long season on portions of the Mainstem and Middle Fork Clearwater River. Coho salmon disappeared by 1985 from the Clearwater River. The Nez Perce Tribe in 1995 began efforts to restore them using eggs from other locations. As of Tuesday, nearly 15,000 coho salmon had passed Lower Granite Dam.

Click below for the full announcement from the Idaho Fish & Game Commission.

Letter: ‘I knew Pete Cenarrusa’

A letter to the editor in the Idaho Statesman today from Penny Ysursa, retired longtime employee of the Idaho Secretary of State’s office and wife of current GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, is drawing some attention; it’s aimed at Republican Lawerence Denney, who is vying with Democrat Holli Woodings to be Idaho’s next secretary of state when Ben Ysursa retires at the end of his current term. Before becoming Idaho’s Secretary of State 12 years ago, Ben Ysursa worked for the late then-Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa for 28 years, including 26 as his chief deputy. Here’s Penny Ysursa’s letter:

Where is Lloyd Bentsen when you need him? I keep reading or hearing Lawerence Denney comparing himself to former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa. I worked for Pete Cenarrusa, I knew Pete Cenarrusa, he was a friend of mine. Lawerence Denney, you're no Pete Cenarrusa.

Penny Ysursa, Boise

Emails show Otter staff played key role in $1 million deal with big campaign contributor

In two recent political debates, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said he recused himself from settlement talks with troubled private-prison operator Corrections Corp. of America before the state reached a $1 million settlement with the firm over fraudulent billing and understaffing; Otter said he “had nothing to do with” the settlement. But the Idaho Statesman reports today that emails obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law show Otter’s top staffers were directly involved in the negotiations with CCA, reviewed the settlement agreement before it was approved by the state Board of Correction, and urged lawmakers to support it. The Statesman’s full story, by reporters Rocky Barker and Cynthia Sewell, is online here.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, told the Statesman that Otter meant he personally didn’t participate, and he wasn’t saying his staff didn’t. “Decision-making authority on the settlement itself resided with the (Corrections) Board/Department,” Hanian said. The emails document involvement in the deal by Otter's chief of staff, David Hensley; chief counsel, Tom Perry; and communications director and liaison to corrections Mark Warbis. In one email to state lawmakers, Warbis wrote, “The Governor's office believes the proposal accomplishes our goals of certainty, closure and fairness to taxpayers. It helps us to move forward with the transition to State control of the ICC in an amicable manner.”

During the City Club of Idaho Falls debate on Oct. 9, Otter said, “I personally did not involve myself in the negotiations of the settlement with CCA because I had received money from CCA for my campaign. So I recused myself and let the professionals make that decision. I did not.” The Statesman reports that Otter has received $20,000 in campaign contributions from CCA since 2003.

After tonight’s rousing debate between schools chief hopefuls, they’ll face off again on Tuesday…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on tonight's debate between the two rivals to be Idaho's next state schools chief, Republican Sherri Ybarra and Democrat Jana Jones. The two will face off again on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Idaho Public Television as part of the “Idaho Debates,” co-sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Votes of Idaho and broadcast statewide.

Ybarra says she’s running for state schools chief in part to ‘repay Idaho’ for her failure to vote in any general elections since 1996

Republican candidate for state schools superintendent had a surprising answer tonight to the question as to why she’s passed on voting in 15 of the last 17 state elections, and has never cast a ballot in any state general election since she moved to Idaho in 1996, including elections for state superintendent of schools, governor and other offices, the advisory vote on the 2006 school funding tax shift and the 2012 referendum that overturned the “Students Come First” school reform laws championed by current Superintendent Tom Luna.

“It’s not new news that I’ve been sporadic with my voting history. We as Republicans accept responsibility for our past, and in moving forward we understand that our past should never dictate our future,” Ybarra said. “And I’m so glad you asked me that because that is one of the reasons that I’m here tonight. It is easy to complain about the past and get complacent. It is harder to step forward and say you know what, that’s why I’m here, because I have not been very good at my civic duties and I want to repay Idaho. … It will not happen again.”

When panelist Jim Weatherby asked Ybarra if she misled the audience at the earlier City Club of Boise debate when she explained away her failure to vote in the 2012 election on the school referendum by saying everyone misses an election now and then, Ybarra said, “It is not new news. I have put that out there from Day 1 and I again … accept full responsibility for that. That is the reason that I am here for you today. I want to repay Idaho, and do exactly what the people of Idaho are asking for. And I know under my leadership that I can build an excellent education system for Idaho schools.”

Democrat Jana Jones said, “I think it’s really important that when we look at leadership and how we define leadership, we look at people that are also role models for what we want our public and our students to be able to do.” Students should be “well-prepared academically,” but also in civics, she said, and “know the importance of being engaged in their community and voting. … I think as a superintendent, it’s important from that leadership all the way down through that you have someone who knows the importance of that civic duty. … I have always voted and always will continue to vote.”

Budget questions prompt big disagreements between superintendent hopefuls…

Budget issues have prompted big disagreements between the two candidates for state superintendent of schools in the KTVB debate tonight.

Asked if they support current Superintendent Tom Luna’s proposal for a 6.9 percent increase in funding for schools next year, Republican Sherri Ybarra said, “Until I know exactly where every dime is going it makes no sense to ask for more.”

Surprised moderator Dee Sarton asked if Ybarra was advocating for no increase for schools in next year’s budget. Ybarra then said she’s support current Superintendent Tom Luna’s budget. “The budget that is already being prepared is the one that if elected I will actually take on,” Ybarra responded. “It is a step in the right direction.”

Jones said, “No, it would not be the budget that I would be proposing. … There’s only $10 million that is currently proposed in that budget, from what I can understand, from the way it’s written, that will go to getting us back to that restoration of funding that is the No. 1 recommendation in the governor’s task force,” she said. “So we need to look at that budget very closely. We need to remove some of the ties that are in that budget. … It hamstrings those districts very closely. It says you can only use your funding for these specific things. We need to take that budget, remove those strings where we can, and make sure that we’re advocating for as much money as possible for our schools. Our schools need to be the No. 1 priority.”

When Sarton asked Jones what percentage increase she’d favor, Jones said, “I have been waiting to see what the … revenue projections would be. … We need to make sure that we take advantage of what resources the state has.”

Ybarra, in response to a question about her political philosophy, said, “We need somebody that’s a conservative leader that knows stretching the dollar and living within your means is the way you move forward.”

Superintendent candidates clash from the very opening…

As the KTVB debate for state superintendent of schools kicked off tonight, Republican Sherri Ybarra said in her opening remarks that she was glad to address “one of my most favorite” topics, education. “I am a certified superintendent. I do hold three degrees and I was nominated for teacher of the year twice,” she said. “I took a failing school to four-star status.” Ybarra said she wants to press for her vision for addressing “the whole child,” including testing that’s not just a snapshot, “21st century abilities and safety and support.”

Democrat Jana Jones said she has a doctorate in educational leadership, six certifications and 40 years of experience. “I know what needs to be done and more importantly, I know how to do it,” she said. “You’re never going to hear a candidate for state superintendent say that they would like to see unsafe schools or bigger class sizes. … But what you won’t hear is how she’s going to do it, and if the last eight years have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t afford to have four more years of a superintendent who is well intended but ill-prepared.”

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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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