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Eye On Boise

Archive for April 2008

Sali money woes boost Democratic hopes

Idaho Democrats believe the 2008 election is the party’s best shot to finally regain a congressional seat — a hope bolstered by recent fundraising reports that show freshman GOP Congressman Bill Sali owes more money than what he has in the bank, reports Erica Curless. You can read her full story here at spokesmanreview.com. And then there’s this sidebar: The Eagle, Idaho, consulting business that U.S. Rep. Bill Sali owes the most campaign debt to is still working with the congressman and longtime friend – but on a cash-only basis. “It’s all cash up front,” said Lou Esposito, owner of Spartac, LLC. Read more here.

Sali wants new consulate delayed

Idaho Rep. Bill Sali sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice today asking Rice to delay the opening of a Mexican consulate in Boise. Sali expressed concern that a consulate could aid illegal aliens, saying it could help them get ID cards that could be used for banking and “gain illicit ‘legal’ standing in Idaho by taking advantage of the good offices of a consulate in Idaho.” Click here to read Sali’s press release.

Prosecutors: Close the courtroom

Federal prosecutors filed their response today to a motion filed by the media to keep court proceedings in the Joseph Duncan case open to the public. In it, the prosecutors argued that the courtroom should be closed during any testimony from young victim Shasta Groene and during the showing of a graphic videotape of Duncan sadistically abusing her 9-year-old brother, Dylan, whom he then killed. You can read reporter Bill Morlin’s full story here at spokesmanreview.com. Spokane attorney Duane Swinton, representing The Spokesman-Review and a long list of media outlets and open-government organizations, said the public should be able to understand what the jury will see, hear and consider in determining if Duncan should live or die. The judge has not yet ruled on the matter.

“The media has suggested a reasonable alternative to Shasta testifying in an open courtroom and that is having her testify by closed circuit television where she would be in another room,” Swinton said. Closing the courtroom will not protect the child from a traumatic experience, he said, because the kidnap victim still would have to testify before the jury, attorneys, Duncan, the judge and a variety of court personnel.

Swinton said he also was disappointed to learn from the newly filed U.S. Attorney’s brief that there apparently have been a variety of documents secretly filed with the court going back to July of last year. These government documents, he said, contain legal arguments and factual material presented to the court urging closing of part of the upcoming trial, “and yet this discussion has been going without any public notice or input until the recent briefing we filed.” Click here to read the government’s argument, and click here to read the media’s motion for open proceedings.


Gov’s office to agencies: Report all media contacts

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s communications director, Mark Warbis, is warning state agencies that they must inform his office of “ALL media inquiries,” and that Warbis must review any agency press release before it’s sent out if it’s anything “that might be controversial at all.” In an email to all state agencies, Warbis wrote, “We are not looking to usurp the role of agency directors in any way, but only to ensure a level of consistency and uniformity in our public and media messaging.” This “media contact protocol,” he wrote, is something that “requires your full compliance.” Click below to read the full email.

Craig seat attracts candidates from three states, kind of

If you go by his campaign website, Idaho U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hunter certainly appears to be a Nevada resident. Though born and raised in Idaho, Hunter writes on his site, “for the past eighteen years I have lived and worked as a civil engineer in the Las Vegas Valley in southern Nevada.” Nevertheless, he’s spent “the majority of our family vacations” all those years on his parents’ Idaho ranch in Camas Meadows. Hunter told me today that two months ago, he moved back to Idaho and now lives at the family home, though he’s still employed in Nevada. That means he’s commuting to work in Las Vegas during the week, and returning to the Gem State for three-day weekends to campaign.

That’s certainly a different story from that of Hal Styles Jr. of Desert Hot Springs, Calif., who told Eye on Boise last month that he’d never been to Idaho, but thought he’d make a fine Idaho senator, now that Craig is leaving the seat open. “It’s heavily Republican, and it’s my kind of state,” Styles said then, which he said he learned from reading about the state. By law, Senate candidates are required only to reside in the state on the date of the November election.

Both men are among the eight Republican candidates vying in the GOP primary to replace Craig. The winner will face a Democrat, two independents and a Libertarian in November. Hunter said, “Even though I have been in Nevada for quite a number of years, when I was asked where you’re from, it was always, ‘Well, I’m from Idaho, but we’ve lived in Nevada for X number of years.’” Hunter said, “Just in the past few months we have actually moved to Idaho and I am now a resident of Idaho.” His official address is in Rexburg. Incidentally, when I reached him by phone, he was on his way to speak to some students in Twin Falls, though I reached him on a Las Vegas number.

Another sign of spring

Idahoans have to remove their studded snow tires before May 1 – that’s Thursday. Some of our neighboring states, however, required studded tires to be removed a month ago. In Utah, Oregon and Washington, studded tires had to be off by March 31st. Nevada matches Idaho’s rule with an April 30 final day. Montana lets the studded tires go a month longer – until May 31st – and in Wyoming studded tires are legal all year ‘round.

Planting a tree for Arbor Day

At Idaho’s official state ceremony for Arbor Day today, a group of 4th, 5th and 6th graders from Taft Elementary School in Boise read poems they wrote about trees, state Controller Donna Jones signed a giant check to represent the $26.9 million in forest receipts from state endowment lands that helps fund Idaho schools, and Lily Cuoio, a student at Jefferson Elementary in Pocatello, was honored for winning this year’s Arbor Day poster contest. Plus, the city of Boise was recognized for winning “Tree City USA” recognition for a 30th straight year, a mark only 37 cities in the nation have reached. “We are not only a city of trees, we are a city for trees,” city forester Brian Jorgenson told the group. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, who’s acting governor today, told the youngsters that trees clean the air, provide shade, hold water and “do lots of things that human beings need.” Then Risch joined the Taft Elementary students and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, left, to help plant a Kwanzan cherry tree in Capitol Park, one in a line of trees that have been planted in the park each year on Arbor Day.

Also in honor of Arbor Day, the Idaho Forest Products Commission is giving away 28,000 blue spruce seedlings today so people can plant their own trees. They’re available at any Home Depot store in Idaho, Ontario, Ore., or Spokane; FedEx Kinko’s stores in Idaho and Pullman, Wash.; the Boise Co-op; and the Flicks and Egyptian theaters in Boise.

Lobby firm townhouse hosting Risch fundraiser

Among Lt. Gov. Jim Risch’s campaign meetings in Washington, D.C. today for his U.S. Senate campaign is a luncheon fundraiser hosted by two D.C. lobbyists, Jeffrey Kimbell and Rick Murphy. The event, from 12-1:30, costs $1,500 for a PAC or $1,000 for an individual, according to the invitation, is limited to “12 guests,” and will be held at the “RB Murphy & Associates TownHouse.”

According to a recent USA Today article, it’s something of a trend for lobbying firms to host fundraisers at townhouses they’ve purchased and fixed up near the Capitol. Reported the paper, “In the past decade, 18 lobbying firms, corporations and labor unions have purchased town houses or leased office space near the Capitol, joining more than a dozen others that had operated there for years, according to real estate records. Despite a strict new ban on gifts to lawmakers, lobbyists routinely use these prime locations to legally wine and dine members of Congress while helping them to raise money, campaign records show. The lawmakers get a venue that is often free or low-cost, a short jaunt from the Capitol. The lobbyists get precious uninterrupted moments with lawmakers.”

Craig: ‘I am every bit as effective’

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig says he’s just as effective a senator now as he was before an airport restroom sex sting scandal prompted a storm of national criticism, an almost-resignation and the loss of his senior committee positions. “There probably was a short period of time when I when I first got back when it was kind of reestablishing myself with my colleagues. I think at this moment in time, I am every bit as effective as I was in most instances,” Craig said on a live call-in program on KBOI-AM radio in Boise on Tuesday. You can listen to the full program here.

Craig said, “It has not been easy, I would have to openly admit that. At the same time I have developed a level of expertise that other senators rely on when it comes to energy and natural resource issues. … I think I’m going to be able to finish out my term in a way that clearly gives Idaho the ranking position they’ve gained through my service over the last 28 years.”

Of the sex sting, Craig said, “I did not seek counsel, that was a poor decision. I made the wrong decision and now the world knows that. I certainly know it.” He called the attention given to his case a case of the “liberal media trying to put down a conservative guy. … Sometimes you have to let the liberal media have their play, and oh, did they.”

Quizzed by callers about the Minneapolis airport incident, Craig said his lawyers have advised him not to get into the details. “I’m right in the middle of an appeal,” he said. He also said he thought it was the best move for the state when he changed his mind about resigning from the U.S. Senate. “I had 27 years of seniority, we were right in the middle of a budget battle, an appropriation battle. There was about a billion dollars in projects on the line for Idaho. I looked at ‘em, I found out I could go ahead and serve and save those work efforts,” he said. “I believe it was the best decision for Idaho, not for me maybe, but for Idaho. The easy way out without question would have been to walk away and not come back.”

Craig said he had already decided not to seek re-election before news of the scandal broke, though he hadn’t announced it. “We were going to announce on Sept. 15,” he said. “I wasn’t going to grow old in this job.”

A glimpse into Duncan’s ‘ideology’

In court filings today arguing various points about killer Joseph Duncan’s request to act as his own attorney in his death penalty hearing, defense attorneys made a passing reference to “his decision to decline to put on any mitigating evidence.” This decision, not yet detailed in any publicly released court documents beyond this reference, may provide a clue to what Duncan was talking about when he said his only reason for wanting to represent himself – despite having a team of top-notch attorneys appointed to defend him – was because his lawyers couldn’t “ethically represent my ideology.”

The defense team has been scrambling to put together a “mitigation” case as a major portion of Duncan’s defense against the death penalty. The sentencing hearing has two phases. First, prosecutors must prove that Duncan intentionally committed a capital crime and that at least one statutory aggravating factor, such as vulnerability of the victim, was present. If the jury then finds Duncan “eligible” for the death penalty, the proceedings move on to the “selection” phase, in which the jury decides whether to impose a death sentence. In that process, jurors will weigh non-statutory aggravating factors – including the crime’s impact on the victim and victim’s family, and Duncan’s “future dangerousness” – against any mitigating factors, such as Duncan’s chaotic and abusive childhood. But the defense doesn’t have to present mitigating evidence – and it appears Duncan’s “ideology” may prompt him not to present any.

Earlier, when he pleaded guilty to all counts on Dec. 3, 2007, Duncan told the court that he accepts responsibility for his crimes, which include murder, kidnapping and child molesting. “I will continue to accept that responsibility to the death, if necessary,” he said.

Should Duncan represent himself?

Prosecutors have filed arguments saying there’s no legal reason why killer Joseph Duncan shouldn’t be able to serve as his own attorney in his death sentence hearings, but defense attorneys are raising a number of concerns. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said he’ll decide this afternoon; you can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com. Here are links to the prosecutors’ arguments and the defense arguments filed with the court this morning on this question.

Attorneys to stay on through jury selection

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge called the parties back into court this afternoon and said it appears they won’t be able to find a local evaluator to do the necessary mental evaluation of Joseph Duncan – so the alternative is sending him to the Bureau of Prisons in Seattle for a review that would include observation for 30 to 45 days. Duncan was taken aback by that, saying he didn’t intend to delay his sentencing proceedings. “That wasn’t my understanding or my intention when I initiated this request,” Duncan told the judge. “I would ask the court if there’s anything I can do, any waiver.” The judge responded, “Separate and apart from just agreeing to go forward with your counsel?”

Duncan responded, “To me, that’s not really an option.”

Lodge then asked Duncan if he’d agree to have his attorneys continue to represent him through jury selection, so “we wouldn’t have to hold up these 350 people” who are in the pool of potential jurors. “As a matter of fact, I was going to request that,” Duncan said. “That sounds like a good idea to have them finish doing the jury selection. You’re very right about that being very technical – I’ve noticed that. … My decision to represent myself is very important to me.”

All about the case

I was interviewed by NPR’s Don Wimberly yesterday on Boise State Radio, in a conversation all about the Duncan case, including the media’s court filing to maintain public access to the proceedings. You can listen here online.

Denial could lead to automatic reversal

Federal prosecutors aren’t objecting to Duncan’s request to serve as his own attorney. Deputy U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson told the court that when Duncan pleaded guilty on Dec. 7 to all 10 counts in the federal indictment against him, he made a statement “that was clearly rational, based on fact. … I think the court is right that there is no indication whatsoever that there is any competency problem with this particular defendant.” The danger, she warned, would come if Duncan’s request were improperly denied. That could be deemed “structural error” that would require automatic reversal of the decision on his sentence. “This is his 6th Amendment right that he has,” Olson told the court this morning. She said prosecutors are “concerned if he is denied this opportunity improperly, that it would be structural error and we would end up right back where we are.” A 9th Circuit case decided just this year showed that, she said. “That’s our position at this time, that the record shows that he is competent and he has that right.”

Judge orders mental evaluation of Duncan

Joseph Duncan must undergo a mental evaluation before U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge will agree to let him act as his own attorney, the judge decided this morning. Lodge told the convicted killer and child molester that having observed his conduct in court several times, “I’m confident that you’re competent to make that waiver, but the record has to be a little bit more clear than that.”

Duncan told the judge, “I don’t have an issue with counsel personally. I think they are, like you’ve said many times, good counsel. It’s ideology. I don’t believe that they can ethically represent my ideology.”

Duncan, attired in yellow prison scrubs and with his hair grown long and an unkempt mustache and beard, didn’t explain what that ideology is. Lodge asked Duncan, “You’re not seeking any delay?” “Not at all,” Duncan replied. The judge noted, “If a delay was the purpose, it would be denied.”

He asked for three suggestions of local psychiatrists or psychologists who could evaluate Duncan, and said if appropriate evaluators can’t be found locally, the killer will have to be sent to Seattle for evaluation.

Transportation board cuts programs

Faced with a giant shortfall for road maintenance, the Idaho Transportation Board voted today to cut three programs starting in 2011, shifting their funding to pavement preservation. Gone will be the enhancement program, which funds bike paths, visitor centers and historic kiosks; the congestion program, which has paid for transit vehicles, street sweepers and traffic signal coordinating devices; and the planning program, which pays for corridor and regional studies. Suspending future funding of the three programs will allow about $12 million a year to be added to the $80 million scheduled for pavement preservation each year for the next four years. Board Chairman Darrell Manning called it a “difficult but necessary decision.” Click below to read the board’s full announcement from its meeting today in Lewiston.

Slow going so far in Duncan jury selection

The going has been slow so far this morning. Eight of the 30 prospective jurors called in today in the Duncan death penalty proceedings were dismissed right off, based on their responses to jury questionnaires. Then, the attorneys began individual questioning of the 22 remaining, who include 10 women and 12 men. In the first two hours, they’ve gotten through only three. Two of the three were dismissed based on challenges from the defense, one after he said the death penalty was the only appropriate penalty for crimes such as Joseph Duncan’s. The third was challenged by the defense but U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge overruled the challenge. Yesterday, of 28 prospective jurors brought in, 13 were dismissed for cause, leaving just 15. The process will continue until 59 eligible jurors have been selected. Then, each side can exercise peremptory challenges to bring the number down to 12 jurors and three alternates.

Just like yesterday, Duncan is attired in rumpled yellow prison-issue scrubs, though his attorneys wanted him to appear in civilian clothing. It’s the only visible sign of a rift between the convicted murderer and his attorneys, with whom he’s been visiting easily between proceedings and sharing an occasional laugh. Tomorrow morning, Judge Lodge will consider Duncan’s request to serve as his own lawyer for his death penalty sentencing proceedings.

Duncan chose the prison garb

Here’s an odd note: The reason Joseph Duncan was wearing prison-issue yellow scrubs in court today was because he wanted to. The convicted killer’s attorneys wanted him to dress in civilian clothes for today’s court proceedings, but Duncan refused. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge confirmed that with both Duncan and his attorneys for the record at the close of today’s jury selection proceedings. “Mr. Duncan, you made the decision and the choice to wear the prison garb rather than the civilian clothes that counsel wanted you to wear, is that correct?” the judge asked Duncan, and both he and his attorneys assented.

And another - this time the other way

The government challenged another prospective juror who said she was opposed to the death penalty and wrote in her jury questionnaire repeatedly, “I don’t think we have the right to put anyone to death.” Duncan defense attorney Judy Clarke questioned the juror at length, however, and said simply because she opposes the death penalty doesn’t mean she can’t set aside her personal views and follow the law – and the juror agreed. “She is against the death penalty, but will consider both sentencing options,” Clarke told the court. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge overruled the government’s challenge.

Big challenges in jury selection for Duncan

At least initially, it’s proving difficult to find jurors to sit for the death penalty proceedings for Joseph Duncan. First, six potential jurors, four men and two women, were brought in and excused right off. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said, “Counsel stipulates and the court agrees that based on your answers to some of the questions, this was not an appropriate case for you to be sitting on.” Then, 22 more prospective jurors, 11 men and 11 women, were brought in. Everyone in the courtroom stood, including Duncan, who looked straight ahead but darted his eyes sideways toward the jurors.

The judge told the prospective jurors, “Americans can directly serve their country in several ways,” through military service and by serving on juries. Serving as a juror, he said, is “an honor accorded only to United States citizens in good standing.” It requires, he said, being fair and impartial. “To serve fairly and impartially means to base any decision on evidence presented in this courtroom, and not on anything you may have read or heard outside this courtroom.”

Then, the jurors were taken out of the room, and called back in one by one. Each juror was brought to a seat in the center of the jury box, directly facing Duncan, but most turned their heads to the right and looked at the judge. Duncan, who sits in the courtroom dressed in yellow prison-issue scrubs, did the same, looking to his left.

The very first prospective juror to be questioned, a woman, told the court, “I just feel that anybody that does that kind of thing shouldn’t have a choice, and they should be put to death just like what they’ve done.” Under questioning from the judge, she said, “My feeling of it is that he should get the death penalty.” The juror was challenged by the defense, and the judge granted the challenge and excused her from service.

Of the first six prospective jurors questioned, three were dismissed for cause. One told the court, “I am strongly opinionated toward the death penalty.” Another said he has a 9-year-old son – the same age as Duncan’s victim, young Dylan Groene. Asked by the judge if he thought he could be fair in this case or not, the young father struggled with his answer, then said, “No.”

Even among the three prospective jurors who weren’t challenged for cause this morning, horror over the nature of Duncan’s crimes was clear. One said he wondered “how messed up someone would have to be to do that,” and said, “Sometime I think death is too easy. Sometimes I think it’s too easy a way out.” Another said that as a taxpayer he doesn’t like the idea of supporting a criminal for life in prison. A third said if she is shown a graphic video of Duncan abusing the little boy he murdered, she might close her eyes. U.S. Attorney Tom Moss told her, “The material that will be presented to you is ugly, it’s graphic … but it’s our job to present it to you.”

Media, organizations call for open hearings

The public should be able to “observe all matters’’ considered by a U.S. District Court jury that will decide if confessed killer Joseph Duncan should face the federal death penalty, 16 media and open-government organizations argued in a legal brief filed in federal court today. Here’s a link to the brief, and here’s a link to reporter Bill Morlin’s story at spokesmanreview.com. The 16 organizations filing the brief were The Spokesman-Review, The Associated Press, The Idaho Statesman, the Idaho Press Club, Idaho Newspaper Foundation, Idahoans for Openness in Government, Idaho Allied Dailies, Idaho State Broadcasters Association, Boise State Radio, KHQ-TV, KREM-TV, KXLY-TV, KTVB-TV, KTRV-TV, KBCI-TV and KIVI-TV.

More Idaho inmates shipped out of state

Idaho’s state prisons have shipped another 120 inmates off to an out-of-state private prison, in this case the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Okla. They join another 120 Idaho prisoners who were sent to the Oklahoma lockup in September. It’s owned and operated by CCA, the same firm that operates the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise. Brent Reinke, state prisons chief, said, “We firmly believe Idaho inmates are best managed at home in Idaho. But the fact is there is simply no room for them.”

Idaho currently has 7,400 criminals incarcerated. Not all of them fit in the state’s prisons – the figure includes the 240 in Oklahoma, 373 at the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas, and about 600 in county jails across Idaho. Reinke expects to send another 120 inmates to Oklahoma this summer. Though Gov. Butch Otter has been talking about a big new prison in Idaho, lawmakers took no action on that in their just-concluded legislative session.

Duncan case turns Boise Centre into courthouse

Hundreds of potential jurors started lining up outside Boise’s convention center as early as 7:30 this morning, in a line that snaked through the city’s central Grove plaza, to start the process of deciding whether Joseph Duncan should die. The 327-person jury pool is the largest ever called in federal court in Idaho, said court administrator Cameron Burke. Of the 327 Idahoans from 16 southern Idaho counties, 325 came, Burke said. One of the two who was missing had a medical emergency. “It’s a good reflection of our citizens that 99.9 percent of our citizens showed up,” Burke said.

The case is a grisly one. Duncan already has pleaded guilty to all charges in a 10-count federal indictment for kidnapping and molesting two North Idaho children and killing one. He’s also pleaded guilty to state charges for murdering three members of the children’s family in a bloody attack in 2005 to get to the youngsters, then 8 and 9.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge told the full lecture hall in the convention center, where jurors filled nearly every seat and attorneys, court staffers and Duncan were lined up on a stage with the judge, “Although we are meeting away from the United States Courthouse in downtown Boise, this is a part of the official proceedings in this case. The primary reason we are gathered here is there is no space in the Courthouse that is large enough to accommodate all of the chairs necessary to comfortably seat you.”

Duncan, looking thin and hugging his arms over his stomach in a bright-orange prison jumpsuit, sat uncomfortably in the front row on the stage, between two of his attorneys. As the judge read the list of charges against him, he sat blinking, looking mostly down at the table in front of him. His short-sleeved jumpsuit was open at the neck, showing a not-so-white T-shirt beneath. Incarcerated for the past two and a half years since his arrest with the lone survivor of the attack, young Shasta Groene, Duncan has since grown his hair out to just beyond chin length, where it hangs, shaggy. He also has a new sparse mustache and beard.

“A jury will be chosen to determine whether or not Mr. Duncan receives a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release or the death penalty,” Judge Lodge told the jurors. You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.


‘Unavoidable’ GOP lawsuit filed against state

The Idaho Republican Party has filed suit in federal court against GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, challenging the state’s current open primary election system. The complaint, filed late Friday, asks the court for an injunction against the state and Ysursa, “compelling implementation of a closed party primary in accordance with party rules, for all primary elections conducted after 2008.” It doesn’t try to close this spring’s primary election, which is coming up on May 27th.

“In bringing this action the Idaho Republican Party is forced to concede that this Court cannot provide it any meaningful remedy in respect to the conduct of the May 2008 Idaho Republican Primary, which is scheduled to occur on Tuesday May 27, 2008, a little more than six weeks away at the time of this filing,” the lawsuit says. Instead, it wants directives from the court for the 2009 Legislature to change the law to implement a closed primary system in 2010, or a court order to force Ysursa to do so.

Party Executive Director Sid Smith said in a news release, “According to the resolution approved by the party Central Committee in January of this year, the party was required to file suit within 10 days of adjournment of the legislature, thereby making this suit unavoidable.” Rules adopted by the party back prohibiting anyone except registered Republicans from voting in Republican primary elections. Idaho currently has open primaries; nearly a third of the state’s residents say they’re independents.

“The Closed Republican Party Primary Rule was adopted as a direct response to the infiltration of non-Republicans into the selection process for Idaho Republican Party candidates,” the lawsuit states. “Proponents of the Rule perceived that the cross-over of non-Republicans voting for persons who would represent the Idaho Republican Party in a general election posed a direct and immediate threat to the integrity of the Party. … Permitting non-Republicans to select the Republican candidate weakens, dilutes and obstructs that process by forcing the Idaho Republican Party to associate with nonparty members, and forcing its candidates to modify their political message, ideology and positions on public policy issues in order to persuade non-Party members to vote for them in the primary election.”

Click below to read the full Idaho GOP news release.

It’s the political news of the day

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review about Larry Grant ceding the Democratic nomination for Congress to Walt Minnick – allowing a more focused campaign by Democrats to take out freshman GOP Rep. Bill Sali. And here’s a link to the Congressional Quarterly story on the same topic, headlined, “Strong Dem Challenger Drops Out of Idaho Race.”

Minnick statement on Grant withdrawal

Democratic congressional candidate Walt Minnick has issued a statement on fellow Democrat Larry Grant’s withdrawal from the race. “I am honored and humbled by Larry’s decision, and I will not let him or his supporters down,” Minnick said. “These are difficult times. Getting through them will take the kind of bridge-building and collaboration Larry Grant showed today.” Click below to read Minnick’s full statement.

‘Purely a strategic political decision’

Larry Grant says it was “purely a strategic political decision” for him to drop out of the 1st District congressional race. “The object of this game is to take advantage of something that only happens every so often, which is a real opportunity to take a seat for a Democrat,” Grant said. “And we really needed to be working together. Looking at the next two months of what could turn out to be a contentious primary didn’t make any sense. … I mean, right now Bill Sali’s getting a free pass and we need to be out working together to get him, rather than dividing the party up.”

Though Grant’s been in the race longer, Minnick quickly outpaced him in fundraising and by lining up key endorsements like that of former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who endorsed Grant two years ago. “The situation is that I have a really strong organization on the ground, he has better Washington, D.C. connections than I do, together we’re a great team,” Grant said. “If we could run as a team, Sali wouldn’t have a chance.” He also noted that his departure from the race now could bring national Democratic funding sooner to the Idaho race, since it would no longer be a contested Democratic primary. “The DCCC has already targeted this race, and this should really bring them into the race two months early, get things going,” Grant said. “Sali really is vulnerable, and that’s the important thing – change politics in Idaho.”

School zone bill sponsor caught speeding in school zone

Oops. Sen. John Goedde, sponsor of the bill to sharply increase Idaho’s fines for speeding in school zones, was caught speeding in a Boise-area school zone on Feb. 28 – the very day his bill was being debated in the state Senate. “There was some irony there,” Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, acknowledged today after news surfaced of his $141.50 speeding ticket. Here’s a link to my full story at spokesmanreview.com.

Groups rally to keep bikeway funds

Mayors, counties, businesses and organizations from across the state are appealing to the Idaho Transportation Board to preserve funding for bikeways and pedestrian pathways, as the board looks at how to cope with a $200 million annual road maintenance shortfall that lawmakers didn’t address this year. The Transportation Enhancement Program, which uses federal funds, has allowed Idaho communities to spend almost $60 million since the program started in 1992 on alternative transportation or restoring historic corridors and train depots, and an additional $5.5 million is scheduled to be spent in fiscal year 2009.

The ITD board will meet April 16-17 in Lewiston, its first meeting since the Legislature dropped plans for any new fees or other funding for road maintenance in the coming year. The groups, which sent a letter to the board, say they fear the bikeway funds are on the chopping block. Click below to read their full letter.

‘Like a perfect storm - everything seemed to go wrong’

For a politician whose party holds three-quarters of the seats in the Legislature, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter didn’t get far with state lawmakers this year. He wasn’t helped by state revenues that plummeted after he unveiled an ambitious budget; missing a crucial month of the session for hip surgery; and poor communication with lawmakers, including those in his own party. Said political scientist Jasper LiCalzi of the College of Idaho, “It was like a perfect storm – everything seemed to go wrong.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review, and click here for highlights of items passed and not passed in this year’s session.

Hansen named new Idaho Dems director

Former state Rep. Jim Hansen of Boise has been named the new executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, replacing John Foster, who now works for the Walt Minnick congressional campaign. Hansen is an attorney who served three terms in the Idaho Legislature, headed the Office of Conflict Management Services at Boise State University, and then founded and served as executive director of United Vision for Idaho, a non-profit that, along with Hansen, won the Ford Foundation’s “Leadership for a Changing World” national award in 2005. He’s also the son of former Idaho GOP Congressman Orval Hansen. Keith Roark, Idaho Democratic Party chairman, said, “I am committed to rebuilding the Idaho Democratic Party from the ground up, precinct by precinct, county by county. … Idaho needs a strong and vibrant Democratic Party and Jim Hansen will provide exactly the kind of executive leadership and direction we need to make our voice heard at this critical time.”

Little parachutes falling from the balcony…

When House Speaker Lawerence Denney swung his gavel to adjourn the House sine die, all the representatives in the upper balcony tossed little paratrooper toys off the upper tier, which then floated down festively onto their colleagues below under small parachutes. “A little love from above, we called it,” said a grinning Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Missed it by THAT much

The Senate has just voted 23-11 in favor of HJR 5, the new constitutional amendment regarding local government debt – but that wasn’t enough. The measure needed 24 votes to have the needed two-thirds to ask voters to amend the constitution. So that measure is dead. Now, the Senate, too, is preparing to adjourn sine die, which means, “without a day.”

House has concurred

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake just asked for unanimous consent to concur in the Senate amendments to HB 599a, and there was no objection – so it was unanimous. Now the House still must debate and take a final vote on the amended bill. The Senate has begun debate on newly written HJR 5, the local government debt amendment, and Sen. Joe Stegner spoke out strongly against against it. Added Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, “A constitutional amendment in 24 hours - that’s a heck of a deal.”

Quote of the hour

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, just told the Senate, as he opened debate on the amended personal property tax bill, HB 599: “If you don’t know what this bill does at this point, you probably don’t deserve to be re-elected.” The comment was greeted with laughter.

Time to choke off the session?

The dreaded sheep tie has arrived and been placed around my neck, and it turns out to depict a black sheep standing out among the fluffy white ones. Meanwhile, the Senate has received the report of the conference committee, taken HB 599 to the 14th Order for amendments, and amended it according to the conference report. Still to come is the Senate debate on the re-amended bill. In the long stretches between bursts of activity, some lawmakers have begun packing boxes.

Senate votes 20-15 for primary bill

On the final day of the Legislature, the Idaho Senate has gotten itself embroiled in a protracted debate about primary election procedures. After moving SB 1507, the “call-for ballot” bill, to the 14th order for amendment, the Senate amended it to allow a party to hold its own closed primary election if it pays for it. But the main gist of the bill is to require people to check a box in a public poll book if they’re requesting the ballot of a party that wants to distinguish its voters. Now, the bill’s been debated for the past 40 minutes. Democrats objected strongly to the idea of making public which party’s ballot an Idaho voter chooses at the primary election. “I think there is no more sacrosanct rite than to protect the privacy of how you vote in the state of Idaho,” said Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Brad Little, R-Emmett, said, “I can tell you that the majority party is not all that excited about this. This issue has not been brought by a private party in Idaho, it’s been brought by the U.S. Supreme Court. … This is the best alternative out there.” Idaho’s Republican Party has passed a party rule and resolution calling for its primary election to be closed to all but registered Republicans. But Idaho has no party registration, and close to a third of Idahoans are independents. Court precedents suggest the party could win if it sued Idaho for requiring it to let non-Republicans participate in its primary.

But Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, noted that the bill would cost the state more than $200,000 in taxpayer funds, both at the state level and for additional county costs that come from property taxes. “If the Republicans want to exclude otherwise qualified Idaho voters from the Republican Party nominating process, they have a constitutional right to be able to do that,” said Kelly, an attorney. “But the bill proposed today will cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to implement. … If the current primary system doesn’t work for the Republicans, then they should take care of their own problem with a party-paid party nominating process.” The bill squeaked through on a 20-15 vote, and now goes to the House. Click below to see who voted which way.

It’s more, but it’s less

In the end, the changes the House insisted on in the Senate-amended version of HB 599, the bill to repeal the personal property tax on business equipment, actually limited the tax break legislation further, rather than expanding it. “I’m very, very surprised at the House’s approach,” said Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, “since I thought they were coming to expand the exemption. Now they limited it more, in what they’re asking for here.” The amount of the exemption did get increased, from $75,000 to $100,000. But by allowing for just one exemption per taxpayer per county – rather than one exemption for each business site, such as multiple grocery stores owned by a single company – less of a break will be given. Also, the economic “trigger” that the House wanted added to the bill means it may not take effect right away; the Senate wanted it to start in 2009. “We may have to wait two or three years before this kicks in,” Hill said.

The amended bill would have a $17.4 million fiscal impact to the state when it takes effect, all of which the state would pay to counties to make up for their lost property taxes on business equipment due to the new exemption. Local governments wouldn’t lose in the process, and the exemption on up to $100,000 in value of business equipment would free 88 percent of the state’s businesses from paying the tax entirely.

Alex LaBeau, president of IACI, said his group supports the compromise plan. “There’s some good in what they’ve done,” he said. “Looking at an exemption of that magnitude for those of our members that are small and medium-sized operations, that’s not an insignificant thing.” LaBeau also noted comments from conference committee members that they’d like to move eventually toward eliminating the personal property tax entirely, perhaps as part of an overhaul of how Idaho sets up its taxing system. “At the end of the day, this is an excellent process we go through here. … We have a tremendous amount of respect for that process,” he said. “I think we were successful in raising the visibility of a very important issue, which is the eventual elimination of a very bad tax.”

A few more steps…

House Republicans on the conference committee so far aren’t too excited about splitting the difference to $87,500, and are pushing for sticking with their proposal of $100,000. They also want an economic “trigger,” and when Sen. Brent Hill asked if there’s general support for that idea, there was a chorus of “yes” around the table. When he asked if there was agreement to move from a business-site approach for the exemption to a countywide approach – one exemption per company per county – there were nods all around.

‘We’re really not that far apart’

“I get the sense we’re really not that far apart,” Sen. Brent Hill told the conference committee as it reconvened. “I’m very encouraged with the attitude of everyone here.”

Some agreement, some disagreement

So far, there’s possible agreement on the concept of maybe adding some kind of an economic trigger to allow the tax break to be put off if the state’s budget dips, but no agreement on the question of the interplay between the 3 percent budget cap on counties and the exemption. The conference committee quizzed Idaho Association of Counties lobbyist Tony Poinelli about the site-by-site approach in the Senate version of the break. “That just seemed to be by far the easiest method,” Poinelli told the panel. Businesses already prepare site-specific lists of their equipment for the personal property tax. “It’s so much easier,” Poinelli said.

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said the House would prefer to see the exemption go up to $100,000, rather than $75,000, even though that would exceed the homeowner’s exemption from property tax. Hill said the $75,000 figure was selected to keep it below the amount of the homeowner’s exemption. Next year, the homeowner’s exemption will rise from the current $89,325 to just over $100,000, but then it’s expected to drop again, because it’s tied to an index of Idaho housing prices.

Needs a majority from each house

Senate Majority Bart Davis, reading from Mason’s Rules, said his interpretation is that for the conference committee to reach an agreement, its report must be signed by a majority of the members from each house – not just a majority of the committee. That’s because a conference committee isn’t really a joint committee; it’s a joint meeting of two committees. Since there are six members, three from each house, that means two senators and two House members must sign on to any agreement.

‘Get the flock out of here’

Click below to read my full story from today’s Spokesman-Review on the fight over the personal property tax break that’s dominating the final days of this year’s legislative session. Meanwhile, Statehouse reporters have been wearing ugly ties for the past week and a half as a sign that it’s time for the session to end (the thinking being that lawmakers will be so disgusted by the unattractive neckwear that they’ll just want to leave). Late yesterday, Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, promised to deliver one of his apparently hideous “sheep ties” to the press corps to aid in that effort, “so we can get the flock out of here.”

House votes not to concur

The House has voted 43-25 to not concur in the Senate amendments to HB 599a, the bill to repeal the property tax on business equipment. Those amendments, which the Senate had approved unanimously, would have limited the business tax break to equipment valued at up to $75,000, and cut the eventual cost of the break to the state from $120 million a year to about $15 million. House Speaker Lawerence Denney appointed three members – Reps. Lake, Clark, and Killen – to serve on a conference committee to try to resolve differences with the Senate. House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said standoff between the two houses shouldn’t keep this year’s overlong legislative session from wrapping up tomorrow. “This likely will take place in an hour or two in the morning at the most,” Roberts told a somewhat skeptical House. “We should have this under control by afternoon and be able to go home tomorrow.”

Governor signs auto emission testing bill

Gov. Butch Otter has signed into law HB 586, the measure on vehicle emission testing to avoid federal sanctions in areas of the state with high levels of air pollution. “Clean air is among Idaho’s most precious resources,” Otter wrote in a signing message. “We are blessed with skies as open and clear as any in the world. Unfortunately, there are a few relatively heavily populated areas of our state where congestion and the pollution that comes with it threaten to put us under the federal regulatory thumb. Within those areas, we face the very real prospect of losing control of our own destiny – unless we act first and decisively.” However, he dubbed the bill “a less-than-perfect solution” and said sponsors have agreed to work with him on other measures to propose in next year’s legislative session.

Both houses are back on

The House has gone right into debate on SJR 107, the bill regarding local government debt and “ordinary and necessary” expenses. The Senate, meanwhile, has taken up the newly House-passed measure restoring most of the vetoed substance abuse treatment funds.

Senate passes community infrastructure districts

The Senate has voted 29-4 in favor of HB 680, to let developers set up “community infrastructure districts” to bond for public improvements related to new developments, with the bonds to be paid off by the future residents of the developments. Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said, “The citizens have been saying they want growth to pay for growth. … It truly is growth paying for growth.” Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, said, “I can see where developers would like this,” and Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “I guess I feel an obligation to protect the interest of the consumer as well, and this is a very pro-developer bill.” But only two other senators, Sens. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, and Elliot Werk, D-Boise, joined Burkett and Pearce in opposing the bill, which now goes to the governor’s desk.

No movement on local-option bill

The Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee just met, but HB 688, the local-option tax enabling legislation, had disappeared from its agenda. Instead, the committee quickly passed HB 691, the replacement for the tax-deed sale legislation that Gov. Butch Otter vetoed earlier, and finished its meeting. Said Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, “We just don’t want to make any premature decisions until we see how everything fits together.” That would include HB 599a, the personal property tax repeal, on which Hill thought the House was going to vote this morning regarding concurrence or non-concurrence in the Senate amendments. But the House hasn’t yet taken that vote.

Rev & Tax calls for conference committee

The House Revenue & Taxation Committee has voted 10-6 to recommend not concurring in the Senate amendments on the personal property tax repeal bill, HB 599, and instead calling for a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and the Senate. The panel’s five Democrats were joined by GOP Rep. JoAn Wood of Rigby in opposing the motion. Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, called the Senate amendments “just about a complete rewrite.” Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told the panel that operating property was excluded in the Senate amendments for two reasons: Because public utilities already are regulated as to their rate of return, and because tracking the business sites in various counties for utility property for the exemption would be “a nightmare to administer” for the Tax Commission. Rev & Tax Chairman Dennis Lake said he had several concerns about the amended bill, including whether it should contain an economic “trigger” to hold off on the tax break in fiscal year 2010 if state tax revenues fall short. “We’ll see if we can’t agree to a bill,” he said.

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the conference committee idea is “just dragging this on.” Said Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, “I think they’re trying to muddy the issue.”

A conference committee?

Now there’s talk of a possible conference committee to resolve differences between the two houses, should the House not concur in the Senate amendments to HB 599, the bill to repeal the personal property tax on business equipment. But there’s also talk that the Legislature will wrap up its overlong session today… Meanwhile, the House State Affairs Committee has been meeting all morning to hear SJR 107, a constitutional amendment regarding local government debt, and is still going…

Transportation funding bill killed

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, has asked the House for unanimous consent to return HB 689, the compromise $68.5 million transportation funding bill, to committee, and no one objected. “We’re nearing the end of the session, and it’s probably time that we work on this through the summer,” Roberts said.

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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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